§ 3.55 p.m.
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Iain Macleod)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Report of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform.The Government considered very carefully the form that this debate should take, and decided to put this Motion on the Order Paper. The Leader of the Opposition, basing himself, I think, in part on a small misunderstanding of something I had said a few weeks earlier, suggested that it might be more convenient were the Government to come to the House either before, or at the beginning of, the debate with views on the various recommendations in this Report. I reflected a good deal on what he said, but I am convinced that this is the best form of debate, and I think that it will be convenient if we hold it in this way.
That is partly because the Report, although entitled "House of Lords Reform", is, at least in relation to its main recommendations, a suggestion for the reform of qualifications for membership of the House of Commons. Fifty years ago there were, I think, eight classes of citizens excluded from membership of this House: women, peers, ordained clergy, minors, aliens, lunatics, felons and bankrupts. We admitted women in 1918, and we are now, in effect, discussing the admission of peers. I do not think that many hon. Members would consider that we should travel much further down the list I have just read out.
I turn, first, to the question of action on this Report. Subject to one or two points of detail, our view is that the recommendations of the Report can be implemented, and the machinery set up, without much difficulty. Legislation will be necessary if any single one of the Committee's main recommendations is adopted. To give effect to all the Committee's recommendations, my estimate is that a short and fairly simple Bill of six or seven Clauses would be required, but the Bill, although short, could be controversial and consuming of Parliamentary time.
1549 I make it clear on behalf of the Government that we shall do our best to secure the passage of any legislation that may flow from the expressed resolve of Parliament. The House will not expect me to be precise on the question of timing, although it will clearly be difficult to fit such an important Bill into the timetable for this Session. But if such legislation were desirable, we would bring it forward in this Parliament so that it might be in operation for the coming General Election. The Government therefore intend, after giving the most careful consideration to the views that will be expressed today in both Houses, to put before Parliament, some time between Easter and Whitsun, a statement of our intentions, and this statement will cover the question of legislation.
Perhaps I could now just record the numerical effects that all these proposals, taken together, would have. The composition of another place at the moment amounts to a total of 930. That number includes 672 hereditary peers not of the first creation, 157 hereditary peers of the first creation, 43 peers created under the Life Peerages Act, 16 Scottish representative peers, 16 peers under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act, and 26 Lords Spiritual—a total of 930. All these proposals, taken together, would add 34; that is to say, another 16 peers of Scotland, and 18 peeresses of England or Scotland, or, in one case, a noble Lady who is a peeress of both of those kingdoms.
Therefore, one would be adding a maximum of 34 to a total of 930, although one does not know what proportion of these 34 would wish to play a full part in the affairs of another place. The number, of course, would be reduced by any noble Lords who might surrender their peerages as a result of any legislation flowing from this Report.
I do not propose to summarise the proposals in the Report. Obviously, on a "take note" speech it would be desirable for me to be brief, and, in any event, those who wish to take part in the debate will have studied the Report. There are more Committee points here than Second Reading points and I shall mention only one. It is of particular interest perhaps to us Members of the House of Commons.
1550 It arises out of recommendation 6 (k), which reads:no nomination of a Peer as a Parliamentary candidate for the House of Commons should be valid unless such a person exhibits to the Returning Officer a duly certified copy of the instrument of surrender".The difficulty I see in this is that it introduces a new element into the functions of the returning officer. Hitherto, under the 1949 Representation of the People Act—and, as we know, this was an important feature of the Wedgwood Benn case and the by-election in Bristol, South East—a returning officer has had no power to refuse to accept a nomination on the grounds that the candidate is ineligible, or the returning officer may think he is ineligible. Therefore, a new idea is being imported here.
If the nomination paper is properly filled and appears to contain proper particulars, the returning officer has to accept it. If we make the officer responsible for checking the eligibility of the candidate—and this is what it boils down to—it is hard to see why this should be only on the question whether the man is a peer and why he should not have to check whether the man is a bankrupt, a minor or an alien, or check whether his profession is correctly described on the nomination form.
In certain circumstances there might be a genuine practical difficulty because a returning officer would have to know whether a candidate was or was not a peer. Although that might be a matter of common knowledge in a great majority of cases, clearly, in certain instances, there might be difficulties or disputes arising out of this. I mention it as one illustration of the difficulties which I am sure all hon. Members will see. It is of some, although minor, importance and the sort of thing which, in due course, no doubt we could straighten out.
The key recommendations which will concern us mostly today are the group which deal with the question of the principle of surrender of peerages. As we know from the Report, this is a matter to which the Joint Committee gave a good deal of thought. One of the central recommendations, that is to say, that the right to surrender should be applied to sitting peers, was arrived at by 11 votes to 10, as the House will see from pages 14 and 15 of the Report.
1551 Arising from this general question of surrender, I think that there are three important issues. These are particularly the ones on which the Government would be glad to hear the views of right hon. and hon. Members. The first is the whole concept of surrender for life. The Committee has evidently considered and rejected the solution of extinction of a peerage as a consequence of surrender. The Committee concluded that the continuity of a peerage and the enjoyment of it in due time by a successor was something which should not be signed away by the current holder of the title.
The second point, one of very much less significance, is the question of titles and the loss of titles. Again, the Committee traverses in its Report the considerations of the previous Committee. It considered that the title should not be retained, that the person surrendering should assume in all respects the status of a commoner, and that the courtesy titles used by his wife and descendants should also be dropped.
Two practical points occur to me here. The first is that it is a true courtesy title if such a title exists and is borne by the children of an heir, but the wife, of course, has a title by right. Therefore, if this recommendation is accepted it will be necessary in any legislation, as I understand the law, to include legislation to deprive her of such a right on the surrender of such a peerage.
Secondly, I am not very sure how this question of surrender works. If we consider it entirely from the point of view of our own problems here in the House, no doubt it will be possible in the Division Lists, and in the usual references which we make to each other by constituency names and whether an hon. Member is learned in the law or not, to lay down that the family name alone should be used, but it is a matter which seems to me to contain a certain number of difficulties.
Thirdly, and a much more important matter than the question of nomenclature, is one that I am sure that the House will wish to consider carefully, as the Committee did—the period for which this option should be open. The basic period for anyone who succeeds to a peerage after the law becomes operative is to be a year. There is an obvious 1552 exception to this when a sitting Member of this House succeeds to a peerage. It is clearly desirable that the period of doubt should be reduced to the minimum in the interests of the constituency which the hon. Member represents. The Committee, in this case, recommends a period of one month.
This leaves the question of those who are peers at the time when the law becomes operative. The Committee recommends a period of six months. This, of course, is a maximum figure. I dare say that it would be reasonable to expect that anybody who intended to stand as a candidate for election to this House would give as much notice as possible to enable the constituents concerned to know the position. Here again, these three different periods seem to me matters of great importance to us as Members of the House of Commons and particularly matters on which we would be anxious to hear the views of the House.
I therefore put these three main matters before the House as a matter of analysis and of asking the views of the House so that the Government may take them into account. I do not propose to comment on the other matters contained in the Report, although my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General would hope to reply at the end of the debate to any points raised on them. They are important but I, at least, do not see any particular difficulty for us in them.
The only other point which I wish to put to the House is one general reflection. I have been as precise as it is possible for me to be on future action and the timing of legislation. As I have said, the question of what the legislation should contain is a matter on which the Government must present the House with firm decisions as soon as possible, but I think that we all know that the Joint Committee had to tread a rather difficult path between conflicting points of view. I am sure that we are all deeply grateful to our colleagues in both House, and perhaps I can mention, in particular, the work of somebody to whom we all owe a great deal and who was in the chair for much of this time, the Earl of Kilmuir. I am sure that the House would wish to give the Committee full credit for the skill with which it has arrived at this solution.
1553 I feel that if very substantial amendments which would upset the whole balance of the Committee's proposals were to be put forward, it is more than likely that we should find changes asked for and pressed in the opposite sense to those which one House or the other might wish to urge. In that event it is possible that the attempt to find a broadly acceptable solution would fail. It would be a great pity if that happened.
It is desirable, if possible, that there should be the minimum of conflict and controversy between the two Houses on this matter and, if we proceed to legislation, that it should be as far as possible with the broad agreement of the three parties in both Houses. Of course, I do not mean for a moment that we cannot amend the Select Committee's recommendations. Of course we can. Indeed, it is our right and duty to do so if necessary, and I have indicated one or two minor matters which it may well be that we should want to look at again.
