Motion to Take Note (Continued)
My Lords, I note that there is no one on the Government Front Bench who is connected with the Burns report. I will reiterate the point that has been made by many noble Lords that there are two main reasons this report is able to command such a consensus—and they have consequences, I think, for the way we go forward from the acceptance of the report and, I hope, the buy-in to the report from the Prime Minister. I think that the secret was, first, the excellence of the report itself. I will name not only the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues but the clerk, Tom Wilson, who I am sure played a very active part in making it a readable and very coherent presentation. It is a model of its type. I also join in the thanks to my noble friend Lady Crawley, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for their statesmanlike contributions. I hope that that accolade does neither of them any harm.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The secret comes also from the fact that the Cormack group, for quite a long period of time, showed considerable statesmanship in being ready for the moment when the constellation of the stars was such that a request to the Speaker to progress this matter was acted upon. The key in my view, and it comes to the operational side of the implementation of this, is that the leapfrogging between the three parties—the two major parties in particular—was becoming an embarrassment. No one could keep on asserting that somehow the increase in the size of the House had anything to do with the Members. Clearly, that would be a preposterous argument.
As a former TUC employee, I feel I should mention that the phrase “package deal” is something that people take to mean that you have to say yes or no to the totality of what you are presented with and take a view on it. On that basis, I have no doubt that this package will command overwhelming support. To use a popular phrase in the current debate about Europe, it cannot be cherry picked; it is a bit like the European internal market—I am the only speaker so far to have got Brexit into my speech.
It is very bold in some ways. I will ask the following question to anybody in the House who is competent to respond to it. In some ways, this report signals the end of the dissolution honours. Unless the numbers stack up at the time, there will be severe limitation on the prime ministerial prerogative, not just as a principle but in practice. I stress that because I think that it would be impertinent, almost, of the House to say that we want to see the end of the dissolution honours. However, as I understand it—perhaps someone could comment on whether I have understood the implementation arithmetic—there cannot be a dissolution honours in the traditional sense if the numbers do not make provision for that. It is against that background, but only against that background, that I have a limited degree of sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, who made the comment that he thinks that any new year list for 2018, in a couple of weeks’ time, could be seen as a legacy issue. That is not to move the goalposts, but the Labour/Conservative gap in the House is 50—250 versus 200—which is 25% if you do the arithmetic that way round, or 20% the other way around, and it is obviously bigger than the gap at the last general election. I just make that point.
I will make one more point about how, in the implementation period—a point touched upon by one or two other speakers—it is a coincidence that the reference to 15 years is the period of three Parliaments. It has other connotations, but in this case I think it would be useful for somebody to take on board the fact that there needs to be an implementation group, in some way or other, to see how and when the arithmetic would be done for the changeover of each new Parliament—if Parliaments are, in fact, averaging four years rather than five.
My Lords, numbers can paint a picture of a thousand words. Of almost 100 noble Lords who are speaking today, the average length of service is 14 years and the average age is 72. The gender balance, at less than 20%, is below the average of this House, as is the ethnic diversity. Interestingly, almost 40% are former MPs and MEPs. If you add former civil servants and hereditary Peers, the ratio increases to over half of all those wishing to make their voice heard. For the outside world, our deliberations might therefore appear as the establishment debating its own future. So I hope that your Lordships will forgive the temerity of a non-career parliamentarian who has served a mere 15 months in this House and is more than two decades below the average age in sharing some observations.
First, I add my support for the overall thrust of the report. It is in keeping with the great pragmatic British tradition of seeking voluntary change to pre-empt external imposition. I am familiar from my City experience with the takeover code: a voluntary set of rules governing public company mergers and takeovers, viewed by most practitioners as highly effective, where enforcement is by mutual consent among market participants rather than by legislation. Similarly, these reforms are a stake in the ground and, while there may be some imperfections and areas for improvement, we have to start somewhere and get ahead of events before they overtake us.
We should also recognise that these proposals are necessary but not sufficient. I will quote my noble friend the Leader of the House, who said:
“Any reform … must not be simply about numbers; it must result in this House working better in fulfilling our role effectively”.—[Official Report, 5/12/16; col. 589.]
I therefore wish to highlight five brief points that should logically be addressed, either as part of the current proposals or in the next phase of an evolutionary process of professionalising the House.
My first point is about legitimacy. For an appointed Chamber, this must inherently come from achieving a composition that reflects the full diversity of modern Britain. While there might be a natural political incentive to achieve such representation, it deserves a coherent framework. I therefore propose adding a third area of oversight for the House of Lords Appointments Commission beyond the two already identified in paragraphs 81 and 82 of the report. HOLAC should be asked to monitor formally the composition of the House and highlight areas of underrepresentation to the groupings. I believe that this is an extension of the role which it already performs informally.
My second point is about anachronisms. Other noble Lords can speak more knowledgeably about hereditary Peers, but I would make one humble suggestion to Lords spiritual: if they voluntarily reduce their numbers to increase the allocation of Cross Bench Peers, this might help facilitate representation of all major faith communities across Britain, whilst still giving prominence to the Church of England.
My third point is about the thorny issue of implementing voluntary retirements. This may prove to be a Pandora’s box, given the behavioural and adverse selection issues of managing people who cannot be formally unseated. It risks creating a new dynamic between Members and their party leadership which, as appendix 1 to the report states,
“might favour party loyalists and assiduous voters at the expense of members more willing to question or challenge their own parties”.
My fourth point is about younger Peers, both existing and prospective. There are currently 34 Peers under the age of 50. While the report articulated the disadvantages of a fixed retirement age, there is a de facto retirement date of 2042 implicit in paragraph 88, which most affects this group. I therefore propose a modification that would instead create a backstop date where any remaining life Peers by 2042 are shifted to a 15-year term, bringing them in line with newly appointed Members.
There is also a more fundamental question about the disincentives and opportunity cost for prospective younger Members to accept appointments to the House, unless they receive proper financial and administrative support. Assuming we proceed to the next phase of implementation, we should include younger Peers and those with substantial careers outside Westminster in drawing up the detailed rules.
This leads to my fifth and final point related to financial issues, where the report is largely silent, other than the veiled threat in paragraph 108 of withdrawing financial support to incentivise retirement. We should recognise, however, that membership of the House is not just a retirement activity for many Peers but a source of income, too. There are incentives and behaviours that flow from this reality. If we were a commercial organisation, financial inducements would be found for early retirement. Unfortunately, this is too toxic to contemplate. Similarly, there is merit in moving away from daily attendance allowances to fixed base fees and supplements for committee work, rather like non-executive directors.
To sum up, in my short time in this House I have come to appreciate its unique strengths as a second Chamber. With so much to offer, it would be a tragedy if we did not get on the front foot and shape our own destiny though sensible and enduring reform—not only of our numbers but, equally importantly, of our effectiveness, functions and financial arrangements.
My Lords, I would like to add my voice to the many expressions of thanks to our Lord Speaker for his early action following elevation to the Woolsack in initiating this committee. I extend those thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his fellow committee members. They have had a herculean task. The report’s recommendations are original and show an enlightened approach to the very real problem of numbers. But that said, I have to admit, echoing earlier comments, that it is difficult to add original comments when speaking on a single question and numbered 73 on the speakers list.
I have one or two observations: I would like to see greater regional representation in new appointments. Perhaps the Appointments Commission could consider this in some way. Also as set out in my own submission, I supported the suggestion of an age limit. Whether it is 80 years or something different I am not sure—I quite like the sound of 80—but only if there is a positive date attached which allows this House to request a five year extension for individual Members whose presence we would not wish to lose. Going off-piste slightly, I think that the Appointments Commission should be part of this, by being given more teeth, and perhaps a slightly redefined set of required criteria in assessing candidates or new applications.
Is a figure of 600 too many? The noble Lords, Lord Geddes, Lord Blencathra and others, have mentioned the possible move to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre as part of reconstruction and renewal. I feel quite strongly that that event, if it happens, is extremely likely to create its own cull on our numbers. There will be quite a few who just do not want the change and do not want to move. We should in that event prepare for departures.
I hope the Prime Minister is listening to this debate, so to speak. This is about statesmanship, not party politics. It will require considerable restraint to the powers of patronage, and I add my voice to those who have already asked the Leader of the House to report back in the clearest of terms.
I wholeheartedly support the committee’s recommendations. If we do not, we will drift on with bloated numbers—possibly growing numbers. In that case obsolescence and radical change may well occur. Without wishing to be alarmist, we have seen in the recent election the impact, or so we are told in the media, of social media on the Labour Party campaign in the general election. For us, in the event of the possibility of radical change, if orchestrated by malicious media, this could become a firestorm and imperil this Chamber as we know it. I say this simply because it is a subject that comes up in a cyclical fashion in the media, and we have to take control of the change.
I wholeheartedly support the committee’s recommendations. These reforms are vital. We must attempt to control the process if we can. I urge us all to initiate them from within.
My Lords, like many others in this debate, I echo general support for the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee’s ingenious report. I use the word ingenious in its old-fashioned sense. Since every Member of your Lordships’ House is an expert on this topic, it seems to me that consensual agreement must be impossible. Nevertheless, I believe that it is appropriate for the process of which this is part that it should proceed.
Having said that, in going forward to recalibrate the role and character of the second Chamber, I think, like my noble friend Lord Gadhia, that the report is a necessary but not a sufficient step. This is one of the reasons I do not want, at this point, in this debate, to drill down into it. Rather, I would like to go back to some remarks made at the outset by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, among others. It seems to me that this Chamber, and Parliament as a whole, in pursuit of family-friendly arrangements fail to recognise that what is friendly for the denizens of Greater London is often the opposite for those who, like me, live at the other end of the country. The House of Lords is not only for those from the south-east. The financial implications for those who may not previously have been in the City and live in Belgravia are quite different from those who have spent a lifetime, for example, as a social worker in Middlesbrough. The House of Lords is not only for those who are rich. Those who have pensions have very different financial circumstances from those who have to work, inter alia, to accrue them. The House of Lords is not only for those who do not have to work.
I urge that attention is given to these and similar points as we move towards a different type of House of Lords from the one we have now. We all know that membership of this House is an honour, a privilege and an obligation. But, as they say where I come from, it butters no parsnips, and that should not exclude suitable and qualified Members being able to join it.
