HC Deb 04 March 1999 vol 326 cc1274-84 '( ) Nothing in this Act shall prevent the operation of a writ of acceleration other than preventing the recipient from becoming a member of the House of Lords.'.—[Sir Patrick Cormack.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss new clause 51—Claims of peerage and precedence'— Nothing in this Act shall question the right of the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords to consider claims of peerage and of precedence.'.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I do not want to detain the Committee long on these new clauses, because those that follow are of even greater importance. The new clauses concern the hereditary peerage, but we do not seek through them in any way to revisit—to use the awful American jargon—the argument whether hereditary peers should sit in the other place.

When the Bill becomes law—because of the Government's majority, it will inevitably do so—we shall still have an hereditary monarchy, which the Government defend and accept, and an hereditary peerage. Nothing in the Bill does anything about the hereditary peerage as such and the Bill contains nothing antagonistic to the hereditary principle in itself. Not many hon. Members seriously disagree with the hereditary principle. You, Sir Alan, are an hereditary Haselhurst, and you have taken over from an hereditary Lord. We are all, in our individual capacities, part of that great pageant.

Many people take great delight in the hereditary principle as exemplified in the hereditary peerage, and many life peers take delight in the one hereditary element that they have: the choice of a coat of arms. I have had many interesting conversations with Labour life peers about their armorial achievements and how glad they are to have them and to be able to pass them on to their descendants. That is an entirely reasonable sentiment.

I need make no apology for saying that many people in this country take delight in a bit of pomp and pageantry, regarding colour as one of the better attributes of public life. Colour is best exemplified in some of our state pageantry: the state opening of Parliament, trooping the colour and all the rest of it.

New clause 14 deals with the rather arcane procedure of the writ of acceleration. Through it, we seek an assurance from the Government that the procedure will continue. We are not talking about the person who is accelerated to the title sitting in the House of Lords. That is not the issue.

New clause 51 is concerned with disputes over peerages. As we know, there are occasionally disputed peerages, just as there are disputed wills. There was a colourful example only a few months ago when a former Member of Parliament, Colin Moynihan, became Lord Moynihan as the result of an exceptionally colourful legal case. We expect the procedure to continue and the responsibility to remain with the House of Lords.

The new clauses are essentially of a probing nature. I do not believe that the Government intend to change the law in this respect, but we seek an assurance from the Minister.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

After many years of knowing you, Sir Alan, I suddenly realise that I am addressing the hereditary Haselhurst. I never knew that a name amounted to a title, but I am charmed by the colourful description given by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who is no doubt overcome by the romance of the upper House. I am most grateful to him, and to the Opposition generally, because today, amid all the awful lot of talking that we have been engaged in, wonderful creatures about which one had long forgotten have galloped back on to the contemporary horizon.

Even the Scottish peerage looms in amendments that we have not discussed. That is very nice, and I am sure that many people in Ireland are getting terribly excited at the prospect of the Opposition finding a way in an amendment—albeit one that is unlikely to be successful—of reviving their hopes of a title after all these years.

Suddenly, this writ of acceleration has appeared. It just so happened that, through accident rather than erudition, I was one of the few hon. Members who had some vague idea before we started these discussions of what a writ of acceleration was. When, last night, I intimated to my Front-Bench team that I had such a vague idea, I became an instant expert in the eyes of others who were, perhaps, as ignorant as I was before I found out a little about the matter.

I went to the Library to have a word with those who advise and carry out research for us. One approaches such people with some humility. I said to the gentleman concerned, "I want to ask you about a writ of acceleration. I know what it is, but I want to find out more." I expected him then to inform me in great detail about that historical operation, but his face fell and he seemed overcome with the fact that he had no idea what I was talking about. He said, "I'm glad you know what it is, Mr. Temple-Morris, because I haven't the first idea. Please tell me."

