My Lords, cynicism ill becomes me but I note that the last serious reform of this Chamber was in 1999, and I wonder how many of us seriously expect a similar radical change over the next five or even 10 years.
We regularly debate reform—it has become almost a convention of this House—and size has now become the main focus. But today surely there is something of the air of a university debate on the Motion: “the size of the House of Lords has increased, is increasing and should be reduced”. But this is not a university debate; this is about serious politics. The size of the Chamber is becoming increasingly absurd, particularly now that the House of Commons will shortly be reduced to 600 Members—a point made very well by the Lord Speaker when he began his tenure on
Perhaps there is little prospect of serious movement. The Government seem determined to block even the smallest change—even things which are eminently sensible, such as the proposal of my noble friend Lord Grocott to remove the by-election system for hereditary Peers, which is to be debated on Friday. Mr Cameron, of course, massively added to the problem.
There is at least, as shown by this debate, one consensus—the House is too large. But, alas, there the consensus ends. There is no consensus on the ways and means of reducing our number—and herein lies the dilemma. If we are to wait indefinitely, will the status quo continue or will the situation get worse with more appointments? There is no shortage of proposals for reform and throughout this debate noble Lords have set out many of them. Perhaps in addition to the principles put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Cormack, Lord Hunt and Lord Tebbit, I may add the following: any movement must be by small steps towards an agreed goal; there must be a transition period; and the party balance must broadly be maintained. Currently, one problem is that the age profile of Labour Peers is higher than that for the other parties.
Controversially—realistically, we must say this—there must be greater incentives for voluntary retirement. There must be a soft landing for those who choose to retire, including club privileges in the House and—wait for it—pace the Daily Mail, cash incentives: a bronze handshake. The Clerk of the Parliaments has demonstrated that such a scheme would pay for itself. Many ingenious schemes have been proposed, including a waiting list, a one out/one in principle, a title as a mark of distinguished public service without carrying the right to sit in your Lordships’ House, a retiring age, which modestly I suggest should always be two years higher than the age I have reached, and membership for a limited number of Parliaments after appointment, and so on. But to those and other proposals there is a well-rehearsed argument—there would be a loss of talent, which comes with any change.
In short, our absurd numbers will increase, following the temptation of all Prime Ministers, unless there are curbs and a cap on numbers, and debates such as this one will be repeated regularly. The eventual report of the House of Commons Committee may trigger a more realistic response by the Government. But, as we all look at the Select Committee, I remind your Lordships that in classical Greek tragedy, at the point where an impasse was reached, what was called a “god out of a machine” was brought on to the stage—a deus ex machina—to solve the relevant problems. Is it for us now to devise a deus ex machina—a Select Committee? Are we confident that any Select Committee will reach a consensus? There could indeed be a minority report. It may be as fanciful a notion as the deus ex machina in classical tragedy. So when we all rush to agree that there should be a Select Committee, let us ponder that it may not be the solution and that the problem may continue.