My Lords, I am delighted to contribute to the debate on the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House, which I believe to be extremely positive in its conclusions and recommendations. I acknowledge the huge amount of work undertaken by the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. Like many other noble Lords, I am broadly supportive of the recommendations, particularly the reduction to 600 Members and the proposal that that should be capped in future, and that all new Members would normally serve a non-renewable term of 15 years. These are clearly consistent with the aims outlined in the report.
The report indicates that the committee considered the feasibility of recommending a retirement age but declined to do so. Yet as of 11 November our current membership has an average age of 69, with a range of 39 to 98. There are 296 Peers aged between 71 and 80. While I am fully aware that only a small percentage of people of advancing years develop cognitive decline sufficient to warrant difficulty at work, the majority of employers are in a position to recommend an occupational health assessment for workers above a certain age—to protect their employees, as well as those they serve. Judges now have a fixed retirement age and other people making major strategic decisions in a range of organisations and businesses are regularly required to undertake medical assessments to ensure their capability for their role. I wonder whether the committee discussed this, in line with the Nolan principles of public life. If so, perhaps we should seriously consider, in relation to the nature of our work, introducing such assessments, perhaps at 80 years of age. Of course, the vast majority of Peers of this age would meet the requirements, as can be seen by the quality of debates in this House on a daily basis. However, this would also provide public accountability of our collective responsibility as a House to demonstrate our fitness to practise, as other professions are required to do.
I will not talk much longer because other people have said the things that I hoped to say, but I reiterate the situation that my noble friend Lady Brown of Cambridge outlined. We came in at the same time, three days apart, and we both think it would be entirely reasonable to offer to retire at the end of a fixed term; neither of us will be 80 at that point. My reason is that I was appointed through the Appointments Commission process to help balance the House in terms of representation; in my case, predominantly nursing. By the end of 15 years, I would expect the House to benefit from a new Member with more contemporary knowledge of this field. I do not wish to suggest that I am not ably assisted with superb advice from relevant professional and charitable groups in relation to nursing. However, over time there is no substitute for recent, relevant occupational experience for people appointed in the way that I was. Therefore, I would like the House to consider not only a fixed term of appointment—at the very maximum, of 30 years—for new life Peers but a maximum period for current Peers from an agreed date, possibly 2022. This would still give the flexibility for Peers appointed for life to retire earlier but would also indicate to those who in future may be appointed only for 15 years that we are dealing with the reduction of our current membership in a fair and consistent manner.
I acknowledge the Speaker’s commitment to the principles of public life by calling for this review and commend the committee for producing an excellent set of recommendations, which I fully support. I believe that we need to work at a faster pace than the report indicates, in a manner consistent with the Nolan principles of public life I referred to earlier, particularly in relation to selflessness and leadership.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Lord Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for the report, which makes eminently sensible reading. I wholeheartedly support the proposed changes but there are further significant changes that the introduction of this system of 15-year appointments will require. While scrutiny of legislation is a key role of this House, in our unwritten constitution this Chamber is one of the checks and balances on executive power; the others being judicial review, civil society, a free media and, at the moment, a wafer-thin majority in the other place.
Your Lordships’ House will continue to be effective or even to exist only if our level of public support and therefore our legitimacy increase. Your Lordships need only to glance over the pond to see how vital the institutions that check executive power are. This reform at this time is crucial, and while this Chamber is rightly known for its wisdom and experience, the tectonic plates of culture and technology are shifting so rapidly that a Chamber that is appointed in this new way will have legitimacy only if it continues to include a range of ages in its membership.
I am pleased that the committee recognises, in paragraph 31, that this system of 15-year appointments provides,
“a disincentive for prospective members to accept appointment to the House at a relatively young age”.
This disincentive is not further explored in the report, nor is it assessed in relation to the expenses system. Quite how a person in their late 30s, as I was, who has a career in the voluntary sector and who lives in the north-east, will be attracted to a 15-year appointment needs careful consideration. If the Lords will be a part-time role, perhaps this will work, but there seems to be an inconsistency between the briefings outlining that the party groups will consider more carefully whom they select as they will need a ministerial team, with all the time commitments that that entails, and paragraph 14 of the report, which states:
“Continuing to allow members to undertake careers and activities outside politics is necessary if they are to maintain and update their expertise”.
A further committee is needed to consider whether your Lordships’ House will be full-time or part-time, whether it will be salaried, whether there will be support staff, and how to ensure that younger Peers can still join.
I look forward to welcoming the new Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Sarah Mullally, and commend the fact that 10% of the Anglican presence in your Lordships’ House will soon be female. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham is correct that there is a cap on the Lords spiritual but there are four more on the Cross Bench. Thirty-plus Bishops or former Bishops is too many and arguably squeezes out nonconformist church leadership and the black and minority ethnic church, whose absence from your Lordships’ House is an obvious gap, which I hope the commission will see fit to resolve.
This further committee would, I hope, not have to consider the hereditary peerage system as this is Her Majesty’s Government’s responsibility alone. This House and the other place overwhelmingly want change but the Government, who control the legislative agenda, are stalling. So I trust that my noble friend the Leader of the House, as the only Member of your Lordships’ House to be in the Cabinet, will inform her colleagues that the racially and gender-biased selection system for the legislature needs to go. The pool of hereditary candidates is almost exclusively male and all white. I am afraid I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, that this is not a problem for today, as it should have been a problem of yesterday. Her Majesty’s Government’s position risks undermining next year’s celebrations of a century of women’s suffrage, and the admirable leadership of the Prime Minister in tackling racial inequality. It is ironic that today, the Ministry of Justice adopted the recommendation from David Lammy’s “explain or change” review concerning racial bias in the justice system, and yet the Government’s legislative inertia is endorsing the racially biased hereditary peerage system. I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House to please write to noble Lords to explain or change Her Majesty’s Government’s position on this.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Foulkes, who is not in his place, for standing in for me this morning as I had another appointment. Like the rest of the House, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for the work they have done—although, rather like the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, I believe that the pace set out is quite inadequate for the problem that we face. I will come back to that in a moment.
Before the committee was appointed, I wrote to the Lord Speaker saying that I believed we had a real problem over the size of the House. This was two years ago. I suggested to him that we needed early action and that he should open a public book in which Peers who were prepared to go early, preferably around the age of 80, would put their names and make a public declaration of their intention, in order to get the size of the House down. He wrote back to me and said that it was an interesting idea but we would wait to see what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, came up with.
I put the view to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee that we need a retirement age. I still believe that we need a retirement age. Without any doubt we have some quite extraordinary people here over the age of 80, but there are quite extraordinary judges, surgeons, teachers, civil servants and heads of the Armed Forces who are all in the public service, as we are in the public service. We set out their terms and conditions, and all of them have retirement policies of one type or another, and we are able change them if we so choose.
Yet we are different from the rest. The debate today should focus to a degree on this: whether we should continue to be different. Okay, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, would change that in due course—in 11 years’ time, when this is finally enacted. It would be virtually 11 years before it finally worked its way through. We could do it overnight in the way that we reformed the Lords in 1999 when the hereditaries went in one fell swoop, with literally hundreds of them going. If we opted for a retirement age of 80, we would have close on 250 people going fairly quickly, and the House would survive.
In turn, we would be in a better negotiating position with the Prime Minister if we had made such a move ourselves on a voluntary and moral basis to influence the course of events and to try to persuade the Prime Minister of the day to draw up a code of practice on how appointments would be made in future to ensure that the House was kept within reasonable limits. I share the committee’s view that it should be 600 and all the other recommendations that it made.
I have one question for the noble Lord. When the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, was speaking, he said that we would require legislation to introduce a retirement policy in the Lords. I believe that he is wrong, but I would be grateful for clarification on that. I believe that we could decide that we wanted to go for a retirement age—whether 75, 80 or even 85. We could take that decision, and if we did that we would not only be doing the right thing but we would be sending the right message about the kind of politics we believe there should be in this country and that where change is needed we will do it ourselves.
My Lords, this report has all the analytical rigour we have come to expect from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who has had more praise heaped upon him during the course of the day than most of us could hope for in a lifetime. No doubt his ears are burning.
In paragraph 10 of the report, we find the killer insight: on present trends, the size of this House will eventually exceed 1,000. The case for action is overwhelming. I strongly support the approach to reducing the size of the House that the report recommends—but I have three reservations, like some other noble Lords.
My first reservation is over the bishops and the hereditaries. In a diverse House, reflecting the whole nation, I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, would hope to see archbishops, cardinals, rabbis, imams and representatives of other faiths. Many hereditary Peers justify their presence in this Chamber by the quality of their contributions, not least today, but it is anomalous in the 21st century for Britain to be the only country in the world where parentage is a passport to Parliament—and, alongside Iran, to be one of only two countries in which an established religion has a guaranteed place in the legislature. Comprehensive reform of the House of Lords would address these historic anomalies, but I find the notion that every part of the House should reduce its numbers except the bishops and the hereditaries, and that at the end of this process those groups would end up as a significantly higher percentage of the House than they are now, to be profoundly distasteful—as did the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor.
My second reservation relates to paragraph 15, where the report refers to,
“existing members who may have arranged their affairs on the basis of membership for life”.
The report suggests that such Members should be treated fairly but is silent on how. I do not expect this issue will affect many noble Lords—it certainly does not apply to me—but some Members of this House, as we all know, gave up established careers, perhaps in academia, to make a full and continuing contribution to our affairs, and they calculated when they did so that their attendance allowances would make up for their loss of income and, later in life, for a reduced pension. For a small number of Members, unanticipated change may bring real hardship, and it would be unjust of us not to consider that.
My third and final reservation is that the report helpfully shows what the outcome would have been if the regime proposed had applied from 1959. It shows the hypothetical position at three critical inflection points in our recent political history—1979, 1997 and 2015—when a new party of government, with a radical agenda, held the reins untrammelled. At these three moments, the new governing party would have been the smaller of the two main parties and, on two occasions, far smaller. I am sceptical that, were those circumstances to recur, which they are bound to, and with the voluntary system proposed, an incoming Prime Minister will naturally show restraint. We will all feel mightily foolish if we march out the door, only to see a little later a longer line marching back in the opposite direction. Even if our current Prime Minister agrees this system, she cannot bind her successors, as many speakers have said. I conclude that, difficult though it may be, this eminently sensible scheme will work only if it can be enshrined in legislation. Given the consensus apparent during the course of this long day, I do not understand why that is not possible.
