HL Deb 03 February 1953 vol 180 cc133-47

2.45 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of the Life Peers Bill, the text of which is in the hands of your Lordships. It is a short Bill, and I hope it will be found that it is clearly drafted. The object of the Bill is to authorise the creation by Her Majesty, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, of a limited number of persons to be Members of this House during their lives, without transmitting their right to be Lords of Parliament to their heirs. The Bill suggests that ten should be the maximum number of Life Peers to be created in any year. If that maximum is thought to be too great, then the figure can be reduced in Committee.

The Bill also provides that persons to be nominated for this purpose may be either men or women. That also is a Committee point, for if any noble Lord objects to lady Life Peers he can raise his objection by Amendment in Committee. It seems to me, however, that the argument for including women in the scheme is a strong one. In the last half-century, women have been given the vote—for, as Lord Hugh Cecil once saidin the Commons, voting is quite a ladylike occupation. They have become Members of Parliament and members of the Cabinet, and Privy Counsellors. Every profession is open to them, and the one place where they have no right to be is in your Lordships' House, in this year of grace when a woman is occupying the Throne.

These, however, as I have said, are Committee points, and I am concerned to commend to your Lordships on Second Reading the principle of this Bill. There are, as it seems to me, two solid arguments in its favour, to which I would draw attention. The first derives from the history of the efforts that have been made to reform the composition of this House. The second argument depends upon the merits of the proposal itself. Let me briefly state the arguments under both of those heads.

What is the history of efforts to reform the composition of the House of Lords? The Parliament Act of 1911, which was so fiercely denounced at the time and is now regarded by Conservatives as a pillar of the Constitution, began with a Preamble which stressed the urgent need for reform in the composition of the House—a reform which Mr. Asquith himself declared would not "brook delay." Well, that was forty-two years ago, and, in the meantime, nothing has been done. If the composition of this House was then open to attack, it remains as vulnerable as before. Many schemes for its reform have been propounded, but there has been no change, and, be it observed, many of these schemes have proposed reform on the lines that membership of this House and the right to be a legislator should depend on the personal qualities and experience of a Lord of Parliament.

But, while that is so, since the passing of the Parliament Act, 1911, one very significant change has taken place. The reputation of the House of Lords as a useful, and, indeed, necessary element in Parliament has grown. It no longer claims to set at naught the deliberate and reiterated decisions of the popular Chamber, but it devotes itself to the work of revising and improving legislation and of suggesting amendments which the House of Commons can reconsider. This is the proper work of a second Chamber, which is necessarily subordinate to the popularly elected House, and we owe much to the present Lord Salisbury for the wise advice which he gives us on these matters. May I be allowed to express what I think everybody here feels?—my regret that the noble Marquess is not here this afternoon. I think we may all wish to send him an assurance of our affectionate regard and our wishes for his speedy recovery and return to duty. Men of all Parties acknowledge that our legislation is constantly improved by the work of the House of Lords, and our debates are conducted, as Labour members amongst others are never tired of admitting, with a tolerance and a respect for other people's opinions which make it a model of Parliamentary efficiency. Nobody intervenes in our debates for the mere sake of talking, or unless he has something to say.

The question is whether some improvement is not needed in its composition. Nothing is so good that it cannot be made better. Would it not be an advantage to have amongst us, to take part in our work, members who are selected for their personal fitness to do so? I remind your Lordships that in the Spring of 1948 there was a Conference of Party leaders, suggested by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, at which House of Lords reform was discussed. An agreed statement of conclusions reached at that Conference was issued. It is Command Paper 7380, presented to Parliament in May, 1948. The Conference did not reach agreement on the question of the revision of the powers of the House of Lords; but, assuming that agreement could be reached on that point, the Party representatives at the Conference would have favoured a revised constitution of the House of Lords which would include a provision that members of the Second Chamber—I am reading From the document— should be appointed on grounds of personal distinction or public service. They might be drawn either from hereditary Peers or from commoners who would be created life Peers. Such is the history of the efforts to improve the composition of the House during the last half century.

