HL Deb 20 July 1927 vol 68 cc664-77

LORD BRAYE asked His Majesty's Government whether, in their scheme for reform of the House of Lords, they propose to retain in the House all the Lords Spiritual, or only a certain number of them, or none of them; and whether they propose to include elected representatives of any religious bodies in this country other than the Anglican. The noble Lord said: My Lords, a month ago a debate was initiated in this House on the reform of this House. The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack read out to us a scheme which the Government proposed to put before the House more fully on a later occasion. He adumbrated certain changes under the heading of the reform of the House of Lords. "Adumbrate" is a very favourite word with the newspapers. In fact, he shadowed forth certain changes which were anything but shadows when you came to examine the substance of them. They were the most far-reaching, important and novel propositions which have ever been shadowed forth or put forward in this House. They did not meet with concurrence on the part of some noble Lords, who were, however, in a minority on that occasion. They did not meet with the concurrence of the country at large.

It is a question now whether this catalogue of changes, which were, as I say, very far-reaching—I need not enter into them now because they were thoroughly discussed at that time—will be revived or resuscitated on some near occasion in the future. We do not know at all. We do not know it in Parliament and we do not know it in the country at large. There have been several opinions expressed on the subject since that occasion a month ago, and it would appear that the Government have the intention of producing a programme either identical with or similar to the one which they then laid before us. However that may be, we have had no official pronouncement from the Government, so far as I am aware, as to what they intend to do. There has been no absolute declaration on their part as to the position which they mean to take up in reference to what they term the reform of the House of Lords. It is certain that nothing will take place this Session in that direction, but a new Session will be very soon upon us. I presume there will be an autumn sitting, and I suppose we must wait until then in order to be informed of the Government's intentions in this regard.

But the question is one which must be faced sooner or later, and there is one item in that programme which was given us by the noble and learned Viscount which seems to me to call for special attention. That is the question of the inclusion of Lords Spiritual in this Assembly, because they do form an integral part of this House and of this great council of the nation. If this was not a House of Parliament but a lecture hall, I should be tempted to go into the question of their position in this House. Anyhow, I will say that, before the Reformation, for hundreds and hundreds of years, they were not only an integral part of this House but they were the chief part of this House. But one night—to be exact, November 17, 1558—came when the whole history of Parliament and of the nation was changed. The last Catholic Sovereign died and the same night the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury died at Lambeth. All the Bishops of England were exiled, persecuted, deprived of their sees. A new order of things was instituted. New statutes of the Church were set up, and the very names of the sees (which had been reverenced in England for hundreds and hundreds of years) were adopted for the new sees by the new Ministers, or rather by the new Minister, Cecil, and a new current to the whole of English history was set going.

As I say, to venture upon that controversial and very important item of history would be out of place at this moment. I confine myself to the state of things at the present hour, when we find that the statutory Church has the right and the privilege to constitute twenty-six of her members as legislators in this Chamber. I do venture to think that if you begin tinkering with the constitution of the House of Lords this question will loom very large in your endeavours to bring about a reform. Personally I must say that the word "reform" seems to me out of place in all this large controversy. Surely "reconstitution," or "alteration," or "change" would be more applicable to the projects which the Government have put before us and which have so much interested the nation at the present time. However that may be, whether reform or reconstitution or alteration is the right word, a very great change, in plain English, has been contemplated. I do aver that in that change the question of retaining or of eliminating the representatives of the statutory and Established Church ought to be included. It is a question that must be faced sooner or later, and the people should have it placed before them in order to form an opinion and to be able to contemplate the change that is contemplated here.

The whole of this controversy will, I presume, be before us at no very distant date, and the question will arise sooner or later whether any religious body in this country should have representatives here besides the representatives of the Established Church. There is a problem too vast and too profound, in my opinion, to be discussed in this House or in the other House. It is a question that ought to be considered by the whole country, and should be referred to the country by a referendum or at a General Election a General Election and a referendum in that aspect being synonymous. This is a question, in other words, which should be before the public. Certainly it is not before the public now. It has aroused no attention that I am aware of, it has certainly aroused no controversy in the country, and it is one of those points that will not be comprehended as important until it is really before Parliament.

