Motion to Take Note (Continued)
My Lords, it was a great privilege and pleasure to serve on the Burns committee. Like others, I pay tribute not just to my fellow committee members but particularly to our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who must take a lot of credit for the report before your Lordships today.
I was asked to comment on our report in Red Benches, but my comments suffered a little from editorial adjustment so I take this opportunity to say what I actually wrote. I think that would be the honest thing to do. Obviously, reducing the size of the House was never going to be easy, and was always going to be contingent on a formula to maintain the numbers rather than a quick fix. That formula, to which many speakers have paid tribute during the course of today’s debate, must fall to the noble Lord, Lord Burns. Not only did he put in the time and expertise to make sure that even in the annexes people could understand exactly what the committee’s intentions were on a very complex issue, taking into account such issues as the size of the House, the refreshment of the House and the way in which the individual parties and the Prime Minister would play a role, but it was very clear that he seemed to enjoy this exercise. We sat in admiration of the work that he did; it was a very important part of the committee’s report.
I said in Red Benches:
“As a self-regulating House”—
that has been mentioned many times today—“it seems right” and proper,
“that the House should take this initiative”.
This is where the editing came in because I said, “rather than be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune whenever a Government chooses to turn its attention to the Upper House”. However, the words, “the slings and arrows of outrageous” were taken out. I am not quite sure why. However, I think many noble Lords will understand as so often one hears, “The Government are too busy with Brexit or something else; nobody’s going to get round to doing it. They talk about it so often but nobody does anything”. Actually, I do not agree with that. There are times when quite a momentum for change in the upper House builds up at the other end of this building. Who are we to try to second-guess what the motivation of that momentum—I do not mean anything at all by that word, or perhaps I do—is? Who can second-guess when that would happen? Almost certainly, the general public have a perception— rightly or wrongly—not just about the numbers, but about the work that we do. That work is undervalued, not just by the public but often by the other end of this building. It was this House, of course, that got off the starting block very quickly on Brexit, with some very sensible and well-researched studies and papers, so we have a big contribution to make, not just in this Chamber.
I want to pick up on something mentioned by my noble friend Lady Stowell in her contribution this morning. That is, what are we actually about in this House? What are we here for? We all know why we are here, but there needs to be some consolidation if we are to reduce the numbers to 600. What exactly will the work be? This is not a paid job. It does not carry a pension or any of the usual restraints of paid employment. It is public service. While there are some concerns about the age of people coming in—whether they are younger or older— people understand that, in accepting appointment to this House, they are not being offered a paid job in the normal sense of the word. They are being offered a privilege and an opportunity to carry out public service. Therefore, the decision of individuals as to whether the 15-year period recommended in the report is not long enough for them will be considered in the same way as any other option that one takes in life. One looks at one’s own circumstances and decides whether one has the time or ability to give that amount of time and dedication to public service. If this House is about anything, it is about public service.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and commend both the committee and those who have campaigned for a more effective second Chamber for many years. The irony of some of us who have been in this House for only a relatively short time—I am thinking this morning of my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, as well as myself—advocating that the House should be reduced now that we are in here will not have passed notice. My defence is that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is making a positive contribution to what is, after all, built into the DNA of this House: gradualism. Even the most tentative step forward in the right direction has to be applauded.
My other defence is that, back in 2014 in the other place, I was the only Labour Back-Bencher who bothered to turn up on a Friday morning for the Bill that achieved what has been paraded this morning as 78 fewer Members: those who have taken the dignified route—not the Dignitas route—of standing down from this House. Those who pressed that case and did the work on it did everyone great credit, because we would be debating this in a much less favourable atmosphere if we had not had that facility available.
I want to pick up two or three points from this morning’s debate. My noble and learned friend Lord Morris seemed to be advocating a kind of Lloyd George view of the world: that incoming Prime Ministers will want to cram this House and we should not get in the way. David Cameron had a go at that, and look where it got him: nowhere at all. Cramming this House, by any Prime Minister, will not work and we all know it.
I ought to be gentle about the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, because I have been in the position where I had to try and carry through Parliament something that I was only just persuaded of. As Leader of this House, he had the daunting task of trying to carry the Clegg proposals through, which included a 15-year time-bound period for a senator, non-renewable and non-accountable. It is just worth reflecting that, if that is the main argument—15 years is too short because there would be some excellent people who would have to leave before they had fulfilled their full potential—then we have to apply it to those who want an elected second Chamber. I do not; I would like it to be reformed still further and to be less London-centric. However, if you are faced with the tortoise and the hare and you know that someone in the undergrowth is going to shoot the hare, you are best off backing the tortoise. In any case, tortoises have a shell, which we all build up over many years in politics. This time, we might just achieve that modest change.
I hope that this prolonged debate—I am finishing now because other noble Lords have already been patient today—is a chance, to demonstrate not to ourselves or even to our colleagues down the Corridor, but to demonstrate to the public that we mean business, we understand how people see politics and politicians, and we will do something about it.
My Lords, it is an enormous pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and to agree with absolutely everything he said.
The British constitution has a genius for taking things in bite-sized chunks and making them come together to an extraordinary extent to change things over a period of time. When I was a schoolgirl taking my 11-plus in Wolverhampton, there was not a single female Member of your Lordships’ House. Over time, what was seen as a small reform—the Life Peerages Act—has absolutely transformed this House. With each small measure we can make progress.
I will not use my time today to echo what so many others have said about the ingenuity and the elegance of the solution that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has found. We all owe him and his fellow committee members a debt of gratitude. Now the responsibility lies with us in not trying to gild the lily or to change any detail of what has been said but to put our wholehearted support behind those proposals. I was encouraged by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and I hope that the other party leaders will do exactly the same.
There is an extraordinarily heavy burden on the shoulders of the Leader of the House in this respect, because, as we all know, the Prime Minister needs to be persuaded and needs to take action. I, like others, believe that that is possible and that we could create a convention that was powerful in this respect and which achieved what we wanted to achieve. However, it will be difficult; it will need us to back her and her to speak on our behalf. I hope that she will take note of paragraph 25 of the report, which deals with the issue of creating a non-parliamentary peerage. Again, this is an elegant solution to some of the patronage issues that a Prime Minister is faced with.
I will not go on talking about things with which I agree but will try to deal with one or two of the criticisms we have heard this morning. Some of them were marginally unfair in that they criticised the committee for not finding solutions to a question that was not posed to it—that is, what should be the long-term and radical change to the form and purpose of this House. However, it is a great shame that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is not in his place at the moment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, I was expecting a reprise of that speech we all loved so much, which argued passionately for an elected House, regardless of the stony faces on the Benches behind him, during all those hours of debate on the coalition Government’s proposals in the Clegg Bill for an elected House. Sadly, however, he was not able to give us that performance again today.
What the noble Lord did do was give a skilful elision on the issue of the size of the House to the fact that it was only that everyone was complaining about overcrowding, which was not an issue. In fact, I could not find any mention of overcrowding in the report—nor have I heard it mentioned by those who advocate reducing the size of the House. Overcrowding is not the issue—although I would not advocate a public body supporting and paying for more personnel than are necessary for carrying out the tasks with which it is charged.
Putting that to one side, the issue of size is one of reputation. For five years, I had the responsibility and honour of acting as an advocate and ambassador for this House. Through speaking in many public fora during those five years, I became absolutely convinced that there was a barrier to explaining and advocating the virtues and quality of the work done in this House because of the criticism that rightly came over its ever-expanding size.
We live in very difficult parliamentary times. Representative democracy is challenged in a way that it has not been before by our foray into plebiscitary democracy. Parliament’s reputation is important and there will be difficult times ahead. We need to do something to improve our trustworthiness with the public—and this is one of the things we can do.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the former Lord Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, whose contributions to our debates always command attention. It is also a pleasure to congratulate the present Lord Speaker on initiating the inquiry into the size of our House. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee also deserve great praise for bringing forward such a carefully considered and well-thought-through report.
It is surely right to consider our numbers in isolation, because the solution can be achieved without legislation and because it does not compromise any wider reform proposals that may one day emerge.
I will address, first, the question of numbers. This is a problem created by successive Governments—or Prime Ministers—for which we in this House receive the blame. We have a right to expect their co-operation now as it is in their interests, as well as ours, that it should be solved. I believe that a reduction to 600 is sensible and realistic. It should meet the criticism we have received while, at the same time, still enabling us to fulfil all our varied obligations as the second pillar of our parliamentary democracy, continuing to complement and assist the work of the other place.
A cap of fewer than 600—at any rate initially—might reduce our capacity to fulfil all our responsibilities. We should also bear in mind that the fewer the Members of this House, the greater, proportionately, would become the government payroll. I feel sure that the House would not wish to see our capacity to hold the Government to account undermined.
I particularly welcome the evolutionary process and its sustainability, embraced by the committee, to carry us from our ever-expanding present state to one of gradual reduction while avoiding the painful issues of specific terms or age limits for present Members of the House. Getting the reduction pattern right is as much an art as a science. Just as 600 Members seems right as a target cap—at any rate at this stage—so too does the two-out, one-in formula have a rigorous fairness about it, spreading the pain, if such it be, across each of the major groupings.
A 15-year implementation cycle is probably the maximum time that the urgency of this matter would allow. It could also be the minimum length of time needed to achieve the gradualism that constitutional change should always seek and to sustain an important sense of continuity. Similarly, the 15-year term proposed for new Peers, referred to by my noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, feels right. It affords fairness and balance both to the operation of the business of the House and to the new Peers. As my noble friend said, it offers career fulfilment in public service to them and the benefits of a regular injection of new talent to the House.
Since the last reduction in our numbers 20 years ago, the average daily attendance rate of Members has risen by 50%, and it is possible that a further rise could result in due course from the changes now proposed. If so, the cap of 600 Peers might eventually be further reduced.
One matter that concerned me before I had had a chance to read the report was the mention in early media coverage that the changes proposed would reflect the post-election political balance in the other place. However, having now read the way in which this would happen, and to what extent, I am reassured—indeed, supportive. The strength of this House lies in its differences from the other place. We should never be an echo Chamber. Clearly, from what is proposed, that will not happen. From a starting-point of the political diversity of the present House, the averaging effect of the 15-year term on the five-year electoral cycle should keep any threat of dominance under manageable control, and the important principle of no party having an overall majority will be preserved.
This report seems to avoid the pitfalls that have beset other proposals in recent times for the reform of your Lordships’ House. It seems to me to provide a long-term, sustainable way forward, while protecting our continuing ability to fulfil all our duties and functions and play a full role within our parliamentary democracy. I hope that it will be widely welcomed by all who have a part to play and that it will be implemented rapidly, while it can still be done.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Luce wanted to speak in this debate but has been prevented from doing so by a family commitment. However, he asked me to associate him with my remarks, so your Lordships are getting two expressions of support for the Burns proposals for the price of one.
In her speech in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a year ago, the Leader of the House reminded us of the Government’s position that, while comprehensive reform is not a priority for this Parliament—it was the last Parliament then—the size of the House is an issue to be addressed. Indeed, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2017 election repeated that position. It said:
“We … will continue to ensure the … House of Lords remains relevant and effective by addressing issues such as its size”.
Despite the notorious ambiguity of election manifestos, I do not think that the Government intended to increase the effectiveness of the House by increasing its size.
The committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Burns, containing very senior members of the main parties in this House, has agreed on a way of addressing the size of the House. Indeed, if legislation is not available—today the Leader confirmed that that is the case for the duration of this Parliament—it is, in my view, the only practicable way forward, and it is now for the Government to fulfil the words in their policy and manifesto.
As has been pointed out, that requires restraint on the part of the Prime Minister in making appointments. It is blindingly obvious that, in the absence of legislation to reduce large swathes of the present House, restraint in appointments is necessary if the size of the House is not to grow inexorably.
We are told that a further list of appointments is about to be published but I do not share the apocalyptic view expressed earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I believe that this can be regarded as a legacy issue arising from the May general election that does not inhibit the adoption of the approach in the Burns report.
In the debate a year ago, the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition agreed that, for any proposals for reform to have a chance of success, they will have to command a broad consensus around the House. I believe that, had there been a vote today, there would have been overwhelming support for the Burns proposals.
It is the Government’s policy to address the size of the House, and the Burns report gives them a practical means of doing so with the ardent support of a majority of this House. As the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, very fairly said, the Prime Minister has shown restraint in exercising patronage since she took up office. So there are grounds for optimism. Let us hope that we are pushing at an open door. It would be a relief if the Government were to say so.
My Lords, following the most informative, positive and engaging course of the debate so far, I start with two simple questions. First, is there a problem? Secondly, if there is, does the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee provide a solution to that problem? My answer to both is yes.
There is clearly a problem with the size of the House. The number of Members is such that it creates a problem of resources, both in terms of space and cost. We have problems fitting everybody in, not just physically in the Chamber but it is also difficult when there are too many who wish to speak. It is difficult to have a debate if speakers are confined to two or three minutes each. There is no real engagement between those taking part and no opportunity to develop a sustained line of argument.
