My Lords, in general I lend my full support to the Burns report, having been a member of the Norton group since its inception. However, it is not going so far as some of us would like, through primary legislation. Many noble Lords signed up to the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which, in its original form, wanted to make the IAC statutory. This report is a not-too-subtle reminder of the excessive power of patronage in this House and presents a straight challenge to Downing Street not to appoint too many more Peers in the new year, just as we are contemplating genuine reform. Burns presents a firm step forward, and I am sure we can find ways of taking that step quickly.
But it is hardly a revolutionary report: we are only going back, at 600, to the number that we were at before. It is an irony that so many of us should have to attend today, when we could be discussing homelessness at Christmas, or Cyril Ramaphosa’s future, or anything else. Why can we not all sign a letter and just proceed with it? We had the debate a year ago.
My main concern about this report is that it may strengthen the case for more regular attendance. As a Cross-Bencher this worries me, because we do not want to lose able people of considerable experience simply by requiring them to attend regularly. My noble and learned friend Lord Hope made this point more fluently. The report admits it, but somewhat reluctantly. It needs to be repeated that the strength of this House, and its distinction from another place, is rooted in the expertise and special knowledge of many Members who only attend when they have to. I refer predominantly, but of course not exclusively, to non-political Members.
By the way, I warm to the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, about the regions, but I know this cannot be done except through an elected House. His point about splitting the peerage has been made before, many times, but it does not lose its validity for all that.
Beyond this, I would like to see more attention paid to the age of retirement. Here I share doubts about the 15 years: I cannot see that we should go in the opposite direction to existing legislation. I cannot see a two-tier House being acceptable or workable. I would not recommend a fixed age, but agree with the broad principle of retiring, say, after 80. I would be the last to ask any elderly, articulate Peer to step down—the magical names Avebury and Walton come to mind—but those of us now passing their mid-70s should be aware that most of us do not perform as well at 80 as at 70. Here I find myself only a little more radical than the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, but not half as revolutionary as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who calls for a clear-out at 80.