HL Deb 26 April 1984 vol 451 cc148-52

3.33 p.m.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the number of Peers, customarily non-attendant, whose presence was ensured on 9th April for the purpose of voting against the amendment to the Motion for Second Reading of the Rates Bill, added to the recently enhanced reputation of the House of Lords.

Lord Denham

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that Answer, may I ask him to accept that whatever I say later will be no reflection at all upon his professional skill at assembling Lobby fodder? May I ask the noble Lord to look again at the Question and to say whether he does not agree with that part of it which refers to the enhanced reputation of this House? Would he not agree that that enhancement sprang from the growing feeling in the country that here you could advance an argument and that it would be listened to in a more restrained and objective atmosphere than in the other place? But is it possible to reconcile that appreciation with the situation on 9th April when, thanks to the professional skill of the noble Lord, the Government had an overwhelming majority, made up, in part, by virtual strangers who take no part in the day-to-day responsibilities of this House?

Lord Denham

My Lords, a reasoned amendment to the Second Reading of a Government Bill is in itself a very rare event. When such an amendment is moved to a Bill which is a clear manifesto commitment in the first Session of a new Parliament, it is tantamount to asking for a vote of no confidence in the Government. In these circumstances, I believe that it is right that Government Peers, who can normally only attend rarely, should have made a special effort to do so in this case. In fairness, I should add that much the same criteria apply to the rare attenders on the Benches opposite who came to vote the other way.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of his noble friends behind him told me on the night of 9th April that he had had to guide one of his colleagues into the Chamber, never having been here before, apparently, and then had had to guide him into the Government Division Lobby? Does the noble Lord the Chief Whip believe that this enhances the reputation of this House or detracts from it?

Lord Denham

My Lords, the noble Lord really must not believe every story that he hears in the Lobbies of this House. A number of noble Lords on both sides came who only come rarely, and on a matter of this importance I think it is right that they should do so.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that if the Socialist, the Alliance and the Cross-Bench Peers attend in sufficient numbers they can easily outnumber us?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. However you calculate it, the Conservative Party has no overall majority in your Lordships' House. When it does not get Cross-Bench support or when some of my noble friends withhold their support, Her Majesty's Government are very much at risk.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, as this is an important Question, would the noble Lord be good enough to give the actual figures? By saying "Cross-Bench", does the noble Lord really mean entirely independent, non-Conservative Peers?

Lord Denham

My Lords, the figures are generally known. It is rather difficult to work out what the figures for the various parties and what the figures for the Cross-Benches are, whether it is the general figures on paper of those to whom the Whips go out or whether one takes it as being those noble Lords who attend more than 20 per cent. of the sittings. In almost every case and almost every way of looking at it, the Government do not have an overall majority in this House.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, shows how unreliable it was: that a Peer needed to be guided into the Lobby? Unless he had already been sworn in he could not have gone into the Lobby. Therefore the noble Lord's informa-tion was obviously at fault.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, could my noble friend say what would have happened to the vote if those Conservative Peers who attend less than 10 per cent. of our sittings, to which this Question refers, had not come at all? Secondly, if my noble friend had been the Chief Whip of the Labour Party, would he not have been a little disturbed that, whereas the Alliance Party voted 43, the whole of the Labour Party voted only 86 on this very special occasion?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend the exact figures; but I can say that if only the votes of those Peers who attended one-fifth, or less, of the sittings in the 1982–83 Session had been excluded, the Government would still have won the Division on 9th April by a majority of 151 votes to 128. As regards my noble friend's remarks about the noble Lords on the various Benches opposite, I must say that it has been my experience that the gangway between the Labour Party and the Benches of the Alliance has recently been getting very narrow indeed.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, may I make it clear that I am not referring to Peers who attend for 10 per cent. of the time. Is the noble Lord aware that, of the number that the noble Lord assembled in his Lobby on 9th April, 26 attended twice, or less, during the whole of the last Session?

Lord Denham

My Lords, this may be true. I do not have the exact figures. I sent out a strong Whip because this was a very important occasion. I have absolutely no doubt at all that the strength of the words I used on my Whip, and the number of times I underlined them, were no more than were used by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on his Whip.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, does the noble Lord not suffer from a slight sense of daze when this Question is raised by a noble Lord who is a prominent member of a party some other prominent members of which wish to stuff this House with a thousand Peers totally ignorant of our proceedings for the deliberate purpose of getting business through?

