HL Deb 03 February 1953 vol 180 cc149-61

3.40 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, your Lordships to-day are invited to choose between three courses which are set out on the Order Paper. The first is the Motion of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, that we should agree to the Second Reading of his Bill to-day. The second is the Amendment of the noble and learned Earl who has just spoken, to reject the Bill on Second Reading; and the third is an Amendment to be moved on behalf of the Government, that this House should not at this stage pronounce either for or against Lord Simon's Bill but should await the result of conversations which are intended to be begun before long between the political Parties to see whether an agreement can be arrived at. As to the first course, the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, has said that he would be quite willing to accept the adjournment of the debate, as proposed by the Government, if he had reason to think that a Conference would be held and would be proceeded with in a business-like fashion with a view to arriving at results.

With regard to the second course, I do not accept the argument of the noble and learned Earl, that this is an occasion on which we should pronounce for or against the proposals in the Bill—for the reason that a Conference is to be held. Suppose that the Conference is held, and again proves abortive. What would then be the position if the House of Lords to-day had rejected this Bill? Its action would be misunderstood; it would be represented as having refused to reform in any particular its own constitution, even to the extent of so modest a measure as the creation of a maximum of ten Life Peers a year. It would be said that, the Conference having proved abortive, it might have been an excellent thing to revive the debate on this Bill, to proceed with it on Second Reading, and perhaps modify it in Committee. Therefore it seems to me that the right course is that which is proposed by the Government. And if, as I hope, the noble Viscount who is leading the House to-day is in a position to give definite assurances that the Conference will be held forthwith, and that the Government have an earnest desire to see it proceed to a successful conclusion and to produce a measure which they themselves will be able to present to Parliament in the very near future, it seems to me that the best course is that your Lordships should neither reject nor accept this particular Bill now but should leave the matter over for consideration until we see the result of the Conference.

So far as this particular Bill is concerned, on merits it appears to me to be right so far as it goes; but it goes such a very little way. The principle of Life Peers was one which was accepted unanimously by the previous Conference. The principle of the admission of women to your Lordships' House is accepted with such unanimity that it is unnecessary to argue the matter further. But if the Bill of the noble and learned Viscount were passed, it would still leave us with a Second Chamber swollen to the excessive dimensions of a membership of over 800 and rapidly increasing towards 1,000, a vast majority of whom do not attend your Lordships' debates, and four-fifths of them sitting by hereditary right. Even if we had ten Life Peers added every year it would be a long time, perhaps a decade, before the proportion was altered from four-fifths to three-quarters; this House would still be overwhelmingly an hereditary Chamber. A seat in the British Parliament would still be a matter of inheritance, like the ownership of a house or a farm.

By general consent the constitution of this House is not conformable either to political science or to political good sense. It has been well said that in a democracy nothing is ever settled until it is settled right. Each organ of the Constitution ought to be as perfect in itself as we can make it; and, looking round at our institutions, we can see that in the course of centuries, and by dint of great efforts, often of vehement controversies, violent conflicts that have convulsed the nation, most of our institutions have been brought to a high degree of perfection. We have a Monarchy such as none of us would wish to change in any particular. We have a Judiciary which I think is usually agreed to be the best in the world. The same is true of our Civil Service. Our local government is in its general principles as good as we could wish. The Parliamentary franchise has been made universal, and although many of us think that the system of election is not as it should be and prevents the representative Chamber from being truly representative of the whole people, still in the main the House of Commons is not such as we need desire to see radically changed. Only the Second Chamber, your Lordships' House, amongst all our institutions is regarded by the overwhelming body of public opinion (I feel sure that one can say that with truth), and of individual political opinion, as urgently in need of fundamental change. It is not enough to say that it renders useful service in legislation by dealing effectively with the Committee stages of Bills, providing as it were, a second Committee stage to that of the House of Commons. It is not enough to say that we hold interesting debates on subjects in general which so far as they are reported—and they are very little reported—have a certain degree of influence on public opinion.