My Lords, like the almost 100 noble Lords who have sought to intervene in this debate, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for his efforts to apply some degree of logic to the problem of this House being allegedly 35%—some might even say 60%—too large. Be that as it may, my conviction is that there are greater parliamentary problems which, if our little local difficulties are not carefully handled, may escalate beyond what we would seek to achieve.
Having served for almost 35 years in the Commons and this Chamber, it is my experience that the changes we require are not such as can simply be resolved here. By seeking to do so in isolation, we could create a disastrous knock-on consequence. Compared with 1983, when I was first elected, the overall standards across our democratic process are being eroded to a dangerous and damaging degree. We seem to have been conditioned to accept that raw academic ability is the sole arbiter in creating a foundation for success.
I still yearn for that breadth of commitment and experience I found all around me when I first came to Westminster. It combined years of experience among those who came from the shop floor and the mines, from management both of the workforce and of technical and financial resources, from military experience, and from professional know-how. Is that experienced-based criterion a thing that survives only in this Chamber? Could we be in danger of sacrificing that, not least with the 15-year option? I was already in my mid-40s when I arrived here—but, like so many of my colleagues, I had been tried and tested professionally, militarily and in business before I was asked to stand for Parliament. I was not imposed on my constituency by some remote and faceless party structure. Bluntly, I was more than some privileged or glorified “interim bag carrier” with a predestined ambition whose time had arrived.
The noble Lord, Lord Burns, has ably sought to give us guidance—but suffice it to say that leadership, planning and practical politics derive from experience, not from patronage. I want to see my United Kingdom with political acumen and with renewed moral standards, which sadly are being steadily and selfishly eroded. That will not happen by our performing some egocentric little local exercise here in this Chamber, and certainly not by increasing the authority and diktats of the faceless back-room shakers and movers, to the detriment of effective, experienced and principled government here in Westminster. Power must never be surrendered to popularity.
Without wanting to be too controversial, I simply ask noble Lords how long it has been since any UK Government articulated a coherent and strategic foreign policy that they would feel able to explain and justify? The House of Lords must change, but it must not end up neutering itself in the erroneous belief that somehow we alone are, or could be, the sole source of strength amid the United Kingdom’s diminishing national role and responsibility. I therefore conclude by saying that we should not merely identify cosmetic changes in this Chamber, and that it is our clear obligation to properly evaluate all the potential consequences. Let us not throw out the baby with the bath-water.
My Lords, like previous speakers before me, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the committee, before moving straight on to say that I disagree with the recommendations—not all of them, but the principal drive towards reducing the number of Members of this House. It was a question that should not have been set. It is not on the public’s lips; it is not in MPs’ mailbags. There is no need to reduce the number of Peers in the House. The only time it becomes an issue is when the quality of the behaviour of some of us brings the rest of us into contempt, or if the Government are defeated and then some Members of this House are no longer required.
This is not about the size itself. We already have clear evidence that only 490 on average turn up, so we have 200-plus consultants on tap who cost us no money but who have expertise they can bring into the Chamber. They do not get paid if they are not here. Once you take off those who are not paid and those who do not claim, that leaves roughly half the number who can currently sit in this Chamber on the payroll. If this proposal is seen through, and we artificially reduce the number of Peers to 600, it will end up costing the taxpayer more. If there are 600 full-time working Peers in this building, that would cost about another £6 million. I am not aware of any organisation that seeks to wound itself in terms of its experience and capability and at the same time cost the people it serves more money. That would be very perverse.
It would also drive up the average age of Peers entering this House. I am not sure that anybody aged 40 or 50 would choose to come in—in the middle of a career break—do 15 years and then find out they not only had nowhere else to go but had no pension on top of that, because we are not pensioned here. We also get plenty of complaints that the Chamber is too London-centric, but this would clearly drive up the number of people from London to whom this place becomes attractive, while making it less attractive to those from the shires. It would probably make us more London-centric, more expensive and less experienced.
On that basis, I cannot really see the point in pursuing this much further. In addition, to expect the Prime Minister or any future Prime Minister to fetter their own ability to reward people who have done good things or to create spaces in the other place is a bit naïve. I am not sure many Prime Ministers would agree to do that, and I do not think it is fair to try to pressurise this one into doing it. If Members seriously are concerned about the size of the House, we should move some formal stuff that locks future Prime Minsters into place as well and not just fetter the current one’s choice.
Before I sit down, I have a question, but I do not know who to ask and whether I will get an answer. What would happen if the monarch serves a Writ of Summons on somebody and they refuse to come because the Code of Conduct says they cannot?
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in commending the thoughtful efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues and this report. However, with no disrespect, it is a publisher’s glowing dust cover to a hardback book titled Lords Reform. Blank pages and chapters in the book need to be written before those who must abide by the consensus being sought can fully judge its worth. Second-order and other key issues must be addressed and fleshed out. The House must tackle these as part of the effort to gain a broad acceptance of this strategy.
A Prime Minister, on taking office and while in it, and on departure from office, and party groups, individually by their then leader and severally, must indicate acceptance. These undertakings need to span the period not just of one Parliament but of successive ones and future holders of their offices too. Should it be a matter for a written undertaking, and perhaps Statements in Parliament? I understand the rubric that one Parliament cannot tie the hands of another; nor, presumably, can party leaders bind their successors. But is this of sufficient importance for all to set this aside in some solemn and binding way, short of statute? How realistic is it to harmonise such a gross mismatch between the horizons of a 15-year or 20-year corpus and the near-term partisan volatility of just a few years or even only months—the political in-office lifespans of Prime Ministers and other party leaders? Is this an Achilles heel? I sincerely hope not.
For the Cross-Bench group, the issue is much clearer so long as the two-out, one-in principle is followed. But the aspirations of those who lobby for an elected second Chamber may be eviscerated for a generation.
However, there is another issue to clarify. Is the 600, when reached—or indeed the numbers annually being aimed at in the process of reducing to 600—to be deemed a “never to be exceeded” total? If not, what flexibility should be considered and should that be part of the undertakings of parties and Prime Ministers? The report suggests new Ministers given peerages need not be counted in the 600 in the year of their elevation. But if some party or group does not take up a yearly allocation, will pressures to use any headroom below 600 prove irresistible? The House might need some of that number to be effective.
During my time as Convenor I had a number of exchanges about Cross-Bench membership with the then Lord Chancellor. He was leading on the first of the several attempts to move on to stage two of House of Lords reform. In general it was about Cross-Bench numbers, but I also raised some examples of appointments who, while worthy of a peerage, were not then on the Prime Minister’s list. Some of those have since been added; nor, presumably, will retiring Speakers from the other place be excluded. Traditionally their peerage follows a petition made by the other place.
As the report mentions, the previous Prime Minister further extended his Cross-Bench appointments list to consider a range of non-public service individuals, which looks very much like a return to the status quo ante Mr Blair’s original decision to forgo making non-party appointments. Before 1997, new year and birthday honours lists used to have about a couple of peerages each time, normally expected to be for Cross-Benchers. A return to that might not be contentious and set a more measured rate of appointments. The dates on which Justices of the Supreme Court take their seat on retirement will not necessarily fall within the once-a-year election proposal, and of course if a Parliament were not to run its five-year term, other variations would apply.
My point here is that, aside from the arrangements already proposed, there may be a number of special and earmarked cases that come up and do not lie within the normal party and HOLAC ambit or the timing of once-a-year appointments. Equally, I am sure that those I have mentioned are far from the only special cases that one or more might feel justified in promoting. This brings me back to the question: is there to be a “never exceed” limit on membership? If not, how should any variation be expressed? This question may need some very wise heads to put together a universally acceptable answer. It will be important not to fudge it.
My Lords, it has been said by everyone but not yet by me: I echo the words of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. The report has the huge benefit of being not only elegantly written but mercifully brief. I hope to match the brevity if not the eloquence.
What more is there to be said? We seem to be creating an impetus, a demand, for change that can probably no longer be stopped. We focus almost obsessively on numbers and cutting our House down to size. I wonder if that might lead in the course of time to more professionalism and politicisation—that is a possibility—and more expense too, as we have just heard most eloquently from my noble friend Lord Porter. That would be an unexpected consequence of reform, but change there will be. The question is whether that change will be achieved voluntarily or imposed upon us. Once you put the ferret down the rabbit hole, you can never be entirely sure of the consequences.
It is not just the reforms that we are discussing today; in connection, there is also renewal and restoration to consider. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it is likely that we will be moved to a different place—well, we move or we burn. I think it was Churchill who said we make our buildings and then our buildings make us. I wonder what the QEII conference centre will make of us. As the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, suggested, that in itself is likely to greatly reduce our numbers. It will also change our practices, how we see ourselves, how others see us, what we do and how we do it. We will not be the same House when and if we return to this place.
There is a still more pressing factor. Next year we will be immersed in the elected Government’s main legislative vehicle, Brexit. Some noble Lords have already declared that it is a Bill of betrayal, threatened trench warfare and even compared it to the appeasement of Hitler. That sort of action and that sort of language threaten to undermine everything that the Burns committee has been trying to achieve. If this unelected House decided to engage in open trench warfare, what options would that give any Prime Minister other than to appoint new Peers? This has to be thought through. To use a rather hackneyed phrase, we cannot have our cake and eat it.
Reform, renewal and restoration, Brexit—this could all come together as a perfect storm that might sink this place completely. So it is evolution or revolution. There is no standing still, not any more. The Burns committee stands for evolution, uncertain as that process usually is. That is why I support it, always bearing in mind that it is the other House, the House of Commons, that is in far more need of reform than we are.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, even if it is as the 82nd speaker in today’s rather long but important debate.
In all my years in Parliament, I have never been persuaded of the need for an elected second Chamber. I agree with elections—since 1973 I have fought 11, one every four years—but I do not think an elected Upper House will be anything other than a rival to the House of Commons, particularly if that House were elected on the basis of proportional representation. Having been involved over the last decade in the establishment of parliaments in Northern Ireland and Wales, I think it is inevitable that as a new parliamentary institution is set up it will eventually want more powers as it goes along. In Wales’s case, I think that was right, but would that be the case for an elected second Chamber that wanted more and more powers as the years went by?
