Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the Report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and all those who have made today’s debate possible so soon after the publication of our report. I also recognise the contribution of my fellow committee members. It has been a great pleasure to work with them. We produced a unanimous report and the contributions of all members were very important. We were fortunate in having the support of the talented Tom Wilson as clerk, together with his team, and some experienced external advisers, who are listed in the report.
The committee has been greatly encouraged by the response of noble Lords to our proposals, and indeed from those outside the House. For their part, the Government have made it clear that they are interested in finding out whether the committee’s conclusions command widespread support in the House. I hope that today’s debate, involving almost 100 noble Lords, will serve that purpose and demonstrate that the proposals have strong backing.
Today, I will not repeat the details of the report. Many noble Lords have already heard me go through them—some more than once, I am afraid to say. Rather, first I will make a few general comments about key aspects of the committee’s approach and proposals. Then I will tackle some of the questions and issues raised with us since publication. Later today—if it is today—I will try to answer queries and concerns raised in the debate.
From the outset, the committee recognised that most people were understandably focusing on how to reduce the current number of Members of this House. By contrast, little thought had been given to how to stop the historic tendency of the House to increase in size. Whatever your views on the current or future size of the House, such a trend is simply not sustainable. Accordingly, while looking at how to get numbers down, we also focused on designing a system which would cap the membership of the House for as long as it remains an appointed Chamber—we called this the “steady state”.
Throughout our discussions, the committee’s overriding priority was pragmatism. We all know how difficult it is to achieve any legislative reform of this House. We set out to design a system which could be implemented without legislation, but which could be formalised in statute in due course if the political will was there. I stress that the purpose is not to exempt our proposals from the spotlight of legislative scrutiny in both Houses. Rather, it is to make progress in the areas where widespread agreement can be reached, as quickly as possible.
The first step was to analyse the options for ensuring a turnover of Members sufficient to allow the membership to be rebalanced and refreshed within a cap. It is clear to us—the reasons are set out in the report—that fixed terms are the only solution which will provide a steady stream of vacancies in a way which is fair to all groups. Therefore a key pillar of our recommendations is that all new Members should serve a single, non-renewable fixed term of 15 years. They would be offered the peerage on that basis and would make an undertaking to retire after 15 years when joining the House. We do not envisage any Members going back on their word, but we have robust legal advice that the House has the powers to enforce the undertaking to retire.
A second pillar is that appointments which became available would be allocated between the parties on the basis of the most recent general election results. This would be calculated as a combination of each party’s share of Commons seats and of the national vote. Along with 15-year terms, this would mean that the composition of the House at any point once we reach a steady state would give a 15-year picture of the political views of the country, as expressed in elections. Our calculations in the report show how the relative strength of the parties would have developed historically under our proposals. For recent years, they generally mirror what happened in real life in broad terms—with the single crucial difference that it would have been within a cap of 600 Members. Election results would of course not affect the Cross-Benchers. They would, as proposed by the great majority of your Lordships and others, make up a constant proportion of at least 20% of the House.
I now turn to the more immediate question of reducing the current membership to a reasonable level in a way that is fair to all, which is what the committee called the transition. The weight of opinion supported a membership of about 600, although our proposals would work just as well with a higher or lower number, within reason. In reducing the current membership of 824 to 600, there are two important but conflicting priorities. The first is to make the reduction within a reasonable period. The second is to enable a continuing flow of new appointments, so that the membership can be refreshed and rebalanced rather than stagnating.
The committee came to the view that, until we were down to a membership of 600, the best compromise would be a system with half of the departures contributing towards a reduction in the overall membership and the other half being allocated to new appointees. Once the target had been reached, each departure would lead to one appointment. I emphasise that these figures apply in aggregate across the House, not within each party group. I will touch on this later because there has been some confusion.
Appointments would be made in line with election results as I described earlier, so replacement rates would vary between parties. The speed by which the target of 600 is reached depends on how rapidly existing Members leave the House. We understand that no current Members can be forced to leave without legislation, so it will be for the House as a whole to decide how quickly to proceed and for individual Members to retire when the time comes.
The committee’s report sets out a proposed profile of departures, which would enable the House to come down to 600 over about 11 years. The departure rate starts off gently but increases over time; the committee came to this view because it reflected the increasing age and length of service of current Members, and the fact that they will have longer to make retirement plans. Each party group would contribute the same number of retirements as a proportion of its pre-2018 membership each year, but of course the number of new appointments would vary according to how well that party had performed in the most recent election. As for which individuals should leave and when, the committee felt it was right to leave this decision in the hands of the party groups, but we have made some suggestions. For example, age or a combination of age and service might be useful yardsticks.
These are the key elements of the scheme. If we are to make progress, we will need agreement from the Prime Minister that she will make new appointments in line with the suggested formula for total numbers and for the allocation of appointments by party. She has the power to give this scheme the momentum it needs. If subsequently we can show progress it is difficult to imagine that her successors would revert to the current unsustainable position. But to get to this position we require the support of the party groups, which will be responsible for meeting the retirement targets agreed by the House—and a willingness from all of us to take a constructive approach to our own retirement plans.
I now turn to some of the main comments and queries we have received since the report was published. First, many people have asked why the reduction to 600 cannot take place more quickly. It certainly could, but increasing the ratio of departures to new appointments would slow down the flow of appointments, with a knock-on effect on refreshment and rebalancing. The only desirable way of speeding up the reduction is for people to retire at a faster rate. This is in the hands of your Lordships. The committee put forward what it thought was a reasonable pace.
Secondly, others have suggested that the “equal contribution” process is unfair—why should each party be required to achieve the same rate of departures regardless of whether they are currently overrepresented or underrepresented in the House? But departures are only half the story. It is necessary to take into account both departures and appointments. Because new appointments will be allocated on the basis of the most recent election the party breakdown will adjust accordingly from day one. If a party’s electoral performance is better than its initial share of seats, its overall share of the House will gradually increase—and if its electoral performance is worse than its initial share of seats its overall share of the House will fall.
The third common query has been about what happens to groups that miss or exceed their departure targets. The answer is straightforward: for each departure below or above target the party gets one less or one more appointment. We are satisfied that there is no realistic way of gaming this arrangement. A party that overdelivers on retirements will have more appointments but this will not affect its total strength in the House. Similarly, a party that underdelivers on retirements will have fewer appointments but will not gain in its overall party strength.
Fourthly, some Members have expressed their dissatisfaction that the hereditary by-election system is left intact under our proposals and that the number of Bishops will remain at 26. We have stressed that this does not reflect our personal preferences, but the reality is that legislation would be needed to make any changes in these areas. We suggest that this is not an issue for today.
Fifthly, a number of people have stressed that a Prime Minister needs to be able to appoint Ministers directly to the House. The committee agrees. Our proposals make specific provision for Prime Ministers to bring forward one of their appointments when they are due, enabling them to appoint Ministers at short notice.
Sixthly, there was some concern about effective Ministers being forced to leave office when their Lords terms expire. We propose that serving Ministers within the statutory cap, as well as certain Lords officeholders, should be allowed to remain in the House until the end of their period of office, even if this takes them beyond the 15 years.
Seventhly, some Members have asked what would happen in certain unusual circumstances, such as the swift emergence of a new party or a party refusing to use its allocation of appointments. I refer noble Lords to appendix 5, which deals with these issues.
Finally, we are aware that our proposals in respect of non-affiliated Members need further work. We hope that they will sign up to the principles of the scheme and take a responsible decision about when to retire, but we accept that the House may need to exert pressure in some instances. It is particularly important to get this right so that there are no incentives for Members of the main groups to join the list of non-affiliated Members to avoid the tap on the shoulder from their group.
We have also received representations on a number of issues which, while we have sympathy with the points raised, were not within our remit. These include the regional, gender, age and ethnic balance of the House, which lies in the hands of the party leaders and HOLAC, who are responsible for selecting new Members. We have also had questions about the system of financial support for Members, which is a matter for the House of Lords Commission and the party leaders.
These are important issues for the future. The only question now is whether implementing our proposals would make it more or less likely that we would be in a position to make progress with these issues. For myself, I cannot see why the position would be worse and in the longer term I hope we would see an improvement.
In concluding, I say to your Lordships that this may well be the last opportunity for the House to tackle its size on its own terms. Our proposals would end the anomaly of it being the only Chamber in a western democracy which has no cap on its size and no limits on length of service. Resolution of this issue would comprise the third and final key step in the development of a sustainable appointed House, without prejudice to any future introduction of elections.
The first step was the introduction of life peerages in 1958, which enabled Prime Ministers to rebalance the composition of the House without creating permanent titles to be handed down the generations. The second step was the House of Lords Act 1999, which largely dealt with the outmoded phenomenon of membership by birthright. The problem is that neither reform dealt with the inflationary pressures which stem from combining political rebalancing with lifelong membership. I regard the committee’s proposals as this third step.
If we can create a system which enables rebalancing and refreshing of the membership within a fixed cap we will have cracked a problem inherent in granting peerages that entitle the recipient to a lifelong seat in this House. I greatly look forward to hearing the views of noble Lords throughout the day. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thought that it would be helpful to the House to say at the outset that I will keep my remarks brief, as my main purpose today is to listen to what the House has to say about the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the other members of the committee. This report is a serious piece of work that provides much food for thought about how we might address the size of this House. I am grateful to all noble Lords contributing today. This is a debate in which views from across the House are important, as this is a report by the House for the House.
During today’s debate, I hope that noble Lords will give their views on the report and ask any questions they have about the analysis and recommendations. It will be for the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and not for me, to respond to those questions. It may be that, arising from this debate, the committee wishes to reconvene to consider additional points, which I understand it has offered to do if necessary.
What has been clear to me through discussions with noble Lords over the past few months is that there is a desire, across all Benches, to ensure that, whatever reforms might be implemented in the future, this House continues to draw on the invaluable breadth of expertise and experience of Peers as we do today so that we can continue to perform our important role of scrutinising and revising.