This is the only concrete advice that I feel I should give the House. I believe that the closer we feel we can keep to the general pattern of the solution which our Committee has put before us the more likely we are to make progress. I think that that may prove to be the case in both Houses. So we intend to take the views of this House and of another place, to be as swift as we can be in forming our judgments, and in coming back to the House with them.
§ Mr. Frank Bowles (Nuneaton)
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman this question before he sits down? There have been earlier debates in this House on the question of reform of the House of Lords and its future. Will he look up some of the older debates as well?
§ Mr. Macleod
I have not gone back very far, but I have looked up a number of recent debates. If the hon. Member wishes to draw attention to a particular point, perhaps he will mention it if he speaks in the debate today.
§ 4.13 p.m.
§ Mr. George Brown (Belper)
There is perhaps immediate evidence of the view of this House to be taken from the atmosphere in which the debate is already being held. Anything labelled "House of Lords Reform" is apt normally to give 1554 rise to some tension. The Leader of the House will have noticed that there is a lessening of tension which was not wholly due to the soporific nature of his speech. So, in a sense, he can already begin to assess the atmosphere and the feeling of the House on this matter.
I support the Leader of the House immediately in the very well-merited tribute that he paid to our colleagues who served on the Select Committee, not only for the skill and ingenuity with which they found answers to the problems involved, but for the thoroughness with which they did the job. That is of tremendous help and they fully merit the tribute which the right hon. Gentleman has paid to them.
One of the outstanding features of anything called "House of Lords Reform"—and I agree very much with the Leader of the House that, although that is the title given to this matter at the moment, it is not what it is—is that it is always very much later than the people's awareness of the need for reform. In discussing the 1911 Parliament Act, Mr. Asquith is reported to have said that reform of the House of Lords "brooked"—I thought the verb a particularly appropriate one today—"no delay". House of Lords reform has been brooking of nothing else since. This particularly modest measure of reform, which the Leader of the House once or twice came near to commending to us and then hastily shied away from in an engaging way, has been in the offing and thought of for a very long time.
We are not dealing with House of Lords reform in any real sense of the word. I want to make quite plain that in addressing ourselves to what is in these proposals there is not on our part, or anyone else's part, any reflection on what we may feel about House of Lords reform in any real sense. What I feel about a degree of radical reform of another place is that there is a much greater degree of agreement among us on what needs to be reformed than on the way to reform it. Not even all of us now will accept the need for a second Chamber. That makes the job of those starting to reform a second Chamber start under a handicap. Even if one can make that assumption, and I should be in the group to make it, there are a number of very considerable problems.
1555 Those who remember the speech which the then Leader of the Opposition made in the debate on 5th December, 1957, will agree that he set out in a very clear way the very basic approaches that this party has to any real question of far-reaching House of Lords reform. The first is that the membership of any second Chamber shall not be directly elected and shall not be based at all on the retention of the hereditary principle; and that whatever its composition, and however it is arranged, that place should not be able to overrule the directly elected House of Commons which represents the mood and the view of the people.
When we come to radical reform of the other place there will be ample room for debate and discussion about the methods by which those essential principles which we hold can be brought about, but that is not our purpose to-day and I propose to say no more about it than that. When we pressed the Government in April, 1961, to tackle this limited method of change we made it perfectly plain that the larger issues—if hon. Members like, the larger difficulties—had nothing to do with this and should not be allowed to inhibit us in tackling this long overdue, quite minor but very important, matter of reform.
Looking at the Report itself, I agree with the Leader of the House that there is no apparent reason why the implementation of the proposals put by the Committee, or the methods it suggests, should cause us a great amount of trouble. I had not thought of it before, but I was impressed by the point which the Leader of the House made about the returning officer's function. I agree that that would need to be thought about. I see no reason why we should extend his function for those purposes and not deal with other things which have landed us in trouble in the past. On the other hand, if we extended it to deal with those other purposes we would make a very important change which would need consideration. But that is a minor matter and need not cause us a lot of trouble or delay.
The main proposal is to deal with an issue which has been struggled for, as the Committee's Report reminds us, for over eighty years—the removal of the hereditary disqualification and compulsion on a man born heir to a title either to bury 1556 himself in another place, or have no active political rights at all. That is what it comes to. It is not only a matter of not being able to come here; he has no other active political rights which the rest of us have. This, for all those eighty years, has been a continual incitement to action.
I thought that the Leader of the House might have at least mentioned that, despite the eighty years' fight, we ought to bear in mind that this is very much associated with a gallant and distinguished fight, lasting over ten years, by one man, our colleague Wedgwood Benn. He has in this matter—I am sure that everyone, whether agreeing with him or not, will endorse this—shown a really outstanding example of what a determined man can do in modern times if he turns his mind to achieving one particular element of constitutional reform.
It is worth remembering that Mr. Wedgwood Benn is still, in fact, the elected Member for Bristol, South-East. There is a defeated Member sitting in this House, but, at a time when vastly increased Labour majorities and halved Tory polls were not as commonplace as they are now, the electors of Bristol, South-East nevertheless produced both those manifestations of confidence when returning Wedgwood Benn to the House at the by-election which was fought on this very issue.
However, although the subject matter of the Report and the Bill, when we have it—as I hope we shall very soon—is very much associated with his name, the campaign over the past eighty years has, for the most part, been carried on by distinguished Conservatives. In that sense, it is in no way to be regarded as a Labour move. The only thing which links my distinguished and honourable friend and those distinguished Conservatives over the years is that they have all been fighting the Tory Party machine at the time. We are very glad that success now seems to be coming.
I think that there will be hardly anyone outside the House, and, I imagine, very few inside, who would seek to defend in 1963 the anachronism which is involved in the hereditary principle being applied in such a way as to deny to an heir a choice in this matter. Hitherto, the Government have always said that the question needed careful consideration, and I got the impression that, at times, that 1557 was what the Leader of the House was still saying; but I should have thought that, in view of the all the discussions that we have had, all the indications of public opinion that we have had, from opinion polls, reflections in newspapers and the by-election in Bristol, South-East, and now the judgment of the Joint Committee, the Leader of the House ought by now to have been able to go even further than he went today.
The right hon. Gentleman told us that we should not have much difficulty in implementing the Committee's recommendation by a short Bill of six or seven Clauses. He said that the Government would do their best to secure its passage if—so I took him—no violent opposition to it was shown here today. He thought that it would be difficult to get the Bill in this Session and said that the Government were willing to arrange that it should be done in this Parliament. Since we are being told every weekend that the Prime Minister has not yet made up his mind when this Parliament will end, I think that the Leader of the House may find himself in the position of having to overcome the former difficulty if he is to meet his latter promise. He may find that it has to be done this Session in order to do it in this Parliament.
However, since we are coming towards the latter stages of this Parliament, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept from us that we believe that we ought to have a Bill quickly. It certainly ought to be brought in so that the reform will apply in time for the next General Election. It would, therefore, be much wiser to get on with it and bring the Bill in very quickly rather than run the risk of having it lost later on as pressure piles up and uncertainty grows. I shall come in a few moments to the question of what difficulties its passage through the House might involve.
Inevitably, in a Report of this kind, there is bound to be an element of compromise, a sort of "package" arrangement. In a way, this is a good thing. It is the way by which we have an agreed Report from a Committee the composition of which, when it began its work, suggested that there might be anything but an agreed Report. On the other hand, the compromise involves some things which will affect some people quite severely.
1558 From our point of view, the most serious issue in the agreed Report—serious in the sense that we find it hard to take—is the one which the Leader of the House picked out first, that is, the rejection by the Committee of the proposal that a choice by a peer should involve the extinction of the peerage and not be merely a choice for his own lifetime. I myself continue to feel very strongly about this. In my view, it should be a final choice. The retention by his heir of the right to revive the peerage in the next generation seems not only to be keeping a choice alive, but, in a way, is a rather serious re-emphasis of the hereditary principle which is at the very bottom of so much of our criticisms of the other place.
§ Viscount Lambton (Berwick-on-Tweed)
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that point, will he say what the Labour Party's policy will be if the suggested proposal is not adopted?
§ Viscount Lambton
But will the right hon. Gentleman say definitely whether it is the intention of the Labour Party to do away with the hereditary peerage if it is returned to power?
§ Mr. Brown
I ask the noble Lord to wait. I shall come to that, also, before I conclude.
At the moment, we are dealing with an important measure of reform, limited though it may be, and getting it through—to which I attach much importance—will depend a great deal on the atmosphere which we create. Although it is quite right that I should state our views on issues arising out of this question, I am very anxious not to do it in a way which might add to the difficulties of getting this limited measure of reform through. That is why I prefer to tackle the matter in my own way.