Today’s special debate has been a joy to follow and I thank the Lord Speaker for making all this possible. However, there is an ever-bigger problem: public perception. Those who argue that there is not a problem ignore the fact that size is not an abstract concern but something that will be used by critics whenever they take issue with what we have done. We will always be open to attack by those who wish to get rid of the existing House, but also when we take controversial decisions. It will not just be a case of saying, “The Lords got it wrong on the merits”, but rather, “Look at that bloated House—a drain on public resources”. If we are to be criticised, let us at least be criticised for what we do rather than for matters unrelated to the quality of debate and decisions. As long as there is a perception that we are too big, and as long as it appears that we are unalert to the issue and not doing something about it, we will be criticised by the media and others.
It is true that the size of the House is not something that keeps most citizens awake at night—we should remember that—but to say that is to miss the point about our vulnerability to media criticism. We remain vulnerable so long as we are so big and, equally important, as long as we are seen not to be tackling the issue. We have to address it. Tackling size is necessary, but it is not sufficient to address how we are seen. We need to do other things, not least on standards. However, doing something about size is a good and necessary start.
Does the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee provide a solution? Yes. It may not be the ideal, but I doubt if we will achieve that. As has been said already, it is important that the best is not the enemy of the good. The report before us provides a sensible and ingenious way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues are to be truly congratulated on devising a scheme that is within our gift. It is not dependent on legislation and therefore not dependent on Government support and time, or indeed the support of the other place. We can make progress; we should make progress; and it is important that we are seen to make progress.
I appreciate that it will take time to reach the goal set in the report, but it is important to begin the steps necessary to get there. If we say no, there is nothing realistic to be achieved. In this Parliament, it is this report or it is nothing. I remind your Lordships that in the Parliament of 2010-15, the Government came up with a major scheme of reform. It never made it out of the other place. More incremental reform was pushed by Members of this House, especially the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber—I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Cormack and, in his absence, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. This was achieved in the form of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015. We cannot expect to get legislation during this Parliament to tackle the size of the House, but we can again achieve incremental reform, this time by our own efforts. We should grasp the opportunity; we must grasp the opportunity. We cannot wait for another Parliament or the one after that.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on producing an excellent report which I welcome with great enthusiasm. When I was a teenager, a long time ago, I used to think that all the problems of the world could be dealt with at one fell swoop—the big bang theory, let us just get on with it. I have learned wisdom since then and I much prefer a piecemeal approach. This report is a good reflection of what I think is a piecemeal approach. Many of us, in the fullness of time, would like reforms to go further, but for the moment it is as good as we can get: for heaven’s sake, let us get on with it. If I give voice to one or two reservations, it is only to say that I have those reservations but I am prepared to drop them in the interests of getting this report accepted. For example, we might, one day, think that 600 is too large and 450 might be a more effective number, but getting there would be too difficult and I think the committee was right to say 600.
I appreciate that an elected Chamber, which is what I believe in although I think I am in a minority, was not in the committee’s terms of reference. I simply mention it in passing so that those outside groups that are lobbying hard will not think I have sold the pass, except for many years. There are, of course, other ways of getting the numbers down which have not, perhaps, been fully mentioned. I was not here for all of the debate this morning but when we eventually get on with making the decision of what to do about this building and we move out, maybe that will be a good excuse, or pretext; a lot of people, I believe, will want to retire then. In a way, some of the work of this committee will be done for it if we can only get on and make a decision about the future of this building. I have talked to lots of colleagues from all parties and they all say, “Yes, when our day comes we will probably want to retire from the House”. It will happen that way.
In 1999, when we reduced the number of hereditaries, I was in Northern Ireland for much of that time so I did not follow it all, but I think the decision was for the hereditaries in each party group to vote for the retention of some of their members. That is how we got it done and I suppose one way of naming that would be “a circular firing squad”, which has its merits—it is rather quick, but it can also be rather painful, so I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, did not suggest that.
I think my noble friend Lord Foulkes said this morning that there was a confusion between the titles we get as working Peers and the titles that are given as honours. The report actually takes note of that and suggests a way forward. I have found it very difficult, over the years I have been here, to explain to people that I did not get an honour to be here, I am simply a Labour Party hack who became a working Peer. People say, “Oh, it must be an honour”. I say, “No, it is not”. It is a silly argument to have but it is a confusion we ought to get rid of and I think we can do it without detracting from support. At one point I made a suggestion that colleagues thought was a joke, but I made it quite seriously. At that time, in one of the many debates we had on the subject, I suggested that if people wished to retain their title they should leave the House, and if they wanted to stay in the House they should drop their titles. I think it would work. I am not suggesting we weaken the report by going down that path; I just threw it in because we want a debate about all these issues.
I have just one or two quick comments. I notice that the report, very sensibly, says that Cross-Benchers will retain a certain, fixed percentage of the total membership of what will then be a smaller House. I was told this morning by the right reverend Prelate that the Bishops are here under obligation because of statute. I wonder, however, whether they would not be able to voluntarily reduce their numbers in the same way that the Cross-Benchers do. I seek in support of that Appendix 5, which talks about “Unusual circumstances”:
“Second, parties may for whatever reason refuse to take up their allocation of appointments”.
I am not saying the Bishops’ Bench is a party, but maybe it could do it voluntarily to keep in line with what is happening.
Finally, as regards the remaining hereditaries, we have a wonderful Bill put forward by my noble friend Lord Grocott. We should accept that Bill—it would not detract from this report. There are lots of things that we can do ever so quickly—please let us get on with it.
My Lords, I will not rise to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on the hereditary Peers, but like so many others here this afternoon, I would like to welcome this debate on the report that the excellent committee of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has produced. I congratulate it on finding a way around many of the apparent problems.
In our debate just over a year ago, there was much agreement that the size of the House should be reduced. This was accompanied by many suggestions, some good and some less helpful, as to the means. Anyway, now the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has told us how. One of the main clever aspects of his work is that no primary legislation is needed to effect meaningful change. No one here today will lose the rights to attend, participate or vote.
The other great beauty, as I see it, is that under these proposals the reduction in numbers will be kept at a target of, say, 600 Members and not allowed to regrow. Other speakers have and will, I am sure, go into the details of the report’s proposals and comment on some aspects. I do not wish to dwell on these today. Surely our main aim now is to show our agreement to the thrust of the plan and to welcome it.
We who work here know what our role is and we know what this Chamber does. So it is important that this is kept firmly in mind as any changes evolve as a result of this report. Equally to my mind, the general public must appreciate and acknowledge, through media commentators and observation, the work that we do—the scrutinising, the revising and the reports that we make to government. To achieve this positive shift in attitude, we must demonstrate our willingness to change, even if change brings small, less welcome individual disbenefits. That we are willing to suggest positive change of our own volition surely demonstrates this ethos: an outlook of spirit which we can be proud to broadcast outside this Palace.
I expect some may criticise the timeframe envisaged—some have already—but to achieve a lasting result, this is surely of little importance, even in the fast-moving world we live in. The demonstrable resulting size will be a practical solution to our current embarrassment.
Many speakers have gone out of their way to recognise the supremacy of the other place. It is vital to state this, and not to challenge that by having an elected second Chamber which is bound to flex its democratic muscles. So, along with others, I do hope the Government’s willingness to enter into the spirit of this report will not be tested by any short-term difficulties that may arise with imminent controversial Bills, nor indeed that the Prime Minister will be tempted to pre-empt the position by a new list of Peers. Indeed, I look forward to further exploration of a Prime Minister’s power to appoint non-working Peers to lifetime titles that do not involve a seat in this Chamber. This was a point that was touched on only briefly in the report.
In my short time here I have often noticed the splendid co-operation between the usual channels, the parties, and the groups. It is this spirit that will be needed to drive this on, together with government thinking in the long term, not just party advantage.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who remarked that there is no Minister to wind up. I am uncertain as to how the Government’s opinion will be demonstrated. But I hope that we will learn this quickly to enable a swift adoption of these proposals. This is an unusual chance to make important and worthwhile changes to an ancient system, and I hope the Government and the House will grasp the opportunity.
My Lords, it was very tempting, as one of the newest Members of your Lordships’ House, to let those more experienced in the ways of this place get on with it. However, the pace of change suggested in the report is so seductively slow that there will not be many of us left to bear witness to the effect of those changes.
Many believe both that the House has become too large and that it does not reflect the voting preferences of the electorate over the past decade or two. In the debate last December, the overwhelming majority of your Lordships agreed that something needed to be done—but what? I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that ditching the title and the building would reduce the numbers substantially and quickly. However, I acknowledge the hard work and the depth of thought that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have given to the production of the report, and I pay tribute to the Lord Speaker for initiating their work.
I admit I find it hard to accept the suggestion of a 15-year tenure as appropriate, when in that time many of us will not have reached even the average age of the committee. I observe that with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and one MEP, all the members of the committee have come here from the other place and may therefore be looking at this issue from a particular perspective. The average age of our Lords Ministers is now 58; five are under 50. Some may go on to commercial life and then return, bringing back valuable expertise—as, indeed, may others. We should not be prepared to cast aside the knowledge acquired from whatever field—public service, academia, commerce or defence—so lightly.
I agree that we need to achieve a steady state, reducing the rise in numbers while allowing the membership to be refreshed, but why not introduce a notional upper age limit of, say, 80, beyond which you could be voted back on to your relevant party’s Bench in five-year terms, should you and your Bench wish to retain your contribution? Can we also not agree to adjust the proportional representation of each party in line with, say, the averages of the last four general elections, again keeping the Cross-Benchers and Bishops but simultaneously reducing the numbers on the other Benches within a much shorter timeframe? Your Lordships found a modus operandi that worked, although not without considerable pain, in 1999. Can we not employ a similar method now? Unless we do something soon, the reputation of the House as one of the finest second Chambers in the world in terms of its membership, output, committees and ability to persuade Governments to think again will be overshadowed by the truly false impression of a bloated and self-interested inflexibility.
My Lords, I start with a confession: I was not altogether enthusiastic about coming to this House. I had much enjoyed my time in the House of Commons and I thought the Lords might be a bit of a comedown. I know that is a terrible thing to say to a number of Peers here but that was what I thought. My wife, like many spouses of Members of Parliament, had borne much of the strain of her husband’s career and thought that enough was really enough. It was only the persuasive powers of the then Prime Minister, who said that there ought to be more pro-Europeans in the upper House, which convinced me that I ought to accept a peerage.
However, 16 years in this House have made me understand the importance of the House of Lords in the parliamentary system—above all, its role as a revising Chamber. There are often extremely good debates in this House. Of course, we are having one today. The Select Committees, as I know from experience, do excellent work. But it is the contribution that the Lords makes to the legislative process which is of most value to our parliamentary democracy. All too often Bills come to the Lords in a very rough and ready state and our efforts ensure that they go back to the Commons usually much improved.
As the elected Chamber, the Commons has the last word—I agree with the previous speaker—but it always needs the revising eye of the Lords, and long may that exist. However, going from that to arguing that for the Lords to carry out its job it also needs nearly 800 Members is clearly absurd. As noble Lords have pointed out, it exposes us to constant ridicule, so much so that when people talk about the House of Lords they immediately show a picture of a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, and I think I have had enough of that.
The question, which I think we have answered today, is about how we reduce the Lords to a more sensible size. I share the view of most noble Lords who have spoken that the Burns committee—I congratulate the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee—has come up with an ingenious and elegant set of interlocking proposals which give us a real chance of effective reform. Of course, there are formidable hurdles in the way and we should not underestimate them. They include the prime ministerial power of patronage, and Prime Ministers do not like giving up that sort of thing, the temptation to pursue party advantage when speaking as a member of a party, and I know that that will continue to exist, and the self-interest of individual Peers. All these are factors that will come into play. However, I agree with the conclusion of the report. The Burns proposals have the great merit of reducing the size of the Lords while maintaining a cap of 600 Members in future and providing a sufficient turnover of Members to refresh the House and rebalance it in line with general elections. They will also guarantee a fixed proportion of independent Cross-Bench Peers. These proposals should have our support. They will certainly make the Lords more effective and considerably enhance our reputation. The House should now unite behind the principles contained in the Burns report.
My Lords, in the absence of a vote on a Motion, speaking in a debate is the only way we can express a view, even though it makes for a degree of repetition. Nevertheless, I register my strong support for all three main propositions in this report: a reduction in the size of House to around 600 Members by two out, one in; once that is reached, terms limited to 15 years; and allocation of places to fill vacancies to reflect the general election results.
The beauty of this approach is that it is consistent with a House that complements the Commons rather than duplicates it and scrutinises legislation while accepting the primacy of the Commons. For this role, I believe an appointed House is more appropriate than an elected one, better still if, as this scheme proposes, a mechanism is built in to incorporate over time the changing balance of power at the ballot box. However, for those who still hanker after an elected House, no options are closed off, so that argument for delay fails.