The Government have been clear that comprehensive reform of this House which requires legislation is not a priority for the current Parliament. The House we have today is not the product of any deliberate design but draws legitimacy from the value it adds to the legislative process, complementing the work of the elected House.
Noble Lords who have been in this House much longer than I have will have lived through both significant reforms and stalled attempts. Those attempts which failed did so because they were unable to achieve the necessary consensus, and in many cases this also meant consensus in the other place. House of Lords reform is a complex, difficult and constitutionally significant area into which anyone must be advised to tread with caution and having learned the lessons of history and unintended consequences. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have understood this and reflected it in the way they have approached their deliberations. As such, they have focused on developing proposals that they believe will not require legislation.
For the Prime Minister and the other party leaders, the committee has recommended a cap on the number of appointments made each year and a set formula when allocating those numbers to political groupings. This recommendation requires detailed consideration of the constitutional and political issues it raises. I know that the Prime Minister will consider carefully her response, as I am sure will the other party leaders.
The context of the Burns report is a widespread concern among noble Lords at the size of the House and what has been perceived as a never-ending increase in numbers, with attendant fears over the reputation and effectiveness of this House as a second Chamber. I am sure that today’s debate will reiterate this concern. In light of this, it is worth highlighting the fact that the Prime Minister has taken a restrained approach to appointments. Total membership has decreased since July 2016 when she took office.
A key first challenge that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have set the House is to take advantage of the means which already exist to help achieve this end: that is, to encourage sufficient retirements. Seventy-eight Peers have chosen to retire since 2014, when this option became available. The Conservative group in this House takes our responsibility in this regard seriously, which is reflected in the number of those retirements which have come from the Conservative Benches.
As in all things, this House works at its best when it exercises self-regulation. If we are to meet the targets that the committee has set out, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is incumbent on all groupings in this House to consider what they can do to further promote the culture of retirement among their members at the appropriate point.
Noble Lords will note that achieving sufficient retirements forms the basis and to a significant degree dictates the success of the report’s proposed approach to reaching the goal of a smaller House. We must show our commitment as a House to reducing our size if we are to expect party leaders now or in future to agree to the restrictions that the report seeks to place on them. There are indeed two sides to achieving the outcome that the report seeks to achieve.
As I made clear, I believe that if we are to make progress, we have to do this together as a House. Indeed, the recommendations set out by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee depend on this. The way forward will not be for the Government to lead on and deliver alone.
I end simply by reiterating my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the other members of the Lord Speaker’s committee for their hard work. They have produced a valuable report which I am sure will lead to a thought-provoking debate.
My Lords, as Ella Fitzgerald once sang:
“We can’t go on this way”.
A year ago this month, this House arrived at the same conclusion and agreed that reduction in our numbers into a sustained future was the way forward for our credibility and that methods be explored by which this could be achieved. The significant move did not come out of the blue. It came from the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, and thanks must go to its officers and members for their perseverance over many years. Thanks must also go to our Lord Speaker, who was determined there and then that a committee be set up urgently to explore the means by which we move forward. I was privileged to be a member of that committee, and I thank our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for his leadership and his astonishing ability to resolve multiple complex issues before our very eyes. His membership of the Magic Circle must surely be imminent. Of course I thank my fellow committee members for their wisdom, patience and good humour. After lengthy and robust debate, the final report was approved unanimously.
Not everyone in this Chamber will agree with every paragraph—some may not agree with any—but I sincerely hope that a majority of your Lordships will agree that we have a fair and sensible plan of action in front of us, within our limited terms of reference. Our challenge was to ensure respect for existing Members while laying sound foundations for a sustainable future for new Members. I believe that this is our best shot at reform for a generation, and we need to grasp this opportunity, despite it not being everyone’s perfect vision. Until we do that, as the noble Lord, Lord Burns, said, the Prime Minister, No. 10, the Government and the leadership of the political parties in the country will not hear their prompt to step on to the stage with us and be part of our reformed future. We should be proud of the detailed scrutiny we do in this House, yet that is often not as the public and the media see us. To put it mildly, we are not loved, and our willingness to embrace this report today may go some way to healing that disconnect.
In a nutshell, after listening to evidence from noble Lords and others, we recommend a future House of 600 Peers, its numbers capped, with 15-year terms for new Members, with the possibility of a five-year pause. New Members would be subject to a code of conduct undertaking to leave the House after that period. No party would have an absolute majority and a minimum of 20% of seats would be reserved for the Cross-Benchers. Parties would share political appointments in line with the results of the previous general election, based on an average of the parties’ share of the national vote and of the seats won in the House of Commons. The combination of this formula and the 15-year term limit would ensure that the future make-up of this House reflected the political views of the country over the medium term. This would be an historic first for us. To reach this point it is suggested that there be an accelerated “two out, one in” programme of departures. On page 3 of our report there is a chart showing how this would look until 2042, with a very gentle start in the first five years for existing Members.
That is what our report proposes. It does not propose new legislation. Our terms of reference were to identify practical and politically viable options that might lead to progress on this issue. Waiting for successful legislation to come along, as we know, is neither practical nor politically viable. The report does not propose a specific retirement age as society is moving away from that and, anyway, so many of our older active Members make a significant contribution to the work of Parliament. It does not propose an allocation of Peers via the nations and regions, as some noble Lords wish. We believe that it is the responsibility of the political parties to ensure that membership is not London-centric. The report does not alter the situation regarding hereditary Peers’ by-elections, despite the negative effect that has in terms of gender and background in a capped House, because that would require legislation; similarly, with the Bishops’ Bench. However, many of us believe that government support for a Private Members’ Bill, such as that of my noble friend Lord Grocott, may follow hard on the heels of this reform package being accepted. We can live in hope.
Christmas is coming and our best Christmas present to ourselves this year would be—no, not BB-8 from “The Last Jedi”—overwhelming support for the document in front of us.
My Lords, when it was announced that the Lord Speaker was to establish a committee to look at ways of reducing the size of your Lordships’ House, I do not think many of your Lordships thought that it would achieve anything. Indeed, there were some cynics who suggested that that was its very purpose. However the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have proved the doubters wrong. They have produced an elegant set of proposals that fulfil their remit and have done so by proposing a very British way forward—constitutional reform by informal agreement. They deserve our thanks.
From these Benches we have no objection to the principal features of the proposals. They would, if enacted, lead to a considerable diminution of Liberal Democrat ranks—for the foreseeable future at least—but we cannot complain about that. If we had had our way during the coalition and if the 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill had been enacted our numbers would already be smaller, as we would have had our first set of elections under the new system. Noble Lords know that we were prevented from getting the Bill through by a coalition of Labour and Conservative MPs, who by rejecting reform gave a vote of confidence to the current arrangements. It is rather amusing therefore to see members of those parties now grumbling that there are too many Liberal Democrats in your Lordships’ House. They had the chance to do something about it and they flunked it.
The proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, offer an alternative way forward. From these Benches, as I say, we support their principal features: a significantly reduced size of your Lordships’ House, party membership based on electoral performance, and a gradual phasing in of the new arrangements. We do not of course resile from our policy of having elections for the political Members of your Lordships’ House, but we are realistic enough to know that this is not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, it is highly desirable that something is done to reduce our size.
A problem about any proposal for reforming your Lordships’ House is that there are many possible models and, if past experience is anything to go by, absolutely no agreement on what a perfect arrangement would be. If we are serious about reform, I suspect that every single Member of this House will have to accept at least some features of the new system with which they disagree. If we are to have reform, therefore, we must not, individually and collectively, let the best become the enemy of the good.
There are certainly some features of the proposals before us today which we believe are not ideal. The argument for having membership based on the mean of votes cast and seats won has in our view no rationale. It is a fix. It benefits the two largest parties at the expense of everyone else and yet again reflects the steadfast determination of Labour and Conservatives alike to prevent Parliament, even your Lordships’ House, reflecting the will of the people, to their own permanent advantage.
The inability to do anything about the remaining hereditary places is also a problem. This is one element of the proposals about which we on these Benches can afford to take a relatively relaxed position, as we are barely affected, but, at this point, to have a reform which increases the proportion of hereditary Peers, however personally distinguished, is perverse. If the main thrust of the reforms are accepted by the Government, we hope that they might also relent in standing out against the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, or a Bill of their own which would deal with this problem. The same consideration applies to the number of Bishops but, again, a short, free-standing Bill could deal with the issue.
Our main concern with the proposals, however, is not their content but the attitude of the Government towards them. If we and the other parties and groups are to agree voluntarily to reduce our numbers, we need a cast-iron assurance from the Government that they will also accept them. There is no point increasing the flow of Members out of your Lordships’ House if the Government at the same time are not reducing the flow of people in. In this respect, it is concerning to read reports that, any day now, the Government plan to create another tranche of Peers. If, as seems likely, they follow the plea of St Augustine—namely, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet”—and follow this up over Christmas with another list of Peers, the proposals before us today are on the life-support system. The Government are already by far the largest bloc in the House. If this advantage is significantly increased, and if the other parties were to accept and stick to these proposals, the Conservatives would entrench their advantage for many years, even if they were to do less well in future general elections. I am sure that even noble Lords opposite who support these proposals would see this as unacceptable.
So we are prepared to give these proposals a cautious welcome today. We would greatly prefer the politicians in House to be elected. We do not think constitutional reform by informal agreement is the ideal way of entrenching things, but the key thing now is the attitude of the Government. If in today’s debate there is a large majority of support for the proposals before us, as I expect there to be, will the Prime Minister constrain her current unfettered powers to create Peers in order to make the proposals viable, and will she act in good faith by not putting more Conservatives in your Lordships’ House before the new system kicks in? To coin two phrases, the ball is in the Government’s court and the clock is ticking.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for the very helpful way in which he introduced this debate, and all members of his committee for the work they have done in the preparation of the report. How very fortunate we are that the Lord Speaker was able to capture the noble Lord, if capture is the right word, during his brief period of rest between two very demanding appointments, to perform this task for us.