It must be quite clear to anyone who may be upset by anything else in the Report that we on this side are considerably upset by that particular recommendation of the Committee. If there is a 1559 Bill and we have it before us in Committee, my right hon. and hon. Friends may well want to test the feeling of the Committee on that recommendation. However, provided that we have general agreement and provided that we proceed quickly, I do not for a moment suggest that we should wish to make that an occasion on which the Bill could either founder or be held up. However, in saying that, I do not wish to be misunderstood. We attach enormous importance to this question, and we reserve rights and certain other conditions to which I shall in a few minutes refer. This is, from our point of view, much the most serious weakness, to call it that, but there are one or two others.
We see the case for removing the sex disqualification, and we see the illogicality of the present Scottish position, but what the Select Committee proposes means a strengthening rather than a weakening of the hereditary influence in the other place because it would bring to it some additional Members who are not there now. Thus, taking that matter in conjunction with the one to which I have referred, it is obvious that, from our point of view, there is a considerable weakness in the whole Report on this question of hereditary influence.
There is another difficulty. I put these points frankly to the House so that right hon. and hon. Members may see that we have to swallow quite a good deal if we are to accept the Report and its recommendations in the form of a Bill. I refer to the proposal for possible subsequent ennoblement of a peer who has made his choice and has come to sit as a Member of the House of Commons. Clearly, the intention of the Committee, which rejected our proposal for extinction, was that the person concerned should make the choice for his own lifetime and, as it were, make it final. In the ordinary way, he does not have a second opportunity. He decides, and that is that. But, of course, the Committee decided to keep open the possibility of such a person subsequently being sent back to the other place with a new peerage.
Again, I can see the case for this. If a man chooses to become a commoner and to surrender his social standing, whatever it is worth, and his rights and 1560 title and those of his immedate family as a peer—I trust that there will be no weakening on that, because, after all, he could be getting it all ways—then, says the Committee, he must have all the rights of a commoner. One of the rights of a commoner is to be considered suitable for translation to the House of Lords.
As I say, I can see the case for this, but there is a danger. It could all too easily become a dodge. It may be that a man, having surrendered his rights as a peer, or a peer while he is a Minister, fights an election but does not get in and is sent up to the House of Lords for a new peerage later. That would defeat the entire spirit of what the Committee wanted and of what this House would regard as proper. It may be said that people do not behave in that way. The fact is that they could behave in that way if they chose to do so. Therefore, from our point of view, that is a considerable weakness and, to some extent, makes the prospect less attractive to us than it would otherwise be.
We may wish to test the feeling of the House on many of these points during the Committee stage of the Bill. I put them forward as serious weaknesses from the point of view of any Labour man, but not to create an atmosphere in which the Bill might founder. We will have to take into account the feeling of hon. Members when the Bill is here and also take account of other changes, if any, which other people try to insist on. Therefore, the almost final words of the Leader of the House in warning us about the pitfalls of trying to get substantial changes were wise, and I hope that those who are concerned about other matters will pay attention to them. I should have thought it was absolutely clear that we on this side and, I think, most hon. Members in the House would wish action to be taken as quickly as possible, at any rate on the main purpose of the Report. Despite what I have said, I should have thought that the broad proposals of the Joint Committee were right.
The Leader of the House recalled the categories of those who are disqualified from being Members of this House—lunatics, felons, bankrupts and clergy. All of them can get out of their state of disqualification. Lunatics can recover 1561 and get a certificate saying that they are all right again. It has been said of some that the only people who can prove that they are sane are those who have been lunatics. Lunatics can recover. Felons can purge their guilt and bankrupts can make themselves solvent. Even the clergy can become secular, and, judging from recent speeches of distinguished bishops, it looks as though that may be made even easier. People in these categories can, in one way or another, get round the difficulty. The only person who cannot is the son of a hereditary peer. Therefore, I should have thought that no one would quarrel with the view of the Leader of the House that this matter must be put right as soon as possible. I am sure that no one who holds that view would wish to delay any longer.
I understand the purpose of the Leader of the House in consulting both Houses first. He might very well have been open to the charge of not having consulted them if he had not taken this course. But, because this Parliament is nearing its end, I should have preferred it if he had announced today the decision of the Government and if he had been much more clear about the timing of the Bill. Because I understand about the pressures of business, I have put my criticisms in a reserved way. I wish to make it perfectly plain that we are willing to co-operate with the Government in securing the early passage of a Bill drawn broadly on the lines proposed by the Joint Committee.
I now answer the other point raised by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Viscount Lambton). Having shown the weaknesses from our point of view, I must say that we attach tremendous importance to this matter being put right as soon as possible. If we came to power before this measure of reform had been carried through, we would not only feel that that was an immediate priority, but, of course, if we had to deal with that we could not help facing the other and much wider issues of reform to which we attach much importance. Therefore, we would be dealing with a situation—and I want there to be no misunderstanding about this—in which immediate action would have to be taken and in which we should have to deal with the much wider issues. I 1562 hope that that makes our approach clear. We do not suggest that that is necessary today if the Government are willing to take it through quickly on this limited basis and to conform pretty closely with the Committee's proposals.
We need not drag out a debate on a matter about which, I imagine, there is a vast measure of agreement. I hope that not only my hon. Friends but hon. Members opposite will feel able to press the Leader of the House about the urgency of implementation of a Bill and will show willingness to co-operate in securing an early passage for it. By so doing we shall remove an anachronism which must make us look very silly to the world outside. Some of our distinguished colleagues would be able to come here. We on this side would be very glad to see the rightful member for Bristol, South-East seated in his place. If members of the Treasury Bench believe that the arrival here of certain of their colleagues may increase the competition for them at a particularly sticky time, I suggest that they should not worry. They can always change places and go up there and let the other chaps have a shot down here. I am bound to say that on recent performances I should not think that that would be any grave loss.
I support the Motion and express the hope that it will very soon be carried into effect by legislation.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)
Both my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) have, I think rightly, referred to the fact that the title of the Joint Committee on Lords Reform is in one sense a misnomer, because, as they both said, the reform proposed by the Joint Committee is not a reform in a very wide sense. Moreover, I agree that in many respects such changes that are proposed affect the Commons as much as they affect the Lords. The plain fact is that the terms of reference under which we laboured were very narrow, much too narrow to permit of any major reform. I am not complaining about that. In military jargon, what we were carrying out was "Exercise reluctant peer".
There are widely divergent views in this House and outside about the House 1563 of Lords. Some have already been expressed from the benches opposite. There are those who would wish to eliminate altogether the hereditary element in another place. There are those who would further wish to erode the powers of another place so as to leave it a second Chamber in name only. There is a third category of people who would like to abolish it altogether. There is yet another category of people who, so far from wishing to abolish it, think that the House of Lords is of very considerable value in our Constitution. They recognise its value, but they think that changes should be made in it from time to time by the process of evolution, as is the case with any other institution. None the less, those who take this view feel very strongly that the hereditary element is an important element which should be preserved in some way or other in the composition of the House of Lords.
The Joint Committee, inevitably, reflected in one degree or another nearly all these shades of opinion. Inevitably and quite correctly, as the right hon. Member for Belper said, the Report of the Joint Committee was naturally and, I repeat, very properly a compromise. I am one of those who believe that the House of Lords is the healthier for the hereditary element. If the House of Lords were composed solely of life peers, the average age would tend to rise. On the whole, life peers are created by reason of political or public distinction in various walks of life. They are created normally towards the end of a man's career. Thus, with a House of Lords composed only of life peers, there would be a rise in the average age, which I do not think would be a good thing. I am a great believer in leavening the age group by the inclusion of the younger generation. I am unashamed in thinking that it is desirable that a young peer should take part in the deliberations of the other place if he so desires and, perhaps, gain administrative experience in junior office.
Once the Joint Committee agreed, as we did, that some form of surrender of a peerage should take place, the big question arose, to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has referred, of how the surrender should be made. Should it be done by a surrender for life only on the part of the peer in ques- 1564 tion or should it be done by extinguishing the peerage for all time? This is a big issue. The Joint Committee recommendation, which was by no means a unanimous decision, was that the surrender should be for life only.
The right hon. Member for Belper has left the House in no doubt, as he was entitled to do, about the views of his party on the recommendation that the surrender should be for life only. We all recognise that there is a difference of view about this matter and that the view taken by the right hon. Gentleman is widely, although, perhaps, not wholly, held by a great many of his supporters. There are, however, other people on this side of the House, and outside, too, as well as in another place—and their views in this matter count—who take a different view.
