HC Deb 29 June 1976 vol 914 cc213-7

4.13 p.m.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision in regard to the voting rights in the House of Lords of hereditary peers by succession; and for related purposes. I rise, with considerable trepidation, to introduce a Ten-Minute Bill on such a very large subject as reform of the House of Lords; but I feel it is not inappropriate to do so at this moment, for three reasons. First, there is growing public concern about the way in which our constitution operates. There is also increasing interest in the implications of devolution and of the impact of direct European elections. And the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) attracted a good deal of attention to the subject on 16th June when he introduced a Ten-Minute Bill to abolish the House of Lords altogether. He secured the support of 150 Members or more, including—rather surprisingly—the Patronage Secretary and both the contenders for the Liberal Party leadership.

I believe that if we do not want to abolish the upper House altogether we must grasp the nettle of reform. My object is not to abolish two-Chamber government altogether but to strengthen the second Chamber and to broaden the character of its membership.

This is by no means a new objective. If we look back to the all-party conference in 1948 we find that a number of recommendations were then agreed and that most of them have been implemented. But two important recommendations of that conference have not yet been brought into effect. The first was that the revised constitution of the House of Lords should be such as to secure as far as practicable that a permanent majority is not assured for any one political party". The second was that The present right to attend and vote based solely on heredity should not by itself constitute a qualification for admission to a reformed second Chamber. The Life Peerages Act 1958 has begun to change the constitution of the House of Lords significantly. I understand that about 327 life peerages have been created up to date, but the total membership of the House of Lords is over 1,100, of which about 750 are peers by succession. Having myself succeeded to a baronetcy, I hope that hon. Members will not accuse me of trying to overthrow the social order. I am convinced that the hereditary principle is a weakness and an anachronism in the composition of the other House. It was not an anachronism even up to quite recent times under the system of primogeniture, which enabled a man to succeed to the land and estates of his father. Certainly in medieval times, and even into the nineteenth century, to succeed to a very large property was to make one a man with responsibility and authority simply by that fact. But when we realise that over 800 hereditary peerages have been created in this century, I am sure the House must agree that not all the heirs of those 800 or more can claim that they should automatically acquire a powerful place in public life simply by virtue of succession.

I am seeking to make just one absolutely specific suggestion. It constitutes a one-clause Bill. It is that the sons of hereditary peers who succeed in future should be entitled to take part and to speak in the House of Lords, but not to vote. To modify the effects of that limitation, I suggest that the present peers by succession should have the right to claim voting rights if they wish, so that the continuity of the present House need not be disturbed in any way.

Besides the suggestions I would like to include in the Bill, I hope that we shall see another reform which possibly is overdue. I believe that the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee—which most people did not know existed until recent times—should be extended and strengthened. I believe that it needs to become a permanent Committee of the Privy Council, authorised to broaden the composition of the nominations to the House of Lords for life peerages and to protect the selection from too much political bias.

The effect of the changes I am recommending would be quickly to reduce, but not to eliminate, the hereditary element and to bring the representation of the parties into better balance. It would not end the contribution of the hereditary element altogether, because peers by succession could continue to take active part and to speak in the House of Lords, though not to vote. No doubt many of them would earn life peerages and be able to vote as well.

I know that some hon. Members believe that it now impossible to initiate legislation to reform the House of Lords, because they look back to the fate of the Parliament (No. 2) Bill and think that any other attempt to reform the House of Lords is bound to run into the sand. This may be a warning to the Government as to what lies ahead with their major constitutional reform promised for next Session. But in regard to the House of Lords the Life Peerages Act 1958, which was only a one-clause Bill, had an important impact on the House of Lords but was not considered to be so controversial that it was a major parliamentary effort to get it through. The Peerages Act 1963, which enables peers to disclaim their rights, did not prove too controversial. Both those Bills were very short, as is the Bill that I am seeking to introduce today.

I hope that I have said enough to show that what I am seeking is a gradual reform of the House of Lords, which will strengthen it and broaden its hold on public respect. I should like to see in the House of Lords, taking part in its deliberations, the heads of professions, and the heads of industry and of the trade unions, as well as the main figures outside Parliament who influence public opinion. I think it strange that the Archbishop of Canterbury is automatically a Member of the House of Lords but that the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminister, for example, is not, and nor is the Chief Rabbi. There are many other figures who are much respected by the public but who do not have the automatic right to question Ministers or to take an active part in the processes of government under the present form of our constitution. This is a weakness in British public life which ought to be remedied. I am offering this Bill to the House as—I hope—a useful and practical contribution to the general debate on constitutional reform.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stour-bridge) rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Does the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) intend to oppose the motion?

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Stokes

I wish to oppose this Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The main ground of my objection is the attack on the hereditary principle—a principle embodied in English constitutional history and one that should not lightly be abandoned, above all by the Tory Party. It would certainly be quite wrong for such a revolutionary change to be enacted as the result of a Private Member's Bill—a Bill, to boot, brought forward by the holder of an hereditary title, although neither a bad nor a mad one.

There is no public demand whatever for what is proposed in this Bill, which is, in effect, a slow, constitutional killing-off of the powers to vote of the hereditary peerage, and the hereditary peerage remains much more popular than those grey men, the life peers. The idea of more life peers, more creatures of the Prime Minister of the day, is utterly abhorrent to most people. The public at large far prefer peers of blue blood to the rather feeble pink of the new so-called peerage.

I should like a moratorium on the creation of any more life peers and a return to the creation of hereditary peers, which has, most unfortunately, lapsed since 1964. We all know that the Englishman loves a lord, a lord who is trained to be a lord, who looks like a lord and, furthermore, behaves like a lord.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The hon. Gentleman really means it.

Mr. Stokes

I do. It is a fact of political and social life that one very rarely meets an unpleasant hereditary peer. If we have to be modish, as no doubt the Government want to be, with all this talk of communication and putting people in the picture, the hereditary peer is already quite at home and invariably treats everyone, whether high or low, with perfect courtesy. My second objection—and this is a most serious one, over which the mover of the motion only skated—is that an attack of this kind on the hereditary peerage will inevitably lead, in time, to an attack on the hereditary monarchy and leave the Sovereign isolated.

My third and last objection is that with the huge devolution that is to come before the House we certainly cannot afford any further constitutional changes.

Having made this short protest, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I intend to divide the House on what I regard as a vital matter of constitutional principle.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business):

The House proceeded to a Division; hut no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Ayes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Noes had it.