HL Deb 17 May 1984 vol 451 cc1506-9

3.9 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 will provide the figures on which they base the statement made in the House on 26th April that, "In almost every case and almost every way of looking at it, the Government do not have an overall majority in this House" (col. 149).

Lord Denham

Yes, my Lords, the figures are these. On 26th April of this year, the day on which I made the claim quoted by the noble Lord, 1,097 Peers were in receipt of a Writ of Summons of whom 462 were Government Peers, or 42.1 per cent. of this total. If you exclude those Lords who were on leave of absence the figure becomes 936, of whom 424 were Government Peers or 45.3 per cent. If you exclude again those Lords who had not taken the Oath during the current Session the figure becomes 865, of whom 398 were Government Peers, or 46 per cent.

Alternatively, during 1982–83. the last full Session for which figures are available, 281 Peers attended half or more of the sittings and of these 122 were Government Peers or 43.4 per cent; 343 Peers attended a third or more of the sittings of whom 147 were Conservative, or 42.6 per cent; whereas 754 Peers attended on at least one occasion, of whom 344 were Government Peers, or 45.6 per cent. The total number of Peer attendances recorded during that Session was 27,226 and, of these, 11,816 were by Government Peers—which makes 43.4 per cent. If the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, can think up any set of criteria that does give the Government an overall majority in your Lordships' House, I, as Chief Whip, would be very grateful to him.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer, and particularly grateful to him that he handed me the figures separately beforehand. But is he aware that to an extent he supports the case that I have made? Is it not a fact that in the general run of the revisionary business of this House, there may not be a preponderance of Conservative Peers but that when it comes to the crunch and a decisive issue in the Division Lobby, then the noble Lord certainly does have, as on April 9th, an overall majority? May I refer him to more simple figures published by the Journal and Information Office of this House which states the position as follows: 136 Labour, 41 Liberal, 41 SDP—an Opposition total of 218 against a total figure of Conservative Peers of 418. If one takes the Cross-Bench Peers, that total is 219, which certainly gives a minority to the Government of 20. But does it not require an undignified degree of gullibility to accept that all but 20 of Cross-Bench Peers are potential Opposition supporters?

Lord Denham

My Lords, the words that I was defending, the words that I used in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, some days ago, were that the Conservative Government did not have an overall majority in this House. I think that I have substantiated that by the figures that I have quoted; and that is what I was asked to do by the noble Lord. I wonder how noble Lords on the Cross-Benches will react to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, that they are Conservatives in sheep's clothing. Many years ago when he was Opposition Chief Whip and I was acting Government Chief Whip, this may have been true. Noble Lords sat on the Cross-Benches because they held office of profit under the Crown or for some other identifiable reason and their voting was usually predictable. But nowadays they are genuinely independent and examine each proposition on its merits. Only last week they divided 28 to 1 against the Government. Not even my noble friends behind me do that!

Lord Grimond

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that there is a considerable debate in the country as to who really represents the majority of the electors. Certainly, the Government do not; they were elected into office at the general election without an overall majority and they do not have an overall majority today. From what he has said, does he not draw the conclusion that this is the House which fairly represents the feelings of the country and not the other place?

Lord Denham

Sometimes, my Lords, that may be true, I suppose.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, if his interpretation of this matter is correct, then this House may be in some danger? The old London County Council was a body where the Conservatives could not rely on having a majority; it was abolished. The present GLC is a body on which the Conservatives cannot rely on a majority; and it is going to be abolished. When is to be the Bill for the abolition of this House?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I remember many long days or nights debating the London Government Bill, when noble Lords on that side of the House suggested that the GLC was rigged so as to be a purely Conservative preserve.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that the Peers' data base, from which the figures that he gave the House were no doubt derived, is kept on the GLC computer?

Lord Denham

Yes, my Lords, but perhaps I can help the House further. If you take the 100 Peers who attended the House most frequently in the last Session, then 40.385 of them were Conservatives. If you take 150, 40 per cent. were Conservatives, if you take 250, 42.57 per cent. were Conservatives. I think I can justify the fact that this Government do not have an overall majority in this House.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, may I revert to the noble Lord's original Answer and say that, so far as the Opposition parties are concerned, and basing it on the calculations which he has made, there were 202 Peers accepting the Whip of one of the three Opposition parties on 26th April; and that is 23.5 per cent. of the total. If one supposes a 50–50 split of all other non-aligned Peers in this House, one comes to a position in which the Government have a permanent majority of 61 per cent. against 39 per cent.

Lord Denham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is giving weight to another popular fallacy: that all Peers are deemed to be Conservative until proved innocent.

Lord McCluskey

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the fact that I am a member of the Faculty of Advocates in Scotland and that at the rate at which the Government are raising members of that faculty to the peerage, we shall enjoy a majority in the House?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I shall be very glad to have any figures that I have quoted audited by the noble Lord.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Lord on some of the responses that he has made? I understand that he has at his disposal a private computer. Would he remember the maxim of those who operate computers: "Rubbish in, rubbish out!" May I ask him whether his research has enabled him to comment on the following facts published in the Financial Times on 8th May, that on the Second Reading of the Rates Bill the Government had a majority by a margin of 153 to 35, counting hereditary Peers but that, counting Life Peers and Peers of first creation, they had a minority of 120 to 84? Does the noble Lord think that position is justified.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I think I can tell the noble Lord that if you counted only Life Peers and first creation Peers, the Government not only do not have an overall majority but are in a minority to the Labour Party. The Labour Party has, I think, something like 8 or 9 more Life Peers and Peers of first creation. If you count the Alliance Benches—and the Alliance Benches seem to walk very much in step with the Labour Party just at the moment—the straight majority in this House against the Government is something on the lines of 55.

Lord Parry

My Lords, would the noble Lord accept that many of us on these Benches have followed his convoluted calculations with admiration and amusement, and would he now admit that, if he took away the number he first thought of, it might substan-tially alter the result?

Lord Denham

My Lords, the fact remains that, although I can show that we have not got an overall majority in this House, your Lordships show me that often too frequently in the Division Lobby.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, arising from the noble Lord's most original answers, can his computer tell us whether there is any member of any political party, apart of course, from the Cross-Benchers, who have ever voted consistently and absolutely on his party's line, except possibly himself?

Lord Denham

No, my Lords. In my past, before I sat on this Front Bench, I, too, have strayed.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords—

Several Noble Lords


Lord Leatherland

All right then.