My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the former Lord Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, whose contributions to our debates always command attention. It is also a pleasure to congratulate the present Lord Speaker on initiating the inquiry into the size of our House. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee also deserve great praise for bringing forward such a carefully considered and well-thought-through report.
It is surely right to consider our numbers in isolation, because the solution can be achieved without legislation and because it does not compromise any wider reform proposals that may one day emerge.
I will address, first, the question of numbers. This is a problem created by successive Governments—or Prime Ministers—for which we in this House receive the blame. We have a right to expect their co-operation now as it is in their interests, as well as ours, that it should be solved. I believe that a reduction to 600 is sensible and realistic. It should meet the criticism we have received while, at the same time, still enabling us to fulfil all our varied obligations as the second pillar of our parliamentary democracy, continuing to complement and assist the work of the other place.
A cap of fewer than 600—at any rate initially—might reduce our capacity to fulfil all our responsibilities. We should also bear in mind that the fewer the Members of this House, the greater, proportionately, would become the government payroll. I feel sure that the House would not wish to see our capacity to hold the Government to account undermined.
I particularly welcome the evolutionary process and its sustainability, embraced by the committee, to carry us from our ever-expanding present state to one of gradual reduction while avoiding the painful issues of specific terms or age limits for present Members of the House. Getting the reduction pattern right is as much an art as a science. Just as 600 Members seems right as a target cap—at any rate at this stage—so too does the two-out, one-in formula have a rigorous fairness about it, spreading the pain, if such it be, across each of the major groupings.
A 15-year implementation cycle is probably the maximum time that the urgency of this matter would allow. It could also be the minimum length of time needed to achieve the gradualism that constitutional change should always seek and to sustain an important sense of continuity. Similarly, the 15-year term proposed for new Peers, referred to by my noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, feels right. It affords fairness and balance both to the operation of the business of the House and to the new Peers. As my noble friend said, it offers career fulfilment in public service to them and the benefits of a regular injection of new talent to the House.
Since the last reduction in our numbers 20 years ago, the average daily attendance rate of Members has risen by 50%, and it is possible that a further rise could result in due course from the changes now proposed. If so, the cap of 600 Peers might eventually be further reduced.
One matter that concerned me before I had had a chance to read the report was the mention in early media coverage that the changes proposed would reflect the post-election political balance in the other place. However, having now read the way in which this would happen, and to what extent, I am reassured—indeed, supportive. The strength of this House lies in its differences from the other place. We should never be an echo Chamber. Clearly, from what is proposed, that will not happen. From a starting-point of the political diversity of the present House, the averaging effect of the 15-year term on the five-year electoral cycle should keep any threat of dominance under manageable control, and the important principle of no party having an overall majority will be preserved.
This report seems to avoid the pitfalls that have beset other proposals in recent times for the reform of your Lordships’ House. It seems to me to provide a long-term, sustainable way forward, while protecting our continuing ability to fulfil all our duties and functions and play a full role within our parliamentary democracy. I hope that it will be widely welcomed by all who have a part to play and that it will be implemented rapidly, while it can still be done.