HC Deb 26 April 1961 vol 639 cc420-32
The Secretary of State to the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)

In the course of the debate on 13th April on the Report of the Committee of Privileges on the Stansgate case, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I indicated that, while the Government did not favour the appointment of a Committee to consider the single issue arising in that case, we would consider the possibility of a broader inquiry.

There is, in the Government's mind, no doubt as to the need to maintain an efficient Second Chamber. The representatives of all three parties who took part in the Conference of Party Leaders, in 1948, expressed themselves as united in their desire to see the House of Lords continue to play its proper part in the Legislature. The White Paper containing their agreed statement shows that, although the Conference failed to reach agreement on the question of powers, some progress was made on the question of composition of the House of Lords.

The Government have now decided that consideration of the composition of the House of Lords should be undertaken. The House will recognise that such an inquiry is broader than that asked for in the debate on 13th April.

At the same time, the Government think that there should be inquiry into certain anomalies in our constitution. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General drew attention to some of them in the debate on 13th April. A Scottish peer who is not elected as a representative peer is not eligible for election to this House and cannot vote in elections to this House. An Irish peer can be elected a Member of this House, but cannot sit in the House of Lords or vote in an election to this House. A peeress in her own right may vote in a parliamentary election, but cannot sit in the House of Lords and is generally thought to be disqualified from membership of this House.

The Government thinks that these matters should be considered.

There is also the question of surrender of peerages, whether in order to become a Member of this House, or for any other reason. This involves consideration of a number of other questions. For instance, should the surrender be for life or should it extinguish the peerage? If for life, should the title pass immediately to the heir? Should it be possible to surrender the right to sit in the House of Lords and, while retaining the title, sit in the House of Commons?

Finally, we feel that any review of the composition of the other place must have regard to the question of providing some assistance to enable more peers, without unreasonable personal sacrifice, to play an active part in the business of that place.

The Government's conclusion is that it is desirable that all these matters should be considered together. We have given much thought to the form of an inquiry and we think that the appropriate body to consider them is a Joint Select Committee of both Houses.

We therefore intend to move for the appointment of a Joint Select Committee with the following terms of reference: To consider, having regard among other things to the need to maintain an efficient Second Chamber

  1. (a) the composition of the House of Lords
  2. (b) whether any and, if so, what changes should be made in the rights of peers and peeresses in their own right in regard to eligibility to sit in either House of Parliament and to vote at parliamentary elections; and whether any and if so what changes should be made in the law relating to the surrender of peerages
  3. (c) whether it would be desirable to introduce the principle of remuneration for members of the House of Lords and, if so, subject to what conditions and to make recommendations."
In order to assist the Committee, we have already put in hand the preparation of material which the Committee may require for its consideration of the matters referred to them.

The House will see that these terms of reference are wide enough to enable the Joint Select Committee to consider all the matters to which I have referred. A Motion will be tabled shortly.

Mr. Gaitskell

The proposal that a Joint Select Committee should be appointed to consider the rights of those who inherit peerages to renounce them is at least a first faltering step on the part of the Government towards removing the absurd anomalies to which attention was drawn in the recent debate, and it constitutes, unquestionably, a victory for Mr. Benn—

Sir K. Pickthorn

Mr. Speaker—

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I gather that the hon. Baronet is raising a point of order.

Sir K. Pickthorn

Mr. Speaker. Is not this string of assumptions and arguments a gross breach of procedure?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that it is a gross abuse. We have had this before. I think that some licence may be permitted and has, in the past, been permitted, in particular to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Gaitskell

I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker. I think that the House will agree that the Leader of the House has made a statement of some constitutional importance—

Sir K. Pickthorn

Oh, yes—

Hon. Members

Shut up.

Mr. Gaitskell

—and that the Leader of the Opposition must be allowed to make a few comments not purely in the form of questions—although I shall put one or two questions in a moment.

I believe that, as far as it goes, this step constitutes a victory for Mr. Wedgwood Benin. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense. "] It certainly would not have happened had it not been for the struggle Mr. Benn put up to remove the sons of peers from their present disabilities. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if Mr. Benn's fight in Bristol has produced this result, his victory there will, we hope, produce even better results?

