§ Debate resumed (according to Order) on the Motion, made by the Duke of Sutherland, on Wednesday, March 25, That there be laid before the House papers with regard to legislation for the Reform of the House of Lords.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INDIA (THE EARL OF BIRKENHEAD)
My Lords, the first day of the debate, which was initiated by the noble Duke in a very interesting and very clear speech, was remarkable for more than one feature of interest. We had the opportunity of hearing the views both of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Haldane, and of Lord Oxford and Asquith. Much of the interesting speeches which these noble Lords delivered contained, as one would have expected, passages of importance. Lord Oxford agreed that we must in this country retain a system of government by two chambers. He agreed, if I understood his speech aright, that the urgency of the matter had not diminished since the memorable occasion on which he announced that its solution "brooked no delay." He added that the urgency of domestic demands upon the time of the Government of the day had unfortunately rendered it, at that time, impossible to implement what he and his friends, including the noble and learned Viscount, had described at that time as "a debt of honour."
His historical account of the matter might perhaps have been a little more complete. The reason, of course, why domestic legislation rendered it impossible at that time to attempt a solution, was that the noble Earl, and I may add the noble and learned Viscount, were at that time not completely masters 946 in their own house. They were dependent upon the Irish vote, and, to put the matter perfectly plainly and bluntly, the Irish, who were keeping the noble Lords in power, said plainly: "We are not going to waste our time upon this sort of subject. We authorise or instruct you to proceed at once with Irish legislation." And that was the reason why this problem, which brooked no delay, was, nevertheless, delayed. It is very desirable in these historical matters that, if there be a question of responsibility, we should place this responsibility upon the shoulders where it ought properly to rest.
I find it necessary, in the second place, to make this observation upon the speech of the noble and learned Viscount. He told us that on the whole, in his opinion, it was wisest to let the matter rest, to leave the House of Lords where it stands to-day. Now, surely I, as representing the Government, am entitled to ask him a very plain and a very explicit question. Is this, or is it not, the official attitude of the Labour Party? The noble and learned Viscount assures me that the attitude of the Labour Party in relation to this question is that we ought not to reform this House at all, but to leave this House to exercise its old constitutional functions without modification or improvement. It does not surprise me that that is the view of the Labour Party, because it is profoundly stupid and utterly indefensible.
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
The noble and learned Earl will forgive me, but he has only half stated what I said. I said that, so long as you left things alone, we are content that they are going well, but, if you begin to strengthen the House, we will produce our own policy, in the constituencies, where you will hear a good deal of it.
§ THE EARL OF BIRKENHEAD
It is not the first time that we have met the noble and learned Viscount in the constituencies, and I dare say we shall sustain his vigorous onslaught again with some measure of equanimity. But the noble and learned Viscount has left the matter a little more obscure even than it was before. If I understand his attitude aright now, it is this. The Labour Party is content with the House of Lords as it 947 is constituted to-day, and it does not intend to make any proposals for its improvement or alteration unless and until we make proposals which may have the effect of strengthening it. Then I was perfectly right in saying that, unless and until proposals in the direction of strengthening this House are brought forward, the policy of the Labour Party is to leave the House of Lords as it is constituted to-day.
Let me attempt to point out how utterly impossible it is to leave this House as it is constituted to-day, and how, if the Labour Party understood their own interests and the part which this House must play, and always has played, as an instrument of government, they could not possibly make themselves responsible for such a proposal. So long as there were two Parties, one succeeding the other in alternation, each of them represented in this House, never, indeed, in approximately equal numbers, but each of them always represented by statesmen of capacity, experience and ability, it was possible on the whole for those who were in favour of maintaining the existing condition to justify their view, because it is always difficult to interfere with an institution as old as this. But that situation is completely altered. It has been altered in the last four or five years. The position to-day is that, if and when this Government disappears, when we are routed by the fervent platform eloquence of the noble and learned Viscount and his friends, and driven from power, our places will be taken—I say it without any disrespect to my noble and learned friend Lord Oxford—not by him and those who sit around him in this House, but will be taken, I will not say by those who sit opposite me on that Bench, but by many who have been in close political co-operation with them in the last few years.
What does this mean? It means that we are to have in this House a Government which does not contain those who must necessarily be the exponents, the mouthpieces, of its views. What happened when the last Labour Government was formed? A very interesting series of adaptations, if I may be allowed the expression, and contrivances took place before our eyes. We had, first of all, my noble and learned friend Lord Parmoor, who had been a zealous Tory for the greater part of a well-spent life, and 948 then, quite suddenly, emerged as the adornment of a Socialist Bench. When I ventured to ask him for some more precise definition of the change which he had undergone, morally and intellectually, he informed me—a rather puzzling expression—that he had always been a Christian Socialist. I have never known what a Christian Socialist was. I understand in the main, I hope, what a Christian is, and I have some conception of what a Socialist is, but what precise change you make in the adjective or the noun when you combine them I do not understand. Nor did the noble and learned Lord ever condescend to explain.
We had also the advantage of the presence of the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, when the late Government was formed. Lord Chelmsford's attitude was, I think, a comparatively intelligible one. He said, in effect: "I sit here surrounded by, contaminated by, Socialists. Christian and otherwise, but I am not a Socialist at all myself, and the moment I disagree with the Socialists, whose councils I am attending and whom I am supporting by my reputation and my influence, I shall leave them at once." But the trouble was that, the greater the errors they made, the more deep the complications in which their political inexperience involved them, the more Lord Chelmsford stuck to them and I ultimately reached the conclusion that he was a more reliable colleague even, than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor—though he was never lacking in fidelity even in doubtful moments. Those who were responsible for the Labour Party then, if I may use a homely expression, filled up that Bench in other ways. They found an amiable Liberal who had sat a great part of his life in the House of Commons, and who was not unwilling to reconsider the general nature of his political orientation and accept a Peerage in your Lordships' House. And so, here and there, we gained an accession: here a young enthusiast who had not been very long removed from his University days, and there, as I have said, one or two swiftly-made converts from the Liberal Benches.
But this process cannot continue indefinitely. Supposing, by good fortune, that the country lost the services of this Government in about ten years. Let us attempt to reconstruct the political position. 949 There is no one sitting upon this Bench who does not desire to find the noble and learned Viscount and the noble and learned Lord as strong in their health, as fluent in their explanations, as undiminished in their political vigour then as they are at this moment. But we may be less fortunate, and equally the Socialist Prime Minister, who is called upon to face the responsibility of forming a Government in ten years' time, may not share the admiration which we in this House have for the noble Lords who sit there. What is he to do? Is he to go through the whole process over again? Is he to find another Lord Parmoor? He may not be so fortunate. We cannot find a Lord Chelmsford growing upon every bush; and, as for the noble and learned Viscount, we shall not easily find his like again. What is such a Prime Minister to do?
These are situations that have to be faced, unless this House is to disappear for ever as a conceivably efficient instrument of government. It has been the part of the House of Lords, on the whole discharged efficiently through the centuries, to be a contributary, an almost equal co-efficient with the House of Commons, and an equally necessary coefficient still in the constitutional practice of this country. We are now face to face with a state of affairs in which the Government of the day, if it be Socialist, can only fill up that Bench by these profoundly unsatisfactory, these hole-and-corner, these disingenuous methods, and the noble and learned Viscount says that they do not desire that there should be any change at all.
I can understand the noble Lords who at this moment adorn that Bench saying that they do not desire any change. It seems to me they are in an extremely preferential position. They all strengthen your Lordships' House by their presence. They are the bearers of hereditary titles, and they all hope that they may be here when the next occasion arises. But, supposing that the Prime Minister forming this new Government, and looking round that Bench, does not share the general enthusiasm and admiration which we have for them, what is to happen? Is he to create eight more hereditary Peers?—not with the slightest intention of really recruiting the strength of this House because they do not believe either 950 in this House or in hereditary Peerages and, therefore, by an artificial means, they are to continue to support a House by methods which must be particularly affronting to their political consciences. This, we are told, is their permanent policy. I find difficulty in believing it.
I, for my part, am of opinion that if there were no other reasons for entering at once upon the task of the reform of this House an imperative reason would lie in the fact that if, and when, a Socialist Party is again returned to power in this country we must at least have a Second Chamber in which they can possess upon those Benches men who really share their views and are really authoritative in their counsels, and some measure of support on the Benches behind them. If you do not secure, that, by the very change which events will have made in the character and the contribution which it is in its power to offer, you will yourselves have destroyed the House of Lords, because you will have acquiesced in circumstances which necessarily involve its destruction.
