HL Deb 21 June 1955 vol 193 cc206-11

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the powers of this House in relation to the attendance of its Members; and that the Lords following be named of the Committee:

—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)


My Lords, I should like to say a word about this Motion, because I feel rather frightened by it. I do not quite know what is the intention of Her Majesty's Government concerning noble Lords who do not turn up during sessions. Is it the idea that eminent people like the noble Lord, Lord Hives, and the noble Lord, Lord Adrian, who do useful work for the community in other walks of life, should be compelled to come here or else suffer the penalty of not being allowed to vote on occasions, or something like that? In my view, that would be a serious thing, were it to occur. I feel rather guilty in this matter because, like many other noble Lords, I do not turn up as much as I should; but I will be quite frank in saying that the reason why I do not turn up as much as I should is that the speeches in your Lordships' House have become interminably long. I take the view, and always have, that if you cannot say what you are going to say in twenty minutes you ought to go away and write a book about it. It becomes very onerous for many of your Lordships to come here and listen to speeches of inordinate length. It would seem to me that if, as a result of this Committee's findings, more noble Lords are compelled to attend, those noble Lords who make long speeches will be encouraged to make even longer speeches by virtue of the fact that they will have a better audience. I do not think that would be a very satisfactory situation. It looks to me as if this is probably the first step in a piece of legislation which is going to establish what the French call a "claque."


My Lords, I should like to add a word or two to what has fallen from my noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara. I am well aware that this is a purely formal Motion—my noble friend the Leader of the House will no doubt say just that, if he is good enough to reply—and that it commits the House to nothing beyond the approval of excellent names that would, of course, command the ready assent of all your Lordships. None the less, I find myself sharing the suspicions—anxieties, perhaps that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has expressed. I do not intend to develop them now, because this is not the proper occasion to do so, but I wish to place on record that there are among your Lordships those who feel anxious as to what this Motion may portend. In my case, I feel that I have an apology to make to the House because, for reasons outside my control, I was unable to be present when this matter was debated here, but in another Parliament. When the matter is brought to debate on some later occasion I shall be surprised if I do not feel obliged to differ from my noble friend Lord Salisbury, should he on that occasion feel impelled to follow any recommendation that may possibly inter- fere fundamentally with the rights of your Lordships in this matter.

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to make one comment on this matter. I do not like the new words in the Motion, which seem to me to narrow the proposed reform of your Lordships' House. Those words are "in relation to the attendance of its Members." Many Members of your Lordships' House have to be away on duty in foreign parts for many years. They cannot attend here. Others may not be here because of illness. In the case of some, the interests for which they have been honoured by being created Peers may not be before the House at the time. Nevertheless, they would attend should occasion arise in the House necessitating their presence. I can think of questions such as armament, national danger or foreign affairs: many Members may stay away because we are not discussing those at the moment. But this Committee seems to me to be tied too much by the words "in relation to the attendance of its Members." That, in my opinion, narrows the business they can discuss, and I do not agree with it.


My Lords, my question is a brief one, and I ask it merely for information—possibly I ought to be able to supply the answer myself. What I wish to know is whether the personnel of this Committee will include Members specifically representing, and in full touch with, the Cross-Bench attitude. The various Parties are fully represented. As Secretary of the Cabinet I have worked under most of them in former days, hut I am not quite clear whether the independent Members are in touch with the Cross-Bench attitude if it can be said that there is one.


My Lords, I wish to point out one thing: if the terms of reference were extended as has been suggested this afternoon I think that many of the noble Lords named would not be able to sit. For instance, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, if he went into the precedents, would probably find an excellent one for the Bill he brought in the other day. Therefore, as the object of setting up the proposed Committee is only to inquire into the powers of the House in relation to attendance, I think the terms should not be extended.


My Lords, may ask the Leader of the House to tell us whether this Committee will meet in public, and whether we can go and listen? Also, to me, as a Back-Bencher, this seems somewhat of a leap in the dark. The terms of reference are so vague, so wide, so narrow, so high and so low, that some of us do not know where we are. I should like to suggest to the noble Marquess that he institutes a referendum of the 800 noble Lords who do not turn up, and asks what their views are—whether they want to meet, or what they want to do. I think that would be most helpful for this Committee which is being set up this afternoon, and which I do not oppose.


