HL Deb 26 April 1961 vol 230 cc873-82

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, if this is a convenient moment to the House, I might redeem my honourable friend's promise to repeat in this House a statement which has been made by the Home Secretary in another place. The statement is as follows:

"In the course of the debate on April 13 on the Report of the Committee of Privileges on the Stansgate case, my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney General and I"—

that is, the Home Secretary—

"indicated that while the Government did not favour the appointment of a Committee to consider the single issue arising in that case, we would consider the possibility of a broader inquiry.

"There is in the Government's mind no doubt as to the need to maintain an efficient Second Chamber. The representatives of all three Parties who took part in the Conference of Party Leaders in 1948 expressed themselves as united in their desire to see the House of Lords continue to play its proper part in the legislature. The White Paper containing their agreed statement shows that, although the Conference failed to reach agreement on the question of powers, some progress was made on the question of the composition of the House of Lords.

"The Government have now decided that consideration of the composition of the House of Lords should be undertaken. The House will recognise that such an inquiry is broader than that asked for in the debate on April 13.

"At the same time, the Government think there should be inquiry into certain anomalies in our Constitution. My right honourable and learned friend the Attorney General drew attention to some of them in the debate on April 13. A Scottish Peer who is not elected as a representative Peer is not eligible for election to this House and cannot vote in elections to this House."

My Lords, references in the statement to "this House" are, of course, references to another place.

"An Irish Peer can be elected a Member of this House, but cannot sit in the House of Lords or vote in an election to this House. A Peeress in her own right may vote in a Parliamentary election, but cannot sit in the House of Lords and is generally thought to be disqualified from membership of this House."—

That is, of the House of Commons.—

"The Government thinks that these matters should be considered.

"There is also the question of surrender of peerages, whether in order to become a Member of this House, or for any other reason. This involves consideration of a number of other questions. For instance, should the surrender be for life, or should it extinguish the peerage? If for life, should the title pass immediately to the heir? Should it be possible to surrender the right to sit in the House of Lords and, while retaining the title, sit in the House of Commons?

"Finally, we feel that any review of the composition of the other place"—

that is, my Lords, this House—

"must also have regard to the question of providing some assistance to enable more Peers, without unreasonable personal sacrifice, to play an active part in the business of that place.

"The Government's conclusion is that it is desirable that all these matters should be considered together. We have given much thought to the form of an inquiry, and we think that the appropriate body to consider them is a Joint Select Committee of both Houses.

"We therefore intend to move for the appointment of a Joint Select Committee with the following terms of reference"—

My Lords, I now quote textually the proposed terms of reference: To consider, having regard, among other things, to the need to maintain an efficient Second Chamber:

  1. (a) the composition of the House of Lords;
  2. (b) whether any, and if so what, changes should be made in the rights of Peers and Peeresses in their own right in regard to eligibility to sit in either House of Parliament and to vote at Parliamentary elections; and whether any, and if so what, changes should be made in the law relating to the surrender of peerages;
  3. (c)whether it would be desirable to introduce the principle of remuneration for Members of the House of Lords, and, if so. subject to what conditions, and to make recommendations.'
"In order to assist the Committee, we have already put in hand the preparation of material which the Committee may require for their consideration of the matters referred to them.

"The House will see that these terms of reference are wide enough to enable the Joint Select Committee to consider all the matters to which I have referred. A Motion will be tabled shortly".

My Lords, that is the statement.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for giving us the particulars of the statement made on behalf of the Government in another place. It is obvious, I am sure, to your Lordships that this statement is of very great importance, and may have quite far-reaching effects. I take note of the fact that, in the debate in another place on April 13 on the issues of the Stansgate case, which has been referred to and which has undoubtedly led to this statement to-day, the following statement was made by the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 638 (No. 88), col. 572): I am speaking to-night primarily as Leader of the House, but in answer to my hon. Friends I have been speaking as a member of the Government on Government decisions. But if House of Lords reform is involved, it would not be right not to consult the Opposition on that matter; and also we should consult members of the Liberal Party, because in questions of the Constitution, as has been the case in the past, it is always wise for consultation to take place on the broadest possible level. My Lords, so far as I know, the only consultation that has taken place with the Opposition here, or in another place, was a notification to us, with some detail, as to what the statement of Government policy to-day was to be. That is hardly what one would call consultation on the broadest possible basis. Of course, Parliamentary procedure often leads us into very strange situations from time to time, and this situation to-day seems to me to be one of the strange ones. The Stansgate case has been open for contribution, or decision, since November 17, and the statement of Government policy is issued just six days before an election is to take place, with the candidate himself personally concerned in the matter. It certainly seems to me to be a very strange event. I think, on the whole, we can claim this as a very considerable victory to the constituents of Bristol, South-East, and the one who had been their sitting Member, for having at last forced something to take place in this direction; and I think it is very likely indeed that it will greatly enhance the victory in this matter in the Bristol, South-East, election on May 4. But, as I say, Parliamentary procedure seems to lead us into strange situations from time to time.

