HL Deb 25 January 1955 vol 190 cc711-20

5.16 p.m.

VISCOUNT SAMUEL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government if they will state whether they propose to take any action on the question of the reform of the House of Lords. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, at the last General Election in 1951, at which the present Parliament was elected, the Leader of the Conservative Party, Mr. Winston Churchill, included a paragraph in his Election Address in which he said that a Conservative Government, if returned, would summon an all-Party conference to consider the question of the House of Lords. That conference has never been summoned, largely owing, no doubt, to the attitude taken by the Labour Party. At the opening of the Christmas Session last December, in my speech on the Address I raised this question afresh, and drew attention to the results that had been reached by the all-Party conference that was held in 1948 which, while not coming to any agreement on the question of the powers of Second Chamber, did arrive at a remarkable unanimity on a number of important points dealing with composition.

I hope I shall not be thought unduly persistent if to-day I ask Her Majesty's Government what course, if any, they propose to take on the question of the reform of the House of Lords. It may be found that the matter of powers is not now regarded with the same strong feelings that used to prevail. Neither in the country nor in Parliament is there any powerful body of opinion which exercises itself over any change in the present powers of the House of Lords, and it may well be that we shall all be content to let that matter rest where it is under the law as it now stands, and perhaps try by some fresh effort to arrive at a general agreement on the question of composition. For I am sure that all your Lordships will be of the opinion that great constitutional changes, such as we are concerned with here in this matter, can best be arrived at, not after bitter Party controversies and a struggle on purely Party lines, but that they will be most effective and most beneficial and conduce best to the stability of our institutions if they can be reached by a large measure of agreement and after deliberate and painstaking discussion. For that reason, I have to-day put down an Unstarred Question, not a Motion, because I do not hope, desire or attempt to evoke the general opinion of the House on this great matter, and still less to express my own views which I have done to your Lordships on many occasions. This is only an exploratory Question, but I am inclined to think, subject to anything that may be said by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House or by the noble and learned Earl the Leader of the Opposition, that it may be found desirable before long to arrange for a full discussion in your Lordships' House in which the whole of the situation may be carefully reviewed. Meantime, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government if they will state whether they propose to take any action on the question of the reform of the House of Lords.

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Marquess replies to that Question, may I say a brief word or two? No one, I think, can complain that the noble Viscount should raise this matter again; yet, for my own part, I venture to think—because we have had a good many discussions about this subject, and we have been going rather round and round about it—we have reached the point now where, if anything is to be done, the best way to do it is for the Government to promulgate or put forward some suggestions which could form the subject of discussion before the House, in order that the sense and temper of the House may be obtained. I believe that would be a better way of getting the opinion of the House than just a discussion completely in vacuo, as we have been having for some time past.

I feel sure that the noble Marquess who leads this House would, in a matter of this sort, concerning something which is of such importance to us, desire to get the largest possible measure of agreement, or at any rate to reduce the area of disagreement so far as he possibly can. I believe he would rather have a plan which commended itself to wide sections than a more perfect plan which did not so commend itself. I have no intention of making a speech about this matter now, but I think it must be made plain that there is no question or intention of increasing the powers of the House of Lords; that we leave the position where it stands under the Act of 1948, and accept that as the basis on which we are to proceed. Secondly, it must be made plain that there is no suggestion of creating a House of Lords which is in any sense a co-ordinating authority with the other place, as it would be, for instance, if it were an elected Chamber, whatever form of election you have. I do not think that would do at all. If the noble Mar-guess, if he comes to formulate some proposals, would bear those two facts in mind, I believe he would go some way, at any rate, to avoid hostility, which I am quite certain would arise were those proposals at all in question. I do not believe—and the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel seems to agree with me—that those matters are in issue at the present time in the proposals. That is something which we should very much like to see.

All I can say is this—I cannot speak for my Party more than in this way—that if those principles are observed and proposals are brought forward in this House, we shall devote ourselves to them and try to bring to bear on them useful, not merely destructive but constructive, criticism as well, and examine them and make what contribution we can by way of debate. I am not authorised to say any more than that. Subject to those two points of principle which I have mentioned, I can at least say that we will take our part in the debate on the Floor of this House.

