HC Deb 31 January 1973 vol 849 cc1361-6

3.34 p.m.

Mr. Dick Leonard (Romford)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that life peers should cease to be entitled to the rank and style of barons. I would not pretend to the House that I think that this is the most important Bill that will come before us during the present Session. Indeed, I withdrew the Bill on the date on which I originally intended to introduce it, on 19th December, in order to enable my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), whom I am delighted to see present in the Chamber, to protect the rights of old-age pensioners to receive their £10 Christmas bonus. I willingly made way for her then in the belief that pensioners should come before peers. I am delighted that as a direct result of her initiative the Government introduced a Bill to ensure that pensioners would not be deprived of their bonus by the operation of the earnings rule.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is straying a little.

Mr. Leonard

I propose to proceed to my Bill. Though the Bill is not of major importance, nor is it a trivial matter. Its passage would have two significant effects. Firstly, it would represent a small, but overdue, blow against social snobbery. Second, it would add to the effectiveness of the work of Parliament.

Before putting the case for the Bill, I want to make clear what the effect of its passage would be. The Bill does not seek to alter the powers or the membership of the other place. It does not seek to abolish the peerage or hereditary titles. It does not seek to abolish the honours list. There may be a strong case for all of those objectives. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear."] Together with many of my hon. Friends, I believe that there is such a case, but those objectives are not the concern of the Bill. I rely, perhaps, upon my hon. Friends to propose amendments in Committee to produce an appropriate schedule in that respect.

The sole effect of the Bill as at present drafted would be that life peers and their spouses, both those who have already been created and those who will be appointed in the future, would be known henceforth as "Mr. and Mrs." rather than "Lord and Lady". It is not necessary for me to make a case for ordinary mortals to be named "Mr. and Mrs.". Rather, the onus is on those such as the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro)—I regret that he is not in the Chamber today; he has been good enough to describe the Bill as an "impudent proposition"—to make a case for calling people anything else.

Mr. John Smith (Lanarkshire, North)

Particularly him.

Mr. Leonard

What is the purpose of creating life peers? It is not to elevate certain individuals above their fellows. That might have been the objective of the mediaeval kings who created the first earls and barons. But the Life Peerage Act 1958 had a more modest and practical object. It was to recruit men and women who would be serious legislators, who would serve Parliament in another place, in a similar fashion, though with a more restricted rôle, to the way in which hon. Members of this House seek to serve those we represent.

If this was what was meant—and the debates on the Life Peerage Act make plain that this was the intention of Parliament—it has been a hindrance and not a help that life peers have to encumber themselves with ludicrous appendages to their names. It is my contention that the compulsory use of titles has reduced the contribution which life peers can make to the work of Parliament.

It cannot be denied that many peers have found titles discomforting. Herbert Morrison wrote in his autobiography of his lifelong personal dislike of the idea of Herbert Morrison becoming a Lord". The adoption of hyphens by Lord Ritchie-Calder, the late Lord Francis-Williams and Lord George-Brown, indicate the reluctance with which these men have shed their personas as commoners. Some others who would have had excellent contributions to make as members of the Upper House have declined to serve because they could not face the prospect of being addressed as "My Lord." The Press mentioned one or two examples during the period of the previous Government. It is not only members of the Labour Party who find the business of titles distasteful. One wonders why, for example, Mr. Harold Macmillan has not chosen to serve in another place where he would undoubtedly have had an outstanding contribution to make.

It has been argued, on the other hand, that the prospect of a title is a positive inducement to some people to serve in the Upper House, and that if life peers were called "Mr." people would no longer wish to serve there. I would readily grant that there are some people, perhaps many people, who would like a title and who would find this an attraction if they were appointed to the other House, but I question whether that type of person would have a worthwhile contribution to make to Parliament if he were to become a member of another place.