As to the actual terms of reference which the noble Viscount has kindly given to us, of course they cover a great variety of subjects and must inevitably comprise considerable Parliamentary reform. I could have understood it better, in all the circumstances, and with widespread public opinion on this issue, if this question of the renunciation of peerages had been taken separately and urgently. We could then have cooperated straight away. But, of course, the broad question of the composition of the House of Peers, plus the question whether it is to be made more efficient by dealing with the question of remuneration, as such, of the House of Peers, raises many points to which we should need to give special consideration. We have certainly had no prior consultation on the matter such as we thought had been foreshadowed in the other place on April 13.

That is how it seems to me. But, as I say, we are still considering the matter. If the Government were to concentrate immediately upon the anomalies which are referred to in paragraph 2 of the terms of reference, and at the same time were to deal with this question of principle, which, to my mind, certainly involves human rights, then I should have thought that fairly speedy progress could be made and that a fair measure of agreement on the question of going into the Joint Select Committee could be arrived at.

I do not think that it is wise for me to go any further than that to-day, and I am sure that, on whatever side of the House we are sitting, we shall all wish to give careful consideration to this matter before we go any further. But if it is intended to go into a Joint Select Committee with such wide powers of reform, then it seems to me that, if the Government want freedom to co-operate, they should have included the consideration of the further curtailing of the powers of the non-elected House over the elected House.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of noble Lords on the Liberal Benches, I also should like to thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for his most interesting statement. As the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition has said, it is a most important announcement and we have not had a great deal of time to consider it, although I must admit that that my first inclination was to welcome the proposal with open arms. After all, it was the Liberal Party alone which, for about half a century, constantly advocated some reform of your Lordships' House. It met with opposition from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party at all stages during that long period of time. Indeed, your Lordships will remember that the only measure of reform that we have had.is a rather minor one, as many of us think—the Life Peerages Act. That Act was introduced into both Houses of Parliament, with the statement that its function was to strengthen the Opposition to the Conservative Party in the House of Lords. I need not remind your Lordships about the way that Act was used by the Government to create more Conservative Peers and so increase their majority against the Labour Opposition. The Liberal Party, which had advocated such reforms 50 years earlier was, of course, completely ignored. I do not think that the Liberal Party of to-day and tomorrow is in the position to be ignored in quite such a way.

I should like to say that, in principle, we heartily support this very open inquiry. Unlike the Labour Party, we favour a two-Chamber Government. Unlike the Labour Party, we are not afraid to tackle this question, which we have been trying to tackle for nearly two generations. This is not the time to debate the matter, but I should like to thank the noble Viscount for making this statement and for opening wide this question for further examination.


My Lords, I do not think that I quite accept the noble Lord's concluding words about the views of the Labour Party upon the constitution of a Second Chamber‒not by any means. And I would say that in the Liberal Party in the country as a whole we should certainly not find unanimity. I remember the day when Sir Robertson Nicol was asking very strongly for a referendum and Lloyd George then said, "End 'em, not mend 'em".


My Lords, I was not trying to foist on to the noble Viscount's Party any particular position. Since we are discussing each other's policies, I may say that I do not think that the unanimity, which he finds lacking in our Party, exists in his own party, 'particularly with reference to a two-Chamber Government.


My Lords, I do not propose to comment at this moment on the very wide-ranging terms of reference, which the noble Viscount the Leader of the House has read out to us. I should like only to put one question which, in view of what the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition says, appears to me to be relevant and important for the House to know before anything further appears on the Order Paper. It is this: is it intended that there should be consultation between the Leaders of the three Parties, or possibly even wider than Leaders, before a Motion is tabled, which no doubt would have to be tabled in both Houses, for the appointment of a Joint Select Committee to consider the holding of an inquiry, either with the terms of reference which have been recited to us or with such other terms of reference as may be agreed?


My Lords, I wonder whether it would be convenient for me to answer some of these points. I shall try not to be controversial about this matter, or to make Party points. First of all, as regards the remarks and questions of the noble Viscount who leads the Opposition, of course I fully recognise the desirability of consultation between the Parties; but the noble Viscount will not have failed to observe that what we have proposed this afternoon is not a reform of the Upper House, but the setting up of a Joint Select Committee to discuss various possibilities. This will necessarily involve the consultation which we envisage in this particular instance.