As so often happens in life, the problem is easy to identify. Finding a solution to it is much more time consuming and difficult. The problem, of course, is that the House is too large and, if nothing is done about it, the House will without doubt grow still larger. The comparisons so often made with the Chinese People’s National Congress in Beijing are rather unfair. We have all seen the pictures—the serried ranks, everyone there, every seat filled, everyone anchored to their seats, no sign of any dissent from the party line. Of course, we are not like that. For one thing, so much of what we do is done outside the Chamber, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, pointed out yesterday. For another, in our case, attendance is not compulsory. The daily average at present is only about 490. In the case of the Cross-Bench group, for example, on any given day, no more than about half of our number are present. To a not insignificant extent, therefore, we are a part-time House. We draw strength from that. Many of our Members have outside interests, their engagement with which adds to the quality of our debates and the work of our committees. Nevertheless, our increasing size is an embarrassment to say the least, and if nothing is done, it risks being even more than that. We are running out of space. We cannot give everyone the desks and office space that they need. That, in short, is the problem.
What, then, of the solution that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues have come up with? In answering that question I must make it clear that, although I am their Convenor, it is not open to me to express a view on the issue on behalf of the Cross-Bench group. It was suggested that I should seek to gather signatures from our membership in support of the report. But that is not the way that the group works. It is not for me to tell them what to do or to canvass support for either side. What I can say, however, that it is my impression—1 can put it no higher than that— that the group is in favour of the report’s conclusions. I base that impression on the complete absence of complaints or representations given to me against it, and on the many indications that I have received of support for it.
I am sure that if any of the 31 Cross-Benchers who will speak after me disagree, they will make their position clear. My own position, for what it may be worth, is that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has taken our search for a solution a very long way. This is an excellent report, which deserves to be supported. But I must leave it to those who will speak after me from the Cross Benches to express their own views.
Time is short, and this is not an occasion to go into detail, but, speaking for myself, I am content with the recommendation that we should seek to limit our numbers to 600. A system of fixed-term appointments is far preferable to a system based on age or length of service, and I am of course happy with the recommendation that the Cross-Bench group should be fixed at 20% of the House’s membership. But I must face the fact that reducing the number of Peers on the Cross Benches in the way recommended by the report will not be an easy task. The Convenor can advise or try to persuade, but cannot direct or give orders to anybody. Of course, everything will depend on whether the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, will support the scheme. I very much echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, in searching for a cast-iron guarantee in that respect. I hope that they will be able to give that. The scheme cannot operate without their agreement.
I should like, however, to mention one matter that, although not within the remit of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, will require careful attention if the scheme goes ahead—here I echo some words of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. We must try to ensure that all regions are properly represented so that the House does not become even more centred on London and the south-east than it already is. Members who attend less frequently, and would thus be among those more likely to be asked to leave as we reduce our numbers, tend to be those who live further afield. We must not be too ready to ask them to go. We must also bear in mind that the daily allowances have not been increased to keep pace with inflation since they were introduced seven years ago. Left as they are, they risk leaving Members who have to find accommodation in London out of pocket day after day after their hotel bills or other costs have been paid. Those who live in London do not face those costs and they do not have to travel long distances to get here.
This is a serious issue for people like myself who do. If, as seems likely, a smaller House will require more frequent attendance, steps will have to be taken to ensure that those who live further away are not so penalised by lack of support that they will stop coming, as some perhaps already do. I am sure that other factors will require attention as we reduce our numbers, but the need for proper representation by Members from all parts of the country and ensuring that they are not out of pocket when they come here—that at least they are entitled to expect—should be high in the order of priority.
My Lords, as convener of the Lords spiritual, I welcome warmly the report of the Speaker’s Committee and pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his fellow committee members for their thoughtful and thorough attention to the question of the size of the House, which we all agree is in need of urgent resolution. I notice that the word “magic” has already been used in the debate, but the desire for love has also been added at Christmas time. To hear the leader of the Lib Dems imploring the work of the Lord in becoming pure is a most encouraging start to this debate.
The main recommendations of the committee are ones that I hope most of us in this House can rally behind. They offer a set of suggestions which, with good will and a spirit of co-operation, not least from the party leaderships, will provide us with a route map for reducing the membership of this House to a more acceptable level. That is something that my predecessors as convener and many others on these Benches have supported consistently. Rather than comment on the detail of the proposals, I thought that it would be helpful to focus my remarks on what the report did or did not say about the Lords spiritual.
A central feature of the recommendations of the report, as we have heard, is their non-statutory approach. In my own submission to the committee I suggested that a statutory solution was one that was most likely to stick. But these are finely balanced judgments and I can certainly see the case for moving quickly if there is a broad consensus behind achieving these changes without legislation. As the committee noted, a side-effect of the non-statutory approach is that there can be no change under this method to the number of Lords spiritual. As many noble Lords will know, as well as a retirement age of 70, these Benches operate under a cap fixed by legislation dating back 170 years, which would require further legislation to amend.
At the time that cap was placed on these Benches, Bishops made up around 5.7% of a much smaller House. To put that into some context, had the Victorians decided to fix Bishop numbers by proportion instead of a number, there would currently be 45 of us squeezing on to these Benches. As it is, while the number on these Benches has remained fixed and static at 26 for the best part of two centuries, our proportion in relation to the rest of the House has fluctuated as the number of Peers has risen, fallen, and risen again. It currently stands, as noble Lords have already calculated, being mathematically accurate like the chairman of the committee, at 3.3%.
In my submission to the committee, I made it clear that there is a variety of views on these Benches about reform of this House, numbers and proportions. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who said in a recent newspaper article that the most important thing was to get the major structure in place and not to be distracted from that by more complicated details such as legislation for Bishop numbers. We have no wish to be a distraction to the House on this urgent work. Having canvassed opinion on these Benches, I will briefly say something about the general consensus that I believe there is.
The proposals of the committee would see this House reduced to three-quarters of its current size. One has to go back over 30 years to when this House debated a government proposal on Sunday trading to find an occasion when more than three-quarters of the Lords spiritual took part in a single Division. That is partly a natural result of the Bishops’ Benches not operating in a bloc or as a party. The Bishops are 26 independent Members and, though I am a convenor, I am neither their leader nor their Whip, as we have heard with a similar group in the House this morning. Perhaps, like the Convenor of the Cross Benches, I may have some influence; that is no reference to our origin in Scotland, but to a possibility for making things work under the arrangements that we have.
Unlike other Benches in this House, 100% of the membership of these Benches have significant—some would say full-time—external responsibilities covering the regions of the country. It is fair to say that any problems of overcrowding experienced in the House are not generally caused by too many Bishops filling the Lobbies, blocking the gangways or occupying any other part of the House where people may gather. I cannot envisage another situation, certainly while the process of achieving a reduction is ongoing, where a similarly high proportion on these Benches would attend for a debate or vote. When legislation for reform looks set to come before the House that has the backing of the Government and commands the support of a wide constituency we will of course engage closely on the issue of Bishops’ numbers and proportions. Until then, we will continue to be as committed and active servants of the House and the country as we can, all the while operating fully within the spirit of the committee’s proposals.
My Lords, I cannot pretend that I come to this subject entirely with a fresh mind. I have been at it for years. When I chaired the royal commission some 17 years ago—a number of very good friends were on the commission with me at that time—the House then had around 600 Members. It now has around 800 and some people have forecast that if we go on as we are, it will not be long before we are at 1,000. I remember talking to the Bishops at that time and, if I may say so, the right reverend Prelate’s contribution to our debate today reminded me of those discussions. The Bishops have a view and put it very eloquently, but they are also extremely co-operative on finding a practical and sensible way forward. His speech fitted exactly into that role.
The House decided that we ought to do something about our size. However, the essential point, which has been made several times already, is that getting the numbers down is pretty useless unless we have a plan to keep them down. The Lord Speaker took the initiative and set up a committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I have served on a good many Select Committees over the years and chaired a fair number of them; I do not think I have ever had a chairman as good as the noble Lord, Lord Burns, was of our committee. He was absolutely first-class and we are extremely grateful to him for what he did.
We decided early on that there was absolutely no chance of legislation and that we had to explore the self-regulatory methods. I say at the outset that self-regulation puts a great responsibility on each of us and unless we are prepared to go along with it, nothing will be achieved. We looked first at the question of the numbers and our first task was to see how we could get them down, but we had to have a system for keeping them down in a way that was fair for all and broadly reflected public opinion over the medium term. There was no attempt at all in our committee to alter the conventions of the House or the way we operate. Establishing that in our minds enabled us to consider ways of reducing the total membership, bearing in mind that we are appointed for life and cannot be forced to retire, but that a voluntary system of retirement is essential if we do not have legislation.
That is the nutshell of our proposals. We looked in our proposals at the different components that make up the House and we hope we will all consider these proposals very seriously. Those who serve currently in the House of Lords—existing Members—cannot be forced out without legislation. There is some flexibility in our conclusions—how quick and so on—but I explained it to people like this: “If you have been in the House for 20 years and are over 80, maybe in the next five years you ought to think about retiring”. That did not seem a terribly harsh view; a great many of your Lordships will think that a reasonable and responsible way to go.
The opposition parties get a guarantee of replacements, but cannot be expected to agree to our proposals unless they can be sure that the House does and—as has already been said—that the Government do. For the Government the decision is more finely balanced, but I come down on the side of giving the proposals a fair go. The number of peerages that the Prime Minister can recommend will not be very different under our proposals from the average number that Prime Ministers have recommended since the passing of the Life Peerages Act. Indeed, I see some advantages for the Government. They will be able to get a firmer commitment from potential Peers that they will attend and work, particularly as it is possible to grant a peerage without a seat in the House of Lords, as we pointed out in our report.
