HL Deb 29 April 1965 vol 265 cc719-30

3.26 p.m.

LORD ALPORT rose to call attention to the need, now that various changes have been made in the composition and powers of this House. for a full and early review of its procedures which, without involving any extension of its legislative powers or challenging the House of Commons, will enable it to be a more effective forum for the discussion of public policy and for the independent examination of defects in the apparatus of national administration, and will ensure that, within the framework of the present-day British Parliamentary system, it continues to fulfil a constructive rôle as an Upper House of Parliament; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is just over a year since your Lordships had a wide-ranging debate on the structure of Government, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. To-day's Motion, which I now beg to move, is a logical sequel to that occasion. Its aim is to invite your Lordships to consider that aspect of Government which falls directly within the powers of this House to determine: our own arrangements for conducting our Business in the most workmanlike manner possible, and of so organising that Business as to be in the best interests of the good government of modern Britain.

Your Lordships will have seen the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure in another place. This represents a first tentative step towards modernising the methods of work of the Lower House. It is important, I think, that we should not be behind them in this matter. Your Lordships' House is unique in the flexibility of its procedures, in the nature of its composition, and in the fact that it is the only major House of Parliament in the world whose Members serve without financial reward. It possesses many well recognised anomalies. At the same time, it possesses characteristics which, in a modern State, should enable it to make an invaluable contribution to good government for a long time to come. Because of all these things, it seems to me important that the manner in which we arrange our affairs should be so designed as to carry out that service most effectively, and that this ancient institution should, of its own initiative, and without the goad either of public opinion or of political pressure, show that it is constantly able to adapt itself within the limits of its own powers to meet the changing needs of Government in Britain.

Your Lordships will recollect Gibbon's celebrated description of the penalty in decay and degradation paid by the Roman Senate for its failure to adapt itself to the changing circumstances of the Roman world. It would be no mean achievement if, in the unique historic circumstances of this House, as a result of its own membership's instinctive sense of public service and acute sensitiveness to contemporary needs, we were able to prevent the same thing from happening here.

Your Lordships will note that this Motion does not refer to the powers or composition of this House. So far as the former are concerned, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, who said on that previous occasion last year that this House has no real power, although it can, and does, have considerable influence. This Motion is about functions and procedures or, to put it another way, how that influence can be most effectively exerted in the public interest. To this end I shall take the opportunity, with your Lordships' permission, of puting certain propositions before you. But I should, at the same time, like to make it absolutely clear that I do so entirely on my own initiative and without any previous consultation whatever with any other Member of your Lordships' House. I do so in the capacity which we all enjoy in this House, whatever may be our particular political affiliation, as an independent private Member of this House of Parliament.

I seek to persuade your Lordships to appoint a Select Committee, in addition to the permanent one that sits at present, to which any ideas which will be of value to the future conduct of our Business may be put and discussed, either by those who perhaps will distinguish this afternoon's debate by the contributions that they may make, or by experts from outside the House who may have valuable suggestions to put before such a Committee. I have no doubt that in some cases they will be voluble as well.

Although in the past the legislative function of this House has been the raison d'être for its existence, this, in my submission, is no longer the case. Since 1949 our function has been confined to enabling the House of Commons to have an opportunity for second thoughts about legislation, and occasionally delaying a Bill, in theory for a year but in practice for five or six months. During the passage of legislation through this House there is an opportunity to amend and improve it, and every successive Government have regarded the opportunity which it presents as a godsend for the improvement of the legislation before it reaches the Statute Book.

I suggest to your Lordships that a great deal of the time of this House is occupied in the Committee stage in considering such legislation. This is an important stage, but I suggest to your Lordships that it can be best taken in Standing Committee and that all Public Bills, with the exception of one category which I will mention in a moment, should in future be sent, after Second Reading, to a Standing Committee. It might well be that that Committee should be selected to reflect a particular political composition, or the composition of the Lower House. It might also be desirable that Members serving on that Committee should have some additional recognition for the work which they do on behalf of your Lordships' House. But I am not convinced that either is necessary or desirable.

I am well aware that the experiment of the Standing Committee was tried during the years 1889 to 1910, and during that period it was considered to have been a failure. But the circumstances of this House have changed radically since that period, and I do not think that the use of a Standing Committee for the Committee stage of a Public Bill would provide the difficulties and in some degree the embarrassment which was true of that previous experience of the use of that particular instrument. I suggest to your Lordships that the only Bills whose Committee stage should be taken on the Floor of this House should be Bills relating to a matter of substantial constitutional significance, and that the decision as to whether any particular piece of legislation falls into this category should be decided, after Second Reading, not by a vote of this House but by a special constitutional committee, for which your Lordships would have no difficulty in finding an abundance of wisdom and experience.