However, if we do not have an elected Chamber then we have to have an appointed one that is reformed. In the two years that I have been in this place, I have been deeply impressed at the level of debate and expertise. I have been particularly impressed by the level of scrutiny of legislation, which is infinitely better than that in the House of Commons. At the same time, though, we have to look at the issue of size. When I entered Parliament in 1987, the House of Lords had 1,200 Members. In all the years that I was an MP, I never had one single letter or email about the size of the Lords. That is not to say that it is not an issue, because it is. My noble friend Lady McIntosh and others have said that it is a matter of reputation, not only of this House but of the whole of Parliament. Over the last five or six years, for all sorts of reasons, Parliament has not been seen in the best light. Unless we try to ensure that this House is a reasonable size then we are doomed, particularly on the basis that the Government want the membership of the House of Commons actually to go down. You cannot have a reduced House of Commons and an increased House of Lords; that just does not make sense in a modern constitution. I therefore join in the chorus of approval for the noble Lord, Lord Burns, whose committee has done a tremendous job on the report. “Elegant” is certainly the word; it is also practical, important and, most importantly, possible.
There are of course other issues that need to be addressed. I think we should abolish the by-elections for hereditary Peers. However, I believe the Bishops’ Bench should remain. I am a Catholic Christian who is quite willing to pass on to the Church of England the issues of Christianity that need to be debated in this place, and I have never heard any contribution from the Bishops’ Bench with which I have disagreed. I think that is important too.
The other issue that is important, certainly for those of us who do not live in or represent London, is the need in a changed political landscape to ensure that this place properly represents the nations and the regions of the UK. We now have devolution of sorts in Northern Ireland—I hope it will come back—and in Scotland and Wales, and there is an increasing move towards devolution in the north of England as well. Like many second Chambers in the world, this one could do a great job of ensuring that the nations and the regions of the UK in the 21st century were properly debated and looked after.
There is a problem with all of this, though, which has been touched on by a number of noble Lords during the course of the debate. If we are to listen to the gossip and rumours that are now prevalent throughout Parliament that the Prime Minister is about to appoint anything between—I have heard—25 to 56 Peers into this place, simply for the reason of passing legislation on Brexit, that would torpedo this report. That would never make sense. We cannot have the House of Lords appearing to be extremely united in wanting the report to be implemented and then, only weeks later, for that to be undermined by the creation of dozens of new Peers by the Prime Minister—who, I admit, has been very moderate on this issue in years past. If there is to be a race between new Peers being appointed by the Prime Minister and the implementation of the report, I am all in favour of the implementation of the report.
My Lords, I express my thanks to the Lord Speaker for initiating this incredibly important piece of work, and of course to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for their report. I strongly support their recommendations. Although all of us might want to tweak the odd one here or there, I strongly support the report.
I am sure everyone would be delighted if I just sat down at this point, but I want to focus on just one issue. It seems that the underpinning for all other proposals in the report is provided by the proposed fixed cap on the total number of Peers with the right to sit in the House of Lords. Without that reform, the rest of the proposals will probably fall or achieve very little. Fears have been expressed that the Prime Minister will be reluctant to lose her complete freedom to exercise her powers of patronage. I understand those fears. But if the Prime Minister agrees that this House should better reflect the political balance across the country over time, and that the public would not accept an increase in the size of this House to 1,000 or more Peers, I hope she can be convinced of the need for the reforms presented by the noble Lord, Lord Burns.
The big question is whether Theresa May accepts that it is impractical, self-defeating over time and offensive to the British public for successive Prime Ministers of both political parties to pack the House with their own appointees, to seek to rebalance the numbers of Peers on each side. That is, of course, a zero-sum game.
If we can assume the Prime Minister’s support on these issues, an answer to the patronage problem surely lies, as others have said, on page 13 of the report, which makes it clear that,
“the monarch is empowered to appoint life peers other than under the Life Peerages Act 1958”.
This power was confirmed by RP Gadd in Peerage Law, published in 1985—albeit that the power has not been used very recently. Importantly, Peers appointed in that way would not be entitled to a seat in this House. The Prime Minister would thus have complete freedom to appoint any number of Peers, if she really wished to, but she would need to decide which of those Peers could best serve your Lordships’ House. Others would have the honour of a peerage anyway, and if they were suited to sit in this House they could surely apply to the House of Lords Appointments Commission so that when a place became available they could have a position in this House.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said—I find this interesting, as I had not worked it out for myself—the Burns report would, anyway, enable a Prime Minister to create roughly the same number of Peers with a position in this House as have tended to be created, on average, by Prime Ministers over the years. What the Burns report would prevent is the creation of vast numbers of Peers for political purposes—and I very strongly support bringing an end to that type of activity. On this basis, I hope that the Prime Minister and the leaders of the opposition parties can support the report.
My Lords, I join virtually everyone who has spoken in congratulating the Lord Speaker, and the committee on its ingenuity in producing the report, which guides us into what I regard as the first step of Lords reform. As many noble Lords will recall, I have been pressing my own plan for the last 12 years—but it would, of course, require primary legislation, so the report, which does not involve primary legislation, obviously represents the way ahead. Some of my own proposals are not a runner in these circumstances, and I am glad that the committee was kind enough to allow me to give evidence before it.
There are many parts of the report with which I strongly agree. Primarily, there is the essential need to reduce numbers; we need to impose a fixed cap of 600 in 11 years. I had suggested 500. I was interested to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and my noble friend Lord Caithness both felt that that was reasonable, and I would much prefer a quicker move than one that took 11 years. My own proposals, which, I am afraid, were cancelled out by the need for primary legislation, would have got us there immediately after the next election.
I welcome the fact that no party should have a majority and that the Cross-Bench percentage should remain at around 20%, and I can accept the 15-year term for voluntary retirement, in the interests of making progress. I would have preferred, and have proposed previously, that each party caucus should decide who stays and who goes. The party caucuses know best who contributes and who does not. As I read the report—I would be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Burns, would comment on this when he sums up—I think it would still be possible within its terms for the party caucuses to do that task.
Finally, I very much welcome what is summarised in Figure 4 on page 21, whereby new party appointments would be based on the average of the percentages of seats won and votes cast at the previous general election. I think I was the first one to propose this, with the help of the Library, in our debate two years ago last September—and I believe it is the best and fairest basis for making the political appointments.
Those are some parts of the report with which I strongly agree, but there is one area that I do not think the committee addressed—perhaps because of the need for legislation. It is the potential problem to which I have tried to draw attention all these years—the fact that the work of this House would come to a standstill if at an election a new party came to power or into a coalition from a small base, or no base. That has happened in recent years in Turkey, in Italy, and more recently in France—and it could happen here, because we all know that politics and politicians are not the flavour of the time. I remember how, in the mid-1980s, the SDP came quite close to being the dominant party in the public opinion polls. A new party in government or in coalition could find itself with few Ministers or Back-Benchers, and only tiny replenishments under the oblique reference in the third paragraph of Appendix 5.
That situation would be one thing that would trigger primary legislation, and I fear that this is one thing I must criticise in the opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. He said that he thought Appendix 5 would partly deal with that problem—and I stress that it would only do so partially.
My final comment is that I believe we must support the report, and that we must demonstrate tonight that there is a consensus in the House to do so. In order to achieve that consensus, when at the end of the debate the Lord Speaker puts the Question that the report be noted, I challenge all those who do not like it, and who believe that there is no consensus, to cry no at the appropriate moment.
My Lords, those who were in the Chamber earlier and heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grade, will have heard him jokingly suggest that this Chamber should conduct its business under the rules of the Radio 4 programme “Just a Minute”. I am very glad that we do not do that, because I fear that my own contribution and that of many other noble Lords might be disqualified on the grounds of repetition. But that is a risk of speaking at number 85, I fear.
In my years in this House, I have come to respect and admire the huge amount of work done by noble Lords to improve the legislation that governs our nation. The role of this House is much misunderstood, as a number of noble Lords have said, notably my noble friend Lord Cromwell. A particular misconception is that we make the laws. We do not, really; we do not make any laws with which the Commons does not agree. Our role is as a scrutinising and revising Chamber that accepts the primacy of the Commons but tries to ensure that legislation is fair and unambiguous, fit for purpose and as free as possible of unintended consequences. We must constantly try to get that message across to the public, who, for understandable reasons, do not recognise our real role.
Other common misconceptions are that we are full of hereditary Peers and resistant to change. Neither, of course, is true, and the debate today is further evidence that this House is self-aware and seeks to remodel itself, while maintaining the fundamental role of a scrutinising legislative Chamber and holding the Government to account.
The Burns report is the latest, and arguably the most fundamental, of a number of incremental evolutionary changes proposed in recent years by this House, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, mentioned. It seeks to address a particular subject of public and media criticism—namely, the large size of the House—which, of course, has been created by the action of others in the other place.
Many noble Lords have spoken to commend the excellence of the report, which I fully endorse. Recognising the reality that legislative time, to say nothing of agreement, is unlikely to be possible in the near future, it makes proposals to reduce the size of the House that are pragmatic and realistic and, with good will, I would argue, achievable. The report is beautifully structured and argued, and eloquently written. In short, it is something that one does not often say about official documents: it is a very good read.
Crucially, the report proposes mechanisms to reduce the numbers and retain a smaller size but, at the same time, to refresh membership, which is important. It suggests means and a timescale that is sensitive to the fact that change in the absence of legislation will have to be voluntary. That will involve some individuals unselfishly agreeing to leave. Most significantly, as many noble Lords have said already, it will depend on the Prime Minister of the day to agree to restraining their level of political patronage—and that is not an easy ask. In restructuring over time the political balance of the House better to reflect that in the country and in the Commons, the report offers some recompense.
In conclusion, there are a number of areas where we need to work hard in this Chamber to improve and inform public perception of this House. But on the issue of its size, which is a major component of our negative public image, this excellent report advocates a means to effect a progressive and positive modernisation. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on their brilliant report, which I fully support, and look forward to the Government’s response to it.
My Lords, I see this problem possibly from a slightly different perspective from most of your Lordships. It is not just that I am older than most of you, but I have been here longer than most of you and I have heard the hereditary system debated more often than you. I remember back in the 1940s sitting on the steps of the Throne next to Nat Fiennes and hearing his father, Lord Saye and Sele, sitting on that Bench where the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, is now sitting, saying that the hereditary system was not a bad system. It was a bit like roulette—it threw up all sorts. “And occasionally”, he said, pausing and turning to Nat and myself, “it throws up the odd black sheep”. There was a long pause and then he went on with his speech. I mention that merely to show that I am rather embedded in this place but, I dare say to noble Lords’ surprise, I am not embedded in it in its present form.
