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My Lords, I cannot pretend that I come to this subject entirely with a fresh mind. I have been at it for years. When I chaired the royal commission some 17 years ago—a number of very good friends were on the commission with me at that time—the House then had around 600 Members. It now has around 800 and some people have forecast that if we go on as we are, it will not be long before we are at 1,000. I remember talking to the Bishops at that time and, if I may say so, the right reverend Prelate’s contribution to our debate today reminded me of those discussions. The Bishops have a view and put it very eloquently, but they are also extremely co-operative on finding a practical and sensible way forward. His speech fitted exactly into that role.
The House decided that we ought to do something about our size. However, the essential point, which has been made several times already, is that getting the numbers down is pretty useless unless we have a plan to keep them down. The Lord Speaker took the initiative and set up a committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I have served on a good many Select Committees over the years and chaired a fair number of them; I do not think I have ever had a chairman as good as the noble Lord, Lord Burns, was of our committee. He was absolutely first-class and we are extremely grateful to him for what he did.
We decided early on that there was absolutely no chance of legislation and that we had to explore the self-regulatory methods. I say at the outset that self-regulation puts a great responsibility on each of us and unless we are prepared to go along with it, nothing will be achieved. We looked first at the question of the numbers and our first task was to see how we could get them down, but we had to have a system for keeping them down in a way that was fair for all and broadly reflected public opinion over the medium term. There was no attempt at all in our committee to alter the conventions of the House or the way we operate. Establishing that in our minds enabled us to consider ways of reducing the total membership, bearing in mind that we are appointed for life and cannot be forced to retire, but that a voluntary system of retirement is essential if we do not have legislation.
That is the nutshell of our proposals. We looked in our proposals at the different components that make up the House and we hope we will all consider these proposals very seriously. Those who serve currently in the House of Lords—existing Members—cannot be forced out without legislation. There is some flexibility in our conclusions—how quick and so on—but I explained it to people like this: “If you have been in the House for 20 years and are over 80, maybe in the next five years you ought to think about retiring”. That did not seem a terribly harsh view; a great many of your Lordships will think that a reasonable and responsible way to go.
The opposition parties get a guarantee of replacements, but cannot be expected to agree to our proposals unless they can be sure that the House does and—as has already been said—that the Government do. For the Government the decision is more finely balanced, but I come down on the side of giving the proposals a fair go. The number of peerages that the Prime Minister can recommend will not be very different under our proposals from the average number that Prime Ministers have recommended since the passing of the Life Peerages Act. Indeed, I see some advantages for the Government. They will be able to get a firmer commitment from potential Peers that they will attend and work, particularly as it is possible to grant a peerage without a seat in the House of Lords, as we pointed out in our report.
The Government are entitled to be assured that the House will accept self-regulation in the way we propose, however. There will need to be another debate to confirm that and the way the House wishes to go. The Government must have confidence that the House will not seek to use its majority in a way more assertive than it has historically done. If the Government could be satisfied on those matters I would say to the House, “Let’s give it a go”. That would not in all circumstances be a long-term commitment, but if the House agreed to the scheme of self-regulation so should the Government. However, if there is no such commitment, the Government clearly cannot go along with it. If self-regulation were agreed and then broke down, the Government would be able to revert to the existing system without any legislation, but I hope very much that that is never the way things go.
I would not think it wise for a Government who were assured that their business would be sustained to seek to prevent a House reforming itself by a self-regulatory agreement, to reduce excess numbers and make itself more efficient and more acceptable in the eyes of public opinion.