HC Deb 26 February 1969 vol 778 cc1839-56

Again considered in Committee.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order——

Sir D. Glover

I was already in the middle of a point of order when the Committee divided, Mr. Probert.

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Arthur Probert)

Order. I call Mr. Arthur Lewis.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Just before the House divided——

Sir D. Glover

But I was in the middle of a point of order——

The Temporary Chairman

Order. The time is now after Ten o'clock, so this would become a new point of order.

Mr. Lewis

Just before the Committee divided, the Secretary of State for Social Services said that certain papers and documents would be printed and laid. Two or three minutes before, the hon. and learned Solicitor-General said that there were no such papers or documents. He was challenged—it is no good the Attorney-General laughing. We were definitely told that there were no papers or documents. The Committee has been told a deliberate lie. My hon. and learned Friend could not have been telling the truth. He spoke only two minutes before the Secretary of State said that there were no documents, yet he said that there were no documents and papers of any sort. Which of those statements is correct?

The Temporary Chairman

That is not a point of order. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his remark about a "deliberate lie".

Mr. Lewis

Yes, Sir, in the words of Winston Churchill—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] I withdraw, Mr. Probert, but nevertheless two completely opposing statements have been made to the Committee within a matter of minutes.

The Temporary Chairman

Order. That is not a point of order.

Sir D. Glover

On a point of order. I was, as you know, Mr. Probert, raising this point of order when we divided. This is a point of order with a great deal of substance. We have been debating for a long time and asking again and again on what basis the general agreement between both Front Benches, on the solutions that they have reached, was made. Just before we divided, the Secretary of State for Social Services said that the Government had all the figures on which the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who is erudite in this subject, had been speaking to the Committee for some time, saying that one of his problems was to know the basis for this agreement.

For the first time since we began these debates the Secretary of State said that there are figures and calculations which could be made available for the Committee to reach a sound judgment on the agreement between the two Front Benches. A senior Member of the Government has said that this information and these figures are available. If hon. Members had 24 hours to consider them it might reduce the length of our deliberations and improve our judgment and allow us even to give support to the Government for their proposals. But the Secretary of State's statement produces a totally new situation.

I wonder whether you would consider a Motion, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again, so that hon. Members can accept the right hon. Gentleman's offer, study these figures and then, instead of a 24-hour debate, perhaps have a two-hour debate and even decide that the logic of the argument was with the Government on Clause 4. But we cannot possibly reach a conclusion on Clauses 3, 4 or 5 unless we have the documents on which this agreement was based. The Secretary of State now says that he has these figures and is prepared to give them to the Committee. I submit that that is an overwhelming case for the Chair to accept the Motion to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

The Temporary Chairman

I under stand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety, but I cannot accept the Motion at this moment.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order. I do not wish to challenge your Ruling, Mr. Probert. However, we have been told that a certain document is in existence which we have been told we shall have the advantage of seeing and which directly bears upon these Amendments. It is possible that hon. Members will find that the Amendment which calls for two-thirds attendance is not logical for reasons which might be given in that document to explain why the figure of one-third has been reached.

In the circumstances, there is a good case for the Committee to report Progress and to have time to look at the various documents so that we can return to our discussion of the Amendment on the basis of the facts which we should then have before us, but which are at present the exclusive preserve of my right hon. Friends and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. Crossman

It may be for the convenience of the Committee to shorten the discussion. I made no reference to a document; I referred to figures. There is no secrecy about these figures. They are figures which anyone can obtain by studying the attendances in the Lords during the last five or six years. What I said was that I thought that it would be for the convenience of the Committee if I mentioned the figures on the basis of which we reached our conclusions. I will give the Committee these figures, which are quite simple. There is nothing secret or mysterious and no document [...] required [HON. MEMBERS: "Why waste time? Why not give them in the first place?"] The time wasted was the time before I was allowed to make a statement.

Mr. Hirst

On a point of order, Mr. Probert. When questions of the calculations arose, the Solicitor-General was asked time after time by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee to state the basis of the calculations, and he said that he could not give the figures. But now the Secretary of State says that all are available. Is this not a monstrous treatment of hon Members?

The Temporary Chairman

That is not a point of order.

Mr. Maude

On a point of order. May we have your guidance, Mr. Probert, about how the Secretary of State is addressing the Committee? Is he on a point of order, or is he speaking to some Motion?