There are several loose ends, particularly around those groups whose numbers are set by legislation. First there are the Lords Spiritual. In the new arrangement, they would become even more overrepresented, but they bring one vital element: they have the best geographical coverage, in England at least—a domain in which this House is weak. Eventually, as they recognise, a permanent solution is needed which reduces the number of Bishops while providing for other faiths. In the meantime a solution which retains their ability to speak for their region and to operate their duty rota would be an understanding that they would exercise restraint in voting in their full numbers.
Next, there is the position of the hereditary Peers, which will become even more anomalous. Some may argue that we should not do anything until we can legislate for this. I take the opposite view. We should make progress where we can. In the meantime the position of the hereditaries will become so indefensible that the wise among them—and there are many—will come to accept legislation to end by-elections. Some may argue that this would violate the 1999 agreement, but that agreement was recognised as an interim agreement pending major reform. This is major reform and 20 years is a decent time for an interim solution to run.
Next, there is a loophole. Someone who has been urged to retire by their party group should not be allowed to dodge the bullet by becoming non-affiliated or, worse, eating into the Cross-Bench quota.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I believe we also need to make a much clearer distinction between the honours system, which recognises people’s past service, and membership of the Lords, which should be a commitment to future service. Former Ministers and MPs bring vital experience to this House, but long-serving MPs should not be rewarded with an honour unless they commit to serving in this House in the same way as other people. In my view, the suggestion of honorary peerages perpetuates the confusion. What is the logic, in the 21st century, of giving someone a life title in return for a fixed-term appointment? I personally look forward to a world in which honours and offices are recognised only by letters after one’s name rather than by name changes
Finally, we need to recognise that just as we would be acting voluntarily, so too would the Prime Minister. Some may advise her not to surrender any degree of patronage, on the grounds that she might need it if the Government were having difficulties securing their business. However, although swamping the House is never going to solve that problem, it would do damage to the reputation of the House. There will be a great deal of detail to sort out, but I believe this debate has demonstrated a clear message to the Government and a clear mandate to take things forward.
My Lords, I am delighted to join many noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on their report. It is very difficult to disagree with any of the facts in the noble Lord’s report, and the conclusions would appear to anybody to be both reasonable and balanced—which is an unusual thing in a modern parliamentary report. It is in fact an extremely clever answer to the question posed by the Lord Speaker following your Lordships’ debate last year. I take on board the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Radice, about the ridiculous comparison between your Lordships’ House and the second Chamber in China, but I remain to be convinced that the size of this House is the key question we need to be addressing.
I made my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House—entirely coincidentally, standing almost in the same spot I am standing in today—about 30 years ago on the Second Reading of the poll tax Bill. As your Lordships can imagine, the House was quite full on that day. In fact, looking around it this evening—it was probably about the same time of day—I think that the House on that occasion was rather fuller. The speakers list, however, was not quite so long. The issue was, in case your Lordships have forgotten, slightly controversial at the time—but, extraordinarily, nobody speaking in that debate or commenting afterwards mentioned anything about the House being too big. I ask myself: too big for what? Too big for its vital role as a revising Chamber, perhaps?
In the last two or three debates that your Lordships have had on reform, which your Lordships enjoy debating from time to time, I have not heard one speaker say anything except what a good job this House does in revising. My noble friend Lady O’Cathain referred only a few moments ago to the high quality of the debates. So if the debates are good, we revise very well and our Select Committees are so respected, presumably we are not too big for the job we are doing. Or is it perhaps that we are too big for the convenience of Members?
My noble friend Lord Forsyth said that perception is important—and he is right, it is important. So maybe it is the perception rather than the reality. The perception undoubtedly is that from time to time we are too full. Occasionally when you come into your Lordships’ House at Question Time, it does seem to resemble rather more closely a bar-room brawl than a serious debating Chamber. That, I suspect, has less to do with the quantity of Members and more to do with the quality of conduct. This problem could easily be solved if new Members coming down the Corridor did not bring the more excitable excesses of that House with them—amusing though they may be—but rather chose to leave them behind. That is, after all, what most people dislike most about politics and what causes the reputation of the other place to fall—which, therefore, obviously affects the reputation of this House.
To my way of thinking—your Lordships will correct me if I am wrong—in the frequent debates that we have on Lords reform there is only one area of consensus: only one thing on which everyone agrees. It is that is that it would be ridiculous to have a second Chamber that emulated the first. It would be absurd to repeat in one Chamber the others. However, that is not my primary concern. My primary concern is that, over time, with 15-year terms, this House would slowly turn into a House that crept closer in its manner and its composition to the other place—which, I believe, and I think the House will agree, would be pointless and universally opposed.
I share the view of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde that a 15-year term would be extremely unattractive to those who are early or in the middle of successful and varied careers. Rather, it would be attractive to those in the autumn of their careers looking for something to do in the last 15 years of their working life. If we were to go down that route, we would be in danger of turning into reality what this House has frequently been accused of being: a retirement home—and in this case a retirement home mainly for Members of another place.
I do not expect that everybody will agree with my views. In fact, I have no doubt that most people will disagree with them, and that they are out of step with the views of many in this House. However, it is my understanding that my role in this House is not to say what is easy or comfortable, and that this House’s role is not to be easy and comfortable with itself. What we are here to do is to face the difficult choice of saying the things that we believe ought to be said, even if we believe them to be unpopular.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have rightly done, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the members of his committee on the imaginative and thoughtful way in which they undertook their sensitive task. Their report proposes an evolutionary development of your Lordships’ House that addresses some key concerns, and in my view it does so in a way that strikes a good balance between a number of conflicting tensions. It will not satisfy everyone, but no proposal ever could. It clearly leaves some people feeling dissatisfied on certain points, but that is the nature of a successful compromise—and I suspect that a compromise is what most people seek.
However, we should start by reminding ourselves that we are addressing changes to an institution that by and large has worked very well over the past few years. The most important measure of success in an organisation is to be found not in its internal structure and processes but in its output, and the output of your Lordships’ House—most obviously its scrutiny of draft legislation and the detailed investigations of its committees—has been workmanlike and valuable. Some would argue for a second Chamber with other tasks and wider powers, some for a more biddable House, but these are deeper constitutional issues than we are meant to consider today. Within its present remit, your Lordships’ House has, I believe, performed its tasks well. Some might ask why, if it works so well, we should seek to change things. The question, and it is a very important question, is whether the House could continue to be successful under arrangements that were more efficient and more acceptable to the citizens whom it serves and who, rightly, sit in judgment on it.
When one examines any successful constitutional arrangement, one can never be quite sure why it works. It is an accumulation of intellectual theory, historical accident, social development and, above all, a nation’s sense of itself—of its internal mythology, if you will. That is why experiments that have sought to transplant the precise constitutional system of one nation to another have so seldom been successful. Uprooted from the soil in which it has grown, any given system seldom flourishes elsewhere. We should therefore be cautious in changing our own arrangements, odd though they might seem to an outsider. Our constitutional system has grown and evolved in our national soil, and evolution is not about what is best but about what works.
However, evolution, while gradual, is also a continual process. Just as with organisms, organisations that do not adapt and evolve usually die out. I believe that what is proposed in the report before us today is a sensible evolutionary step. In my view, the key problem that it addresses is not the present size of the House as such. Under the committee’s proposals, the numbers active in this place at any one time may even become greater than they are now. The problem is, rather, the potential of an unbounded system eventually to reach proportions that are deemed absurd by anybody’s measure. The report therefore introduces boundaries, and sets out ways in which these could be achieved and maintained.
In doing so, the report draws a number of lines—for example, the idea of a 15-year term. Whenever lines are drawn, one can always find unfortunate cases that fall just the wrong side of the line. Moving the line does not alter this; it simply changes the identity of the unfortunate cases. If we are to move to a bounded system—and I believe that we should—we will introduce some consequences that are unwelcome. This is inevitable.
I believe that the report before us strikes a sensible balance in this regard. Of course one could argue with the quanta that it sets—but similar arguments would be made even if a different set of numbers were chosen. It is not comprehensive, and it leaves unanswered several difficult questions, many of which have been touched on today. We shall need to return to these in time. But as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, learned at an early age, if we seek to solve all problems at once, we end by solving none. We should remember that evolution is a continuing process, not an end state in itself. The proposals in the report represent in their own right a significant step forward, and I support them.
My Lords, I recognise the pressure, passion and intent of the report, but I am afraid that I must start from a different premise from most. I do not agree that there is much logic—I emphasise that word—in seeking to reduce the size of your Lordships’ House. I would rather have seen time and effort spent explaining, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has said she does, to the public and the relatively small number of people interested in this issue, that there are huge distinctions between this House and the House of Commons—and, indeed, every other legislative chamber around the world.
Members of the House of Commons are paid to represent their constituents, some to undertake ministerial business, but all to focus their efforts on their primary role in life, which is in their respective Chamber. Unlike what happens anywhere else in the world, your Lordships’ Chamber comprises individuals many, if not most, of whom are active in other areas of life. They bring to this House extraordinary levels of expertise and knowledge, which can only be current if the custom is maintained whereby they are not expected to be full-time here but are allowed to fulfil their other responsibilities.
According to a recent YouGov poll, people are “overwhelmingly against” MPs having second jobs. Only 26% suggested that they should have second jobs, and in February Labour tabled a motion banning second jobs in the Commons, but not in your Lordships’ House—with good reason. I for one would not like to see an upper House full of professional parliamentarians, and to achieve that objective we need a large pool of talent, from which we can draw, of people with current awareness of many issues. Our attendance rates will therefore always be lower than the Commons, as we carry out our other roles, so we should be much more positive and persuasive about why there is every logical justification for having a sufficient number. I do not know whether that would be 650. I would be interested to know what would happen if, as I suspect will happen, the Commons vote for their numbers to stay at 650.
I am also uncomfortable with the slightly “I’m all right, Jack” approach of this report for incumbents, and I believe it is up to us to create a system whereby those in your Lordships’ House who do not attend sufficiently, do not participate sufficiently in this Chamber, or abuse their position in any way, are no longer offered this privilege of public service. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, hinted, HOLAC might be expanded, or a new commission created, to review this much more carefully. It has to be clear to the public that this is not a sinecure for those who have left active work or service. For those who say that a larger House is too expensive, the answer is not difficult. We have an arbitrary fixed sum of £300 per day, plus out-of-town expenses. Let us consider reviewing this, possibly imaginatively, for those beyond working age.
Finally the report does not address the mix in this House, other than the political mix.
I stand corrected, if that is the case.
It would be good if an analysis of this House’s composition—ex-MPs, ex-civil servants, lawyers, academics and, in particular, business and union executives—were used for the selection of future Peers to gauge its real representative make-up, so that we can do our main work of improving legislation, holding government to account and debating important issues.
My Lords, I am proud to be a Member of the House of Lords, but we needed this important debate about the House and the UK system of government, following the excellent report from the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. It was interesting that the committee had outside experts, including my colleague Professor Meg Russell of University College. I hope that the debates about this report will be widely publicised and may well even affect intelligently the views of the public about the House of Lords.
The report does not include any surveys of the views of the public and outside bodies that have considered the future of the House of Lords. I am sure that other noble Lords have had critical views expressed to them, as I often have, about how Members of the Lords have been selected, and other critical remarks. Surveys in fact show that a majority of people think that the UK’s second Chamber should be elected in one way or another so as to reflect the views of the whole British electorate. But even if Members of the Chamber continue to be appointed, as in the new scheme proposed in the Burns report, there are still significant criticisms that the public want to make.
First, I do not think that the continuation of hereditary Peers has popular support; nor is there much support for how Members are selected. The report suggests, in a very reasonable way, how to reduce the numbers, but we cannot exclude the possibility that a single party might dominate the Commons and the Lords. As others have said, too many Members in this Chamber will continue to come from the south-east of the UK. Dare I say it, following the previous speaker—there may be too many financiers, especially when the Conservatives dominate? There are too few women and too few on the political Benches with important specialised knowledge and experience. The Cross Benches are full of experienced and knowledgeable people; we need more of the same on the political Benches. For example, scientists are well represented on the Cross Benches, but less than a handful of scientists and medical doctors have been appointed to the political Benches since I came here in 2000. Isaac Newton and Lord Kelvin were great scientists but they were also in Parliament and members of a political party. They showed that scientists can be all three at the same time—this is regarded generally by the public as an extraordinary idea—as is quite common among political and scientific people who are councillors in local government. The point has also been made about the shortage of appointments of engineers, industrial managers, practical entrepreneurs and others. I look forward, when I resign, to my position being taken up by a Labour scientist and engineer.
My Lords, it is my habit when looking at questions of this kind to look across what is done in other countries. I am afraid that in this particular case it was rather chastening. In Italy, for example, the second Chamber numbers 325 members, while in France it is 321 and in Germany it is 69. In Canada, the second Chamber numbers 104; in the USA it is, of course, 100—and in Australia, rather a large country, it is 76. Admittedly, some of those people are elected under their systems, but some are also appointed and have the same kind of arrangements for remuneration that we do. Even worse, we are of course larger than the primary Chamber. We are one of only three countries in the world where the second Chamber is larger than the primary Chamber, the other two being Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso—not countries that we should be comfortable to be compared with.
