HC Deb 30 July 1963 vol 682 cc361-74

Lords Amendment: In page 2, line 10, leave out "six" and insert "twelve".

9.42 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Iain Macleod)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

Because I think that the first Lords Amendment and the second, in page 2, line 12, to leave out "six" and to insert "twelve" are really consequential upon the third, which is to leave out Clause 7(2), I shall be grateful, if it were possible, if we could discuss all three together, because I do not think that we could have a coherent debate in other circumstances.

Mr. Speaker

Certainly, if the House so pleases.

Mr. Macleod

Then it would be right for me to say that I intend, as we come formally to the other Lords Amendments, to suggest that the House doth agree with them. There is a special reason for considering these three together, because their lordships felt that the first two were consequential upon the third, and indeed they were not moved in Committee, so that another place might have an opportunity of seeing what happened to the main one, which was to delete Clause 7(2) from the Bill. Certainly for myself I would not put the first two Lords Amendments in isolation to the House, but as a consequence related to the deletion of that subsection (2). If the House agrees with the Lords on that, I think they have considerable force.

It would be right for me to direct my remarks straight away to the main issue, which is to leave out that subsection (2). This would have the effect of bringing this Bill into operation on Royal Assent, which could be tomorrow, instead of at any time up to 15 months from now, and I recommend this to the House for reasons which the House will, and quite rightly, find conflicting. Personally, I believe that the judgment of another place on this matter is, in fact, wrong, but then they, after all, thought mine was, so that is even so far as that is concerned.

There is one matter I think it right to make plain in case there should be any misunderstanding. It was said in another place that there was a clear, plain understanding in the Joint Select Committee—although nothing was expressed—that this Bill would come into operation on the Royal Assent. I am confident from inquiries that I have made that that was at least not the unanimous opinion of those who served on the Joint Select Committee, although it may well be that many, and perhaps most, of those who served thought accordingly; and if so, there was a genuine misunderstanding. But it is clear, as I emphasised to the House on 27th June, that there is no agreement on this mat- ter and it does not form any part of what has often been called "a package deal".

I do not want to hack over the ground of the precedents again, but I do not think that precedents in relation to the powers of another place are relevant, because the whole purpose of any such Bill is to bring it into operation as early as possible, nor even to the composition of another place, particularly if, as in the Life Peerage Bill, it is permissive, because dissolution to another place, with the exception of the Scottish representative peers, is not the watershed that it is for Members of Parliament, and, therefore, the date of dissolution of Parliament has nothing like the same significance in another place as it has here.

The question, then, is simply whether it is worth having a dispute between the two Houses on this matter. I am bound to say that I think not. There is one very practical reason for this. This is Tuesday of the last week before we rise, and if we were to disagree and go into the procedure which is laid down for disagreement, we might lose the Bill, and that would be a very barren use of Parliamentary time. It is quite true that minor problems will arise—I mentioned some of them myself—on the Clause which relates to Scottish peerage and perhaps the Clause that relates to peeresses in their own right, but these are problems essentially for another place, and if they are content with those difficulties, I do not see that we need concern ourselves with them.

To go back from the main Amendment, the third Amendment, to the first two Amendments, the question, then, is whether if the House agrees with the Lords Amendment to delete subsection (2) and to bring the Bill into operation on Royal Assent, we should also adopt the first two Amendments. They would give a sitting peer 12 instead of six months from the commencement of the Bill, or, in the case of a sitting peer who is then a minor, from attaining the age of 21, in which to disclaim. It would then equate the position of those under 21 in relation to Clause 1(2) with those under Clause 1(3). I think there is some justice in accepting these as a consequence of the third, and major, proposal.

So, perhaps partly because of my natural Highland obstinacy, but without altering my own opinions on these matters, I cannot believe that this is an issue on which it is worth—hon. Members must realise that this would be the natural consequence, almost certainly, of a disagreement on this—disagreeing with their Lordships at the cost of losing the Bill. There is a great deal of history behind this Bill. Both Houses were represented in the Joint Committee whose recommendations are enshrined in it. These Amendments are the only ones made to the Bill. No Amendments were made in this House, and only these have been made in another place. I think, in view of that, that it would be appropriate to accept them.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

The right hon. Gentleman is an engaging speaker. He well realises a certain absurdity in the Government's position in this matter and his frank approach to it, I am sure, endeared him to every one on this side of the House. But it really is rather funny. Some people, of course, are born penitent—not the Tory Party. Others become penitent—the Government certainly find that very difficult. Others, again, have penitence thrust upon them—and I am not even certain that the right hon. Gentleman falls into that last category.

