HL Deb 07 July 1992 vol 538 cc1057-60

3.15 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked the Leader of the House (Lord Wakeham):

How many Members of the House are "working Peers" according to the definition used by Her Majesty's Government.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, I do not believe that the House or our constitution recognises the term "working Peer" as a separate category. Certain categories of Peers have, however, been created with the purpose of strengthening the political parties in this House. Since 1975, 107 Peers have been ennobled on that basis, of whom, I am pleased to say, 96 are still with us.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I had intended to say that I was grateful to the Minister for his Answer but after hearing the first part I became less grateful. Does he agree that it is high time that the distinction, which is so embarrassing to working Peers if they can be identified—I do not suppose that they would like to be asked to stand up this afternoon—and so insulting to the rest of us, should be discontinued?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, as I indicated, I do not believe that it is a term that we recognise. However, any definition of the term "working Peer" would be phoney if the noble Earl were not included in it.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, in view of the imbalance between the parties in the number of Peers for life, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that there is a strong case for introducing a better and more equitable system of appointing Peers who are prepared to give their time and abilities to the service of this House?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, since 1975, when so-called working Peers were created, 50 Labour Peers, 49 Conservative Peers, 5 Liberal Peers, 1 Social Democrat Peer (who I am afraid has died) and 1 Cross-Bench Peer have been introduced. There is also 1 Ulster Unionist, who has yet to be introduced. Therefore, it is unreasonable to say that the Opposition Benches do not receive a reasonable number of Peers.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for producing those figures. Is it not the case that during the past 13 years the disparity between the Conservative and Official Opposition Benches in this House has increased by 63?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I have studied the figures and I believe that there are many ways of interpreting them. The noble Lord and I have discussed the issue and I have no doubt that we shall continue to do so. However, on the basis of Peers specially created to assist the political parties, I do not believe that the Opposition parties have done too badly.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is it not fair to say that, even on the figures that the noble Lord has presented to the House, the introduction of five Peers on these Benches out of a total of 114 is an under-representation in relation to the level of support that we have in the country and to the level of support which this House receives from Peers on these Benches?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, 59 Peers now take the Liberal Democratic Whip and that figure is shortly to rise to 60. That represents 6 per cent. of the total number entitled to attend. However, in practice the percentage is higher because a significant number of Members of this House do not attend regularly. Of course, this House has never been constituted so as to reflect votes cast or the composition of the House of Commons. I believe that the Liberal Democrats are reasonably well represented in numbers and that their contributions are extremely valuable.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, given the continuing and perhaps increasing importance of this House in scrutinising legislation and the particular burden that that imposes upon those who speak from the Opposition Front Benches, does not my noble friend consider that the time has come for those who speak regularly from the Opposition Front Benches to be paid?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, it is always an attractive proposition to support a suggestion of that kind from my noble friend. I hope that he will not believe me to be a wet blanket if I do not go totally enthusiastically overboard as regards his suggestion. First, I do not believe that the quality of the Opposition is in any way lacking in this House. It is of an extremely high standard. The payment of Opposition spokesmen is governed by the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip are both salaried office holders. Of course, support for the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen is also available through the system of Short money. I have no plans to suggest any changes but those matters are discussed from time to time.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, there is no lack of quality on the Opposition Benches; as the noble Lord said, it is the lack of numbers. With the noble Lord's mastery of statistics which he has shown this afternoon—and we all know the definition of statistics—is it not clear that if there are 50 on one side and 49 on the other, nothing has been done to remove the disparity between the two sides? I am sure the noble Lord will take into account the fact that unless something is done to remedy the disparity, questions of reform of the House of Lords will continue to grow and this side of the House will continue to labour under a grievance as regards the failure by the Government to remedy that difference.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's point. I was not particularly quoting statistics. I was giving the House some simple facts which I thought would be helpful. I do not believe that the Opposition parties have done too badly in recent years. As the House will know, we are shortly to receive a number of welcome additions to our ranks from the Labour Party. However, we must keep the matter constantly under review.

Lord Elton

My Lords, do not recent voting figures suggest that the Opposition do not labour under the great disparity which is claimed? Is there not a great deal in the proposal by my noble friend Lord Marlesford that it would be possible for the Front Bench opposite, no matter which party is in office, to be strengthened if the great amount of time required by private individuals to devote to public business were to be recognised by some modest form of remuneration?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, those proposals can be considered but we should not lightly adopt them—not that we should be able to do that. There are a number of other considerations as regards the payment for attendance at the House. At present, expenses are reimbursed. If we sought to move to another system the Inland Revenue may have a view about that.

Earl Russell

My Lords, if it is true that the representation on these Benches in this House is not too bad, is it not the case that that is not as a result of the policy of successive Prime Ministers but rather because the hereditary principle is the only part of our constitutional arrangements which contains a de facto element of proportional representation?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, as I heard the noble Earl asking his question I wondered whether it was his father in my youth rather than the noble Earl. It is a wise question to which I do not know the answer.

Lord Annan

My Lords, will the Leader of the House consider something other than numbers in regard to this matter? He is able to refresh his Front Bench with young and spritely Members from among the hereditary Peers, whereas the Opposition are often driven to appoint to their Front Bench men and women of advanced years who find that late-night sittings and sustained committee work are intolerably burdensome?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, that struck me as another way of saying that the Opposition Front Bench is full of the wisdom of years rather than the inexperience of youth. However, my noble friends on the Front Bench do their best while labouring under that difficulty.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, as we are dealing somewhat lightheartedly with a serious question, will the noble Lord the Leader of the House, who has such a command of English, look tomorrow at Hansard? What will he do about his sentence to his noble friend in which he said that he did not wish to be considered a wet blanket if he did not go overboard?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I should say to the noble Lord that since 24 minutes have elapsed, perhaps it is time to move on to the next Question.