The Conservative Manifesto at the last General Election, which was signed by Mr. Winston Churchill, contained this sentence: We shall call an all-Party conference to consider proposals for the reform of the House of Lords. When is that Conference going to be called? My noble friend, Lord Samuel, has put this question more than once to the Government Bench and has not yet got a very definite answer. If the Conference is called and arrives at a scheme of reform which includes the creation of Life Peers, I should rejoice; but if it is not called or if, when called, it produces no result, I submit that the argument for this Bill is considerably strengthened. So much for the first argument, which I submit strongly supports this proposed measure.

Secondly, let us consider the merits of the proposal itself. For the House of Lords to do its work of revision and amendment, it must contain those who are best qualified to contribute. There is nothing shocking or revolutionary in the proposal that it contain a limited number of Life Peers. Even as it is, the House is not composed of an exclusively hereditary element. It includes Law Lords, who do not transmit their membership to their eldest sons. It includes ecclesiastical Members, and the son of a Bishop does not inherit his father's place in our Assembly. They day has gone by when the services of men well qualified to contribute to the work that this Chamber can do can be secured by making them hereditary Peers. It is notorious that in some cases well qualified individuals hesitate to accept peerages because of the consequences which that would involve when they die. Let me put a case. Why should not the acknowledged leader of tile trade union movement or the acknowledged head of an important industry or profession he brought into the work of the House of Lords without imposing on him what might be perhaps a handicap to his descendants? That is the argument for the Bill.

I must deal briefly with one or two of the objections which have been raised in some quarters. Some of your Lordships are a little concerned, I think, about the possible effect of this proposal on the predominantly hereditary character of the membership of this House. As I have already said, if the number ten contributes to these fears, we can reduce the number in Committee. I certainly do not deny the value of heredity, either in statesmen or in racehorses; but not every descendant of a Derby winner will emulate his sire's performance. Anyone who considers the history of the Peerage will see how frequently the descendant of a Peer proves his political capacity, from Chatham, in reference to whom Burke quoted the famous line, clarum et venerabile no men Gentibus et multum nostrae quod proderat urbi, to the house of Cecil, which from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II has contributed so much of guidance to the British State. We have only to look at the Front Benches, and the other Benches, to see how younger men who are Members here by hereditary right worthily justify the Peerage of their ancestors.

I do not at all concede that if Life Peerage is authorised, the creation of hereditary Peers will necessarily cease. There will be men who will accept the second in preference to the first. The object of the Bill is to provide a new source of contribution to this House. Let me point out this fact. It is by no means certain that, as time goes on, our democracy will regard it as natural that a man should be a legislator merely because he is the son of his father. Public opinion, in the light of recent events, is prepared to acknowledge the need for a Second Chamber. But, as The Times newspaper observed in a remarkable leading article yesterday, Its composition must be such as to command the respect and confidence of the electorate, and it is a major tragedy that Lords reform, the need for which is universally admitted, should have been so long delayed. My Bill does not seek to alter the distribution of powers between the two Chambers, but it does seek to bring into this House a new kind of Member, selected for his personal worth, without compromising his descendants. I should hope that a convention would soon arise by which the Prime Minister, in recommending these appointments, would consult the Leader of the Opposition in another place, just as a Convention has already arisen that Peers whose occupation and interests do not lie in the political field should, as a rule, abstain from taking part in our discussions.