I would preface the observations I am about to make upon the subject to which I have given a good deal of time and thought, by making this observation. The problems are two. We have, in the first place, to decide upon the numbers and the constitution of that body which we shall recommend. In the second place, we have to reach a conclusion upon the powers which we shall recommend Parliament to entrust to the body so reconstituted. And it is very important that the House should understand that neither I nor any other Minister is at this moment in a position to come forward and say: "This is the plan, this is the proposal of the Cabinet." Every new Cabinet is a new political entity. This is not the same Cabinet as Mr. Baldwin's last Cabinet. It is still less the same Cabinet as Mr. Bonar Law's Cabinet. Each new Cabinet, in virtue of the changes which take place in its constitution, must re-examine constitutional problems as formidable as that which confronts us to-day, and I say quite plainly it is no secret that no sustained consideration has been given at present by the Cabinet to this question at all in its corporate Cabinet capacity, and the fact has been made public and is known to your Lordships 951 that it is the intention of the Prime Minister to appoint a Cabinet Committee for the purpose of working out a scheme.
I make this plain because the value of this debate is that it may be made suggestive. Of the speeches that were made on the first day of the debate all of them, I think, possess elements of value, and it should be plainly understood that in any observations which I may make I am not purporting in any way to express the considered conclusions of my colleagues or any of them; but I am attempting to play the part which may be played by any noble Lord in this House, wherever he sits, who has thought about this subject and who comes forward with any suggestion which is offered at least for consideration. With this preface, which I hope will avoid any misunderstanding, I will indicate to your Lordships the views which I still hold upon this matter.
In the first place, I would make it clear that I think the principal weakness of this House is to be found in our numbers. I believe that there are no fewer than seven hundred of your Lordships who are entitled to attend the sittings of this House. Of those seven hundred I have been here long enough to say with confidence that the day-to-day work of the House is really done by about two hundred Peers. Of this I am sure, that no circumstance has done more to impair the reputation and the efficiency in the public esteem of the House as at present constituted than that there are so large a number who make no pretence at all of discharging their Parliamentary duties.
Equally, you will not find often selected in any rank of life seven hundred men holding office by descent from generation to generation of whom all will bear an unimpeached moral character. You may be so fortunate in one generation, but in another generation you would be less fortunate. It does not recommend itself, in my opinion, either to the common sense or to the conscience of the citizens of this country, taken as a whole, that there should be fifteen or twenty men, possibly with a criminal decision against them in the Courts, possibly with a history of bankruptcy, very often with some verdict of a civil court which has unquestionably involved, in the opinion of most people, a moral taint, who, if a grave issue does arise, should be constitutionally entitled 952 to come here and pronounce upon it as legislators. It is not right. It is not defensible, and in my judgment the circumstance that it has been possible to point to this House as being unpurged is one which has injured it almost more in the public esteem than any charge that has been brought against it.
I must add this. Our numbers have been, shall I say most pleasantly enlarged, in the last fifteen years. The noble Earl, Lord Oxford, was most hospitable in the invitations which he extended before, to our great comfort, he joined us in this House. His successor, Mr. Lloyd George, greatly encouraged by the general desire of the Liberal Party to become members of this Assembly, added with a hand even more profligate to the membership of this House. In fact, it is due, I think, almost entirely to the activities of these two great statesmen that in this House almost alone in the world we are able to produce sitting upon our Benches so many well-known Liberals.
How are we to deal with this problem? I confess I would deal with it somewhat as follows. The precise number is unimportant, whether one calls it x or gives a term of hundreds. From seven hundred I would reduce the number of this House to about three hundred. The Bryce Committee produced a very ambitious scheme which had every conceivable advantage, except that nobody wanted and nobody would support it. They greatly reduced the numbers. I think they went too far. Supposing the numbers in this House were in the region of three hundred, that would be a workable Assembly. It would be an Assembly which, having regard to the precautionary suggestions I am about to make, would be likely, in my judgment, to assemble for the day-to-day discharge of their Parliamentary duties.
The next question obviously is this. If your numbers are somewhere in the neighbourhood of three hundred, how are you to determine your method of exclusion, and, conversely, upon what principles will you settle the standard of inclusion? A picturesque member of this House, remembered by all your Lordships, I think, with interest and by many with affection, Lord Willoughby de Broke, never failed to take part in these debates. I can still see him rising from the Bench where the noble Earl now sits, making it 953 quite plain that no scheme which he had ever heard adumbrated on this subject satisfied him that he would be among the survivors, and that until a scheme was produced which guaranteed him that he would survive where all his long line had sat before him in this House, he was an unconvertible enemy of any form of reform. I can still hear him declaiming, as many of your Lordships can, the virtues of heredity in foxhounds and hunters. That is a type of opinion which, though it is still, as the Lord Chancellor said a few days ago, represented in this House, perhaps not weakly represented, is hardly so picturesquely represented, and is not in my judgment likely to survive.
How then are these numbers to be selected? The first suggestion I would make is this. There will always be in this House a number of men whom, making the best rough examination I can, I have placed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 120 who have occupied either high political or high administrative, or high military or naval situations in the service of the State. Let us for the sake of arriving at a figure assume that about 120 would be found at the moment when we begin to contemplate cur reform. I would certainly so define the qualifications that all those 120 would be automatically included. Then I shall be asked, how about the other 180? I am not in favour of the fanciful or ambitious proposals which are put forward in certain quarters, though I agree that all these must be considered. My proposal is a modest one. It has the advantage that I think it conceivably—I do not put it higher than that—is one which a Government might be persuaded to bring forward, and I think it is one, though I say this very doubtfully, which your Lordships might be persuaded to adopt. It is this: that the other 180 should be co-opted from among your Lordships by the members of this House. That gives me a certain figure.
Now I shall be asked: How is this proposal of yours to satisfy that purpose, which you declare to be of the highest consequence, of enabling the Labour Government of the future to be represented in this House? I deal with that matter with two suggestions, the merits of which must, be, I think, at some time or other considered and decided upon. 954 In the first place, I would undoubtedly have a nominated element. I will make a suggestion in relation to numbers. The nominated element, who might be known as Lords of Parliament, without of course acquiring an hereditary rank, would be nominated by the Prime Minister of the day. The numbers may reasonably be made the subject of discussion, and of compromise.
Let me make a supposition, for the sake of argument—and here I leave my figure of three hundred, because I do not wish to be involved in too precise a relation to a particular figure. Supposing the Socialist or Labour Prime Minister, a year ago, when he unexpectedly had to take office, and had to face his constitutional difficulties in this House, had under our Constitution possessed the power that so long as his Government lasted or for some alternative period—there are other methods, which I do not stop to examine here—had the power of nominating fifty members of this House to be Lords of Parliament; observe what would have happened. In the first place, it would have been possible for him to send to this House—I say this without any disrespect to noble Lords—really vital, characteristic mouthpieces of the trades union movement. It would be an enormous advantage to us that we should meet here and debate on the floor of the House with the men who sway great masses of their countrymen in the constituencies, and whose arguments are really the arguments that count. We should not shrink from attempting to answer those arguments in this place.
Conceive what the strength of a body so constituted would be? In the first place, it would be a small body, numerically compact. We should have 120 men of the highest distinction, who had served the State in high administrative or other capacities. We should have a further number, selected by the decision of the whole body of the Peers, and that method of selection alone would be a guarantee that they would be representative of your Lordships' House, and of all that in history it stands for, and will stand for in the history of this country in the future. I am only telling your Lordships, whether it be regarded or whether it be not regarded, the advice which I myself should certainly give to any Government which did me the honour of consulting me. 955 I reject absolutely the idea that you are to take immense constituencies, and that your Lordships and myself, at our time of life, are to begin to address ourselves to constituencies which I suppose would consist, if our numbers were sufficiently truncated, of somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300,000 or 400,000 people. No, I do not believe that, on the whole, it is the desire of the people of this country that they should have two kinds of competitive, democratic, election-produced chambers. I am certain that jealousy and dispute would be the result, which would certainly not be an improvement upon the present state of affairs.
Then it is sometimes said that it might be possible that a method of indirect election should be adopted, that your Lordships, in other words, instead of sitting here because you are the sons of your fathers, would be sitting here because you had attracted the favourable attention of some county council. This recommendation, I confess, has never appealed to me at all; indeed, a noble Lord once observed, I think with perfect truth, that he would far rather go to the Jockey Club to select the members of your Lordships' House, and was confident that they would, on the whole, make a wiser selection. Without making the matter so comparative, I would only say that county councils were never brought into being to discharge functions of that kind. It is wholly alien to their character, and I am certain it would tend to infect them, wholly unnecessarily, with the virus of general Party politics, and that it would, in the end, produce a Chamber in which nobody would have the slightest confidence, and at which everybody would justly laugh as being created by a number of esteemed country people who were brought together to fulfil quite different administrative functions. If you dismiss the proposal for direct election at the hands of great constituencies, and if you dismiss the thoroughly artificial, and in my judgment unworkable, proposal of election by means of either county councils or comparable bodies, you are, in my humble judgment, brought back to some suggestion at least of the general character of that which I have made.
