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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and all members of his committee on the work that they have done in grappling with this difficult issue. They have produced a good report which makes a series of compelling recommendations in addressing the symptoms of the size of your Lordships’ House, which I broadly support.
However, I want us to be tough not just on the size of the House but on the causes of it. Defining the problem we need to fix only as the size of the House means that we miss the bigger point. It risks us shifting responsibility away from ourselves to successive Prime Ministers, whether those of the past or those in future. In the volatile world that we are in right now, where institutions must respond correctly to society’s need for change if they are to survive, we do not have the luxury of misdiagnosing the causes of some of the problems we are grappling with.
I do not have a principled objection to a membership of your Lordships’ House capped at 600, but if we want it to happen and future Prime Ministers to respect that objective, we need to be clearer about what kind of House of Lords we want to be in the 21st century. I think that there is a real need for this House. In an era when people want and need more honest, frank debate that is not motivated by party politics, your Lordships’ House has an opportunity to be a shining beacon.
But for us to be effective, we have to define our purpose; we have all to sign up to it and address our behaviours and conduct where they get in the way of meeting that purpose. I was struck particularly by paragraph 82 of the report, which states:
“We suggest that the Prime Minister may wish to task HOLAC with ensuring that all nominees are aware, before they accept a peerage, of what being an active member of the House of Lords entails”.
I endorse that. I do not endorse the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, about HoLAC having a role in suitability, but I endorse the idea of it being clear about what is expected of new Members of this House. But what about those of us who are already Members? Are we all able to say to each other, quite honestly and right now, that we know what we should expect from each other as Members of this House? I am not entirely sure that we do.
I want increasing our accountability and serving the public better to be the driving force behind change in this House. So if we are to introduce term limits or a retirement age, which I would also support, surely we have to apply that to ourselves as well. I do not think we can wait until new Members come into the House in future. We made significant progress before 2015 by introducing permanent retirement, automatic expulsion for Peers sentenced to more than a year in prison and the power for this House to expel on the grounds of gross misconduct. Yet we sweep under the carpet the fact that some Peers remain Members of this House, even though they received prison sentences of more than a year, and we have yet to introduce a disrepute clause, even though the Privileges and Conduct Committee agreed on a recommendation for one in the spring of 2016. These are some of the things that have to change.
I believe in this House. I think that its Members are some of the most talented and accomplished people in our country. We do some great work, but if we are to remain relevant and serve the people of this country well, we have to address all the things that matter—and that is not just our size. More than anything, I want us to define our purpose for the 21st century and for us all to be united in meeting that purpose.