The Government are entitled to be assured that the House will accept self-regulation in the way we propose, however. There will need to be another debate to confirm that and the way the House wishes to go. The Government must have confidence that the House will not seek to use its majority in a way more assertive than it has historically done. If the Government could be satisfied on those matters I would say to the House, “Let’s give it a go”. That would not in all circumstances be a long-term commitment, but if the House agreed to the scheme of self-regulation so should the Government. However, if there is no such commitment, the Government clearly cannot go along with it. If self-regulation were agreed and then broke down, the Government would be able to revert to the existing system without any legislation, but I hope very much that that is never the way things go.
I would not think it wise for a Government who were assured that their business would be sustained to seek to prevent a House reforming itself by a self-regulatory agreement, to reduce excess numbers and make itself more efficient and more acceptable in the eyes of public opinion.
My Lords, I wish to make just two broad arguments: about the imperative for reform now, and the legitimacy of the committee whose recommendations we are invited to endorse by taking note of its report today.
I will deal first with the legitimacy of the committee and its report. With the commendably active support of the Lord Speaker, your Lordships’ House established a fully representative Committee to look at reforms to deal with our increasingly embarrassing, ballooning size. Collectively, each major party and Cross-Benchers determined who should sit on it and who chaired it; it is our committee. Some colleagues have questioned details or specifics in the report and, yes, there are arguments for special pleading on this or that detail. Of course Members will find reason—I trust not excuse—in each bit to criticise the whole, but surely we all have to accept that the whole package hangs together or falls together. It is most ingeniously interconnected. Surely the point is that reducing the size has always been fiendishly complex, and that the committee has done an amazing job in solving the hitherto seemingly insoluble.
Secondly, I will talk about the imperative to act now. Weight watchers have shown that the best way to tackle a problem of excess is to combine personal responsibility with collective resolve and mutual support. The alternative—drastic surgery—involves unnecessary risk, no guarantee of success and an unpredictable outcome. A Commons Select Committee, having already begun considering the matter, stands ready to report but awaits the conclusion of your Lordships’ House. The media are also waiting to pounce. Newspapers, MPs and Ministers have already made threats over Brexit, which will doubtless increase to a crescendo when the withdrawal Bill reaches us early next year.
Yet we all know that things cannot continue as they are. We number over 800 and rising. Commercial properties are commandeered in the vicinity at great expense to provide us with additional offices. Through no fault of our own, we have become not so much an embarrassment but, many say, a scandal. At a time of austerity, when everything else is cut, our numbers rise inexorably through no fault of our own—until now.
Until we set up this committee to recommend reform some among your Lordships could argue we were more sinned against than sinners. We did not fill this House to bursting; Prime Ministers did. We did not put ourselves here, others did—although we all agreed with their immense wisdom in choosing each one of us. But all that changed when we, absolutely correctly, decided to establish the committee to solve the problem. That decision—our decision—means the buck stops right here with us in this Chamber today. Find excuses and we will be rightly pilloried. I therefore urge that the recommendations of this report are endorsed and implemented as soon as practicable early in the new year. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Burns, in replying will confirm this and I hope the Lord Speaker, with the party leaders, will also make sure that this happens.
When the committee was first established, I asked one venerable sage on our Benches for a view on the likely outcome. “It will be shelved as reform always has been shelved,” he said with a weary, knowing smile. I trust your Lordships’ House will prove him wrong. Things have reached a point where change is unavoidable. The question is therefore not whether there is change, but who makes it. Either this House takes responsibility or it will pass to the Commons and the Government. Either we reform ourselves or others will reform us.
My Lords, it was a privilege and a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and to work with such a wise group of Members as composed the committee. Among us there were differing views about the future of the House and many more differing views have been expressed today and will be before the day is over. These are on a range of issues: what to do about hereditary by-elections, how many bishops there should be, the methods of selection, the allowance system and the way—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, pointed out—it works against those distant from London. There are the also other respects in which the system tends to make it difficult for people to undertake work here if they are not London-based.
But we need to act and we do so at a time when major legislation is frankly out of the question, particularly when we see what other legislation is heading down the track as a result of Brexit. We need to control the size of the House in order to protect its reputation and, indeed, to avoid raising question marks over all new appointments to the House, however meritorious, that will result from people saying, “It is too big already. Why is this or that person being appointed?”. We need to enable the refreshment of the membership of the House. We cannot simply lock the doors and put up a “House full” sign and preserve the present House. Attractive though that might be to noble Lords, we have to enable the groups to bring in new people and we need to reflect shifting public opinion over time.
It is time to bury the now fanciful notion of Prime Ministers packing the Lords with hundreds of Peers as a response to government defeats in this House. We say in paragraph 3 of our report that Governments over the years have learned how to get their legislation through, with concessions, arguments and the eventual deference of the House to the primacy of the Commons. Prime Ministers will remain under pressure from many directions to appoint Peers, as any former Prime Minister or former Chief Whip will in all honesty admit. In the absence of an orderly process it is more difficult to resist that pressure. If we can put in place the kind of process that the committee has recommended, so that Governments and other parties are all working within a clear and understood system, strong pressures can be resisted.
I hope not to see not merely to see a firm government commitment to go ahead with these proposals but that kind of commitment as part of the advice given to future Governments, featuring in the Cabinet Office manual and becoming a settled part of how we organise things for so long as this is an appointed House. As my noble friend has pointed out, we on these Benches wanted to see a predominantly elected House, but that is for another day and for the kind of legislative opportunities which clearly are not coming our way at the moment.
We have set out a scheme which is fair to parties and groups, fair to existing Peers, imposes no fixed term or formula on them, fair to new Peers—who will come in on an understanding that they will serve for 15 years—and does not challenge the role of this House or the primacy of the Commons. But for it to happen, we need a clear expression of wide support in the House—which can be achieved today—and a clear indication that the Government are willing to accept and operate the system. Once it is in place, any Government failing to observe the cap would bring retirements on all sides to a sudden halt. Just as Opposition parties can pull out of the scheme so, as has been explained, can the Government. It is a voluntary scheme based on mutual respect and understanding.
On House of Lords reform, support for our proposals may not be unanimous, but I believe that it is very widespread indeed, quite widespread enough for the Government to accept that it should go forward. This is the only show in town, so let us go for it.
My Lords, this report opens up yet another phase in the long struggle to defend the integrity of this House and maintain the authority of our bicameral Parliament. It is a cause to which I have devoted the past 25 years of my life and, decrepit as I may be, I am not giving it up yet. Parliament is and must remain the chief forum of the nation, never more so than at a time when the country’s future in Europe and the world is at a critical stage.
I support the thrust of the report very much, although I have reservations about some of its proposals, as many of us have. For example, I would prefer the age of retirement to be clear cut, as outlined in the Labour Peers’ report of 2014, rather than the 15-year sentence of Burns—but those reservations will have to wait for another day.
What matters now is that we seize the opportunity that the Government’s election manifesto gave us to put our own House in order without legislation. Of course, that does not give us carte blanche. Our principal aim should be to encourage a faster rate of retirement and promote the recruitment of new Members whose abilities, experience and suitability are examined and endorsed by a more authoritative Lords Appointments Commission. The independent guarantee of a candidate’s suitability will be even more important in a much smaller House—here, I confess that I would like a cap on this House’s membership of about 400.
I shall be content to go when the time comes, but I shall not go alone; I intend to take others with me. Neither shall I go to make way for another tranche of prime ministerial appointments for services rendered to No. 10 or payments to party funds—that is out.
If I may pose a question, I would like to do so as they do in the other place. It goes something like this: will the Prime Minister, in the course of her busy day, accept the need to curtail her powers of patronage and, by so doing, reduce the size of the House of Lords and make possible the reforms we urgently need? Let us not hold our breath on that one.
The Burns report is complex in many respects. Some of its proposals are far reaching and, of course, much depends on the Prime Minister’s co-operation. Much also depends on strengthening the authority of the Lords Appointments Commission—I am very keen that it should have greater authority in statute— to examine appointees not only for acceptability but, more importantly, for suitability.
Alas, I do not share the optimism of the distinguished academic adviser to the Burns Committee that the report is,
“focused on what can be implemented straightaway”.
Aligning future appointments to reflect the votes cast in general elections is a daunting long-term proposition. So is the suggestion of draconian financial pressure to unseat stubborn Peers. I must also question the opinion of the committee’s legal adviser that, on balance, we are the sole judges of the lawfulness of our own proceedings. To my mind, there should be no doubt about the balance: we need to keep the courts out of our business.
This may be our last chance for many years to reform this House. Our inflated size fosters our laughing-stock image. Its burial, I say, is long overdue.
My Lords, it is a real privilege to be able to follow one of the great Speakers of the other place. She has certainly not lost her vim or vigour, nor her questioning powers. I begin by declaring an interest as the chairman of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, of which the noble Baroness is a regular attender and participant. I also have to apologise on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who, with me, began this group in 2001. Sadly, he has to be at the funeral in Hull of a very close friend and mentor today. Another founder member of the group, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, is also at a funeral today of his oldest and closest friend.
In extending sympathy to them and giving an apology to the House, I am also warning noble Lords that we will not have the benefit of their wisdom and experience. Another person has asked me to mention his absence, about which he is very sorry—my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. He asked me to stress, particularly to colleagues on this side of the House, that he stands 100% in support of the Burns report. That does not mean that he agrees with every jot and tittle; nobody possibly could. But we owe the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues a real debt of gratitude for the rigour and vigour with which they conducted their investigations, the elegance—a word used by the noble Lord, Lord Newby—of their conclusions, and for producing something that is entirely practical.
As I am in the business of giving thanks, I would like to say how much we owe to our Lord Speaker. I had the honour of introducing a debate on 5 December last year that addressed this problem, in which more than 60 Members of your Lordships’ House took part. Within two weeks of that debate—a year ago tomorrow—the Lord Speaker announced from the Woolsack that he was setting up a committee under the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and gave the names of the committee’s members. That committee got down to work immediately and would have produced its report much earlier, had it not been for the somewhat unexpected general election with which we were confronted earlier this year.