I shall be asked next: If you have a body like this so constituted, and one which will be immensely strengthened in 956 public esteem, in the regard and the confidence of the nation, with what powers do you recommend that it shall be equipped? Here I wish to make it still more plain that I speak for myself, and for myself alone, not indeed, so far as I know, in conflict with any colleague, because I have made it plain that these matters have neither been discussed nor composed, but I am speaking merely with the hope of contributing as others of your Lordships have done, something that may at least be made a basis of discussion, and which shows the way in which an individual mind, for what it is worth, is moving. With that reservation then, I make it quite plain that I do not think it would be possible, even with a Second Chamber so reconstituted to attempt to interfere with the main purpose and effect of the Parliament Act, greatly as I myself detested and resented that Act and mischievous and artificial as I think its conception was. But history has moved, years have passed. We in this House acquiesced, rightly or wrongly, in a conclusion which, at our risk, we could have disputed. We did not dispute it, and so far as my individual advice is concerned, I should not advise your Lordships at this period of our history, and after the political developments which have taken place during the last few years, to reopen this controversy at a moment which in my judgment is less promising to its successful solution than the occasion when I and many of my friends most deeply urged this House to challenge and test the menaces by which they were induced to assent to this legislation.
What then in relation to powers is attainable? In the first place, as the Lord Chancellor pointed out, it is most urgently to be desired that a change should be made in the method by which Bills are certified as Money Bills. The Lord Chancellor made it plain that he, and I think he was speaking for every member of the Government, paid the most perfect tribute to the impartiality of Mr. Speaker, whoever at the moment Mr. Speaker may be. But this House has justly resented that the ipse dixit of the other House should decide without the possibility of any discussion what Bill is a Money Bill, and should so destroy any possibility that this House could discharge, in relation to that matter, its function as a revising House. I believe 957 that a general measure of assent could be produced for a modification, on lines which I will shortly state, of this anomalous and intolerable system. I think that a Committee of equal numbers of members of the House of Commons and House of Lords, presided over by Mr. Speaker, might in all disputed oases reach a conclusion as to whether or not a Rill was affected with the character of a Money Bill.
It may be said that if you have six members of the House of Commons and six members of the House of Lords and you have Mr. Speaker as the Chairman, that you are, in fact, still leaving the final decision in the hands of Mr. Speaker. But things in practice among reasonable and honest men do not work out in that way. If you have a discussion between six reasonable members of this House and six reasonable members of the other House you would not have—I would stake any reputation I may have for political judgment upon it—the members of the House of Lords agreeing with one another, nor the members of the House of Commons agreeing with each other. And you would be sure that Mr. Speaker would have the advantage of hearing all the arguments and would not be left, therefore, to his own unassisted resources in deciding this important point. I am encouraged to believe that a reform of that kind would be acceptable because it was, in fact, accepted by all the Liberal elements which supported the Coalition at the time this matter was last under discussion. It is inherently just in itself; it has a Parliamentary history which affords no small degree of encouragement, and it would be an extremely valuable reform.
In the next place, it seems plain that the Parliament Act requires amendment in one material point. As things stand at present we have not the slightest guarantee that a Socialist Government coming into power to-morrow might not use the terms of the Parliament Act itself to destroy even the vestige of liberty that is left to us under that Statute. It was one of the most amazing omissions, if it was inadvertently omitted from the Act, which has hitherto been pointed out. One thing surely is indispensable, and it is that we should be the jealous custodians of such liberty as still remains, and it should be provided in 958 any reform proposals that no alteration of the Parliament Act itself, with the little security and independence that were left to us, should take place unless there had been an explicit General Election upon that issue.
Further, I am of opinion that we should adopt a reform which nearly every great constitutional system but our own has admitted. We ought, I think, to allow Ministers the right of audience in both Houses. Conceive the advantage it would be to us in existing circumstances, or rather in circumstances through which we have passed and which may easily be recurrent. What is of real consequence, leaving the shadow for the substance, is that this House should maintain its vital contact and traditional influence with public affairs. How can we best do that? Surely it is by having those here for the purposes of discussion, and in a Ministerial capacity, who, speaking with high responsibility, can justify their policy, so that having heard the justification and defence we can either approve or resist it. It is not a good system, admirable as it is—these functions have been discharged by generations of noble Lords in this House—that a Department should be represented upon the Government Bench by a noble Lord who has not actually any administrative responsibility for the affairs of that Department. It is not really a system that can be satisfactory to those noble Lords who desire information.
I shall be asked as to the practical difficulties in the way of a change of this kind In my judgment, they are not very considerable, certainly not invincible; and it is perhaps sufficient to say that in France, and in many other countries, in most of the constitutional systems which we have had occasion to study, you will find that the practical difficulties which do exist have been successfully surmounted. In my judgment it would be of equal advantage if from time to time those who are Ministers and in charge of great Departments should have an opportunity, when their policy is being disputed in another place of leaving this House and making their views plain there. Both this House and the House of Commons would gain.
I come to almost the last point in relation to which I desire to offer a suggestion, and that is that there should, on occasions of differences which have 959 been found insoluble by existing methods., be a Joint Session of the two Houses, in numbers to be precisely determined but in relation to which it is obvious the numerical representation of this House would be smaller than that of the House of Commons. And I ought, I think, to make it plain that this suggestion is not by any means a new one. It was made more than once in 1910, and made authoritatively. It was made in the days of the Cabinet Committee, appointed by the Coalition, over which my noble and lamented friend Lord Curzon presided, and it has been examined by many of those who have applied their minds to these questions.
I am attracted by the proposal because, in days when Parliamentary government and Parliamentary institutions are disparaged and assailed, I value everything which adds to the dignity, the appearance, the ceremony of Parliament, and I can conceive nothing more stirring to the imagination, at a time when great issues have disclosed themselves between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, than that both these two bodies, which have been so greatly contributory to the political fortunes of this country in the past, should meet together, with the responsibility that an occasion so striking and conspicuous would surely bring, to see if any method founded upon reason or compromise could not be adopted to settle the particular controversy that had arisen between them.
I cannot pretend that in the time which I could reasonably ask your Lordships to give me I have done more than touch upon the fringe of this great subject. I have made a number of individual suggestions, making it quite plain that they are individual and that they are made in the hope that, if any of your Lordships think it worth while to do so, they may elicit criticism and even, it may be, dissent. But let no one attempt to divest himself of this individual responsibility: that although it is very easy to find objections to the proposals which I make, somebody—excepting those who believe that no reform is necessary—must make some suggestions on their own behalf. In other words, you cannot merely reject everybody else's proposals and say that nevertheless you are in favour of the reform of the House of Lords. In my experience of this difficult 960 matter I have never yet found myself in any company, whether it consisted of Peers or of commoners, in which there were not as many suggestions as there were members present contributing to its discussion, and I believe that we shall find that this will be the experience of this House the moment that we begin to make concrete proposals.
The matter is extremely simple so long as you confine yourself to instructive and pleasant generalities, as did some of the noble Lords who spoke in the debate a few days ago. It is perfectly easy to utter generalities which, because they are generalities, will command general assent, sometimes even enthusiastic general assent. Rut this question is not going to be solved by generalities but by a plan, by a scheme and although I am well aware that detailed objections can be taken to every one of the proposals which I put forward, and although I am not even myself wedded to them and have put them forward as being rebuttable by argument here and rebuttable by argument among my colleagues, I do at least put them forward as a basis of discussion in the hope and belief—and this is all that I care for—that we may, in an age in which so much changes, preserve and collect something at least from our storied past and hand down to those who will follow us a House which still retains some contact with the spirit and the traditions of the House of Lords as history has known it.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, I have for a long time taken an interest in this subject and I am sure your Lordships will not complain of me if I ask permission to say a few words about it this evening. I made up my mind to take part in this debate mainly because I thought it was right that some voice from these Benches should be raised to express what, I believe, is a general feeling amongst my friends, that the manner in which the question was dealt with the other night by the noble and learned Viscount upon the Woolsack was, upon the whole, quite satisfactory to us. The noble and learned Viscount showed great appreciation of the reality of the danger against which we have to guard, and he left no doubt that in his view an efficient House of Lords was essential if that danger was to be warded off. He 961 also indicated quite clearly that in his view this House, as it is constituted at present, is not a suitable assembly for the desired purpose.
Nor was I at all disposed to complain of the noble and learned Viscount's suggestion that this matter should be taken up by a Cabinet Committee who would investigate the facts and prepare concrete proposals. That seemed to me a reasonable mode of operation, and I, for one, should have been ready to await the result of that investigation and see what was proposed to us by the Government of the day. I have a feeling at the back of my mind that for the moment the discussion of concrete matters of detail would he—I will not say futile, but could scarcely lead to any very profitable results. To-night we have had the views of His Majesty's Government laid before us by the Secretary of State for India.
§ THE EARL OF BIRKENHEAD
Will the noble Marquess forgive me? I was very careful, indeed I took great pains, to make it clear that they were not the views of the Government.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
I apologise. The Secretary of State was careful to guard himself against being supposed to be authorised by his colleagues to make a statement, but ho did, speaking from the Front Bench, make very concrete proposals in great detail and laid them before us. The Secretary of State's record on this subject is an interesting one. He has often taken part in discussions about House of Lords reform, but until to-night he has always seemed to me to do so with complete absence of enthusiasm. I remember that on one occasion he explained to us that he had repeatedly told the House that he did not regard this reform as at all an urgent one. To-night his tone has been very different. He recalled to our memory the Government Resolutions of 1922. I do not think it can be too carefully remembered that those Resolutions, although many of us thought them inadequate and although I think the Secretary of State for India himself admitted that they did not go anywhere near the root of the question, were agreed to by this House to the extent that we went into Committee upon them and, if all had gone well, we might, 962 no doubt, have discussed them in detail and elaborated proposals.
