Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I am not very good at figures and, listening to this debate, it does not seem to me that a lot of other noble Lords are much better either. What puzzles me--perhaps it is a ridiculous puzzle--is that if there is to be a cap of any number a decision must be made on the principle as to how to arrive at the maximum. If one has a maximum and all the time one has more life Peers entering the House that maximum is a floating figure that is not definable. To me, the whole matter appears to be almost beyond definitive resolution, unless from time to time the question is referred to the usual channels, a Standing Committee or whatever to arrange what is right. Perhaps I am wrong but, listening to the debate, I do not see how, on any logical basis, there can be a cap.

With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, quite unwittingly he did my noble friend Lord Caithness an injustice. My noble friend was referring to the numbers in this House of Lords, and the use of that term includes the transitional House. We are not concerned at all with the successor House.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I do not speak to the figures, which do not appear to be very relevant. I would prefer a maximum of 600 Members of what is called the transitional House. I have a simple solution. If we scrapped the Weatherill clause--noble Lords will be aware that I was not madly in favour of it to begin with--there would be 92 fewer Peers and we would get very much nearer the 600. Without intending to upset my noble friends, I had it in mind to table an amendment to remove the Weatherill clause. I believe that that is a sensible way out of the problem, particularly as noble Lords opposite do not appear to be able to understand their own figures. I shall not move an amendment at this stage because I should like to hear my noble friend Lady Jay reply to the debate, if that is possible.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, the amendment contains a serious point--unlike the previous amendment. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said, the new House is likely to last a considerable time. It is not for the Opposition to give a figure. It is perfectly legitimate for my noble friends to press for a figure which should be on the face of the Bill. I realise that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will be unable to produce a figure tonight.

30 Jun 1999 : Column 344

The life peerage system began in 1958. Therefore on an actuarial basis over the next few years there is likely to be a considerable diminution in the number of life Peers. That may enable the figure to be lower than it otherwise would be.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I have to regard this debate as somewhat unsatisfactory. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, was kind enough to discuss privately with me his concerns in general terms. I was happy to do so. But for the Front Bench of the Opposition and another noble Lord to put down amendments at Report stage, the substance of which they state in their opening sentences to be incorrect, is rather strange.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was slightly irritated when we pointed out at Committee stage that his figures were wrong. However, as has been pointed out, he was sensible enough to say that he knew his sums were wrong but that it was a probing amendment to consider the general principle. We discussed the general principle at some length. The Government's position on the general principle is unaltered. The noble Lord has tabled an alternative amendment which his noble friend says is again inaccurate for the reasons he explained clearly. The noble Earl has also suggested that his figures are inaccurate. To be honest, I am not sure what we are discussing. We are discussing points made by several noble Lords about the need, as my noble friend Lord Peston rightly put it, to think about the longer term. He also helped us greatly by trying to achieve a substantive number which was appropriately divisible in the way he described.

The noble Lords who moved and spoke to Amendments Nos. 52 and 55 seemed to suggest that they are unworthy of consideration. In those circumstances, my position is somewhat extraordinary.

However, for the purposes of the record, if nothing else, let me say that it is true that the Government accept that there are potentially 519 life Peers in this House, 27 Law Lords, and 26 Bishops. To those figures, as has been mentioned several times this evening, 92 excepted Peers will be added as an integral part of the agreement by which we achieved Clause 2--although, as my noble friend Lord Barnett said, that is not necessarily immutable if he were successfully to move an amendment to take out the clause.

However, let us agree on the figures as they stand at present. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, reminded us that the Government have stated explicitly in their White Paper--I repeat it again, as was noted by the noble Lord in previous debates--their pledge to a proportionate creation for the other parties. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that those numbers add up to something over 700 on the existing predictions of numbers. So the suggestion that we should stop at 659 is as inappropriate as he suggested. For that reason alone the amendment runs counter to the whole of the Weatherill agreement. On that basis alone, it would be unacceptable.

30 Jun 1999 : Column 345

The noble Earl stated that his figure is more generous. But the 830 referred to would require an extra 140 life Peers. I assume that the purpose of achieving the target which he states is theoretical is to do what has been discussed again in different contexts today; to challenge the rights of the Prime Minister and to seek to create a statutory framework around the scope of patronage. Even if all those 140 extra life Peers were Labour Peers--and that would run counter to every commitment we have given, and every commitment made by the Prime Minister and the Government in the course of these extremely long-drawn-out proceedings--the number would be 360. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that that is still less than an overall majority in this House.

Again we are in very theoretical realms. In a sense we are achieving nothing. Noble Lords are probably exhausted by my repeating the commitments in the White Paper, the manifesto and speeches on this Bill. But as there are noble friends on this side of the Chamber who are somewhat exhausted by the arguments from the Benches opposite, I intend to repeat the commitments. I shall do so quickly. These are the commitments on which we believe that the power of the Prime Minister should not remain unfettered and on which we have given explicit undertakings. We have said in the White Paper that no political party should seek a majority in this House. There should continue to be a significant independent Cross-Bench element. Respective party strengths should at the most, and over time, reflect the votes cast in the preceding general election and for the time being only broad parity between the two main parties is sought, with the proportionate creations of life Peers which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, mentioned today.

We have said also that there should be an independent mechanism for identifying Cross-Bench Peers. On the basis of our proceedings at an earlier stage, I understand that those rules are now so attractive to the party opposite that they want to see them in statute. We did not see them abiding by them in their previous period of government.

As my noble friend Lord Peston stated clearly, and he was supported by other Lords, we are talking here about a transitional House. We are talking about a House much of whose membership is already fixed for life. We are talking about a House where there is no provision for retirement or resignation. Noble Lords complained in earlier debates when they sought to make a different point that the House, as it results from the Bill, will be too small to carry out its functions properly. Which argument do they stand by tonight? We on this side of the House do not think that that is right.

We believe that the numbers I have described are more than adequate to fulfil all the functions of the second Chamber in the appropriate way for the transitional period. But let us suppose that they are right. Let us suppose that it proves necessary to increase the nominal size of the House, taking into account the

30 Jun 1999 : Column 346

principles I have outlined yet again. A statutory limit on the size of the House which would allow enough headroom to accommodate that possibility would also provide the headroom for an unscrupulous Prime Minister--this bogeyman who sits at the corner of all our debates--to fill the House with a disproportionate number of his or her own supporters. And once that ceiling was reached, it would still be open to the Prime Minister of the day to adjust the numbers in his or her party's favour. So a ceiling high enough to accommodate legitimate options would have to be high enough to accommodate illegitimate options, and, frankly, we should be no better off.

As I have said before, I do not think that an amendment on these lines would improve the Bill. I do not think that the amendment would deliver the intended results. I cannot conceive a scenario where any amendments with such positive, precise figures would achieve the intended results. The figures on the amendment are wrong, as the movers admitted.

The amendments add nothing to the pledges that the Prime Minister and the Government have made, although I realise--it has been said on many occasions today--that undertakings by the Prime Minister and the Government are regularly disregarded by your Lordships. I of course do not accept that position. I repeat what my noble friends on the Front Bench have repeated several times today. I ask the House to take this issue seriously. Arguments deployed fully in the Committee of the Whole House should not be repeated at length on Report. That is in the Companion.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page