We owe the noble Lord, Lord Burns, a real thank you for what he has done. At recent, well-attended meetings of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, we have had unanimous support for the general principle of the Burns report. I hope that, after today’s long day, we will be able to convince my noble friend the Leader of the House, whose suggestion it was when she wound up the debate last year that the Lord Speaker might convene a committee, that there is—not unanimous; that is impossible—widespread support for the Burns proposals. I hope that she will then respond by doing all she can to facilitate progress towards implementation of these very sensible proposals. As a number of colleagues in all parts of the House have said, if we get the Government to respond, they will have to recognise that successful Burns implementation depends on the Government accepting constraints and limitations on their power, particularly the prime ministerial power of appointment.
We have no written constitution in our country; we operate through evolution. If we are to accept this report and all its implications we have to recognise that there will be new conventions within our system. Of course, this is nothing new. As it has evolved our constitution has required recognition of the acceptable, rather than assertion of the theoretically possible. That is why no monarch has declined to give assent to an Act of Parliament since the reign of good Queen Anne. If we are to build a new Chamber capped at 600 Members, those constraints must be accepted.
I conclude by echoing what has already been said by a number of colleagues. There will be no change unless your Lordships’ House wills it. We will not have this chance again this Parliament and who knows what will happen after that. One of the fundamental principles of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I founded in 2001, is that the supremacy ultimately lies with the elected Chamber. We believe in an appointed House because we do not wish to confound the position of the elected Chamber by having an ambiguous mandate at this end of the Corridor.
I urgently request that everyone here considers very carefully indeed that this is a chance that may not come again and certainly will not come again in the near future. Let us show the Leader of the House that we are very much behind these proposals and, having done that, let us hope that we can proceed to seeing them implemented during the rest of this Parliament.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who, as he said, chairs the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, a group of which I am very proud to be a member. I was also a member of the Labour Party’s working group to which the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, alluded earlier, which looked at these issues a couple of years ago. Therefore, I am in a reasonably good position to say that the task that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his team undertook was fiendishly difficult and that they have have done an extraordinarily good job in resolving what some people have already referred to as apparently irresolvable issues.
They have presented us with a report which, of course, it is easy to pick holes in if one is minded so to do. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, did it very effectively himself. However, in my view it is not helpful at this point not to take a broader overall view of what the report offers, precisely for the reason the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, identified, which is that this opportunity to help ourselves will not come again, probably in this Parliament or, possibly, ever. So we had better take the opportunity before us.
Many of your Lordships will be familiar with William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, “Othello” and will therefore recall the painful cry of despair from young Cassio when he finds himself fallen from grace through, to quote my noble friend Lord Hain, “no fault of his own”. He says:
“Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation, I have lost the immortal part of myself—and what remains is bestial”.
Those are strong words, but that is, and has been for some time, the danger in which we now stand.
It was not Cassio’s fault that he lost his reputation. He, like the House of Lords, was misunderstood, misrepresented and traduced, as we frequently are. But that does not alter the fact that reputation once lost is extremely hard to regain. We have an opportunity now to stop our reputation from becoming irrecoverable. The virtue of this report is that it is constructed to deliver benefits over a reasonably long period, but which, if we take them, will last. And they would do so without impeding or preventing wholesale reform of a different kind should any Government suddenly find themselves with the time and energy to undertake it—although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, suggested, it would be unwise to hold our breath on that either.
Our job in this matter and in others is to take the long view, thinking not just of ourselves and what will immediately impact on us, but on those who come after. Let us give these proposals fair wind. Let us send the Leader of the House, who gracefully contributed to the debate earlier, a strong message that she can take back to the Prime Minister that there is consensus in this House for this kind of reform, and let us get on with it.
First, my Lords, I send many congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on their report, which is at once wise and ingenious. Some have argued in the past that reform of the Lords, although it may be desirable, is not a matter of great urgency. I respectfully disagree. I believe that our present size of 824 absolute membership and 798 actual membership, second in size only to the legislature of the Chinese People’s Republic and significantly larger than the House of Commons, brings us into disrepute. I feel embarrassed when someone enquires about our size, even when I stress that the average daily attendance is only about 484.
The other reason is expense. We live at a time of austerity for a great many and, if the House of Commons is coming down in size, we have a duty to consider our own position from that point of view. Apart from our present size, as so many noble Lords have emphasised, if we do not accept the proposals in this report, the House would continue to grow larger, as it has done in recent years—82 new life Peers having been created since 1 January 2015 alone.
I had the good fortune to be a member of the royal commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and I find it encouraging, therefore, that some of our key proposals have emerged in the Burns report. Fundamental of course is the proposal that no one party should have an overall majority and that the proportion of seats in the Lords should in some way reflect the voting figures at the previous election. No less crucial is the proposal for terms of 15 years rather than life. That seems to be the right length. The average age of the 82 new Peers appointed since January 2015 on the announcement of their appointment was 57—15 years would take them up to the age of 72.
One difference from Wakeham is that it recommended a size of 450 as opposed to the 600 of the Burns report, but I fully accept that in order to reduce on a voluntary basis over a period of years, 600 is a realistic target. When that has been reached it will be possible to see whether that is the right number of active Peers for the work that has to be done or whether it could be done with fewer. That would also be the point at which those who believe in a fully elected House could press their case again. I very much hope that those who believe in a fully elected House will at least accept the proposals as an urgently needed interim step to give this House more credibility. It was particularly good in that respect to hear the noble Lord, Lord Newby, state his support for these proposals, at least as an interim measure.
The question of hereditary Peers may of course solve itself, if the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, goes through. But if it does not, more work will be needed on this issue, because at the moment Cross Benchers and the Conservatives have by far the largest number of hereditaries.
The Bishops are not part of the present proposal because any change to them would require legislation. The Wakeham commission recommended that there should be a reduction from 26 Bishops to 16 in a House of 450. I cannot speak for the Church of England—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham has helpfully given us the historical picture—but I would be surprised if it did not consider its position and at least look at the idea of reducing the number of Bishops by a quarter, commensurate with the House as a whole.
I wholeheartedly support the report. I had the good fortune to be here for many years as a Bishop of Oxford; if its recommendations are accepted and implemented I will feel an obligation to retire when I have served 15 years as a life Peer—that is, if the good Lord does not take me before or I am otherwise hindered or let from contributing to the work of the House.
My Lords, I am the 14th speaker, so I have great sympathy for those who will be 84th or even further back. We are greatly indebted, as others have said, not only to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues but to the Lord Speaker for taking the initiative. Credit must be given to my noble friend Lord Cormack and our absent colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who have ploughed a consistent and persistent furrow in this House over many years to achieve reform consistent with our constitution.
Obviously one can take a report of this size and nitpick here or there, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said. I represent one of the small parties, and there is of course a non-affiliated group and individuals outwith the party apparatus generally who speak in the House. The report is perfectly clear in referring to the fact that more work needs to be done on how that particular segment of the House is dealt with. But that is fine; I have no issues with that.
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, when the newspapers comment on the House and its size they ignore participation on a daily rate and the fact that not that long ago it was 50% bigger than it is now. The reality is that it is not the House that is determining the flow but the occupant of No. 10 Downing Street, whoever that happens to be at any point. The truth of the matter is that the general public out there have an idea in their heads. It will not be shifted unless we shift it. The only thing we can do is to go for a cap. We can argue about the figure, but let us not get into that. If you have a cap that has at least sufficient flexibility to allow the Government to conduct their business properly, that is the only way ahead.
We will look at the details. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, pointed out the Londoncentric nature of the House. We know that 70% of the House is based in London or the south-east generally. For those of us who come from the regions and further afield it is more complicated. It takes longer to get here. We have many obstacles in our path, whether it is the weather, strikes or whatever. Knowing this country, the only thing that I do not have problems with is leaves on the line, because we do not have a bridge over the Irish Sea. There are costs to being in London. I have been here for six years and they have risen by about a third since I came here. Okay, it is a privilege to be here and people want to be here, but they are certainly not going to grow wealthy on their allowance after they have had to pay their London costs.
It is a privilege to be here and we have to recognise that, but in their appointments—I think it is a good idea for there to be an increased role for the House of Lords Appointments Commission here—the Government have to bear in mind that to be representative of a nation means that people will have to come from different locations. Because there is a flow of people from particular backgrounds, if they have statutory positions in the courts or something, they tend to be based in the London area. That needs to be borne in mind. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, we can argue about all these details. The message has to go out today that, both regionally and from different groups and parties in this House, we have to get on with it. I would like to see it move quicker, and I look forward to discussing with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues how we handle the unaffiliated segment, or “the others” as they are sometimes called. We will sit down and work on those details.
The fundamental message has to go out today that this House is going to do this; it is going to get behind the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues; we will work on the details, but we appeal to the Prime Minister to join in this, because, without her support, nothing will happen. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to go away today saying that there is consistent and persistent support for this report. Let us get on with it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and all members of his committee on the work that they have done in grappling with this difficult issue. They have produced a good report which makes a series of compelling recommendations in addressing the symptoms of the size of your Lordships’ House, which I broadly support.
However, I want us to be tough not just on the size of the House but on the causes of it. Defining the problem we need to fix only as the size of the House means that we miss the bigger point. It risks us shifting responsibility away from ourselves to successive Prime Ministers, whether those of the past or those in future. In the volatile world that we are in right now, where institutions must respond correctly to society’s need for change if they are to survive, we do not have the luxury of misdiagnosing the causes of some of the problems we are grappling with.
I do not have a principled objection to a membership of your Lordships’ House capped at 600, but if we want it to happen and future Prime Ministers to respect that objective, we need to be clearer about what kind of House of Lords we want to be in the 21st century. I think that there is a real need for this House. In an era when people want and need more honest, frank debate that is not motivated by party politics, your Lordships’ House has an opportunity to be a shining beacon.