My view is that it is not right in one generation that one holder of a title or one heir to it should have the right to extinguish in perpetuity what may well be an ancient peerage whose former holders have in their time played a quite considerable part in the country's history. I do not think it right that one man should be able to extinguish for all time a peerage of that kind, because he is compelled by overwhelming ambition to play a part in the House of Commons—although the right hon. Member for Belper said, or, least, implied, that if a peer chose to function in another place, he really retired from active political life. That was the implication of the right hon. Gentleman's speech.
I must remind the House and the right hon. Gentleman that with the exception of the offices of Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, all the portfolios in the Cabinet are open to Members of another place. It is wrong to imagine that if a young peer on succession decides to function in the Lords instead of staying in the Commons, he is extinguishing himself from any kind of political career.
§ Mr. G. Brown
Obviously, I did not make myself clear. I was not thinking necessarily of the peer who decides to function in an active political manner in the other place. I also said that it was not only a question of the man who wants to function here. A man may not want to be a peer for all kinds of reasons. Even if he does not want to come here or to function in another place, he may still 1565 want to vote and to have the other political rights of a commoner, which involve not merely coming into one of these two Chambers. It is those rights which he cannot, and does not, get as things stand. One must remember that, too.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
I take the point. I imagined the right hon. Gentleman to be referring to the peer who decided to undertake a political career in the Lords as opposed to the Commons. I do not think that any man should have the right to extinguish an old peerage either because of his violent political ambition in the Commons or because of much less worthy motives of spite or family feud, which could arise.
I do not consider it seemly that ancient traditions should be lightly swept away by the whim of one man, particularly where, by long custom, certain great officers of State, like, for instance, that of the Earl Marshal, have for centuries been linked with one family. I would be sorry to see those institutions and that tradition lightly swept away by the whim, whether good, bad or indifferent, of one man.
Moreover, I put another point to the right hon. Member for Belper. I for one, and, I think, a good many of my colleagues, could not contemplate such sweeping changes as the perpetual drowning of a peerage would involve unless it was accompanied by far more comprehensive alterations in the existing composition and powers of the House of Lords.
The Joint Committee was not entitled to embark upon this wider aspect. It was circumscribed within rather narrow terms of reference. We were not entitled to deal with pay, which is an important factor, or with the composition of the House of Lords. Our terms of reference were too narrow. Therefore, to suggest that within our narrow terms of reference, dealing with the main problem of surrender, we could conceivably have accepted with the extinction of peerages for all time would be to get the matter completely out of proportion.
If we were right in our decision to recommend to this House that the surrender should be for life only and not for complete extinction, the question then arose as to how that should be 1566 achieved and how the surrender should be made. The House knows our recommendations. I was one of those who favoured what I might call the minority solution. I favoured the minority solution because I considered that it was much the tidiest within our limited terms of reference and would result in the fewest anomalies. I favoured a solution by which a peer, if he wished to remain in this House or to stand for election to it, would merely decline the writ of summons to the House of Lords, thus divesting himself of Parliamentary status of the peerage only and that he would continue to sit in this House using his title. In other words, he would be in exactly the same position as an Irish peer now is.
I am well aware of the arguments against that minority but tidy plan. I am well aware that it can be argued, and reasonably so, that that solution would have left the individual peer concerned with the best of both worlds. That is a strong argument, and I accept it. None the less, the House should not be under any illusion about certain anomalies which are bound to arise in the other solution which we have suggested.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has referred to certain difficulties concerning titles, their surrender, how they should be surrendered and by whom. I want to go a little further along that line. As the House knows, an Irish peer can still sit in this House and retain his title. What about an Irish earl who holds a United Kingdom barony? All he would have to do to continue to be eligible to sit in this House would be to surrender the United Kingdom barony. He would still continue to sit in this House using the title of his Irish earldom.
There is, however, another kind of anomaly that could easily arise. I do not want to indulge in too vivid a flight of imagination, but I invite the House, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in particular, to follow my argument. Suppose that when the present Lord Sandwich succeeded to the earldom and left this House, his eldest son had been adopted as candidate for the constituency of Dorset, South in his father's place.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
Supposing he had not lost or had been adopted for another seat and got in. The point is that he would have come into the House and sat as Viscount Hinchingbrooke, as the Member of Parliament for Dorset, South or whatever constituency it was. Supposing that later on as a result of legislation introduced by the Government following the Joint Committee's Report the Earl of Sandwich were to decide to contest another seat at a by-election or General Election. In order to do so, he would have to surrender for his life the Sandwich earldom. If he were to succeed at the election he could come back and sit in this House as Mr. Montagu. But his son, by reason of the courtesy title which he now enjoys, would no longer be able to sit as Viscount Hinchingbrooke but would have to sit alongside his father as Mr. Montagu. So we should have two Mr. Montagu's, father and son, sitting in the House.
But supposing for the sake of argument that the present Lord Sandwich had a sister who wished to contest a seat at an election. She could contest the seat and sit in this House, if elected, still retaining her courtesy title which would derive not from her brother but from her father. Therefore, we should have had three Members of the same family—a father, a son and the father's sister—one still holding a courtesy title, but the other two without either. This would seem to me to be a somewhat ridiculous anomaly.
§ Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire, South)
Who in that case does my hon. Friend think would complain?
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
I do not think anybody would complain. The point I want to make is that it seems to me under these circumstances that the dividing line between who has a title and who does not is fairly tenuous.
Let us take another case—
§ Mr. C. Pannell
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that case, may I kill that one straight away? There is no question at all that if this had happened there would have been no Viscount Hinchingbrooke. The Committee makes it perfectly clear that all titles which spring from the father go. It is only titles which spring from the previous holder of the title which remain. For 1568 instance, the present Lady Stansgate would still be the present Lady Stansgate, but any sons of the present Wedgwood Benn would have no titles at all, though the hon. Gentleman thinks there is a Viscount Stansgate. So this curious idea of "Brothers and sons have I none, but that man's father is my father's son" is a continuing error.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
The hon. Gentleman has not followed the argument and has become muddled. In the hypothetical case that I was putting before the House there could have been, and still could be, a Viscount Hinchingbrooke sitting in the House of Commons because his father has not yet decided whether or not to renounce the earldom, and he would either sit here or contest a by-election as Viscount Hinchingbrooke.
There is a further anomaly. Let us take the case of a peer whose father was killed during the war and he succeeded to the peerage at the age of two. When he reaches the age of twenty-one he has a year in which to take the once-for-all decision whether to go to the House of Lords or to chance his arm in the House of Commons. If he decides to chance his arm in the House of Commons, he comes here and sits as Mr. So-and-So. But, as he has been for a very long time known by everybody in his own area as Lord X, I should have thought that it would be quite a time before anybody in the area remembered to call him by a different name. I put this out as one of the difficulties which could arise.
§ Mrs. Evelyn Emmet (East Grinstead)
My hon. Friend probably forgets that ladies are continually having to change their names when they get married. One gets used to it.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, it rather depends on who gets used to what.
There are two other matters in the recommendations of the Joint Committee to which I want to draw the attention of the House. The House will have seen that the Committee suggested that where a Member of the House of Commons succeeded to a peerage he should be allowed one month, and one month only, in which to make his decision. If this rule were applied very rigidly, it might apply singularly unfairly in certain cases.
1569 The House will recollect Sir David Ormsby-Gore—now our Ambassador in Washington—whom many of us remember with great affection, when he sat in this House as the Member of Parliament for Oswestry. In the early part of the 1951 Parliament he had a very bad motor smash and suffered severe concussion and head injuries and was in hospital well over a month and for a considerable part of that time nobody was allowed to see him. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that during the time he was unconscious and allowed no visitors his father died. Does anybody really suppose that within a month either Mr. Ormsby-Gore, as he then was, or his own local association, or anybody else, could conceivably have had a fair chance to decide whether or not he should continue as the Member of Parliament for Oswestry or become Lord Harlech?
Again, the one-year rule for other peers could be very hard in certain circumstances. A new peer might well not be able to decide whether he wished to go to the House of Lords or to stay in the Commons or stand for election to the Common's until he knew on succession to a peerage, particularly if his predecessor was not a near relative, what his financial position was likely to be. That might be an important element in his decision. I can imagine certain circumstances in which a rather complicated will would be involved with a number of trustees all over the place. It could well be more than a year before the unfortunate new peer or heir to the peerage could have any idea about what his financial position was likely to be.
We have, I hope, cleared up a number of anomalies which were referred to by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—those concerning the Scottish non-representative peers, the peeresses in their own right and one or two others as well. But I am sure that we ought not in our deliberations this afternoon to make the mistake of trying, so to speak, to inflate the Report and its repercussions into some major reform of the House of Lords when it is nothing of the sort. We have to put the Report in its right perspective.