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman the following questions. Why should not the inquiry which it is proposed should take place be limited to this question of the disabilities from which peers at present suffer in respect of the House of Commons, and the possibility of renouncing peerages? Is it not the case—as, indeed, the recent debate showed—that there is widespread agreement on this matter? Is it not also the case that, despite repeated efforts, there has never been agreement on the wider issues which are also to be included in the terms of reference?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is highly desirable that the question of the rights of peers should be settled urgently? Is he aware that this is the case not only because of Mr. Benn's position, but because, according to my information, the Conservative candidate in the Bristol, South-East by-election is himself the heir to a Scottish peerage and, this being so, in the very unlikely event of his at any time being declared returned, this difficulty will arise? May I ask—

Mr. Ronald Bell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there any limit that you can ascribe to the latitude allowed to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in asking questions, which one thought had to be elucidatory, after a statement by a Minister of the Crown?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that I am capable of defining the precise limit. If I am challenged about the rule, the rule is that a limited number of questions, and nothing else at all, is permitted; but I find on looking at authority that the House has been slightly soft-hearted towards the Leader of the Opposition, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman will not exceed the bounds of indulgence properly extended.

Mr. C. Pannell

Arising from that point of order, Mr. Speaker, is it not the fact that, particularly from 1945, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) certainly went far beyond anything that my right hon. Friend has done? Was it not generally agreed in the Select Committee on Procedure that if any rules on questions were ever ruined they were ruined by the right hon. Member for Woodford—with the acquiescence of the other side? Has it not been stated by at least three Speakers that the Leader of the Opposition is in a peculiar position—[Laughter.]

That word, Mr. Speaker, had its appropriateness at the time, in so far as the right hon. Member for Woodford always considered that he was a law unto himself. In any case, the Leader of the Opposition is part of the House, and, a considerable statement having been made by the Leader of the House, may we have it clearly understood that the Opposition will not be at a disadvantage in these procedural matters?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that anybody will be put at a disadvantage. When I am challenged, I state the rule—and I have. I also said that it is a fact that some indulgence has been occasionally allowed to the Leader of the Opposition. If it is said that a certain right hon. Gentleman ruined the rules, I would not have thought that even that example was a reason for ruining them further.

Mr. Gaitskell

If I may, Mr. Speaker, I should like merely to say, first, that I am putting a series of questions at the moment, and that in anything I say I am certainly not exceeding what was said by successive Leaders of the Conservative Opposition on occasions of this kind. I hope that those hon. Members who interrupted me will consult the precedents before they do so again.

I was asking whether the terms of reference could be altered so that the inquiry could be confined to what is most urgent, and to what there is most likely to be agreement about, namely, the second part of the terms of reference.

Secondly, I would ask whether, if there is to be a wider inquiry, the terms of reference had not better be a good deal wider still. How can a Joint Select Committee consider the composition of the Second Chamber without considering what functions, if any, that Chamber should have? Further, how can the Joint Select Committee really seriously consider this without considering whether the existing powers should not be curtailed? I therefore ask the Government whether they will give further consideration to these terms of reference on the lines that I have indicated.

Mr. Butler

I will do my best to answer the specific questions raised by the right hon. Gentleman. First, on the question of the limited nature of the terms of reference, and the request that these should be limited further than the broad terms we have suggested, I adhere to what I said in the debate on 13th April. I then said: If we are to look into the matter of House of Lords reform, we must do it on a much broader basis."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th April, 1961; Vol. 638, c.573.] That is the view of the Government, and we are adhering to what I said in the course of that debate.

That is the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's first point. In answer to the point about settling the matter urgently—namely, the reference in paragraph (b) of the terms of reference to which the right hon. Gentleman drew attention in his intervention—that, I think, must be a matter for the Joint Select Committee. This House cannot limit or in any way impose upon the terms of reference of the Joint Select Committee, which must be the master of its own procedure. Naturally, I would wish to see it set about its task, but I can give no undertaking beforehand, as that would not be constitutionally right

As to widening the terms of reference, this is the opposite to the right hon. Gentleman's opening gambit. It is not intended to deal with powers. We have examined the precedents in this matter and we consider that there will not be any fruitful result from an examination of powers. We consider that the question should be restricted to the composition of the Upper House.