But for us to be effective, we have to define our purpose; we have all to sign up to it and address our behaviours and conduct where they get in the way of meeting that purpose. I was struck particularly by paragraph 82 of the report, which states:
“We suggest that the Prime Minister may wish to task HOLAC with ensuring that all nominees are aware, before they accept a peerage, of what being an active member of the House of Lords entails”.
I endorse that. I do not endorse the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, about HoLAC having a role in suitability, but I endorse the idea of it being clear about what is expected of new Members of this House. But what about those of us who are already Members? Are we all able to say to each other, quite honestly and right now, that we know what we should expect from each other as Members of this House? I am not entirely sure that we do.
I want increasing our accountability and serving the public better to be the driving force behind change in this House. So if we are to introduce term limits or a retirement age, which I would also support, surely we have to apply that to ourselves as well. I do not think we can wait until new Members come into the House in future. We made significant progress before 2015 by introducing permanent retirement, automatic expulsion for Peers sentenced to more than a year in prison and the power for this House to expel on the grounds of gross misconduct. Yet we sweep under the carpet the fact that some Peers remain Members of this House, even though they received prison sentences of more than a year, and we have yet to introduce a disrepute clause, even though the Privileges and Conduct Committee agreed on a recommendation for one in the spring of 2016. These are some of the things that have to change.
I believe in this House. I think that its Members are some of the most talented and accomplished people in our country. We do some great work, but if we are to remain relevant and serve the people of this country well, we have to address all the things that matter—and that is not just our size. More than anything, I want us to define our purpose for the 21st century and for us all to be united in meeting that purpose.
My Lords, I add my immense thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for their impressive energy in producing this report. If I strike a discordant note in my analysis, it is not to belittle their commitment. I fear that this is yet another piecemeal effort to tackle the fundamental issue of Lords reform, as by following strictly their remit they have reported on the size of the House while ignoring its functions as a legislative assembly for the whole of the United Kingdom and the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope.
The House is of course much too large with 798 Peers. How did this come about? It is substantially through the political incontinence of Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron in their exercise of patronage. Mr Blair recommended 374 Peers and Mr Cameron 245—a total of 619, which puts the reasons for our present membership in the right perspective. We read that more are on the way. If that is true this debate should not ignore that grim reality. I remember my struggle in primary school to calculate the end result of filling a tank with water while emptying it at the same time.
The report acknowledges that its success depends on undertakings by Prime Ministers, whoever they might be—even future ones, I suppose—agreeing to appoint no more new Members than there are vacancies. As no legislation is proposed this undertaking would be no more, at its very best, than some sort of emerging convention. But a convention is hallowed only by many years of acceptance. In the most unlikely event that I might be asked, as a law officer, to advise an incoming Labour Prime Minister I would advise him that this commitment is not worth the candle. His aim, in a House dominated by non-Labour Members, would be to get his legislation through and ease the task of his Chief Whip. While the House does not oppose legislation on manifesto commitments at Second Reading, I remind your Lordships that the implementation of devolution was delayed for 20 years through the passing of mere amendments in both the Commons and the Lords.
The basic difficulty for the committee was that there was neither the will nor the time to introduce legislation at present, hence the existence of hereditary Peers would be untouched. I hope I will be forgiven for saying that there is no place for hereditary membership in today’s legislative process. Paragraph 21 of the report concedes that,
“the hereditary peers will make up a larger proportion of a smaller House”.
We would be going backwards. I note that there are 81 hereditary Conservative and Cross-Bench Peers, but only four Labour ones. The report also concedes that in its proposals only the party share of new appointments will vary. The reduction proposals are expected to result in Labour losing 38 Peers by 2022; the Liberal Democrats will lose only 18. That is the proposed immediate future of this House, following Mr Cameron’s appointment of 51 Liberal Democrat Peers under the coalition agreement to reflect,
“the share of the vote … in the last general election”.
Surely, in 2017, that is crying out to be revisited for our present membership.
As only new Members would be affected by the proposals, it cannot be said that the proposals will,
“affect all parties and Members equally”,
for the present. The reports avers that the only way to reduce our membership is on an equal contribution basis. The guiding principles are treating Members fairly and no compulsory retirement of existing Members. I expect that the House would welcome this. How this will be done is not spelled out in the main proposals; the only guidance is the rejection of some of the ideas of the past—based on age, tenure or attendance—as they have the disadvantage of changing the balance of parties arbitrarily. It is helpful to know how the reduction will not be achieved, but it would be even more helpful to affirm proposals on how it will. Although reducing the size of this House is absolutely necessary, I regret that I cannot support the proposals, for all these reasons. They need further and long consideration by this House.
My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for the thoughtful way in which he introduced his important report. In doing so, I declare my interests as chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and of the Judicial Appointments Commission.
The task taken on by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues—looking at the size of this House—was inevitably going to be a very difficult, complicated and fraught matter. Yet it was vital for them to come to a practical solution that would deliver what was required: achieving a size for your Lordships’ House that would meet the important challenge of public perception—an issue touched on by many of those who have already contributed. Having initiated this process in a debate last year and having supported the establishment of the Lord Speaker’s committee to look at these matters, the reality is that there would be tremendous harm to the standing of your Lordships’ House if your Lordships were not able to reach a conclusion in supporting an essentially irrefutable argument: this House is too large and does not enjoy the respect of the public more generally. Whether or not that is fair, it is the held perception.
I will deal with issues in the report that touch on the work of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. I remind noble Lords that the commission was established in 2000 as an advisory body to the Prime Minister. As a non-departmental advisory body, it has continued its work since then with two principal remits: to make nominations to your Lordships’ House for independent Cross-Bench Peers—undertaking both an assessment of candidates’ suitability for service in your Lordships’ House and vetting checks—and to undertake vetting responsibility for all other nominations. In that regard, some 10% of party-political nominations made to the commission since 2015 failed to meet the vetting test and have not proceeded.
The Burns report suggests that we enhance the responsibilities of the House of Lords Appointments Commission in a number of respects. The first is that, beyond continuing our current nomination function for independent Cross-Bench Peers, the commission should facilitate the extended leave of absence that will be available to Peers nominated under the new scheme. The second is that it should, for want of a better description, keep the spreadsheet generated after every election, looking at the size of the House of Commons and the proportion of votes, and therefore the size of the political Benches for the forthcoming Parliament.
The third, as we have heard, is to provide a clear understanding for all those nominated to serve in the House of Lords of the commitment that would be required and the obligations that attend membership of your Lordships’ House. This is something that the commission pays special attention to with regard to Cross-Bench nominations. An analysis undertaken between October 2016 and January 2017 identified that of the 67 nominations by HOLAC since 2000, 90% participated in some way in that period, either through voting, contributions in the Chamber or work in committees.
Clearly, the commission would be happy to assist as requested in providing the narrative of the expectation of contribution and service once appointed to the House of Lords, but it would be vital that the political parties heard the response of each candidate to that description because, ultimately, so as not to fetter the Prime Minister or party-political leaders’ opportunity to make political nominations, they would have to be clear that the response received was suitable to those political parties.
Ultimately, under the scheme, beyond hereditary elections, there will be three routes to the Cross Benches: the independent nomination rate through the House Of Lords Appointments Commission, the appointment of Prime Minister’s exceptions—10 in any given five-year period—and a new judicial appointments route for Supreme Court justices on appointment to the Supreme Court. It would be essential to understand how the balance between those three routes will be achieved over any given Parliament.
One of the important duties of the House of Lords Appointments Commission has been to try to achieve greater diversity in this House. Of the 67 nominations made since 2000, 37% have been of female candidates and 19% of members of ethnic minorities. It is essential that that ability to look more broadly at the membership of the House is not lost as we look at the different routes to contribute to Cross-Bench membership in future.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the acumen of the Lord Speaker, who has focused on the vexed question of reducing the size of the membership of the Chamber and set the wheels in motion to create the all-party committee whose most relevant report we are considering today. The Lord Speaker is surely right when he says that the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues give this House an important opportunity for reform. With a membership of more than 800, compared to the 650 MPs in the other place, we are perceived to be far too large and unwieldy. It cannot sit altogether comfortably that when legislatures around the world are listed by size, we come second only to the National People’s Congress of China.
Achieving the proposed reduction to 600 and keeping the total capped at that level will take time, but to reach these goals, I support the idea of limiting new Peers to a total of 15 years in the House and the adoption of an accelerated “two out, one in” programme.
It is also correct to propose that appointments should be shared between the different parties on the basis of the results of the most recent general election. With attempts at wider reform not currently on the political agenda, these are sensible suggestions and crucially can be undertaken by ourselves, without the need for legislation. However, the public might like to see the extent of the participation of each Member having a direct effect on their continuing membership of this House.
I should at this stage mention a former interest when I was an MP. I had been warned that I was in line to inherit a hereditary peerage if I outlived my uncle, the Earl of Selkirk. When he died, I was told that I was now barred from the House of Commons Chamber. I went to see the clerks in both Houses. Their advice was totally different. The clerk in the Commons said that if there was any possibility of me being a hereditary Peer, I could disclaim straightaway in order to vote on the looming Motion of no confidence in the then Prime Minister. But the clerk in the House of Lords, quite differently, said, “I have only one question to ask. Is this something you really want to do?” It was, and I remained an Earl for merely four days.
It was an honour and a great surprise of course to be asked to return as a life Peer in 1997. I recall that I was introduced by Lord Renton, the former MP for Huntingdonshire, who at that point was nearly 90. A few years later, when I became a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I asked a senior parliamentarian from this Chamber how my friend Lord Renton was getting on, as by this time he was heading for a century. The senior Member was full of compliments about Lord Renton and added what was clearly meant as a final accolade. He said, “Old age is just beginning to creep up on him”. The report before us does not advocate a compulsory retirement age. Happily, however, many noble Lords appear to be living very much longer, so if we do contemplate such an ageist move, we could possibly settle for a cut-off date of 100. However, having listened to the debate, I believe that the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, capture a great deal more merit and would be much easier to implement.
