My Lords, I fear that I may be about to be branded as awkward but an old joke asks, “What do you call 40 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?”. The answer, of course, is, “A good start”. You can make the same joke with 400 or 4,000 lawyers because the issue is not the number but the public perception of lawyers. Lawyers—we have them here aplenty—say that they are a useful but simply misunderstood part of our society.
Exactly the same applies to us. There is a silly chattering-classes soundbite going around that compares this House to the National People’s Congress of China, and I am sad to have heard it repeated by Members of this House. It is an absurd point but the cheap jibe is a symptom of the real underlying problem of poor public understanding of what we do here. It is not that we are many but that we are still perceived, including by Members of the House of Commons, as a fuddy-duddy gentlemen’s club for men in ermine drinking port and thwarting democracy. The soundbite about numbers has simply been added to that list.
Organisations that offer expertise, as we do, typically like to boast of the number of people on their books, not get rid of them. Those who know us appreciate that we draw on a great range of people who have successfully dedicated their lives mainly to activities other than winning elections. The public value this depth and breadth in our House.
There is also a suggestion that our numbers should be the same as those in the House of Commons. Why? Where is the logic in that wholly false symmetry? We are different in so many ways and, again, we seem to be concerned with the superficial—the cosmetic. Do we suppose that the public would like us to imitate the Commons? Most people whom I speak to value the very differences between us and the House of Commons.
The thing that I dread most is a gradual remaking of this Chamber into a smaller cadre of semi-professional politicians who can trade soundbites on almost any subject, rather than specialists, a wide group of whom may speak only occasionally but really know their subject. That would be to ape the Commons in a way that would do a disservice to the people and Parliament alike, and it would remove one of the most unique and important contributions of this Chamber.
I have asked proponents of shrinking this House what problems they are seeking to solve and very often I have been surprised by the answers. Rather than office space, cost or crowding—at least, for 30 minutes every day—I have been told that the numbers are indeed a cosmetic issue and that we must cut them as a fear-based PR exercise. Further, I am told that the typical level of participation is around 450—well below the 600 touted as matching the Commons. Most surprising of all is that those apparently targeted for removal are the Peers who seldom turn up—in fact, the very people who make almost no impact on the effective numbers but who in some cases make occasional but very valuable specialist contributions rather than anodyne speeches on almost any issue.
Party balance, reflecting the Commons, has also been raised by a number of speakers today. Are we to have a Peers’ hokey-cokey, where Peers go in and out as elections reconfigure the party balance of the other place? That is just not a workable system—not least determining who goes in and who goes out on each occasion. Symptoms are being muddled with causes. If this House defies rather than advises the other place, which is certainly the greatest bugbear one hears from Members of the Commons, perhaps we need to revisit that—or has the recent announcement put that particular dog back in its basket for now?
Coming back to numbers, I recognise that if ever more Peers are appointed and attend, which not all do, as some have pointed out powerfully tonight, there must be an attendance overload point—not because of silly comparisons with China but for the House to be capable of functioning. I can only echo what others have said about inflow and outflow: if you want to lower the level of your bath-water, there is no point bailing out one end with the taps full on at the other. That is our current situation and a swathe of sackings would achieve only a temporary reduction.
Detailed solutions are for another day, so I am not going to go there. However, to conclude, if only as a dissenting voice in the debate, I believe that we are running scared and addressing the wrong issue. We need to focus on representing ourselves far more effectively, so that both our contribution and our value for money can be properly understood. After all, if people do not understand what we do, how can they possibly know whether we are too many—or, indeed, too few?