But your Lordships remember what happened. The vacation came, and then a General Election which led to a change of Government. That change of Government was followed not long afterwards by another change of Government, and the subject of House of Lords reform was raised in this House by my noble friend the Duke of Marlborough. We had an interesting debate, and the Secretary of State for India took a conspicuous part in it. He was no longer, of course, at that time in office, and he spoke with unofficial freedom during that discussion. I remember very well that he directed a good deal of his badinage at the noble and learned Viscount then on the Woolsack. I think he cautioned him against being too sanguine and imagining that he was a kind of fairy godmother, and could improvise opportunities for a great measure of this kind. He also indulged in some pleasantries at the expense of my noble friend the Leader of the House. He warned your Lordships that my noble friend was in the position of a lady with a past, and that his speeches must not be taken without reservation. Now the wheel of fortune has revolved again, and the fairy godmother, the lady with a past, and the Secretary of State for India, are all sitting cheek by jowl in the same Cabinet.
I feel little doubt that their consultations will be useful, and I think we have had some proof of that in the speech to which we have just listened, because the Secretary of State for India no longer spoke with his old indifference and detachment about House of Lords reform. On the contrary, he put his whole weight into the case and laid before us elaborate schemes for the complete reorganisation of this House. He again recommended two or three of the points which were comprised in the Resolutions of 1922. He spoke of the necessity of reducing the numbers of the House, of the need of substituting some other authority for the Speaker of the House of Commons in deciding what Bills were Money Bills and what were not, and I think his third point was that he wished it to be made impossible for capital questions—questions, for example, involving a change in the Constitution—to be hurried through the House of Commons 963 and then automatically become law. I think those are all admirable proposals and I have no doubt that they will find a very considerable amount of support; but what really seemed to me to matter was that the noble Earl, the Secretary of Sate for India, has now become a firm, convinced advocate of a very thoroughgoing reform of this House—a reform intended to strengthen it and to increase its influence on public opinion in this country.
I could not help, as I listened to the very elaborate proposals of the noble Earl, wondering what was left for the Cabinet Committee to do, because no Cabinet Committee could have hammered out anything more elaborate and carefully concocted than the scheme to which we listened a few minutes ago. I do not know whether the noble Earl is likely to be a member of the Cabinet Committee. Knowing his former views about House of Lords reform I should have been tempted to suggest that the affairs of India required his undivided attention at this moment, and that it might be better for him to leave to others the task of reforming this House, but after hearing his earnest speech I own that I am inclined to depart from that position, and to suspect that, after all, I should find in the noble Earl a very enthusiastic and thoroughgoing House of Lords reformer.
I am not going to follow the noble and learned Earl in the detailed proposals which he made to the House. For myself I can only say that I approach this subject without any bigoted feeling in favour of any of these different alternatives. I realise very strongly indeed the immense difficulty of the enterprise upon which His Majesty's Government have embarked. The subject is a very intricate one, and its difficulty is aggravated by these two facts: In the first place—I am afraid we can hardly conceal it from ourselves—there is a considerable amount of apathy upon the question. I am not sure that either in or out of this House there is at this moment much real driving power behind any proposal for the reform of the Second Chamber. There is apathy, and I venture to hazard a guess that there is also a good deal of reluctance, particularly among those members of the House who, at the back of their minds, realise that in a reformed and much diminished Second 964 Chamber they might not themselves find a place. It seems to me the most natural thing in the world that Peers, and particularly the younger Peers, who take an interest in House of Lords work, should view with the utmost dislike any proposal that they should make themselves responsible for a kind of self-immolation. To those who have that feeling I would venture to commend the words which I heard a few nights ago spoken by a noble Lord addressing us for the first time, but who, I have no doubt, will very often take part in our discussions in the future. I allude to Lord Templemore. May I read a single sentence from his speech. He said:Proud as I am to be allowed to sit here, and much as I should grieve if the day should come on which I was excluded from this House, I value the safety and institutions of this country far more.That is a very patriotic sentiment, and I am glad to notice that your Lordships applaud it.
Another difficulty is this: It is the difficulty due to the immense divergence of opinion existing even among those who are stalwart House of Lords reformers. The number of different plans and schemes is extraordinary. I heard a story in the Lobby—I do not know whether it is founded on fact or not, but it seems to me to have an air of probability about it. I believe that a few days ago a kind of symposium was held under the hospitable roof of a member of this House. All the guests were strongly in favour of House of Lords reform, but the story goes to show that each guest brought his own scheme with him in his pocket, and that there were as many divergent schemes as there were guests sitting at the table. That may be, no doubt, an exaggeration, but the difficulty is a real one. As to that, I can only say that the one thing that seems clear to me is that if we are in earnest we must make up our minds not to press our individual views too hard, not to tie ourselves too tightly by categorical formulas, however plausible. There is always a risk of becoming the slave of a formula.
The House listened with great delight to the speech made on the first night of this debate by Lord Oxford. I noted that he told us that he was quite in favour of giving considerable powers to the reformed 965 Second Chamber, but only upon the condition that it was reconstituted upon a popular, and not an hereditary basis. I dare say the noble Earl knows quite well what he means by a popular basis. I am not sure that I know what is meant by it, but I am pretty sure that my idea of the proper popular basis would not be found to be exactly the same as the popular basis which finds favour with the noble Earl. If it comes to formulas I am tempted to recall one which I used myself, I think it was during the General Election of 1910, when I had to do some speaking in the provinces, and when I found that it was sufficient to command the sympathy of most popular audiences to give them an assurance that in any scheme for which my friends would make themselves responsible the House would not contain a single member who owed his seat to the mere fact of his possessing an hereditary Peerage. I think that is, at all events, a substantial step in advance, and upon that foundation I should be content to build.
And that, I think, unless I misunderstood him, was very much the idea which ran through the mind of the Secretary of State for India when he sketched to us a possible scheme for reconstituting the House. I think it was common to the proposal both of the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack and the proposal of the noble Earl the Secretary of State for India, that the reconstituted House should contain an adequate contingent drawn from the ranks of the old House of Lords. I have always held that that was a proper condition to require, and I am not the least intimidated by the argument that you cannot fasten an hereditary patch upon a democratic assembly without injury to the stability of the fabric. I therefore hope that, in whatever proposal comes before us, that feature will not be absent.
I am not going to take up your Lordships' time by an excursion into the question of the powers with which the reformed Second Chamber might be entrusted. It is a vast question. This much I am prepared to say, that I am wholly opposed to any attempt to repeal the Parliament Act, and that, if I may take refuge in another formula, perhaps a little lacking in precision also, I should like to do what I understand the present 966 Prime Minister has said he proposes to do—namely, to work within the framework of the Parliament Act.
May I notice another formula made use of by Lord Oxford the other evening? He told us, dealing with this part of the case, that he objected altogether to any attempts to protect the country against its own representatives. That is a rather attractive phrase, but I really do not know exactly how far the noble and learned Earl means to go when he says that. I can scarcely conceive that it was his intention to suggest that, no matter how ill-informed, how precipitate, the verdict of the House of Commons, no matter how vast the importance of the subject dealt with, there is in no circumstances to be any appeal from that decision, or any power of correcting it. I listened with satisfaction to what was suggested to us the other night by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack in regard to the importance of the machinery for settling what I think he called obstinate differences between the two Houses. If that can be done, and I believe it can, you take a great deal of the edge off the most acute part of this controversy. Proposals have been sketched—some of them are to be found in the Report of the Bryce Conference—for setting up machinery of this kind. I feel sure that, when the Committee comes to deal with this question, they will not find it difficult to discover a suitable arrangement for the purpose.
I will not trouble your Lordships further, and I will only add that I, for one, am ready to meet any proposals that are laid before us in a temperate and conciliatory spirit, and that with all my heart I trust that some means may be found of providing this country with a Second Chamber worthy of the great traditions of this House, and with an equipment and power which will enable it to take a dignified and useful part in the conduct of the public affairs of this country.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
My Lords, no one in your Lordships' House will underestimate the importance of this debate. Although in form the Motion asks that Papers should be laid on the Table of the House, yet in substance it has invited, 967 and it has provoked, criticism both of the constitution and of the powers of your Lordships' House, and has at the same time produced what appear to me to be some of the most valuable contributions that have yet been made to the solution of an old and a very vexed question. I cannot help hoping that, whatever Committee or body is asked further to advise the Government on this matter, the great wisdom and experience of the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, of which we have just had such a remarkable example, will not be left out of consideration.
