HL Deb 07 March 1935 vol 96 cc28-38

LORD ROCKLEY had given Notice of the following Motion:—That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty praying that His Majesty may be graciously pleased to allow that his undoubted Prerogative may not stand in the way of the consideration by Parliament, during the present Session, of any measure relating to a limited creation of Life Peerages that may be introduced.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this Address, the scope of my remarks must properly be chiefly confined to procedure, to-day. I might have proceeded by way of Resolution, as indeed my noble friend Lord FitzAlan of Derwent did on a somewhat analogous occasion some seven or eight years ago. The same procedure was followed by my noble friend Lord Clarendon, now Governor-General of South Africa, a year or so later, but, as it seems to me in this matter, and under present conditions, any Resolution of that kind merely ends in being a registration of pious opinions. If there is any hope of getting further in these complications and puzzles, I think it is a better course to proceed by way of Bill, and if I proceed as I have elected, by way of Bill, precedents become important.

This Bill deals with, or affects, the Royal Prerogative. Mr. Gladstone, many years ago, laid down very lucidly and clearly the rules of Parliament when concerned with that subject. More recently the late Marquess of Lansdowne, in 1911, addressed some observations to this House which make quite plain to my mind what the procedure is if I elect to bring in a Bill. Lord Lansdowne said on March 28, 1911, in this House: … any Bill dealing with the constitution of this House necessarily touches the Royal Prerogative … any Bill of which that can be said ought not to be introduced into either House of Parliament without the previous sanction of the Crown… it is in accordance with the practice of Parliament and with the respect which we owe to the Crown that that preliminary concurrence should be obtained. Two days later, Lord Lansdowne, after referring further to the matter, used these words: We therefore draw the conclusion that if a Bill affecting the Royal Prerogative is brought forward by the Opposition"— or I would venture humbly to suggest by a private member— it is indispensable that the Royal Assent should be signified before the Bill has been actually introduced. Accordingly, I shall beg leave to introduce the Bill which I have in my mind under this procedure. That being so, no other question in my judgment would arise, to-day, except the question whether His Majesty should be respectfully approached to sanction consideration of a Bill such as that which is outlined in this Address.

It seems self-evident that we cannot discuss the subject before discussion is sanctioned. Assuming that His Majesty were to say "No"—that he did not sanction a discussion—there, so far as I am concerned, the matter would end. If, on the other hand, His Majesty is graciously pleased to say "Yes," with, I presume, the concurrence of the Cabinet, then I should at once put down on the Paper of this House a Motion for First Reading. The Bill would then be printed, and your Lordships would have it fully before you before the Second Reading, of which I should be glad to give full notice, is taken. I would only say at this stage that in drafting the Bill I shall be very conscious of the importance of a strict limitation of the numbers of Life Peers, and the whole of my plan will be sketched out on that basis.

Perhaps I may add one or two remarks on the present occasion which seem to the point. One is that I have brought forward this proposal entirely on my own responsibility, as I think the time is suitable or opportune, and I feel that the constitution of this House cannot for ever remain adamant against every suggested variation or amendment, although so far it has never been found possible to devise an agreed scheme of change or reform. Further, I need hardly assure your Lordships—certainly not those who know me best—that this is in no sense a Party move. Whatever is done I want to be done for the best interests of a useful Second Chamber, and I hope that a simple proposal like tins may afford common ground for a, helpful, if modest, alteration in our constitution, and that all your Lordships who believe in the desirability of a Second Chamber at all may be willing to approve it.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty praying that His Majesty may be graciously pleased to allow that his undoubted Prerogative may not stand in the way of the consideration by Parliament, during the present Session, of any measure relating to a limited creation of Life Peerages that may be introduced.—(Lord Rockley.)