The effects of this change in procedure would be to speed up the legislative process, and this would, I imagine, be acceptable to any Government, and might I hope, commend itself to your Lordships. It would also do a second thing. It would enable public and Parliamentary attention to be focused upon legislation which, while dealing with some particular social or administrative problem, has at root provisions which make far-reaching consequences to the constitutional rights and liberties of the nation. It does not, of course, I fully recognise lie within the power of this House to prevent the passage of legislation which imposes the shackles of arbitrary power by any Government on the British people, but it is certainly the duty of this House to draw the attention of anyone who may be interested or concerned with such a process to the fact that such shackles are being forged.

Not long ago one of the Members of this House said to me that he had come to the conclusion that government in a modern State was almost impossible. It is certainly not my objective—and here I think I can speak for every Member of this House—to add unnecessary and additional burdens to those which are borne to-day by Her Majesty's Ministers. It is, after all, not in the interests of anyone on this side of the House to do such a thing, because those burdens have been borne by Members of this side of the House and they are well familiar with them, and indeed they may well be so borne again. But one thing we do know—and we have seen it from the experience of our own lifetime—is that the pressures of government to-day increasingly accumulate power in the hands of the Executive, and that as that power increases, so automatically, however good the individual may be, however good the Government may be, it leads to that consequence which Lord Acton called attention to many years ago—namely, the fact that all power tends to corrupt; and, as we know, he went on to say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. As the; machinery of Government becomes more complicated, as decisions require to be made more swiftly, so power becomes increasingly accumulated in the hands of the machine. And this is what has happened during the last twenty years under Labour and Conservative Governments. This is what is happening and this is what will tend to happen to-morrow, whatever Government is in power.

It is therefore, in my view, vital to the political health of Britain that there should be machinery in the Parliamentary edifice to scrutinise the general trends and the detailed activities of the national administration. I believe that even though the membership of another place in the future were to consist of whole-time and highly-paid professionals, they would have insufficient time and energy, and perhaps imagination, to spare from the essential and central Party struggle for power and from their responsibilities for legislation, to give to supervision of the trends of administration the objective thought which that supervision demands. I believe that the responsibility for advising upon, investigating and scrutinising these developments, the developments that are taking place in the many-sided and increasing activities of Government, which can and do inflict injustice upon individuals and groups within our country, can in some degree be carried out very properly here in your Lordships' House.

I am not seeking to disparage in any way what Lord Derby in the last century called "The honourable ties of Party association". I have always been a member of a Party, and I rejoice that here in your Lordships' House that membership can continue while at the same time there is given, for better or for worse, a great deal of independence of action and judgment. I know, and your Lordships know as well as I do, that the demands of discipline which modern government requires from its following within the House of Commons, the prejudices which are built into the Party system and are part and parcel of its practice, the refinements of Party tactics and the inevitable impulsions of personal ambition, make the objective investigation and scrutiny of the actions of the great apparatus of administration to-day difficult to be carried out fully by the House of Commons alone.

There are, as I have said, great anomalies in the composition of this House. But there is one thing that we—and others as well—should bear in mind; that is, that not one Member of your Lordships' House depends on his membership of this House for his career. Any reputation that any of us may have achieved in our lifetimes has been achieved outside this House, and not through it; and no one here depends upon continuing membership for his livelihood.

Our position is, in fact, different from that of the House of Commons—and inevitably so. This House has always been at its best when it has been least like another place in the conduct of its functions, its procedure, and the political climate which it has achieved in its deliberations. And we should, I think, he making a great mistake if we regarded ourselves, or came to be regarded, simply as the House of Commons writ small. The value of this House lies in its independence, while applying to ourselves and to our activities constant self-discipline and restraint in the conduct of our affairs and in our attitude to the political realities of a modern State, with universal adult suffrage, in the 20th century.

As the work of advice and scrutiny and investigation requires a proper impartiality, it is in this House that it should be appropriately carried out. If there is to be a Parliamentary Commissioner or Ombudsman, I suggest to your Lordships that it is here that he should have his presence and platform. He should not be an official outside Parliament, since that would be derogatory to Parliament. If there is to be more effective Parliamentary scrutiny of the relations between, on the one hand, the great State enterprises (which I recognise have come to stay) and the public services which have been brought into existence over recent years for the welfare of the people of this country, and, on the other, the general public of the country, I suggest that such processes of scrutiny and investigation can be best conducted in your Lordships' House, where they will not be distorted by the tactical needs of the inevitable and proper and historic struggle for power in the House of Commons.