At present only one section of the religious bodies in this country is represented amongst us. All the others, to use a common phrase, are out in the cold. I am not here to advocate their representation in the House of Lords or, for that matter, in the House of Commons either. Whether religious orders, as such, should have representatives in any Senate or Parliament is a question too vast to discuss now. It is certain that there are different opinions on that topic. There are many in this country, and very many all over Europe and elsewhere, who would debar any religious personages, representing sects or sections, from Assemblies or Parliaments in their various countries. If I am not mistaken, there is nothing of the kind in the Parliament of France. I know that Louis Philippe, the last King of the French, admitted Bishops into the Senate, but that is long ago and I do not think that since the Empire in France anything of the kind has been renewed. Whether any of these numerous and influential bodies, such as the Wesleyans and the Baptists, should be represented in this House, I am not here to say, but I do say that as long as one section of the religious bodies in England is here and enjoys this privilege, then in the name of common sense and of all sober reason the others should have a chance also to expound their views, to bring forward their projects and to express their opinions on non-political questions such as temperance and the like. But at the moment they are excluded.

This whole question, when it was discussed in this House, came upon Parliament like a thunderclap. It is too sudden, too important and too far-reaching to be dismissed in two or three debates. It may come up again, and if it does, as presumably it will, I hope that more attention will be paid to it in both Houses of Parliament, that the importance of it will be recognised, and that, along with larger questions, the question to which I have ventured to call your Lordships' attention of the representation of religious bodies in this House will also be considered, and either negatived in toto, or partially allowed, or wholly embraced as a new device for obtaining the opinions of these large and influential religious bodies. Personally, I think the time will come, and not perhaps in any far future, when all religious bodies, as such, will be excluded from the councils of Europe. It is certain that the religions of Europe are in the melting-pot. The Catholic religion alone is eternal, and in this country there is and will be more and more division in the Anglican Church of the various sects and sections, which now hardly hang together and do so only because of the large funds that support them, the large and ample endow- ments, taken from mediæval times and intended for entirely other purposes, that have passed to them.

I venture to think that the country has not paid sufficient attention to this important change which has been—to use that word again—adumbrated, shadowed forth. But I think that it will, and the more attention is called to the matter in preparation for that event the better. The people of this country, of our England, are not a political people at all. No country in the world is so immersed in sport, or what is called sport, and the most important questions are left entirely to the Government. The Government enjoy a reign which no other Government ever enjoyed in this country. They are almost absolute, and, with the female electorate being enlarged, they may look forward, so far as I know, to a very long reign indeed in this country. When the Government enact what they like the country follows suit quietly and without controversy. We seem, as a nation, to follow most devoutly the dictum of Sir Robert Walpole, or, begging his pardon, perhaps in this House I ought to call him the Earl of Orford, the greatest Prime Minister we ever had, for he kept the country at peace during a whole war. Quieta non movere, which, being interpreted, means "Let sleeping dogs lie." He would not raise controversial matters in the House of Commons or afterwards in the House of Lords.

When I say that this matter of the inclusion of Lords Spiritual has not been noticed, I may remind your Lordships that it was hardly touched upon by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack on the occasion to which I have already called attention, a month ago. Let us see exactly what he did say on the topic. As he did mention it once, it is very germane to the matter to see exactly what it was that the noble and learned Viscount said. He said: So, with regard to the constitution it may be put in this way: That the House shall consist of not more than 350 members and shall be composed, in addition to Peers of the Blood Royal, Lords Spiritual and Law Lords, of (a) hereditary Peers, elected by their Order, and (b) members nominated by the Crown, the numbers in each case to be determined by Statute; that with the exception of the Peers of the Blood Royal and the Law Lords, every other member of the reconstituted House of Lords shall hold his seat for a term of years to be fixed by Statute, but shall be eligible for re-election. That is the only passage in the noble and learned Viscount's speech, which we all followed with the greatest possible attention, in which he mentions the Lords Spiritual.

It does not appear from that whether the Government intended that they should elect one another, or elect some of their number as representatives of the rest, or whether they should remain intact. That, I think, should be elucidated by the Government before the Session closes, and if the noble Lord, whoever he may be, who is destined to answer the Question I have put on the Paper, will give us an answer one way or the other, merely as a fact, what is going to happen with regard to the Spiritual members of this House, I think it would be of great advantage to the House itself and to the public in general.


My Lords, I would like to say a very few words before the Question is answered, and I am sure your Lordships will extend to me the indulgence which is always accorded to a member who addresses this Assembly for the first time. My reasons for speaking on what may possibly be regarded as a thorny subject is that I am one of the small number of Nonconformists sitting in this Assembly, and possibly—I do not know—I am the only one on this side of the House. As a lifelong member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, which numbers millions of adherents in this country and other English-speaking countries, I can perhaps claim to know something of Nonconformist opinion as regards Church representation in Parliament, although, of course, I do not venture to speak as a representative.