My Lords, I give full credit to my noble friend for his desire to advance the cause which he has at heart in accordance with the best traditions of your Lordships' House, but I cannot help feeling that the course he has taken is a most embarrassing one. The noble Lord said very truly that his desire to-day was that no question should be introduced except the actual giving of His Majesty's sanction to the discussion of this particular measure. But there are two parties to that. We have to consider what is due to His Majesty; we have to consider what is due to this House. If the noble Lord's Motion is allowed to pass—and I ardently hope it will not be allowed to pass—we shall be restricted, in a matter which has been before your Lordships on a score of different occasions, and on which your Lordships have taken very strong action and have expressed very strong opinion, to a discussion of the roost jejune and, as I think, almost inappropriate character, and the whole of the rest of the opinions which have been put forward over a long period of years must be ruled out.

My noble friend alluded, I think, to what Lord Lansdowne brought forward in 1911. But if we are to take the discussions in this House on the question of Life Peers alone, you have to go back, I was going to say to the Dark Ages—to the period when my noble friend's illustrious relative Lord Salisbury was the Leader of this House fifty years ago. The question of dealing with Life Peers alone was then brought forward. You would think from this Motion that we had travelled no distance since then. We had Lord Lansdowne's action in 1911, we had Lord Rosebery's Committee, we had Lord Bryce's Committee, we had Lord Clarendon's Motion, which was accepted by a very large majority of this House, we had a Motion by Lord FitzAlan of Dement, and finally we had Lord Salisbury's Bill, which, if it did not proceed further, did not fail to proceed because what was contained in it was too advanced, but because a large number of your Lordships protested that it would be inadequate to the case. In face of that, my noble friend comes and asks your Lordships to begin again at fifty years back. I cannot conceive of a greater waste of time, or one which is more likely to have a bad effect on those in the country who do not think your Lordships are sufficiently representative as a revising Chamber.

I do not know what view my noble friend the Leader of the House will take, but I would remind him that the Lord President of the Council, when Prime Minister, committed himself at Perth, on October 25, 1924, to these words: It is our duty to consider, within the framework of the Parliament Act, whether it is practicable to make provision for the machinery of the Second Chamber for preserving the ultimate authority in legislation to the considered judgment of the people, and, if it is practicable, the adaptation or amendment of the constitution of the House of Lords would be a necessary condition for carrying it into effect. And on July 20, 1926, Mr. Baldwin repeated the pledge, and added that it was the intention of the Government to deal with this question in the lifetime of the then present Parliament. I really think that, when we have spent many nights in discussing whether the constitution of this House should be amended in the most material respect, and whether the introduction of what is called the outside element should amount to one-third, one-half, or even two-thirds of the House—I really think that it would be a non-sequitur if we were to go back to the old original proposals by which a limited number of Life Peers would be introduced, which cannot possibly affect the main arguments.

These are two in number: first, that an assembly in which a Socialist Government can only command from twelve to twenty members out of 750 is an anachronism; and, secondly, that we have already travelled far beyond the confines within which my noble friend would leave us. I really think that people in the country who are hostile to this House, of which I have always been a most ardent supporter, might well say that to begin to consider now whether we should have a measure for bringing in a limited number of Life Peers would be very like taking a man who has suffered the loss of a limb and offering him a piece of sticking plaster. I venture to say that this is a proposal which, however well my noble friend intends it, would be regarded as a backward step, instead of a forward step, and I very much hope that your Lordships will refuse to pass the Motion which he has put forward.


My Lords, we did not expect that controversy over this matter would begin to-day, and I do not want in any way to stimulate it. I will only-say on that point that I do not agree with the noble Earl that the period of the Dark Ages was when, as he said, the noble Marquess the late Lord Salisbury led this House. But, that apart, I rise merely to say that we shall offer no sort of opposition to the Motion which has been proposed. The noble Lord, the noble Earl, and myself, in our experience of another place, always felt it our duty to give what aid we could to any member who desired to introduce a Bill which he thought would benefit the country. On this side we shall support that principle this afternoon, but in supporting it we must, as your Lordships are aware, reserve our complete right to differ, if we must, from any Bill that is introduced.