We have all listened from time to time to a dialogue of great interest and sensitivity between, if I may put it in that way, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice on the one hand (not the present one, but previous ones) and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor on the other, discussing and giving their views on matters of law. I see no reason why there should not be the same sort of dialogue in this House in which those that lead our great national services and who are Members of this House take part. For example, I should like to see the existing Addison rules of 1950–51 completely revised. I do not believe that they are in accordance with the spirit of the proper function of your Lordships' House.

In these remarks that I address to you this afternoon, I do not want to trespass more than is inevitable upon ground that is unfamiliar to your Lordships, but it seems to me that the functions of the Council on Tribunals, for instance, should be carried out in relation to Parliament and not by some separate Tribunal, council or organisation. It seems to me that the method of ensuring right dealing between the Executive, in all its various and multitudinous forms, and the individual citizen of this country should be the responsibility of the Parliamentary machine and not delegated to any organisation that is outside the scope of the work and activities and responsibilities of your Lordships' House. I believe we can do that effectively here. I believe that is one of the functions which we should carry out.

I have suggested one way in which additional Parliamentary time can be given for this sort of work. I realise, of course, that the first call upon that time must be that of the Government and the second that of the official Opposition, and that proper opportunity must be given to the Liberal Party and to those who sit on the Cross-Benches to take a due and appropriate part in providing the order of business in your Lordships' House. But I should think there is a great deal to be said for putting some of the responsibility for decisions with regard to that order, the subjects which are to be discussed and the timing at which they are to be discussed, in the hands not of the "usual channels" but of a Committee which would be non-Party and representative of all parts of your Lordships' Chamber.

I think that would be fairer to our distinguished colleagues on the Cross-Benches. It would provide for an orderly allocation of business, and, through our own volition and impetus, so to speak it would enable the new, additional functions of this House to be brought naturally and properly in to our order of business. I do not say that the suggestions which I have made this afternoon are necessarily rightor would be acceptable to many of your Lordships, or even to a few. My object is to persuade your Lordships that there is something that should be done and that could be done; moreover, I feel an obligation to give some constructive ideas which may or not be dismissed in practice as having no value. That is the object of our debate.

Few people realise—and this is the main point which I wish to put before the House this afternoon—the extent to which recent legislation has altered the character of this House. The Parliament Act, 1949, the Life Peerages Act, 1958, the Peerages Act, 1963, and, 1 would add, the decision of Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Mr. Hogg to renounce their Peerages, have produced far-reaching changes in the character of this House. What we need now is to look carefully at our procedure and its relation to the functions which we can carry out effectively in the public interest, and to see how it can be improved.

During the last fifty years, all sorts of people have advanced ideas as to the future of the House of Lords. For debating societies the subject has provided an annual motion for discussion; constitutional experts have expounded interesting schemes; radical minds have sought to sweep your Lordships' House away. I believe that they have not realised, and maybe I and others have not, that the power to do what is right in the interests of Parliament and of the country lies as much in your Lordships' hands as in anybody else's, and action now will show the people of this country that we are not simply a Chamber of old men dreaming dreams; that we do not seek only to achieve some special advantage for any faction or Party; that it is not our purpose to entrench any interest; but that, even with the anomalies of our membership, the antiquity of our history and the curiosity of our procedures, we can, by our own act and decision, do what no other Chamber like ours has done in history—reform ourselves in such a manner as to retain and to merit the confidence and respect of the people of Britain. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, from these Liberal Benches it is not difficult to support the Motion which has been so ably, so thoughtfully, and so comprehensively moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, to whom we are most grateful for the lead he has given us this afternoon. I would ask your Lordships' indulgence, not only for myself, but for future speakers, if we find it impossible not to touch marginally on the larger question of reform of your Lordships' House, with which the terms of the Motion before us to-day are inextricably mixed un. We cannot really deal with one without the other, though I hope we shall not delve into detail in either.

For half a century the Conservative Party has failed to tackle realistically the problem of House of Lords reform because it likes the House of Lords. For half a century the Labour Party has failed to tackle realistically the reform of the House of Lords because it did not like the House of Lords. For half a century the Liberal Party has advocated tackling the subject realistically because it likes the House but perhaps is not quite sure of the Lords. If I may put it morekindly, it likes a Second Chamber and insists that a Second Chamber should always be with us, but sees much room for improvement both in its composition and, I would go so far as to say, in the archaic aspect of many of its powers and lack of powers. The Labour Party oddly, expresses its congenital distaste for your Lordships' House by condemning an increasing number of its distinguished supporters to sit in it —to the great advantage of us all here.

