My Lords, a common comment on the deliberations in this House is that, while everything has been said, not everyone has yet said it. This time, almost everyone is going to say it because we want the message to be heard loud and clear, both within and without the Chamber. It is after all worth advertising the fact that there is now a high degree of consensus, if not on fundamental reform at least on transition, which is a rare thing.
I want to underline the four issues we have all talked about: that the Lords should be no more numerous than the House of Commons, which means, in the context of electoral reform, less than 600; that the independent or Cross-Bench Peers should remain at all times at 20% of the total number of Peers; that the political balance in the House should broadly reflect the average number of votes cast in, say, the last three general elections and that no political grouping has an overall political majority; and, finally, that there be a statutory body in due course to vet both the propriety and potential contribution of nominees.
Given that today’s debate is not, and cannot be, about mechanisms, we request that a Select Committee be set up within the next couple of months to review mechanisms and put forward realistic recommendations to the Government. We ask also that the resulting recommendations be implemented by the time of the next general election.
History shows that the Lords fares best when small, incremental changes are introduced and allowed time to bed down. We have, for example, introduced voluntary retirement, the possibility of expulsion for serious misbehaviour and a host of other procedural changes in the past few years. The reforms most urgently needed now fall well within the category of moderate adjustments.
Quite simply, the House of Lords is unnecessarily inflated. Much work has been done on what might constitute an appropriate size—for example, the thoughtful report by Labour Peers, which suggested that 450 Members would be adequate to fulfil all the functions of the Lords. Other proposals have put the number as low as 300. In this context, the principle that the Chamber’s current size should be reduced by the next general election to no larger than the House of Commons—that is, 600 Peers—is a modest proposal.
It has of course not escaped any of our notice that we are addressing the patronage power of the Prime Minister of the day and also the authority of the royal prerogative. It is the royal prerogative that allows Prime Ministers to appoint Peers. Royal prerogatives may be ancient powers, but that does not mean that they should be treated as sacrosanct. The issue should not be insurmountable. The royal prerogative has, after all, been overridden in the past several times. The constitutional principles that govern our democracy insist that Ministers are constitutionally responsible to Parliament for the discharge of all their functions and the exercise of all their powers. Over time, legislation has limited the extent of the prerogative power, including, in some case, abolishing it: for example, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 covers a range of situations where previously the royal prerogative might have been used; there is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; and, although not codified, the power is now constrained by convention in matters concerning the deployment of the Armed Forces. Hence, should Parliament wish to curtail the Prime Minister of the day in his or her exercise of patronage, it could do so.
This House acting together has considerable influence. In the long history of House of Lords reform, our downfall has been, in large part, the disagreements based on party politics and the ever divisive issue of an elected versus appointed House. This debate is not about that. It is about relatively modest, sensible and consensual change to allow this House to be effective and, with luck, to regain a measure of public respect through choosing to reform itself. Both Peers and the Prime Minister should now make a commitment to preserving the integrity and effectiveness of Parliament as a matter of public interest and public duty.