My Lords, when I was introduced to the House in 1999, there were more than 1,000 Members, and if all the hereditary Peers entitled to claim membership had done so, the size of the House might have been as high as 1,400. There should, therefore, be proper perspective in these debates about the fact that the House now comprises an actual membership of 809, of whom about 500 are active. This figure of active Members is not much higher than the figure of 450 proposed for a reformed House in the 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill. That figure was agreed by a Joint Committee of both Houses as the minimum number in a reformed House that would have enabled the House to function and to provide proper representation of political opinion in the nations and regions of the UK. So how have we got to a point at which the reputation of the House now suffers as its absolute membership has grown from not much more than 600 when most of the hereditary peers departed in 1999 to more than 800 today?
Apart from the obvious failure to achieve fundamental reform of the House, as advocated by my party since the days of Asquith, I would draw attention to two particular issues. The first is the failure to end the process of electing replacement hereditary Peers. I have compared these by-elections before to the fictional by-election called by Edmund Blackadder, in which he was the only elector and his sole vote resulted in the election to Parliament of his servant Baldrick. Ending the embarrassment of these by-elections won the approval of the House of Commons during consideration of the last Labour Government’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. However, this sensible measure did not survive the so-called wash-up when the general election was called in 2010.
Subsequent attempts by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood to end these by-elections were then frustrated by the threat of filibuster. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will have more success with his Bill. The fact is that Tony Blair may have promised a temporary reprieve for some hereditary Peers pending further reform of the House, but no Prime Minister or Parliament can bind their successors. The ending of the by-elections for hereditary Peers is long overdue and must be at least part of the solution to the issue that we are addressing today.
The second and more significant reason why the House has become so large, as so many Peers have said in this debate, is simply that recent Prime Ministers have made so many appointments. David Cameron was responsible for the creation of 261 Peers, at a rate of 43 per year since 2010. This figure has far exceeded the rate of resignations or deaths, so the size of the House has risen by more than 100 in six years. The problem now is that, save for proper public elections, there is no sensible way to reverse that increase by a significant margin and no real reason to do so if the patronage of Prime Ministers and party leaders simply allows many more people to be appointed instead.
Many arguments would be made about age discrimination if an age limit were proposed. That proposal, in my view, is unlikely to succeed in a body where the average age of Members is 69. Nor do I think that there is an easy remedy to be found in the imposition of party quotas involving internal elections to determine who should remain. That would just lead to a tea-room offensive, in which Peers attempt to arrange who would vote for whom. Successful candidates would generally require just the vote of one other Peer in order to succeed—the kind of election of which Blackadder would have approved. So if we are to reduce our size and increase public credibility for the crucial role that we play, the public must have a proper say in the composition of the House.