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My Lords, I add my immense thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for their impressive energy in producing this report. If I strike a discordant note in my analysis, it is not to belittle their commitment. I fear that this is yet another piecemeal effort to tackle the fundamental issue of Lords reform, as by following strictly their remit they have reported on the size of the House while ignoring its functions as a legislative assembly for the whole of the United Kingdom and the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope.
The House is of course much too large with 798 Peers. How did this come about? It is substantially through the political incontinence of Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron in their exercise of patronage. Mr Blair recommended 374 Peers and Mr Cameron 245—a total of 619, which puts the reasons for our present membership in the right perspective. We read that more are on the way. If that is true this debate should not ignore that grim reality. I remember my struggle in primary school to calculate the end result of filling a tank with water while emptying it at the same time.
The report acknowledges that its success depends on undertakings by Prime Ministers, whoever they might be—even future ones, I suppose—agreeing to appoint no more new Members than there are vacancies. As no legislation is proposed this undertaking would be no more, at its very best, than some sort of emerging convention. But a convention is hallowed only by many years of acceptance. In the most unlikely event that I might be asked, as a law officer, to advise an incoming Labour Prime Minister I would advise him that this commitment is not worth the candle. His aim, in a House dominated by non-Labour Members, would be to get his legislation through and ease the task of his Chief Whip. While the House does not oppose legislation on manifesto commitments at Second Reading, I remind your Lordships that the implementation of devolution was delayed for 20 years through the passing of mere amendments in both the Commons and the Lords.
The basic difficulty for the committee was that there was neither the will nor the time to introduce legislation at present, hence the existence of hereditary Peers would be untouched. I hope I will be forgiven for saying that there is no place for hereditary membership in today’s legislative process. Paragraph 21 of the report concedes that,
“the hereditary peers will make up a larger proportion of a smaller House”.
We would be going backwards. I note that there are 81 hereditary Conservative and Cross-Bench Peers, but only four Labour ones. The report also concedes that in its proposals only the party share of new appointments will vary. The reduction proposals are expected to result in Labour losing 38 Peers by 2022; the Liberal Democrats will lose only 18. That is the proposed immediate future of this House, following Mr Cameron’s appointment of 51 Liberal Democrat Peers under the coalition agreement to reflect,
“the share of the vote … in the last general election”.
Surely, in 2017, that is crying out to be revisited for our present membership.
As only new Members would be affected by the proposals, it cannot be said that the proposals will,
“affect all parties and Members equally”,
for the present. The reports avers that the only way to reduce our membership is on an equal contribution basis. The guiding principles are treating Members fairly and no compulsory retirement of existing Members. I expect that the House would welcome this. How this will be done is not spelled out in the main proposals; the only guidance is the rejection of some of the ideas of the past—based on age, tenure or attendance—as they have the disadvantage of changing the balance of parties arbitrarily. It is helpful to know how the reduction will not be achieved, but it would be even more helpful to affirm proposals on how it will. Although reducing the size of this House is absolutely necessary, I regret that I cannot support the proposals, for all these reasons. They need further and long consideration by this House.