Why is it that this House has now reached the point when it is prepared to regard favourably measures devoted to its reform? There are, I think, two reasons. The first is that we all recognise now that new forces have arisen in the political world the extent and direction of which it is impossible for us accurately to measure, and we appreciate that unless this House be so arranged that it is possible to give effect to those forces if once they form the Government of this country, the whole system of the Constitution will be broken down and it will be impossible probably to reconstruct a Second Chamber at all. That was one of the views expressed by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Birkenhead, and whenever I have spoken upon this question I have always urged that as the outstanding reason why this House should be reformed. It must be made possible for a Labour Government, composed not merely of theoretical but of practical Labour men, to find their proper representation and spokesmen in this House without asking them to go through the necessary preliminary of being made Peers with hereditary titles; because that they never will accept. That is one reason.
Another, which has found some colour in some speeches that have been made in this debate and may be expressed more emphatically before it concludes, is the desire that your Lordships' House, if not wholly restored, should at any rate be very considerably strengthened. I regard that view with the greatest possible uneasiness. It was a matter of immense relief to me to hear from the noble and learned Earl, Lord Birkenhead, and the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, a recognition that the reform of this House must be conducted within the compass and limits of the Parliament Act, subject 968 to such necessary modifications as were adumbrated by Lord Birkenhead. I would beg any of you who think you can regain by the device of altering the constitution of this House the powers which were taken away, to beware of what you do. If you create a House of Lords which is sure to be Conservative in its feelings, unless, indeed, it be a representative body, and clothe it once more with the powers which were altered by the Parliament Act of 1911, you will provoke a collision between the two Houses of Parliament in the future which I cannot help thinking will have the most disastrous consequences for the State.
I do not desire to occupy much time and there is no reason why I should. I say that for this reason. I have been subject to the unusual and most gratifying experience of finding myself in agreement with the noble and learned Earl, Lord Birkenhead. It is almost the first time in my political life and I sincerely hope it will not be the last; but in point of fact the scheme that he suggested is the one and only method that I can think of by which this House can at once be purged of the reproach of consisting largely of absentee people and at the same time retain in essence the traditions which it now enjoys.
I have often wondered whether those who are anxious to re-constitute this House upon a totally new foundation have ever looked back through the past few years. One of the most remarkable of phenomena is that the agitation against your Lordships' House since the passing of the Parliament Act has almost died away, and what used to be a very well-known and, indeed, powerful argument upon platforms which I and others have occupied, is now no longer heard. Why? There are two reasons. The first, I think, is that from 1914 until now the public have recognised that this House was at once jealous in its preservation of the individual liberties of the people of this country, and was prepared at any time, if it thought right, to oppose even the most powerful Government that was in office in another place, although that Government was preponderantly of their own opinion. I do not think that people have ever understood what was felt by those outside when Lord Crewe said in this House one day, with regard to a Bill brought in by a Government that 969 had a majority, I think even as large as this one, that it was the most mean and the most cowardly measure in the thirty years of his political experience, and your Lordships rejected it accordingly. That certainly is a matter to which you probably paid little attention at the time, but I heard it repeated again and again outside. That is one of the reasons why I feel certain that the ancient feeling against this House has to a large extent been abated.
But the other fundamental reason is that this House no longer is supreme. It can no longer reject at will measures from the other House, but there must be the formality of the two years' process. If you intend to alter that you cannot do it obviously without a change in the House. You cannot do it under this Government, first of all because this Government never mentioned such a thing at the Election.
I beg your pardon. Does the noble Lord mean to say that the Government at the Election said they were going to alter the Parliament Act of 1911?
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
That is what I meant. Therefore, you cannot do it under this Government. Nor do I believe you will ever be able to accomplish it by any Government that lays such a scheme before the country. There are only one or two things which I wish to say in supplement of what was said by the noble and learned Earl with regard to the constitution and the change of the powers of this House. In the first place, I do not expect he would add what I think must be included. If this House is to be changed at all I do not see by what means women who are Peeresses in their own right can be excluded from the right to sit in it. An Act of Parliament has been passed deliberately declaring that women shall not be robbed of any single privilege by virtue of their sex. The whole constitution of your Lordships' House at the present moment, though, as your Lordships know, there is a varying opinion upon the matter, prevents them sitting here. Directly you attempt to change the constitution of the House, I submit you must admit them.
970 In the second place, I think it ought to be possible for members of your Lordships' House to select which House of Parliament they will enter. The electoral disabilities of this House ought to be taken away and if a member of your Lordships' House likes to stand for a seat in another place he should be at liberty to do it. I can see no reason for objecting to any such scheme as that.
Finally, I think that the Speaker's veto is in need of revision, not because anybody challenges its impartiality but because of the uncertainty with which it acts. It is an extraordinary thing that we should have had in two successive Sessions the same Bill, introduced and brought up for us to consider in one Session without a certificate as a Money Bill and coming up in the next Session certified as a Money Bill. What struck me as more remarkable was that a Bill which manifestly was a Money Bill—that with regard to giving a subsidy to the beet sugar industry—should have come up to this House without any certificate at all. I could not help wandering why it was. When I asked the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, in all innocence, what was the urgency about the Bill, I could not understand what it was that had startled him out of his usual urbanity. I understood afterwards that it was because, in truth, there had been some muddle about the Bill, which had to be put right here, and that was why it had not been certified as a Money Bill. That sort of thing ought not to continue, and it ought to be perfectly possible to put it right either by such a Committee as the noble and learned Earl suggests, or by a Committee into which you introduce some outside person who is not a member of our House. But that is a small matter. These are pure questions of machinery.
If you agree on the fundamental principle that the members of this House should be reduced, that the principle of hereditary representation should be retained, that the Speaker's power should be subject to control, and that the provisions of the Parliament Act should be preserved, subject to this: that there should be some further safeguard against some measure that would completely abolish either the Crown or the Second Chamber; then it appears to me we have got a common foundation on which we 971 can work. I know quite well that to many of your Lordships, whose associations with this House stretch back through an unbroken succession almost as long as our history, such powers will seem to be nothing but a pale reflection of the splendour and power that have passed away. But change is about us, and people and bodies that cannot adapt themselves to the varying conditions in which they live must suffer, and our hope, as I see it, of maintaining the usefulness which this House formerly exercised is in adapting ourselves to modern conditions in the manner that has been suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Birkenhead.
§ LORD HUNSDON OF HUNSDON
My Lords, the matter which I have to put before you is one of detail, and is a concrete proposal which the noble Marquess has described, I am afraid, as futile. It concerns the powers of your Lordships' House, and it involves the repeal of the Parliament Act. I am, therefore, suffering under a great disability, for we have just heard three most authoritative and important speeches, almost the basic principle of which has been that the Parliament Act must stand as it is. At the same time the view that I wish to put before your Lordships is one that is held largely outside this House, and I should like, if I may, to have the opportunity of speaking upon it. It is the view put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Laming-ton, last week, that it is not worth while to make any change in your Lordships' House unless the Second Chamber has a voice in finance. We all know that the Commons were summoned to grant Supplies in the old days, and that they used that position as an instrument for the redress of grievances, but all those matters have passed away. I believe that the only question now is whether the sole control of that House is in the interests of the nation.
I would like, therefore, to submit to your Lordships the following thesis. It is not possible for any popular Chamber which is elected on such a wide franchise as ours, to regulate finance in the true interests of the country, unless it be, I will not say checked but supported in its endeavour by a Chamber whose members are not dependent for the retention of their position on the popular vote. Let us consider the matter for a 972 moment from the point of view of economy, which always was important and is now essential. The figures which I am about to put before you require adjustment, but they are substantially correct, and they are, anyhow, sufficient for my argument. There are roughly 19,500,000 voters in the country, and of this number 17,000,000, or about 87 per cent., pay practically nothing towards certain taxes which produce about two-thirds of the Tax Revenue. The majority of this 87 per cent. are necessarily ignorant of finance and political economy, and therefore there is no inducement to them, so far as they can tell, to reduce two-thirds of the taxes of this country. How is it possible to expect economy from a system like that?
Or, if you look at the tax question, as it ought to be regarded, as a science which has for its whole object the levying of taxes with as little detriment as possible to the interests of the country: How can the electorate understand these things? May I give one example. Your Lordships all know perfectly well that after an exhausting war, the two great needs of this country are saving and enterprise, and it is also perfectly obvious that the only source from which savings can come is superfluous income. It is also perfectly obvious that the greater the superfluity the greater the opportunity for saving. It is also clear that the only money which can be justifiably risked in new enterprise, in opening up now markets to maintain our excessive and increasing population, is also superfluous income. Yet your Lordships know if you go about among the electorate and point to the contrast between men in rags and men in affluence, assisted perhaps by the limelight of the Press on the misconduct of the idle rich, that a large number, and, as I understand, an increasing number of that electorate will join you in attacks on savings and enterprise which are essential to their very existence. Therefore, as it seems to me, it is most important that the popular Chamber should have the assistance of a Second Chamber which will not be biased by the sentiment of constituents, but will have for its sole desire the levying of taxation so as to do as little injury as possible to the trade of the country.