The new clause should not be taking up our time, but it provides for some interesting historical discussion. I am sure that the Opposition are itching to get on to the next group of new clauses. Having sat and listened to them for so long on the previous group, I feel that, had they reined in their remarks a little on that group, they might have deserved to get on to the next. As they do not quite deserve that, I shall continue to explore the writ of acceleration, and I hope that many other hon. Members will find the subject most interesting.

The new clause is bogus.

Mr. Tipping

I wonder whether the time has now come for my hon. Friend to give other people a tutorial.

4.30 pm
Mr. Temple-Morris

I shall do my best, but I do not wish to speak for longer than the occasion demands. The new clause would provide that the writ of acceleration should continue, but the reason for it will not continue. It therefore becomes contemporary nonsense and an historical perversion of the concept.

A writ of acceleration is the use of a junior family title to bring the son, or occasionally grandson, into the Lords, when the father who is the holder of the senior title is already sitting there. That was usually done because the king thought that the son would be handy to have in the Lords, and that could be for reasons of state or reasons of court. Such sons were brought into the House of Lords while their fathers were sitting there. Because such families tended to bristle with various titles as they ascended through the peerage—they also assimilated titles through marriage—the king often deemed it a waste of time to create a new peerage for the son, and he therefore took one of the courtesy titles belonging to the family. He was then accelerated into the service of the state.

The device has been seldom used over the years. Before the time of Henry VIII, it was quite popular, but, as mediaeval times passed, it was used less. Lord Cranborne—who is in a position to do some contemporary good, although his previous track record on Lords reform is not all that it might be—decided, for his own reasons, that he could do without a life peerage. I had no clue what a writ of acceleration was until Lord Cranborne decided to enter the House of Lords, having left this place after two Parliaments, and to take one of the Cecil family's old hereditary titles—Baron Cecil of Essendon, which was created in about 1601. He sits in the House of Lords in splendid anonymity as Lord Cranborne, which is a courtesy title in its own right.

I do not know which of my former hon. Friends has trawled round to dig this concept up, but the new clause is utterly pointless. No one can be accelerated anywhere if there is nowhere to accelerate them to. The new clause would merely create, for no reason, more than one active peerage in a family when there would be nothing to be active about. The families to which the new clause would apply are in the upper echelons of the peerage, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire knows perfectly well, and they are all bristling with courtesy titles anyway.

Mr. Grieve


Mr. Temple-Morris

I cannot resist giving way.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman is the very embodiment of the hereditary principle, because he has a double-barrelled surname, which suggests that somebody had a hereditary interest at some point in his forebears' past. There is one possible application of the writ of acceleration in future—if the eldest son of an existing hereditary peer were to be made a life peer. He would not be able to use one of the courtesy titles of his family when sitting in the House of Lords. The retention of the writ of acceleration would allow him to use a family title even though the hereditary peerage no longer existed.

Mr. Temple-Morris

The hon. Gentleman is a friend, if no longer an hon. Friend and, with all respect, he must realise that this is 1999 and we are working on the abolition of the House of Lords as it stands at present, which many of us have advocated for a long time. We do not know what we will end up with, but the membership of the House of Lords, and the whole concept of the peerage, will be dramatically changed. The last thing we want, with all respect to Lord Cranborne, is to have a lot of accelerated people wandering around among those who may be in part appointed and in the main elected. We are dealing with two different worlds, but so much of the comment from the Opposition belongs firmly to the world that is past. Having said that, it is enjoyable to talk about it.

The loss of the concept of writs of acceleration is nothing to be upset about. The families involved do not need to be accelerated anywhere, and the senior ranks of the peerage already have below them two ranks of courtesy titles for their sons and grandsons. That will go on, because nobody will disturb it, but it will no longer be related by automatic right to the legislature and these Houses of Parliament. That reform is long overdue.