This Chamber is a great national asset whose Members have a fund of expertise and acquired wisdom. That should not be lost or even squandered. However, we cannot be complacent. To borrow a quote from Benjamin Disraeli:
“I am a conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad”.
I sincerely hope that this report will receive the backing of the Prime Minister and the party leaders. As the Lord Speaker said so appropriately, these proposals not only present us with a challenge but with an opportunity. While there is yet time, let us take that opportunity.
My Lords, the more astute among you will recognise that I am not the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe. With the agreement of the Clerk and the Whips, he and I have swapped places. I hope that not too many noble Lords will be disappointed. However, it allows me to follow my very old friend the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk—I must get his recently updated title right—and his witty and erudite speech.
I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Lord in his wholehearted support for this report. That is in no way a criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. They were asked to ask the wrong question. Like my noble and learned friend, Lord Morris, the right question is, what is the function and purpose of this Chamber? In a bicameral legislature, the second Chamber has a particular role—to scrutinise legislation, challenge the House of Commons from time to time, to debate issues and question and challenge the Executive.
My ideal second Chamber—unlike the noble Lord, Lord Newby, of the Liberal Democrats’ ideal of a directly elected House, which I think would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons and create tremendous problems—is a senate of the nations and regions, an indirectly elected Chamber that represents all parts of the United Kingdom properly in this House. We will not get that until we have a Labour Government—and that may be sooner rather than later—but until then we have to carry out our function as best we can.
I do not think we can do that with such an imbalance in representation from the parts of the United Kingdom—as has already been mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey. Scotland and Northern Ireland are not too badly represented but the regions of England are grossly underrepresented in this Chamber. I do not think that we are a properly representative Chamber, part of a legislature, when we have such poor representation from so many parts of the United Kingdom.
Of course, we have had a few recent appointments to this Chamber. That has made it worse because they have all been from London or the south-east of England, which already has well over half the representation. The problem is that many people do not consider a peerage as an appointment to the legislature but as an honour, as one up from a knighthood in the whole pecking order of honours. A lot of people are keen to get a peerage because it is an honour or a passport to some other appointments, not because they want to work as part of a legislature. The solution is to split it up and have two types of peerages—one that you might call an honorary peerage and the other a legislative peerage, with honours for those who want the title and deserve the title and the legislative peerage for those who want to work and carry out a legislative function. A very helpful Library briefing says that this can be done. It states that,
“the Monarch is empowered to appoint life Peers outside of the Life Peerages Act 1958, and that Peers appointed in this way would not be entitled to a seat in the House of Lords. Accordingly, the committee encouraged the Government to pursue this option in tandem with their main proposals”.
I do not see why it cannot be the main proposal because it seems to me to be right. The problem is that some people consider the peerage an honour rather than an appointment.
Sadly, I think the report does not measure up to what I would like to see it do, which is to produce a representative—not just a smaller—Chamber that can carry out the appropriate function of the second Chamber of a legislature. I hope that when the Lord Speaker, the Government and others consider the outcome of this debate they will look at this as an alternative to the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee.
My Lords, most of us here are delighted that so far there is significant consensus on the Burns report. It clearly has not been an easy task and I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the committee for their elegant compromise.
Reform of the House of Lords has been an ongoing process for the last 800 years or more. Restricting our view to the last 100 years or so, the Parliament Act 1911 was a significant milestone, as was the creation of life peerages in 1958. More recently, there was the House of Lords Act 1999, followed by the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Nor should we dismiss the many other changes since, notably the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 that enabled retirement and, under certain conditions, expulsion. As we know, that was preceded by a succession of Private Member’s Bills, including those from the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and my noble friend Lady Hayman. We have learnt that incremental change is more likely to succeed than attempts to introduce change by means of primary legislation. The coalition’s 2012 Bill for a largely elected House fell due to technicalities, but had there been the political will in the other place, those could surely have been overcome.
How does such consensus come about? Reviewing the last 10 years, and more, there has been a slow but inexorable build-up towards a critical mass of opinion. Of course, some of that has been driven by critical media, but efforts in this House—especially by the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber and the many public statements, articles and views expressed by Members—have all contributed greatly to the majority consensus expressed in the debate almost exactly a year ago.
There is still some way to go. We trust that the scheme proposed by the committee will be agreed—and indeed maintained—by the current Government and future ones. By accepting the Burns report’s recommendations, it is hoped to establish a new convention that will become as embedded and respected as the other conventions that guide this House. Perhaps the widespread consensus will encourage some of us to do the decent thing and step down with dignity, after cumulative long years of public service. That may speed up the rate at which we reach the magic number of 600. As we all acknowledge, the House needs refreshing from time to time; an intake of Peers with differing sets of experience and expertise is always welcome. However, unless some of us are prepared to stand down as we approach our 80s, I fear that we will remain an oversubscribed House for some time to come.
Reform is by no means complete. As the House becomes more manageable and professional, it is to be hoped that other reforms—on the hereditary principle, the retirement age and limiting the appointment of new Peers to those who fulfil a clear gap in relevant expertise—will come about. That is what makes this House so valuable.
My Lords, the Leader of the House was commendably frank in her speech in saying that the Government have no stomach for fundamental reform of this place. That is a pity. Like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I hope that one day we will have a Government who will grapple with the need to cement our devolution settlements in this country and create a new upper Chamber, which could be a federal Chamber for the devolved Administrations. Bearing in mind the commission report of Mr Asquith’s Government and the committee report of Mr Attlee’s Government, the House of Commons does not wish to see another directly elected Chamber in the land. Nevertheless, a Chamber that is indirectly elected by the House of Commons and the other devolved institutions is surely long overdue. I would welcome that.
In the meantime, I warmly welcome the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. It is of course predicated entirely on the 2014 Act, whose provisions I introduced three times in this House over three Sessions on behalf of the Cormack-Norton committee, as noble Lords will remember. Thanks to Dan Byles MP in the House of Commons, that Act eventually became law and enabled Peers to leave this House, either voluntarily or through the House removing them. The minute the law was changed, I took the view that changes could be made thereafter by resolution of the House, which is why I welcome the general thrust of the Burns report. I congratulate the noble Lord and his committee on its excellence.
I hope that my noble friend Lord Newby is wrong when he postulates the possibility of the Prime Minister introducing a swathe of new Members in the new year; if that happened, I am afraid that it would drive a coach and horses through the committee’s recommendations. I very much hope that it will not happen. I have only one criticism to make of the report, which is that it will take too long to get the numbers down to 600. Need it take 11 years? I do not believe so. I echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, about older Members retiring. I see no reason why we could not have an automatic clear-out of Members aged over 80 at the end of every Parliament. I see no difficulty in that. The House of Commons has a clear-out at a general election—why should this House not do the same? The age of 80 seems reasonable to me.
There are two objections to that proposal. One is that it is ageist. Is it ageist? In other public services, people retire at 60 or 70; the oldest age I could find was 75 for lord-lieutenants and deputy lord-lieutenants. An age of 80 and above, which is what my proposal suggests, seems generous and reasonable. The other objection to what I propose is the ad hominem objection. There is nothing to stop retired Members from going on the airwaves, giving lectures or writing to the newspapers. All they would do is stop being legislators, which seems utterly reasonable. The argument might be, “Oh, you can’t do that because you would lose Nigel Lawson”, to which I say, “Well, so what?”. You would also, as of next time round, lose David Steel—and that might be a very good thing.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. The first sentence of the summary of the report lays out the challenge that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee faced:
“exploring methods for reducing the size of the House”.
I do not know who the genius on the committee was who came up with the proposal, but he must have been creative with the use of figures, because the document is quite clear about how it can be done. The proposals themselves are clear, incremental and achievable. This further movement does without the need for legislation and, importantly, without any perceived threat to existing Members—although that might change when it comes to implementation. In so far as the proposals will reduce the size of the House, they will work; but how they may affect the functionality of the House will depend on the working practices of the new Peers.
I found the back-testing of the Burns proposals in a bar-chart construct most interesting. Going back to 1959 and working forward to 2017, it shows what the party composition would look like reflecting public opinion at general elections and that the proposal would work in a fair way, as stated in the report. The challenge of the report is mainly at the point of implementation, as many noble Lords have mentioned, but it is doable and a House of 600 can be achieved.
I turn to say a few words about the Cross-Bench component. The report says that the new Cross-Bench Members would number 134. This is not 20% of 600, which would be 120, but 23.3%, as it is now. Who are the Cross-Benchers? They may be appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission or from the judiciary; there are also 30 hereditaries. They may also be appointed by the Prime Minister at various times. But not insignificant are the numbers of those who leave their political party for whatever reasons—mostly because they do not agree with its principles—and join the Cross Benches. Initially, they sit on the Cross Benches; subsequently, they become Cross-Benchers. As this number is not insignificant, particularly in the recent past, whose numbers would they be counted among? If it is to be the number allocated to the Cross Benches, the Appointments Commission will have that many fewer to appoint. If they are to be non-affiliates, then the problem of how to deal with non-affiliates and those who move from their political party needs to be addressed. In my view, if you leave your political party and were appointed by that party then you must leave the House. That would be the obvious solution but it may hold problems.
I support the solution proposed and the House’s membership becoming 600. I note that by 2022 the Cross Benches will have to lose about 35 Peers, either through retirement or death. Looking at the past figure, that number is achievable and I shall do my bit to contribute.
A doctor speaks.
My Lords, I was not referring to death but more to longevity and retiring. I support the proposals.
