My first posting on “Lords of the blog” comes a day after an uninvited visitor was sighted in the red carpeted corridors of the Lords. A fox “broke in” to the House somewhere near the Speaker’s apartments and pest control had to be called in. This happens occasionally. I think that a fox was once filmed in the chamber. The pest control people are more used to dealing with the frequent sightings of mice in some of the bars and dining rooms. This latter problem seems to have been reduced considerably since they began hoovering up the crumbs left behind from their Lordships’ lunches. Not that I want to put anyone off visiting the place.
New visitors to the House usually meet me at Peers’ entrance and often ask fairly quickly about Lords reform. I point immediately to the progress made since I became a peer in 1999. I proudly show them my coat peg in the cloakroom and explain that it is now for my exclusive use, but that when I first came here, the House had over 1300 members (mostly hereditary peers) and it was one coat peg between two peers. When I became a peer on the recommendation of Lord Ashdown, I was the youngest ever Liberal or Liberal Democrat life peer (aged 39). Many of the hereditary peers assumed that I must have inherited my title. In those days they referred to themselves as “boarders” whilst those of us appointed as life peers were considered to be “day boys”.
This reflected the public school tradition that most of the then members of the Lords seemed to have experienced. When I was first taken to the Peers Dining Room before I became a peer, I was told that “it was just like school dinners.” “Not where I went to school in Liverpool” was what I thought. I looked round thinking that I was probably one of the few peers who had been on free school meals. To be fair to my host Lord McNally, he was really referring to the availability of steamed puddings of the sort that he evidently liked and I have to avoid these days.
The culture of the House has certainly changed since 1999. But I still don’t feel personally able to defend to visitors a system in which almost all peers either inherit their title or are appointed under a system of patronage controlled by the Party Leaders. Some people think that ‘panels of experts’ appoint experts to the House of Lords. If they understood more about the way in which Party Leaders make almost all the appointments, I believe that there would be more widespread support for more significant reform in future.