There is another objection which has been brought to my attention, and with which I should like briefly to deal. It is suggested in some quarters that this watering down of the hereditary element in the House in some way brings into question the hereditary character of the Monarchy, which we all desire to uphold. A moment's reflection will show how misleading is the analogy. The hereditary character of the Crown persists, and is everywhere accepted, because the Sovereign acts on the advice of her Ministers. If the Sovereign claimed to behave like Henry VIII, and alter our law by Royal Proclamation, or, like Charles I, to dispense with Parliament altogether, the hereditary character of the Crown would long ago have been in jeopardy. It is the circumstance that we have a Constitutional Monarchy, where the Crown always acts on the advice of Ministers, that guarantees the stability of the Throne, with the result that the Sovereign is never involved in controversy and the burden of criticism is taken upon the shoulders of her advisers. We have the latest illustration of this situation in the mistaken notion that Her Majesty can be appealed to for the reprieve of a criminal. But the claim of hereditary Peers to be legislators raises questions which have nothing to do with the hereditary character of the Crown, and which does expose this House to challenge, to which the creation of life Peers would provide some answer.

Lastly, among the objections it is said that the proposal contained in this Bill would prejudice the discussions on the reform of this House which Her Majesty's Government have suggested should take place between the Parties. I do not myself see why my proposal should prejudice the Conference. I see from the Order Paper that the noble and learned Earl who leads the Opposition proposes that the Second Reading should be rejected on that ground. I hope the House will not take so summary a course. But it is interesting, to notice the reason which the noble and learned Earl urges. His Amendment objects to the Bill, because it will alter the constitution of this House by authorising the creation of Life Peers without any consideration of such wider changes as Her Majesty's Government have suggested should be the subject of discussion between the Parties. I should think that the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, who is leading the House to-day, and who will speak for the Government, will derive considerable satisfaction from the language of the noble and learned Earl's Amendment, for it surely implies that he and the Socialist Party are willing to join in these discussions, and that the Conference will start with Socialist good will, as well as with the support of the Liberal Party.

Those of your Lordships who are interested in the dialogues of Plato may recall that certain of them are classified as the "Maieutic dialogues." that is to say, the obstetrical dialogues, for ileac(is the Greek word for midwife. Socrates claimed that his method of raising questions brought about the safe delivery of concepts which lay in the minds of others. If this little Bill of mine should have the effect of bringing to birth proposals for there form of your Lordships' House, which include the creation of Life Peers, I shall feel that my intervention has not been without result, and shall acquiesce in the proposal that, after those of your Lordships who wish to take part have spoken, the debate should be adjourned and we should await the upshot.

I may remind your Lordships, in conclusion, that the proposal for the creation of Life Peers goes back a long way. In 1856 the Government of Lord Palmerston proposed to Queen Victoria that Sir James Parke should be granted by Patent a Life Peerage which would not descend to his eldest son, if he had any. There-upon an ex-Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst, who was in his eighty-third year and nearly blind, made a remarkable speech in which he sought to establish that a Life Peer could not be a Member of the House of Lords—not, indeed, on the ground that the Crown had never been able to appoint to the House of Lords on these terms, but on the ground that the practice had fallen out of use. And the House of Lords, through its Committee for Privileges, adopted that view. Constitutional lawyers have debated ever since the correctness of that decision, but there is no doubt that it needs an Act of Parliament to correct it.

May I remind your Lordships that Mr. Walter Bagehot, in his well-known book on the English Constitution writes this about the Wensleydale case—there is a cops of the book in the library of the House: Lord Lyndhurst said the Crown could not now create Life Peers, and so there are no Life Peers; the House of Lords rejected the inestimable, the unprecedented opportunity of being tacitly reformed. Such a chance does not come twice.…Thirty or forty such men, added judiciously and sparingly as years went on, would have given to the House of Lords the very element which as a criticising Chamber it needs so much: it would have given it critics. The most accomplished men in each department might then, without irrelevant considerations of family and of fortune, have been added to the chamber of review; the very element which was wanted to the House of Lords was, as it were by a constitutional Providence, offered to the House of Lords, and they refused it. Mr. Bagehot goes on to say: By what species of effort that error can be repaired I cannot tell; but unless it is repaired, the intellectual capacity can never be, what it would have been, will never be what it ought to be, will never be sufficient for its work. My Lords, this Bill is an effort to correct that error, and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Simon.)

3.14 p.m.