We have not dealt with reform in its widest sense. We have not been able to deal with pay, which, I repeat, I regard as very important. We have not really 1570 dealt with composition. All we have dealt with, with a few minor exceptions, has been what I would call the tidying up of certain obvious anomalies when a peer has Parliamentary ambitions which lead him, quite rightly if he so wishes, to prefer the House of Commons to another place. If and when the Government are to introduce legislation along these lines, I suggest that the Measure should be called the Lords and Commons (Reluctant Peers) (Anomalies) (Amendment) Bill.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
I served with the hon. Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe) on the Select Committee. I thought that he was less than fair in his last sentence. If one turns to the last document in the Report, one sees that there is a cry from the heart from Lord Hailsham, and that cry was responded to by the Select Committee which, by a majority of one, recommended that any peer should be allowed to renounce his title. I suggest that by that vote the Committee turned what might have been a Wedgwood Benn (Enabling) Bill into a document that allowed general renunciation.
Therefore, if Lord Hailsham is to be taken as the man of honour he is, nobody could read that last document of his completely unmoved, because in the very last paragraph he puts his position as being that those who have taken on the obligations of peerage from, as they thought, a sense of public duty, should be allowed the same privileges and the same advantages as those who, like Wedgwood Benn, say that they will not respond to the writ of summons.
However limited these proposals would have to be, they would not be as limited as the hon. Member for Windsor has construed them. We Listened to most of his committee points in the Joint Committee, and I hope that I may range rather more widely. The terms of reference were very limited. I hope that no one on this side of the House will necessarily accuse Labour members of the Committee as being backward in the denunciation of the hereditary principle, for we had to conform to the terms of reference.
I can only say that the record shows our constantly being voted down on the rather more fundamental matters. Like 1571 my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), I hope that we shall get this through, because there are wrongs to be righted and I do not want certain wrongs to be left unrighted simply because there are always people who will plead the wider issue. I am very suspicious of people who say that nothing can be done until everything can be done. Long political experience tends to make me conclude that the narrower the issue the sharper the weapon and the earlier one is likely to get reform.
I cannot start my speech without echoing the tribute paid by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper to my friend Anthony Wedgwood Benn. I played some part in the fight in Bristol, South-East. Let it not be misunderstood by either side. The result was far more resounding and more remarkable even than the result in Orpington. Everybody in the city responded.
The image among the young people of Bristol was not that of a Parliament where the hereditary principle takes precedence over the wishes of the electorate—and that is the issue we are deciding here. It is important that the ambitions—I use that word in no mean spirit—of an able man should not be thwarted in this way. But what is more important from the constitutional point of view is that the electors of Bristol should be allowed to choose whom they like to sit here and not be dictated to by accident of birth. This is the great issue of privilege. If we allow the House of Lords to claim a person who has been elected to this House to represent the people, then we elevate the hereditary element over the principle of election. That principle should not be breached.
I have great sympathy with the present hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. St. Clair). He is man of honour who would not wish to be put in his present position. I wish nothing better for him than that he may be able to contest some place in the future where he will come top of the poll. That seems unlikely, but I am sure that he would prefer to come to this place that way. He is related to a certain scion of the nobility, and if an accident happens he might find himself in the same position as Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Do not 1572 let it go out from this House that we are prepared to continue a state of affairs where the hereditary Chamber can usurp the place of the elected Chamber.
We have had quoted small cases such as the position of some hypothetical Irish earl with a United Kingdom barony. I find that hard to take. I do not know that there is any such animal. [HON. MEMBERS: "There is."] I can only say, "Show me the animal." For the purpose of our Report, we have treated the Irish peerage as a foreign peerage. There are far too many Irish peers to be considered at all.
The hon. Member for Windsor spoke of the difficulties of nomenclature and how we all get used to one thing or another. But after all, the Prince of Wales became King Edward VIII and then the Duke of Windsor almost overnight. Are we in any doubt as to who he was, who he is, or which is which?
The difficulty in discussing this subject is that one feels that it is an old battle, a burnt out case, and that much of the fire has gone out of it. One remembers many years ago moving resolutions to give women equal pay in the public service. One remembers the long battles waged over that issue. Yet, when the victory was celebrated a year or two ago, people asked, "Whoever opposed this?" Of course, one could then point to hon. Gentleman opposite whom the passage of time had made look less ridiculous. It is exactly the same in this case.
I ask right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to look at the Report in that light. When people speak of the fact that we should be increasing the membership of the other place by including peeresses, who, in justice, should have sat there in their own right years ago, I reply that it is not that I want any man or woman to sit there, but that, having pleaded for equal status of the sexes in the past, I am in favour of women taking on the liabilities as well as getting the advantages. I think it reasonable, therefore, that women peeresses should be allowed to take their places in the House of Lords.
Another consideration is that of the tidying-up process. Some people say that we should let the House of Lords be so irrational that it will look ridiculous. I can understand the attraction of that argument, but we on the Joint Committee 1573 were given certain terms of reference and we had to try to find an answer.
I come first to the practical point mentioned by the Leader of the House—the difficulty of renunciation on election. Is that so insuperable? Perhaps we need not have put it forward in quite so many words. All that we were seeking to guard against was that a man who elects to stand as a candidate for this place should understand quite clearly that in so doing he is renouncing the peerage for his lifetime. That is all we are proposing.
If the Attorney-General says that by some other legal stratagem or device it is possible to do this sort of thing we will accept it. All we were concerned about, following the position in Bristol, was that the question there should not be posed again so that we would find ourselves in the curious difficulties of having a series of elections and by-elections.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
I remind my hon. Friend, without traversing the arguments, that one of the problems was that if this occurred, as it might well do, at a General Election, the very natural person—Mr. Speaker—who might be suggested for receipt of the renunciation is technically not in existence. It is a genuine constitutional difficulty to find an appropriate person who is in existence at the time, but I do not think that anyone worries as to whether it should be the returning officer or some other appropriate person.
§ Mr. Pannell
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who spent a great deal of time in the proceedings of the Committee on this aspect. I ask the learned Attorney-General to appreciate that this is a very real difficulty at the time of a General Election. We do not want to bring in a law that, either by inadvertence or otherwise, provokes a situation where a by-election has to be held later or where there is some dubiety. The Law Officers will have to find some other way. It may be that an heir to a peerage will by the very act of standing for election—and without the necessity to consult the returning officer—declare his renunciation. This is not a small point.
My right hon. Friend also spoke of the question of the drowning of a peerage. I hope that hon. Members opposite who may think that they have the right to 1574 wander from the Report will appreciate that this is a very difficult point for us on this side of the House. Nobody doubts that the Stansgate peerage was a matter of very great hardship for Anthony Wedgwood Benn. His brother was killed in action. His father never intended the peerage for him. He never believed that it would go to him, and if the eldest son had had political aspirations, the first Lord Stansgate would never have accepted it, as he did for reasons of State.
The hon. Member for Windsor spoke of casting away old traditions and wrecking long family lines. He should not forget that when a man assumes a peerage he condemns all his sons and his sons' sons to it. If a man can assume a peerage and so condemn the whole line—and although I use the word "condemn" and the hon. Member for Windsor might use the word "ennoble", they are both question-begging words in this context—then what it is good for a man to do in accepting a peerage it is reasonable for a man to do in renouncing it. That is all we are here considering.
I do not see much difficulty in this matter of titles. I thought that the Report made this perfectly clear. When a man renounces a title to become a commoner, he takes on a status as honourable as that of a peer and with certain advantages in becoming a Mr. instead of an Earl. If the then Viscount Hinchingbrooke, now the Earl of Sandwich, had become Mr. Montagu, his wife would have become Mrs. Montagu for the purpose. Any titles which spring from a man renouncing a peerage would die. We said that titles springing from the previous holder of the title, such as the widow, would remain. The Report is perfectly clear on the point.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
I am not disagreeing with what the hon. Member says. What I was saying was that Lord Sandwich would sit as Mr. Montagu and his son, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, would also sit as Mr. Montagu but that if the present Earl of Sandwich had a sister and she wished to stand for Parliament, she would retain her courtesy title. There would therefore be a brother and a sister and son, two having surrendered their titles and one retaining her title.
§ Mr. Pannell
I am afraid that I cannot follow the hypothetical range of the Hinchingbrooke family. I happen to know its present members, because I have studied the family, but that position is not likely to occur. If a man wishes to become a commoner and to sit in the House of Commons, then it is because he prefers that status, and presumably his wife would prefer it as well.
