HL Deb 04 December 1935 vol 99 cc65-76

LORD STRICKLAND had given Notice that he would call attention to some possible improvement in the functions of the House of Lords and in particular with reference to the overseas Empire; and move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I approach the weighty Motion which stands next in my name not so much from the point of view of its connection with the history of this House for many generations as from that of experience with the great democracies of Australia and other parts of the overseas Empire, and the most deeply felt conviction that no opportunity, no means, no change in constitution should be left out of consideration which may be conducive to the better consolidation of the Empire. I ask your Lordships' House to adopt the view that the recent General Election has resulted in a verdict of the electors against the abolition of your Lordships' House. Only two issues were distinctly before the electors; first, that the sanctions adopted by the League of Nations should be effective; second, the abolition of the Upper Chamber. As to other issues at the Election there was agreement. The Government have been more conspicuous for successful achievement in diminishing unemployment than any of their rivals could be, and therefore we may say that a verdict has been given which gives to this House an exceptional opportunity of reforming itself.

It is a question of either reform or suicide. The opinion of the electors may be interpreted as an acknowledgment that this country and the Empire recognise the high efficiency of the work of this House, and desire it to be increased on the points where its work is of great service to the nation and to the Empire. This House is a stronghold of liberty, of the administration of justice, with the greatest security for impartiality, and here is to be expected the protection of the Constitution of this country and all the component parts of the Empire. This House is conspicuous for being unique in so far as here untrammelled freedom of speech can be enjoyed, without any fear of subservience to Party exigencies, and without any terror of the vote of fickle constituencies or of Party organisations. Freedom of speech can be used here, notwithstanding that a powerful bureaucracy, with a large majority on one side of the House, can give replies that are not satisfactory and have to be repeated.

In these circumstances I appeal to your Lordships' House to be up and doing. Providence helps those who help themselves. A period arrives in all human history when there must either be progress, retrogression or extinction. Many in your Lordships' House are of opinion that the emblem of death, with its scythe to cut us down, is already on our horizon. Frequently we see very few Peers attending our debates, and those who do attend are for the most part such as have held high office or have been elected to serve the electorate in another place; so much so that the element of having in this House the foundation of some form of selection, if not of categorical election, is not a practical prospect. The opposition in this House at the critical stage of the Third Reading of a Bill is usually perfunctory. In these circumstances I do not appeal to this House or through this House to those who study this most important question throughout the country, to attempt any far-reaching measure of legislation that would aim, as past efforts have done, at solving this problem fundamentally. I appeal to the young men of this House, and to students outside, to attempt, by several Bills dealing individually with points which can be remedied, as it were to save the position by rearguard action against those who are clamouring for our extinction.

Step by step much may be achieved, but the foundation of all achievement must be to alter the constitution and the practice with reference to the creation of Life Peerages. Life Peerages have been the subject of discussions of the widest range since the days of the Wensleydale Peerage Case, when it was decided that under the Constitution the King could not create Life Peerages. To-day there is much progress in the contrary direction, but practical suggestions for dealing with the difficulties have seldom been boldly brought forward. Everyone desires the possibility of the Crown creating Life Peerages to be dissociated from Party and political pressure. That might be done by statutory powers being created, to the effect that the Crown might create Life Peerages, either on no advice or on advice that was not political, to bring into this House representatives for life of the highest standing in the various compartments of our national and Imperial life. In order to preserve the constitutional nexus between the Crown and Parliament it might be provided that annually an Address should be presented to the Crown, voted by Parliament, that so many Peerages should be created, and fixing a sum of expenditure. Such an Address would be a tribute to and an acknowledgment of the financial responsibilities that Ministers have to respect.

The difficulty in creating life Peerages has to be grasped boldly, as a nettle is grasped. It is a matter of money. The noble Viscount who leads this House reminded us yesterday that the Government represents the democracy of England. Now one of the principles of democracy is that the labourer is worthy of his hire. Therefore if we are to reform this House by bringing here the highest and best representatives of various groups of thought, we cannot ask them to come here not only at the sacrifice of their time and health and opportunities, but also at the price of the destruction of their financial position. It is in the grasping of this point that the hope rests of finding a solution of difficulties that so far have been insoluble. It cannot be denied that Peers have to pay more than those who are not Peers for everything in every walk of life—living as it were in an atmosphere of noblesse oblige.