The Temporary Chairman

I think that the right hon. Gentleman was attempting to give information to the Committee to meet a point of order.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

On a point of order, Mr. Probert. The right hon. Gentleman has joined the debate merely to insult the Committee by saying that hon. Members have been wasting time. The people who have been wasting time have been the Government, especially the Attorney-General.

Mr. Michael Foot

On a point of order. It would be most inconvenient to the Committee if my right hon. Friend, having proposed that he should give figures which everyone wishes to hear, through some procedural tangle were not able to give them. I understand that when the Rule was suspended my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) was addressing the Committee and had given way to one or two hon. Members. I suggest that one way in which the difficulty could be overcome for the convenience of those who wish to continue the debate would be for my hon. Friend to give way to the Secretary of State so that the figures may be given, or that he should resume his seat and, since we are in Committee, my hon. Friend could catch your eye at a later stage after the figures have been given. That would put the matter in order.

The Temporary Chairman

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) for assisting the Chair. I think this would be an orderly way of proceeding. I remind the Committee that the Question has not yet been put. If the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) would like to continue dealing with the Amendments, which have been chosen, he could do so and then give way to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Sheldonrose——

The Temporary Chairman

I do not know whether the hon. Member misunderstood me; the fault is obviously mine. If he wishes he can permit the right hon. Gentleman to intervene, but I think the better way would be to continue his speech on the Amendment and draw that to a close so that the Secretary of State, if he catches my eye, may address the Committee.

Mr. Sheldon

So much of what I have to say depends on an interpretation I wished to put on the figures as I understood them that, since the figures are obviously inadequate by comparison with those we are now to receive, I wish to resume my seat and hope to catch your eye, Mr. Probert, later.

The Temporary Chairman

The Question is. That the Amendment be made.

Mr. Crossman

I am sorry to have caused any disturbance to the Committee by what I considered an interruption in the speech of my hon. Friend. I thought it useful to tell the Committee what the calculation was. It was mostly concerned with the Session 1967–68. We observed that in that Session up to 1st August, 1968, 76 created peers and 85 peers by succession under 72 years of age attended over 50 per cent. of the sittings and 99 created peers and 117 peers by succession under the age of 72 attended over one-third of the sittings.

Mr. Hirst

May I ask the Minister to give the figures a little more slowly so that we can take them down?

Mr. Crossman

I apologise and repeat the figures. In the Session 1967–68 up to 1st August, 1968–76 created peers and 85 peers by succession under the age of 72 attended over 50 per cent. of the sittings. This is the calculation as to what the effect would be for a 50 per cent. requirement, a two-thirds requirement, or a one-third requirement. Ninety-nine created peers and 117 peers by succession under the age of 72 attended over one-third of the sittings.

My conclusion is that, unless many more peers were created, an attendance requirement of 50 per cent. would produce a much smaller voting House than the 230 thought desirable, if that is the figure we wanted. It was on this basis of the calculation of attendances for 50 per cent. and one-third that we came to the conclusion that one-third of the sittings would be a reasonable requirement.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-North-wood)

What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by "attendance"? Does he merely mean looking in and collecting the fee, because that is all it is?

Mr. John Smith

Unaccustomed as I am to finding myself speaking so early in a debate, I want to explore this very important aspect of the Bill. I see difficulties here, but it is a very important proposal of some complication which we must deal with thoroughly.

Sir C. Osborne

On a point of order, Mr. Probert. If the two Ministers are giving private information to an hon. Member, is it possible for all of us to have the information?

The Temporary Chairman

Mr. Smith.

Mr. John Smith

Attendance requirements of any sort are bound to affect the type of person who becomes a peer. They may make for an improvement or they may not make for an improvement, but they are bound to have, and are intended to have, an effect on the type of person who becomes a member of the House of Lords. The Government have decided that the House of Lords in its present form does not suit them.

We must first consider why people accept peerages now. Many people accept a peerage now because they see no harm in it, because they think that it would be churlish to refuse; or think that it is a chance to be of service, to air views on subjects which they know about and, on occasion, even to influence events. In that way there is a choice of the best people. Hardly anyone, however busy and however distinguished, would refuse to serve on this basis. I am sure that if the Government told us what percentage of those who have been offered peerages had declined them it would prove my point.

Mr. Roebuck

If it is true that few people would refuse to serve in those circumstances, will the hon. Gentleman address himself to the reasons why the Opposition Front Bench has recently acquired two recruits from the Lords?