I believe there exists some law or regulation that no clergyman of the Church of England can be a Member of Parliament, but there is no such disability regarding Nonconformist ministers. In spite of that fact, however, it is a very rare occurrence for Nonconformist ministers to seek or secure election, and at a recent General Election—not the last one—although there were four or five such candidates, I think it is correct to say that not one succeeded in attaining his political ambition. The fact is that there is no great desire that the spiritual leaders of the Nonconformist Churches should engage in politics. How far that view may be modified, if the reform of your Lordships' House became a very live question, it is impossible to say, but the difficulties of providing for representation of ministers of Churches other than the Established Church of England would be almost insurmountable.

There is another aspect of the case. If the presence in the House of Lords of Nonconformist ministers should be definitely suggested, not only would some opposition be aroused,, but I fear there would be a counter demand for doing away altogether with the representation of the Church of England by its Bishops—a demand which I, personally, would deplore and resist, for the spiritual Lords have in this Assembly, of course, rendered and do render invaluable service to the country. His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, with his usual fairness and catholicity of mind, has suggested that a reduction in the number of Bishops in this House may be accompanied by the election or selection of representatives of other Churches and religious bodies. Such a suggestion, coming from such a quarter, will without doubt be much appreciated by all friendly Nonconformists; but I cannot help thinking that, whatever may be done regarding the existing representation of the Church of England, it will be found that there is little reason for believing that other Churches desire that any of their ordained ministers should become members of your Lordships' House.


My Lords, the noble Lord who initiated this discussion is evidently one of those persons of a simple and trustful disposition who, whenever they see that a Motion has been debated by this House, are under the impression that it will be followed by immediate legislation. I am not quite so old as the noble Lord, but I am afraid that I am of a more sophisticated nature, and I do not anticipate anything of the kind. What I do anticipate is that for many years to come we shall be discussing the composition of this House, and I think that questions as to whether the Catholic faith or Nonconformity, or anybody else, from Peeresses in their own right to conscientious objectors, shall be represented in this House, will be debated with considerable vigour for many years to come.

But I welcome the opportunity which the noble Lord has afforded me of responding to the pressing invitation which was addressed to me and to other persons interested in this question in the important manifesto issued by my noble friends behind me the other day, which appeared in the Press, I think the day before yesterday. When a question of this kind arises there is always any amount of candid criticism, and the candour often verges upon unfriendliness, but I hope that nothing that I am about to say this afternoon will be interpreted as unfriendly by my noble friends on the Front Bench. In the first place I desire to pay the Government this compliment. I think that they have committed the error, which is very rare on the part of a Government, of trying to be too honest. The fact is that in their anxiety to fulfil various pledges, nebulous or distinct, which have been given from time to time, and with an equal desire to satisfy much-respected supporters who sit behind them here and elsewhere, they appear to have committed themselves, on paper at all events, to a programme which, in my humble opinion, is of far too ambitious a nature. My experience is that if you try to do too much you end by getting nothing at all.

I have been associated with this particular question for more years than I care to recall, and that is my excuse for intervening on the present occasion. I have come to the conclusion after all these years that in this matter we ought to proceed gradually, and to satisfy ourselves with as little change as possible. However convincing may be the arguments which have been advanced by my noble friends behind me, with whose objects I entirely sympathise, and however powerful may be the arguments in favour of turning this into a modern Assembly, what I am perfectly convinced of by my own observations is that, although this may be advocated upon platforms, nearly everybody, with a few solitary exceptions, is anxious to do as little as possible. I am quite convinced that what people want in this matter is not, in short, a maximum, but a minimum. As regards this particular question I confess, perhaps more or less with a sense of shame, that I am a man of peace. I am all in favour of settling this question, if pos- sible, by arrangement, and by trying to get something small by agreement rather than courting failure by attempting too much, by creating violent opposition amongst our opponents, and promoting dissension among our own ranks.

If I might be allowed—and I only venture to make these suggestions in view of my long interest in this question—if I might be allowed to offer advice to my noble friends it would be this, that they should concentrate solely upon essentials, and I will indicate what I consider those essentials to be. They are to my mind three in number. First of all, we should strive and insist upon some alteration of the iniquitous arrangement whereby a man who may be indirectly under Bolshevist influence may decide what is a Money Bill and what is not. The second object which I would strive for is to obtain absolute security for the period of two years' delay to which we have the right. The third object—and perhaps it is as important as any other—is to eliminate from this House the numerous persons who are no use to us whatever, and who in many cases bring discredit upon this Assembly. I contend that these are perfectly reasonable objects foe which to strive, and that it would be very difficult for any sensible and fair-minded person to oppose them.