New clause 51 deals with the right of the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords to consider claims of peerage and precedence. It is totally unnecessary, because the Bill—which is an interim Bill, anyway—will have no effect in that area. The new clause is pointless in relation to the Bill, but it will be relevant to phase 2. I am grateful to the Opposition because so much of what they have said will be relevant to phase 2, although they have raised it during phase 1. The structure of the Committee for Privileges is a good example of what will have to be dealt with in phase 2 of the reform of the House of Lords. Obviously, the new upper House will have a Privileges Committee, but it will no longer consider issues to do with the hereditary peerage and matters of precedence. Those issues will have to be considered elsewhere, along with many other appendages of the House of Lords that will no longer be relevant.

Sir Patrick Cormack

That is true, but the hon. Gentleman must remember that we are dealing with an interim stage of indeterminate length. The hon. Gentleman has had a good run and said some interesting and amusing things, but we have tabled the new clauses to try to obtain some assurances from the Government about the interim period.

Mr. Temple-Morris

The hon. Gentleman is asking for something that depends on something that is not in the Bill. The Government have included nothing in the interim Bill that means that the hon. Gentleman's question needs to be asked. The new clauses are, therefore, completely unnecessary. In the House of Lords of the future, the issues of privilege and peerage will be separated. The Committee for Privileges will have to be reconstituted, because at present, it is a mixture of life and hereditary peers, including any four of the Law Lords. That will need to be addressed when the upper House becomes a more political, reformed and, in no small part, elected House. It has still to be decided whether the Law Lords will remain.

I have enjoyed this little contribution, Sir Alan. I gather that not only are you now hereditary, but I am also, and that has provided a bond between us that we have never quite had before. I did not realise that having a double-barrelled name raised me to that status. I am flattered, but now that the House of Lords is to be abolished, I am too late informed that I might have some hope of inheriting a role in it. It is very sad that the word has come too late.

Mr. Forth

The unease I expressed earlier has now increased. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), who is obviously a close confidant of the Government, appears to know a lot more about stage 2 than any member of the Opposition, and possibly more than any member of the Government. Having said that, I have some sympathy for his remarks.

I want to raise the question of what lies behind new clause 51. It is the new clause that attracted my attention more than any of the others, because it appears to highlight some of the confusion that will undoubtedly face us during stage 1, let alone beyond stage 1. New clause 51 refers to: the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords in the context of claims of peerage and of precedence. I accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the role of the Committee for Privileges in another place, which is analogous to the role of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges in this place. One may assume that such a Committee would have to continue in another place, regardless of its structure and even of its function or its composition. In the same way that this place needs a Privileges and Standards Committee because of its unique role, so would any other legislative Chamber. That much is fairly safe common ground.

However, when one comes to matters of peerage and precedence, the picture becomes more complicated, because we are contemplating the role of a Committee involved in matters of peerage and precedence at a time when the structure and nature of peerages are being changed. We are to have different sorts of peerage; some peers—we believe, we are led to believe, we think, we imagine—will remain in the interim House, while others will be outside; therefore, some will be legislative peers, while others will be non-legislative, in rather the same way as baronets have titles, but no legislative role. I think that I am right in saying, although I stand to be corrected, that, at some time in the dim and very distant past, baronets had a legislative role—but no matter, they have no such role now and we do not contemplate giving them one, unless the Minister is about to inform us that that is to be part of stage 2.

In the context of new clause 51, it might be helpful if the Minister told us more about how he envisages the relationship between the different sorts of peerage that are going to result from the Government's reforms; and about the role that the Committee for Privileges in the upper House will have in that environment of change. Does he believe that that Committee will be secure in its continuing role, or that it might need to change to take account of the different sorts of peerages that will arise? That point is detailed and rather technical, but such are the issues that the Government have to consider seriously. The value of the amendments and new clauses tabled by my hon. Friends is to enable us to look as far ahead as possible.