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Smith

But what type of person will accept peerages under the new system? Surely, few good people except politicians will bind themselves to turn up, whether there is anything useful that they can do or not. Unscrupulous people, however, who want peerages for ornamental purposes, will cheerfully agree to the attendance requirement and then, as soon as they get there, violate the attendance requirement, so that——

[Mr. HARRY GOURLAY in the Chair.]

Sir D. Glover

My hon. Friend is making a rather devastating attack on the motives of a great many people, saying that they do this for that reason. Has he any evidence that people accept peerages for ornamental reasons and the like? My experience is that a good many people refuse peerages because they do not want to be ornamental and various other reasons. The suggestion is a rather disgraceful one. There is no evidence that that is the basis on which people accept peerages.

The Deputy Chairman (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

The Amendment appears to be more concerned with the number of days' attendance than the reasons why peers attend.

Mr. Smith

I first described in reasonably favourable terms the type of person who now accepts a peerage. When my hon. Friend intervened, I had turned to the type of person whom we may expect to accept peerages if this Measure is passed. I was saying that unscrupulous people, for ornamental purposes, will cheerfully agree to the attendance requirement—which honourable people would not do unless they meant to observe it—and, as soon as they get there, will violate the attendance requirement, so that all that happens is that they become nonvoting peers with no duties but, as it seems they desire, the title. Since according to the Bill, they are to get no pay, by this manoeuvre they will have lost nothing but their chains. On the other hand, honourable candidates will be kept away because they will not accept peerages unless they mean to accept all these onerous requirements. What sort of House will this produce?

An attendance requirement of any sort will also lower the quality of the House in another way. Those who satisfy the requirements will be the most assiduous Members. All of us know that the most constant and assiduous members of any committee are not always the most helpful or most valuable. We have had examples of that in the past day or two. Indeed, it is precisely by invariably turning up when others do not, for example, that Communists gain control of other bodies.

Furthermore, those who attend here the most are not always those most highly regarded by the Government. We should not, therefore, necessarily assume that there is a direct relationship between assiduous attendance and desirability.

Will these peers be usefully employed when they are there? What happens in the other place if there is nothing to do?

Mr. John Lee

In defining the concept of attendance, would not the hon. Member use, perhaps, the same definition as is used in the London dock labour scheme: merely signing on in the morning and in the afternoon to get a minimum attendance in that way?

An Hon. Member

Do they clock out as well?

Mr. Smith

I do not want to introduce an unwelcome note of controversy. This is a rather closely reasoned argument, and I should like to pursue it if I may.

What happens in another place if there is nothing to do? What happens there if the Government run totally out of ideas? We have seen what happens here, but the Government do not have in the Lords the same apparatus for keeping the boys out of mischief as they have here, by putting on fatuous items of business like the Bill. Will it be edifying to see all these carefully selected and vetted peers mooning around their noble pile with not enough to do?

Even if they do have enough to do, is a severe attendance requirement a good plan? Is it a good plan for Members of either House, for Members of Parliament as a whole? We all know, if we are shut up here for any length of time, how claustrophobic it becomes, how we lose touch with the real world outside, and how perhaps the quality of our discussion changes.

I do not think that a severe attendance requirement has a direct connection with the excellence of what takes place. I could advance a very good argument for the reverse proposition—that it is essential for people who are shut up in a claustrophobic, introverted institution, which all too easily generates a life of its own, like a school, to spend a large part of their time outside it—although I do not accept for a moment the proposition that any of us here are experts on anything. It is impossible to join an institution so mentally dissipating as this and remain in touch with any particular talent or skill one had outside it. That leads to great ossification in Parliament; it prevents many of us from being able to return to our previous avocations, and hence has its effect on our voting. I will not pursue that point, but merely say that there is no direct connection between a high rate of attendance and the excellence of what takes place.

I have discussed the merits of high attendance requirements. But are they practical? There are no provisions in the Bill for paying peers. I will not go into the sophistry about this. I do not know what the Government will do. Perhaps they know, but there is nothing in the Bill, much to my regret, nor is there anything in it about pensions for peers. I think that they should be paid a great deal. But, as it is, unless these peers are to be capitalists to a man, they will have to work outside, just as we do. The attendance requirement is coupled with the absence of payment, or the payment of a trivial amount. Further, the necessity that they should work outside makes it virtually certain that young people will be totally excluded from membership of the reformed House. [Interruption.] I am against a high attendance requirement and in favour of the Amendment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), which is the best of the bunch. I greatly admire my right hon. Friend for the staunch way in which he has stayed throughout this difficult debate.