Some of my colleagues have been disappointed that I have not included in the Bill hereditary titles. I, personally, would be happy to see the end of all titles, but I thought it better, as a beginning, to concentrate on life peers as they represent more of a practical problem. No hereditary peers have been created since 1964, and it seems extremely unlikely that any more will be created in future. It would certainly be undesirable if they were. But the pool of life peers is regularly replenished, and in so far as titles are a disincentive it is future life peers who will be affected. In any case, hereditary peers already have the right under the Peerage Act to renounce their titles. I hope that this custom will become increasingly a common feature in future.

If life peers wish to identify their rôle it will be open to them to put the letters LP after their names. No doubt some will prove to be longer players than others.

It is my belief that the continued creation of titles in 1973 is increasingly seen to be an anachronism both in Britain and throughout the democratic world. The new Australian Government are doing away with honours, and even in India, where society is markedly more deferential than in countries in the West, titles were abolished in 1971. Earlier this month we entered the European Economic Community. I believe that no barons have been created in any other of the EEC countries since before 1918—except in the musical comedies of Franz Lehar. I feel that in modern times the proper place for lords and ladies is in comic opera, in Gilbert and Sullivan as well as Franz Lehar, rather than in the second chambers of modern parliaments.

I hope that hon. Members will agree with me and that the House will consent to the introduction of the Bill.

3.44 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Under the rules of the House one can speak on a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill under the Ten Minute Rule only if one opposes the Bill. Therefore, formally, I put on record that I am opposing the Bill, although I do not think that it needs any opposition in words, for I have no doubt that it will founder. I doubt whether it will get much further than being allowed to be introduced, even if that.

The reason I want to speak on the motion is that the hon. Gentleman quoted Mr. Herbert Morrison in support of his case, and I feel that it would be helpful in the circumstances for hon. Members to know that all the indications were that Mr. Herbert Morrison was attracted to titles because they were traditional and added strength to our traditions. I should like to put on record an incident which, I believe, can be confirmed by letters on the files of what was the Ministry of Works.

The Minister of Works previously had been known as His Majesty's First Commissioner of Works, a very attractive title. Mr. Herbert Morrison, who was a leader and a great authority in the Labour Party, did not like that title being changed to Minister of Works, and he wrote about it to the then Minister of Works, Mr. Charles Key, whom many hon. Members will remember as a Member of this House—the late Mr. Charles Key. Mr. Herbert Morrison suggested to the then Minister of Works that it might be a good thing to revert to the ancient title, having in mind, obviously, the title, First Commissioner of Works. The letter was not unsympathetically received by Mr. Key, and he had the records looked up. But it so happened that Mr. Charles Key rather enjoyed being called "Minister" and was not so attracted by the other title, which did not seem to indicate anything specific. He wrote back to Mr. Herbert Morrison that he had not a great deal of sympathy with the suggestion of reverting to the original title. He pointed out that the original title of the holder of that office was His Majesty's First Serjeant of the Plumbers. That title did not attract Mr. Herbert Morrison, because he had in mind the title, First Commissioner of Works.

I wanted to intervene only to say that, having that incident in mind, I do not think the hon. Member was right in naming Mr. Herbert Morrison as one who would have gone into the Lobby in support of his motion. Nor would anybody else who appreciates the traditions of this country and of this House. Does the hon. Member suggest that a judge sitting on the bench should not be addressed as "My Lord"? Why does he, as a Member of Parliament, allow himself to be called the "honourable Member" instead of "Mr."?

It is important to recognise that all these traditions have helped to make this country and this Parliament significant and worth while. They are all part of the fabric of our society and our life. Whether or not the hon. Member gets the leave he seeks, I have no doubt that that is as far as his Bill will go. It should be stopped. I know that if one were to seek to stop it one would have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House—on the hon. Member's side as well as this, because there are lovers of tradition on those benches, too.

I rather think that the hon. Member's proposal was a little flippant, although he put it in a dignified way. My suggestion is that we should not allow it to go any further because, if we did, we should be undermining a tradition which, although in a somewhat indefinable way, is of value to this House and country.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Leonard, Mr. J. D. Dormand, Mr. John Grant, Mr. J. Grimond, Mr. William Hamilton, Mr. John Mackie, Mr. David Marquand, Mr. John Parker and Mr. Phillip Whitehead.