As the Leader of the House pointed out, the question of size does affect our reputation. It is damaging and will continue to be so. The noble Lord, Lord Radice, summed it up rather well when he said that he was fed up with the picture of the Chinese Communist Party at play—or at work—which we see every time. I am afraid that that is there and will continue while we are at our present size and nothing is done about it. That is the outstanding issue. All the other points that have been made are secondary to this major one, which we have to address.
It is important that we are seen to address it ourselves, and this is the right report to do that. As has been said, it has the magic touch of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I was beginning to think he should take charge of our European Union trade negotiations after he completed his stint on this. I am not sure he would welcome that, but his ability to get a consensus in an agreeable and skilful way is widely admired. We would certainly get a better tone than Mr Barnier has injected.
This is a serious, balanced and practical report. The Prime Minister is a serious, balanced and practical woman, and I hope she will respond positively.
My Lords, in general I lend my full support to the Burns report, having been a member of the Norton group since its inception. However, it is not going so far as some of us would like, through primary legislation. Many noble Lords signed up to the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which, in its original form, wanted to make the IAC statutory. This report is a not-too-subtle reminder of the excessive power of patronage in this House and presents a straight challenge to Downing Street not to appoint too many more Peers in the new year, just as we are contemplating genuine reform. Burns presents a firm step forward, and I am sure we can find ways of taking that step quickly.
But it is hardly a revolutionary report: we are only going back, at 600, to the number that we were at before. It is an irony that so many of us should have to attend today, when we could be discussing homelessness at Christmas, or Cyril Ramaphosa’s future, or anything else. Why can we not all sign a letter and just proceed with it? We had the debate a year ago.
My main concern about this report is that it may strengthen the case for more regular attendance. As a Cross-Bencher this worries me, because we do not want to lose able people of considerable experience simply by requiring them to attend regularly. My noble and learned friend Lord Hope made this point more fluently. The report admits it, but somewhat reluctantly. It needs to be repeated that the strength of this House, and its distinction from another place, is rooted in the expertise and special knowledge of many Members who only attend when they have to. I refer predominantly, but of course not exclusively, to non-political Members.
By the way, I warm to the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, about the regions, but I know this cannot be done except through an elected House. His point about splitting the peerage has been made before, many times, but it does not lose its validity for all that.
Beyond this, I would like to see more attention paid to the age of retirement. Here I share doubts about the 15 years: I cannot see that we should go in the opposite direction to existing legislation. I cannot see a two-tier House being acceptable or workable. I would not recommend a fixed age, but agree with the broad principle of retiring, say, after 80. I would be the last to ask any elderly, articulate Peer to step down—the magical names Avebury and Walton come to mind—but those of us now passing their mid-70s should be aware that most of us do not perform as well at 80 as at 70. Here I find myself only a little more radical than the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, but not half as revolutionary as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who calls for a clear-out at 80.
That would be a splendid result. Peers in that age group should at least be talking to someone in the House—possibly a human resource desk or, better still, someone in every group and party who will already have that expertise. The Whips will of course have ulterior motives for removing some of their more independent colleagues, so it would be better to choose someone else, respected and preferably in the same generation—with, one hopes, the support of their party leader.
As a further incentive, I should like to revive discussion of the paper written by the former Clerk of the Parliaments, which shows that the House could afford, say, an average year’s expenses to tide over Members who are genuinely in difficulty—those without pensions or other resources. This would be a net saving.
On hereditary Peers, I will say only, along with most of the Norton group, that the time may be approaching when we review by-elections, but this report is not a platform for that conversation.
Finally, I am genuinely sorry to hear that the Bishops are seriously contemplating a cut in their own numbers. They rarely appear in large numbers and, in that sense, they are well balanced by those of other faiths whom we warmly welcome. I hope that the Bishops will reconsider their position.
My Lords, this proposal is based on the assumption that the number of Peers in this House should be reduced to 600. The report comments that,
“there is widespread agreement on the urgency of addressing its size”.
If the word “widespread” refers to a narrow Westminster village, it is correct. But outside of that tiny constituency, and possibly one or two academics, there is zero interest in the country in the size of this House. People are not that interested in us. With the greatest respect, there is no general desire or need to reduce the number of Peers.
If I did not know better, I would think that the proposal was made by Peers who so rarely go into the Chamber that they have not seen that for more than 90% of the time, the Chamber is 90% empty. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, whose original suggestion it was, should certainly know that, given that there are many occasions on which he has given his views on a wide variety of subjects to the great benefit of what is so often a virtually empty House.
The report centres strongly on the number of Peers, but minimal attention is given to the work that Peers carry out, which is surely an essential ingredient when reviewing the size of the House. As the report recognises, Bills in the other place are time limited in Committee, which makes the House of Lords’ role as a revising Chamber of huge importance. That requires a decent-sized pool of Peers in order to have a sufficient number with knowledge of the subject matter of the Bill who are prepared to spend the time in Committee going through the legislation. As your Lordships know, more often than not, this requires spending six or seven hours a day for a number of days, and not always with the respite of a dinner hour.
In practice, this House already operates with 600 Peers rather than the total of 800-plus. This makes a reduction to 600 either pointless or possibly an impediment to the future working of the House. There have been, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde pointed out, only three Divisions in the history of the House in which more than 600 Members have voted. The average daily attendance last Session was 484. The average vote in Divisions is 396.
In terms of costs, 98 Peers—12% of the House—do not claim any allowance at all, and in all, 20% of your Lordships claim less than £5,000 per annum. Reducing the number of Peers is unlikely to have any impact on the cost.
Comments have been made that there is insufficient room in the House for the present number of Peers, but I would remind your Lordships that there are 650 Members of the other place, and the generally accepted maximum number of MPs who can sit in that Chamber at any one time is 427.
Your Lordships should carefully consider whether, under the proposal, there is a risk, albeit in the future, that those putting in the time and effort are the ones pushed out after 15 years, leaving only those Peers who do not frequently attend the House to carry on the valuable work. This House works well as it is and any reduction might prejudice this with no discernible benefit.
My Lords, I put down my name to speak in this debate for one reason only: to put on record my enthusiastic support for this report. It is, if I may say so, a masterpiece of skill, wisdom and tact.
The desirability of a reduction in our numbers is, I would suggest, obvious; indeed, it is more than desirable—it is imperative if this is to be a sensible institution. I hope that the response of the vast majority of those taking part in this debate will carry the weight that it deserves with the Prime Minister.
I would like to add one footnote. I believe that those who were involved in the discussions that led to the Constitutional Reform Act shared what lawyers describe as a legitimate expectation. This was that, on retirement, any member of the Supreme Court who so wished would be made a Member of this House. That legitimate expectation has not been met. It is in these circumstances that I am prepared to support, despite some reservations, the proposal made in paragraph 77 of the report, that members of the Supreme Court should receive life peerages on appointment.
My Lords, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great novel, Il Gattopardo—the leopard—was published posthumously in 1958. It became the biggest seller in the history of Italian publishing. Visconti even made a film of the novel. It is a chronicle of an aristocratic prince in Sicily at a time of civil war and revolution. There is one line in the novel which to this day captures the imagination of scholars, academics, students, writers and readers alike. They struggle with one sentence in the book, a sentence which I believe has some relevance for your Lordships’ debate today. Tancredi, a young nobleman, remarks to his uncle, the prince:
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.
This central contradiction continues to baffle the literati, but clearly they have not had the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee, who seem to me in their report to achieve a perfect resolution of the Tancredi contradiction. The Burns report recommendations undoubtedly ensure continuity for this House’s assets and values and its subservient role in our democratic governance, while introducing some practical and much needed, and much talked about, reforms.
Those gripped by the Netflix series “The Crown” can see how carefully the monarchy has adapted and changed in order to preserve its essential value to the UK. Even the BBC, for goodness’ sake, has adapted and changed without losing sight of its mission and importance. It is time that your Lordships’ House evolved. The Burns report offers the best chance for it to reform itself. We should embrace it because we may not get another chance for years to come.
I have one small criticism, of course—being from the media, I have to find some criticism. While I am in total support of the Burns recommendations, I have only one small regret. The noble Lord might have taken the opportunity to propose the introduction of Radio 4’s “Just a Minute” rules into the Chamber, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Leigh. You get gonged out for hesitation, deviation or repetition.
My Lords, that is a daunting finale to follow, but I am delighted to follow the noble Lord. This morning when I left my Select Committee meeting to come to the Chamber, the special adviser said, “Are you off, then, to save the House of Lords?”. To be honest, I had not thought about it in that way, but that might actually be where we are.
In the public’s eye, as far as the House of Lords goes, size matters. There is clear evidence both from polling and from the media that when Prime Ministers of the past—I shall not name any names—stuffed the House with Members and it grew, public confidence in the House immediately dropped markedly. Today we have a real chance to do something productive to help ensure that that vital public support for the House continues. As the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said, it might be one of our last chances. Not only do I wholly support the excellent and cunning report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns—he is, and has been for many years, very cunning—but I believe that failing to implement it would be a further nail in our reputational coffin.
I confess that I would have liked the target size of the House to be smaller: 400 seems to me to be plenty, especially if all Peers are involved, committed and here. I would like to see the end of the charade that is the hereditary Peers’ elections, so I will put forward a proposition. I know that it is enshrined in legislation, but if we are in the spirit of committing to voluntary reduction and change, why cannot the hereditary Peers—or the wider electorate, if that is the case—simply take the law into their own hands? If the electorate for the hereditary Peers’ elections simply refused to vote, we could get a system of two out before one in very rapidly in that field as well.
In common with many Members of the House, I believe that we have to get started. The Burns report is an excellent start, and we should simply get on with it. Much depends on the honour of the Prime Minister and successive Prime Ministers, which is a rather uncertain ask. We need to have some sort of orchestrated precision system, a bit like—for noble Lords who have seen it—the system for exchanging spies in the movie “Bridge of Spies”. We will march out our outgoing Peers only when we see that the Government, and other parties, are marching out theirs and that the PM is not flooding the House with new appointments. I can see Westminster Bridge as the site for re-enacting that process. Noble Lords who have not seen this movie really ought to; it is an extremely good one, almost as good as the movie of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which is one of my favourite movies of all time. Let us get on with this: there is no time to lose.
Before I finish, I will talk about age. I am really old: I am 69. A woman should never lie about her age and that is the real one. That is the average age of noble Lords. The biggest age band in this House is 71 to 80 year-olds; 108 of us are over 80 and only four are under 40. There are 39 between 41 and 50. The average age of leaving is 83. When I first came to this House, I used to think that the bishops looked a bit old—but now, with their admirable retirement age of 70, the bishops are the youngest group in this House. More than half of this House is over 70, so I am now going to fall into the trap that I fell into in the first year when I came here. My noble friend Lady Jay, were she here, would remember that at that stage she was Leader of the House. We had a small soirée in her apartments here, and I raised the question of whether we should have a retirement age of 70.
It has taken me 16 years to get over that. Again, when the hustings were afoot before we elected the last Lord Speaker, I tentatively expressed the view that it was a shame that all three candidates were over 70 and that two of them, although wise and noble, were considerably over 70. So I know that I will not win many friends by what I say, but if we are risking the reputation of the House by being “large and bloated”, we can also be represented as being “very old”.
I know about wisdom. We all hugely value—and I feel privileged to be in the presence of—the wisdom that is demonstrated by many of the older Members of our House. But wisdom and age do not universally go hand in hand. We need to be able to reflect and understand the needs of the population right across the age groups and not be out of touch—so we need more younger Members. To say that younger Members will not have the requisite experience, gravity and understanding is belied by the current Leader of the House, who was a mere babe in arms when she arrived. Indeed, she still is, but none of us would not recognise the wisdom and the contribution that she makes to the House.
So I hope that those who will finagle the retirements in this House will make sure that we start to address this issue of age, and I hope also that those who finagle the appointment of new Members to the House will bear in mind that we need younger Members.
My Lords, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are too many of us. It is good that your Lordships should be, and should be seen to be, addressing this problem for yourselves, without waiting for a Government to introduce legislation. Given the pressures on the legislative programme, that might be a very long wait.
The Lord Speaker’s committee, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Burns, has produced an admirable set of proposals for a system that will over time, and without legislation, reduce the size of the House from over 800 to a steady state of 600 Members. The proposals are skilfully designed, well balanced and well articulated. The debate today shows that they have the positive and, as nearly as possible, unanimous support of the House. My noble friend Lord Burns deserves signal recognition for his services—not punishment, such as being in charge of the EU negotiations, but some real honour, like a portrait in the dining room or perhaps the renaming of a Committee Room.
