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House of Lords: Lord Speaker’s Committee Report - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:09 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee 1:09 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, in thinking about our future, it might be wise to remind ourselves of the words of another Burns:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An' foolish notion”

I have said many times before that I love this place. I find that if you are not sure what you think about something, listening to a debate in this place will straighten you out. The debate the other day in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on universal credit was extremely moving as well as being informative, as was the debate moved by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on education. What do they have in common? They were almost entirely ignored by people outside this House, which is portrayed as a load of people in pyjamas or strange outfits every time we appear in the newspapers. If we are to change the perception—because perception is everything in politics—we have to change ourselves. Along with everyone else, I pay tribute to the fantastic work that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have done.

As some noble Lords may recall, in her latter years, Baroness Thatcher used to come to this House. Because she was a little frail, she needed someone to look after her. Her office would ring me up and she would say, “I am coming to the House this afternoon, would you like to look after me?” And I would drop everything and come. One day I said to her, “Margaret, you’ve done your bit for the country. People love to see you, but you don’t need to come here so often”. Whereupon she prodded me in the chest and said, “Michael, when we accepted appointment to this place it became our duty to attend. Now how often are you here when I am not here?”. I have never forgotten that. The size of the House is a problem, but so, also, are people who accept appointment to this place and do not take it seriously. To take it seriously, I am afraid that you have to come quite a lot. It is quite a complicated place to understand, which is why, down at the other end of the corridor, they have not a clue what we are about.

On the Burns report itself, I thought that it was almost impossible for that committee to produce a report that would carry support throughout the Benches, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and to the Liberal Party—this may be a first. I thought that his speech was statesmanlike and the behaviour of his party entirely constructive, even though it is not to its advantage, and we should take a lead from that. By the way, if noble Lords ever want to solve a polynomial simultaneous equation, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is clearly the man. He can take a whole load of complex variables and put them together in what is a brilliant report. Believe me, this is as good as it gets. As my noble friend Lord Cormack indicated, it is probably our last and only chance to reform ourselves.

Of course, as many noble Lords have already said, none of this will fly unless the Prime Minister actually gives an undertaking. Some have said that we cannot rely on convention, but this whole place has existed on that for 500 years—even where we sit is determined by convention. We are not a rule-based House. Yes, we can depend on convention, but it does require the Prime Minister to give a clear undertaking.

I notice that the Leader of the House spoke at the beginning of this debate and is not speaking at the end, and the Leader of the Opposition is speaking at the end of the debate and will no doubt respond to it. I say to my noble friend the Leader of the House, if I may borrow a phrase from a former Prime Minister, that the hand of history is upon your shoulder. You spoke at the beginning of this debate for the Government. I hope at the end of this debate, you will speak in your role as Leader of the House for the whole House and go to the Prime Minister and explain to her how important it is that she embraces the clear consensus that we are seeing across every corner of the House. Your moment has come, just as happened with a previous Leader, now the Marquess of Salisbury, then Lord Cranborne. The leader of our party in opposition wanted to have an elected House. He informed all of us of this notion by writing an article in the Daily Telegraph. Lord Cranborne, as he then was, defied him and ensured that we ended up with a compromise of the 92 hereditary Peers and the reform that was brought in by a Labour Government. So there is a precedent for leaders—even in opposition—of this House.

I look forward to the speech by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde who, I understand, made it a condition of his continuing in succession to Lord Cranbourne, who was sacked for his pains—in earlier times his head would have been cut off—that those proposals were taken forward. That is why we are sitting here today with the opportunity to produce a reformed House that will be respected and held in high regard by the public who have sent us here.