Mr. Iain Macleod

The hon. and learned Gentleman will agree, in justice, that, if penitence be thrust upon us, it is thrust upon us by the Tory Party.

Mr. Mitchison

I do not think that that is so. I do not think that I should be in order in going into the composition of the majority in the other place, but it certainly included all the Labour peers who were there. I will not go into the nice mathematics of what would have happened if one group or another had been omitted from the total.

The standard defence, or the last ditch, as one might call it, or perhaps the first fence, in the defence of another place as a constitutional institution is that one of is functions is to enable the Government to make last minute amendments on comparatively small points in a Bill. This is a case where the Government, according to the right hon. Gentleman or the Tory Party—I am not quite certain which is which in this connection—appear to have made some Amendments.

Can I really say that they come from the Government themselves? I followed what I may refer to as the Government's arguments on this matter. They have always been a little thin. He himself tells us that there were a mass of precedents. The matter was very fully dealt with, as usual, by the Lord Chancellor in another place. He cited five precedents. He then told us that only two were relevant and he omitted the only one which really matters, which, in view of the arguments about this, is probably the Life Peerages Act.

Be that as it may, it was one argument. The other argument was the curious one put forward by the Attorney-General. It was that, having had a Parliament on one basis, we must keep to that basis until the end of it. But the Life Peerages Act is a complete answer to that contention, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) has pointed out previously.

The Government's arguments, therefore, were quite remarkably thin. I think that we can all agree on that. But the will of the Government was nothing of the sort. The right hon. Gentleman accepted a Division on this Amendment when it came before the House originally, and the House as a whole decided against it. He said he would consider the matter when it came to another place, or that further consideration would be given to it.

We know that phrase, but what is remarkable is that not only the same governmental decisions but exactly the same reasons for it were trotted put in another place by those who spoke there for the Government. Therefore, it is fair to say, whether the Government have been right or wrong about this, that they have been at any rate consistent until now. Now they are bowing to this somewhat absurd, enforced penitence—should I call it that, or call it change of mind or alteration? I do not know what the right word is for the situation. But they are going to yield to another place on it.

There is not much more that one can say about it. We can all crack our own jokes, but it is rather funny that the Government, having stuck for the same reasons to an untenable position both here and elsewhere, have finally to give in to a non-elected assembly on a point which seems to me to concern this House far more than it concerns another place, because the substantial point, as speakers have pointed out in the discussion, is the convenience of the people particularly concerned.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that the Bill is badly needed. There are two obvious groups of people who need it badly. One is Mr. Wedgwood Benn, or however I should describe him, and the other is the electors of Bristol, South-East, who have been quite consistent through all this. The earliest possible moment should, therefore, be taken to give them the opportunity to bring into effect that to which it is intended to give effect by the Bill in their case.

I agree that the other Amendments are less important. There is a certain logic in them, although the connection with the Amendment to delete subsection (2) is a trifle thin if one looks into it. We are giving people twelve months instead of six months in which to disclaim an hereditary peerage which is not of the first creation—that is to say, existing hereditary peers. I do not see the close connection; in fact, I see little connection between that and the other Amendment.

I wonder whether this is an indication that the Government have made up their mind that if they gave only six months it might not give sufficient time to bring them right up to the next General Election before they made their disclaimer. What is the reason for it? One has had a feeling throughout the whole of the Bill that these points about time have been connected with some mysterious operation in the mind of the Government and the Conservative Party. This may or may not be true, and it is a pity that this impression has been given. But I am glad that the main Amendment is to be made. We shall not contest the others. We find the Government giving way to our view as expressed in the House—and as upheld by all the Labour Lords in another place, if I may say so, in view of what the right hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. M. A. J. St. Clair (Bristol South-East)

I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for calling me so that I can personally welcome the Amendment to leave out subsection (2). It seems to me much more logical and sensible to bring the provisions of the Bill into effect when it receives the Royal Assent.