A high attendance rate is impractical for another reason. If peers are to be in another place a great deal, Parkinson's First Law will apply—"Work fills the time available for its completion". I do not mean work on the Floor of the Chamber; peers will need and demand places to work in. If they are to be partly professional, partly full-time by requirement, they must keep themselves properly informed. They will not be in the position that they were in before, when they could go to the House of Lords only when a subject on which they were genuine experts was being discussed and then deliver themselves of their opinion. They will have to be, like we should be, provided with proper facilities to keep abreast of events. They will need secretaries to help them.

Where is all this to be accommodated in this building? We spent a lot of time, not enough, the other day discussing how we were to be provided with the physical facilities to do a fraction of our proper job—and we made the wrong decision. We agreed to put up a building in X years' time which will be out of date before it is erected. Exactly the same problem will face a House of Lords reformed in the way proposed. If we pass this Clause relating to attendance requirements, we can say with absolute certainty that this building, inexorably, will be abandoned.

Mr. Hirst

Would my hon. Friend accept the suggestion that it might be better if the requirement were that selected peers spent no more time in the House of Lords than was necessary?

Mr. Smith

There are many ways to approach this problem. We could say that the new peers are being paid, they have taken on the job, and, therefore, they should spend the whole of their time in the House of Lords and that bedrooms should be built there. I am not advancing that argument. We could do, as the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) wants, and have a very low attendance requirement. One can be serious about this matter without necessarily being boring, and still remain cheerful. But we can regard it as absolutely certain that an attendance requirement for a reformed House of Lords means the eventual abandonment of this building. Do we want that? My view is that this is a marvellous building. It is a building of great quality and it is precisely suited——

The Deputy Chairman (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. We are not discussing the building or the physical limitations on Members who attend it. The hon. Gentlemen should come back to the details of the Amendment and not discuss the principle of the Clause.

Mr. Smith

I apologise, Mr. Gourlay. I was exploring the consequences of the Government's actions. I know that it is not in the least fashionable to consider the consequences of the Government's actions. As a person who all his life has been very much attached to buildings of merit, I merely say that I regret these attendance requirements, because I foresee that they will force the Lords out of their nineteenth century fairyland which exactly suits what they have to do.

10.45 p.m.

So much for practical considerations. I come to the effect of a high attendance requirement on the composition of the House of Lords. A high attendance requirement places a strain on health. We have had evidence of the effect of attendance requirements here. I remember, when I was a member of the general public, the deplorable impression created by reports in the Press of hon. Members being brought by ambulance from hospital to vote in this House. That is an extreme case but only an exaggeration of what could happen in the House of Lords. As they approach the magic age of 72, peers should begin to take things a little more easily if they wish to last a little longer; but under this system they will not be able to do so, for it introduces a rigid requirement which applies both to brand new peers and to older peers. In parenthesis, we do net know the age at which the Government intend to create these peers, but they say that they have done their calculations and that the age of 72 will produce the vacancies which they require. If that is so, they must also have calculated the age at which they will appoint peers, because the number of vacancies will be affected by the length of time a person is a peer. If they have selected the age at which they will appoint, it follows that a person's age will be the criterion of whether he is ennobled, not his qualities. I should have liked to speak about that on the last Amendment; but I have done so now.

The Deputy Chairman

Order. Perhaps in continuing his speech the hon. Member will not tread on the courtesy of the Chair.

Mr. Smith

With a high attendance requirement, we must expect that it will polish off some of these elderly gentlemen. I see that the Opposition Chief Whip has left the Chamber and that the Secretary of State for Social Services has left his seat but has now returned to it. I had no intention of frightening those right hon. Gentlemen.

This high attendance requirement will affect the Solicitor-General's calculations about the age of retirement at 72. He said that he could not produce the figures because they were too complicated, but complicated actuarial matters of this sort are included in the Finance Bill every year and we could well have had the figures tonight. Has he, to sum up, considered the effect of a high attendance requirement on the rate at which peers will have to give up their voting rights and, consequently, the speed at which he will have to appoint further peers?

Further, a high attendance requirement is also unfair as between Members because of their different states of health and——

Mr. Arthur Lewisrose——

Mr. Smith

I will give way in a moment.