The next way in which I differ from your Lordships is that I cannot, by retiring or even by dying, reduce the number of Peers sitting in this House; under the present constitution, the gap will be filled by some equally well or better qualified person. But that is under the present circumstances. But if this report is adopted in toto and not weakened, the circumstances will not be the same. I, for one, think that when that is in place, my job is discharged. My job I see as maintaining the effectiveness of this place in the face of government when it becomes irresponsible, as well as revising responsible legislation. That, I think, is achieved by the present proposals, provided that the 15 years is not reduced by one month. That is the absolute minimum tenure required to maintain the individuality of this House aside from the rest of the government, but incorporated in the whole of Parliament.
That brings me to my next difference of perspective. I have been concerned for some years about the way in which this country is moving. One thing that concerned me very much was the extent and degree and commonness of surprise among Members of the other place when their constituents voted, either with or against what they wanted, for Brexit. I heard astonishment expressed by many Members of the other place as well as this place, and they are the people who are meant to be in touch with what the country is thinking. They attribute—and the generality of people attribute—that vote to a genuine national desire to leave Europe and become independent. It has been so interpreted, and that has been accepted. But I see it as largely contributing to that broad slice of British society for whom things have not got easier over the last 15 years; they got a bit more difficult. To quote Shakespeare again, I think that they were saying, “A plague on both your houses—we don’t like you and we don’t like the system”.
At that stage, when you also have a far left movement embedded in the Labour Party in the country, and approved of by the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party, you have a very unstable situation. If we are to get out of this intact, we need to have a Parliament respected by the country, and neither House is now respected. My enthusiasm for these proposals is that I believe that it is the beginning of getting respect back from the country and that it will, with luck, jolt Members of the other place into looking into their affairs. It would be indiscreet and inappropriate for me to list the things that they could do, but there are a great many, and a lot of them know what they are.
Therefore, I think that this is a moment of great importance. This debate is more urgent than your Lordships recognise, because the situation is more fragile than you recognise. We are in a boat and we are talking to each other with our backs to the portholes. Outside, the sky is darkening; we need to shorten sail, and we need to do it quickly.
My Lords, when I realised that I was speaking 86th in this debate, I was reminded of an apocryphal comment attributed to the seventh husband of Elizabeth Taylor. He knew what to do; the challenge was how to make it interesting. I join every other speaker in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on this report. There was widespread agreement, not least from last year’s debate, on the need for the desired outcome of reducing the size of your Lordships’ House, so to make a recommendation for 600 was probably the easy bit. However, given that there were things that the committee could not do, not least the fact that there was not likely to be any major primary legislation, it is a remarkable achievement to have produced a set of proposals which has commanded such widespread support in your Lordships’ House and, indeed, beyond.
I do not resile from my own personal party position that we would rather see a predominantly elected second Chamber, with proper buttressing of the voices from the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. However, as my noble friend Lord Beith said, where we are is the “best show in town”, and I readily contribute to the consensus on these proposals. They are not perfect, but that is not necessarily a criticism of the committee; it is because of the inability to produce primary legislation.
Numerous Members of your Lordships’ House have picked up on two issues that will need to be addressed: the future role of the Bishops and of the hereditary Peers. Tables 1, 3 and 4 in the report extrapolate the numbers in your Lordships’ House to 2047, when I will be 93 and not here, either through death or retirement. It is worth reflecting, as we consider proposals that will take us almost to the middle of the 21st century, that the outcome would be that Bishops and hereditary Peers have a higher proportion of the membership of your Lordships’ House than they do today. I do not believe that that is fatal to these proposals, but they are loose ends. As anyone knows, if a number of loose ends are picked at the garment can slowly but steadily unravel. It is not impossible to address this: it does not need major legislation to have, for example, what one might call an episcopal haircut. The Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015 was introduced in the run-up to a Dissolution of Parliament, when there is always great pressure on the legislative programme. It had its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 19 January 2015, its Third Reading in this House on 12 March 2015 and Royal Assent a fortnight later. When people want it to be done, it can be.
When I tell people about how the House of Lords is constituted, I have to reflect on the fact that at the last hereditary by-election among my own Liberal Democrat colleagues there was an electorate of three and seven candidates. The winner, my noble friend Lord Thurso, achieved a 100% vote on a 100% turnout, which exceeds even North Korean proportions. That situation is not tenable as we go forward. The Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has been mentioned. This Session of Parliament goes to May 2019. It must surely be possible to make progress on that legislation, particularly if these proposals have been adopted.
The most important point, raised by a number of noble Lords, is that this needs a buy-in, not just from the respective parties and Cross Benches, but also from the Prime Minister. The committee itself, in paragraph 53 of the report, states:
“Maintaining the current mechanism of appointment means that the success of our proposals hinges on Prime Ministers undertaking to appoint no more new members than there are vacancies, and to do so in the party proportions implied by the system proposed”.
That cannot be stressed too much. We are told that a raft of new Peers will be created in the coming weeks and that would change the baseline. Given all the work that has been done and the consensus achieved, that should not be fatal, but it might mean the proposals will be in intensive care. If we do not take this opportunity, it will be missed. It is, therefore, important that the Leader of the House takes back to the Prime Minister and her ministerial colleagues the consensus that there is for these proposals and that we should get on with it.
My Lords, the day has been long. I have listened as every point that I might have made has been made by others, probably more eloquently. A few other points have been made as well. I shall not try the patience of the House by rehearsing what I might have said. I give my wholehearted support to the conclusions of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and my thanks to him and his committee.
The authority of this House depends on its wisdom and expertise, so I will say a few words on these. Several speakers have mentioned the possible difficulty of persuading Peers to resign when their time is up or even under other circumstances. It occurred to me that something might be learned from other bodies with similar problems. At least one Cambridge college takes advantage of the wisdom of retired fellows by allowing them to attend and speak at meetings, but not to vote. Should we consider a similar offer to any retiring Peer who is interested? They could take part in the proceedings and allow the House to benefit from their wisdom, but by not voting they would not interfere with the evolving political balance that the report proposes. I do not particularly advocate this course, but it might be something to have in one’s back pocket.
Regarding expertise, several noble Lords spoke about an enhanced role for HOLAC. I support this and believe that this topic merits a debate in its own right. It will not be easy but, along with regionality and diversity, the commission should further its efforts to achieve a spread of professional expertise across all parties in the House. The world becomes more technocentric daily. As a non-engineer I can say that we undoubtedly need more Peers who can speak with authority in this area.
Let us move ahead without delay with the steps necessary to implement the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. Various speakers have suggested that it might not work for this reason or that. I remind them that the only way in which to ensure that it does not work is not to give it our full support.
My Lords, I should say at the outset that this report, I am afraid, makes me feel somewhat uneasy. However, I acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the members of his committee have produced ingenious, persuasive and seductive proposals. They have done exactly what they set out to do and have done it skilfully. They have come forward with a system that reduces the size of this House without the need for legislation. I well understand why the committee wanted a system that did not involve legislation, but that is precisely what causes me unease. Without legislation, the committee is proposing that we in this House, not one of whom has been elected by the general public, should decide for ourselves how many Members we should have. We the unelected will decide that; not the electorate, the elected House of Commons or the elected Government, but ourselves—an unelected elite.
The report goes on to propose a formula for deciding how many Members of this House should be Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or independent. It may well be sensible but, in deciding that formula, it would be the unelected deciding the party make-up of this House—not the electorate, the House of Commons or the elected Government. This matters because we are a legislature. This House helps to write the law of the land and, despite the Parliament Acts, every year this House writes or rewrites much of the legislation that reaches the statute book. Yet, under these proposals, this House would decide off its own bat its size and party make-up. If this kind of self-appointed oligarchy were being established in a parliament in some far-off banana republic, I bet that there would be howls of outrage from many parts of this House about the affront to democracy.
I understand that the report’s objective is to improve the public’s perception of the House of Lords, but I have an inkling that the public may not be as easily appeased as we might think.
I have some difficulty with the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne. It is not the House of Commons that has decided the size or political composition of this House. The noble Lord is suggesting a remarkable constitutional innovation. This House and its political composition are the size they are for a number of historical reasons. I am very conservative about these things and would not want to follow the revolutionary course he proposed.
Speaking late in a debate has few advantages but one can pretend that one’s own views were the consensus, and I detect a consensus that coincides remarkably with my own view. I detect a consensus that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have done an admirable job, agree that their proposals are the only show in town, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, stated, and agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that we should seize this opportunity that may not recur. Like the noble Lords, Lord MacGregor and Lord Jopling, I wish we could reduce our size to 600 a little quicker than 11 years. But actually, we probably will, because the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, was right to point to the likely exodus when decant, so 11 years may be a pessimistic estimate.
What most, though not all, are saying is that it all depends on the attitude taken by No.10 and the three great parties. That is true. Like the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I pay tribute to what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said about the position of the Lib Dems. We are about to hear from the Leader of the Opposition, whose stamina in sitting through all this is remarkable. I heard the Leader of the House and was mildly encouraged, although what she said was a little gnomic. I hope she will bring home to the Prime Minister the degree of genuine consensus on the Burns proposals that the debate has revealed.
To come here is not a reward but a responsibility. I am not sure that the previous Prime Minister, so lavish with rewards for friends, funders and retainers, always understood that or explained it to those he sent here. Much of that army seems to have melted into the mist. We have not heard from many of them today, with the honourable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, who is a regular attender. Being 800 strong makes us a laughing stock but the real scandal is appointing legislators who are not prepared to legislate. The record so far suggests that the current Prime Minister is more responsible regarding our overall numbers and more demanding of the duties of those she sends here. That strikes me as a good omen for the discussion that the Leader is no doubt about to have with the Prime Minister. I should be content and hope that the Leader will report the constructive suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, because it is important that the Government Front Bench should always be properly womanned, manned, personned.
