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My Lords, I thought that it would be helpful to the House to say at the outset that I will keep my remarks brief, as my main purpose today is to listen to what the House has to say about the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the other members of the committee. This report is a serious piece of work that provides much food for thought about how we might address the size of this House. I am grateful to all noble Lords contributing today. This is a debate in which views from across the House are important, as this is a report by the House for the House.
During today’s debate, I hope that noble Lords will give their views on the report and ask any questions they have about the analysis and recommendations. It will be for the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and not for me, to respond to those questions. It may be that, arising from this debate, the committee wishes to reconvene to consider additional points, which I understand it has offered to do if necessary.
What has been clear to me through discussions with noble Lords over the past few months is that there is a desire, across all Benches, to ensure that, whatever reforms might be implemented in the future, this House continues to draw on the invaluable breadth of expertise and experience of Peers as we do today so that we can continue to perform our important role of scrutinising and revising.
The Government have been clear that comprehensive reform of this House which requires legislation is not a priority for the current Parliament. The House we have today is not the product of any deliberate design but draws legitimacy from the value it adds to the legislative process, complementing the work of the elected House.
Noble Lords who have been in this House much longer than I have will have lived through both significant reforms and stalled attempts. Those attempts which failed did so because they were unable to achieve the necessary consensus, and in many cases this also meant consensus in the other place. House of Lords reform is a complex, difficult and constitutionally significant area into which anyone must be advised to tread with caution and having learned the lessons of history and unintended consequences. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have understood this and reflected it in the way they have approached their deliberations. As such, they have focused on developing proposals that they believe will not require legislation.
For the Prime Minister and the other party leaders, the committee has recommended a cap on the number of appointments made each year and a set formula when allocating those numbers to political groupings. This recommendation requires detailed consideration of the constitutional and political issues it raises. I know that the Prime Minister will consider carefully her response, as I am sure will the other party leaders.
The context of the Burns report is a widespread concern among noble Lords at the size of the House and what has been perceived as a never-ending increase in numbers, with attendant fears over the reputation and effectiveness of this House as a second Chamber. I am sure that today’s debate will reiterate this concern. In light of this, it is worth highlighting the fact that the Prime Minister has taken a restrained approach to appointments. Total membership has decreased since July 2016 when she took office.
A key first challenge that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have set the House is to take advantage of the means which already exist to help achieve this end: that is, to encourage sufficient retirements. Seventy-eight Peers have chosen to retire since 2014, when this option became available. The Conservative group in this House takes our responsibility in this regard seriously, which is reflected in the number of those retirements which have come from the Conservative Benches.
As in all things, this House works at its best when it exercises self-regulation. If we are to meet the targets that the committee has set out, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is incumbent on all groupings in this House to consider what they can do to further promote the culture of retirement among their members at the appropriate point.
Noble Lords will note that achieving sufficient retirements forms the basis and to a significant degree dictates the success of the report’s proposed approach to reaching the goal of a smaller House. We must show our commitment as a House to reducing our size if we are to expect party leaders now or in future to agree to the restrictions that the report seeks to place on them. There are indeed two sides to achieving the outcome that the report seeks to achieve.
As I made clear, I believe that if we are to make progress, we have to do this together as a House. Indeed, the recommendations set out by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee depend on this. The way forward will not be for the Government to lead on and deliver alone.
I end simply by reiterating my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the other members of the Lord Speaker’s committee for their hard work. They have produced a valuable report which I am sure will lead to a thought-provoking debate.