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My Lords, very remarkably and unusually, there has been considerable agreement in this House, and almost unanimity, with the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, although I may have misunderstood his speech. Every other contribution has made it clear that the noble Lord or Baroness feels that there is a major problem with our numbers and that urgent action is required to deal with it. I totally subscribe, with no enthusiasm but realistically, to that.
I do not think that the debate has succeeded, however, in revealing any method that we might adopt to achieve that purpose, other than the three classic methods, which have been discussed by almost everybody this evening, of an immediate cull, an age limit or a limit on years of service. I think there is an immediate low-hanging fruit that ought to be plucked—I say this with great respect to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, who has just sat down—and that is to bring to an end the system of by-elections for hereditary Peers. I have no doubt that the noble Viscount would have got into this House on his merits by the classic means of getting here, and that that would be true of many other hereditary Peers in the future, but I do not see why there should be any different, privileged avenue available to them to serve here that is not available to other potential candidates.
Of the three possible methods of reducing the numbers, I would hesitate to have an immediate cull. It would be a blood bath and very unpleasant and we should be in danger of creating some perverse incentives which might be quite difficult to deal with. One of them has just been raised. If the small parties were excluded there would be an incentive for people to join a small party, or, if the Cross-Benchers were protected in some way, an incentive to join them or, perhaps, to become an independent in order to avoid the cull. I do not know how that perverse incentive would be dealt with. It would be a cynical thing to do, to behave in that fashion, but that does not necessarily mean that nobody would be tempted to do it.
Another problem would be that if we take into account, as we ought to, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, among others, suggested, the record of a Peer’s activity—whether they have attended, whether they have made a useful contribution—we would have to do that going back over several years. Otherwise, some people, in the light of threatened exclusion from the House, might suddenly turn up, maybe paying other people to write speeches for them so that they could rapidly deliver a contribution to a debate about which they in fact know nothing at all. There are a number of difficulties about that and I would prefer not to go down that road if we can avoid it.
I also have some hesitation about an age limit, partly on the grounds of principle and partly on pragmatic grounds. It is now a principle of legislation that age discrimination is illegal, and I declare an interest in that I was the first MP in the House of Commons ever to introduce an anti-age discrimination Bill. It did not get through all the stages in the House of Commons and on to the statute book, but I did extract an undertaking from the then Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Dispatch Box to legislate on behalf of the Government; although that was then overtaken by the European directive. I have a track record and do not like the principle of age discrimination. I also think it is not as effective as a time limitation would be in refreshing or renewing the body of this place. That phrase is rightly often used in this context, but if you want to refresh this place, you probably do not want people staying here for 30 or 40 years. I would favour a generous, reasonable length of service with a maximum of, say, 20 years. That would give people a sense of independence, make sure they can find their feet and make a contribution, and provide for a certain amount of continuity between different batches of entrants—a point that has also been made—but also contribute to reducing the numbers.
My second point is that there is no point in doing any of this—in going down any of those roads at all—unless we have a clear undertaking from the Prime Minister that he is not going to take action that will make any effort we make entirely nugatory and pointless. I am very afraid that some of our colleagues who have retired from this place in the last few months may have done so very high-mindedly and selflessly, hoping that their disappearance would help to resolve our numbers problem, only to find that, in fact, everything they have sacrificed has been completely in vain because the Prime Minister has taken the opportunity to appoint another 45 people to this place, taking the total he has appointed to more than 200—about a quarter of the total size of this House—which is a quite disgraceful situation. I say with great conviction, to the Leader of the House in particular, that there is absolutely no point in going down this road—and we should indicate to everybody concerned that we will not go down this road—unless there is the possibility of such an assurance, so that any efforts that we make will not be rendered ineffective before we have even started.
My third point is that we should take the opportunity to raise the bar of entry to this place and improve the quality of entry in the first place. For example, I have wanted for a long time to have more scientists in this House and have always felt that if you are a Nobel laureate, you should, assuming you are qualified on the other grounds, ipso facto become a Member of this place. I will not pursue that now as this is not the occasion to do it. However, there are two categories of people which are very dubious, and to be quite frank it pains me very much to see them figure in the Prime Minister’s latest list of appointments.
One is special advisers. The House of Commons had a problem in the 18th century with placemen. Noble Lords will remember the efforts of reformers such as Wilkes and Wyvill to get rid of the placemen—people who were taking money from George III. They were not Ministers or responding for the Government; they were just sitting in the House of Commons, supporting the Government and biasing the activities of the House. It was a nasty piece of parliamentary corruption. It is a horrible thought that, in the 21st century, the present Prime Minister should be reviving the malpractice of placemen by putting people here who are not members of the Government and cannot respond at all on their behalf, but are totally beholden to the Government and quite incapable, by definition, of taking an independent position, which is the essence of the function that we all have. That is a disgrace and should stop.
The other thing which is a terrible disgrace and should stop—this is my final point—is people coming to this place primarily or largely because they have given money to a political party. That, in modern times, is a very nasty development introduced by Lloyd George at the beginning of the 20th century. It has been practised by some Prime Ministers, including, very sadly, those of my own party. Both Wilson and Blair were guilty of it, and the present Prime Minister is certainly guilty of it. If it was discovered, for example, that you could buy your way into the Italian Senate, one could just imagine what would be said in every pub in the land. The Daily Mail would be having an orgy of self-righteous chauvinism. Everybody would say, “That’s just what you expect from Europeans or continentals and from foreigners. We always knew they were corrupt; it is the sort of thing that happens in southern Europe” and so forth. In fact you cannot buy your way into the Italian Senate, but you can buy your way into this place. It is an absolute disgrace, and the sooner we bring that to an end the better, because it is something that will really besmirch this place if it continues.
Finally, I have to say that people should not get around such a ban by just becoming treasurer of a political party and saying that, in that case, they have held public office, That is not a public office and is not an activity which either requires or is likely to deliver, in any individual, the sort of qualities necessary to make a useful contribution in this place.