The Conservative Party, realising that something really was a bit wrong, made the very generous gesture of introducing the Life Peerages Bill. That Bill was specifically introduced into both Houses (in the other House by the noble Lord. Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, who I see is with us to-day) with the particular and avowed object of strengthening the numbers in Opposition to the Conservative Party in your Lordships' House. As the Opposition was then shared in roughly equal proportions by the Labour and Liberal parties, the Conservative Government, taking a leaf from Alice in Wonderland, created a few Labour Life Peerages, even more Conservative Life Peerages, and, of course, no Liberal Life Peerage. So we got back not to square one but to square minus one, where we are now. Whether this action was quite honourable is a matter of opinion.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for one moment? He is well aware, as I am, that this House has no kind of autocrat who can stop anybody from saying anything, but I am bound to say that I wonder whether the noble Lord is keeping within the spirit of the Motion in discussing the composition to this extent. I am sorry, for we are enjoyng his observations; but he is going very wide. He is setting—I hesitate to say so as he is one of the three Leaders of the House—an example which lesser people might be tempted to follow later on with disastrous results.


I readily defer to the noble Earl and apologise if I have transgressed, but it seems to me that this Motion is very much mixed up with other things, which I will now try to leave. After all, what I have been talking about is rather ancient history. To-day we are concerned more with the actual procedure and the machinery of the House than with the reforms recommended unanimously so many years ago —in 1948, I think it was. My reaction to the noble Lord's Motion now before us is, therefore, that while it is praiseworthy in general principle, it is in fact merely nibbling at a problem, if Lord Longford will forgive me, which still should he tackled fully as recommended by the Speaker's Conference of 1948.

It may well be that our detailed procedure does need refurbishing here and there, but personally I would not describe it as very inefficient. It works pretty well. I believe it was the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who remarked that the curious thing about the House of Lords is that it works. If we are to make alterations I would respectfully suggest that the place for discussion and conference of such detail is not really in the first place on the Floor of your Lordships' House, here in public debate, when the intricacies of practice and procedure and administrative convenience cannot possibly be assimilated by us all without considerable study. The problem should be remitted, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, to a committee—I should have thought to the Committee on Procedure—who would have the benefit of very expert and professional advice and guidance, before your Lordships are asked to come to a decision. If the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has this course in mind and is not in fact asking the House to-clay to thresh the matter out this afternoon, apologise to him if I have unintentionally misrepresented his views. The field of possible investigation and revision is so wide that T personally shall be sorry to be put into the position of prejudging even the necessity of immediate procedural alterations without further considerable thought, even though it is obvious that improvements can he made.

I support this Motion for its underlying principle of constant revision and of keeping up to date. I have no doubt that innumerable suggestions beyond those already made by the noble Lord can be made, and doubtless will be made. We may hear some of them this afternoon. I hope that they will not to-day he analysed in too much detail. We all have our hobby-horses on this subject and, with your Lordships' permission,I will briefly refer to three.

First, T should like an investigation into whether we are or are not making the best use of this House and its talents in taking so much and such exhausting Committee work in this Chamber rather than delegating some of it, as is done in another place and in other civilised and advanced countries. I would even suggest that we might have Standing Committees on particular subjects. Your Lordships who wish to speak in this House know that it is comparatively simple to get material on many subjects, but if one wishes to speak on Defence, Foreign Affairs or Commonwealth Affairs it is practically impossible to get the subject-matter which one needs because that is carefully locked up behind the stony faces of Her Majesty's Government, and we cannot get at it.

Secondly, I sometimes wonder whether we are wise—I apologise in advance to the noble and learned Lord Chancellor if this is not quite proper; I think it is —to take up so much of the time of the Lord Chancellor, the highest Officer of State in the land, a man with immense responsibilities and an enormous amount of work, in his capacity as Lords Speaker, with virtually no powers as such. Personally, I would not change that status; I enjoy it and I think we all appreciate it. But as we know, this involves his spending many hours on the Woolsack when the Business before your Lordships' House is not of prime State importance. I throw that out as a thought for consideration.

Thirdly, and lastly, I would urge on Her Majesty's Government to give consideration to taking steps to rectify the public image of the House of Lords, which is so often distorted, maliciously or ignorantly, both in the Press and in uninformed conversation by those who seldom if ever attend our debates or read the Parliamentary reports of our activities in this Chamber. I will not expand this, except to say that I frequently hear newcomers to all Parties to your Lordships' House, men of intelligence and attainment, saying, after they have been here a short time, "I never knew that the House of Lords did so much work, so much good work or such important work as it does in our Parliamentary life, or how representative it very often is of public opinion"—though it be not an elected Chamber. My Lords, I have finished what I have to say. There are many other noble Lords who wish to speak, and I will therefore leave the field to other hobby-horses and other bees in other bonnets.