As the person perhaps most closely concerned with the whole question, may I in a minute or two—and I assure the House that it will be only a minute or two—deal with my own personal position? When I came here two years ago as a result of a petition in the High Court, I was, and for that matter still am, legally the Member of Parliament for Bristol, South-East, and I have tried to carry out my duties in that respect according to the best of my lights.

However, the House may also remember that two years ago I wrote to the former Member of Parliament for Bristol, South-East saying that I would apply to resign my seat in the House should certain facts be fulfilled, one of which was that the law was so changed that he became eligible to stand again. There was thus both a legal and a moral issue. Legally I considered myself right to sit here—and morally so while he was disqualified. However, it now appears that the law is to be changed almost immediately, perhaps tomorrow or the next day. I intend very shortly indeed to apply to resign my seat in the House.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned. Proceedings on Government Business exempted, at this day's Sitting, from the provisions of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House).—[Mr. Iain Macleod.]

Question again proposed.

Mr. Donald Wade (Huddersfield, West)

I wish to take the opportunity of congratulating the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. St. Clair) on the decision he has reached. Whatever one's views may be about the Wedgwood Benn case, I am sure the hon. Member in making the statement which we have just heard has acted wisely and honourably, and we admire him for it.

I have only a very few comments to make. I am not sure whether the speech of the Leader of the House can be regarded as one of penitence or as merely an illustration of the uncomfortable experience of having to eat one's own words, as to which I do not think it is of great importance. So far as I recollect, the assumption of many members of the Select Committee was that it was intended that this Bill should come into operation on the Royal Assent, although I agree there were no specific recommendations to that effect.

I wish to take issue with the Leader of the House on one point. He seemed to argue that we ought to accept these Amendments because it would be unwise to become involved in a dispute between the two Houses. I hope that is not to be a precedent and that we shall not always be asked to accept Amendments from another place because the result of not accepting them would involve us in dispute. We should accept these Amendments on their merits. The Leader of the House said he thought the judgment of another place was wrong. I disagree with him on that. I and my colleagues voted for this proposal in this House, and I noticed that the Leader of the Liberal Party in another place voted for the Amendment which is now before us.

I make this point on the merits. It would have been a very anomalous position for a member of another place, still being a member of another place and not being entitled until a General Election arrived to take advantage of the Bill, to become adopted for a constituency while still being a peer. That, I think, was the heart of the case for this Amendment. It is very much better, if a peer is to take advantage of this Bill, that he should be entitled to do so as soon as this Bill receives the Royal Assent. I have no idea how many noble Lords will wish to take advantage of this Bill. I imagine there will not be very many. One of the curious results of this Bill is that the total number of hereditary peers with a seat in the Legislature will be increased, not decreased, because of other provisions of the Bill, to which I cannot refer in discussion of this Amendment.

I think that on the merits—not because we wish to avoid a dispute with another place—this is a wise Amendment, which I hope will be accepted.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

I join with the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) in congratulating the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. St. Clair) on the decision he has taken and the way in which he announced it before this Bill ever came to the stage it has now reached.

The hon. Member also deserves some commiseration, because when he agreed to be a candidate for that constituency the policy of the Government on this subject was quite different from the policy they have subsequently accepted. The hon. Member is in the position of many other people, not only in this country but all over the world, who have found themselves let down by the present Government. I do not need to go through the whole list—that would be a very tedious thing to do tonight—but he was evidently brought here on false pretences. He was given assurances and understandings as to the policy of the Government. It is unfortunate that he should have had to suffer the consequences of their change. Even he could not know—none of us could have foreseen—the change which has recently occurred.

I do not know what it is that brings so many hon. Members into the House at this moment. It must be a sadistic streak in our make-up. I thought that the Leader of the House did the job about as well as it could be done. He was in his best sedative mood. The only error he made was to refer to his Highland obstinacy. If Highland obstinacy had been of the same intensity as he has shown on the Bill, the Act of Union would have gone through in the days of Robert Bruce.