Lord Denham

My Lords, quite a lot of the things that have been said this afternoon from the other side of the House are going to make interesting reading if we ever find ourselves on that side of the House.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, on average, some 250 Peers, and sometimes more, apply for leave of absence for a whole Session? The majority of them are Conservative; very few Labour Peers apply for leave of absence, and quite a few of those who do not apply hardly ever attend.

Lord Denham

My Lords, my noble friend may be right. The point is that one can play with numbers in any way one likes. The real point of this particular occasion was that this was a Bill for which the Government had a mandate more pronounced than at any other time. Let me just read to your Lordships what we said in our manifesto: We shall legislate to curb excessive and irresponsible rate increases by high spending councils and to provide a general scheme for limitation of rate increases for all local authorities to be used if necessary". That specifically gives a mandate for not only part Part I of the Bill, but also Part II. This mandate was endorsed by the electorate, who sent my right honourable friend the Prime Minister back to Westminster with an overall majority in another place of 144.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that he compels me to rise to my feet to remind him that the mandate was supported by only 42 per cent. of the electorate of this country, and that therefore the Government cannot say that they have clear majority support? Is he further aware that he is referring to one of the most unpopular Bills of this century? It is opposed by not only the parties represented on this side of the House, but also several distinguished members of his own party. Is the noble Lord further aware that the fact is that his party does have a standing majority in this House, and that this Bill, at this stage, is the result of a combination of elected dictatorship and hereditary dictatorship?

Lord Denham

My Lords, it seemed to me at one moment as though the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, was calling for proportional representation; I do not think he really could have meant that. The fact is that we do not have an overall majority in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, must know that during the last Parliament the Government were defeated 45 times in your Lordships' House. They have been defeated nine times already in this Session.

Noble Lords

Not enough!

Lord Denham

It is possibly ungrateful of the noble Lord to forget those occasions. I wonder whether he would have used the same expressions about Peers who are rate attenders when he looked at the figures on the schools transport amendment and on the charity housing amendment.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the Labour Government were also elected time and again on a minority of votes and they referred without stopping to the importance of their manifesto and the mandate of their manifesto? Does not the noble Lord further agree that this underlines the width, and not the narrowness, of the gangway between us?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the Liberal Party. When I referred to the narrowness of the gangway I was thinking of the very rare occasions when noble Lords on the Alliance Benches voted in a different Lobby from noble Lords opposite.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, while I agree with the noble Lord that this was a very important Bill on rate capping, may I ask whether he is aware that three days later an equally important Bill for Scotland came before your Lordships? It did not enhance the reputation of this House, which always seeks to deny devolution to Scotland, that there were never more than six people on the Government Benches on that day.

Lord Denham

My Lords, we are referring to a Second Reading debate on which a reasoned amendment was moved. I am happy to say that no reasoned amendment was moved on the Second Reading of the Scottish Bill.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, are we not making rather heavy weather of the fact that the total turnout, albeit high, was 388, which compares quite unfavourably with the turnout on the vote for the Common Market, which was 509?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl.

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the famous 10 per cent. which was mobilised on that occasion can also be mobilised to defeat the Government and put them right when they are in great error on certain matters—for instance, in the Bill on school transport?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I agree with the noble Duke on everything he said, except the word "error" in this context.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, since the Government have been defeated in this House more than 40 times, does this not mean that the majority of parties—including good support from the Conservative Party—have disagreed with, and demonstrated their total revulsion of, Government policy? Could not the party opposite therefore demonstrate their great belief in democracy and leave the other place by announcing their resignation this afternoon?

Lord Denham

My Lords, if one votes against one's party on a fairly minor issue, it does not mean that one shows total repulsion towards one's Government. This is the independence of this House, which this House always shows. If I may say so, it negates the whole concept of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Beswick.

Lord Monson

My Lords, in view of allegations of arm twisting, would the noble Lord not agree that many, if by no means all, of the independents on these Benches, having carefully evaluated the arguments, decided of their own free will to support the Government both verbally and in the Division Lobby?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord and am happy to agree with him that rather more evaluated the matter on their own in favour of the Government than evaluated against the Government.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that his Chief Whip has grossly exceeded the time normally allowed for Questions?

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

Yes, my Lords; as a keen student of whipping in another place, I am very interested to learn the many different facets of it in this House. It is very educational for me and, no doubt, for all your Lordships. I have no doubt that no one has done better in his education than my noble friend the Chief Whip, but I think that we should not perhaps ask him now to weary with overmuch well-doing.

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