EARL JOWITT rose to move, as an Amendment to the Motion, "That the Bill be now read 2a," to leave out all the words after "That" and to insert: this House declines to give a Second Reading to a bill which purports to alter the constitution of this House in any one particular without any consideration of such wider changes as Her Majesty's Government have suggested should be the subject of discussion between the Parties.

The noble and learned Earl said: My Lords, I rise to move the Amendment which stands in my name. I thought it well that I should put a reasoned Amendment on the Paper because I want to make it quite plain that I am not opposed to the creation of Life Peers, and I am most heartily in favour of the acceptance of the principle that women should be Members of tills House. But, at the same time, I consider that this Bill at this particular time is completely inopportune, and I think it a great pity that it was introduced. May I remind your Lordships of some of the dates, to which, of course, the noble and learned Viscount has referred with complete accuracy. It is a long time ago since Mr. Asquith made use of the famous phrase that the reform of this House "brooks no delay." That was somewhere, I suppose, about 1911, but I have not verified my references.

Over a considerable time the noble and learned Viscount who has just moved the Second Reading occupied as his position in life—and his contribution to our public life fully justified it—prominent posts in all sorts of Governments: Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and so on, in the Governments of Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Neville Chamberlain, and, finally, Mr. Churchill. During all those years he seemed to get on very well and take his daily nourishment, in spite of the fact that no one was doing anything about reforming the House of Lords. The matter was not raised at all until, in the days of the Labour Government—due, it is perfectly true, to the fact that the Labour Government were interfering with the powers of the House of Lords—a Conference was called between the Parties. I should like to refer in a little greater length to the result of that Conference, because it very nearly achieved a remarkable success. We failed over powers, and powers, as we all thought and as I think to this day, cannot be separated from composition. You must look at the whole picture.

On composition, although we did not agree and were not seeking to agree, we did agree to this extent: that we arrived at some principles which we would each of us recommend to our respective Parties ad referendum so that the Parties might consider whether or not they should be accepted. Now what were they? First of all, we thought that this House should be complementary to and not a rival to the Lower House, and that the reform of the House of Lords should be based on a modification of its existing constitution as opposed to a completely new Chamber. Secondly, we wanted so to revise it that a permanent majority was not secured for any one political Party. Thirdly, we accepted the principle that the right to vote and be present here should not be based merely on heredity. Fourthly, we said that the Members of the Second Chamber should be appointed on grounds of personal distinction or public service. They might be drawn from hereditary Peers or from commoners who would be created Life Peers. Fifthly, we said that women should be capable of being appointed Lords of Parliament in like manner as men, and then we said that Peers who were not Lords of Parliament should be entitled to stand for Election to the House of Commons. Seeing the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, opposite, may I say, parenthetically, that I have always thought it a grievous injustice that a man who was a Member of the House of Commons and who, owing to the accident of death of his father, became a Peer, should therefore be deprived of his right to continue with membership of that House. Those were the proposals which were then agreed upon in that sense.

I now pass to November 25, 1952. It was on that occasion that the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, moved a Motion dealing with this matter. He called attention to the statement in the manifesto of the Conservative Party, and he asked a specific question. He said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 179. col. 525): To sum up, I trust that the work done by the Conference of four years ago may not prove wholly valueless. He suggested that thus we might not perhaps 'recapture the first fine careless rapture' of that Conference. At least we should try. I followed, and I ventured to make it plain that I should like to see the composition of the House altered and in particular that I should like to have women here. I said this (Col. 531): I, for my part, and I hope also for my Party, shall be prepared, if and when invited, to embark on further discussions when the noble Marquess thinks the time has come. Then the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, in his speech (I quote from column 557) said—and may I here say that I am perfectly certain that in what the noble Marquess said he would be more likely to be guilty of understatement than of overstatement: I cannot believe that he said what he did say without having good ground for saying it—that he did propose to call an all-Party Conference, and that he would infinitely prefer to obtain this reform by general agreement.