This House is rather like a water tank. If you want to control the level of water in the tank, you have to balance the inflow and the outflow. The Lord Speaker’s committee makes proposals which would enable the House to control the outflow, but the inflow is altogether outside our control. It is entirely dependent upon the exercise of the Prime Minister’s prerogative to recommend the creation of peerages. Not all Prime Ministers, especially one or two recent Prime Ministers, have had sufficient regard to the effects of their recommendations upon the size of the House. The efficacy of the committee’s recommendations will depend on the willingness of the Prime Minister and her eventual successors to comply with the committee’s suggestions for limiting the numbers of new peerages created. I dare say that in this regard the present Prime Minister will be readier to set an example to her successors than to try to create a binding precedent. But I have no doubt that her response will depend at least partly on the strength of your Lordships’ commitment, as demonstrated in this debate and in the subsequent passage of changes to standing orders and other changes which will be required to put them into effect.
In this connection, I have one small suggestion to offer. As the committee recognises, one of the purposes for which the Prime Minister may need or wish to create peerages is to ensure that the Government have representatives on the Front Bench in this House in sufficient quantity and, if I may respectfully say so, of sufficient quality to speak effectively for the Government over the whole range of government business. This is of importance and value not only to the Government but also to the proper discharge of the House’s responsibilities for the scrutiny of legislation.
It might help the Prime Minister to accept the proposed limits on the numbers of new peerages she is able to recommend if she were free to appoint new Peers outside these limits when they were needed to serve as Ministers or Front-Bench spokesmen. This would be on the understanding that, when they came to stand down as Ministers or Front-Bench spokesmen, they would be required to take voluntary retirement from membership of the House—while retaining their titles—unless the Prime Minister confirmed their continuing membership within the limits of the numbers of new peerages to be recommended.
I hope that by this debate, your Lordships are demonstrating your strong support for the Burns committee’s proposals. For my part, when the time comes, this turkey will vote for Christmas, if with a twinge of regret. None the less, it will be senza rancor—without rancour—and with gratitude for having been given the opportunity of enjoying the privileges of membership and sharing the pleasures of sodality in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, the interest in your Lordships’ House in this debate and in this subject is enormous—we have a list of 95 speakers. The interest outside is zero. When the noble Lord, Lord Burns, got up to introduce his committee’s report, there were two members of the public in the Press Gallery and none in the Public Gallery. It swelled to 13 by the time he had finished, but we are now down to three in the Public Gallery.
Size is not the only problem facing this House at the moment and, to my mind, it is by no means the most important. It has been said many times—and there are plenty of examples—that the House of Commons has no idea about, and very little interest in, how this House works. This was confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Radice, a moment or two ago. He admitted that he had had no idea how this House worked but, now that he is here, he sees the benefits of it.
The Burns report recommends a membership of 600. I am firmly in the Boothroyd camp and have been saying consistently for many years that this number is far too big. There is no justification for 600. In 2014, the Labour Peers’ Working Group produced a report recommending 450. I wonder why so many Labour Peers are now happy to increase that by 33% to 600. We need to consider what the right number should be.
The Labour Party report of 2014 based its figure of 450 on the concept of a working Peer. This is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, does and says in his report. If we are going to base our figures on working Peers, the nature and character of this House has to change. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, said that the 600 figure would possibly increase the average attendance. I totally agree; I think it would increase. The average attendance at the moment is 484. If the Prime Minister accepts the proposal and ups her allocation to 600, this House will have an average daily attendance of well over 500. Members will be here for a 15-year term; they will be encouraged to come and there will be many more Peers in the Chamber on a more regular basis, taking part more often.
The report also highlights a problem identified by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that those who are further away would be penalised. However, the current system penalises those who are further away. When I lived in Caithness, I had a major difficulty in getting down here. If the Chief Whip wanted me to be here on a Monday afternoon, I had to leave home on the Sunday night to guarantee being here in time for the vote. That problem will be exacerbated in the future.
Rightly, there has been mention of the credibility and expertise of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, was the first to mention scientists, but there will be fewer and fewer spaces for such people coming from outside Parliament. It is worth noting that, much as I like some of the former MPs, there are far too many here. Since the 2015 election, 35% of appointments to this House have been of former MPs. That means that we will not have the scientists and professional people who should be here to broaden the base. This House depends on a broad base and the terms of the report will limit that.
I very much welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee said in the report about receiving a peerage but not having the right to sit in the House of Lords. I mentioned that in the debate on the report of the Labour Peers’ Working Group in 2014 and I thoroughly endorse it.
I shall move on quickly to the timetable. Eleven years is far too long. In 1999, most of the hereditary Peers were removed at a stroke. It was painful but it worked. In effect, it removed 90 working hereditary Peers, leaving 90 working hereditary Peers behind. I believe that if the House wants to limit the number to 600, we should do it straightaway. It is the best way to tie in the Prime Minister. We could do it virtually before we return on 8 January next year. I end with a quotation. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, quoted “Othello”; perhaps I may quote “Macbeth”:
“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly”.
My Lords, I thoroughly agree with and welcome this report. It is an excellent piece of work. It has been called “ingenious” in this House and it thoroughly deserves that term. However, I have two reservations or concerns about it which I want to mention to your Lordships—and, as I always try to do on such occasions, I will try to suggest some possible remedies if the House were to agree that they were potential problems.
The first relates to the election of hereditary Peers. The report is uncharacteristically abdicatory when it comes to that subject. It mentions that, as a result of its proposed model, the one group of Peers that will increase in size in this House is the hereditary Peers. I think that that would be seen by the outside world as absurd, ridiculous and crazy. It would be a gift to anybody who wanted to rubbish either the reform of this House or the existence of the House at all—so I do not think that we can leave that aside.
It is much easier to deal with the problem of the potential election of people who have not yet been selected or identified and the problem of too many people sitting in this House at any one time. It ought to be possible for us to take action on the election of hereditary Peers without causing any distress or sense of injustice to any individual. So I hope that we can be very robust. Personally, I think it should be possible for us simply to refuse to introduce any more hereditary Peers who are elected in that fashion, and certainly to deny them allowances or offices if it comes to that. However, the most effective way would be simply to say, “I’m afraid we’re not prepared to arrange any introduction ceremony”. Surely that is within our scope and does not require legislation. Of course, on this and every other matter, it would be far better if we could have legislation; I am just assuming, as the report does, that we will not have legislation.
The second problem that I foresee is the manner of selection of those who in the future will be asked or encouraged to leave the House. The suggestion in the report is that it is a matter for the convenor of the individual parties, or at least for the parties themselves. Two possible ways of doing this have been mooted. One is that the Chief Whip in each party draws up a list of his own Members and speaks to the ones whom he wants to get rid of, using some kind of moral pressure to get them to resign. This is not a criticism of any Whip, because inevitably all Whips have behaved like this since the beginning of time. The agenda of any Whip would be to try to get rid of people who are more difficult and unpredictable—I may possibly be speaking in my own interests here—and to keep people who are malleable, amenable and do what is asked of them without creating too many problems. I do not think it is right to try to make the character of the House evolve in that way.
The alternative proposal is that there should be elections in each party group, in which we would all decide ourselves who to throw out of the balloon. That might also have some very damaging unintended consequences. It would change the spirit of the House. For months on end there would be a sense of everybody fighting an election for survival. An awful lot of conversations—
Well, when one is looking at a new model or proposal, inevitably some of the dangers that one envisages are theoretical—one does not know whether they would eventuate or not—but I want to share with the House my concern on that. As somebody was saying, there are too many MPs here, and certainly anybody from a political background knows immediately how people respond when there is some suggestion of an election. So I think it is asking too much to expect Members of the House not to be concerned with their own survival and not to allow that to influence conversations with colleagues, or even their political and public acts, comments and so forth. It would be extremely undesirable, so that is not the right way forward.
I said that I would try to make a suggestion as to how that might be dealt with. It would be much better if we adopted more objective criteria. There is one easy trick: in recent times there have been quite a lot of people who have not appeared in the House for at least half the number of days on which the House was sitting. I have the figures from the Library. In 2015, 391 Peers participated or came to the House for less than half the time when the House was sitting. In 2016, it was 356. People who do not come to the House on even half the days on which it sits are not displaying the commitment that it is reasonable to expect of anybody who is a member of a legislature anywhere in the world. He or she would not be up to speed with what is going on and what people are thinking in the House.
There would be much merit in adopting a rule in future—we cannot do it retrospectively—that people who do not appear on at least half the occasions when the House is sitting should be asked to resign. People will say that that may have a disproportionate effect on one political group or another, but the report suggests a way of coping with that problem: the number of new Peers allocated could be modulated so as to restore any imbalance that had occurred following the application of the rule.
My Lords, I am happy to support the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of this House because it is a practical way of making progress on the numbers in your Lordships’ House. It is not perfect and does have some holes, but it is a pragmatic response to a problem that I hope can be solved.
I came into this Chamber for the first time 10 years ago this year. On being invited in, I was unsure what I was getting myself into. Was the House of Lords now out of date, an anachronism no longer suited to serving the modern world? Did those arguing for a representative Chamber have a point? Ten years on, while the House is not perfect—nothing is—I am now more sure than ever that this appointed House has an important contribution still to make in a haphazard world that is in danger of losing its roots. Of course, I am now no longer of independent mind, as a member of the club. But it is my view, based on observation and practice, that this is a pearl of great price worth protecting.
It is a privilege sometimes to sit here and listen to impressive speeches of experienced and wise people. Where else in our society would you be able to listen to the amazing speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, as we did recently during the most reverend Primate the Archbishop’s debate on education? Where else would you hear, in the same debate, the contribution of a former Bishop of London,
“the noble, reincarnated and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres”,—[Official Report, 8/12/17; col. 1284.]
as the Archbishop referred to him, now on the Cross Benches, worrying away about a society in danger, in this technological age, of losing its moral compass and shared narrative—about the real danger, as technology invades our lives, of society becoming a crowd of atomised individuals?
These two speeches did not happen by chance; they reach back into several thousand years of human history and experience. Where else would you hear, in the same debate, the sense of urgency of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, chastising us all and himself about our lack of focus on schools in the north of England? I am working with schools in the north of England at the moment, and the noble Lord is right to worry away and disturb us all with his questions. Where else would you hear the emotional debate last Wednesday, on day 2 of Report on the Data Protection Bill, between those arguing for the freedom of the press, post Leveson, and those worrying about how little has actually changed since that inquiry, and the effects still of the behaviour of some of the press on the lives of ordinary people who are not in positions of power and who sometimes have to live with a made-up story about their lives broadcast across our national media for the rest of their life, when of course the press and lawyers have moved inexorably on to the next story and the next case? On the amendment I listened to, it came down to an excellent and emotional debate about one word: “necessary”.
The report before us today seeks a practical way to protect this Chamber and our important work from ridicule and misunderstanding. It is right to do so. Size does matter, but size and structure are one thing; what we must all focus on and protect is the calibre and experience of those people who are called to sit in this Chamber going forward. Six hundred is a sensible number, but at the end of the day your Lordships’ House is not centrally about numbers but about people. The modern world is all about people and relationships: this Chamber is all about ensuring that the right people with great practical experience and wisdom can contribute to our detailed debates and this country’s democratic process. How do we ensure that our systems and processes—and, indeed, Prime Ministers—understand and respect the functions of this House, and ensure that only the best and most experienced in their particular field sit here? I would have liked to have seen more in this report about the people question, because it is this question, I suggest, that will both define our future and our relevance going forward. It is all about people, and the future of this House is all about ensuring that we have the right people with the right balance of wisdom and practical experience over time.
I turn to a couple of practical matters. I am not sure how this report will help protect the independence and numbers on the Cross Benches, when party political Peers seem to be joining our Benches in increasing numbers. Possibly the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has an answer. If this is a trend, how does it impact on our numbers? Those of us who are genuine independents cherish the clarity of our position and our appointments process. Our independence really matters. How will this work in practice and be perceived on television by the outside world? Have I missed something? Quite possibly.
Secondly, post Brexit this country will have to stand on its own feet and make its way in the world. This is a time when we will need to embrace those of an entrepreneurial spirit, with sound business acumen. I sometimes worry, if I am honest, that the Cross Benches at present have a large contingent of excellent people whose experience has been in the public and charitable sectors rather than the business and entrepreneurial world. Business experience and practice will now become crucial as our country moves forward. I may be wrong, but this should be tested. The Victorians understood the significance of these entrepreneurial people and their place in the institutions of this country. A younger generation understands it, too.
It seems that we are going to give the Prime Minister an opportunity this afternoon; the future of this House and of our constitution will then sit with her. I wish her well as she deliberates and I hope that she takes it: it may never come again.
My Lords, it is gratifying to see how many Members of the House of Lords are participating in this debate—approximately one in eight, I suggest. I suspect that it is not just because of the important nature of the debate, but possibly because some of us feel an element of self-interest. Perhaps I should confess to that. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, referred to survival.
