HL Deb 10 April 1962 vol 239 cc372-82

3.14 p.m.

Order of the Day read for the consideration of the Commons Message in regard to House of Lords Reform.

VISCOUNT HAILSHAM rose to move, That this House do concur in the Resolution communicated by the Commons, namely, That it is expedient that a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament be appointed to consider whether any, and if so what, changes should be made in the rights of Peers of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain or of the United Kingdom, and of Peeresses in their own right, to sit in either House of Parliament, or to vote at Parliamentary elections, and whether, and if so under what conditions, a Peer should be enabled to surrender a peerage permanently or for his lifetime or for any less period having regard to the effects and consequences thereof.

The noble and learned Viscount said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion which stands in my name. I could not help being slightly amused the other day when I discovered, by chance, among my father's papers the actual letter and telegram I had sent him some time ago, in 1928, when he accepted Mr. Baldwin's invitation to accede to the office now held by my noble friend upon the Woolsack. The telegram read: Melancholy congratulations. Reform Lords. Quintin.

My Lords, my melancholy on that occasion was occasioned by a number of considerations, not least of which was the filial respect and affection in which I held my father, who had explained to me that if he was not going to take that step he might have been considered in the line of succession to the leadership of his Party. As the son of an American mother, too, I have always had a certain doubt about the magic of male primogeniture as a principle of human genetics, a doubt about which your Lordships have always been extraordinarily generouse in dealing with me. It was also in my heart that I was already sufficiently interested in public affairs to desire to try my hand in the normal way on the hustings and in the House of Commons, as it was, and is, the birthright of any other free Englishman to do without the added complication of a peerage, be it privilege or responsibility. And for the young it is not, oddly enough, the glittering prizes which attract the generous heart of youth; it is, on the contrary, the gleaming sword and the lust for battle.

But, my Lords, my prescription to my father to reform the Lords proved rather more difficult to achieve than I had then supposed. I feel perhaps that at that time I was insufficiently apprised of the important differences between traditional and contrived political institutions. There is, of course, virtue in both types. But there is this distinction. Being contrived, the latter must satisfy some rational pattern of logical design. But of the traditional, its very nature is such that no one would have thought of it had he been starting afresh. If it is to be retained at all, it must be judged, like other human things, by its performance rather than by the rational perfection of its design. If it is to be reformed, it is more likely to be done acceptably if it is altered in detail to circumvent some anomaly or to cancel some injustice.

Nevertheless, my Lords, I should wish to begin to-day by considering the virtues of a traditional system, and surely these are too solid to be denied. For 700 years, more or less, the Legislature of this country has consisted of Sovereign, Lords and Commons. During that time the relative power and attributes of the parts have changed, but the tradition of the whole has remained continuous. Other monarchies have risen and fallen. Other Parliaments have died, often in their infancy. Ours has become not merely the pride of our own country but the pattern of others. It is not vain glory but fact that almost every representative institution active in the world to-day has been modelled, directly or indirectly, upon the Parliaments of Edward I: if they had not existed, probably none of the others would have come into being. It was the success of representative government in England which led to its imitation throughout much of the world.

My Lords, it is surely only the superficial who would mock at the mediæval framework of our institutions. The exquisite beauty of the ceremony with which our proceedings are opened by the Sovereign in November is more than a medieval pageant. Let him who smiles cast his eyes upon the events of the recent past across the Channel. The French are a nation not less proud, sensitive or civilised than ourselves, hut, as General de Gaulle told us, in that extraordinary tour de force he accomplished in Westminster Hall, it is a matter of infinite thankfulness to the British people that it has inherited traditional institutions whose inherent authority is beyond dispute. Since the French destroyed or lost their feudal inheritance they have never enjoyed a moment when the authority of the State was beyond question or in which the institutions of society were invulnerable to insurrection or violence.

Yet it is with the practical advantages, rather than with the decorative and the impressive and the traditional, that we are concerned to-day. All over the world Parliaments and the politicians who compose them come in for criticism. Many have fallen, but the fall has been due to the inveterate defect of government by discussion, that discussion breeds delay and becomes notorious for procrastination.