Then there is the question of travelling expenses if we are to have representatives from the overseas Empire. In this connection I beg leave to bring before this House what I personally observed in Australia. There a bright idea was adopted by His Majesty's Government by Statute to forge a new link of Empire by having on the Judicial Committee of His Majesty's Privy Council representatives of the Judicial Benches of the great Dominions of the Antipodes and appointments were made and most gladly accepted. But when the moment came to bring that honour to fruition very few could face the expense. It became worse than an empty honour. One of those so honoured who did come over to England at his private expense was left to wait for months before he was invited to sit at Whitehall, and then he was invited to sit on some very unimportant question, and not on an important constitutional issue. That link has to be again worked out, and those who have held the office of Chief Justice or of Premier overseas should furnish a body from which some might be annually selected for the honour of being life members of this House—an honour which they should be able to accept without any fear of the ruin of their private finances.

The next point I wish to urge upon your Lordships is to meet the sugges tion that the objections raised against the hereditary principle in your Lordships' House should be overcome by asking hereditary Peers to elect some of their number. I ask your Lordships to oppose that suggestion in the strongest manner, because, it would be destructive of the most eminent and useful of our prerogatives and privileges, the opportunity of addressing your Lordships' House and those who lead the debates here fearlessly, in full enjoyment of a freedom pf. speech which does not exist in any other place, because elsewhere the crack of the Party whip is much more often heard, and when it is heard it is not merely a crack, but is often followed by "sanctions." If, as has been suggested, it were enacted that hereditary Peers should be elected to the number of 200 or 200, it would be quite easy for the Party whip to take care that those who are most energetic or loquacious or most independent should not be elected. And what would be the fate of leaders of the Opposition if Mere were such a system of election? Many of them have uttered speeches in this House which certainly would deeply shock those whose loyalty to the Crown and affection to the Empire cannot be doubted, and which those of my age would certainly not tolerate without anger. The majority that came here to vote for the Government of India Bill could just as easily be brought here to exclude many, if not all, of those who have made such speeches.

Therefore any attempt to introduce the element of election in this House would be utterly destructive of inducements to those who want to give their experience, their resources and their time to the service of their country in their maturer years. It would diminish the inducement which such former statesmen have to belong to this Chamber. And so long as this Chamber is constituted as at present, whatever may be said against the hereditary principle, it does provide a certain large field of selection from which the Crown can constitutionally select Ministers, who are Ministers in every constitutional sense when the House of Commons is dissolved; or who may be Ministers during a period of public emotion and still be constitutional Ministers without having a seat in the House of Commons. To have a large panel of selection for such an important purpose and for the protection and support of the authority of the Crown is an invaluable asset, not only to England but to the Empire. If it be objected that in the production of that panel of selection the hereditary principle has blots, I would ask your Lordships, what human institution is perfect? And is it not a duty to put up with imperfection rather than confess that no solution is possible? On the Front Bench in this House we have official representatives of the Government. They always come here, while the Benches opposite are usually filled by those who hope to be on the Government Benches some time in the future, and who qualify in Opposition by showing the attributes which might justify their selection.

This House also performs the very eminent service of correcting the faulty draftsmanship of legislation which is passed elsewhere. It is one of its principal functions, and we have had an example of that to-day, with reference to the procedure adopted for correcting the absolutely unworkable structure called the Government of India Act which was condemned in unanswerable language as unworkable at the Third Reading stage, but which is now going to be made workable by a most capable effort of draftsmanship, legal study, and knowledge of practical administration. Theoretically that ought to have been done before the Prorogation. Now the pudding is to be cooked a second time. The possibility of that was likened to a new edition of the Apocalypse. Nevertheless it is being carried out.