5.24 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an extremely short but I think valuable exchange of views on the Question which has been asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel. I must confess that when I first read on the Order Paper the noble Viscount's Question I was a little bewildered. I wondered why he had chosen that particular form of words for the purpose of raising this question of the reform of your Lordships' House, and I expect that some bewilderment may have been felt by some other noble Lords. One might naturally have expected him to ask when Her Majesty's Government proposed to take action, or what action they proposed to take on a subject in which, as we all know, the noble Viscount is keenly interested. But he studiously avoided doing that, even in his Question. He confined himself to the single bleak, bald proposition: To ask Her Majesty's Government if they will state whether they propose to take any action on the question of the reform of the House of Lords. Why did he do that? As we all know, the noble Viscount is an extremely wise and experienced Parliamentarian. He never does anything without a very good reason, and he must have considered the wording of that Question on a matter of this importance with the greatest care. Why did he put it in that way? I am going to try to answer him.


Simply as a result of past experience.


I think that the noble Viscount himself gave the answer in the few remarks he made to your Lordships. He said that it was an "exploratory" Question—that was the epithet he used. In fact, as I understand it, this is only the first preliminary move; it is not the "succulent dish" to which the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, referred in an earlier debate this afternoon: it is just another hors d' æuvre to a later discussion. That is the first thing one must conclude. The second is that the noble Viscount wishes to retain the initiative for the second move; and it is only when he gets to the second stage that we shall learn fully what is in his mind. In the meantime, I imagine that the noble Viscount is not particularly anxious that the Government, or anyone else, should come out with fully-fledged proposals. That, I think, would embarrass him rather than please him today. As I say, he would hike to retain the initiative for the next move.

I do not complain at all of the line which he has adopted with such careful thought. This gradually phased approach to the subject may indeed have special advantages for all of us. It enables us to get some information as to the attitude of Parties which I think may be of very real value in our further explorations of this subject, which, as the noble Viscount has said, is of great importance to us all. Indeed, we have already got a certain amount of information from the speech of the noble Viscount himself, brief though it was. We know, first, that he—and also, presumably, the Liberal Party for whom he speaks—is convinced of the necessity for some reform of the composition of this House. My Lords, that is at any rate satisfactory to most of us. In passing, I would say that, as I understand it, the noble Viscount did not today concern himself with powers. The subject on which he threw the greatest emphasis was the question of composition, and I hope he will understand that it is to the question of composition alone that I shall direct any remarks that I have to make this afternoon.

I do not know whether the noble Viscount has changed his views or modified them since he was younger, but at any rate his view now is that this country must have an effective Second Chamber—again I refer only to the composition of that Chamber. He suggests, too, as I understand it, that if nothing is done to bring any new life to this House it will gradually die, as an effective element in the Constitution. With that I personally, and I expect most of us, would agree. There are many reasons to account for the present position in this House. There is the further reduction in the importance of the House as a result of the Act of 1948, which has I think, to some extent, at any rate, led to a further reduction in the interest of some of its Members in its doings. Many of us pointed out at the time that that was likely to happen, and I think it has happened. I do not want to overstress it, but I think that is one of the reasons for a certain lack of life which perhaps exists in the House today, as compared with ten years ago.

Then, if I may be bold enough to mention such a thing, there is the economic reason. A popular belief appears to persist in this country that all Peers are rich men: but noble Lords know that in these difficult days that is no longer true—if, indeed, it ever was, to the extent suggested by that popular belief. The vast majority of noble Lords in this House can no longer afford to give their whole time to a job for which they receive no remuneration, not even payment of the many expenses incidental to the job itself. At the present time by far the greater part of the cost of attending to our constitutional duties has to be paid by noble Lords themselves, and that imposes an increasingly severe burden upon them. I am not complaining of the position; I am merely stating it as a fact. This is true of Peers of all Parties, and it imposes, I believe, special difficulties for the Party of noble Lords opposite. That is a problem which must, in my view, be faced at the earliest practicable date. It is just one of those respects in which some reform is becoming ever more necessary, although personally I do not feel that it is by those means alone that the House will regain the full life which it has unhappily to some extent lost.

I do not propose to-day to enter into details of the complete scheme which I hope in due course to be able to recommend to your Lordships, for of course the answer to the noble Lord's Question is "Yes." In his Question the noble Viscount has studiously avoided asking for that, and I agree with him that it would be premature. I did intend going into a certain amount of detail but I now think that even that is unnecessary; in fact, much of the speech I had intended to make would be perhaps going too far ahead at this stage, in view of the very great restraint shown by the two noble Lords opposite. But I can say that any scheme that may finally be adopted must, of course, conform to certain broad principles, with which doubtless the noble Viscount and most of us would be in agreement.