I would broadly welcome the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. He has done very well. I congratulate him and his committee. I have two small caveats. First, 15 is an unfortunate number, because one wants to get away from a multiple of five, given the Fixed-term Parliament Act. It is a small matter—noble Lords may think it is one of perception—but I think it is of concern. Secondly, 600 is still pretty large. I would be aiming lower, for a target of 400 or 450.
While I welcome this report, it begs a very important question. If most people believe that there should be a time-limited term for future Peers, what about current Peers? What about all of us? It sounds a bit like the drawbridge being pulled up behind. The debate last September was about reducing the size of the House, and most people agreed that it was far too big. I expected to hear all those speeches ending in, “And therefore I volunteer to be the first to leave”. I was disappointed.
I would draw attention to the so-called Nolan principles of public life. Many Members here will remember when they were drawn up some 20 years ago. The first is selflessness. The last is leadership. Should we not all be prepared to show both on this issue and lead the way selflessly, if of course we accept the principle of a time limit?
My own view is that a time limit is probably right. I will indeed volunteer if everybody else does to leave, just for the benefit of doubt. I would put a time limit of say 13, 17, even 22 years, if it engendered more support. But it should be retrospective on us all, not just people in future. There could be a totally independent mechanism for those that are concerned. An arm’s-length committee that is not political might allow an extension, of five or perhaps 10 years, for people who really add value to this place—not necessarily superannuated MPs like myself and one or two others sitting around here, but people who have exceptional value in their contributions to this place.
To build on the report, I would say that we should also be looking at a self-denying ordinance amongst hereditaries and among the Bishops to reduce their numbers as well, perhaps to 14 Bishops and perhaps to 50 hereditaries. I am sure that this is possible. It is not beyond the wit of man for everyone to sit down without legislation and reduce these numbers.
I return to my main point. If we accept the logic and the principle of a time limit, it should surely apply to us all. I was very struck by the argument of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who speaks with great experience and knowledge. His call for prime ministerial restraint is very sensible. Nevertheless, I still cling to the idea that we should have a time limit. I shall tell you for why. Of course, we are all exceptional here. That is why we are here, is it not? We are outstanding public servants; we have great experience; and we make magnificent contributions to public debate et cetera. But perhaps there are others who are just as capable. Perhaps if we went, other capable people could contribute just as well. We should give them a chance.
I have little expectation of overwhelming support for retrospection for those of us sitting here—I know, by the way, how to make friends in this place by suggesting it—but it is the logical and principled way forward in which we would show both leadership and selflessness.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Burns and his colleagues wholeheartedly on their report. They have shown consummate skill in navigating the perilous course between the fatal Scylla of proposals which would require legislation and the equally disastrous Charybdis of an approach which could not command support in the House itself. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has outdone even Odysseus in achieving this feat without losing a single member of his crew.
I also pay tribute to the Lord Speaker for initiating the work of the committee and to the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Norton, for the work of their campaign, of which I am delighted to be a member. In my view, the report is as balanced, reasonable and fair as it would be possible to expect. Other adjectives we have heard today, all of which I agree with, include “wise”, “ingenious”, “elegant”, “imaginative”, “pragmatic” and “cunning”.
I strongly believe in establishing a fixed term for membership of this House. I myself have no intention to stay for more than 15 years, and look forward to being followed to the exit by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. I do not propose to address other specifics of the report. Any quibbles I may have about details—and they are very few—are outweighed by my belief that the package as a whole represents the most practical approach to tackling our excessive numbers and by my hope that it will lead to action. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, this is the only show in town and we should sign up for it.
There seem to be two critical challenges in implementing the report. The first is persuading the Prime Minister to give the required undertaking to appoint no more new Members than there are vacancies under the proposed two-out, one-in system. I recognise that this calls for a laudable and brave self-denying ordinance on her part. If that commitment is made, I for one would be more than content to see an end to hereditary elections as a subsequent step. I am encouraged by the relatively few new peerages created since Mrs May took office but somewhat concerned by reports that more are planned in the near future.
The second challenge is whether enough of us in this House are prepared to back the report’s proposals, despite any qualms we may have, and whether the parties and other groups can deliver on the need to reduce their numbers in line with the proposed targets. I hope this debate will demonstrate a willingness on our part to accept the challenge and will create the impetus and momentum to drive the process forward at some speed.
One thing I would urge is that the implementation process should be supported by a strong communications plan designed to ensure that Peers, MPs, civil society, the press and the public understand our determination to tackle the issue, how we are seeking to do so, and the constraints within which we are working. We need to make it quite clear that we recognise the problem and are doing all that is in our power to fix it. Those of us, like me, who believe in the constitutional importance and value of the role performed by this House must surely be concerned that its effectiveness is undermined in the eyes of the public by some of its features, one of which is its sheer size.
Unlike others, this is one issue which we ourselves can do something about, and the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has shown us clearly how. If we fail to grasp this opportunity now, I fear that we may eventually find a solution imposed upon us that could be much less satisfactory, less balanced, less reasonable and less fair than the approach of the Burns report, and one that could leave this House much less effective in providing scrutiny, advice and insight to government and a valuable service to the nation.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the members of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the report, and support its recommendations. In the absence of a written constitution, this House and the other place are reliant for our effectiveness on broadly shared values, trust and conventions. Hitherto, this reliance has nearly always served us well and, for the proposals in this excellent report to be effectual, respect for convention in the future will be essential. I have every hope and confidence that that respect will be forthcoming.
I have no quibble over points of detail in the report. I think 600 is an appropriate number of Peers for us to discharge our duties. The formula for reflecting the political views of the country over a period of time is by far the best suggested hitherto, based as it is on the work of my noble friend Lord Jopling, who is in his place. A fixed term of 15 years for new Peers is about right; it may be a little short. The proposals for the Cross Benches and retired Supreme Court justices are, in my view, unimpeachable. Consideration of the composition and statutory basis or otherwise of the House of Lords Appointments Commission is important but is a matter for another day because unreviewable discretion is an extremely controversial subject.
This House discharges its functions, I think by universal acknowledgement, effectively. The committee’s proposals, if implemented, will maintain that effectiveness and perhaps enhance what I have noted from a number of perspectives over several decades to be broad public support for our constitutional role, despite the occasional passing cloud in opinion polls. The objective of this debate is to establish whether there is widespread support for the committee’s proposals. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the committee well in the forthcoming process of reaching agreement on the way forward with the main parties and others involved, and I look forward to our implementing the proposals which emanate from that process.
My Lords, I have known the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for some 30 years as a friend and I have always admired his ability to win people over by the power of persuasion. That quality he and his fellow committee members have shown in abundance with this brilliant report, and I, like other speakers in this debate, congratulate them.
My most earnest hope is that this report will not go the same way as an earlier Burns report on another British institution, which in that case was oversized, outdated, unrepresentative and predominantly white, male and middle-class. I am referring, of course, to the English Football Association. Despite early indications in 2006 that the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, were to be accepted in full, so little progress was made that the noble Lord appeared in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee five years on, and the report in the Guardian of that session carried the headline:
“Lord Burns accuses FA of losing plot over regulation.”
As numerous speakers in this debate have already said, this may be the last opportunity we have to address the challenges facing this place, and I urge us not to lose the plot.
We have to work hard to win appreciation outside this place of the value of what we do and of our ability to hold the Government to account and to give the elected House the opportunity to think again on aspects of legislation that it may not have had the time to consider in depth by drawing on the expertise of individuals with a lifetime’s knowledge and achievement in examining complex subjects and policy areas. These are the attributes of this place which give the House legitimacy. I frequently make the point, particularly when I am talking to school groups in the outreach programme, that while democratic elections are one means of conferring legitimacy on an assembly, they are not the only one.
However, as the Burns report and today’s debate demonstrate, there is one aspect of our existence which has to change. There are simply too many of us. With almost 100 speakers in today’s debate, there are inevitably many points of view, but very little disagreement on that essential principle. In view of that, I was depressed to read in Friday’s Times, and to see repeated in the Daily Express yesterday, a story with the headline, “New peers to be appointed ‘in weeks’”, which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to this morning. The report said:
“Theresa May is expected to appoint new peers ‘within weeks’ as she seeks to shore up support in a House of Lords emboldened by her Brexit defeat”.
There followed a list of former MPs who retired or lost their seats at the election, and the comment:
“The move will improve Mrs May’s position in the Lords before the EU withdrawal bill moves across”.
It is hard to think of anything that would do more to undermine the credibility of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, than such a move on the Government’s part. I hope that in due course we will get a categorical denial from the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that anything of the sort is being planned. She and particularly her Chief Whip know that in a balanced House, as we are, with no party majority, you do not win votes by packing in more of your own Members, but by making a real effort to win the argument. I am sure she appreciates, as everyone else here does, that if we are to reduce the size of this House, the party leaders have to exercise self-restraint in the appointment of new Peers. Otherwise, not only would we never get near a total membership of 600, we could see our numbers ballooning northwards beyond 1,000, as the Lord Speaker has wisely reminded us.
Like many noble Lords, I have my own ideas for reducing the size of this House. I will not delay the House by talking about them now, but I am particularly attracted by the idea of ministerial Peers: colleagues who come in to do a ministerial job, but then disappear when they cease to have that job. This point was made very forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminister. If some of these Ministers decide they want little to do with this place after they leave office, they should be encouraged to resign at the same time as they step down as Ministers.
What is abundantly clear is that there is overwhelming support for reducing the size of this House and that the very best of the many solutions put forward to how to achieve that are in the Burns report. I support it unreservedly.
My Lords, when I saw so many noble Lords had put their names down to speak in this debate—almost an embarrassingly large number—I wondered whether I should add mine. Having listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Scone, give the statistics on the age of the House, I learned that I am also a giddy youth in this place, which was described as a gathering of elders by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, earlier in the debate.
I thought I would speak because last time we debated this issue, I expressed the view that the number of Peers was a distraction from the real issue, which is that very few people outside this House know what we do, how we do it or why we do it—a point the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, made quite powerfully earlier, as did other noble Lords. At that time, I sought out the loudest advocates of reducing our number and asked them for the practical or principled reasons why it should be reduced, but even they told me that the problem was essentially cosmetic. But that was before we had this excellent report. I have now studied, considered and discussed it at length with fellow Members of this House, and my view is that we should wholeheartedly support it. Discussions across the House, and with very few exceptions the speeches in this debate today, make it evident that many others also support that point of view. I will just make three points in the time available to me.
The first in a way harks back to my earlier position. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, wants us to be loved; the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, seeks to protect our reputation, as did a number of other speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I very much doubt that culling 200 Members from this place will make us loved, nor do I think it would probably cool the blood lust of those who would go far further than that. I use the next phrase metaphorically, with no reference to the right reverend Prelates, but throwing a bunch of Christians to the lions did not typically, in the Romans’ experience, cause the crowd to call for less of the same. My real point there is the lack of understanding, and whether we are 200, 600, 400 or 800 makes very little difference. It is simply that nobody knows, and fewer care, what we do. That is something we should be addressing.
My second point is something that many have already spoken about. The wide support for this report among pretty much everyone I have spoken to and among most who have spoken today is predicated on what happens at the other end. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, made this point, and many others echoed it. I think his phrase was that we need a “cast-iron” guarantee that the Prime Minister will resist the temptation, as we pull the plug at this end and 200 of our Members are flushed away, to simply turn on the taps at the other end. I sincerely hope this is something the Leader will take back to the Prime Minister as a very firm message from this House. I believe that without that message being taken back, the support in this House would be a good deal more muted than it has been today.
I have been tempted into dangerous waters here: I want to say a word on the hereditaries, being one myself and a beneficiary of the hereditary by-elections. Yes, the hereditaries took a huge cull in the past and no other group has had to do that, but I think it would be wrong for the hereditaries and the bishops to stand aside at this time and not bring our experience more into line with what other groups in this House are experiencing. Whether that is to do with the by-elections or a more general haircut and the continuation of the elections is not for today, but it would not be right for the hereditaries or the bishops to just stand aside because we are, if you like, protected by the need for legislative change.
I agree with those who have said that having a top honour that is not a public service job—which being in this Chamber is—is a good idea. I would only appeal for us not to call it a peerage. That would lead to confusion or even abuse. Let us have a top honour—a reward—and public service in this House, but let us not give them the same name. The point may seem petty, but I fear that it would be very open to abuse.
My Lords, it is difficult when you rise at this stage in the debate to know how to cover things that are new, and I do not want to repeat many of the comments that have been made by many other people in the Chamber today during the debate. I would merely say at this stage that I agree very much with what has just been said by the noble Lords, Lord Cromwell and Lord Mawson.
I look back 34 years ago plus one month when, as a new Member of Parliament for Bristol, I stood up at Business Questions for the first time in the other Chamber and asked if we could have a debate on reducing the number of Members in the House of Commons. Thirty-four years on, there has been no reduction. As I say, I was MP for Bristol. Rather than going back a mere 50 years to Visconti, as my noble friend Lord Grade referred to earlier, if one goes back 230 years there was another much greater MP for Bristol, one Edmund Burke, who advocated that in terms of the British constitution we should adapt to change while affirming traditional values. That is what I think the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, achieves so admirably. I could therefore describe the report as positively Burkean.