Then we have to face the fact that in this House there is taxation without representation. The majority of members of your Lordships' House are deprived of their votes, disfranchised, and not allowed to stand for the House of Commons; but they have to pay taxes if they reside in this country. The Irish Peers, however, can stand for the House of Commons. I ask your Lordships' House, and I ask any legal adviser of the Government, why should an Irish Peer be allowed to protect his finances by standing for the House of Commons while an English Peer is not so allowed? That is one reform which appears to me urgent and which might be carried out by one of a series of small Bills by which this House may be saved from disintegration. And I must observe that there is great discouragement in working for one's country and for the Empire by studying questions and coming to this House to get replies that may be equivalent to "No" in 120 words, or may be equivalent to a reproduction of reports coming from overseas, written quite frequently without a proper sifting of their correctness, which ought to be the duty of Imperial Ministers.

I feel it a duty—and perhaps at my age I may be allowed to do it—to warn your Lordships of what may be expected if we do not reform ourselves within the lifetime of this Parliament, where there is a large Tory majority or National majority (call it what you will), where our leaders can boast that they represent democracy, and where, as I have shown, they can assert that there has been a mandate from the electors not to destroy our House because those who went to the country on that cry were defeated. The time will come when the swing of the political pendulum will put the Socialist Party in a large majority in the House of Commons after they have gone to the country on the cry of abolishing this House. When they have got into office, not only will they abolish this House, but they will go on passing Bills for the prolongation of the life of the House of Commons, and we shall have a new autocracy, a one-man Government, Fascism, or anything else in disguise, but not Democracy.

It may be asked, what authority have I for making these prophecies. All prophecies of any value are based on history, and it did happen, when I had the honour to represent the King in New South Wales, that the Leader of the Labour majority, not a big majority, was asked by the caucus to resign, and he did not resign. Instead, he arranged to cross the floor of the House and put the majority on the other side without facing the electorate, which was obviously a constitutional duty required to be done before changing the majority from one side of the House to the other. As there were only three months of that Parliament to run, a bargain had to be made, but the other side would not bargain for a three months' advantage, and so a Bill was passed to prolong the life of the Parliament. I felt it my duty, as custodian of the Constitution, to refuse my assent, and as a result I had to come home, at the end of my term of office, but that precedent has been of great value to my successors in office.

It is indicative of what will happen here. Human nature in Australia is the same as human nature here. They are our own flesh and blood, and though Socialism as interpreted by the text books is rejected by the majority of the electors to-day, the time will come, if we do not reform ourselves, when this House will be dissolved and One-Chamber Government will be adopted in this country. That destruction has begun in a very subtle manner by the most curious legal concoction, which is not legal, and which prescribes that the decision as to what is and what is not a Money Bill shall be entrusted to the representatives of one of the Parties in the contention. That is an obvious parody of the elementary principles of a judicial decision. With a Government such as this, professing the principles that have brought it into office, and having the majority it has, surely some remedy might be found, not in an omnibus Bill dealing with all these difficulties, but in one Bill that would put on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council or some other authority, and not a member of the other House, the duty of deciding what is and what is not a Money Bill?

I think I should say no more on this occasion, although I should be in order if I took the opportunity of pointing out the discouragement of attending this House when questions are put and answers are given which are really no answers. I do not refer merely to my own personal experience. I shall never forget the debate in this House started by a right reverend Prelate on the subject of the distressed areas. We heard potent speeches delivered from the box on the other side by orators who are neither Socialistic nor Communistic, and everybody went away with the feeling that those who asked for information had been given none by members of the Government. If this House is to be useful to the country, if representatives of every branch of national activity are to be brought here, they must receive encouragement for their patriotism, their study, and their energy in giving help to overworked Ministers. Let us have the credit when we come to the floor of this House with experience which is useful, and let there be a general movement to save this House from the danger of extinction which I hear apprehended all around me by a majority of your Lordships' House. Let us realise that reform is better than suicide. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, my noble friend has given an example to your Lordships of that pertinacity and versatility of interest in great political questions which gives him so distinctive a place in your Lordships' House, and I only regret that a larger number of noble Lords were not able to be present to listen to the speech he has just made. He has ranged over a wide field and has made yet one more contribution to that great mass of literature which now stands upon the shelves of our political libraries upon this question of the reform of the House of Lords to which he has addressed himself by this Motion. He has laid before us this afternoon in a very clear and lucid form a great variety of ideas, some original, some less original, but all of interest to an earnest student of the question. He will forgive me if I do not follow him in detail through the various steps of the discussion that he has introduced for reasons that, in a few words, I will attempt to give your Lordships.