My Lords, perhaps it would be convenient if I were to say just a few words at this point on the question that is before your Lordships for decision this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Rockley has stated quite accurately what the constitutional procedure is with regard to these matters, and he cited what is now the recognised fount of recent authority, the debate initiated by the late Lord Lansdowne in 1911. There is no doubt at all that it is a breach of the law of Parliament to pass through either House a Bill affecting the Prerogative of the Crown without the assent of the Crown. It is possible to ask for that assent either before the Bill is introduced or at any period during its discussion. Your Lordships may remember that in the course of the discussion on the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Salisbury—to whom I hope I may be permitted to say how glad everyone in the House is to see him returned in health and strength—the point was taken by noble Lords opposite that it was impossible to proceed even to the First Reading without the prior assent of the Crown. Precedents were cited to show that that was not the invariable rule, and the noble Marquess, after obtaining the First Reading, introduced the necessary Motion asking that an Address should be presented, a Motion in similar, though not identical, terms to that which my noble friend Lord Rockley has moved this afternoon.

On this occasion, my noble friend has taken the alternative which was then urged and has moved his Motion before introducing his Bill My noble friend Lord Midleton indicates his objection to a discussion limited, as it must be if this Address is passed, by the terms of the Address to the creation of a limited number of life Peers. I do not express at this stage any opinion as to whether or not it is desirable to alter the constitution of your Lordships' House by such a limited creation, or whether it is a useful thing to do that in the absence of any wider measure of reform. The only point to which I have to address my mind as Leader of the House for the time being, and as the representative of His Majesty's Government, is whether or not we should advise your Lordships and later on, if the Address be passed, whether we should advise His Majesty to refuse to allow the Bill to be introduced or discussed. It does not seem to us—and I speak here for my colleagues in the Government as well as for myself—that it would be right to advise His Majesty to exercise his undoubted Prerogative right in order to prevent a discussion of this topic upon which my noble friend Lord Rockley wishes to obtain the opinion of your Lordships. Therefore, although in no way committing the Government or any member of the Government to any opinion upon the actual merits of the proposal, which so far has only been indicated in outline, we propose to offer no sort of opposition to the suggestion that an Address be passed which will ask His Majesty to permit a discussion of the Bill; and if your Lordships see fit to pass such an Address we shall deem it our duty to tender to His Majesty the advice that the Address be acceded to. That, I think, is again in accordance with precedent.

In the case cited in 1911 there were actually extensive proposals for limiting the rights of your Lordships' House embodied in the Parliament Bill at that time under discussion, and notwithstanding that fact the Liberal Government of the day, through the mouth of Lord Morley, expressed the view that it was not right to prevent Lord Lansdowne from introducing his Bill, and accordingly they intimated that they should humbly advise His Majesty to accede to the Address, although they made it quite clear that they had no intention whatever of being parties to any postponement of their own proposals which were embodied in the Parliament Bill. That seems to me a rather stronger case than the present one, because at that time the Government had actually before Parliament proposals which went much further than Lord Lansdowne's Bill, and in spite of that fact they said it was not a proper use of the Prerogative to prevent Lord Lansdowne's Bill being discussed.

I propose, and the Government propose, to follow that precedent. I express no sort of opinion as to whether or not such a limited measure of reform is desirable. I express no sort of indication as to what action the Government may feel disposed to take when the Bill is presented for debate in your Lordships' House, but so far as we are concerned we offer no sort of opposition to the Address being moved and passed, and, if it be passed, we shall humbly advise His Majesty to give his assent to it. That, as I understand, is exactly the attitude adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Snell, who has just spoken. It seems to me the constitutional and correct attitude, and I am very glad to find myself on a matter of constitutional propriety in such complete accord with the Opposition.