Our own Parliamentary system, however, has survived, equally powerful as an instrument in war and in peace. In the main, its two Houses have developed side by side, in peace and amity, each conscious of a separate function, each the proud heir to a different tradition. Some privileged individuals have been proud to serve in both. Indeed, from the days of the Tudors there have been few Houses of Lords which have not owed much to those who served their first apprenticeship in the House of Commons. And by the like token there have been few Houses of Commons which have not been remarkable for Members, of all Parties, who were members of noble families, and often heirs to hereditary titles. Open breaches have, in fact, been few, and the events of 1911 were almost, although not quite, unique in Parliamentary history. In my opinion, at least, they could, and should, have been avoided. To-day no one challenges the superiority in authority of the elected Chamber. Yet it would be surely a mistake to regard our own House as no more than a decorative appendage. To destroy the House of Lords would, of course, be to mutilate the venerable pattern which, as I have tried to show, is the talisman of Parliament's continuous authority. My purpose here is also to vindicate its usefulness as a working part of our Constitution.

For, my Lords, the truth is that our method of legislation is geared into the existence of two Houses. Let no one suppose for an instant that the House of Lords could go without catastrophic effects upon the procedure and efficiency of the House of Commons, which, even after the Gladstonian reforms following the Irish Obstruction, is less and less able to bear the 'burden of the weight of business thrust upon it. No one who has served in Government, or in either House, is unaware that the Teal struggle for power to-day between the Parties is the struggle for time. The procedure for passing, Bills through the House of Commons presupposes the existence of an efficient House of Lords in which a further detailed discussion and revision of legislation can take place. No one who loves the House of Commons, as, my Lords, I have always loved it, can fail to desire an alert and efficient House of Lords to complement its labours and to provide time for general debates on subjects meriting public discussion but for which the Commons have no leisure to provide an opportunity.

My Lords, there is no need to-day, in view particularly of the terms of our Motion, to question the exact legal extent of our powers. Enough there must be to give us dignity, to make it to be seen to be worth while for us to attend, to make us a veritable partner in debate and in the legislative process. But no one to-day questions the superiority of the elected House. The factors which give the House of Commons superiority are not legal but social and political, and though this is reflected in our respective powers the Commons would, in fact, effectively exercise superiority did they not possess it already in legal theory, and in substance the House of Commons exercises an influence vastly in excess of the actual legal powers it possesses. Despite six years of Socialist Government there has been no overt challenge under the leadership of this House by my noble friend who sits below the Gangway, and since the powers of the House were reduced by the Government composed of noble Lords opposite to their own prescription I think I could challenge anybody to produce a single instance of abuse justifying or suggesting the desirability of further change.

But, my Lords, with all these merits, the composition of your Lordships' House has never during this century been capable of theoretical justification. As long ago as 1908 this House resolved that the mere succession to a United Kingdom title was insufficient ground by itself to merit the right to sit and vote, and this has been the consistent view of both Conservatives and others who have thought and spoken upon this subject from that time to the discussions of 1948 and in the successive Parliaments thereafter. In 1911 the Liberal Government declared that the subject brooked no delay. Successive Socialist speakers have been at pains to assert that they themselves do not justify the status quo, although some of us believe that it is a matter of history that some of them may have been a powerful means of perpetuating it.

After consultation with the Opposition, Her Majesty's Government have decided that it is no longer practicable to continue without taking active steps to reduce some of the anomalies. There are some of us, I must say including myself, who have thought so for quite a lone time. Only the difficulty of Parliamentary time led me to support the limited nature of reform at the time of the Life Peerages Act, and this limited character came in for some fairly hostile criticism in both Houses and in the Press. I myself regret that the course I now commend to the House has not been undertaken long since. However, I will now rehearse the reasons which lead me to say that it ought no longer to be delayed.

My Lords, I personally regret that the occasion for this Motion, the first cause as I might say, was the occurrence of a grievance affecting a single subject—sympathise, as I do, with that subject, disapprove, as I do no less, of the particular methods employed to brine the grievance to public notice. Neither the justice of the grievance nor the unsuitability of the method should, however, in my submission, deter your Lordships from taking the correct course if I can so persuade your Lordships that the course suggested in the Motion is the correct one. The grievance of the reluctant heirs is, I would submit, only one among a number of connected anomalies which cannot indefinitely be continued. All in their way may cause inconvenience; some certainly cause injustice. The national advantage should, after all, be our main criterion. I cannot at this juncture refrain from observing that if Sir Winston Churchill's uncle had died without issue, under our present convention he would never have been available to lead the nation in 1940. Indeed, Sir Winston Churchill would never have served in the House of Commons at all.