The only comment that I want to make goes back to what I said just now about the number of MPs. By any measure—the noble Lord, Lord Horam, referred to this in part earlier—this country is overgoverned. We have too many Members of this and the other House, and too many Ministers. I hope that by the rapid implementation of the Burns report this House can lead the way.
My Lords, I am conscious that we are far into this debate. I intend to try to make two brief preliminary points and one more substantive point. The preliminary points arise from things that have already been said. The first is about the idea of a 15-year membership. One of the consequences of that is that effectively people are not going to come in until they are pretty well retired and have reached the point where they have sufficient pension put away to look after themselves, so I think that would inevitably make it an older grouping; indeed, that fits in well with some of the things that have been said about retired MPs. The second preliminary point is about the London allowance. We are going to get a system whereby people are really going to have to have retired and are going to have to stay in London. Whatever else is said about the composition of the Lords, that does not seem to make for a satisfactory House covering the whole country.
My more substantive point arises from the submission that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and I put in. We said that, “to change the composition of the House more in line with the elected House would, after all, give the House a degree of electoral authority, albeit indirectly, and would perhaps increase the willingness of the second Chamber to challenge the first. That would be a fundamental constitutional change and hardly something that should be done by a change in Standing Orders of the upper House”. When you look at the electoral arithmetic of past elections—I am grateful for Appendix 3 of the report, on historical modelling, because it produces some very revealing insights—it turns out that on historic modelling the highest number of seats that Labour would ever have had in this House would have been after the electoral triumph of October 1959. The second highest would be after another electoral triumph—May 2010. When Labour actually won, in May 1997, we would have been more than 150 seats behind the combined total of the Conservatives and Liberals.
My contention is that if we are to be able to describe what happens as giving a degree of elective authority to the House, albeit over three elections, this House will be representative in a countercyclical way. On a number of occasions there will be a big majority for the people who have just lost the election. I do not see how we can safely do that and stick to the current constitutional understanding that this House does not directly challenge the directly elected House—so my nervousness about this is very considerable. It is compounded by the fact that—mea culpa—our submission said that we should do that by changing the Standing Orders of this House. But if we are to change the effective balance between this Chamber and the other place, I do not believe we should be entitled to do that by changing our own Standing Orders. I think it has to be done with the agreement of the other place. I have changed my view on that—but our proposal was not such a fundamental change. If we are going to change the balance of power between this House and the other place, as I believe these proposals would, that is a matter for both Houses to consider.
My Lords, I support the Burns report. With respect to those who take a different view, the case for reducing the size of the House of Lords is overwhelming and unanswerable. Many different reasons have been advanced this morning and this afternoon, and I share them—but there is this to be added. We are virtually facing a constitutional absurdity. This House has its responsibilities—its constitutional responsibilities—but the other place has the ultimate power. The House with no ultimate power—this one—has significantly more Members than the House down there, with powers, has.
You can argue as long as you like about all the justification for that situation, but in the end, I respectfully regret, you cannot avoid concluding: how can this be? What kind of situation has allowed this to develop? It does not matter how it has developed—I shall come to that in a moment—but we have to do something about it, or to put it the other way, something has to be done, to address what I would say is very close to an absurd constitutional situation.
How has that come about? My favourite quotation has been pinched by the noble Lord, Lord Grade, and my second favourite has been pinched by—forgive me, I cannot remember which Conservative Peer quoted it, but it comes from Macbeth. Now I have dredged up another one. John Dunning, in 1780—a bit of history lightens the mood, does it not?—when we were making a complete Horlicks of the American war of independence, led a resolution in the House of Commons, to the effect that,
“the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”.
That is precisely why I support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Burns.
The influence of the Crown has increased in so many ways relating to our constitution as a whole. If I had time I would set off for a long journey, but I do not. Let me relate it to this issue. Mr Blair and Mr Cameron as Prime Ministers exercised the royal prerogative. I respectfully suggest that their exercise of it was so wide, so deep and so numerous as to come very close to an abuse of our constitution. If the monarch had exercised her prerogative—in medieval times it would have been his prerogative—in that way, he would have suffered the fate of Edward II or Richard II. They did not do with it. We now face a situation in which we have come close to a constitutional absurdity, and there is no measure except prime ministerial self-denial that can interfere with this exercise—an abusive exercise, in two cases—of prime ministerial power. We do not have the power; the Commons could, on an Act of Parliament—but who is going to introduce that? So we have to persuade, encourage, cajole and ask the Prime Minister to address this constitutional absurdity.
In 1719, a proposal was put forward from this House by the Duke of Somerset that there should be a cap on the number of Members of the House of Lords. The suggestion was 235; in those days, there were 345 constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland. Everybody agreed except the Commons. Here we are again, 300 years on; in our ancient constitution, 300 years is but the blink of an eye. And what we are really proposing—or what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is proposing—is that there should be a cap on the number of Members of the House of Lords. There are 54 weeks to 2019. Why do not we celebrate the 300th anniversary of the issue first being proposed by implementing it?
My Lords, I cheer the wise words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, that we are close to a constitutional absurdity. I am also fairly certain that I sent the longest submission to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. It was 30 pages long and more than 11,000 words. It had dozens of detailed Excel spreadsheets attached and took me many weeks—indeed, months—to write. I produced what I thought were impeccable arguments for a retirement age of 80 and removal of Peers who had failed to attend fewer of 20% of the sittings of the last Parliament. That would have removed 220 Peers at a stroke. I considered the 15-year term option and creating Peers based on a combination of MPs’ seats won and share of the vote, and I rejected it. I was rather pleased with my magnum opus.
Now we are faced with the committee’s report, and I have no hesitation in saying that I completely endorse it—it is a masterful piece of work. The report highlights the biggest flaws in my fixed retirement age recommendation, namely that political parties would send us younger people, under 50, so they would serve at least 30 years. I have to admit that after 15 years the expertise that we formerly had begins to get a bit rusty, so that term limit may be about right. I also completely endorse the committee’s views on hereditary and new Minister Peers. I think that it cleverly takes the issue out of the question. If a political party replaces an hereditary, it simply comes out of the overall quota, and there is one less life peerage available. In my opinion, the system of electing replacement hereditaries in this House has given us some of the most hardworking and able Peers in this House, on all sides. I would also say that the hereditary problem is one for the Conservative Party to address internally, and come up with possible solutions.
I turn to a part of the report that I consider very important, and the key to ensuring that numbers do not inexorably rise once again. In my submission, I made a very strong point about creating what I called non-legislative Peers. I said:
“We should accept that Prime Ministers need to grant peerages not just because they want bodies in the Lords but because they need to reward achievement in the same way as others receive other honours. Being granted the title ‘Lord’ or ‘Baroness’ is a great reward in itself and I can see merit in Prime Ministers being able to grant a peerage and the title Lord or Baroness to some who would not be entitled to sit in the Lords.
I cannot define a category of these people but it may be those in business, or retired from the civil service or over a certain age who deserve the glory of the title but do not want to participate for 70% of more of Lords’ sittings. I believe we can all look round this House and see colleagues on all sides who have wanted the great honour of being a Peer of The Realm but do not want to participate much or at all in the legislative process. I am certain that this suggestion would give Prime Ministers the flexibility they need to create peerages without flooding the House of Lords with new peers”
That is what I said in my submission, and I am therefore delighted to see that the committee endorses that point and states in paragraphs 24 and 25 that the Life Peerages Act can already permit it. That is excellent news, but it has not received nearly enough attention in the debate so far, nor enough prominence in the report. I urge the Lord Speaker, the political parties, and the leaders of all groups to really make sure that Prime Ministers understand this point. They can dish out the gongs in future but they do not have to flood this House.
I am glad that there is no greatly increased role for the House of Lords Appointments Commission, except doing the statistical calculations after an election, assisted, I assume, by our excellent clerks. The report suggests a sensible timetable to bring about change but we need the flexibility to move more quickly if circumstances permit. I have in mind the possibility of decanting out of Parliament to the QEII in 2023 or 2024. As one or two other noble Lords have mentioned, I suspect that there may be a big rush of Peers wishing to retire then. HOLAC therefore needs the flexibility to adjust the process to reduce numbers to 550 or even 500 if there is a rush of Peers retiring under any circumstances.
Finally, this report is not what I argued for but it is better than the case I put up. I am willing to give the committee’s solution a go since I cannot see any better one on the horizon, now or in the future, although at one point I thought my noble friend Lord Robathan was going to argue for some celebrity TV show—“I’m a Peer, Get Me Out of Here!”. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues on the committee. This is the blueprint for a far better Chamber, which will earn respect from most sensible critics, and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, like every noble Lord who has spoken, I too warmly congratulate the Lord Speaker’s committee on its report. Under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, this committee has at last produced a practical way for your Lordships’ House to begin the process of reducing its numbers to the suggested target of 600, and above all, so long as this is fully backed by this House and ultimately by Parliament itself, without the need for any form of legislation. Given the sanity of the proposals, and the fact that most of those who have already spoken are supportive, I would be very surprised indeed if the Government are not already onside, meaning that your Lordships could indeed begin their short Christmas Recess in cheerful spirits, knowing that those entering via the Burns method will have already agreed to serve no more than 15 years before retiring from your Lordship’s House.
As others have suggested, with that example, it will be open to all noble Lords, right across the House, who have already reached that 15-year milestone to look for a moment, which is convenient both for themselves and for the group to which they belong, to retire and in so doing contribute actively to the House achieving its 600 refreshment target at the earliest possible moment.
Finally I again congratulate the Lord Speaker’s committee, and especially its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for its invaluable report, which so admirably points your Lordships’ House in a sane and sensible direction for self-reform. The Lord Speaker is on the Woolsack: with him in that role we will not in future be in a position where the rest of the world has no idea what goes on in this House. We could not have a better advocate than him.
My Lords, almost exactly a year ago, your Lordships expressed the very clear view that the House of Lords was too big and ought to be reduced in size. At that point, there was clearly a danger of the whole thing being kicked into the long grass. We are therefore deeply grateful to the Lord Speaker for having taken the initiative and set up the Burns committee. Its report has almost universally been said to be extremely fine.
The report builds on the basic idea of a 15-year term, which had not been enormously advocated previously. It is very positive, although almost all the bases it is founded on are negative. There is to be no government majority, no length-of-service limits, no compulsory retirement and so on. There has been very wide support in the House this afternoon. We will need to check Hansard to see exactly how wide, but my impression is that support is at a level to which the Government should pay due attention in deciding where we should go next. I very much hope we can make rapid progress on implementing the report.
I was worried that there might be some opposition to the report from those who are still much preoccupied with having a wholly elected House. I was therefore heartened by the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who expressed a clear view that that should not take precedence over what is obviously a very important reform. The fact that it will make your Lordships more acceptable to the wider community does not mean that one cannot go ahead with the reforms simply because one would rather have a more radical reform. I am glad that that is so.
The Lords is concerned at its size. We need to ask why it should be cut. There are arguments about resources; the difficulty of getting in at Question Time; the fact that a larger House means stricter time limits on speeches; and so on. The Whips are able to cope with those problems but, at the same time, we need to recognise that the Lords can make progress only if it has the co-operation of the Government. It emerges clearly from the Burns report that there has to be a balance between the number of people who volunteer to retire, on the one hand, and the creation of Peers by the Prime Minister, on the other. It is important to stress that, if one is fit and still able to take part in your Lordships’ proceedings, making the decision to retire is very difficult. You seek to make a marginal reduction in the number of Peers by retiring, but even on the basis of two-out, one-in it is not a very significant change. It is difficult to give up the great privileges that one has as a Member of your Lordships’ House if one’s action is not effective because it is countervailed by action taken by the Prime Minister.
It is therefore very important indeed that we should have, without too much delay, a clear statement by the Prime Minister—it is, in a sense, her area of responsibility primarily—and the Government that they will clearly curtail new appointments, and impose a cap of the kind proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I hope the Government can make progress on that without too much delay.
The timescale envisaged by the report is that we will get some way to a steady state within 11 years. I think that is a reasonable objective and shows that we are determined to have a more effective chamber, as the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber has consistently said, and that we can bring about a reform which will establish this House on a far firmer basis than it has at present.
My Lords, I join the many people who have placed on record their appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his fellow committee members—and indeed to our Lord Speaker for his initiative. The result is practical and sensible in the predicament in which we find ourselves.
However, I must confess that there are parts of me that are very traditional, and I look back to earlier stages in my political life when I had the highest regard for the concept of royal commissions. I am quite concerned that this is another pragmatic, specific change to our constitutional way of operating, but we have no road map. We have no overview of where we are going with our constitution, what its challenges are and how far as a whole it meets the challenges of the 21st century. That is quite a serious issue.
