My Lords, it is gratifying to see how many Members of the House of Lords are participating in this debate—approximately one in eight, I suggest. I suspect that it is not just because of the important nature of the debate, but possibly because some of us feel an element of self-interest. Perhaps I should confess to that. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, referred to survival.
I would broadly welcome the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. He has done very well. I congratulate him and his committee. I have two small caveats. First, 15 is an unfortunate number, because one wants to get away from a multiple of five, given the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act. It is a small matter—noble Lords may think it is one of perception—but I think it is of concern. Secondly, 600 is still pretty large. I would be aiming lower, for a target of 400 or 450.
While I welcome this report, it begs a very important question. If most people believe that there should be a time-limited term for future Peers, what about current Peers? What about all of us? It sounds a bit like the drawbridge being pulled up behind. The debate last September was about reducing the size of the House, and most people agreed that it was far too big. I expected to hear all those speeches ending in, “And therefore I volunteer to be the first to leave”. I was disappointed.
I would draw attention to the so-called Nolan principles of public life. Many Members here will remember when they were drawn up some 20 years ago. The first is selflessness. The last is leadership. Should we not all be prepared to show both on this issue and lead the way selflessly, if of course we accept the principle of a time limit?
My own view is that a time limit is probably right. I will indeed volunteer if everybody else does to leave, just for the benefit of doubt. I would put a time limit of say 13, 17, even 22 years, if it engendered more support. But it should be retrospective on us all, not just people in future. There could be a totally independent mechanism for those that are concerned. An arm’s-length committee that is not political might allow an extension, of five or perhaps 10 years, for people who really add value to this place—not necessarily superannuated MPs like myself and one or two others sitting around here, but people who have exceptional value in their contributions to this place.
To build on the report, I would say that we should also be looking at a self-denying ordinance amongst hereditaries and among the Bishops to reduce their numbers as well, perhaps to 14 Bishops and perhaps to 50 hereditaries. I am sure that this is possible. It is not beyond the wit of man for everyone to sit down without legislation and reduce these numbers.
I return to my main point. If we accept the logic and the principle of a time limit, it should surely apply to us all. I was very struck by the argument of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who speaks with great experience and knowledge. His call for prime ministerial restraint is very sensible. Nevertheless, I still cling to the idea that we should have a time limit. I shall tell you for why. Of course, we are all exceptional here. That is why we are here, is it not? We are outstanding public servants; we have great experience; and we make magnificent contributions to public debate et cetera. But perhaps there are others who are just as capable. Perhaps if we went, other capable people could contribute just as well. We should give them a chance.
I have little expectation of overwhelming support for retrospection for those of us sitting here—I know, by the way, how to make friends in this place by suggesting it—but it is the logical and principled way forward in which we would show both leadership and selflessness.