I shall give a different example, if the Committee will bear with me. I have been allowed to mention in passing, Sir Alan, my preference for a wholly elected upper House. In that context, I accept that we would need a body analogous to the Supreme Court of the United States, because the judicial function of the upper House, as we have always understood it, would have to disappear. That is an example of an extremely important institutional change that would have to take place consequent to changes in the upper House as a legislature. The new clause gives a different, more specific, but nevertheless important example of the sort of thinking that will be needed as we go through the process of change. The issue is important and deserves careful consideration, so I am grateful to my hon. Friends for having raised it in the form of new clause 51.

4.45 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I found the contribution of the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple—Morris) interesting and enjoyable. I hope that I do not speak as a half-forgotten creature galloping over the landscape, as he put it. Even though a Minister not currently sitting on the Treasury Bench described me the other day as a "young fogey", I do not feel like a young fogey, and I assure the Committee that I have no expectation of inheriting a title or anything like one.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the position of writs of acceleration, but I am somewhat perplexed by the conclusion at which he arrives after that analysis. His analysis was that our proposals were pointless, because, after the reforms, there would be nowhere to which anyone would be accelerated; therefore, reform was long overdue and it should all be done away with. That causes me some concern because, although I do not want to present myself as a defender of ancient rights and privileges of the aristocracy and their different titles, I am somewhat suspicious of those who want to modernise such matters. I have no strong feelings either way, but I know that many people derive great pleasure from the contemplation of our country's history, as represented by the hereditary principle and the panoply of titles that goes with it.

The creation of many of the titles may well have been somewhat arbitrary: perhaps Edward III created the rank of duke only because it was convenient for creating the first Duke of Lancaster; and other monarchs created other titles for reasons of convenience and pragmatism. None the less, hereditary titles are part of our history, and I cannot see the point of getting excited about them and trying to root out the phenomenon wherever it occurs. If there is to be any change, I look to the Minister for a careful explanation of whether the Government's reforms will bring any other changes to the way in which the system of hereditary titles operates. If the Government are proposing any such changes, I want to know the reasons why.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, for I have become confused by his argument. I think that he completely misunderstands the position of the Government and of Labour Members. No one has any particular objection to someone holding one, 20 or even 30 titles, if that is what that person wants; our objection is to the fact that a title can entitle a person to take part in the legislative process in the upper Chamber.

Mr. Clappison

It is reasonable for the hon. Lady to make that point, but it is not the point that we are currently debating. The hon. Member for Leominster argued that the new clauses were meaningless in view of the changes that the hon. Lady wants; therefore, reform was long overdue and there was no reason not to do away with the whole system. If that is the Government's position, I want to know why they would want to do away with it, because there are many other features of our constitution and the fabric of our national life that might appear pointless and difficult to justify, but give some people a lot of pleasure and are regarded as part of our history.

I do not sit up at night tearing through the pages of "Burkes Peerage" to read about the hereditary peers. If someone derives pleasure from being an hereditary peer, that is a matter for that person; I have no strong feelings either way. However, I know that many people enjoy the contemplation of this country's history, so if there are to be any changes other than those that are necessary to bring about reform of the legislature, I want to hear the Minister explain them.

Mr. Grieve

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as it will avoid my trying to catch your eye, Sir Alan. The key issue is whether the writ of acceleration allows somebody who would be entitled to an hereditary peerage to take one of his father's courtesy titles if he is appointed as a life peer to the House of Lords. As that has nothing whatever to do with getting rid of hereditary peers, my hon. Friend may agree that it would be wise for the Government to respond to that point at the close of the debate.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I must admit that securing a courtesy title in that way is not something that I have contemplated personally, but it is an important issue for others. Therefore, I am sure that the Minister will want to address it.

I want to move on to the important issues which we will discuss later of who will constitute the new legislature and how we will ensure that the second Chamber is robust and strong and does its job. However, I am not prepared to let hon. Members—I address my remarks slightly tongue in cheek to the hon. Member for Leominster—who wish to present themselves as being at the cutting edge of new Labour's modernisation to get away with claiming that they are achieving long-overdue reform by doing away with something that is pointless to them, but gives pleasure to others.

