My Lords, not for the first time this House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for his continuing interest in House of Lords reform.
In a country that prides itself on being the standard bearer of democratic institutions, a visitor from Mars would find the size of this House hilarious—not to mention the number of Liberal Democrats, which bears no relation to the democratic last general election. In concentrating on numbers of this House, I fear that the noble Lord is putting the cart before the horse. It is the functions of this House as a component of Parliament that should be determined first, and it is only secondly that we should move on to numbers. We should decide whether this House should be only a reviewing Chamber, or whether its role should be a wider one than this—a full-blooded legislative Chamber. I doubt it—although that may be a minority view.
Governments in the past had no compunction in clipping the wings of this House—in the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. In the absence of a constitutional convention and a Bill of Rights, I believe that the way forward is a simple amendment to the Parliament Act 1949 to remove altogether the existing, although reduced, power of delaying legislation by this House. If that were done, the only function of this House as regards legislation would be a reviewing one. There would be a time limit for such a review. During that time the House could debate and express its views in the form of amendments. The amended Bill would be returned to the Commons for any second thoughts it might have. If the Commons stood its ground and rejected the Lords amendments, it would be the end of the matter and consideration of legislation here would come to an end. The Commons could send the Bill, unamended, straight to Her Majesty for signature.
This House would have had its opportunity to carry out its reviewing role, which could be important, and it would have offered its views to the Commons for its further consideration—but that would be all. The amendment to the 1949 Parliament Act would be simple, and on the lines that the 1949 Act amended the 1911 Act, but in this case abolishing all powers of delay rather than limiting them. Once our functions had been determined, the question of the number of Peers required would, I believe, be solved more easily. It would be open for discussion how many would be needed in a reviewing-only Chamber—probably in the low or mid-hundreds. I hope they would be appointed for their expertise.
When I was at school, I grappled with the arithmetical problem of working out the time it would take to empty a water tank that was still being filled with water. There is a touch of Alice in Wonderland about a debate on exploring methods of reducing the numbers of this House while at the same time Prime Ministers continue to exercise unlimited powers to make more and more recommendations to reward friends and/or help the Whips to get legislation through, by repeatedly refilling the water tank with more Members.
The machinery for appointments goes to the heart of the problem. I would add that if this House became a reviewing-only Chamber, the case for an elected House would be considerably weakened, if not destroyed, and the paramountcy of the Commons would be reaffirmed. I was in Washington at the time of the colossal gridlock between the House of Representatives and the Senate. I have no wish to encourage a scenario of two elected Houses, horns locked with each other.