I could not, for example, address myself to examine at short notice whether or not ho is right in his anticipation that, were any principle of self-election from their own number, such as has from time to time been suggested, adopted by the hereditary Peers, it would have the effect of depriving us of the opportunity of enjoying the services of those whom I think he described as the more loquacious or the more contentious of our number. I should regard it as a great misfortune from the point of view of the range of our political knowledge were we, by any accident, to be debarred from the services of my noble friend. I am bound to deprecate, however, the reference, less than just I think, that he made to the character of the answers given to some questions and to some speeches from this Bench or from the Front Bench in another place. He will permit me to say that the fault, if the answer is unsatisfactory, does not always lie with the answer; it sometimes lies with the question that does not permit of any very adequate answer being given, and, when he is apportioning blame for the answers that are in fact given, I hope that in justice he will bear in mind the character of the conundrums that he among others has not infrequently put to Ministers on this Bench to which no easy or short answer is always capable of being made.

He has this afternoon raised a very large question, and has associated with it a smaller question on which I will first say a word. The larger question is, of course, the whole question of the reform, as he would recommend, step by step, of the procedure and the composition and the powers of your Lordships' House. The smaller question is whether there is or is not a case to be made for calling to the councils of Parliament, and giving them a place in this House, distinguished statesmen from overseas who might be willing to come and contribute to the Parliamentary work and to the debates of this place. As regards this second and smaller point, I have only one observation to make. I seem to remember that some twenty or twenty-five or thirty years ago there was not infrequently a suggestion made that this House might be reinforced in some such way as he suggests, by the inclusion in it of distinguished statesmen from the Dominions or from overseas who might by their presence reinforce and strengthen the links of Empire as he has suggested. But I think the noble Lord would agree that in the years that have passed since then the whole development of Imperial political thought has been rather away from that kind of federation, that kind of unitary notion, as applied to the Imperial structure, in the direction of what we are now accustomed to speak of as the idea of Dominion nationhood, and that that change of direction is not without its influence upon the suggestion that he has submitted to your Lordships in that connection this afternoon.

I have always myself felt this difficulty, that if that idea had ever been pursued in the way in which he has suggested with the object of drawing to this place those who were possessed of great influence and held positions of public importance in their own distant parts of the Empire, the very fact that they were withdrawn from the distant parts of the Empire and were set in a wholly new environment in this country would probably with the lapse of years tend to diminish the very influence for which you sought to bring them to your councils, and, therefore, you might not in the end find any considerable achievement of your main object. That is all I would say with regard to the smaller purpose that the noble Lord has outlined.

With regard to the larger, I am afraid I must say even less, because he will be the first to recognise—indeed it was, I think, quite fairly stated in his speech—that although there have been repeated and various attempts made from all quarters and at the hands of a great many different persons and parties to find the ideal solution for the question he has at heart, it is almost true to say that the principal result of those efforts has been to make it abundantly plain that, while there is a large measure of agreement upon the general desirability of doing something, there is singularly little unanimity ever to be found upon any precise course of action to carry that general desire into effect. I would remind my noble friend that it has been the experience that that difficulty of concentration upon a single desirable course has not only been felt by Governments in the past, but, as the debates of this House have shown, it has been very clearly demonstrated also to prevail in this House itself.

Therefore he will not, I think, expect me within a week of the formation of a new Government, having regard to the intrinsic difficulties of the question and having regard also to the history with which it comes to us, to say more than this, that His Majesty's Government of course recognise the immense importance of the issues that lie has raised. They recognise also the possible value that may attach in the minds of many people to some of the concrete suggestions which the noble Lord has made. This question will of course engage the attention of His Majesty's Government and may possibly engage the attention of your Lordships' House, and if and when that time comes I can assure my noble friend that the contribution he has made to it this afternoon will not be left aside.


My Lords, may I most respectfully thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House not only for his courtesy but for replying so very fully to the remarks I ventured to make. It has been part of my duty for many years to study constitutional law, but I have learned a great deal from what he has said, and therefore I thank him for his instruction as well as for his courtesy. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at nine minutes before six o'clock.