Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:44 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative 3:44 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, I had planned this afternoon to speak about the union, as so many noble Lords have already. But when I heard my noble friend Lord Forsyth speak so eloquently, as he normally does, and the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, I changed my mind. I am also looking forward to the speech of my noble friend Lord Lang of Monkton, who was such a distinguished Secretary of State, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, on a very fine and eloquent maiden speech.

All this led me to decide to speak on your Lordships’ House, and to make two particular points. I should also add, regarding the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—I am sorry that he is no longer in his place, but I shall make the point again when we debate his Bill—that those of us who stand in this House as elected hereditary Peers are waiting for stage 2 of reform when of course by-elections, and indeed hereditary Peers, will all go. So there is no need for him to have so much urgency on his Bill.

I first want to discuss the purpose of this House, which I believe is to revise and scrutinise, to debate great matters of the day and to be informed through our very good committee structure. Indeed, our role is best when we are complementing the House of Commons, rather than simply opposing it. Yet in recent years you can tell that we are increasingly becoming a House of opposition—a House that simply opposes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said something with which I completely agree: a good Opposition should hold a Government to account. I am enormously in favour of that, and I am also in favour of the Government listening carefully to what your Lordships have to say. I am also very much in favour of Ministers being brought to the Dispatch Box and being obliged to answer questions. But it is now a cause for some celebration when the Government win a vote in the House of Lords.

There is a complaint that the Government too rarely listen to your Lordships, but I contend that more amendments are accepted in Committee and by negotiation than by the blunt instrument of a vote to defeat the Government. In the last Session, which was the first of this Parliament, just after a winning general election and manifesto, the Government were defeated in over 55% of all votes. That is an average—on some Bills, they were defeated considerably more. It was some 96 occasions, which is a record, probably, since the 1970s. On this, you can hardly blame the Government wanting to add to the size of the Conservative Benches.

To those who complain about the size of the House, since January 2020, there have been 110 Divisions in which over 500 Peers have voted—we have never seen as many as 600 voting during that period. Apart from one, these votes were all done remotely. In the 20 years from 1999 to 2019, there were only 30 Divisions with over 500 Peers voting, and 18 of those were on Brexit. I cannot see that leading to a conclusion that the House is overcrowded.

Another interesting factor at play—this is my second point—is the role of the Cross Benches, who consistently vote against the Government. Take last month, April 2021: in only one vote out of 17 did the Cross Benches support the Government, and even then only just, by 38 to 30. Overall, the Cross Benches cast 1,016 votes against the Government and only 242 in favour.

I have to echo the late Lord Richard, who was Leader of the Opposition in the 1990s. At that time, he complained that the independent Cross-Benchers continually voted, independently, in favour of the Conservative Government. I think we can all agree that the exact opposite is true today. After such a consistent time of losing votes like this, the Government, it will surprise nobody to hear, will lose patience.

These are not problems of legislation; they are issues for your Lordships to consider about why we are all here, losing sight of what I believe the House is for. We should, of course, be confident in our role and our constitutional position as laid out by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, but as we carry out our voting duties I ask noble Lords to carefully remember that, often, less is more.