Mr. Gaitskell

Can the Leader of the House give one single reason why this inquiry should go beyond the point of the position of peers and their right to renounce peerages? Can he give any reason why that should not be considered on its own, quite apart from the wider issues on which, as well he knows, agreement is extremely unlikely? Is he aware that if the Government persist in these terms of reference the only conclusion to be drawn is that they wish to defer indefinitely the question of the rights of peers to renounce?

Mr. Butler

The latter conclusion cannot be drawn from what I said. That is not so at all. What can be drawn from my previous speech on 13th April is that I then said that …the Government, in consultation with my hon. and right hon. Friends, might wish to go further in the reform of the House of Lords."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th April, 1961; Vol. 638, c.571.] We have held these consultations, and we find that it is preferred that a broader canvas should be envisaged. That is what I said in my speech, and the Government have been quite consistent in adhering to that.

Viscount Lambton

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great pleasure his statement gives to certain hon. Members on this side? Is he further aware of the very great pleasure it gives to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Viscount Lambton) to be able wholeheartedly to endorse the policy of Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Butler

I rise on one of the rare occasions in the public life of this country to find it an amicable occasion when the lion can lie down with the lamb. The Government's attitude to this matter has never altered. In the course of my speech on 13th April, certain doubts were expressed by the leader of the Opposition, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), as to whether what I said envisaged that we would go further. That was intended to give the impression that we should go further, and now we are going further with the broad canvas.

Mr. Grimond

As breaches are being healed right and left this afternoon—and centre—would it not be a courteous gesture by the Leader of the House if he were to send even a short telegram of congratulation to Mr. Wedgwood Benn—a short one on behalf of the whole House? May I ask, also, whether the terms of reference are wide enough to allow the Joint Select Committee to consider, if it so wishes, the total abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords?

Mr. Butler

I cannot go into detail, but the answer to the hon. Gentleman is that the word "composition" means what it says, namely, the composition of the House of Lords. If anyone wishes to adduce evidence, or appear before the Joint Select Committee with views relating to the composition, I presume that he would be in order.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn himself sent me a telegram a day or two ago asking me what the Government intended to do, so I sent a very polite telegram in reply asking him to await my statement this afternoon.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the questions posed to the Joint Select Committee will have the support, I am sure, of the majority of the people? But is he further aware that the juxtaposition of the statement with the efforts made by Mr. Wedgwood Benn are particularly unfortunate because, if one takes the long-term view, one can see that the Report of the Joint Select Committee may well, in some way, affect the Constitution, and the situation of the constitutional monarchy itself.

In these circumstances, will my right hon. Friend stand firm in letting the Joint Select Committee take its appropriate time? Is he aware that it is not right that this important matter should be approached in a mood of either having sympathy for Mr. Wedgwood Benn, or being sad that Lord Hailsham is not also in this House? Will my right hon. Friend stand firm in his intention that this matter will be looked at as a long-term project by the Joint Select Committee, without any reference to or contact with the by-election in Bristol, South-East?

Mr. Butler

I think that whatever may emerge from that by-election will occur long before the Joint Select Committee can really get to work. I think that it can be taken that a Joint Select Committee is the most weighty of all bodies to which either House can address its affairs. I would imagine that it would give proper consideration to all the major issues, including the one referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), namely, the future of the monarchy, which I would not regard as being in jeopardy as a result of this procedure.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of us, whatever the reason, consider that the time is appropriate to consider the composition and powers of the House of Lords? I therefore wish to ask two questions. First, will the right hon. Gentleman clarify what he meant when he referred to the need for an efficient Second Chamber? Does that imply the continuance of the hereditary principle? Secondly, in the event of the Joint Select Committee of both Houses coming to the conclusion that the hereditary principle should be abandoned, will Her Majesty's Government accept it?

Mr. Butler

The right hon. Gentleman asked what was meant by an efficient Second Chamber in relation to the hereditary principle. In a Joint Select Committee the Government can express their view. The conclusions of the Committee are arrived at after deliberation by its members under the Lord Chairman. I could not come to a conclusion. I could only state my opinion that the abolition of the hereditary principle would be disastrous to the Upper House.