My Lords, since it has been suggested from the Front Liberal Bench that the terms of reference of this Committee should be wider, I hope that the noble Marquess in reply will make it clear, as he made it clear in the last Parliament, that this will be purely a fact-finding Committee. It is because we understood it to be so limited that many of us have approved and supported its appointment, which we certainly should not have done if it had been any sort of constitution-making Committee.

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, the House, of course, will always listen with the greatest interest to anything that noble Lords say on any particular topic, and especially when the noble Lords concerned are such old Members of the House as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, and the noble Earl, Lord Halifax. But I was a little surprised, I must confess, that noble Lords should have found it necessary to raise wide issues at this particular stage. There is nothing new about this proposal—nothing new at all; it has been discussed again and again in the House. It concerns a very limited constitutional point, about which widely differing views have been expressed.

Whenever the subject of the reform of your Lordships' House has come up, this limited point, which does not greatly affect the question of reform, but which I thought should be cleared out of the way, one way or another, has always cropped up. Therefore, as your Lordships know, and after, I thought, adequate consultation with other Members of the House interested in these matters, in the last days of the late Parliament I moved a Motion on April 5, That a Select Committee he appointed to inquire into the power; of this House in relation to the attendance of its Members. I said at the time that this question had cropped up more than once. I went on to say that varying views were held on the point. I then proceeded to suggest that it would be useful if we got authoritative guidance on the points raised. I further put forward the proposal that your Lordships should appoint a body to examine this particular aspect of our affairs, and I suggested, in particular, a Select Committee. I was followed by the Leader of the Official Opposition, the noble and learned Earl. Lord Jowitt, who said that it was a narrow Motion, that there was no question of legislation, and that he thought your Lordships would be well advised to agree to the appointment of a Committee. The noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, added that he fully agreed with what had been said, and trusted that in due course a Select Committee would be appointed. No one opposed this proposal at any point, and I had no reason to suppose that there was any impropriety in the proposal which I had made.

As your Lordships know, that Parliament came to an end; otherwise this Motion would have been moved earlier. A new Parliament met, and it seemed important to get this point settled. Therefore, I put clown this Motion, and really all it does is to give effect to the view which has already been approved by the House and to name the members of the Committee already agreed upon. I suggest that the House would do well to accept this Motion which, I repeat, in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has rightly said, has no legislative effect at It is purely a fact-finding inquiry. It is only to enable us to find out what the powers of your Lordships are with regard to this particular point.

The noble Lord, Lord Sherwood, was worried about the Motion, but it really has no wide implication such as he feared. It is not opening the door to a wide scheme of reform in itself; it is just to discover what powers this House has of itself, apart from any other House of Parliament, with regard to the attendance of its Members. That is all it is. After the subject has been examined by the Committee—and I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Calverley, that I understand the Committee, unless they themselves decide otherwise, will sit in public; I understand that that is the proper course—and the Committee have reported, if these noble Lords still feel doubts on the points which arise from the deliberations of the Committee, of course the Government will be only too delighted to give time for an early debate in which all these matters can be ventilated and discussed. Therefore, I suggest that at this last moment for us to hesitate in our determination would be wrong; but at a later date we shall welcome anything anybody wishes to say.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Marquess, merely for purposes of clarification and nothing else, whether the Committee would be either authorised or instructed to make recommendations? Will there be recommendations coming from the Committee?


It is really purely fact finding, to find out what the position is. I had forgotten one question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, about the position of the Cross Benchers. The noble Lord will have noticed that two Law Lords are included in the Committee. They would be regarded certainly as non-Party personalities. In addition, there is the noble Lord, Lord Campion, who actually sits on the Cross Benches; so I think that the Cross Benches will be properly represented.


When the noble Marquess says "public," does he mean the Members of the House or the members of the public?


It is really a matter for the Committee to decide. As I understand the position, I do not think there is any definite rule that the general public should be excluded. The Committee could decide that the general public could attend. It is left entirely to the Committee to make their own decision on that question.

On Question, Motion agreed to.