My Lords, in thinking about our future, it might be wise to remind ourselves of the words of another Burns:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion”
I have said many times before that I love this place. I find that if you are not sure what you think about something, listening to a debate in this place will straighten you out. The debate the other day in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on universal credit was extremely moving as well as being informative, as was the debate moved by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on education. What do they have in common? They were almost entirely ignored by people outside this House, which is portrayed as a load of people in pyjamas or strange outfits every time we appear in the newspapers. If we are to change the perception—because perception is everything in politics—we have to change ourselves. Along with everyone else, I pay tribute to the fantastic work that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have done.
As some noble Lords may recall, in her latter years, Baroness Thatcher used to come to this House. Because she was a little frail, she needed someone to look after her. Her office would ring me up and she would say, “I am coming to the House this afternoon, would you like to look after me?” And I would drop everything and come. One day I said to her, “Margaret, you’ve done your bit for the country. People love to see you, but you don’t need to come here so often”. Whereupon she prodded me in the chest and said, “Michael, when we accepted appointment to this place it became our duty to attend. Now how often are you here when I am not here?”. I have never forgotten that. The size of the House is a problem, but so, also, are people who accept appointment to this place and do not take it seriously. To take it seriously, I am afraid that you have to come quite a lot. It is quite a complicated place to understand, which is why, down at the other end of the corridor, they have not a clue what we are about.
On the Burns report itself, I thought that it was almost impossible for that committee to produce a report that would carry support throughout the Benches, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and to the Liberal Party—this may be a first. I thought that his speech was statesmanlike and the behaviour of his party entirely constructive, even though it is not to its advantage, and we should take a lead from that. By the way, if noble Lords ever want to solve a polynomial simultaneous equation, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is clearly the man. He can take a whole load of complex variables and put them together in what is a brilliant report. Believe me, this is as good as it gets. As my noble friend Lord Cormack indicated, it is probably our last and only chance to reform ourselves.
Of course, as many noble Lords have already said, none of this will fly unless the Prime Minister actually gives an undertaking. Some have said that we cannot rely on convention, but this whole place has existed on that for 500 years—even where we sit is determined by convention. We are not a rule-based House. Yes, we can depend on convention, but it does require the Prime Minister to give a clear undertaking.
I notice that the Leader of the House spoke at the beginning of this debate and is not speaking at the end, and the Leader of the Opposition is speaking at the end of the debate and will no doubt respond to it. I say to my noble friend the Leader of the House, if I may borrow a phrase from a former Prime Minister, that the hand of history is upon your shoulder. You spoke at the beginning of this debate for the Government. I hope at the end of this debate, you will speak in your role as Leader of the House for the whole House and go to the Prime Minister and explain to her how important it is that she embraces the clear consensus that we are seeing across every corner of the House. Your moment has come, just as happened with a previous Leader, now the Marquess of Salisbury, then Lord Cranborne. The leader of our party in opposition wanted to have an elected House. He informed all of us of this notion by writing an article in the Daily Telegraph. Lord Cranborne, as he then was, defied him and ensured that we ended up with a compromise of the 92 hereditary Peers and the reform that was brought in by a Labour Government. So there is a precedent for leaders—even in opposition—of this House.
I look forward to the speech by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde who, I understand, made it a condition of his continuing in succession to Lord Cranbourne, who was sacked for his pains—in earlier times his head would have been cut off—that those proposals were taken forward. That is why we are sitting here today with the opportunity to produce a reformed House that will be respected and held in high regard by the public who have sent us here.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is always a hard act to follow. I come to this debate somewhat from the outside but I have had a little to do—to a greater or lesser extent—with the structure of bodies in the public sector. I have set some up and dismantled some. Your Lordships’ House has always seemed to be effective, very often in spite of, rather than because of, its structure.
In contemplating an ideal second Chamber I would rather not have started from here, but we are not in the realms of Utopia and are strictly confined by the art of the possible. Within the art of the possible it is so desirable to limit our numbers that a very pragmatic solution must be worked out. We have agreed this. Even the reform of numbers is not at all an easy task and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on his elegant proposals. Not only do they fit the bill, they achieve the objective without transgressing other boundaries by leaving much to the discretion of party and other groups.
As we are in the realm of the practical, reasonable and feasible, on all these tests it seems to me that the noble Lord’s proposals pass muster. They are practical: they inexorably reduce numbers over time and maintain that reduction. They are reasonable: they leave to the parties who must go, but also reflect electoral decisions without destroying balance. This is particularly ingenious. They are feasible: all we need do is agree; no legislation is needed. They would serve our country better for the time being, which is what we must do. We have the privilege, among other privileges, of serving the public. It is to serve our country better that matters. I commend the proposals.
My Lords, this report has my wholehearted support. It is a most thoughtful and imaginative piece of work. I am not one of those who appear able to contemplate with equanimity the ever-growing expansion of this House. Doubtless many of us would have preferred, to a greater or lesser degree, some difference in one or other of the several particular measures that together go to make the intricate overall solution proposed. Some might have preferred to end up with a House smaller than 600, some to have achieved a cap in a shorter time, some to have provided for longer than 15-year fixed-term appointments and so on.
I will make two comments on this. First, any such detailed considerations are surely for a future debate. Today is for determining the House’s support or rejection of the report in principle. In any event, we need to bear in mind that any change to the proposed scheme has knock-on effects and that this has been unanimously hammered out by a most expert and experienced group—I have the highest regard for each one of them—after months of hard work. The plain fact is that unless a very substantial consensus in favour of this scheme is arrived at today by the House as a whole, none of this will happen and we will instead continue—probably indeed worsen—our present unsustainable position.
A substantial consensus is required, but, above all, this proposal will then require the support of 10 Downing Street. If we can get that now it will not be easy for any of the Prime Minister’s successors to collapse the scheme later—certainly everybody would then know where the blame lay. To my mind, this is the best possible scheme for winning the Prime Minister’s support. It provides for much the same number, rate and nature of future appointments as in years past—certainly, if one puts aside the perhaps over-fecund years of Mr Blair and Mr Cameron. It allows both for refreshment of the House, including new Front-Bench appointments, and for its rebalancing by reference to the latest general election results. If there are to be significant changes to any of the pieces which go to make up this intricate jigsaw solution, I respectfully suggest that they be only changes suggested by No. 10 itself. If that is the price for winning the necessary consent to the constraints on the Prime Minister’s future prerogative powers of appointment that we now propose, so be it.
I know that one or two Members of your Lordships’ House are concerned at the 15-year fixed-term proposal, on the basis that it may discourage youthful appointments who would then be left high and dry in their 50s or 60s. This is an overstated objection. Essentially, this is a House of elders, of people whose real value is their acquired expertise and lifetime experience. Generally, they should only rarely be appointed before they are around 50 or so. In that case, given that the scheme expressly provides for them to take a five-year sabbatical during their fixed term without it’s counting towards the 15 years, they would be upwards of 70 when their term ended. Surely if what they seek is essentially a political career, it is election to the Commons that they should be after and not appointment here.
Really, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reduce and cap the size of this House. I respectfully urge your Lordships to seize it.
My Lords, I played a small part when we last reduced the size of this House, then far more ambitiously than is proposed in this report and with surgical precision. As with all attempts to do anything surgically, it was pretty painful, but we got there in the end and remarkably quickly. I am sorry that the report has not taken up that precedent and suggested that all groups reduce their number by 20%. We could probably do it by the Summer Recess and then continue on our own way.
I have three reasons why I am concerned that the report will trigger a series of unintended consequences. The first is on the 15 years; the second is on the cap on the numbers; and the third is on the reduction of prime ministerial patronage. However, I want first to join all those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his team on creating a short and very readable report that genuinely tries to be imaginative.
I disagree that the problem is overcrowding in this House. At some key moments, particularly at Question Time, it feels overcrowded, but that has been true for most of the past 40 years. Our daily attendance is about 480. There have been only three Divisions in the entire history of the Lords where more than 600 Members have voted. The average vote is less than 400, all within this new limit of 600. If noble Lords cannot find a seat at Question Time, why not change it to 5.30 pm? That might reduce attendance. So, I do not believe that the case for overcrowding has been made.
As Conservative Chief Whip and Leader of the House, or the Opposition, for a total of 19 years, I know that many former Members of another place came here as Peers. I encourage them not to believe that the Lords is just like the House of Commons, only 20 years older. It is a very different House; it operates very differently and, apart from anything else, we are here for life. Yet the proposal for 15-year terms runs the danger of us becoming exactly that—an older version of the House of Commons. It will discourage Members aged under 50, perhaps even under 60, thus making us even older. Why would someone in their 40s join the House, only to leave 15 years later? Fewer Members would volunteer to join the Front Bench; both the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition are considerably younger than the modal age of 75. Would they have joined if they could be here for only 15 years? If by chance a younger Member joined your Lordships’ House, might they then not use this House as a stepping stone to election to the House of Commons? We have always set our face against that in the past.
Take a Labour Peer, appointed in 1985, slogging away on the Opposition Front Bench. Just as the new dawn arose in 1997, they would start to pack their bags to leave two and a half years later. The 15-year terms of both my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, would have run out while they were Lord Chancellor. Although the noble Lord, Lord Burns, says that this can be extended, it would have meant that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern would have gone in 1997. Just think of the wisdom and good sense that we would have missed.
On the cap and the limiting of the prime ministerial patronage, this report is not just a simple method of reduction: it strikes at the very heart of constitutional powers. It may happen only rarely, but to remove the ability of the Prime Minister to threaten to increase the number of Peers, could lead to an even more assertive House than we have today. We sit in a large and inexpensive House. A new, time-limited House would demand staff and salaries, and we have already heard that cry starting today. Most people know the Lords as a repository of good sense and wisdom—“elders”, the previous speaker called us. With our limited time here, we could concede that reputation to the House of Commons.
Of course, we need restraint and responsibility. Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron showed too little but Prime Ministers Brown and May have, so far, presided over a declining House. In the last year for which figures are available, eight Peers were created and 31 left. If I extrapolate that over five years, we would drop by 115 and get to 650 in seven years. It is that responsibility and restraint that we should encourage, and we should do that starting today.