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My Lords, when it was announced that the Lord Speaker was to establish a committee to look at ways of reducing the size of your Lordships’ House, I do not think many of your Lordships thought that it would achieve anything. Indeed, there were some cynics who suggested that that was its very purpose. However the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have proved the doubters wrong. They have produced an elegant set of proposals that fulfil their remit and have done so by proposing a very British way forward—constitutional reform by informal agreement. They deserve our thanks.
From these Benches we have no objection to the principal features of the proposals. They would, if enacted, lead to a considerable diminution of Liberal Democrat ranks—for the foreseeable future at least—but we cannot complain about that. If we had had our way during the coalition and if the 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill had been enacted our numbers would already be smaller, as we would have had our first set of elections under the new system. Noble Lords know that we were prevented from getting the Bill through by a coalition of Labour and Conservative MPs, who by rejecting reform gave a vote of confidence to the current arrangements. It is rather amusing therefore to see members of those parties now grumbling that there are too many Liberal Democrats in your Lordships’ House. They had the chance to do something about it and they flunked it.
The proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, offer an alternative way forward. From these Benches, as I say, we support their principal features: a significantly reduced size of your Lordships’ House, party membership based on electoral performance, and a gradual phasing in of the new arrangements. We do not of course resile from our policy of having elections for the political Members of your Lordships’ House, but we are realistic enough to know that this is not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, it is highly desirable that something is done to reduce our size.
A problem about any proposal for reforming your Lordships’ House is that there are many possible models and, if past experience is anything to go by, absolutely no agreement on what a perfect arrangement would be. If we are serious about reform, I suspect that every single Member of this House will have to accept at least some features of the new system with which they disagree. If we are to have reform, therefore, we must not, individually and collectively, let the best become the enemy of the good.
There are certainly some features of the proposals before us today which we believe are not ideal. The argument for having membership based on the mean of votes cast and seats won has in our view no rationale. It is a fix. It benefits the two largest parties at the expense of everyone else and yet again reflects the steadfast determination of Labour and Conservatives alike to prevent Parliament, even your Lordships’ House, reflecting the will of the people, to their own permanent advantage.
The inability to do anything about the remaining hereditary places is also a problem. This is one element of the proposals about which we on these Benches can afford to take a relatively relaxed position, as we are barely affected, but, at this point, to have a reform which increases the proportion of hereditary Peers, however personally distinguished, is perverse. If the main thrust of the reforms are accepted by the Government, we hope that they might also relent in standing out against the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, or a Bill of their own which would deal with this problem. The same consideration applies to the number of Bishops but, again, a short, free-standing Bill could deal with the issue.
Our main concern with the proposals, however, is not their content but the attitude of the Government towards them. If we and the other parties and groups are to agree voluntarily to reduce our numbers, we need a cast-iron assurance from the Government that they will also accept them. There is no point increasing the flow of Members out of your Lordships’ House if the Government at the same time are not reducing the flow of people in. In this respect, it is concerning to read reports that, any day now, the Government plan to create another tranche of Peers. If, as seems likely, they follow the plea of St Augustine—namely, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet”—and follow this up over Christmas with another list of Peers, the proposals before us today are on the life-support system. The Government are already by far the largest bloc in the House. If this advantage is significantly increased, and if the other parties were to accept and stick to these proposals, the Conservatives would entrench their advantage for many years, even if they were to do less well in future general elections. I am sure that even noble Lords opposite who support these proposals would see this as unacceptable.
So we are prepared to give these proposals a cautious welcome today. We would greatly prefer the politicians in House to be elected. We do not think constitutional reform by informal agreement is the ideal way of entrenching things, but the key thing now is the attitude of the Government. If in today’s debate there is a large majority of support for the proposals before us, as I expect there to be, will the Prime Minister constrain her current unfettered powers to create Peers in order to make the proposals viable, and will she act in good faith by not putting more Conservatives in your Lordships’ House before the new system kicks in? To coin two phrases, the ball is in the Government’s court and the clock is ticking.