My Lords, I am delighted to join many noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on their report. It is very difficult to disagree with any of the facts in the noble Lord’s report, and the conclusions would appear to anybody to be both reasonable and balanced—which is an unusual thing in a modern parliamentary report. It is in fact an extremely clever answer to the question posed by the Lord Speaker following your Lordships’ debate last year. I take on board the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Radice, about the ridiculous comparison between your Lordships’ House and the second Chamber in China, but I remain to be convinced that the size of this House is the key question we need to be addressing.
I made my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House—entirely coincidentally, standing almost in the same spot I am standing in today—about 30 years ago on the Second Reading of the poll tax Bill. As your Lordships can imagine, the House was quite full on that day. In fact, looking around it this evening—it was probably about the same time of day—I think that the House on that occasion was rather fuller. The speakers list, however, was not quite so long. The issue was, in case your Lordships have forgotten, slightly controversial at the time—but, extraordinarily, nobody speaking in that debate or commenting afterwards mentioned anything about the House being too big. I ask myself: too big for what? Too big for its vital role as a revising Chamber, perhaps?
In the last two or three debates that your Lordships have had on reform, which your Lordships enjoy debating from time to time, I have not heard one speaker say anything except what a good job this House does in revising. My noble friend Lady O’Cathain referred only a few moments ago to the high quality of the debates. So if the debates are good, we revise very well and our Select Committees are so respected, presumably we are not too big for the job we are doing. Or is it perhaps that we are too big for the convenience of Members?
My noble friend Lord Forsyth said that perception is important—and he is right, it is important. So maybe it is the perception rather than the reality. The perception undoubtedly is that from time to time we are too full. Occasionally when you come into your Lordships’ House at Question Time, it does seem to resemble rather more closely a bar-room brawl than a serious debating Chamber. That, I suspect, has less to do with the quantity of Members and more to do with the quality of conduct. This problem could easily be solved if new Members coming down the Corridor did not bring the more excitable excesses of that House with them—amusing though they may be—but rather chose to leave them behind. That is, after all, what most people dislike most about politics and what causes the reputation of the other place to fall—which, therefore, obviously affects the reputation of this House.
To my way of thinking—your Lordships will correct me if I am wrong—in the frequent debates that we have on Lords reform there is only one area of consensus: only one thing on which everyone agrees. It is that is that it would be ridiculous to have a second Chamber that emulated the first. It would be absurd to repeat in one Chamber the others. However, that is not my primary concern. My primary concern is that, over time, with 15-year terms, this House would slowly turn into a House that crept closer in its manner and its composition to the other place—which, I believe, and I think the House will agree, would be pointless and universally opposed.
I share the view of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde that a 15-year term would be extremely unattractive to those who are early or in the middle of successful and varied careers. Rather, it would be attractive to those in the autumn of their careers looking for something to do in the last 15 years of their working life. If we were to go down that route, we would be in danger of turning into reality what this House has frequently been accused of being: a retirement home—and in this case a retirement home mainly for Members of another place.
I do not expect that everybody will agree with my views. In fact, I have no doubt that most people will disagree with them, and that they are out of step with the views of many in this House. However, it is my understanding that my role in this House is not to say what is easy or comfortable, and that this House’s role is not to be easy and comfortable with itself. What we are here to do is to face the difficult choice of saying the things that we believe ought to be said, even if we believe them to be unpopular.