Both Houses of Parliament are, by international standards, exceptionally large; indeed, we have the largest Parliament in the democratic world. David Cameron, in an interview with The Financial Times, has suggested that the number of seats in the House of Commons be reduced by sixty.
When I chaired the Commission to Strengthen Parliament, established by William Hague, we proposed an even more radical reduction in number – a House of 500. However, recognising the argument that turkeys are reluctant to vote for Christmas, we proposed that the reduction be staggered and introduced over a twenty-year peiod: that way, sitting MPs were less likely to feel themselves under threat. We accepted the case put to us by several witnesses that a smaller House would be able to carry out its functions more effectively with better-resourced members. There are arguments for retaining the existing large House, by we felt the balance of argument clearly favoured a reduction in number.
We did not deal with the second chamber in respect of numbers. I accept that, although there is a strong case for having a large membership in the House of Lords, there is scope for reducing the number from its present level. There are members who, given the opportunity, would retire and we could fulfil our functions with a House reduced by a hundred or more. There is provision in the House of Lords Bill, reintroduced this session by Lord Steel, to allow for retirement and for a statutory appointments commission to work towards a House that is smaller in number than the House of Commons. The Bill is unlikely to reach the statute book, but it enables the principle to be discussed.
Even if both Houses were reduced on the scale suggested, we would still have a large Parliament. Are we being too radical in these suggestions? Or not radical enough?