And now I should like to say a word on the attitude adopted by the Labour Party, as instanced by remarks of the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, this afternoon. On the whole, it is rather better than I expected. It is not so entirely hostile as some of us might have feared. I understand the position taken up by the Party of the noble Lords opposite to be that there must be no change in the balance of the Constitution as between one House and another in any respect, and that there must in particular be no increase of powers. Short of that, the noble and learned Earl has indicated (perhaps he would say hinted), or at any rate given some indication, that the attitude of his Party to some measure of reform in the Constitution might not be entirely negative. I hope that I have not overstated the noble Earl's case. We are not concerned to-day with powers, and I do not propose to go any further into that aspect; but as a result of the Question which the noble Viscount was good enough to put down, we do know now that there are circumstances in which the Labour Party might be willing, without prejudice, to enter into talks. That is something more than we have had


To enter into talks on the Floor of the House.


On the Floor of the House. I was very glad to hear that view because, frankly, unless noble Lords opposite believe in Single-Chamber Government—and I do not think most of them do—it is surely better to make the Second Chamber as efficient in its composition as it possibly can be made. I believe that no one in this House would dispute that—indeed it is really common sense.

I was glad the noble Earl did not put forward the view that no other Parties could go ahead without his Party's co-operation. That would be a very strange doctrine in the mouth of a Party which brought in a Parliament Bill less than ten years ago without any agreement at all. But clearly it would be very much better, if there is to be a reform of this House, that it should be by agreement. We should all agree that any great constitutional change, or modified constitutional change, is better done with inter-Party agreement than without, and I still hope that that may prove possible. In the meantime, I can say to-night that we shall continue to labour at perfecting the details of a scheme of reform; and we shall, in that work, welcome the co-operation of the Liberal Party if they feel able to give it, and indeed if, after further consideration, the Labour Party, too, find it possible to co-operate with us when the time comes, that co-operation also will be welcomed. I recognise that the noble Earl has not offered that, but I repeat, if they find it possible, we shall be very happy that they should join in discussions. If not, then we shall have no hesitation in due course, when the time comes, in going ahead without them on a task on which, in our belief, the future safety and welfare of our country may well depend in the difficult years that lie ahead.


My Lords, by leave of the House, may I ask the noble Marquess a question which will be in the mind of everyone after his useful speech—When?


I seem to remember a great Liberal dictum: "Wait and see,"


When that was said by Mr. Asquith in my hearing, and repeated three or four times, it was said in a menacing and combative tone, telling the Opposition who were then angry with him that if they would only wait a little while they would very soon see—and they did.


I hope the Liberal Party also will see in due course.


This is a very important and serious point. When the noble Marquess says "in due course," how long is that course to be? Is there any prospect that this matter will be fully discussed in your Lordships' House during the present Parliament?


My Lords, we have all far exceeded the proper rules of order with regard to Unstarred Questions in the Rules of Order which we have ourselves lately revised. If the noble Viscount wishes for more information, I suggest that he should put a Question or a Resolution, as he is inclined, on the Paper of the House.


On that note I would thank the noble Marquess most cordially for his helpful speech.

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, would it be in order for a Back-Bench independent Member to ask a Question of the noble Marquess, the Leader of the House? I know nothing of the inner councils of the Conservative Party, but I hope he will remember that there are independent Peers; and there is, I am sure, a large current of feeling in the country which entertains profound misgivings at seeing this ancient House embarking on paper-constitution making. Many of us believe that this is one of those ancient British institutions of which, thanks to its very ancientry and to the success with which over the centuries it has continually adapted itself to changing circumstances, it can be said that while it is totally indefensible in theory, it works excellently in practice. We have heard a lot about the illogical features of the House, but that is the House of Lords of theory. Here around you you see the House of Lords in practice, a small body of impoverished and public-spirited individuals representing in the aggregate an immense accumulation of experience of administration, legislation, and practical affairs. I should like to ask the noble Marquess the Leader of the House whether the next stage in this lamentable progress—for so many of us, inside and outside the House, regard it—is that we are to be presented with an official, ready-made, paper reform, on the model of the French Revolution, of this ancient House, or whether we are yet to have a discussion as to whether any such reform is necessary. It was not at all clear, from what the noble Marquess said, what the next stage of the proceedings is to be. I hope I may be forgiven for inquiring.


My Lords, I think the proper answer to the noble Lord is that it is open to him, or to any other noble Lord, at any moment, to put down a Motion on the Order Paper for discussion. I am sure that, if he wishes, he will be able to do so before the Government complete this immensely complicated inquiry in which they are now involved. I suggest that that is the proper course for the noble Lord to follow. It may be that if the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, is himself proposing to take the matter further at a later date it would be well for the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to see him and to discuss the matter with him.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before six o'clock.