In all this question of reform, finance, I think, is the keynote of the whole position. You could, if you wished, bring 973 everyone to the same financial level through finance. You could abolish all inducement to thrift or enterprise, and completely ruin the country. In saying this I am not thinking of what the Socialists might do if they came into power, I am thinking of what the Coalition Government did in 1921, and of what is and, as I think, must be the tendency of all Parties when this intricate and scientific question of finance is under the sole control of the popular Chamber.
There is another point. It is not just that those who pay two-thirds of the taxation of this country, and their share of the other one-third, should have no effective voice in finance. There are 2,500,000 Income Tax payers who pay this two-thirds, and they are in a minority in the electorate of seven to one; and the 90,000 Super-Tax payers, who also pay heavy Death Duties, might, for all the influence they have, be in the same position as your Lordships, without any voice at all either collectively or individually.
Therefore, for every reason of common sense and justice, these people ought to be represented in some rough-and-ready way in a Second Chamber with a voice in finance. Thus you would get a nearer approximation than at present to the old and perfectly admirable principle, that those who pay taxes should vote them. No doubt it will be said that such a scheme is impracticable, but as it is possible in all other countries I cannot see why it should not be possible here. I may add that I have examined the French system with the assistance of some French friends of mine, and they inform me that it works satisfactorily. It certainly will be impossible unless some attempt is made to carry it out, but if an attempt is made, and if the highly precarious and dangerous position of the country is explained to the people, as it never has been, I am certain that they will be as willing to make sacrifices for the permanent good of their country, themselves and their children as they were in the time of war. For these reasons, which I have given shortly and I fear most inadequately, I submit that to give a reformed Second Chamber a voice in finance would be wise, just and practicable, and if it is wise and just and not practicable then our present system of government stands condemned.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
My Lords, in this very useful debate, initiated by the noble Duke, I rejoice in the declaration made by the Lord Chancellor from the Woolsack the other day and in the endorsement given to it to-day by the noble and learned Earl the Secretary of State for India. There are two questions involved which have to be dealt with simultaneously but separately—a reform of this House and an amendment of the Parliament Act. I range myself as a bitter opponent of the Parliament Act, but I also range myself with the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, in saying that it is not a question to-day of the repeal of that Act but a question of the amendment of that Act. The Lord Chancellor I think put his finger on the kernel of the whole problem when he said:The position to-day, as your Lordships know well, is this, that any Bill, even one making fundamental changes in the Constitution of the country, a Bill attacking contracts or property or any one of our great institutions—any Bill whatever, if passed and insisted upon by the other House, must in time become law. It is there, I think, that the real danger lies.The Lord Chancellor put his finger absolutely on the spot.
I will not attempt to give you any catalogue of what can be done under the Parliament Act, but I notice that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Buckmaster, was shocked to remember that under the Parliament Act this House could be abolished, whether the people of the country wish it or not, whether any mandate had been given to the other House for the purpose or not. I was rather surprised that Lord Buckmaster when dealing with the absurd and indefensible proposition, as he showed, that the Parliament Act can be amended under the Act, forgot to mention that this House could be abolished under that Act. There is another possible use of the Parliament Act which would be even more distasteful to the noble and learned Lord than the abolition of this House, and that is a permanent re-enactment of D.O.R.A. That could be done under the Parliament Act to-day by a fanatical majority of the other House intent on producing a new heaven and earth in the shortest possible space of time, without any regard as to whether the electors wished any such enactment or not.
975 In that connection I must quote again, as my noble friend Lord Lansdowne has done, the words used by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith in the debate the other night. He said:—Real reform would not consist … in an attempt to protect the people against their own representatives.That is a very flashy phrase but as a matter of fact it altogether begs the question. The real question is: Ought a single chamber to have sovereign power in matters of legislation? May I put it another way: Ought a majority in the House of Commons to have the power to deal with fundamental questions without some special precautions being taken under the Constitution to ensure that the majority of the electors wish them to be so dealt with? Your Lordships know what my answer to that question would be, but the first witness I desire to quote in answer is the Earl of Oxford and Asquith. When he and his colleagues had to advise His Majesty about the grant of a Constitution to the Transvaal, they were very careful to give the Senate of the Transvaal all the powers that this House claimed before the Parliament Act. And again, when the noble Earl wanted to pass the Parliament Act he felt that he had no right to attempt such an immense change in the Constitution without a direct mandate from the people. Therefore he asked His Majesty for a Dissolution on that, specific question, and he came to the struggle of the Parliament Act armed with a mandate from the electors, thereby acknowledging that it was not a subject that ought to have been dealt with on the bare authority of a majority of the House of Commons.
And, lastly, I would remind Lord Buckmaster and his colleagues that there is a provision in the Parliament Act itself, the only piece of precaution in it, the only safeguard in it, which provides that the Parliament Act may not be used by the House of Commons for prolonging its own life. If that is not an attempt to protect the people against their own representatives I do not know what it is. All that we are asking now is that that provision should be extended to cover all that class of questions which the Lord Chancellor had in his mind when he used those notable words the other day. Remember that no single civilised sovereign State is prepared to take this 976 risk, except ourselves. There is no single civilised sovereign State, except ourselves, which leaves the fundamental institutions of the country open to such a risk. Noble Lords may say, the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Haldane, may say, that there is no danger, but the statesmen of no other country in the world think it right to run the risk of that danger, whether likely or not.
Therefore it was that I read with such profound relief the words used by the Lord Chancellor, showing that the Government had it in their mind that within the ambit of the Parliament Act, to use the words of the Prime Minister, it was possible to make changes that would safeguard the fundamental institutions of this country. That is really the main problem before this House and before the country. The reform of this House has to accompany it, but that, in my judgment, is a minor question. The real question is what is to be the form of safeguard for the fundamental institutions of this country, and that is the problem which this Government and this Parliament, I hope, will solve.
§ VISCOUNT FINLAY
My Lords, I desire to add a few words on this matter, which is of vast importance, particularly when one has regard to the possibilities of the present time and of a future which may not be very distant. A great deal has been said about reform of the House of Lords, and it will be found that when this matter is spoken of two questions are dealt with which, to my mind, are very different and ought to be kept separate. One of them relates to the powers which the House of Lords should have in dealing with legislation which has passed the other House; the second concerns the composition of the House of Lords. These two questions are not only entirely different in their nature but differ absolutely as regards their importance.
To my mind the question of the Second Chamber having adequate power to deal with any situation that may require revision is of far greater importance than the question of its composition, and for this reason. In theory a very great deal may be said against the present composition of the House of Lords, but in practice I think we get, for the purposes of debate and business, a Second Chamber which will 977 bear comparison with any other Second Chamber which exists in the world. It is very often the case that institutions which on paper look as if they were anomalous and indefensible work very well in practice. That is the case in England, perhaps, more than in any other country, and I venture to say that when you look at the debates in this House, when you consider either their matter or the manner in which these debates are conducted, it will be found that this House need not fear comparison with any other Second Chamber in the world. I believe, as has been said often enough before, that this is the best Second Chamber in existence.
Many attempts have been made to carry out the reform of the House of Lords. They have been failures, and mostly because the two subjects to which I have referred have been mixed up. There is unanimity of opinion, I think, that a strong and effective Second Chamber is wanted. As to the composition of that Chamber, you find an almost infinite variety of opinion. It is not, of course, surprising that there should be agreement as to the necessity of a. Second Chamber, because the danger of a single uncontrolled Chamber is manifest, and it is nowhere more manifest than in a country like England which has no written Constitution at all. Most countries have Constitutions which lay down what the Legislature may do, within what limits it may enact and carry laws, and what things are to be regarded as part of the Constitution and are either not to be altered at all or cannot be altered except with extraordinary precautions for securing that the true view of the people has been heard upon them. We have no Constitution. Parliament is omnipotent. Any change, however vital, may be made by Parliament, and this makes it all the more necessary that we should have a Second Chamber, a revising Chamber, with effective powers.
Since the Parliament Act became law our powers have been crippled in two very important directions. I shall be very brief upon the first of them because it has been touched upon already. It is absolutely anomalous and absolutely wrong that the decision as to what is a Money Bill should rest with the Speaker of the House of Commons. I do not think that any one can pretend to defend 978 that provision. Each of the two Houses has a Speaker. This House has the Lord Chancellor as Speaker and the House of Commons has its own Speaker. Surely, where the two Houses differ as to whether a Bill is a Money Bill, concerning which the House of Commons is supreme and omnipotent, the least you can do is to secure that the Speakers of the two Houses should meet and settle the question? Nothing of the kind. The Parliament Act provides that the decision of the Speaker of the House of Commons shall be absolutely final.
This is really a most important point, because there may have been, and have been, various views taken as to what constitutes a Money Bill, as has been already pointed, out in the course of this debate, and it is a possibility of the future that you may have that which is really a measure of Socialistic so-called reform in the guise of a Money Bill. You ought to have, for dealing with a case of that kind, some strong, independent tribunal, whose decision will command universal confidence. We are, during the present Parliament, safe from any revolutionary Bills coming up with the assent of the Lower House, but no one knows how long that may last and I think it would be madness if we were to neglect the opportunity of making provision that no revolutionary legislation should be passed until we can make sure that it really has the people of the country at its back.