Mr. Fallon

On new clause 14, the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) did the Committee a service by giving us a brief tutorial about the origins of the writ of acceleration. He certainly educated me: I always thought that a writ of acceleration was used when an elder son wished to serve in the House of Lords—because it was thought that he would serve some purpose by so doing—when his father was too old to serve or did not wish to do so. I did not know that writs were used to allow an elder son to serve alongside his father. I assumed that the writs were designed to enable an elder son who was due to assume his place in the House of Lords to do so slightly sooner because of particular family circumstances, and so on.

Mr. Temple-Morris

I thought that I should respond as I have been referred to so many times—I just missed intervening on the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). I hope that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) was listening to my tutorial. My point was that, like the monarchy, peers take their places in the House of Lords for life. That situation will be reformed and changed for the upper House. The question is whether it is relevant for a subsidiary title within a family to be used to accelerate the accession of a son chosen by the king or the Government to the House of Lords. The new clause is totally unnecessary because, when the House of Lords is reformed, the writ of acceleration procedure will fall with it; it is completely irrelevant. I would have thought that any other issues are a matter for the College of Heralds.

Mr. Fallon

As the writ of acceleration will fall in the new reformed Chamber, it is important that we understand what is being dispensed with. That is why this little debate on new clause 14 has done the Committee a service.

Turning to new clause 51, the Minister will have to clarify exactly what will happen to the Committee for Privileges in terms of the handling of titles. The legislation abolishes not the hereditary peerage—as the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) pointed out—but the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. Hereditary titles will continue, so claims to them will recur. There are constant squabbles and competing claims for titles within families. Such instances are not as unique as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) might think—I cite the case of Lord Ampthill a few years ago. So long as titles exist, there will occasionally be disputes about who has the proper claim to them.

The Government must explain exactly how those claims will be handled in future. Do the Government intend to allow that role to be performed outside Parliament? Is the Minister suggesting that it might be transferred to some other body, such as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council or the Garter King of Arms and his team—who knows? At the very least, the tabling of this new clause has enabled the Committee to explore the issue and has reminded us all that, when we start tinkering with the upper House, a range of subsidiary questions emerge that prove that the Government have not thought the measure through.

Mr. Tipping

This has been a short but interesting debate on the Bill's effect on the institution of the hereditary peerage. The new clauses in question deal with the specific issues of, first, writs of acceleration; and, secondly, claims to peerage. I take it from the way in which the clauses were introduced that they are of an inquiring and probing nature, and I hope to reassure the Committee in that regard.

Before discussing the new clauses, I shall comment on the effect of the Bill on the institution of the peerage generally—an issue that concerned the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and others.

I should make it absolutely clear that the Bill will not affect the peerages in question. There will be no effects save concerning the House of Lords. The peers will continue to exist. The heraldry, the pomp, the circumstance will still exist. The tourist attraction will still exist. It will remain open to Her Majesty to create hereditary peers, but they will not carry the right to attend and vote in the House of Lords.

The privileges of peerage that do not relate to membership of Parliament will remain. The precedence, ranks, titles, rights to armorial bearings and rules of succession will all remain. That may disappoint some of my hon. Friends, but others, certainly on the Opposition Benches, as well as many on the Government Benches, will celebrate the fact that the rich tapestry will remain.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Will the Minister advise me on how the new clause would affect the preamble to future Bills? He will notice that they always begin: Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal". Will that need to be changed? At the moment, Lords Temporal include hereditaries and life peers. Must new Acts of Parliament make it clear that the Queen has been advised only by some peers and not all Lords Temporal?

Mr. Tipping

I do not envisage change, but I shall check the matter and write to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Grieve

As the preamble goes on to state that those temporal peers are those in this present Parliament assembled", that is, presumably, already the defining category.