May I pause there? I should like to add that our constitution is a very flexible constitution. The only way you can get anything like stability is by getting the agreement of all Parties; and I believe, therefore, it is very well worth while to see if we can get the agreement of all Parties. If I were in the Government—and I expect I speak for the noble Viscount who is going to answer in the most regrettable absence of the noble Marquess the Leader of the House—I should rather accept the second best solution which did not quite come up to what I thought right, if I got it by agreement, rather than a perfect solution which I could impose on the other side. When the noble Marquess said he intended to call this Conference—it is true he did not state a definite time—he suggested, in answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, that (Col. 557): …it may be—sooner perhaps than the noble Viscount expects—we shall be able to take the first steps to secure a further examination of this vitally important subject. He went on to ask for: the co-operation of all in your Lordships' House, irrespective of Party, to whom the stability of this country is dear. and he hoped that that co-operation would be fully and sincerely given.

It is a fact that down to the present time we have not received any invitation to take part in any Conference, and until we do I cannot say what answer my Party will return. On the other hand, I still believe, although we have not received any invitation as yet, that we shall receive one, and I invite the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, to give us some information about that matter. I accept to the fullest extent the sincerity of the statement that Lord Salisbury made, and I anticipate that in the near future we shall be asked to take part it some Conference; and I ask the noble Viscount to tell us whether that is true. In the attitude I am taking with regard to Lord Simon's Bill, I am assuming that that is the position. If it is not the position, I shall take a very different attitude with regard to this Bill.

On December 4 the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, moved for an humble Address to Her Majesty, as it was necessary for him to do in order to introduce his Bill. He indicated the nature of the Bill which he was seeking to introduce: and I ventured to call attention to the fact that Lord Salisbury had said that he intended to call a Conference. I said, with regard to the proposals of the Bill, which of course we were not then discussing: For aught I know, they may be wholly admirable. If they are, that is all the more reason why they should be propounded at the Conference which may hereafter be arranged. I went on to ask the noble and learned Viscount whether he would not consider deferring the consideration of these proposals to a later date—until after the Conference. He did not then think fit—as was his right—to give me an answer: he abstained from making any reply. I still feel the same thing. I still feel that if it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to call a Conference all these proposals should be discussed at the Conference. I do not see how you can discuss these proposals, save in the wider setting. For instance, what is to be the size of the new House of Lords? I have the impression—though this is not, I think, in the White Paper—that the all-Party Conference envisaged a House of round about 300 Members. I do not know whether I am right in that (no doubt Lord Samuel will correct me if I am wrong) but that is my impression. It is obvious that you must have some idea of the size of House proposed before any useful opinion can be expressed as to the number of Life Peers to be created.

Then it is necessary to think out what proportion of the 300 Members, if that is to be the number, are to be drawn from the present hereditary Peers and what proportion are to be appointed from the Life Peers appointed ad hoc. I think then that it is necessary to consider what steps shall be taken so that the ultimate constitutional theory can apply—namely, that in the last resort the obstruction of this House can be overcome, if, necessary by the creation of new Peers. You also need to consider to what extent it is desirable to inject, as it were, Life Peers into a House so constituted. In short, it seems to me absolutely impossible really to apply a useful mind to those proposals unless we have the wider picture before us. No more could you illustrate a book without knowing what the book was about or who the characters were than you could embark on these discussions just before the Conference. With the greatest respect to the noble and learned Viscount, whose eminent services we all recognise, I cannot understand why he has selected this particular moment of time, after all these years when nothing has been done, and after, be it observed, also, Lord Salisbury had said that he proposed to call this Conference, to introduce his Bill. It may be, perhaps, to see that there is no backsliding—to see that the Government really do intend to carry out their intention to call an all-Party Conference.