Suggestions as to what that tribunal should be have been of different kinds. I confess that I am not very much enamoured of the proposal that was made by my noble and learned friend the Secretary of State for India. I rather incline to the suggestion which has been made on other occasions, and which was mentioned in the speech with which the noble Duke initiated this debate, that you should have a tribunal of three. You naturally have the two Speakers, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House of Commons, and it is desirable that you should have a third man of high judicial authority. The proposal which the noble Duke mentioned, and which I believe has been brought forward before, was that to these two should be added the Lord Chief Justice.
You would then get a tribunal which, if it were agreed—and I think the power of certifying a measure as a Money Bill should depend upon a unanimous decision 979 of that tribunal, if it were set up—would be a tribunal of unimpeachable authority whose decision would command the confidences of everyone, and who might be trusted to represent the reality of the matter. Without some such protection our position is really precarious, and might any day become dangerous, with calamitous results to the country, because no one knows when a General Election may come and no one knows what the result of the next General Election but one might be. If we failed in time to make provision that the voice of the country should be heard before any revolutionary changes are made, the position might be dangerous.
The second point on which it appears to me the Parliament Act, as it stands, seriously entrenches upon the usefulness of this House, is with regard to the security for the measures sent up representing the settled opinion of the country. It seems to me that the framers of that Act confused the opinion of the House of Commons for the time being with the opinion of the country. There have been many cases. We had a notable example in 1895, where it turned out that the opinion of the House of Commons at the time was not the opinion of the country. The thing has taken place over and over again, and if you allow the passage three times of a Bill sent up to be in the same Parliament, you have absolutely no security that the House of Commons which has passed it is really in touch with the genuine feeling of the country. Surely it is a minimum of protection that before a Bill is taken to be one that is to be passed over the heads of the House of Lords, the House of Commons which passed it should be one which has not sat for so long as to be out of touch with the country? You must have had a Dissolution between the first passage of the Bill in the House of Commons and the third and final passage. You then have the security that the opinion of the country is taken on the matter. The function of the House of Lords always has been to represent the settled opinion of the people, and I think that to a very great extent the House of Lords has succeeded in giving effect to the settled, deep-seated conviction of the country, as distinguished from the passing and popular opinion of the hour.
980 One matter that I suggest it is necessary to bear in mind is this. We all listened with very great satisfaction to what the Lord Chancellor said the other day, when he pointed out that the matter was under consideration and would receive attention. I desire to suggest that if an attempt is made to deal, in the same Bill, with the composition of the House and with the question of its powers, the whole measure may be swamped. On the question of the powers of the House, and the nature of the amendments which should be made in the Parliament Act, I think there is substantial agreement, so far as we can judge from the debate. No one proposes to repeal the Parliament Act, but I think there is general agreement, in respect of the two points I have mentioned, that the Parliament Act needs amendment, and that if it is amended you would have restored to the House powers which would be of some use in case of revolutionary legislation. I trust that the Government will keep the question of powers separate from the question of the composition of the House. On the question of powers they will find there is general agreement, but on the question of the composition of the House they will find there is an infinite variety of opinion, and if the two matters are dealt with in the same Bill I am very much afraid that the matter of real urgency—namely, the question of the powers of the House of Lords—will be swamped.
Before I sit down I should like to say only a very few words as to the composition of the House. On that there is as great a divergence of view as I think there is agreement on the subject of the necessity of correcting the mistakes in the Parliament Act, as to the powers of the House. A great many schemes have been suggested. Every association, and almost every politician, has its or his own scheme. The lesson to be drawn from the consideration of the subject which has already taken place is, I think, that any elaboration in the schemes of reform would be absolutely fatal. The first thing wanted is absolute simplicity, and the question is a very urgent question indeed, because after the next General Election, or the next but one, we may find ourselves face to face with an application of the powers of this House 981 in a matter of vital importance to the very existence of the country.
It is easy, I think, to negative some plans such as have been proposed. One was that there should be popular election. I do not think the country wants two popularly elected Chambers. The House of Commons, of course, must be popularly elected, and that must always be the predominant Chamber, but it does not follow that the revising Chamber must be elected. I think most people would say that it should not be an elected Chamber. I do not think the House of Commons wants a second elected Chamber in case of conflict between the two Houses, and it is also a matter of difficulty to see how you are to have two elected Chambers. I think the suggestion that the House of Lords should be nominated by the county councils really may be dismissed without much discussion. Another suggestion that has been made is that there should be electoral colleges, consisting of members of the House of Commons for a certain number of divisions of the country. I think that is not a plan that will ever command general assent. Then we have not materials for electing a Senate, such as they have in the United States, where it is an enormously powerful body.
Thus we are driven back to the consideration of what we can do with the hereditary principle, which has existed so long. I entirely agree with a great deal which was said by my noble friend who spoke first to-day as to the lines on which reform should proceed. We certainly want to reduce the House of Lords, for business purposes, to more manageable dimensions. I agree that three hundred is the sort of figure at which we should aim in the composition of the new House, and my own impression is that the greater part of these members should be selected by their fellows, that by a vote the Peers should pick out those who are most qualified to sit here. There would, of course, be a certain number of nominations of those who had held certain offices or of those who might be picked out by the Crown, represented by the Government of the day, for the distinction of a seat in this Chamber.
I think it is most important that those Peers who are not sitting in the House 982 of Lords, either by election by their fellows or by right of some qualification, should have the right of standing for the House of Commons. It is desirable more desirable, I think, than it is easy to say—that the Peers, particularly the young Peers, should take an interest and active part in the politics of the country, and that political education will be best acquired by their taking part in contested elections, and acting as members for constituencies in the House of Commons. You would have also, of course, a certain number of nominated members.
But I do not desire to discuss this question of the composition of the House at any length, for the reason that I do not think it is an urgent question. For working purposes, when all is said and done, we have an admirable House. We have no reason to dread comparison with any other institution on the face of the earth, and I do not think we should be too humble about ourselves. Modesty is all very well, but, whether you look at the debates which take place in this House or the capacity of its members for the transaction of business we may venture to compare ourselves with any other Assembly, either in this country or in the rest of the world. What I do desire, and most earnestly desire, so far as any words of mine may have any weight with the Government, is to press upon them to deal with the question of powers. That is important, and may become vital in the near future. The question of the constitution of the House does not press at all.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
My Lords, I feel that I ought to ask the indulgence of the House in intruding myself in a debate in which so many most distinguished members of your Lordships' House have taken part. It is on account of the great interest that those of us who belong to the Labour Party feel in this question that I have risen—and I would remind the noble and learned Lord who sits opposite that I belong to the Labour Party just as much as any trade unionist. May I say, before I ask the noble Marquess the question which I shall ask him, that I wish to thank the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack for one remark that he made. He said that this House required a breath of fresh air. I am quite sure that there 983 are many of your Lordships here to-day, to whatever Party you belong, who will remember this Conservative Government with undying gratitude, as a Government which wished to introduce a breath of fresh air into your Lordships' House.
But the speaker who followed the Lord Chancellor—the noble Earl, Lord Midleton—went further. He put the case of the Labour Party with regard to the House of Lords in words which I most certainly would not have dared to use. I do not think even such a respected elder statesman as my noble and learned Leader would have dared to use them. Let me read them to you:—So long as this House is recruited very largely from members who cannot possibly be in sympathy with the Labour Party, you cannot expect that this House, able, eloquent, and distinguished as it is, will command the confidence of that Party which has already once controlled the government of this country.I would ask you to inquire within your selves why it is that Peers should not be in sympathy with the Labour Party. Is it because they are Peers? Is it because they own property or land? If that is so, it is as good as saying that we who belong to this House come here simply in order to defend our own interests, and can never be expected to vote against them. If that is true, I venture to suggest that this House needs something more than just the brief opening of windows in order to let in a breath of fresh air. It requires the most drastic closing of doors, so that none, of us may enter here again. It requires certainly more drastic steps than the noble Earl, Lord Birkenhead, suggested.
After all, what the noble and learned Earl offered us is very little more than a re-shuffle of the old 1922 Cabinet Resolutions. He has tackled nothing fundamental. He attacked the hereditary principle, but his suggestions would not remove it. He has not mentioned that most vital question, the term of years for which appointed members should be allowed to sit here. He condescended to suggest that if there is a Labour majority in another place fifty members of the Labour Party should be allowed to come and sit in your Lordships' House in order that your Lordships might meet them. If there is a majority of Labour in the other House it is not for us to meet them, it is for us to be governed by them. They are 984 there as an elected majority. It is perhaps worth noting that the suggestions of the noble and learned Earl have not got the sanction of his Government. Apparently he has been sent forward as a sort of scout—or galloper, shall we say?—just to let these suggestions drop, and see how they are taken.