Mr. Tipping

We will have to see. These are precise points, which link to the point about the need to consider the effect of the Bill on wider peerage issues. I am fairly confident that there will be no change in the preamble to Bills.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) answered on the issue of writs of acceleration, but I shall reinforce the message. New clause 14 misunderstands what "acceleration" means. It means the issue of a writ of summons to Parliament to the heir of a peer who has more than one peerage, to allow him to sit in the Lords. As my hon. Friend said, as there will no longer be an hereditary element, there is no need to accelerate to a destination that no longer exists.

The only purpose of the writ is to confer membership of the House of Lords. It does not create a new title; it gives ownership of the title to the new recipient. Therefore, once hereditary peers are no longer eligible to receive writs of summons in the name of their hereditary peerage, there is no mechanism for issuing the writ. The issue of a writ of acceleration would be the issue of a writ by virtue of an hereditary peerage and, as such, is covered by the Bill.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked whether a writ of acceleration could be used for a son if his father took a life peerage. Clearly, as the son is not receiving the writ of summons to go to the other place, the matter does not arise.

Mr. Grieve

I am sorry to labour the point, but let us take the example of Lord Cranborne. If his right to sit as an hereditary peer were to go and, subsequently, he were made a life peer, he would presumably not be able to take, if he wished to do so, the title of the barony of Essendon. That could be granted only by acceleration—the very thing that will no longer be possible. Will the Minister confirm that that decorative little bit of our past will disappear?

5 pm

Mr. Tipping

I will have to take advice on the matter, although my view is different from the hon. Gentleman's. To put it commonly, as they might in Nottingham, Lord Cranborne's title is another gong that he wears, and he is entitled to retain that gong. The key point is that the writ of acceleration is the writ of summons, and if there is nowhere to be summoned to, there is no question of a writ of acceleration. I had hoped to avoid any reference to Lord Cranborne, who has been paid a great deal of attention in the context of this debate.

I shall now discuss the question raised by new clause 51, which concerns the rights of the House of Lords in relation to claims of peerage and of precedence. A former colleague, now Lord Moynihan, was mentioned, among other examples.

I shall try to reassure the House that nothing changes. Difficult cases of claims of peerage will still be referred to the House of Lords for consideration, in the way that claims of Irish peerage continue to be referred to the Lords long after anyone has been able to sit in the Lords by virtue of an Irish title.

Although, under the Bill as it stands, no hereditary peers would be Members of the upper House, the accumulated wisdom of the House on the matter of peerage claims and precedents would still be available. I believe that the only requirement laid down in the Lords Standing Orders for hearing peerage claims is that three of the four Lords of Appeal need to be present. They will remain in the upper House because they will be members of a continuing Committee for Privileges, which will sit on the case.

Mr. Fallon

How can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that that will happen? Presumably, it will be for the new House to decide on its own Committees and their functions. How can the Government be sure now that that new House will consider claims to titles that have nothing to do with itself?

Mr. Tipping

We are talking of a long historic tradition; a House of Lords Committee for Privileges that has existed and will continue to exist. It may well be within the gift of the other place to change its Standing Orders, but the Bill will change nothing in that regard; that is already within its gift. We intend the Committee for Privileges to continue, with three of the four Lords of Appeal sitting on cases.

As hon. Members know, these are technical and highly legal matters. There is no automatic qualification. The continuing Committee for Privileges will have to exercise its judgment. Given those reassurances on writs of acceleration and on the continuation of the House of Lords Committee for Privileges, I hope that the new clause will be withdrawn.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the manner in which he has responded to this brief debate. I also thank him for his unequivocal assurance on behalf of the Government about the continuation of the peerage and so many of the colourful things that go with it, which obviously mean as much to him as they mean to me and many others.

The Minister may underestimate the difficulties that the Government will face as they move towards establishing their next Chamber, but for the immediate future we are grateful to him, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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