I would like to add one Scottish point because I am a Scotsman and not many Scottish points have been made today. The debate is, therefore, so far, defective. I will put this right. The Burns plan, as I understand it, entitles the parties—all the parties—to seats in proportion to the votes cast, and seats secured, in the elections to the other place. As I understand it, if a party does not take up its entitlement, the seats in question are not reallocated to other parties but stay vacant, like Sinn Fein’s seats in the House of Commons now. I think we can assume that Sinn Fein would not take up its seats in this House, but what about the SNP? I think it would be quite hard for the SNP to explain to the people of Scotland why the largest party in Scotland, though having no Sinn Fein-type doctrinaire objection to sitting in Westminster, as it is well represented in the House of Commons, should not take up Scottish seats here but should leave them empty. Since I believe that our debates here on Scottish issues would greatly benefit from hearing from the governing party in the Parliament in Edinburgh, making the SNP more likely to overcome its reluctance to come here is an additional advantage of the Burns proposals.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Lord Speaker for taking this initiative, following it through and keeping in touch with the committee so well. It was very interesting to work with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who made us work very hard to consider every aspect of this issue. I am not telling tales when I say that the only real arguments we had was over whose turn it was to pay for the coffee. Strangely, everybody offered to do so every week, so the members of the committee worked together well.
The Leader of the House started off by saying that she wanted to hear the views of the House and get a proper feeling. I hope that she now understands the strength of feeling on all sides of the House that we need to move on this and make something happen. I noted that a few noble Lords said that there was no real problem, but it was a very few. I think that over 90% of noble Lords who have contributed to this debate are very clear that we need to act, and in the very near future.
Many noble Lords have accepted the general thrust of the report. It is important to realise that it constitutes a direction of travel and a package which we have put together and can be tweaked. Its proposals could be implemented more quickly—I think they may well be—and we considered all the other ideas and thoughts that have been raised in the debate today.
Several noble Lords have mentioned a retirement age of 80. It is true that the Labour Party group that we served on recommended that noble Lords retire at the end of the Parliament in which they reach the age of 80. I am still very sympathetic to that and I think that more noble Lords will consider their future and plan ahead a little more. However, two difficulties need to be addressed that are not resolved by retirement at 80. The first is that it would not affect each party equitably. That is a real difficulty. However, the other real difficulty is that the noble Baroness said that she wanted to encourage a culture of retirement. However, we are not going to get that if noble Lords thinking of retirement think that they are just going to be replaced by more and more people on the Prime Minister’s list. That is one of the other difficulties with simply having retirement at 80.
The real key to the process suggested by the Burns committee is that of the steady-state concept—namely, that we will hit a sustainable target which will solve these problems in the longer term. A cap has been talked about. Irrespective of whether the cap is 600 or 450, it is the principle of having a cap, and thereby having a sustainable state, that is key to all this.
I wish to say a few words about the 15-year period because it is difficult to get this right. I know that some noble Lords are concerned about younger Members. Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is not in his place but the Clegg Bill that he supported suggested a period of 15 years, and only one term of 15 years. The average length of time served in the House of Commons is about 8.7 years at present, and there are plenty of young people willing to risk their careers to go into the Commons. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, dealt with the other aspects of that.
Mention has been made of the hereditaries. I am a strong supporter of the Bill proposed by my noble friend Lord Grocott, who unfortunately cannot be here today. I think that there is increasing support for that in this House. This committee, however, was looking at what changes were achievable on a relatively short timescale, and we could not propose legislation that we knew—as the Minister has mentioned again today—would be blocked and would not get through.
I also want to pick up on what has been said about the need for better regional representation, be it a senate of the nations and regions or other types of approach. As a northerner, throughout my political life I have come down to London on a Monday and gone back on a Thursday. I recognise that there is a very serious imbalance, not just in those who are represented here, but in the attitude to those of us who choose to stay and live in the north. I was told on more than one occasion that I would never get on in politics if I did not move to London. That culture is still around, but the committee could not look at the structures and suggest the kind of senate that has been mentioned, because that would have required legislation. The problem there is with our political leaders, because they are the people who have nominated to this House people predominantly from London and the south-east. That is a very big problem that we have to overcome.
Time is against me, but I will just remind the House of what the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said earlier. This House and the Members in it often take pride in calling ourselves a self-regulatory House. This is our opportunity, regardless of what was said a few minutes ago. Unless we take action, this issue is going to slip away from us. There is no way, without a cap and without changes of this kind, that we will not see an increasing size of this House. There is no end unless we make some changes. My noble friend said that “the buck stops here”; others have said variations of that. We can make a difference, and the report gives us a very practical way forward that we can tweak as we go along if necessary. It is the first time that we have had a comprehensive solution to this problem, one that I am glad has been so welcome in this House today.
My Lords, we are coming to the end of a long and very interesting debate which—let us hope—is going to turn out to be very productive and significant for the future of your Lordships’ House. As somebody who is interested in China, I have been fascinated by how often that country has cropped up in the debate: it has been repeatedly said that the House of Lords is the second largest parliament in the world, smaller only than the National People’s Congress in China. It is hard to imagine a greater difference between two institutions than that between the National People’s Congress and your Lordships’ House or the other place. In what we do, the way we do it and the way we are selected, we could hardly be more different from the Chinese National People’s Congress. This comparison is often made in jest, but it has become part of the popular mythology, and, frankly, that is pretty galling. It is less frequently pointed out that we are the largest second Chamber in the world, and it is surely time that we tackled this problem of excessive size or it will just get worse.
As I see it, the committee set up by the Lord Speaker and chaired by my noble friend Lord Burns has done a superb job. The report has rightly been widely praised by those who have already spoken in the debate, and it deals effectively and skilfully with this particular problem of size. Of course, there are points on which some people are going to disagree or have different ideas in respect of numbers or procedures, but what is proposed is a practical way forward. It is a way forward that is in our own hands without the need for legislation. This is surely the time when we should get on with putting it into effect. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said at the beginning of our debate to those who might disagree on minor points, this is surely not a time when we should allow the best to be the enemy of the good.
There is, however, one key element which, unfortunately, is not directly within our own control: what my noble friend Lord Armstrong referred to as the amount of water which is poured into the tank—in other words, the power of the Prime Minister to appoint new Peers. It will be essential that the Prime Minister and her successors apply self-restraint in making appointments. It has been said that one cannot expect such a self-denying ordinance to last. It is also said that one cannot instantly create a new convention. But as a country we have always been rather good at creating new traditions. Surely, once this tradition is created it will become difficult—if not absolutely impossible—to break it. I hope that we can get reassurances on this point. It is after all the one loose thread in the proposals which have been put forward. I fully support the proposals put forward in the Burns committee report. I hope that we shall put them into effect—and that we shall do so soon.
My Lords, as I am speaking last on this side, and in opposition to the proposals, I am rather reminded of the 1997 general election, when we used to sit in No. 10 watching “Zulu”—the fight against all odds at Rorke’s Drift. It has felt a bit like that today. But I have to speak as I see it. These plans remind me rather of the ancient astronomer Ptolemy’s celestial spheres: masterly ingenuity applied to solve a problem that does not exist. The earth was not the centre of the universe, as Ptolemy thought, and this House is not ineffective because it has many Members. It works as a cheap, part-time, respected House of expertise precisely because it has a large pool to draw on of people who do not come here every day.
I agree with those who said that a 15-year limit would cost this House the wisdom of experience. The public, given the chance, regularly send people of more than 15 years’ experience to their Parliament. Why no longer here? If a 15-year limit was in place, we would have had no Lord Speaker to call for this report and no noble Lord, Lord Burns, to write it—they would both have gone. I agree with my noble friend Lord Robathan that to remove new Members only after 15 years is not sustainable. If this House mistakenly calls for a 15-year limit, how could it reasonably expect a future Government, looking to get their new people in, not to apply that principle to all?
The report leaves it to party groups to decide how those unwilling to go would be persuaded to go. As a bit of a serial dissenter, I am uneasy about that. What kind of backstairs inducement or pressure would be applied by party Whips to make the unwilling surrender their places? We do not have many governorships left.
Crucially, the report changes the way Parliament is made up. Your Lordships would decide who stays and, to some degree, who comes. I strongly uphold exclusive cognisance of procedure, but not exclusive cognisance of the composition of Parliament. My noble friend is right: the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is that this House is made up by statute. People are appointed here under statute, either by a statutory commission or a Prime Minister who is responsible to the elected House. Composition must be a matter for both Houses. If membership is to be capped, it must surely be by primary legislation with the consent of both Chambers, not by a privy oath over there in a closed private club.
From 1770 to 1958, only Salisbury, Lloyd George, Baldwin and Attlee ever recommended over 12 Peers a year across a term of more than a year. Lloyd George rose to 15.7. Twelve new Members a year would cut our numbers by death alone. With retirement, 15 would also do so, with no need for Ptolemy’s celestial spheres. Restraint is possible; history proves it.
I rather think we are fighting the last war. The report reacts to massive creations by Tony Blair and David Cameron. There is no reason why theirs should be the future standard. The House declined in size under Gordon Brown. So far it has done so under Mrs May, but she must be able to create some new Peers, whatever the attraction to the Benches opposite of blocking that now.
It may be said that we cannot just rely on ministerial restraint, but that is the basis of the report. Unless all future Prime Ministers, not just my right honourable friend, accept restraint, then the whole report falls, as paragraph 53 declares in bold. If we have restraint, then we do not need the complexities of the report and the inevitable internal strains it will cause. Numbers will fall. If we do not have restraint, then the report is pointless and it will not achieve its purpose.
Before concluding, I must respond to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who tempted me to 1719. I oppose the principle of a fixed cap on an appointed House. Robert Walpole defeated that Peerage Bill partly by telling MPs that a smaller fixed House would mean fewer peerages for them. I am sure that was the conclusive argument. It was also partly on the basis—true then, and in 1832 and 1911—that a cap would leave the elected House unable to overbear the unelected one swiftly in a constitutional crisis. As Walpole then said,
“in all disputes between lords and commons, when the upper house is immutable, the lower must sooner or later, be obliged to recede”.
The Commons wisely rejected the cap which the Lords then proposed. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, and others that no wise Prime Minister would give up that latent power with an appointed House.
In conclusion, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on his ingenuity, as others have done, but this House would be a less uneasy, better functioning place without Peers feeling that they have to come here every day or make unnecessary speeches just to jump through the hoops of the complexities of Ptolemy’s spheres.