Mr. Lewisrose——

Mr. Smith

What I was about to say will take some time, so perhaps I ought to give way to the hon. Member now.

Mr. Lewis

The hon. Member represents the City of London. We all know that most of the peers who are ennobled come from the City of London and go to the City of London. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Has the hon. Member consulted his constituents to see whether they are against this proposal? Perhaps he could develop that point.

Mr. Smith

The hon. Member for one of the Hams has mentioned the point I was about to make. I soon have good news for him. The attendance requirement is unfair between different parts of the United Kingdom. It imposes a much greater strain, and expense, on those who come from further off. This factor is certain to unbalance the new House. It is bound to make the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish peers give up their voting rights earlier on average than the London-based peers. This in turn means that fresh Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish peers will be created relatively more rapidly than the English peers. Therefore, the peerage as a whole, voting and nonvoting, will tend to be greatly unbalanced in favour of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Then we must allow for two other tendencies. The first is that of Scotsmen to leave for England, as they have done through the ages, and which, in this context, may disqualify them as representatives, which will involve their replacement. The second is that of Scotsmen, Welshmen and Northern Irish and, indeed, of all people chosen for regional or national qualities, to put country or region before politics, so that they cease to be the licensed, reliable voters or non-voters they were supposed to be under this Bill.

If we allow for these two tendencies, the higher attendance requirement is likely, in course of time, to unbalance the composition of the new House against the English. What happens if a peer who has been nominated to vote for Scotland but who has been paid to vote Labour is faced with Labour anti-Scottish legislation; or worse, an impossible strain will be placed on those nominated Scotsmen who sit as full time, unpaid "don't-know" cross benchers. Who has met a Scotsman, even unpaid, who was impartial about Scotland? This is a serious point. If a high attendance requirement is imposed, these three forces working through time will in the end mean that, in the House of Lords, the whole of the non-voting part and a large part of the voting section will consist of people from the outlying parts of the island.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Saffron Walden)

Is not this provision also unfair as between the two Houses? No such provision applies in this House, otherwise the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Francis Noel-Baker) would find himself in trouble.

Mr. Smith

There is a lot in what my hon. Friend says, but I will not say it. The attendance requirement is a degrading infringement of liberty and an insult to the sort of people——

The Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now discussing the principle of an attendance record. We are discussing the various stages of an attendance record.

Mr. Smith

That is true, Mr. Gourlay, but the attendance requirements range from the high, suggested by the hon. Member for Aston-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), to the low, suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames. I am supporting the latter. I am in favour of a low attendance requirement. The sort of people we expect and hope to see in the House of Lords can be depended upon either to turn up—or to give up their voting rights—on the promptings of their conscience. This attendance requirement will lead to subterfuge, which is not good for the House of Lords. It will lead to people turning up, signing on and going away at once; or to people turning up for several days one after another and then gong away for the rest of the Session. I do not think that is good for the House of Lords.

Finally, Mr. Gourlay—and I am sorry to have kept you so long but I feel very strongly indeed about this matter—I feel it is something that is going to change the nature of the other House more than anything else. I cannot give you a better illustration of what I mean—and hon. Members can take this as they please— than to say that this attendance requirement is the one thing in this Bill which would make it absolutely out of the question for myself ever to agree to go there.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan) I beg to move, That the Chairman do report progress and ask leave to sit again.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith) possesses an individual style that commands the attention of the Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I think it would be very interesting, he having sung the vespers for us, now to attempt over the next few days to sort out the wheat from the chaff. The manner in which the hon. Gentleman holds our attention comes of this peculiar combination, though I must confess that on occasion I feel that there is more chaff than wheat about what he says—[HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] It is this interesting conundum which we need time to reflect upon, and I certainly would not wish to detain the Committee from its studies of his speeches.

I confess to the Committee that I am deeply disappointed at the amount of progress that has been made. I feel we could have done a lot more than we have done, and that it would have been possible to compress speeches much more. I do not think the Front Bench on this side—and certainly the Front Bench on the other side—have taken up too much time in these debates, and I regret that we have managed to handle only such a small handful of Amendments up to the present time.

However, the Committee has had a long, hard night; it has had a long, hard day. It would be unreasonable to expect hon. Gentlemen to pursue their studies further during the night. Who knows? Maybe next time we will be able to make some progress.

Question put and agreed to. Committee report Progress; to sit again Tomorrow.