In a word, I claim for these three objects which I have enumerated that they are practical politics. On the other hand, much as I respect the object aimed at by my noble friends behind me, and although I fully agree that in theory there is nothing to be said against them, I feel that we are almost beating the air if we endeavour to carry them out. If we confine ourselves to obtaining a minimum we may succeed in obtaining it with the assistance, as I have already said, of all reasonable politicians in any Party. If we strive for more we are only inviting failure, and the noble Lord opposite (Lord Braye) will go down to his grave—and so shall I probably, as far as that goes—without the question of the composition of this House ever having passed the stage of academic discussion.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Braye, as your Lordships know, is a well-known Roman Catholic Peer and I think is anxious as to the fate of Roman Catholic Peers in a reformed House. Unlike my noble and sophisticated friend Lord Newton I am of a very simple disposition myself, and, speaking as a Protestant Peer I might enquire as to what will happen to Protestant Peers. But I should like to go a step further and ask if the Government now have any scheme of House of Lords Reform at all. My reasons for asking the Government that are these. I was unfortunately abroad and therefore absent from the very important debate which took place in this House last month. In that debate explicit proposals—not definite but still explicit proposals—were put forward by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack for reforming this House, and these were confirmed in the course of the debate by the noble Earl, the Secretary of State for India, and the noble Marquess the Leader of this House. Noble Lords spoke of these proposals being embodied in a Bill and the noble Earl, Lord Birkenhead, who was asked whether it was the intention of the Government to carry this Bill into law in the lifetime of the present Parliament answered: "Of course it is." The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Sumner, suggested that the Bill was to be regarded as a matter of substance rather than of form, and the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, replied: "Substance and effect." Therefore it is quite clear that it was intended that the proposals should be embodied in a Bill.

Then a debate took place in the House of Commons, and now as far as I can make out, although nothing definite has been said in this House, these proposals are regarded as dead, but I believe that some mystery still attends their fate. Your Lordships may have seen last week a cartoon in that excellent periodical Punch, although I regret that in these days it has rather a bias in favour of noble Lords opposite. It is entitled "A Futile Course" and it shows the Leaders of the Opposition Parties as greyhounds, and a hare wearing a coronet labelled "Lords Reform Scheme." One greyhound says: "After all, it is only a disappearing dummy." I regret to say I have no experience myself of this new and thrilling sport of greyhound racing, but I should like to ask the noble Marquess, or whoever replies for the Government, whether "disappearing dummy" is a substantially correct description of the proposals which were put forward in your Lordships' House.

And there is a leading article in The Times this morning, dealing with the Prime Minister and his visit to Canada. Speaking of the Prime Minister and these proposals, it says:— The accepted view nowadays is that they never interested him personally except as a curious whim of some of his friends, that he was not sorry to see them come to grief, and that the whole incident may now be dismissed as a necessary process of educating Ministers in 'post-war mentality.' I happen to have been a member of the Bryce Conference where we fully discussed the functions that are appropriate to a Second Chamber, but it did not occur to any of the members of that Conference that a Second Chamber should be used, more particularly this Second Chamber, for the purpose of educating Ministers in post-war mentality or in mentality of any other kind. I trust that the impression I have gathered in the Lobbies and elsewhere and in the Press is correct and that the noble Marquess will be able to reassure me that these proposals are dead. In passing, I may say that he will certainly greatly comfort many of his supporters in another place by doing so. I do not propose to follow the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and give an opinion of my own on the large question of House of Lords reform, but I would like to add one word with regard to the bearing of these recent proceedings upon the position of your Lordships' House.

I happen to have been a member of this House now for a good number of years. My memories of this House go back to the days when the late Lord Salisbury, father of the present Leader of the House, was Prime Minister and Leader of this House. In those days the House was a rather different place in some respects to what it is now. For instance, in those days the Press Gallery was full, not only on the occasion of what is known as a full-dress debate, but on an ordinary working day in this House, and there were lengthy reports of our proceedings in the daily Press. On the steps of the Throne could frequently be seen the Leader of the House and Cabinet Ministers and Under-Secretaries, who had come to listen to what was said be their colleagues in this House; for in those far-off days what was said by Ministers in this House really mattered. I wonder, if that great man, the late Lord Salisbury, could have witnessed the recent proceedings in this House, what he would have thought and said about them. There has been a full-dress debate lasting over three days. Three Cabinet Ministers have spoken and gone very fully into the proposals for the reform of the House of Lords. Then there is a debate in another place. Now we learn, as far as we can ascertain, that these proposals are dead. Speaking as a humble individual member of this House, who attaches some importance to the privileges he still retains as a member of this House, I wonder whether these proceedings altogether redound to the credit and prestige of your Lordships' House