I have believed for much of my life that structures are inanimate. In some archaic structures, excellent things happen because first-rate people operate within them. In other perfected structures, nothing much of significance happens because there is an absence of values, drive and imagination on the part of the people within those structures. We should not believe that we will find a solution on the future role of the Lords simply in the structural dimension. It is by our commitment, vision, drive and indeed challenge to the other place and society as a whole that we bring our contribution to the future. It is by that I am convinced that we will be judged—not just by how we tidy up the way in which we operate.
Four specific points arise from the debate to which I want to refer. I am a committed and active member of the Church of England, but I do not see how in 21st century Britain one can have one denomination of one faith represented by right in this Chamber, whereas others are not. Indeed, what about the humanists, the non-believers who are an increasingly significant part of our society? If we are talking about our credibility and acceptance in society, this matter cannot be dodged. We have to face up to the issues.
The second point is on the hereditary principle. I have the highest regard for some of the hereditaries. They do a first-class job in this place, but there is no way in the 21st century we can go on saying that people are here by hereditary right. That does not wash or help our credibility at all.
Then there is the point about how representative we are of society as a whole in the United Kingdom. We are south and south-east dominated in this Chamber. I am glad that my wife and I decided, for all sorts of reasons, to move from the south to the extreme north-west for this last chapter of our lives. I am seeing this increasingly powerfully. This place does not represent or carry weight with much of society away from the sophisticated south-east. If we are to talk about that and then talk about age credibility in this place, we must look at our terms of service. There is a question over how any able, committed person from whatever part of society can come here. We talk about expertise and experience but let us remember the expertise that lies in our trade union movement and working-class sections of our community. That is expertise and has tremendous validity for this place. How will we be able to make that change here in the House of Lords or change our terms of reference?
Lastly, I stress the point that my noble friend Lord Faulkner strongly made. Ringing around in the back of my mind are the words, “turkeys” and “Christmas”. We have been a bit loose in our language about the guarantees that will be required from the Government to make this proposed arrangement work. If they do not play their part, we will have damaged ourselves badly and shot ourselves in the foot. Therefore, we cannot concentrate enough on the specific questions: have we got guarantees or have we not? What do those guarantees really amount to?
I join those who have spoken in expressing my personal gratitude for the outstanding report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee, and for the initiative and farsightedness of the Lord Speaker in establishing it. I wholeheartedly—indeed, to use my noble friend Lord Butler’s expression, ardently—support it. I felt that that was all I should say but, having been brought up to give reasons for a view, perhaps I may, even at this late stage in the debate, give three.
First, this House cannot any longer afford to lay itself open to criticism because of its size. The British constitution needs this House, and its power and effectiveness should not be open to question. It is needed to revise legislation, as I have often found. In particular, the House is needed as a protector of the constitution and of the other weaker branches of the state, including the judiciary, when needed.
Secondly, it would be desirable to consider more far-reaching reform, but that requires legislation. It is unfortunate that for one reason or another, whether it be lack of time or of priority, legislation is not, on occasions, an option. Therefore, one has to cast around for an ingenious way in which to reform without legislation. In my experience, that has not impeded reform but furthered it, because it has shown the willingness of those concerned to adopt reform
My third reason is the ingenuity of the idea of a 15-year term. Modern careers are based not on a lifelong devotion to a particular subject but a much more varied career, often with a fixed term. The ingenuity of the report is its adoption of that aspect of modernity. I very much hope that this report can be taken forward as soon as possible.
My Lords, like all who have spoken, I warmly congratulate and thank the Lord Speaker for taking the initiative, and the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for taking that initiative forward. I agree with virtually everything that the committee has come up with, not least on the size at 600; the two out, one-in principle; the 15-year term for new but not existing Members; and the Cross-Benchers staying at the same percentage as at present in the House. I also agree that there should be no age limit. Here I cross swords with the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. As I said in the debate at this time last year, it would be a tragedy to throw brains and experience out with the bathwater.
I have two proposals for future consideration regarding the hereditaries and the Bishops. If the House were to get down to 600, that would mean the hereditaries going effectively from 90 to 80, and the Bishops from 26 to 23. Just how that is done—because it will require primary legislation—I know not; it is beyond my pay grade, but I have a feeling that it could be done.
The third proposal, where I warmly endorse what my noble friend Lord Forsyth and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, said, concerns non-attendance. I cannot see the justification for noble Lords who are presently in the House remaining in it if they cannot be bothered to turn up. The problems are obviously the primary legislation, to which I have already spoken, but also the Prime Minister’s consent. Many noble Lords have spoken about this. My feeling is that the present Prime Minister might well go along with it, but how could she ever bind her successors? That concerns me. I just do not see how any Prime Minister can bind their successor to something that is not in statute.
I finish as I did a year ago. One of the joys of this House is being able to agree wholeheartedly with noble Lords opposite—in this context, I look at the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra. All the soundings that I have taken, of which there have been many, convince me that when the time comes for our exodus from this building for the R&R—it may be in five years’ time; none of us knows exactly when—there will be a very significant exodus. It will be the tipping point. I can say now that I believe it will be my tipping point. It is not that I do not want to move to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre; it is just that it will be time to go. Those looking at this problem overall might care to conduct a non-binding survey of all Members of the House—could one have such a thing? I know not—just to see how many Peers think that they might leave when we move in, let us say, five years’ time.
My Lords, I think that most of us are embarrassed and often inconvenienced by the absurd size of our House, and so the Burns report is to be greatly welcomed. In nearly all respects it proposes a sensible, fair and practical way of reducing our numbers without having to resort to primary legislation. It recommends a cap of no more than 600 Peers and a method for how this could be achieved.
I have only one serious objection to this otherwise admirable report: it wishes to link the basis on which a number of new Members are appointed to the results of the previous election. It is not because I am a Liberal Democrat that I object to this in principle. I do not believe that the House of Lords should shadow the party politics of the Commons. In fact, I believe that the House of Lords is at its strongest and most influential when it seems to be at least one remove from party politics. Party politics, with their committed manifestos and bullying Whips, should remain the sole preserve of the Commons, remembering, of course, that, quite rightly, the Commons must continue to have precedence over the Lords.
The strength of our Chamber should reside in its make-up of wise men and women who collectively have knowledge and experience in all walks of life, and, between them, represent all parts of Britain, all sexes—there are more than two nowadays, noble Lords may have noticed—all races, all religions and most specialist interests in a place where party politics should be only incidental. Of course, party politics must be a consideration when attempting to balance the House, but should remain of secondary importance compared with the value and worth of the individual Members. That is why I am so against the insistence that new Members should be balanced in line with election results. Only a minority of us should be chosen for our political allegiance or our loyalty to a past Government.
At present, approximately 80% of all Peers are appointed by the Prime Minister, or with his or her approval, and only 20% by other means. I would like to see these percentages reversed. In fact, I would be happy to see over 50% of us sit as Cross-Benchers. The ability to appoint 20% of new Peers would still give the Prime Minister considerable influence over the Lords. I propose that, some time in the future, the majority of new Peers should be appointed by an independent Lords appointment committee—one that is much more powerful than the present one, whose only major role is to recommend a small number of Cross-Benchers. The new one would be responsible not only for vetting and appointing new Peers but at the same time would monitor the balance of the House. By “balance” in this case, I mean the different parts of Britain and the widest possible variety of skills and interests, with party allegiance being of secondary consideration. In time, it would build a body of distinguished people who would represent a real cross-section of British society. Maybe it could also have the power to regulate the behaviour of those few individuals who bring our House into disrepute. Clearly, it would be in a position to control the size of the House, ensuring that it kept below the presently recommended cap of 600.
However, I appreciate that nothing like this could be achieved without primary legislation and approval of the Government of the day. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, does not yet have the remit even to recommend future reforms of the Lords. Within its limitations, though, and in spite of my personal reservations, this report is a greatly needed step in the right direction and I hope very much that the House will support it.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Burns and his committee on their excellent report on the size of the House. Before I go further, I should say that I fully support the clear, pragmatic and sensible recommendations they have delivered to the House.
Since it is nearly Christmas, I would also like to thank our excellent Library staff for their background notes in support of this issue, which have been interesting and helpful. I had not realised that the House is, at the moment, only back to roughly the size it was a very long time ago—that is, when I was born in the mid-1950s. I had assumed that the controversy over the perceived ballooning size of the House was a recent issue. I found this recent historical context particularly helpful in reassuring me that it was justified to support this comparatively gentle pace of reduction to 600 over a period of 11 years. If I may tease the Library staff, I speak as a member of a group I feel they have neglected in their analysis. I have read long, and hugely impressive, lists of the oldest and youngest Members of your Lordships’ House, and even more impressive lists of the longest serving Members, but why was there no symmetry here? Where was the list of my group and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield—the shortest serving Members? As someone who was introduced almost exactly two years ago—actually, on 17 December two years ago—I agree that a period of appointment of 15 years seems sensible, and, indeed, would be happy it if applied to me as well. It is time to learn all those rules you do not find out about until you break them, time to develop competence, and time also to make a difference.
Therefore, there is just one further point that I would like to make. In doing so, I apologise to my noble friend Lord Burns and his committee, because, in a debate with 96 speakers, they are having to listen to the 96 things that they should have included in their excellent report. This must be a frustrating experience. I note that my noble friend Lord Burns pointed out at the beginning of this debate that diversity was not within the remit of his committee. However, my point is about the diversity of the House. I suspect the approach the report recommends will, at least initially, improve the diversity of the House. I have looked only at gender: but, for example, among Peers with the longest service—over 33 years—nine out of 50 are women—18%—compared with some 26% of women Peers today. However, I suggest that the parties appointing life Peers in the future should be asked to commit to diversity targets much broader than gender, in the way that my noble friend Lord Kakkar has told us that his House of Lords Appointments Commission does, to ensure that this House develops over time to look more like the country that we serve.
I repeat my strong support for the recommendations of this report and urge the House and, in particular, the Leader, not just to “take note” but to move rapidly to agree the next stage of “take action”.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for so expertly producing this analysis and for giving us the options for the road ahead and the basis for the decisions that I hope we will take. I am also grateful to the Lord Speaker for his initiative in setting up the committee.
As I go around the country and talk to people about the House of Lords, I increasingly find that they raise the question of the size of the Lords, partly due to media coverage. The public have cottoned on to the size question and are consoled when they raise it by my assuring them that we are tackling it. It is clear that we intend to do so by this very strong report and the very strong support that it is getting in the House. Moreover, many raised the point that they have been compelled to retire at a certain age—often imposed by their profession or company, or by Parliament itself—so why not us? Therefore, I thoroughly support all of the warm endorsements today of the committee’s work and most of the recommendations. There is clearly a strong consensus of support for the report in the House, a feeling that it provides an excellent basis for tackling the issue. I particularly agree on the importance of the point that Prime Ministers should not, in the future, undermine the whole system by appointing rafts of new Members, pushing the numbers back up again. It would be invidious and counterproductive if future Prime Ministers were to undermine the whole process by appointing more new Members than there were vacancies.
Having been wholly supportive so far, I have one reservation. There is, and increasingly will be, public concern that we are moving too slowly. As I understand it, the House, under these proposals, would only reach its target size of 600 in about 11 years. Only by 2042 would all serving Peers be on a 15-year fixed term. For many people outside the House, this would seem like a lifetime. It looks like, “Lord, make us virtuous, but not yet”. How can we speed it up? The problem here is that the committee imposed a condition of not seeking primary legislation to assist. I am not quite sure why, so perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Burns, will explain this further when he winds up.
There are two recommendations in particular that would shorten the timescale, but they would require legislation. That is controversial for some, but they certainly would quicken the pace to reduce the number to 600. First, about two years ago, the executive committee of the Association of Conservative Peers—I was chairman then—recommended that Members should compulsorily retire at the end of the Parliament in which they had reached the age of 80. That is entirely reasonable: retirement is in practice required earlier than that for most people in employment in the United Kingdom. It was generally supported by most ACP members who considered it and has also been proposed by the equivalent Labour Party committee. Of course, it was objected to by drawing attention to the valuable contributions made by some over-80s. I will very soon be in that category: not the valuable contribution makers, but the over-80s. I do not think that that is a major obstacle; the proposal is entirely reasonable. It requires legislation, but I think it would be accepted by most in the House. I certainly intend to abide by it voluntarily, which means that I will leave the House at the next election. To make it effective, however, legislation is required.
Secondly, the time has come—this is a personal view, and distinctly not an ACP recommendation—to tackle the question of hereditary Peers. It needs to be addressed. If the by-election system for hereditary Peers continues unamended, in a smaller House of 600, the number of hereditary Peers would make up a larger proportion of the membership than it does now. It cannot be justified in this day and age to give an especially favourable position to hereditary Peers. Of course I acknowledge that many hereditary Peers make an excellent contribution, but with a smaller House, the time has come for our by-election system to cease. That, together with the proposal for compulsory retirement at 80, will make it possible to have a smaller House more quickly. I hope that these points can be considered in addition to the proposals in the report, and I warmly recommend the report itself.