The noble and learned Viscount, in moving this Second Reading, quoted from a leading article in yesterday's Times, written with a view to this debate, which I agree with him in thinking was a thoughtful and, indeed, remarkable pronouncement. He read some sentences from it. I will expand the quotation a little further. The writer of the article said that the founders of our present democratic constitution—now I quote: believed not in snap decisions by the majority but in the supremacy of a deliberate public opinion, and they looked to a second Chamber to provide that element of deliberateness. To do this, however, the House of Lords must not only be equipped with adequate delaying powers; 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. The position of the House of Lords is at present the most serious mechanical defect in the constitution.… I feel that every word of that pronouncement is sound. But some of your Lordships say that there is no strong feeling about it in the country, that we are much more concerned nowadays with questions of international politics, with the grave economic situation of the people, the danger of inflation, of collapse of our currency, the ability to buy imports and the cost of living. Those are things with which the whole country is concerned, but I venture to suggest to your Lordships that this is just the time, when domestic political issues are arousing no great bitterness throughout the nation, for us to have a calm review and to reflect on such a question as the greater perfecting of our Constitution. This is just the time when we are more likely to agree to sensible conclusions, acceptable to the whole country, than if e waited for a time of seething excitement over political issues.

There can never be any political progress in large matters if whenever the weather is calm you are to say, "It is unnecessary to do anything," and whenever the weather is stormy, "It is impossible to do anything." I suggest to your Lordships that this is the best time of any we could have to carry to fruition a reform of this kind. We cannot expect that this, a comparatively halcyon period of calm, compared with what it could be and has been, will continue indefinitely. Unless all past history is to be belied by future events, we shall again have periods of political excitement, of crisis, and perhaps even of extremism. It may be found that at some General Election—not fought on any of these issues, perhaps, but on some international question—in a moment of temporary electoral aberration, an extreme group is swept into power to command a House of Commons in which dangerous measures are proposed. Then, indeed, the nation would deeply deplore that in this year 1953 its legislators neglected their duty to provide in advance, so far as they could, against such a situation. The noble and learned Earl who has just spoken, in the last speech he made on this subject—a speech to which he himself has referred—used these words: …I am strongly in favour of Double-Chamber Government, I believe the Second Chamber is of great value. But I should like to see a Second Chamber which is a Second Chamber all the time; not only when the Liberals or the Labour Party are in power, but equally when the Conservatives are in power. That comment is very sound. Observe the word "equally." So I assume his comment applies not only to Conservatives, when they are in power, but also to the Labour Party when in power.

We had our three-Party Conference, and though it seems to those of us who took part in it to have happened only the other day, yet looking at the calendar we find that it was five years ago. Since then, among the principal events in relation to this matter has been the declaration of the Conservative Party at the last General Election that if returned to power they would summon an all-Party Conference to consider proposals for the reform of the House of Lords. There was a General Election in 1951. That year it was too soon after the Election for them to act. In 1952 they were too completely occupied with other questions for Ministers to be able to give attention to this one. We are now in 1953, and we await the Government's pronouncement. If no action is taken this year, we shall find ourselves in 1954, and then it will be said, "It is too late now. Parliament is becoming moribund; a General Election is at hand, and we must wait until after the electors have given their verdict." The years 1951 and 1952 were too soon; the year 1954 will be too late. Surely this year, 1953, is the designated moment. I hope that the Government will give us satisfaction as to the immediate prosecution of this matter.

As the noble and learned Earl has said, forty-two years have gone by since the first Parliament Act was passed. I was one of the Cabinet of that day, and one of the team of Ministers who had that Bill in hand. Looking at the events which have occurred since then, and taking a bird's-eye view, I thought that the whole process reminded me of something of which I had had experience; and I came to the conclusion that the course of events with regard to the House of Lords question resembles nothing so much as a State Ball at Buckingham Palace, with its quadrilles—in which I had the honour to participate, gorgeously arrayed, at that distant date, forty years ago. We took dignified steps this way and that way; we would advance and retire, take two steps to the right and return to our places, take two steps to the left and return to our places again. The comparison is made the more apt because, as now, in one of the figures ladies took the centre of the floor, and, turning round to the gentlemen, dropped a graceful curtsey to which the gentlemen responded by respectful bows. Then we marched round in couples, and once more returned to our places. The whole ritual—for it was more a ritual than a dance—was very satisfying and impressive. It was a performance, a charming performance; but nothing was done. Nothing ever happened; no one ever went anywhere; it was a performance without achievement. And so it has been in the case of the House of Lords question.