Do not let us think that this position applies only to Members of Parliament. I know an heir to a peerage who does not want to sit in the other place and who finds the peerage itself a liability to him in his business. He does not want to be called up to the other place, and there must be other people of the same view.
The Leader of the House referred to the time for which a peerage should be available to an heir who was a member of Parliament. We gave careful consideration to this and thought that a constituency should not be disfranchised for longer than a month. I do not think that I would object in the rather outlandish case mentioned, the possibility of Mr. Ormsby-Gore or somebody who was unconscious for many months. There are many hon. Members here who are unconscious for periods longer than that. If it were necessary to have a medical certificate or show valid medical reasons, the case could be considered by Mr. Speaker.
I now come to the matter which causes more alarm to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper than it does to me. This concerns the case of a man who renounces a peerage and then goes back to the Lords on a subsequent occasion. The Committee had in mind the convenience of the Prime Minister of the day. To fill the offices of State in the other place, including that of Lord Chancellor, it might be necessary to send up a person who had renounced a peerage. This is an outlandish example, but I know that the ex-Lord Chancellor felt strongly about it. We suggest that in all these cases any such person should go into the other place not as an hereditary peer but as a life peer. This is something which is not likely to arise. If the tradition were well understood from the beginning, and if it were understood that it was not to give a man two chances of ennoblement, the tradition could reasonably live on.
1576 This is now an old battle and much of the fire has gone out of it. It will go the way of so many other reforms on social issues. The present generation will look back, as we do on our fathers' and grandfathers' time, and wonder why so much fuss was made. It is to the advantage of both parties to remember that these outmoded attitudes find little sympathy among the young who cannot understand them. The image of both parties and the image of the House of Commons itself is elevated when we get rid of the dead wood and the medieval nonsense.
It is in that spirit that I commend the Report to the House. I notice that the hon. Member for Carlton (Sir K. Pickthorn), who was on the Committee—
§ Mr. Pannell
The hon. Member should not register such indignation about words he cannot hear.
I was saying that it is in that spirit that I commend this Report to the House. The House makes itself more respected and more respectable when it acts in accord with modern times and modern themes and modern ideas of the worth of the individual, and the modern view that a man born free is not less noble than the man who happens to be the son of his father.
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Stanley (North Fylde)
Having, like everyone else, listened to the first two speeches today, I saw that this was not to be too much of a party battle but rather a commonsense battle. However, both the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) and the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) said that they felt strongly on the issue and did not mind how we felt about it, because they were impartial. The right hon. Member ended his speech by saying that while he was not talking politics, if the Government did not alter the present situation, hon. Members opposite would blow out the brains of the House of Lords if the Labour Party were returned to power at the next election. I do not see that that is being terribly impartial.
I must declare my interest in this subject in that I am one of those who could 1577 go to the other place through the hereditary system. I think that I am slightly different from some of the others concerned, although there is one other Member who might go to the other place on the succession of a brother. As my brother is roughly my age, I hope that we shall both have reached the bath-chair stage by that time.
The Committee's Report is full of good points, but the important question seems to be the right of the individual to opt to go into the Commons and out of the Lords if he so wants. In considering this subject, I think that we should link the question of Lords reform with the whole question of the reform of government of the country. The Conservative Party has always fought about the House of Lords with the Labour Party or the Liberal Party, but it would be a good thing if all this fighting about the House of Lords occasionally included the whole structure of government in this country, down to parish councils and up to the House of Lords.
In the House of Commons we talk about whether we should provide better accommodation, whether we should go to Standing Committee, or whether we should be televised. I do not think that we get down to reality. If hon. Gentlemen opposite want to have a real "go" at reforming the House of Lords, I hope they will go into the reform of all forms of government, otherwise we shall just do what we have always done. If we accept this recommendation, we shall just do a small bit of pruning.
It is obviously right that Members should have the right to stay on in this House if they so wish, but we must remember that if we take away the best hereditary peers we shall damage the House of Lords very considerably. There is no doubt that if this becomes law the best hereditary peers will remain in the House of Commons, or try to sit here, and we shall be left with a second Chamber consisting of hereditary peers who cannot, or will not, fight an election. There will also be Members who have been made life peers because they have had distinguished careers and are given the honour at the end of their lives. I suppose there will also be some lawyers and bishops, and, of course, some peers who have really been kicked off the Front Benches on both sides. I cannot believe 1578 that this will be the best way of having a really good second Chamber, and I hope that if this Bill goes through we shall alter the whole structure of what the House of Lords is today with the rest of the system.
I come now to the question of Members deciding when they should be able to renounce going to the House of Lords or coming to the House of Commons. If they were Members of the House of Commons before they succeeded to their titles, I am certain that they must make up their minds within a month what they are going to do, because we cannot allow constituencies to be disfranchised for longer than that. But for the ordinary chap who succeeds his father or grandfather, I cannot see that it matters whether he makes up his mind when he is 21 that he wants to fight for a seat in the House of Commons, or waits until he is 40 before he makes the decision. As long as he does not take his seat in the House of Lords, as long as he takes none of the privileges of the House of Lords, I cannot see why we should say that he must have a year in which to make up his mind. It would be a difficult enough decision anyway, and at 21 a person is not really mature enough to know what he wants to do. If he is successful in business and wants to go into politics and wants to go to the House of Lords, I do not see why he should not go there, or come here if he wants to.
There has been some discussion between my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe) and the hon. Member for Leeds, West, about whether or not people should be able to keep their titles if they sit here. I do not feel very strongly either way. I cannot see why they cannot keep them, but I think that the minority suggestion would be slightly tidier.
One question which has not been discussed is that of a person renouncing his peerage by taking a life peerage. I do not think that he ought to be allowed to do that. Once he says that he does not want to go to the House of Lords, he has opted out, and he ought to stay out. But, as far as I can see, there is an even more extraordinary case, and that is someone who opts out from the House of Lords and sits here. If he then succeeds to another peerage he is allowed 1579 to opt again. If by some extraordinary coincidence, someone were to come into five peerages, surely he could not be allowed to make five decisions about whether he wants to sit here or in the House of Lords? Once he has made up his mind that he does not want to sit in the House of Lords, that ought to be the end of it.
I feel that if we bring in these recommendations we shall certainly do justice to Mr. Wedgwood Benn, and we shall also provide a chance for other hereditary peers to give up their rights and fight by-elections. We on this side of the House have two notable peers in the other place. It has been said that they might come here and adorn our Front Bench. That would be all for the good of the Commons, but we must remember that if that were to happen it would harm the House of Lords.
If we do this, and it is a reasonable reform, let us not be stampeded by hon. Gentlemen opposite who always want to alter the House of Lords. If we are to have reform of government let us look at government as a whole, from the parish council to the House of Lords and go into it all and thus have a better system of government in this country.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Dick Taverne (Lincoln)
I propose to deal only with the question of a renunciation of peerages, and I welcome warmly the statement of the Leader of the House that the Government intend to introduce legislation on the lines of this Report in the course of the present Parliament.
I welcome the Report for some of the reasons which have already been suggested. First, it partially removes one of the worst anomalies of the Constitution which while it exists, can only lessen the respect of Parliament. Secondly, it widens the choice which can be made for this House, and that means that more talent will be available on both sides. Thirdly, it corrects an injustice in the case of Mr. Wedgwood Benn and the electors of Bristol, South-East. Fourthly, this is a reform which is long overdue but none the less welcome if it is shortly to be achieved. Fifthly, it is clearly in conformity with public opinion.
1580 There is no need for any traditionalist in the House to feel unduly perturbed that this is a great breach of the traditions of the past, because in a curious way tradition will be vindicated. The present legal position of the disqualification of peers from sitting in the Commons is based largely on the doctrine of the separate Estates. The doctrine of three Estates may be firmly established in some of the decisions of the courts, but it was nevertheless a load of historical nonsense, or, as the historians politely put it, a myth.
This doctrine was never clearly formulated, because there was a great deal of dispute about whether the three Estates were the Monarch, the Lords, and the Commons, or whether they were the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons, and at the very period from which this doctrine is supposed to be derived no such position ever existed. If one looks back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, one finds that at that time there were many recorded cases—at least sixteen—of peers, or at any rate persons who received writs of summons to sit in the House of Lords, who were later to be found sitting in the Commons. Whatever the courts may later have decided, in the early years of our history there were also cases in which peers extinguished their titles and renounced them. So if there is anyone in the House who feels an undue respect for tradition, he can be comforted by the fact that we are at last catching up with the fourteenth century.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
I did not know that in the fourteenth century a peer could renounce his peerage for his lifetime.
