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My Lords, this report opens up yet another phase in the long struggle to defend the integrity of this House and maintain the authority of our bicameral Parliament. It is a cause to which I have devoted the past 25 years of my life and, decrepit as I may be, I am not giving it up yet. Parliament is and must remain the chief forum of the nation, never more so than at a time when the country’s future in Europe and the world is at a critical stage.
I support the thrust of the report very much, although I have reservations about some of its proposals, as many of us have. For example, I would prefer the age of retirement to be clear cut, as outlined in the Labour Peers’ report of 2014, rather than the 15-year sentence of Burns—but those reservations will have to wait for another day.
What matters now is that we seize the opportunity that the Government’s election manifesto gave us to put our own House in order without legislation. Of course, that does not give us carte blanche. Our principal aim should be to encourage a faster rate of retirement and promote the recruitment of new Members whose abilities, experience and suitability are examined and endorsed by a more authoritative Lords Appointments Commission. The independent guarantee of a candidate’s suitability will be even more important in a much smaller House—here, I confess that I would like a cap on this House’s membership of about 400.
I shall be content to go when the time comes, but I shall not go alone; I intend to take others with me. Neither shall I go to make way for another tranche of prime ministerial appointments for services rendered to No. 10 or payments to party funds—that is out.
If I may pose a question, I would like to do so as they do in the other place. It goes something like this: will the Prime Minister, in the course of her busy day, accept the need to curtail her powers of patronage and, by so doing, reduce the size of the House of Lords and make possible the reforms we urgently need? Let us not hold our breath on that one.
The Burns report is complex in many respects. Some of its proposals are far reaching and, of course, much depends on the Prime Minister’s co-operation. Much also depends on strengthening the authority of the Lords Appointments Commission—I am very keen that it should have greater authority in statute— to examine appointees not only for acceptability but, more importantly, for suitability.
Alas, I do not share the optimism of the distinguished academic adviser to the Burns Committee that the report is,
“focused on what can be implemented straightaway”.
Aligning future appointments to reflect the votes cast in general elections is a daunting long-term proposition. So is the suggestion of draconian financial pressure to unseat stubborn Peers. I must also question the opinion of the committee’s legal adviser that, on balance, we are the sole judges of the lawfulness of our own proceedings. To my mind, there should be no doubt about the balance: we need to keep the courts out of our business.
This may be our last chance for many years to reform this House. Our inflated size fosters our laughing-stock image. Its burial, I say, is long overdue.