My Lords, I should like to say just one word on the question of procedure. There is no question at all that the Leader of the House has accurately stated what the procedure of your Lordships' House ought to be in a matter of this kind. My noble friend Lord Rockley has pursued, as I am sure he would always do, a most correct course, but I think it important to note that the Leader of the House has slightly modified my noble friend's dictum as to the proper procedure by pointing out that this Resolution which is essential need not necessarily be passed before the introduction of the Bill. It must be passed before this House or the other House, each in its own case, has finally dealt with the measure. That is the procedure. I should like to say that this matter was very fully discussed last year upon the occasion when I had to trouble your Lordships at some length on this subject. The decision we then came to is really, if I may say so, a binding decision, for that is the way in which the order and procedure of your Lordships' House is built up. Questions come up and are decided, and become the procedure of the House henceforward. I do not mean to say there are not modifications, but those are the broad lines upon which we work out questions of order. Therefore we may now look upon it as a settled order in a matter dealing with the constitution of your Lordships' House—the personnel at any rate of your Lordships' House—that it cannot be dealt with except following upon a Motion addressed to the Crown, but that Motion may be made at any time during the passage of the Bill through Parliament.

Upon the merits I shall not say anything, because I observe my noble friend the Leader of the House was careful to say that he did not commit the Government in any sense to this proposal. I have heard him say that sort of thing before, and not always upon a formal Motion such as my noble friend has made to-night. Even upon the merits of a Bill, when it has come for First Reading or Second Reading, I have heard my noble friend carefully guard the Government from taking any line on this question of House of Lords reform. This is a matter for the Government. I confess that I think this course becomes a habit of the Government, and it is a mistaken habit. They must ultimately make up their minds to take some line upon House of Lords reform. As I see the General Election approaching nearer and nearer, and perhaps not exactly the same confidence in its result which prevailed a short time ago, I cannot help regretting that the Government did not make up their minds a little sooner. Your Lordships are aware that unless something is said before the General Election, those who believe in the doctrine of mandate—I do not believe in the doctrine of mandate—will certainly say in the next Parliament that Parliament is not qualified to deal with this subject. I think that matter has deeply bitten into His Majesty's Government, and they are aware of what may be the result if nothing is said before the General Election.

As to my noble friend Lord Rockley, I think he is to be thanked for raising this subject again. I agree with my noble friend Lord Midleton, and I would have ventured to ask the House to go much further than I understand my noble friend wishes to go, but in these days we must be satisfied with what we can get. At any rate I am very much obliged to my noble friend for keeping this matter before the notice and attention of the Government and the country.


My Lords, I had not intended to take any part in this debate and will intervene for a moment or two only. Arising out of the observations of the noble Marquess, to which I think I am entitled to make some rejoinder, I would remind him, when he pleads with the noble Viscount who leads the House that the Government should make up their mind on this question, that when his own Bill was introduced on the first occasion two or three members of the Government voted against it. That is a fundamental fact when you are considering the Government's position in this matter. In these circumstances the prospect of the Government, through the mouthpiece of the noble Viscount, coming forward with an agreed policy on House of Lords reform seems to be somewhat remote, more particularly when you remember that when a certain number of members of the other House interviewed Mr. Baldwin upon this matter he suggested that the Government was unable to do anything, for two reasons. In the first place they had not the time; and in the second place, if they had got the time they had not made up their minds, and could not make up their minds, to an agreed policy. If they are unable to do that now, the prospect of their being able to do it on the eve of a General Election is less likely to materialise. I think the noble Marquess will have to contain his impatience that something should be done in regard to this matter a little longer. We have had proposals for reforming this Chamber from time to time ever since I came here, and they have always ended in exactly the same way—confusion and defeat for those who bring them forward.


My Lords, I should like to reply to my noble friend Lord Midleton in two sentences. He complains that my proposed Bill is restricted, and he vigorously advocates the wisdom of an all or nothing policy with that unflinching temperament which he has often shown in these matters. In reply, I would say that that is exactly the reason why we never get on. If we will try and agree on something, which is my hope on this occasion, there is a much better chance of improving the constitution of this House than there is by putting forward programmes about which half of the members of this House continue to be disagreed.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly: the said Address to be presented to His Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before six o'clock.