Sir P. Agnew

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the steps he has announced to be taken will give very wide satisfaction not only to the great majority of hon. Members in this House, but also to a far wider public outside? Is my right hon. Friend aware that if the terms of reference are restricted to there being no consideration of powers, the public outside will be mindful of the fact that, contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition said today, when powers were last considered they were considered by the Opposition, who were then the Labour Government of the day, by bringing in a Parliamentary Bill without any consultation at all and forcing it through with their majority in the House? If co-operation should fail on this occasion, Her Majesty's Government have the greatest responsibility, following the Committee's Report, to bring in the appropriate Measure of reform which they consider desirable.

Mr. Butler

I must make it clear that the ultimate decision about legislation or any action which would follow on the Report of the Committee must be at the discretion of Her Majesty's Government. For the rest, I am obliged for what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Driberg

As the Joint Select Committee is to be concerned with composition, will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that one strictly relevant matter will be considered—that is, the presence of the bishops in the House of Lords? If it be thought still desirable that there should be ecclesiastical representation as such, will there be some examination of the possibility that there should be representation of the Free Churches and of other communions, and not only of the Church of England?

Mr. Butler

This must be a matter primarily for consideration by the Joint Select Committee when it is set up. No doubt evidence can or will be submitted to the Committee on points of this kind, none of which, in my view, would be excluded.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I warmly welcome the statement of my right hon. Friend. Can he give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will do their best to see that the Joint Select Committee is made aware of the fact that there are many of us who believe that privileges, whether they be inherited or granted in a person's lifetime, very often carry with them duties, sometimes irksome duties? Will my right hon. Friend see that whatever else the Joint Select Committee is advised to do by Her Majesty's Government, it is not advised to make it easy for the duties to be surrendered?

Mr. Butler

In general, I agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Callaghan

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman about the question of power? Does he not realise that there will be a great difference of views about the future function and composition of the House of Lords as long as it is overwhelmingly Conservative in complexion and, therefore, has the power to hold up legislation—and, in fact, has tried to hold up legislation—which may be put through by a Labour Government? Therefore, if the right hon. Gentleman is not willing to limit this examination—and this is the fundamental issue—to the single question of the renunciation of peerages, does he not consider that, in the interests of democratic Government in this country, it is fairer that the Joint Select Committee should be able to consider the whole of the functions of the House of Lords as well as its composition?

Mr. Butler

No, Sir. As is well known to any constitutional examiner, the powers of the House of Lords are nowadays comparatively limited. When the hon. Gentleman intervenes to say that it is the composition of the House of Lords which is not satisfactory from his point of view, to that extent the fact that we are discussing composition, and have referred that to the Joint Select Committee, should be one source of satisfaction to him. At any rate, the Government have definitely decided that it would not be proper for the powers to be reviewed on this occasion.

Mr. Bowles

Will the right hon. Gentleman appoint anybody as a member of this Joint Select Committee who does not believe in the continuance of the House of Lords at all?

Mr. Butler

The Joint Select Committee will have to represent both sides, both here and in another place. I do not doubt that the usual discussions will take place and that various claims of the type mentioned by the hon. Member will be considered?

Mr. Callaghan

Reverting to the last answer but one given by the right hon. Gentleman, is he willing to say that the Government will consider with an open mind the question whether the House of Lords should have a majority which might reflect the majority of the House of Commons?

Mr. Butler

All questions governed by the word "composition" will be in order. I cannot go further than that today.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I ask the Leader of the House whether it would be in order for the Joint Select Committee, if it so decides, to make a preliminary Report on matters which are clearly the subject of agreement, in advance of the other issues to be discussed? Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to consider any alteration or amendment to the terms of reference which he announced this afternoon?

Mr. Butler

The answer to the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is "No". The Government have decided. I informed the right hon. Gentleman of the nature of the decision that we had taken in this respect.

The question of a preliminary Report, must be a matter for the Committee itself. After appointing a Joint Select Committee, this House cannot remove from it the questions of procedure which it will command.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter now.