§ Mr. Taverne
That is true. It is only to some extent that we are now coming to the position which was already recognised in the fourteenth century. We have not quite caught up with it, but we are getting somewhere near.
The most famous case was that of Roger le Bygod in 1302, who renounced his peerage, although it was held by the House of Lords in 1907 that the Monarch of the time, the great law-giver and the Lord Chancellor of the time did not realise what they were talking about.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
In the fourteenth century a peer who renounced his claim could subsequently sit in the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Taverne
There were many cases which my hon. Friend will find set out in the evidence I gave to the Committee of Privileges two years ago of people who must, for practical purposes, be regarded as peers, and certainly had a writ of summons to the House of Lords, but subsequently sat in the Commons. The position was, therefore, much more fluid than now, and it seems admirable that we are returning to a certain fluidity today. This legislation will correct some of the errors of the law introduced by Lord Coke, who talked more nonsense about peerage law than any other lawyer has done since. It would have delighted the great historian Horatio Round, who fulminated against the historical blindness of lawyers in his essays on the peerage and to so little effect in his lifetime.
§ Mr. Taverne
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that anecdote. But at least on this occasion tradition and progress can go hand in hand if this proposed legislation is passed, as I hope that it will be, as soon as possible.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Mrs. Evelyn Emmet (East Grinstead)
I am very glad to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, as I think it would be a pity if this debate went by without my recording this particular fact. The question of the admission of peeresses in their own right was a point of discussion by the Joint Committee, and it was one which had no dissentient voice. It is rather nice to think that after some fifty years of struggling to get equality for women in both Houses this recommendation has been made unanimously by the Joint Committee.
I do not want so much to stress the advantage of having more peeresses in the House as the fact that this is really the last inequality which is left so far as political rights for women are concerned. I appreciate the fact that hon. and right hon. Members opposite were reluctant to see an increase in the hereditary principle, but their very nice sense of justice overcame this objection.
1582 It is also interesting to note that if these recommendations are accepted it will now be possible for us to sign the United Nations Convention on political rights of women. We have been unable to do that so long as women suffered any political inequality. Now that that is to be put right here at home, and now that we have so few Colonies left where we are responsible for political rights for women, it will, I hope, enable us at last to ratify the Convention which was passed ten years ago when I was at the United Nations in 1953.
I am quite certain that if this recommendation is accepted by both Houses it will give a great deal of pleasure, perhaps not to all, but certainly to some of the peeresses in their own right, and especially to the women's societies of the country which have been anxious to press this matter. I hope that this part of the Report will be accepted as unanimously in this House as it was in the Select Committee.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Donald Wade (Huddersfield, West)
It has already been pointed out by hon. Members that the title "House of Lords Reform" is somewhat of a misnomer. That is certainly so, because if all these recommendations were carried out, the House of Lords would still remain unreformed.
The Committee was restricted to a very limited field. I shall later have a few observations to make on the terms of reference. Within this limited field, I think that the recommendations should commend themselves to the House. There is undoubtedly an overwhelming body of opinion in this country against the concept that anyone should be compelled to sit in the House of Lords unwillingly and thereby be prevented from sitting in this House, and also against the view that anyone who inherits a peerage should be debarred from standing for election to the House of Commons. It is surprising that this anomaly was not abolished long ago.
I appreciate the fact that there are some arguments in favour of the status quo. I think that there are only two that are worth considering. One is that some people are born into this world with special duties and responsibilities and they have a moral obligation not to give them up. I do not 1583 agree with it, but I am aware that there are some who hold that view. Surely, the logical conclusion to which this leads is that there should be an hereditary aristocracy which alone should have the task of governing the country; in other words, that there should be a small minority of people, chosen by birth, who have these special duties and responsibilities. There may be some who still believe that. I think that it is more in keeping with the ideas of the 17th and 18th centuries and earlier, and one does not expect to find it in the 20th century. But once one accepts the principle of a Parliamentary democracy, I think that the argument that anyone should hold a seat in the legislature by virtue of birth is untenable. It seems to me quite illogical that there should be any hereditary seats—I am not talking about titles—held in any part of Parliament solely by virtue of birth.
§ Viscount Lambton
Is the hon. Gentleman outlining the Liberal policy on reform of the House of Lords?
§ Mr. Wade
I hope that the noble Lord will bear with me. The views that I am expressing represent the views of the party to which I belong. I do not think that there is any doubt about that. I am expressing my own views, but it so happens that they coincide with the views of my own party. That does not always happen on the other side of the House.
Obviously, this affects one's view on this whole subject. I am not opposed to a second Chamber and I hope that is clear. I think that there is a strong case for a second Chamber as a forum for debate, as a place where errors of legislation in the House of Commons may be corrected, and as a place where some legislation, particularly of a technical nature, may be initiated so long as it comes back to the House of Commons I am not against a second Chamber. But none of these is an argument for an hereditary House of Lords. None is an argument for permitting or granting to anyone the right to sit in the House of Lords solely by virtue of birth. I think that is the fundamental point.
Another possible ground for objecting to any step that would affect the existing composition is that renunciation would reduce the numbers available to carry on the necessary work in the House of 1584 Lords. But surely the solution does not lie in compelling Members to remain in the Lords reluctantly. Surely the only satisfactory solution is to be found in reform of the method of replenishment.
None of the arguments which have been put forward for maintaining the status quo stand up to examination. In the deliberations of the Committee three main issues arose. The first was whether, if there is to be renunciation, it should be for all time or for life. We must remember that when a hereditary peerage is created the person accepting the peerage accepts it for himself and his heirs. He acts for himself and his heirs. He binds his heirs. Surely, therefore, the reverse should happen and where a peer decides to renounce it is right that he should renounce for all time. Certainly I should prefer that. It does not seem to me reasonable that any family should have this rather special privilege of moving from one House to the other, generation by generation. But I admit that I cannot get very excited about this, because, to my mind, the whole issue is somewhat unreal. If one accepts the view that no one should have the right to sit in the Upper House by virtue of birth, the question of renunciation for life or for all time does not arise.
The second controversial issue before the Committee was whether existing peers, other than life peers and those of first creation, should have the right to renounce. I think it would be unfair to deny that right to those who have accepted the writ of summons and taken their seats in the Lords before legislation was passed. I think it would be unfair to deny them the opportunity of renouncing, and if they so wish and are duly elected, to sit in the House of Commons. It is true that the decision of the Select Committee was reached by a very small majority. According to page 15 of the Report the voting was 11 to 10 and there was some cross-voting. But I think that the view of the majority was right, namely, that Members of the House of Lords, when this legislation is passed—as I hope it will be—should have this opportunity. I do not suppose that many will take advantage of that right.
The third issue before the Committee was, what effect renunciation should have on the privileges and other trappings of a peerage. If the heir to a peerage decides not to go to the Lords, or if a 1585 Member of the Lords decides to renounce, should he give up only his Parliamentary status or all the titles, immunities and precedence that go with it? Again, I think that the decision of the Select Committee was right and that anyone who renounces should have the status of a commoner and should give up all titles. It may cause some inconvenience and it may be a little awkward to use a family name which has not been used for a long time. But no doubt anyone considering renunciation would take all that into account.
I come back again to the same point. Most of the difficulties arise from the retention of hereditary Members so far as the legislature is concerned, and I think that is a fundamental point which has not been resolved by the Report of this Committee. I have been looking at the agreed statement of the three parties after the conference in 1948 and I must say that I consider that the conclusions of that conference are a good deal more radical than the proposals before the House today. That conference broke down only on a very minor point with regard to the suspensory period. On all the major points there was agreement between the three parties.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman ought to mislead the House by saying that the Labour Party agreed to the proposals. They may have been agreed by individual leaders, but the Labour Party certainly never agreed to the proposals.
§ Mr. Wade
I recollect that, although I was not in the House at the time. I should have said representatives of the three parties.
This leads me to make a few comments on the interpretation of the terms of reference of the Select Committee which has now reported. It was asked to consider the effects and consequences of any changes it might recommend, and it seemed clear to me that changes must raise the whole subject of the composition of the House of Lords. It is perhaps fair to point out that in a debate in this House on 28th March last year I referred to some of the wider aspects of composition and I said that I hoped that in its deliberations the Committee would be entitled to consider them. I still think that they should have been considered.