The right hon. Gentleman was very ill-advised to refer to his Highland obstinacy. It is his willowy nature that the House is paying tribute to in these discussions. I have always watched the right hon. Gentleman's career with great interest. I advised him in the first place not to take on the job that he now has. He would not listen to me then, but I am sure that he has agreed with me with every month that has passed. If only he had stuck to an honest job, he would not now be in this position. However, the right hon. Gentleman was determined to have his way and go on with the extraordinary occupation he has had for the last few years. He lands up in the extraordinary situation on the penitent stool where he now finds himself. That is the kindest thing said about the right hon. Gentleman so far.

This is a most remarkable event. I want to acquit the Leader of the House altogether of the charges which were falsely made against him in the earlier debates. Some people said that the Bill had something to do with the leadership of the Conservative Party. When the suggestion was made, the right hon. Gentleman resented it and said that the Bill had no political considerations whatsoever in it and that that had never occurred to any of them.

I am prepared to accept the right hon. Gentleman's assurance. I personally do not think that anybody ever took Lord Hailsham's candidature seriously. I have never met anybody who really thought that: Lord Hailsham should be the Leader of the Conservative Party. I have always had another name in mind. I do not wish to do any candidate any damage by giving him my recommendation, but Hinchingbrooke is the man I have always wanted to be the Leader of the Conservative Party. He has my full and sustained backing. If the Bill were to enable him to enter the lists against the other myriad contenders I think that it would add to the attraction of the Bill. Personally, I am prepared to discuss the Measure on the constitutional terms on which the Government have always sought to present it to the House.

As to whether the Bill should come into operation immediately, or whether it should wait until the General Election, there is no doubt that the Government thought that they had an overwhelming case. Indeed, the Government thought that they had such an overwhelming case that they trusted its exposition to the Attorney-General. They thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman could tell the House exactly why we should accept the proposal that they were making. The Leader of the House himself, in an aberration, because I have a different explanation of his conduct in the whole matter, said in Committee that he thought the arguments were overwhelmingly in favour of what he was proposing in the Clause—not merely the precedents, but the arguments.

The right hon. Gentleman did not quite give us that impression tonight. If this is the way in which he presents an overwhelming argument, or even the way in which he withdraws an overwhelming argument, we would like to see him on thin ice for a change. The right hon. Gentleman made some other most extraordinary statements that should not pass without some recognition. He rather gave the impression that, if we did bring the Bill into operation immediately, if we went so far as to say that the Bill were to be brought into operation immediately, it might get us into trouble with the other place.

That was his argument on 27th June. He said: There was no agreement upon this point and, therefore, there would be no breach of agreement in my view, although I do not know what view another place would take if we changed it". The obvious suggestion there was that one had better be careful not to insist on carrying through the proposal of the Opposition Front Bench because it might cause trouble in another place, which shows just how sensitive are the antennae of the Leader of the House in his knowledge of what goes on in the Palace of Westminster. He knows, it appears, what is going on everywhere.

A little later in his remarks on 27th June the right hon. Gentleman, now in a magnanimous mood, said: Of course, we can see that this is studied again in another place. I gladly agree to that".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1963; Vol. 679, c. 1723–28]. That was not exactly the impression of the Government spokesman in another place and it was not an exactly mirthful Lord Chancellor who received the news in another place. The most remarkable statement made by the Leader of the House on 27th June was to the effect that he would see that the matter was considered in another place. And so he did. The Leader of the House went to work to ensure that the overwhelming case he had presented to the House of Commons should be presented in another place as well.

The right hon. Gentleman now tells us that the wisest course for us would be not to quarrel with another place, that it would cause difficulties and that we should not, therefore, engage in any further dispute over the matter. From his point of view we should all agree, for that is the only way to settle it. But I have quite a different explanation of the whole extraordinary circumstances which have surrounded this Measure. It is all very well for hon. Members to put it out of their minds, but it is fair to say that for four or five years the Conservative Party—almost all Members opposite with a few honourable exceptions—have though that it would be impossible to carry this Measure through for enabling peers to disclaim their peerages. They have said that it would cause grave constitutional results, upset the hereditary system and injure the monarchy. These claims were made and accepted by hon. Members opposite. When the previous Leader of the House, the present First Secretary of State, made this kind of claim, it was accepted by most of the hon. Members opposite who are in their places tonight.