My Lords, the rules of your Lordships' House are a mystery to almost everyone and I confess that the observance of them is always fertile in surprise to most of us. But I must say that when upon the Paper of your Lordships' House there appears a Question as to the representation of Spiritual Peers in a reformed House of Lords, and upon that there is founded a sort of rechauffée of the debate we had almost a month ago on House of Lords reform, we have almost the strongest example of very liberal reading of the rules that I have ever witnessed. I suppose same consideration ought to be extended to the noble Lord who has just sat down. He happened to be away on business—I hope on pleasure perhaps—from this country a month ago and he thought it necessary that your Lordships should not lose the benefit of his speech, and he therefore gave it on this occasion. I shall not be tempted to go once more into a discussion on that topic which occupied three nights of your Lordships' time a month ago. I will only, however, say that the proposals which were made by my noble and learned friend upon the Woolsack on that occasion were the proposals of the Government and they remain the proposals of the Government. If the noble Lord had been present at the debate, he would have been well aware that they were only offered as a sketch, and that we distinctly said we were most anxious to hear and to consider any suggestions that might be made from members of your Lordships' House or from other quarters in respect to those proposals. But there they are. Now the noble Lord says your Lordships' House has fallen in reputation of recent years.


I did not say anything of the kind.


The noble Lord made a sort of sketch of how leaders of the House of Commons and Cabinet Ministers of every description used to appear in crowds on the steps of the Throne listening to our debates on ordinary days. He told us how on ordinary days the steps of the Throne were occupied by Privy Councillors in regiments listening to your Lordships' debates. It does not become us to boast of our reputation, but I think the debate a month ago made no little noise in the country. I should have said that we produced a very considerable effect on that occasion. The difficulties, if there were difficulties, were not in your Lordships' House, but in the House of Commons. The debate in your Lordships' House on that occasion, I say with equanimity, will challenge comparison with the debate that subsequently took place in the House of Commons on the same subject. We must not be tempted to go back into that discussion. I will only say, with reference to what my noble friend Lord Newton said, that I do not think those proposals were very ambitious. I do not agree with him. It may be that sufficient steps were not taken to prepare public opinion for these proposals. That may be; I have nothing to do with that. But as to their being in themselves ambitious, I would say, and I think he will agree with me if he considers them carefully, that they were very moderately conceived and very moderately put forward.


They will take a Session to get through.


He was perfectly right in the final observations which he made. In any proposals which are put forward let us have nothing to do with anything except essentials. I certainly do not belong to a Party that is in favour of reckless reform. Nothing more than essentials ought to be proposed; nothing more than essentials should be carried. Let them be as moderate as possible. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to go back to the Question before the House. I will say in reply to the noble Lord that in the proposals which were put before the House by my noble and learned friend upon the Woolsack it was contemplated to retain Spiritual Peers in the reformed House of Lords—Spiritual Peers not in the same numbers as they sit now, but in a less number, and if the noble Lord will do me the honour to refer to the remarks that I made on the third day of the debate he will find that I dealt fairly fully with the topic.


The noble Marquess will pardon me, but the number of Spiritual Peers was not mentioned by the noble and learned Viscount.


I certainly did not say the number. What I said was that no conclusion had been arrived at by the Government as to the numbers except that they would be a smaller number than they are at present. That is what I venture now to repeat. The noble Lord has spoken of the representation of the ministers of other denominations in your Lordships' House. That is a subject which has been before House of Lords reformers for the last thirty or forty years. The project is a very interesting one for which there is a good deal to be said, but there are very great difficulties in the way, as my noble friend who sits behind me (Lord Hayter) mentioned. May I say, parenthetically, how glad we are to welcome him in your Lordships' House and how glad we were to listen to his maiden speech. As I was saying there is a great deal to be said for the inclusion of ministers of other denominations, but there are very many difficulties in the way, and upon that matter, as upon the other, no conclusion had been come to by the Government and no conclusions were put forward by my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack.


My Lords, the only observation I have to make is this. The difference which has arisen is, in the view of those whom I represent, a domestic difference with which we do not propose to interfere. You will doubtless accommodate your household relations among yourselves.