I have no doubt that certain members of your Lordships' House are quite content in their hearts that the present situation should continue indefinitely. They say, in effect, "Let us have an all-Party Conference; that will hold the situation for five years. Let us then have another all-Party Conference, and that will hold the situation for another five years." Then they will say to one another, "What happens after that is for the next generation: it will last out for my time." I remember that in a life of the great scientist, John Dalton, it was mentioned that, so far as politics were concerned, he was a "Liberal-Conservative." And the writer of the biography said: A Liberal-Conservative is a man who thinks that things ought to progress but who would rather they remained as they were. I rather suspect that some of your Lordships, if they were to look into their hearts, would find that that is very much their attitude. I see sitting opposite me my noble friend Lord Teviot, who is the principal spokesman of the Liberal-Conservatives in this House. His Liberalism cancels his Conservatism, his Conservatism cancels his Liberalism, and his politics are left with nothing but the hyphen.

I do not propose now to enter into the merits of this Bill. I do not wish to discuss the defects or the virtues of Life Peerage, or the clauses proposed by the noble and learned Viscount's Bill. I am content with the conclusions of the last Conference. It was a remarkable thing that a Conference so composed should have arrived on such a question at unanimous agreement as to what they should recommend to the parties. As the noble and learned Earl has said, it was ad referendum; they were not in a position to commit their Parties, but they did arrive at agreement. I would remind your Lordships again of the membership of that Conference. For the then Government there were present, Mr. Attlee, the Prime Minister; Mr. Herbert Morrison, the Lord President of the Council; thin noble Viscount, Lord Addison, who was the Leader of your Lordships' House; the noble and learned Earl himself, Lord Jowitt; and, not least important, Mr. Whiteley, the Chief Government Whip in the House of Commons; while for the Conservative Party there were present the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, Lord Swinton, who is about to address us, Mr. Eden and Sir David Maxwell Fyfe. For the Liberals there were Mr. Clement Davies and myself. The basis on which the Conference agreed was this very basis of Life Peerage as a predominant feature of the new House of Lords.

As to its powers, we all agreed that it should not be a rival to the House of Commons and should not be put on an elective basis. We were all content to go on as we had been since 1911, under the Parliament Act of that year. The Government of that day insisted on reducing the period of delay from two years, as provided for in the Parliament Act, to one year, and it was on that point that the Conference broke down. Efforts were made to arrive at a compromise. The Conservatives made a slight concession, the Labour Government made a slight concession and I myself proposed a further concession which would have reduced the time further to three months. Nevertheless, when we reached that stage, both the other Parties said, "This is an important question of principle, on which we cannot give way." I said, in properly respectful and demure terms, that it was not a question of principle at all; it was a minor matter which could easily be settled, one on which it was not worth breaking up the Conference. However, they persisted. I think both were a little afraid of what their own Party would say to them outside. The Conference broke down and the situation remained as it was before.

I shall be sorry if the Government do not announce that they are to go on with this Conference at once. I was glad to hear the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, say that he and his Party would be prepared to enter into the Conference. I was afraid that he was going to say they would not go into it unless certain conditions admitting their point of view were agreed.


My Lords, I do not think I said that. The noble Viscount had better read what I did say.


I am sorry. I did not hear the noble Earl qualify his statement. At all events, he did not say what I was afraid that he might say: that "Only if you agree with what we want shall we be prepared to enter the Conference." He did not say that. There is still a divergence between the two sides, and it is because there is a divergence that there has to be a second Conference. If there were no disagreement there would be no need to hold a Conference. What would happen in a strike were the employers or the trade unions to attempt to say that they were prepared to arbitrate, but only on condition that the other side agreed to their position before they went to arbitration? It is not admissible in diplomatic negotiations for each side to manœuvre to secure its own way before a conference begins. No negotiation is possible on that ground.