It is for these reasons that we should give credit to the present Leader of the House. He was the man who changed all this. Upon becoming Leader of the House he saw that it was absolute tomfoolery to suggest that people should not be allowed to renounce their peerages. He looked through the speeches of his predecessor and was more convinced than ever of the folly of such a claim. We must, therefore, give credit to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has done, for being the man who went to the Cabinet and persuading it to change its mind, getting it to turn a somersault and to agree to enable the disclaiming of peerages to take place.

Having done all this, the right hon. Gentleman put his proposals before the House of Commons and, it should be mentioned, had great difficulty in persuading us. By that I mean that there was some difficulty in getting some hon. Members opposite to trail along. Thus far the right hon. Gentleman was going swimmingly. Then, much to his annoyance, when it came to the Second Reading he made a rather non-committal speech on the issue of whether or not the Bill should come into operation at the time we are discussing. He was by no means emphatic in his opening speech, but when the Attorney-General replied at the end of the debate, he slammed the door, said that it was opposed to all precedent and that there was an overwhelming case against it, and that for this reason nothing could be done about the matter.

The Leader of the House had thus far gallantly gone on with the matter and had got hon. Members committed to the proposition. Then it was said that there were overwhelming grounds for not bringing the Measure into operation before the General Election. What did the Leader of the House do? Some people underrate him. Speaking personally, I have been sorry to see him falling behind in the stakes for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Indeed, some people underrate his capacity for intrigue.

What did he do? He said, "All right, if they will not accept my proposition in the House of Commons I will see how I can upset them in the House of Lords." So he went to his old friend, Lord Salisbury, and said, "Let us get together on this proposition. You have plenty of good grievances against the Government—and particularly against Macmillan—and so have I. Let us combine and upset them, and make them all look fools." The manoeuvre worked brilliantly, so brilliantly that though one might have thought that there would be a narrow majority in another place, the rumour of intrigue spread through those musty corridors and the majority was about four to one.

That is what the right hon. Gentleman can do when he sets his mind to it. He should be more courageous in future about showing his ambition. Unfortunately, hon. Members opposite are the only people who look silly; but he takes it very mildly. This is the squarest meal that he has had in this affluent age; he is never likely to have one of such proportions again.

So the plot is all revealed, and the only people made to look indescribably foolish are hon. Members opposite, because they are proposing to accept the exact opposite to the proposition they accepted only a few weeks ago. But they do not turn a hair—they do not care what they vote for. The Leader of the House says, "Vote this way"—and vote that way they do. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman, in view of his great achievement, the convulsion that he has worked in another place, and the fact that all these minions will take his orders: why does he not have a little more ambition? Why does he not enter the stakes—

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman take note that a great many hon. Members on this side did not vote, and would not vote, given a chance?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that we had better get back to the Lords Amendment.

Mr. Foot

I acquit any hon. Member who did not vote for the Government on the proposition we discussed originally. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) must fight it out with all his colleagues next to him, because they were guilty of the crime I have put on the charge sheet. But the hon. Member is acquitted in that sense, and that only underlines the offence committed by all the others.

The Leader of the House has carried out a great stroke of policy. In the news papers and in the Gallup polls he only gets 1 per cent., or even ½ per cent. of support on the leadership question—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman, in our enjoyment of what he was saying, did not hear me. I said that we had better get back to the Lords Amendment, which in no way depends on the progress of the right hon. Gentleman in the current Gallup polls.

Mr. Foot

It would be a very tragic thing, Mr. Speaker, if, after I have accorded this great victory to the right hon. Gentleman and bestowed all the laurels on the right hon. Gentleman, you should snatch it away. He has only possessed the crown for a minute. However, I accept your rebuke, Mr. Speaker, and wish the right hon. Gentleman the best of all good fortune in any further retractions he may make. I think that he has shown wonderful skill tonight. This may be the turning point in his career. If only he could recover that honest job that I suggest he should never have left, nothing should stand between him and the highest offices in the State—if,indeed. they remain available to the party opposite.

Question put and agreed to.

Remaining Lords Amendments agreed to.