My Lords, I too thank the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip for allowing this debate in government prime time, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for kicking it off. I have heard all the speeches and the one I really want to applaud is that of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean—if only because he touched on a theme which I want to mention, which has so far not been used to much effect. I accept that the Lords is far too big; so, I have to say, is the Commons, notwithstanding the fact that its membership is to be reduced. However, we need to be clear on our functions and powers.
I always start the Peers in Schools sessions, as I will on Friday in south Bromsgrove, by saying that the Lords is in effect a very large sub-committee of the Commons. We are not equal Houses of Parliament because the Commons can force legislation upon the Lords, but the Lords cannot force legislation upon the Commons. We are the thinking Chamber that thinks for itself and, from time to time, we request the Commons to think again on some issues. The Government’s defeats here are only a request to the Commons to think again. They have the final say; we simply ask them to have another look. We of course need to check on the material sent to us from the Commons because they do not check much of it themselves. I agree that the Lords should be about two-thirds the size of the Commons. This should not be rigid but it should be less than the Commons. By the way, I would not start legislation in the Lords and that way, all Bills would be subject to the Parliament Acts.
I come to what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said and I will make a couple of small points. The Peers in Schools programme needs extending to peers in Whitehall and peers in the Commons. We need to confront the ignorance about our function and powers. From my experience in Whitehall—two departments while in the Commons and four in your Lordships’ House—civil servants are fearful of the Lords. They do not understand the Lords because they are ignorant about it, which causes problems within the departments. Not enough civil servants, even the senior ones, have worked in Lords Ministers’ private offices. There is massive ignorance in those departments about the Lords so they become fearful of us, which need not be the case.
I fully accept that I was ignorant before about this place. When I was in the other place as a Minister, I paid not the slightest attention to my noble friends Lord Donoughue and Lady Hollis when they said at departmental meetings. “I’ve got a Starred Question” or “I have to stay all night”. I never paid any attention to what they said but I soon found out when I came here what they were on about. However, I will never forget the day when I, as a humble Minister of State, went with my noble friend Lord Grocott, who was the government Chief Whip, to attend the senior Cabinet committee in charge of legislation. We were merely explaining the rules and processes here in the Lords but the chair wagged their finger at us and said that we had gone native, based purely on ignorance about what we were trying to explain. So far, that person has not arrived in your Lordships’ House.
Ministers also need the odd information session. This is especially the case—I say this of one in retrospect and the other with experience—for senior Ministers who have never operated at junior level. That was the case in 1997, when I did not pick it up, but in 2010 I certainly did. We are not a threat, but there was something missing in the corporate memory of those Ministers and those teams at that point in time when they had never operated in respect of the Lords. We are here to help.
We are also here to stop an Executive takeover of Parliament—not enough is made of that. I can tell you this: every move that is made across the road is bit by bit seeking to get Executive control of Parliament, and we should stop that. We should insist on the rule of parliamentary law. Sometimes we have to stiffen the backbone of MPs. The example that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, gave was about tax credits. That was a classic example. It should have been a Bill. We all know that if it had been a Bill the Commons and the Government could have had their way because they get the last word, and they were getting around the parliamentary rules. We can carry out our function and exercise our powers a lot better with fewer Peers, and we should get on with it.