However, I am not going to follow the noble and learned Earl in the rather unnecessary badinage with which he started his speech, directed at my colleagues who sit with me on this Bench. The point is that in our opinion he shirked the real and vital question that is before your Lordships. You have to make up your minds quite definitely whether you are pressing for a reformed House of Lords in order that we may be sufficiently disguised so that it may be possible for us to obtain new powers; or to regain old powers, or whether you are really pressing for a new Second Chamber that is consistent with true democratic principles.
Most noble Lords have been amazingly frank in this debate, and have made it perfectly clear what they want. They want to erect a barrier against Socialism, against constitutional Socialism, which another place is trying to introduce. One noble Lord said that he "shuddered to think what might be done by a Labour Government with a full and uncontrolled majority in the House of Commons." You will note that he Said a Labour Government, not the Triple Alliance, or some body outside the House acting unconstitutionally, but a Labour Government returned by a majority of Labour votes to the House of Commons. I think after that we begin to understand why even the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, is in favour of this great progressive reform and why it was that, at what I might call a private Session of your Lordships' House which met some time ago to discuss this question, the Labour Party in this House was not asked to participate in the discussion. Why? Because, of course, we could not be invited to discuss our own undoing. We could not be invited to discuss the erection of a barrier against those progressive measures which we wished to see introduced.
So I will ask the noble Marquess if he can give me an answer to the question as to whether it is the desire of the Government sufficiently to disguise this House in 985 order to enable them to give it certain new powers, or whether their desire is the erection of a real, democratic Second Chamber? The noble Marquess may reply that a Cabinet Committee is being set up to hold an inquiry and that he cannot anticipate their Report. Surely it is useless to appoint a Committee and to tell them to look for a policy, if they do not know on what principle that policy is to be based. I do not ask the noble Marquess to tell us anything about the details, but I want to know on what principle and in what direction they will pursue their inquiry.
There is one other point I should like to put before your Lordships. We have heard that this new House of Lords is to be set up in order to control the too hasty decisions of the House of Commons, and we might ask ourselves this question. If this new House of Lords is to be set up according to principles that are consistent with real democracy, how on earth can anybody imagine that this new democratic House of Lords will make itself a barricade against constitutional progress proposed by a democratic House of Commons? The House of Lords or the Second Chamber will only be a check on the House of Commons in so far as its reform is incomplete and it remains out of sympathy with democratic opinion in the country.
My noble and learned Leader has been twitted with having put forward a most conservative suggestion and of having said: "Leave well alone. Leave this House of Lords as it is. It is working very well." He said nothing of the sort. It is perfectly true that he said that he preferred the present House of Lords to the sort of House he would expect to get from the present Government. It is perfectly true that he said: "Leave well alone." But he also said—and here I quote his words—unlessYou can make it a Senate which accords with the opinion of the times as manifested by the election of the House of Commons, and which will change as the House of Commons changes.I venture to suggest that that is, not leaving well alone. We realise that we cannot get it now, but when the day comes that we can get it, your Lordships will find that we are not perhaps so reactionary as the noble Earl, Lord Oxford, suggested we were.
986 We are against the reform of the House of Lords, but we are in favour of a new Second Chamber. If this opportunity is taken of erecting a Party barrier against constitutional progress the Labour Party will one day have its opportunity and it will set matters right. It is possible that there may be a sort of political jugglery going on all the time and that when the Conservatives are in office the House of Lords will not be put on a proper democratic basis and that when we are in office we shall have to right that. It is possible—I await the answer of the noble Marquess with great interest—that our suspicions that this desired House of Lords is a sham are unfounded. I hope they are. If so, I will be the very first to apologise and will take great pleasure in apologising for my unjust suspicions. I think I can pledge noble Lords who sit on this side of the House to lend all their help to the Government if the Government desire to set up a Second Chamber which is in real sympathy with democratic principles.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY)
My Lords, I do not think that many words of mine are required to bring this most interesting debate to a conclusion. I should like to be allowed to join others in expressing thanks to my noble friend the noble Duke for having initiated this debate in a very admirable speech and for the opportunity he has afforded your Lordships of contributing in a most noteworthy way to the discussion of this great question. A great deal of independence of opinion has been shown in your Lordships' House in the course of the two days discussion. Great differences of opinion have been developed. Indeed, everybody has spoken from every Bench, including the Treasury Bench, with complete independence as to the views he has put forward. The noble Earl who has just sat down has illustrated exactly the same tendency. He has not even been quite consistent with himself because I really did not make out from the beginning to the end of his speech whether he was in favour of the reform of the House of Lords or of leaving it entirely alone, which was the advice tendered by his noble and learned Leader.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
Might I explain that I think I said at the end of my 987 speech that I was against the reform of the House of Lords, though I was in favour of setting up a really democratic Chamber.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
The noble Earl is in favour of the abolition of the House of Lords in point of fact, and I doubt very much whether that is really the view of his noble and learned Leader.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I have watched the development of the opinion of the noble and learned Viscount for many years, and I have noticed a growing conservatism about him which has been very encouraging to us, and which has done something to reconcile me to the Labour Government. I certainly thought that as long as he remained an ornament of it very violent measures were not likely. But his colleague, the noble Earl, is younger. He has that one advantage over the noble and learned Viscount, and his idea of fresh air is something in the nature of a hurricane.
I am very glad that this debate has taken place. I think your Lordships will have realised that the Government were anxious to place the whole problem before the House and the country. They are going to have an inquiry—an inquiry amongst themselves I mean—but they were anxious to place the whole problem, its difficulties and possibilities, before the country, and any one who listened to the admirable speech of my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack during the first night of the debate would realise that he did not shrink from touching on all the most difficult parts of the subject, and that he expressly guarded himself from affirming any conclusion. My noble friend the Secretary of State for India, perhaps more greatly daring, went into more detail, and touched upon even more difficult parts of the subject, but always claimed for his colleagues, and even for himself, an open mind.
Of course, it is not surprising that the representatives of the Labour Party should not want the House of Lords strengthened. One never imagined that they would. I was a little more surprised at the attitude of the Liberal Bench. I gathered from the noble Earl, Lord Oxford, that he was in favour of 988 democratising the personnel of the House of Lords, but was not in favour of giving us increased power. I am quite sure, whether it be by improving the personnel of the House of Lords or by altering In some detail their authority, that the country is in favour of a more influential House of Lords, and a more powerful House of Lords. I feel certain of that. The reason is to be found in the dangers of the time.
The noble Earl who has just sat down tried to put us in the dilemma of saying whether we were in favour of having a House of Lords which was going to resist the will of the people. We have no desire of the kind. There is no desire to resist the will of the people. I can give the noble Earl a complete assurance upon that point from this Bench, and from all my noble friends who sit around me. That is not the point. The point is whether the people need the present constitution, and whether the present House of Lords really have the opportunity of making the wishes of the people prevail. If I could only persuade the noble Earl so, I am really a far better democrat than he himself, because I really want the will of the people to prevail, whereas what he wants is merely the success of the temporary Socialist majority in the House of Commons. We are really the true democrats.
I am not going to detain your Lordships more than two or three minutes, but in all seriousness I would suggest to the House and the noble Lords on the Bench opposite, how necessary it is at the present time to give some opportunity for reconsideration of hasty legislation. Reflect upon the situation at the present day. The electorate is growing, it is inexperienced, it will be more inexperienced as soon as the two or three millions more of women voters are added to the franchise, as they certainly will be, I do not say next year or the year after but in the course of a certain number of years not very far removed. The electorate is inexperienced, and the times are very restless. We have grave economic difficulties, there is great labour unrest, there is great industrial change, there is great mechanical development, and there is every element which might lead to a momentary majority passing legislation which did not represent the wishes of the people. All that we ask is 989 that by its personnel or its powers—for I am not going to pronounce upon it—or by a combination of both, there shall be in the Second Chamber sufficient authority to prevent hasty decisions from doing permanent harm to the country.
If people have made up their minds after the matter has been really put to them, and after they have had time to consider it, by all means let it be as they desire; but do not let it be a charge against this generation that by their negligence they deprived the people of that re-consideration which is requisite, and left to their successors a far worse inheritance than that to which they themselves succeeded. We earnestly hope that as the result of our deliberations, when they have been communicated to Parliament, and when, as I hope, they have been confirmed by Parliament, we may be enabled to bring about such changes in the constitution of your Lordships' House that the difficulties of which I have spoken may not eventuate. I earnestly hope that we shall have your Lordships' good wishes in the task that is before us.
THE DUKE OF SUTHERLAND
My Lords, before withdrawing the Motion I should like, not only on behalf of myself but on behalf of many of my friends here who share the same views, to express our cordial thanks to His Majesty's Government for the very kind and enthusiastic way in which they have met us over this matter. I should also like to say that we are overjoyed to see how enthusiastic members of His Majesty's Government themselves are in taking up this matter, and forming the Cabinet Committee of which the noble Earl, Lord Birkenhead, is, I believe, to be a member. After so many failures on this great question, we hope that His Majesty's Government will at last be able to produce something 990 which will at least have the possibility of success. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.