1586 Hon. Members will see from the Report of the proceedings of the Select Committee that when the Committee was discussing the paragraph entitled "Scope of Inquiry", I moved an Amendment, and, if the House will bear with me, I should like to read it in order to get it on the record because it is a point which I hold rather strongly:It became clear, however, in the course of the Committee's deliberations that the proposals under consideration by the Committee would involve on the one hand some depletion of the membership of the House of Lords and on the other hand some additions to it. The Committee is thus concerned inevitably with 'composition'. This is part of the effects and consequences' of the changes which the Committee was appointed to consider. The Committee, while recognising the need for and value of a Second Chamber, is placed in an illogical position in not being allowed by its terms of reference to consider the whole subject of the composition of a reformed Second Chamber, including the future of the hereditary principle and the selection or election of Members of a Second Chamber by some more democratic method than that which operates at the present time.I regret to say that that Amendment was defeated by 19 votes to 1.
§ Mr. Wade
I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman agrees with my other observations on the terms of reference. My own opinion remains unaltered. Even if one accepts the view that the terms of reference excludes composition, I think that the deliberations of the Committee clearly point to the need for some more radical reform.
In opening the debate the Leader of the House had a few general reflections to make, and I will conclude with a few general reflections on the Report of the Committee. It was asked to consider what changes should be made in the rights of peers of Scotland and peeresses in their own right to it in the Houses of Parliament. It recommended that peeresses in their own right and peers of Scotland be admitted on the same terms as peers of Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Apart from the speech of the hon. Lady the 1587 Member for East Grinstead (Mrs. Emmet) very little attention has been paid to this part of the Report, but the effect will be to increase the number of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. We must make it quite clear that that is one of the outcomes. It is not possible to calculate how many existing peers will decide to renounce.
§ Mr. Silverman
Does not the hon. Gentleman think it fairly obvious that no Member of the House of Lords would exercise the privileges which would be conferred on him if Parliament accepted these recommendations unless he was very sure indeed that, having done so, he would find a place in the House of Commons?
§ Mr. Wade
That remains to be seen. It merely adds weight to my point. The immediate result of the proposal of the Select Committee will be to increase the total number of persons who have the right to sit in the Legislature solely by birth, and I cannot regard that as even a modest step towards a more representative second Chamber. If the Government carry out the recommendation in regard to the reluctant peers they will certainly remove an obvious anomaly, but this should be regarded only as a step towards a more thoroughgoing reform.
Having expressed these somewhat critical views on the conclusions of a Committee of which I was a Member, I may be asked why I did not vote against the proposals as a whole. That is a fair question, but there is a simple answer. I supported Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn in his plea to be allowed to remain in the House of Commons. The proposal of the Select Committee provided a convenient solution of that anomaly, and I felt that it would have been inconsistent to register a vote against the proposals as a whole. But I emphasise that we must tackle the problem of composition. When Parliament con- 1588 siders more radical changes a decision must be made whether the composition is to be arrived at by selection or election. One of the objections that is always made to election is that it might lead to the creation of a rival to the House of Commons, whereas the second Chamber should be complementary.
I appreciate the weight of that argument. Unfortunately, the way in which the Life Peerages Act has been operated since it was placed on the Statute Book has not increased respect for the procedure of nomination. An analysis of the appointments made shows that they are quite inconsistent with the intentions that were expressed when the Act was passed, and they cannot be reconciled with any principle that the House of Lords should be more broadly representative of the opinions of the country.
It may be that the method of selection will have to be abandoned in favour of some form of election, simply because the Establishment apparently cannot be trusted to operate a system of selection fairly.
Whether or not that is so, the fact remains that many suggestions have been put forward for creating a Second Chamber on the election principle. This would not necessarily lead to a position in which the Upper Chamber was a rival body to the House of Commons, but it raises constitutional problems of considerable importance, and the sooner they are faced the better. Meanwhile, we have what has been called a package deal. The reluctant peers will be allowed to remain in or stand for the House of Commons and there will be an addition to the hereditary peerage in the House of Lords. It is not an entirely satisfactory package deal, but for the reasons that I have given I think that it would be the right course to carry out the recommendations of the Select Committee. If they are to be carried out, the sooner the necessary legislation is introduced the better.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Lieut-Colonel R. G. Grosvenor (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
I propose to confine my remarks to a comparatively narrow front. On studying the Report of the Select Committee I find that the Irish peers—that is to say, those peers who have no other title except an Irish one—hardly figured in 1589 the proposals of the Committee. I do not propose to take the House back further than 1800, although I could start at 1169—even farther back than an hon. Member opposite went. Under the Act of Union of 1800 there were approximately 100 Irish peers, and they had a representation of 28 in the House of Lords. That representation died out with the death of the last representative peer in 1961, and since then the Irish peerage, although entitled to sit in this House, has had no representation in another place.
§ Viscount Lambton
Is there not a question of differentiation between peers who reside in Northern Ireland and peers who reside in Southern Ireland, and who therefore live in, and get their titles from, a country now a Republic and not even part of the Commonwealth?
§ Lieut-Colonel Grosvenor
I am afraid that there is not. I am dealing with the Irish peerage. It is a question of the Irish peerage and not the geographical area from which these gentlemen originally came. In 1921 legislation passed by both Houses made a geographical alteration in the island of Ireland, but it made no alteration in the Irish Peerage. The fact that Ireland is now divided is not relevant to our argument.
Having read the findings of the Select Committee, and some of the Memoranda, it seems to me that considerable confusion has arisen because of the fact that the Irish peerage and Ireland have been divided into two parts. I hope to show the House that the partition of Ireland—
§ Mr. Hale
The hon. and gallant Gentleman will bear in mind the fact that the Princes of Ireland were partly exterminated by Cromwell, and never sat in the Irish House of Lords at all. The hon. and gallant Member referred to the number of Irish peers in 1800. Most of them had been made by Lord Castlereagh within the previous year or two, on the strict understanding that they agreed to vote for the abolition of the Irish House of Commons.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Grosvenor
The hon. Member is quite right. I did not want to go into remote Irish history, because if I did I am sure that both he and I would find such interest in it that we 1590 would probably occupy the time of the House discussing it for a long time.
Before that useful interruption, I was about to say that the partition of Ireland had no relevance to the Irish peerage. Neither is there any relevance in the question put to the Select Committee in paragraph 7 (g) of Appendix 5, namely,To what extent would any legislation involving Irish peers encroach upon the functions of the Eire legislature?That question having been posed, the Select Committee rightly ignored it, because it would not make any difference. But it may raise doubts in some people's minds, and give the impression that all Irish peers live in Ireland.
Irish peers, like the peers of England and Scotland, live all over the world. There are Scottish peers in Canada, Australia, Kenya and Nyasaland, and I am sure that there are Irish and English peers in those countries too. I have never heard it said that English peers should not sit in the House of Lords because they are resident, and even take part in politics, in other parts of the world. It has never been said that their taking seats in the House of Lords would encroach on their functions in those other countries. Let it be understood that Ireland is not full of Irish peers. I would say that there are probably more Irish peers in England than in Ireland.
§ Viscount Lambton
If there are no Irish peers in Ireland, why should they represent Ireland in the House of Lords?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Grosvenor
My noble Friend has again confused geography with the peerage. I tried to clear his brain before, but I must try to do so again. I did not say that there were no Irish peers in Ireland. I said that there are probably more in the United Kingdom than in Ireland—and they do not represent Ireland; they represent the Irish peerage. I am not a lawyer, and I am afraid that I cannot put the point more clearly than that.
§ Mr. Fletcher
Can the hon. and gallant Member explain why the Irish peerage is represented in the House of Lords?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Grosvenor
I shall try. I might also ask why the Scottish peerage should be represented—or even the 1591 English peerage. The Irish peerage has as much right to be represented as any other peers in the United Kingdom.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Grosvenor
A lesson in geography is required, but I do not intend to take up the time of the House. I should like to explain to my hon. Friend afterwards how that sort of thing works.
I will try to re-gather the thread of my argument and return to the confusion which more people have made confounded. That is the idea that we are dealing with Ireland and the possibility of interfering with the processes of Eire, which is a foreign country. On page 35 of the Report, in paragraph 9 of the Memorandum submitted by Lord Hailsham, there are these words:I sympathise, but do not agree, with the desire of Irish peers to be again formally represented in the House of Lords…I believe their presence would tend to spoil our relations with the Republic of Ireland.I cannot see that their presence would tend to do anything of the kind. In fact it does not really come into it, particularly as an Irish citizen can stand for the Westminster Parliament and can take his seat and sit here, a point which a number of people have overlooked. A southern Irish peer domiciled in the south of Ireland can do exactly the same, with no inconvenience to the Government of the south of Ireland.
The Committee's recommendations as set out are three very small crumbs, the principal one of which is—