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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for the very helpful way in which he introduced this debate, and all members of his committee for the work they have done in the preparation of the report. How very fortunate we are that the Lord Speaker was able to capture the noble Lord, if capture is the right word, during his brief period of rest between two very demanding appointments, to perform this task for us.
As so often happens in life, the problem is easy to identify. Finding a solution to it is much more time consuming and difficult. The problem, of course, is that the House is too large and, if nothing is done about it, the House will without doubt grow still larger. The comparisons so often made with the Chinese People’s National Congress in Beijing are rather unfair. We have all seen the pictures—the serried ranks, everyone there, every seat filled, everyone anchored to their seats, no sign of any dissent from the party line. Of course, we are not like that. For one thing, so much of what we do is done outside the Chamber, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, pointed out yesterday. For another, in our case, attendance is not compulsory. The daily average at present is only about 490. In the case of the Cross-Bench group, for example, on any given day, no more than about half of our number are present. To a not insignificant extent, therefore, we are a part-time House. We draw strength from that. Many of our Members have outside interests, their engagement with which adds to the quality of our debates and the work of our committees. Nevertheless, our increasing size is an embarrassment to say the least, and if nothing is done, it risks being even more than that. We are running out of space. We cannot give everyone the desks and office space that they need. That, in short, is the problem.
What, then, of the solution that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues have come up with? In answering that question I must make it clear that, although I am their Convenor, it is not open to me to express a view on the issue on behalf of the Cross-Bench group. It was suggested that I should seek to gather signatures from our membership in support of the report. But that is not the way that the group works. It is not for me to tell them what to do or to canvass support for either side. What I can say, however, that it is my impression—1 can put it no higher than that— that the group is in favour of the report’s conclusions. I base that impression on the complete absence of complaints or representations given to me against it, and on the many indications that I have received of support for it.
I am sure that if any of the 31 Cross-Benchers who will speak after me disagree, they will make their position clear. My own position, for what it may be worth, is that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has taken our search for a solution a very long way. This is an excellent report, which deserves to be supported. But I must leave it to those who will speak after me from the Cross Benches to express their own views.
Time is short, and this is not an occasion to go into detail, but, speaking for myself, I am content with the recommendation that we should seek to limit our numbers to 600. A system of fixed-term appointments is far preferable to a system based on age or length of service, and I am of course happy with the recommendation that the Cross-Bench group should be fixed at 20% of the House’s membership. But I must face the fact that reducing the number of Peers on the Cross Benches in the way recommended by the report will not be an easy task. The Convenor can advise or try to persuade, but cannot direct or give orders to anybody. Of course, everything will depend on whether the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, will support the scheme. I very much echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, in searching for a cast-iron guarantee in that respect. I hope that they will be able to give that. The scheme cannot operate without their agreement.
I should like, however, to mention one matter that, although not within the remit of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, will require careful attention if the scheme goes ahead—here I echo some words of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. We must try to ensure that all regions are properly represented so that the House does not become even more centred on London and the south-east than it already is. Members who attend less frequently, and would thus be among those more likely to be asked to leave as we reduce our numbers, tend to be those who live further afield. We must not be too ready to ask them to go. We must also bear in mind that the daily allowances have not been increased to keep pace with inflation since they were introduced seven years ago. Left as they are, they risk leaving Members who have to find accommodation in London out of pocket day after day after their hotel bills or other costs have been paid. Those who live in London do not face those costs and they do not have to travel long distances to get here.
This is a serious issue for people like myself who do. If, as seems likely, a smaller House will require more frequent attendance, steps will have to be taken to ensure that those who live further away are not so penalised by lack of support that they will stop coming, as some perhaps already do. I am sure that other factors will require attention as we reduce our numbers, but the need for proper representation by Members from all parts of the country and ensuring that they are not out of pocket when they come here—that at least they are entitled to expect—should be high in the order of priority.