I am very anxious not to make a polemical statement, but the noble Viscount will remember that on numerous occasions since 1948 approaches have been made to his Party, one of them which I made personally, in circumstances which were not altogether dissimilar to the present, and we received a pretty frosty answer on each occasion. The noble Viscount will not have forgotten that, although the terms of reference proposed were very different, a Joint Select Committee was precisely the organ which was asked for by the Labour Party in the House of Commons on April 13. What we have done, in effect, is to accede to their request, but with different terms of reference.

The noble Viscount also referred to the Stansgate case. What I would say about that case is this. The noble Viscount said that it was strange to make this statement six days before the election. I do not think that anything ought to be said in this House which would unduly influence the views of electors of Members of the House of Commons. However, perhaps I may be allowed to say, without impropriety, that it might have been well to take longer about this business, but the position is altered by the fact that, for reasons which may or may not be adequate, a person who by reason of his membership of this House is disqualified has been put forward as a candidate for the House of Commons. For that state of affairs we on this side of the House are not in any way responsible.

The noble Viscount also said that this means a victory for the constituency of Bristol, South-East. Again, without any degree of offence I would remind the noble Viscount that in 1950 I made to the Leader of his Party exactly the same request as the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, has made to the present Government. The difference between the two situations is that the present Government have acted and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, did not. Who has actually gained the victory by this statement, we shall see when the Committee report.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, referred to the half-century of Liberal agitation—after having been in the impregnable position of declaring that the position "brooks no further delay" This again is something we could debate on another occasion. I certainly noted what he said about the operation of the Life Peerages Act, but he will not expect me to comment on his remarks.

My noble friend Lord Swinton asked about consultations. Of course, I can speak here only of my own position, but I should certainly be glad to hear from noble Lords opposite, and, indeed, from any of my noble friends, or from noble Lords on the Cross-Benches, their views on the composition and character of this Committee. There will be time for a debate in this House, so far as I can tell, to enable all noble Lords to have an opportunity of expressing themselves to the Government. I cannot hold out any hope that the terms of reference will be enlarged to include the question of the powers of this House—I think that would be contrary to the statement which my right honourable friend has made—but I have noted what the noble Viscount has said about the order in which certain subjects should be considered. I would suppose that a Committee, or indeed the Government, before it sets up a Committee, is open to representations of that kind, although the noble Viscount will not expect me to forecast what the result will be. I think that that covers all the points raised so far.


My Lords, my only locus stands for making a short comment on this matter is that I am one of the few Members of your Lordships' House who took part in the great controversy about your Lordships' House 50 years ago, when Mr. Asquith, as the noble Viscount the Leader of the House reminded us, told us that the matter "brooked no delay" I do not ask my noble friend to answer this question at this moment, and I do not want to be critical of the Government. But I have seen Governments in a pretty good jam over these matters in the last 50 years, and I think that the present Government are in as great a jam as any of them—for this reason: that apparently they have not obtained any undertaking from either of the Opposition Parties that they will take part in this Committee; and the Opposition Parties have not been consulted about the terms of reference. How on earth the Government suppose, in those circumstances, that they will be able to get members of the other two Parties to take part yin the proceedings of the Committee, I fail to understand. I think the situation is really a very grave one, land I must express this regret, which I think will be shared by some of my noble friends.

The terms of reference of the Committee are quite excellent, and I only regret that we did not have a Committee much earlier to inquire: into the matter; and even if this particular form of inquiry cannot take place, perhaps another form of inquiry could take place. But why on earth the Government should suddenly announce this step, because of what has happened in another place, and in connection with a by-election, few of us can understand. It would have been better to deal with the matter after whatever takes place, and not today. I am sorry to have to say it to my noble friend, for whom, as he knows, I have a great regard; but I must repeat that I think the Government have got themselves into a very difficult position.


My Lords, I think I should perhaps comment again, I hope without any offence, upon that short interjection. I cannot, of course, speak for the Opposition Parties, but it would, I am sure, be the wish of noble Lords opposite to co-operate in anything which would add to the efficiency of this House, and I did not understand the noble Viscount who leads the Opposition to suggest that they would not. It would, I think, be odd if, having asked for a Joint Select Committee to consider, among other things, these very matters, they were then to announce that they would not take part in it. I think that would leave them open to a good deal of adverse criticism. But their decision will be for them to make, and I do not anticipate that they will make a wrong decision.

As regards what my noble friend said, I think perhaps he should have considered the position of the electors of South-East Bristol. Owing to the situation in which they are now placed (this is, of course, a constituency which has traditionally for some time past returned a Labour Member), if they. in fact, return as the Member the candidate the Labour Party have offered, then they will be disfranchised for an indefinite period. It would be an odd thing if the Government remained indifferent to the indefinite disfranchisement of the constituency.