That is all I have to say on these matters. We await with the greatest interest the speech which the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, is now about to make. I trust that it will be such as to satisfy all of us of the recognition by the Government that this is a matter of urgency and real importance and of the desire to secure a solution of it, by general agreement if possible. If that is so, I hope that at the end of this debate your Lordships will unanimously pass the Amendment which the noble Viscount, or someone on his behalf, will move.

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that all your Lordships regret that my noble friend Lord Salisbury is unable to be here, and still more the reason, not only because he is the Leader of the House but also because, apart from his official position, both he and his father before him have always taken a deep and wise and broad interest in this matter. But can assure the House that in what: I have to say to your Lordships to-day I shall be entirely expressing his views—we very seldom differ—and, indeed, I shall be able to give you the considered opinion of Her Majesty's Government.

I entirely agree with the noble and learned Earl the Leader of the Opposition that these are matters far too grave and important to be dealt with by a Private Member's Bill. Matters of such importance and high consequence are proper matters for action by the Government of the day unless they are unable or unwilling to act at all. Obviously, the Opposition share our view. I think it is convenient that I should state the whole of our view now. I can do that quite shortly and clearly. As your Lordships know, it has always been the intention of the Government to invite the other Parties to a Conference to discuss the reform of this House. In his Election Manifesto, the Prime Minister stated: We shall call an all-Party Conference to consider proposals for the reform of the House of Lords. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, and I think the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel—certainly Lord Simon cited Lord Samuel—appeared rather shocked because we had not taken action more rapidly. It was appositely observed to Lord Simon that he had had forty-two years in which to take action. That is an adequate period of gestation, even for a noble and learned Viscount.

During those years, when he was Home Secretary and held all sorts of other offices, and was at that time in unity with the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel—even in that happy juxtaposition and in the plenitude of his power and influence—the noble and learned Viscount allowed year after year to go by after the 1911 Act without doing anything, so far as I am aware—although, of course, we do not know what happened in the Liberal Cabinet. Perhaps it was like the quadrille which the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, was describing. That would be truly liberal in its beauty and in its other qualities. So far as we know, nothing happened at all. Therefore, I must say quite frankly that my noble friend Lord Salisbury, and, indeed, all of us in the Government, were slightly surprised when, after my noble friend had said (and he does mean what he says, as the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition recognised, and certainly does not overstate his case) what we were going to do, and had even satisfied that noble Viscount, Lord Samuel (which is a pretty difficult thing to do) of our intention and integrity, the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, at that moment after forty-two years, thought it desirable suddenly to present this Bill to your Lordships.

We meant exactly what we said and repeated: that we intended to call a Conference. And I can give the House the firmest assurances of our intention. I am glad to tell your Lordships that invitations from the Prime Minister have actually gone out to-day to the Leaders of the two Parties in another place. I hope sincerely that a Conference will take place. But such a Conference must be free to range over the whole field and consider all suggestions, including Life Peerages. A number of proposals have been put forward and canvassed from time to time, and it should be open to the Conference to consider any or all of these and any other proposals which may arise during the discussions. The Government hope most sincerely that the invitations will be accepted and that an agreed and lasting solution may result. That is greatly to be desired. But should the Conference fail to agree, or (as we sincerely hope will not be the case) should the invitations not be accepted, then the Government must have time to consider the position; and, as the noble and learned Earl the Leader of the Opposition anticipated, time not only to consider, but to make such proposals as they may think right. In either event, in the opinion of the Government no useful purpose could be served—indeed, in our view, the whole position and prospects might be prejudiced—if the House were to proceed with this Bill.