I remember very well that when I was Lord Chancellor I indicated to this House that I hoped in the near future to be able to introduce a Bill to deal with the right of civil proceedings against the Crown; and I remember that thereafter, about a fortnight before I introduced my Bill, the noble Viscount introduced his Bill to deal with civil proceedings against the Crown. I remember, too, being in some difficulty as to whether we could have two Bills dealing with the same subject before the House in the same Session—a matter which, thanks to him, we satisfactorily dealt with. It may be, of course, that the noble and learned Viscount wants to make certain that the Government do not go back on their promise. For my own part I am satisfied that the Government mean to keep their promise: I believe they are going to call a Conference; and I very much hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, will be able to give us to-day a clear indication of when that Conference is to be called.

Suppose the Conference does not take place. Suppose one Party or the other refuses to take part in it. What then? I do not want to put ideas into the Government's head, and they do not want any assistance from me in that matter, but I should suppose that, if they think it is as important as they have indicated, it would be their duty, as a Government, to indicate their own proposals, whatever they might be. What I feel can be summarised in this way. This matter is so important that I do not think it is the task of any private Member, however eminent he may be, to introduce his own Bill dealing with this subject on the eve of either a Conference or an attempt at a Conference, or (what I presume is a corollary that would probably follow) some proposals by the Government themselves. It is for that reason that I put down a reasoned Amendment to try to make it plain that I am not opposed to the principle of Life Peers which, indeed, the leaders of all the Parties accepted in the sense which I have indicated—that is, a Conference—nor am I opposed to women being Members of this House, a principle which the leaders of all the Parties also accepted. But I think that this Bill is inopportune at the present time. It is entirely a matter of timing and, that being so, I have put down an Amendment to the effect that we decline to give a Second Reading to a Bill which purports: to alter the constitution of this House in ally one particular without any consideration of such wider changes as Her Majesty's Government have suggested should be the subject of discussion between the Parties.

When the noble Viscount the acting Leader of the House deals with this matter, I shall be interested to hear what he finds wrong with this Amendment. I quite agree that it is a way of killing this Bill; but I am not certain that the Amendment to the Amendment which he has put down is not an equally effective way of killing the Bill. After all, if you have a premature infant, you can kill it in one of two ways. You can either (to use Mr. Churchill's historic phrase on another occasion) "take it upstairs and wring its dirty neck," or you can put it in cold storage; and the effect of cold storage on a premature infant is almost certain to prove fatal. That being so, I cannot pretend that I am greatly concerned about whether the form of Amendment which this House adopts is the Amendment which I have put upon the Order Paper and which I humbly think is the more logical Amendment—and I shall ask the noble Viscount to tell me why he does not like it—or the other Amendment, that we postpone all further debate on this Bill, which will have, I venture to think, precisely the same effect. So I am not going to try to be eloquent, if indeed I could be eloquent, on the alternatives before the House.

All that matters is that, in some way or other, we kill this discussion at the present time, not because we are opposed to the proposals in this discussion, but because we think it is inopportune now to discuss these matters unless and until we get the full setting in which we can discuss the Bill. I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, has some statement to make. I am coming to the end of my speech. I shall be only a moment or two more. For these reasons, I venture to say this. I expect that the Government are going to invite us to take part in a Conference. We have not yet received the invitation and I wish to make it plain that until we receive the invitation I cannot say what attitude my Party will take, but I suppose that, even if my Party declines to give its approval, the Government will have some proposals of their own. That being the setting in which we are discussing this matter, I think it a pity to deal with it in this piecemeal fashion. Therefore, though I am not at all opposed to the principles which are indicated in this Bill, I venture to think that we had much better not discuss the Bill now. All these ideas are available to the Conference table, if Conference there is, and that is the place where they should be discussed. For my own part, I believe that the introduction of a Bill on what I venture to think is the eve of the Conference is much more likely to do harm than good. That being so, I beg to move the Amendment which stands in my name.

Amendment moved— Leave out all the words after ("That") and add ("this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which purports to alter the constitution of this House in any one particular without any consideration of such wider changes as Her Majesty's Government have suggested should be the subject of discussion between the Parties").—(Earl Jowitt.)