My Lords, I should like to return to one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord True, later in my speech. In the meantime, I confess that I was filled with amazement and admiration when the noble Lord, Lord Burns, took on this job. He is obviously a glutton for punishment because he has chaired so many difficult groups which have come to some important conclusions. I do not envy him having to respond to 93 contributions during this morning and this afternoon’s debate. I am not going to attempt to do so but I want to try to pick out one or two themes that I think deserve a little more emphasis. I will certainly not just reiterate the points I agree with—if I did that, we would be here all night.
Many Members of your Lordships’ House have indicated today—and previously—that they are full of admiration for the ingenuity of the proposals put before our House by the noble Lord and his team. This is indeed a cunning plan but, like many other cunning plans, it has some problems. While we on these Benches broadly welcome the proposals, I want to touch on these problems because I want to ensure that the House is in accord in facing up to them.
Understandably, the committee decided to avoid any recommendations that would involve primary legislation. This self-denying constraint, while intensely practical in this particular Session, has two important consequences. First, there is a near-unanimous view in the House that, without a cast-iron guarantee—I think that was the phrase used by my noble friend Lord Newby—that No.10 will accept the full scheme recommended, all the work of his team and our discussions here in this House today and in preparation for this debate, will just have been a waste of time and effort. That, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, is the grim reality. This has been a consistent and persistent theme of the whole debate throughout the discussions today and, indeed, in the discussions that took place before this debate. I have lost count of the number of contributions today that have made that point—I think that over half the speakers have.
Unless the Prime Minister is willing to abide by this constraint, we might as well give up now, and without a statutory scheme her successors cannot be held to her agreement in law either. We would have to insist that in the event that she or any future Prime Minister broke out of this constraint, the whole scheme would be null and void.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I go along with what he said but I find the phrase “a cast-iron guarantee” unnecessary. Surely all that is necessary is for the Prime Minister to accept this report and to act on it. She can always break out of it, just as any successor can, but if she will act on it, she will set a precedent that is likely to become established and go a long way to solving this problem.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, speaks with huge authority, of course. I am only trying to point out that the team led by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, in refusing to take the opportunity to put forward any sort of legislative proposal, has made the case that much weaker—not so much with the present Prime Minister but with future Prime Ministers. The noble Lord may not agree with me but, Members of the House having reiterated this point all day, I think that we should take it very seriously.
Secondly, the absence of any legislation prevents the normal constitutional process taking place. This has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, himself and by the noble Lord, Lord Elder, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lords, Lord MacGregor, Lord Birt, Lord Jopling and Lord Judd. We were forewarned in the debate last year by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane—and he should know—that,
“for some heavy duty things—perhaps a cap on appointments—legislation would be necessary”.—[Official Report, 5/12/16; col. 549.]
Not only will MPs have no formal say in a major constitutional change but their constituents will have no opportunity to lobby them to express their views. It is extraordinary that in a debate that has lasted for most of the day so few Members have referred to the views of the public. At one point, one noble Lord referred to “the people who send us here”. No people send us here, but the people have a considerable interest in the composition of the legislature. I think that only the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Hunt, referred to this as an issue that we should address.
I find it ironic that those who have previously argued so vociferously for the primacy of the Commons should now acquiesce in a scheme which deliberately excludes its Members from any effective say in the composition of this House of Parliament. Here, I am with the noble Lords, Lord Sherbourne and Lord True. It is very interesting that we got to this stage of the debate before this point was raised from the Conservative Back Benches.
This would be an entirely internal—some would say incestuous—process, decided upon by the institution itself and implemented by it without all the usual checks and balances of the United Kingdom’s constitutional conventions. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. I think that the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Sherbourne, are right to draw attention to this. To our fellow citizens this will look like—
The Clock is showing six minutes.
Do Front-Bench speakers have only five minutes? The annunciator said very firmly that Back-Bench contributions are limited to a voluntary five minutes. I propose to deal speedily with the other points.
To our fellow citizens this will look like a process appropriate for the membership of a gentlemen’s club, not for the membership of half of the national legislature. To pursue a school analogy, not content with marking our own homework, we would be thought to have written our own exam paper and decided on our own expulsion system and its victims.
I was struck by the core argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in last December’s debate, and I very much regret that he is not here today. Addressing the issue of the reputational risks that an excessively large House faces he said:
“Some noble Lords appear to say that this is not too important: it is only perception. We do not exist in a vacuum”.—[Official Report, 5/12/16; col. 580.]
The former Lord Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, made a similar point today.
For these two formidable reasons, I believe that this is a temporary expedient. It cannot be permanent. It is important that we make that clear. We can do a very important job with the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his team. What we cannot do is make it the final outcome of how this House should be composed.
We should remember that the present proposals may be sufficient for a short time, but if we are not very careful, the public will become much more disposed to abolishing the House than to supporting its continued appointed basis. The public will want to know where they have a hand in these proposals. The committee’s recommendations may give us a temporary reprieve. However, for the sake of the reputation of the House they cannot be permanent. This is unfinished business. I conclude as I did in last December’s debate by saying that, eventually,
“the only acceptable method for reducing the size of a House of Parliament in a parliamentary democracy is democracy”.—[Official Report, 5/12/16; col. 509.]
My Lords, I had expected to be the 95th speaker in tonight’s debate, so I am somewhat delighted that I am in fact only the 94th. I have listened to all the speeches today and they have been to the great credit of this House. Like others, I pay tribute to the Lord Speaker and the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. The report has been described as a “masterpiece”, “skilful”, “ingenious”, “cunning”, “original”, “enlightened”, “eloquent” and “persuasive”. It is of course all these things and more. But we should acknowledge—and it was a mistake of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, not to—that the committee had a clear and focused remit. Issues about what was not in the report are not down to the committee. This House had a debate and decided what it wanted the committee to examine: the size of the House. Any errors of omission are not those of the committee. Also, on the issue of primary legislation, the committee sought to look for a way forward when the Government had made it clear that there would be no time for such legislation, so that is not something to lay at the committee’s door.
As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and others have commented, too often in searching for perfection we reject improvements and progress. This report does not have all the answers to the various issues and concerns that Members of your Lordships’ House and others have about the role and composition of our Second Chamber. It was never able to provide that, and it was never intended that it would.
I agree with the point made by a number of noble Lords that there is not a queue of people outside Parliament demanding changes in the House of Lords. But, if most people are asked to express a view, they often will do so, saying that they want change—although they also readily admit that they do not have a great deal of knowledge about what we do.
It is interesting that in the two countries where the Governments proposed reform of the second chamber, it produced unpredicted results. In Ireland, the referendum to abolish the Senate was lost, and in Italy, the referendum to reduce the power of the second chamber was seen as a government power grab and provoked a constitutional crisis. There is hope for us there. The difference here is that this House has initiated this debate and these proposals. It is this House that is looking at ways to decide whether we can do our job better and have a better reputation. Those are the proposals that we asked the Burns committee to look at.
I welcome the point that was raised first by my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth—that we sometimes look at this issue from the wrong end of the telescope. We sometimes look far more at who should be in the House than at what we do. The focus of the changes and of any reform, the guiding principle, should always be what enables us better to fulfil our responsibilities. The large number of speakers and the quality of the debate today reflects our concerns about our reputation and our ability to fulfil those responsibilities and our constitutional obligations.
Tonight’s debate has been more than a broad welcome. With very few exceptions there has been clear support for this report around the House. Some issues of concern have been raised and I will briefly touch on those. One is hereditary peerages. It does seem nonsense, in this day and age, that we still have by-elections with a smaller and smaller electorate. When I last spoke on this I referred to the by-election from “Blackadder” at Dunny-on-the-Wold. Equally, I am reminded of being on a parliamentary visit with the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, and introducing ourselves: “My name is Angela Smith, I am a Member of the House of Lords and I am appointed. This is the Earl of Courtown, he is a hereditary Peer and he is elected”. Our colleagues did not really understand what we were on about. I hope that as this progresses, the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will have a fair wind from the Government.
On the issue of the Bishops, I was very interested in the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, which were very conciliatory. I have to say that I had hoped he would have gone further and recognised that when the other parts of the House reduce in size, the Bishops’ Benches would as well. I’m sure that is a discussion the Bishops will be having and will take forward.
The point was raised that we cannot force retirements and reductions from current Peerages, because they were accepted on the current terms of a life Peerage, but a gradual retirement plan is proposed and new agreements for new Peers to undertake a 15-year term. Having been outed—perhaps over-generously—as one of the younger Members of your Lordships’ House, I can say that I have no opposition to this. When I arrived in your Lordships’ House there was no opportunity for anybody to retire. Then we moved forward in 2014 and voluntary retirement was allowed. Now we are moving forward to a phased retirement for existing Peers. Given that when I started work my retirement age was 60 and it is now 67, I see no objection to having a phased retirement for all current Peers and a time-limited tenure for new Peers.
I recognise the concern that a time-limited term may be a deterrent for some, because of their careers. In part, that has been addressed by the five-year break that the committee recommended. Noble Lords are right to make the point that the Government should always be able to get their business through. It is also right that the Opposition must fulfil their duty. My noble and learned friend Lord Morris understandably thought that arguments going back to 1945 were unpersuasive, but there are more recent examples. We all accept the convention that an elected Government have the right to implement their election manifesto, but there is a danger that this Government have hyped up the problems they have had with your Lordships’ House. I recall that when the Prime Minister called the 2017 election she made reference to the “unelected House of Lords”. What had we done that was so terrible? We had passed two amendments to a Bill and, as always, those amendments were then suggested to the House of Commons, which unfortunately rejected them, and this House accepted that. That is the proper and constitutional role of your Lordships’ House. We propose amendments to the House of Commons for consideration. Our role is that of revision and scrutiny, and the conventions ensure that we fulfil that obligation. The Canadians call it the chamber of “sober second thought”, which I think is a valuable and useful way of putting it.
The value and strength of these proposals is that they do not challenge the established constitutional position of the primacy of the Commons or increase the democratic legitimacy of your Lordships’ House. Nothing changes in that regard at all. With appointments reflecting the results of each general election and 15-year terms, there will be a gradual change in the political balance of this House. That is reflected on page 9 of the report:
“Appointments after Labour came to power in 1997 gradually rebalanced the House, but they did not become the largest party until 2006”.