But, my Lords, this is only one instance. The position of the Scottish peerages, unchanged since 1717, may require attention. Out of the Scots Peerage, only fifteen do not sit in your Lordships' House either as Representatives or under substantitve titles. Surely in the history of representative institutions never have so few been represented by so many. It is at least arguable that we should either be like them or they should be like us. The Irish Peerage has clearly become something of an anomaly since the Treaty. If they are commoners, why are they not allowed to vote? If they are Peers, why do they sit in the House of Commons? The dilemma in the case of Peeresses in their own right has been answered by preventing them from sitting in either place—a sort of floating kidney in the body politic. Their absence here can be justified only on the grounds of eligibility elsewhere. Their exclusion elsewhere can only be justified on the grounds of their presence here. Yet neither argument is allowed to prevail. Your Lordships will remember the Report, and the debates we held on the Report of the Swinton Committee when we established the Rules relating to Leave of Absence. It was then recognised that only legislation could alter the underlying scandal of the disregarded Writ. It is not for me to suggest what remedy should be proposed. But it is germane to this Motion to establish that only in this way can a remedy be founded.

My Lords, I return for a moment to the grievance of the so-called reluctant heirs. As Leader of the House I cannot disabuse myself of the conviction that it is bad for the prestige of this House to be repeatedly projected in the public image as a place which can recruit its Members only by recourse to conscription. This is far from the truth. Most heirs go willingly and with a mingled sense of pride and duty. But a minority do not. This has been so since at least 1895, when three heirs including the future Lords Selborne, Curzon and Middleton protested. I protested in 1950. Lord Altrincham in 1953 stated his unwillingness to attend and he has not attended. I do not approve of his action, and I am not sure how much we have lost by it. Now Lord Stansgate has taken the, to me, objectionable course of standing for the House of Commons when he has been declared disqualified to sit.

It is not for me to speculate how many others will act, or to justify whatever action they take. It may well be true—I think it is—that it is a matter of criticism of ourselves that we have allowed matters to progress so far that we have waited until these somewhat unedifying events have pressed themselves on the public attention. It is enough to say that they have happened, and your Lordships may be quite certain that in one form or another they will be repeated at irregular but possibly diminishing intervals over the years, and that each lime they do happen, both Lords and Commons, both Government and Opposition will be made to look ridiculous—and, what is worse, distract their attention from problems more weighty, injustices more grave, and perils more instant. If there were public advantage in that course it might be seemingly to acquiesce in inactivity. But the balance of advantage is surely on the other side. In general the right of the people is to elect whom they please to represent them in the Assembly; their interest is that the most suitable should be promoted to the highest place notwithstanding that their uncles do die sine prole. The right of the individual is to pursue the public service in equality with his neighbours, not seeking advantage but not submitted to injustice. No constituency that I know of willingly undergoes a by-election. I believe that I was reasonably popular in Oxford. I have no doubt that Lord Stansgate is beloved in Bristol. No doubt all Constitutions have anomalies; but there is no purpose in adding to them out of sheer perversity.

Add to this that it is surely not to your Lordships' advantage to be thrust into the maelstrom of Party controversy. We perform our functions best when we do so unobtrusively. Our House is at its most valuable when politics disturb it least. One cannot ignore the fact that the Party opposite has embraced Lord Stansgate's cause and even, what I regret, underwritten his method of pressing it. They may have been wrong to do so, but at least we must give them the credit for some depth of feeling before they surrendered a Parliamentary seat. I cannot but notice, somewhat ruefully, that their indignation was enhanced and their zeal for reform was increased when the reluctant heir was not a member of the Conservative Party.

These questions cannot be viewed separately; nor, as a matter of fact, should they be considered hurriedly. Hence the need for a Joint Select Committee before legislation. If United Kingdom Peers are to renounce, Scottish Peers also must be given an opportunity of arguing before a Select Committee their right to do so; so must Peeresses in their own right. It is argued with force that we must be on our guard lest, in limiting the hereditary character of our own composition, we undermine the Monarchy. That is an argument which has been presented, and it must be considered.

Many of us are aware that there are many duties and rights inherent in a title which are not attached to Parliamentary duties. To some, ancient seats are attached and entailed; to many, local responsibilities. With a few, hereditary offices are closely allied, like the Earl Marshal or the Lord Great Chamberlain; or, in the case of my noble friend Lord Dundee, the Standard Bearer for Scotland. Surrender raises the question of extinction or succession issues between a Peer and possibly his infant children, unprotected by a guardian, or, more delicate still, between him and relatively remote relatives who may be his heirs presumptive. These things need argument and discussion. I say no more than that.