It is a Bill which deals with only one aspect of this matter, and in a particular way. It is quite true that Life Peerages figured in the discussions we had, but they figured in a context which was comprehensive, and it is quite wrong to consider them in isolation. A hundred criticisms could be advanced of the proposal to make ten Life Peers a year. What opinion are they to reflect? The noble and learned Viscount says: "If you do not like ten, why not one?" Anything from one to ten, apparently, is satisfactory. Surely, that is rather a loose and lopsided way to discuss these matters. The Bill could be partial in its character, and it might well not be what most of your Lordships would desire. The noble and learned Viscount could not understand why it would prejudice the situation. I can tell him at once. People who are really anxious to get a settlement of this matter by agreement will do their best to get a Conference, and to make it a success. But there are people—there may be some in this House, and certainly there are many outside—who, for one reason or another, may say: "We do not want to see this Conference called, and we do not want it to succeed." There would have to be a strong argument given if they are able to say: "This Bill is going forward. We had better wait and see what happens to it. We had better wait and see if it is passed and, if so, if it works in practice." That is just the way in which good intentions make practical results impossible, if the noble and learned Viscount will allow me to say so.

Even when no wider solution was in prospect—as I hope it may be to-day—I have often heard the view expressed in this House that the reform of the House of Lords is a subject which particularly ought not to be dealt with piecemeal. Some of those who have been keenest on the reform of the House of Lords, like the late Lord Salisbury, took that view. I think I am right in saying that this led to a slight family difference of opinion in the noble House of Cecil. There was a proposal in a Bill or in a Motion that Peeresses in their own right should have the right to sit. Though quite a number of Peers thought that that was a good thing in itself, there was a general consensus of opinion in this House, and voiced by those who commanded the greatest respect because they were those who had rendered the greatest service, that we ought not to deal with these matters piecemeal. If that argument applied rightly then—and it certainly appealed to your Lordships—with how much more force does that argument apply to-day, when we are seeking, and when I hope we may find, a solution in conference?

If this Bill were to go forward at this time, and still more if it were passed, it would, in the view of the Government, make wider plans impossible. Obviously, from the thoughtful and helpful speech made by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, that is also the view taken by the Opposition. I am sure that that is the last thing any of your Lordships want. Therefore I think we can on this occasion have an interesting and informative debate, which I have no doubt, in accordance with the admirable practice of this House, will range far beyond the scope of the Bill or any Motion on the Order Paper—indeed, it has already done so, and we have had reminiscences and excursions which are delightful and excellent. As we add to this anthology, it will be of increasing value to any of us who may take part in the Conference when it is held. But when all the discussion is over—and I am glad to say we are going to have two days of it: we cannot have too much of a good thing—I am sure that most of your Lordships will agree that We should do no more than adjourn the Second Reading of this Bill indefinitely.

The Leader of the Opposition has moved the rejection of the Bill. He rather twitted me by saying that there was not much difference between his Amendment for the rejection of the Bill and the Amendment, standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Salisbury, that the Bill should be put indefinitely into cold storage. He may very well say that the conclusion of the speech which I have ventured to address to the House might well lead to my accepting his Amendment, as his speech would equally well have led him to accept mine. That only shows what good alternatives we are offering to the House. We are an essentially practical if not wholly logical body. My noble friend Lord Salisbury and I thought it wise that we should put on the Order Paper this Amendment for an indefinite adjournment, so that at the end of the debate your Lordships might have a choice—and it is for your Lordships to express an opinion. I hope that nobody, perhaps not even the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, himself, will wish to proceed to put to the Question the Motion foe the Second Reading of the Bill. If lie were to do that, I must say, quite frankly, that I should advise your Lordships to vote against it. But I think it is right that your Lordships should have the opportunity of adjourning the Second Reading sine die, as an alternative—the perhaps more courteous alternative—to the more brutal course proposed by the noble and learned Earl who leads the Opposition.

I will not speak longer. In a speech which has been, I hope, commendably short, and certainly quite definite. I have given to your Lordships, in the statement that the Conference is invited to assemble, information that the whole House will have welcomed, and I am sure all your Lordships will hope that I the Conference will take place and will succeed.

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