That was nine years later. The problem has arisen now because the Conservatives from 2010 to 2014 became the largest party, even though there were two parties in government. When the Liberal Democrats moved from the government side to the opposition side of the House, there were more Conservative appointments to make up for the fact that the Opposition were larger as well. That is partly why we find ourselves in the current position.
The Leader of the House referred to retirement. The point has been made that Members are very reluctant to retire when they believe that all they do is to create a government vacancy. If we look at the number of appointments to your Lordships’ House since David Cameron became Prime Minister, and those who left the House through retirement or perhaps enforced retirement, the Conservative appointments total 109, and those who left total 63—a net gain of 46. On the Opposition side of the House, there has been a net loss of 17, with a net gain of 24 for the Liberal Democrats. So the current position is not serving your Lordships’ House terribly well.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, had very legitimate concerns about the geographical location of where Peers come from. That does not change under this report, but it perhaps offers, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, indicated, an opportunity to redress that issue.
Other comments were made that this is a part-time House. This is not a part-time House. This is a full-time House, but we do not expect every Member of your Lordships’ House to be a full-time Member. Other noble Lords referred to the issue of a working Peer. We value the notion that some of our Members are full-time and here every day, but others bring their expertise with them and contribute to the House. A working Peer is not necessarily somebody who is here all day every day, but someone who plays a full role and contribution in your Lordships’ House.
On two further points, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—I always like the new reincarnation of the noble Lord—was the main proponent tonight of the status quo, but he made the case for change in doing so. He opposed the idea of a cap. The issue of why a cap is so important has been dealt with by a number of noble Lords. But he also made the case for Prime Ministerial patronage. Nothing in the Burns report removes Prime Ministerial patronage. In fact, Prime Ministers may have more appointments to make, as there is a turnover of Members leaving the House and new Members coming in. I grabbed the Hansard before we came back after the Statement. He said:
“It may happen only rarely, but to remove the ability of the Prime Minister to threaten to increase the number of Peers”.
It really is a disgrace when the Prime Minister thinks she can bully this House into doing her bidding through threatening to increase the number of Peers—
My Lords, this is the lesson of history. This is exactly what happened in 1911. It is that ultimate power of the Prime Minister representing the House of Commons to be able to threaten the House of Lords with an influx of new Peers which encourages us to behave in an entirely constitutional way. Once you have removed that threat, it changes the relationship between the two Houses, and it increases the power of this House, which I do not think was the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Burns.
My Lords, I know it is usual to thank noble Lords for their interventions, but I genuinely do so on this occasion. He has made my case. I have been threatened twice since I have been leader about the introduction of new Peers: once on the tax credits Bill, as the noble Lord will recall, and on Brexit as well. On neither of those occasions has that had any impact whatsoever on my behaviour as leader or on the behaviour of my party. What does make a difference is that we understand the conventions of this House and we understand the limitations of the role of an unelected Chamber. The noble Lord says, “We have got to have Prime Ministerial patronage so that we can hold a sword of Damocles and threaten the House of Lords”, but this is not the way Prime Ministers should operate. They should operate on persuasion and discussion and the conventions of this House, not on threats. So I thank the noble Lord, but he has just made my case for me and I am grateful to him for doing so.
Just briefly on other concerns that were raised: there were those in favour of a retirement age and those who were against a retirement age. There will be no consensus on that issue. There will be different views. On the age profile of this House, it is worth noting that the three party leaders in your Lordships’ House are younger than the three party leaders in the other place.
Some thought the proposed progress was too slow; others thought it was right; others thought it was unnecessary to do anything at all. Tragically, some thought there were too many former MPs in your Lordships’ House, and some thought, understandably, that there was an overrepresentation of Liberal Democrats.
Some thought it was wrong for the appointment of new Peers to have any link with general election results. If you make the calculation, appointments are made on five-year cycles so there is not an immediate change in balance but over time there is a rebalancing of the House. That emphasises our differences from, rather than similarities with, the House of Commons.
Finally—I can see the Chief Whip looking at me closely, but I am trying to summarise, in the absence of any other party leaders doing so, some of the 93 wonderful speeches we have had—the question has to be: are any of the objections that have been raised insurmountable? In the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, are any of them fatal to the proposals? I do not consider that they are but there is one insurmountable issue: the role of the Prime Minister and of the Government. This will work only if the Government play their part. It is not about giving up patronage or appointments but about showing some restraint, as it used to be. I really believe that if this Prime Minister made that point, it would be very difficult for future Prime Ministers to renege on that.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the committee for their work. If the House and the Government are to show respect for the work they have done, we will take this forward. I noted that a number of noble Lords quoted from songs and plays. I will quote Elvis Presley, when he sang, “It’s now or never”. He added:
“A little less conversation, a little more action, please”.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the very kind words that have been said about the report, and the number of noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I have watched some of my close friends and people I have worked with in the past, sitting beside me, squirming with irritation at some of the things that have been said about me—I come from a very competitive background.
A lot of good points have been made which would need to be considered in any implementation. We set out a number of these in the report. We could not solve all the problems. We are reasonably confident that they are not severe problems and that they can be coped with, with a certain amount of good will. I am very grateful for the summary that the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, made of some of the points. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, covered a number of the issues that I was going to cover.
First, I will make a point about diversity, culture, et cetera. It is perfectly clear that there is more to having a successful second Chamber than the issues covered in our report. There are issues of diversity, about the regions and nations, about the health of people and fitness to practise, but these were not in our remit. They are things which can be conducted in parallel with what we are proposing here. They are not necessary for it. They are good things to have and they could be done in parallel. They are very important. When I said they are not for today, I did not mean that we should put them off for ever. Instead, I sought to say that we should not mix them up with these proposals—the most important thing is to get the kind of structure suggested here in place first, and then it would be possible to deal with many of these issues. I share the views of those who said that under these circumstances we will have to move to being a more professional House, and I am confident that we can move in that direction.
The second issue that came up a lot was size. We were told that we had tried to solve the wrong problem because the issue is not the size of this House. I have repeatedly argued in all the presentations I have made, and it is something that the committee came to agree quite quickly, that size is only one aspect of this. The cap on numbers was by far the most important issue. I think almost everybody who criticised the concentration on the size of the House neglected to address the cap and what happens when the system is unbounded, as was pointed out earlier this afternoon. It is the combination of a lack of a cap on the size of the House and a lifelong ability to sit in this House that has created the enormous difficulty that we have and all the inflationary pressures that come from it. If people are appointed at, say, 55, which is the sort of trend that we are seeing, and live to 85 on average—and that is going up—we have people here for 30 years, so what size of House do we need in order to get a reasonable amount of turnover? What size of House do you need in order to rebalance it after a change of Government? The arithmetic of this is really very difficult. It is not just the size; if you have an unbounded system and the possibility of people being in this House for 30 years on average, you have a set of circumstances which is very difficult to solve without simply seeing the size of the House continue to grow. I regard that as a very dangerous situation.
A number of noble Lords made points about age. Certainly the committee had no problem with the idea of age being a factor in determining who should leave during the transition period, or possibly age combined with time served when we were going through the process of trying to adjust from the present House of 800 plus down to 600, but we have to bear in mind that under the present arrangements, and we believe that it is very difficult to avoid it, this would have to be a voluntary process. It is not something that can be imposed upon people who came into the House in different circumstances. We have seen no legal evidence as yet that the House has the power to impose a retirement age upon Members. If people can demonstrate that it does have the power, that raises a different set of issues, but we were working on the basis that the House does not have that power.
The real problem is that we cannot use age for the steady-state solution because it does not produce the stream of retirements that is needed in a regular pattern and it certainly does not produce them on an equal basis across all parties to result in what we described as a fair system. The point at which we will die and leave under those circumstances has quite a lot of randomness about it. The beauty of the term system is that it produces a regular flow of opportunities to make new appointments and it can be designed so that it is fair to all parties.
We spent hours on the subject of legislation. We did not simply decide at our first meeting that we had to do this without legislation. We looked at a lot of different options, but we were very conscious of the Government’s position on this and of the competing legislation that was likely to be around. Nothing prevents any of the changes that people have suggested with regard to the Bishops, the hereditaries and some of the other aspects if legislation is possible, but there is nothing to stop those things being subject to legislation after this system is in place and we have got agreement about the structure. A number of things could follow. I said this morning that it is possible that it might be sensible to have legislation for some of these things at a subsequent time when everyone was satisfied that the system had bedded down and there was the opportunity for legislation.
The question I asked myself and members of the committee asked themselves was whether we should wait to make any progress on these other issues until we had a slot for legislation, or should try to put together a system that could be worked on on a non-legislative basis, but which legislation could be brought to bear on at a later point. That certainly remains my position, having heard the points that have been made today.
It was pointed out that under our proposals there would be a rather slow adjustment to changes of government, and that under our formula, the Labour Party would have been at its peak in 2009. Well, that is scarcely surprising, as by then it had been in office for 12 years, and of course that was the actual position. We tried to show in the report that the calculations in the model produced results not that different from the actual results. The Labour Party came into office in 1997, but was not the largest party for quite some years after that point.
The noble Lords, Lord Sherbourne and Lord Tyler, made the point that this House would be deciding the formula for party size et cetera, whereas the House of Commons should be doing it. My impression was that the House of Commons has no impact at all on the size or the composition of the House of Lords. That is entirely in the hands of a series of Prime Ministers. This is not something that anybody has decided. Indeed, our proposal is that this would be part and parcel of an agreement, so the Prime Minister would still be in the same position, certainly regarding influencing the size, because this agreement, as many noble Lords pointed out, cannot carry on without the agreement of the Government.
My interpretation of today—and I feel very encouraged by it—is that there is a substantial consensus about the need for reform and that there is a lot of support for the proposals. Our rough calculation is that 80% of speakers said that they thought this was a sensible way of moving forward. My hope is that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can now take a very strong message back to the Prime Minister. Of course, it requires the support of the Prime Minister, which we have made clear from the beginning. Without that, it really cannot go anywhere. This is in its essence an agreement between the party leaders, and the Prime Minister is in the key position here as the person who will giving up most of the flexibility and has to be able to agree with this.
I hope that our Leader will be able to exercise her powers of persuasion and to explain what has happened in this House today and the amount of support for this, so that we can possibly move forward to a next stage where we look at implementation in a great deal more detail, come together to try to form an agreement between the parties and clear up some of the other issues that have been raised. Meanwhile, I beg to move.
House adjourned at 9.18 pm.