Of the instrument required, the Joint Select Committee, I have no doubt of the suitability of that proposed. I think that the Commons, and I am persuaded also this House, would not brook the intervention of an outside Committee. The discreet and, on the whole, friendly conversation between the Parties in 1948, on an alternative procedure, the renewal of which was unfortunately rejected in 1953, has, I am persuaded, yielded all the advantage of which it was capable until a full elucidation of the problems has taken place. What is needed is a calm and dispassionate look by a body capable of detailed study. Before we legislate, if ever we do, in the light of the Report of the Select Committee, there will still be, if it is desired, ample opportunity of renewed consultation, which I personally should welcome, as I always have done. A Joint Select Committee of both Houses is the appropriate body to inquire and hear the evidence. Only such a body will contain the necessary Parliamentary experience to hear and discuss the issues which must be considered.

The terms of reference have been agreed between the Parties. They do not include powers. The general issue of composition is not specifically included. But included in the terms of reference are at any rate some, and perhaps most, of the matters to which I have alluded with the exceptions, as such, of the disregarded writ, except in so far as this is accentuated by the non-attendance of reluctant heirs.

I should like to add, if I may, a personal note. In all the discussion regarding reluctant heirs there are some, I think, who have inadequately understood the peculiarly painful nature of the predicament in which they are placed. This was stressed by my noble friend Lord Hinchingbrooke in another place. It would be difficult, I think, to find four men who differed more completely in temperament or opinion than Lord Hinchinabrooke, Lord Altrincham, Lord Stansgate and myself. Yet I doubt not that we have one thing in common, which indeed we share with the great majority of mankind: we all loved our fathers and are proud of the stock from which we came. My Lords, this is no snobbery; it is shared by all classes in every age. It is not foolish pride. It is common piety that we honour our fathers and our mothers, that we praise famous men, and the fathers who begat us.

It has fallen, or will fall to us all in a moment of bereavement—and, believe me, the pain of parting is as great for rich and poor alike, and neither age nor long service, nor a lifetime full of honours really blunt the edge of the axe when it falls—to have to leave or else forswear a life we loved, the ordinary healthy normal business of democratic politics as it is lived to-day in the Commons or on the hustings, and if we have protested to have to seem in so doing to dishonour our heritage and the families which gave us birth.

I have promised not to suggest answers in the terms in which I move this Motion, and I shall not do so. Those who wish to suggest answers must do so by their evidence to the Select Committee. But I should like to say just three things before I sit down. It is said, and said rightly, that some limit must be placed to the choice of a man who, by the accident of succession, finds himself in a position to succeed to a seat in a hereditary Legislature. He cannot, it is said, have it both ways. He cannot be in and out.

This may be so. But the public advantage is not, I believe, served by the perpetuation of injustice, nor would it be served by the presentation of a choice which, by its very nature, is invidious or dishonourable to those who have to make it. If Sir Winston Churchill had succeeded to the Dukedom of Marlborough at the age of twenty-one when his uncle died, does anyone who knows him, his family pride, his sense of tradition and of the greatness of England, his feeling for what is worthy and appropriate in human conduct, suppose that he would have been grateful for the choice of surrendering his due part forever in that splendid patrimony, even for the right to take part, however honourably, in the hustings of 1900 or 1906, with the distant prospect, which must at that time have seemed impossibly remote to all the world, that, in the inscrutable wisdom of Providence, he would have been preserved forty years later to save his country on a field and in a cause greater than Blenheim, Ramillies or Malplaquet?

My Lords, it is for the Select Committee to answer that question. My humble prayer to your Lordships is that it be allowed to do so, and that when the Answer comes it will be just, and in the public interest, and honourable to us all. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved. That this House do concur in the Resolution communicated by the Commons. viz.:—

" That it is expedient that a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament be appointed to consider whether any, and if so what, changes should be made in the rights of Peers of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain or of the United Kingdom, and of Peeresses in their own right, to sit in either House of Parliament, or to vote at Parliamentary elections, and whether, and if so under what conditions, a Peer should be enabled to surrender a peerage permanently or for his lifetime or for any less period having, regard to the effects and consequences thereof."—(Viscount Hailsham.)