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House of Lords Reform — Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:14 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 5:14 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, the Leader of the House, the Lord Privy Seal, in introducing this important debate said that the House “cannot grow indefinitely”. The problem is that, at the moment, it is growing indefinitely. Therefore, unless somebody somewhere changes the way in which things are happening, it will continue to grow and at some stage its membership will be over 1,000, which clearly would be a tipping point that would indeed make us look ridiculous, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours.

The Leader also said that we should concentrate on our purpose, and the leader of my party, the Liberal Democrats, my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, asked: what is the House of Lords for? I think that most of us who are here have a pretty good idea of what it is for, because it is what we do. By and large, we do it fairly well. We can argue as to what we ought to do and whether we should do more or less of it, and we can argue about the ways in which we do it, but those things are relatively marginal. We know what it is for. The problem is that, increasingly, people out there—the rest of the country and the rest of the world—do not know what we do. They do not understand it, and those journalists who do have given up trying to tell those who do not.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that we are looking ridiculous. I think that he said that we are wallowing in a sea of ridicule, or something like that. We have to understand what the tipping point was in the media that caused that to happen. It was nothing to do with the size of the House. It was not to do with the Prime Minister appointing new Peers; it was not anything to do with what we do. It was the stupid behaviour, caught by the media, of one particular senior Member of this House. In the way that the British media operate, that is the event which put the House of Lords into a sea of ridicule—if that is where we are.

After what has been a dreadful summer for this House from a publicity point of view, the first thing that we have to do is to avoid any more ridicule in the short run. People who have the ear of the Prime Minister really have to tell him in words of one syllable that there must be no more significant appointments, no more large lists—there may be individuals, but that is different—of new Peers for the foreseeable future, certainly for 12 months. Then we can see how it goes beyond that.

Of course, the Prime Minister is accused of trying to boost the government numbers in the new circumstances of a Conservative Government, but he has not actually done that. He has boosted the government numbers on a net balance between the opposition parties and the government party by seven. Why appoint 45 Peers, and get all the opprobrium for doing that, when all it does is boost the government numbers by seven? The 10 defeats of the Government before the Summer Recess were all by majorities larger than that—some by very significantly larger majorities. The idea, which some people in the Conservative Party were telling me was going to happen, that we were going to get a lot of new Conservative Peers to make sure that the Government had something like a majority in this House, is nonsense. It cannot be done without a huge number of appointments.

One thing that can be done to avoid a degree of ridicule is the immediate abolition of hereditary Peers’ by-elections, which are amusing and fun, but if anybody out there really knew about them and what was going on, they would be a matter of derision. There must be a moratorium on lists. The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, of one out and one in is a good one, although it does not actually reduce the numbers. Combined with a self-denying ordinance of no more lists for the foreseeable future, numbers would start to fall.

We must remember that one of the principles underlying the halfway reform of the House of Lords in 1999, when most of the hereditaries were invited to leave, was that never again would the Government have a majority in the House of Lords. Therefore, the House of Lords would be different; it would be a body with no overall political control. That was tested to its limits in the last five years under the coalition, and it was something that a lot of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches were well aware of. To some extent, some groups—I had better be careful how I phrase this—of people on the Cross Benches stepped in and filled the gap. They were very largely responsible for those occasions on which the Government were defeated, and they did a very good job with that. We are clearly the pivotal group again in the House, and that is the situation that was expected after the 1999 settlement. I therefore say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours—and I agree with a lot of what he said—that he has to stop his obsession with the Liberal Democrats and the numbers we have here.

Finally, in the whole of my political life, I have been an observer of and a member of bodies, including this House until recently, where the Liberal Democrats were disgracefully underrepresented. Now, suddenly, we are overrepresented; suddenly, we find that people such as the noble Lord are new devotees of proportional representation, but only in so far as it does us down. Let us work together on these things, rather than making those kind of remarks. I believe that there are ways forward and we should look for them constructively.