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My Lords, as Ella Fitzgerald once sang:
“We can’t go on this way”.
A year ago this month, this House arrived at the same conclusion and agreed that reduction in our numbers into a sustained future was the way forward for our credibility and that methods be explored by which this could be achieved. The significant move did not come out of the blue. It came from the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, and thanks must go to its officers and members for their perseverance over many years. Thanks must also go to our Lord Speaker, who was determined there and then that a committee be set up urgently to explore the means by which we move forward. I was privileged to be a member of that committee, and I thank our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for his leadership and his astonishing ability to resolve multiple complex issues before our very eyes. His membership of the Magic Circle must surely be imminent. Of course I thank my fellow committee members for their wisdom, patience and good humour. After lengthy and robust debate, the final report was approved unanimously.
Not everyone in this Chamber will agree with every paragraph—some may not agree with any—but I sincerely hope that a majority of your Lordships will agree that we have a fair and sensible plan of action in front of us, within our limited terms of reference. Our challenge was to ensure respect for existing Members while laying sound foundations for a sustainable future for new Members. I believe that this is our best shot at reform for a generation, and we need to grasp this opportunity, despite it not being everyone’s perfect vision. Until we do that, as the noble Lord, Lord Burns, said, the Prime Minister, No. 10, the Government and the leadership of the political parties in the country will not hear their prompt to step on to the stage with us and be part of our reformed future. We should be proud of the detailed scrutiny we do in this House, yet that is often not as the public and the media see us. To put it mildly, we are not loved, and our willingness to embrace this report today may go some way to healing that disconnect.
In a nutshell, after listening to evidence from noble Lords and others, we recommend a future House of 600 Peers, its numbers capped, with 15-year terms for new Members, with the possibility of a five-year pause. New Members would be subject to a code of conduct undertaking to leave the House after that period. No party would have an absolute majority and a minimum of 20% of seats would be reserved for the Cross-Benchers. Parties would share political appointments in line with the results of the previous general election, based on an average of the parties’ share of the national vote and of the seats won in the House of Commons. The combination of this formula and the 15-year term limit would ensure that the future make-up of this House reflected the political views of the country over the medium term. This would be an historic first for us. To reach this point it is suggested that there be an accelerated “two out, one in” programme of departures. On page 3 of our report there is a chart showing how this would look until 2042, with a very gentle start in the first five years for existing Members.
That is what our report proposes. It does not propose new legislation. Our terms of reference were to identify practical and politically viable options that might lead to progress on this issue. Waiting for successful legislation to come along, as we know, is neither practical nor politically viable. The report does not propose a specific retirement age as society is moving away from that and, anyway, so many of our older active Members make a significant contribution to the work of Parliament. It does not propose an allocation of Peers via the nations and regions, as some noble Lords wish. We believe that it is the responsibility of the political parties to ensure that membership is not London-centric. The report does not alter the situation regarding hereditary Peers’ by-elections, despite the negative effect that has in terms of gender and background in a capped House, because that would require legislation; similarly, with the Bishops’ Bench. However, many of us believe that government support for a Private Members’ Bill, such as that of my noble friend Lord Grocott, may follow hard on the heels of this reform package being accepted. We can live in hope.