§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
My Lords, may I now revert to the rather more domestic problem which is before us today? My noble friend Lord Alport has made a most interesting speech in introducing his Motion, and many of the suggestions he has made will, I have no doubt, be widely discussed among us, together with other suggestions which will be made by noble Lords in the course of this debate. As he has said, his Motion is concerning solely with procedure and with neither the composition nor the powers of your Lordships' House. I intend, as he did and as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, did in the end, to stick strictly to the terms of the Motion and not to be led down the by-ways of those two fascinating and topical subjects. But it is necessary, if we are to discuss sensibly what the procedure of the House should be, to have clearly in mind what its functions are, and they seem to me to be three.
First, we should and do act as a Council of State, in the sense that owing to the rather slower tempo of affairs in this House we have time to discuss at our leisure important issues of the day. Because our membership is varied, distinguished and experienced, we can on any subject, I think, be relied upon to have a debate in which the participants are most often great experts on their own subjects, and which can set in perspective for those who care to read it or study it the problems and the issues at stake. These are not necessarily, of course, political issues, though sometimes they are. I believe that we can perform a very useful and valuable rôle in this way. We need only to look at the debates 736 which your Lordships are having in the coming weeks to see examples of what I mean. Next week we are discussing the Commonwealth, the day after the importance of private investment overseas, the week after the Wolfenden Committee Report, and the problems of regional planning and development. All these are important and topical, and unlikely to be discussed in another place, where time is much more difficult to come by.
The second rôle of your Lordships' House is to amend and revise legislation. Sometimes business starts in this House—and I will say a little more about that later on—but most often it comes up from another place, and with the pressure of business there, and sometimes with the imposition of the guillotine by both of the major Parties, important legislation has not been sufficiently discussed. This has been true of Bills brought in by both the Labour and the Conservative Governments. Here, again, with more time at our disposal we have an opportunity of examining these measures at greater leisure on the Committee and Report stages.
I do not think I would agree with my noble friend that it would be an advantage if we took the Committee stages of these Bills elsewhere than on the Floor of the House. I think a great deal of value is gained by the fact that the Whole House discusses these Bills; but we can talk about that later. Naturally, as we are, I hope, a sensible body of people, many of the Amendments which are proposed are agreed to by the Government of the day because they improve the legislation, and sometimes even because the Government have been convinced by the Opposition or by some noble Lord that their original thoughts were wrong. Sometimes there is a clash of opinion between two opposing points of view and we have a Division, as we did the other day on the War Damage Bill and the Law Commissions Bill.
Here I must say that I think it is a pity that the passing of an Amendment by your Lordships for reconsideration by another place should be considered by journalists or broadcasters to be a clash between the two Houses. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. It is the House of Lords functioning as it should function: that is to say, after debate, which may have 737 introduced new arguments or in which circumstances may have changed,your Lordships are giving another place an opportunity to look once again at a particular point. It has happened that the Government of the day have sometimes thought that the arguments produced in this House have been novel and convincing and that the Amendment should stand, but if they do not think so they disagree to the Amendment and it is then up to your Lordships to decide whether or not we should insist on it. It is not until that moment is reached that there should be any talk of a clash between the two Houses, and even then there are opportunities for compromise, and a formula may be reached on which both Houses agree.
I, for one, am certain that most of your Lordships do not understand the point of view advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Citrine, I think a fortnight ago, on the Committee stage of the War Damage Bill. I understood him to say that your Lordships should not carry to a Division any Amendment to a Bill which has been discussed in another place.
§ LORD CITRINE
My Lords, I should like to clear up that point. I was not dealing with the general run of Amendments; I was dealing with a vital question of principle. There was a complete difference of view from the other place in regard to that principle, in respect of retrospective legislation.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
My Lords, I do not of course want to misinterpret what the noble Lord said, but I do not think what he has now said has really cleared it up very much. I do not think that he and I would agree on his last point either, but we will not pursue that point. I also do not think that your Lordships would agree with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, if I understood him aright, when he said that your Lordships should not pass Amendments except on issues which had been missed in another place.
Lastly, my Lords—and I do not know that I shall carry noble Lords opposite with me on this—I think that there is a third function which can be performed in very rare circumstances by this House, and by this House alone. There could be circumstances in which a Government of an extreme political character, 738 whether Right or Left, might with a large majority pass measures through another place which had not been foreshadowed in the programme of that Party at the General Election, and on which the views of the electorate were very uncertain.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
Like the Rent Act; but noble Lords opposite did vote against the Rent Act. That surely proves my point. I do not quite see the point of their observation. It seems to me that the delaying powers which still exist in your Lordships' House should then be used to allow a period of time to elapse and to allow public opinion to form.
If I am right in suggesting that these are the roles of your Lordships' House, do our procedures enable us to carry them out successfully? I have now been a Member of this House for nearly twenty years, and perhaps it may be that, with age, complacency has set in, but I must say that if I had to answer the question in the broadest possible terms, I would say: Yes, our procedures do make it possible for us to do our job with ease and despatch. There are no doubt certain things which could and should be altered, and I will in a moment suggest one or two of them, but, generally speaking, I think that the Rules in this House make it possible for every Member of it, whether he belongs to a political Party or not, to have his say, to raise any question that he wishes and which he considers to be of public importance, and to take a proper part in our proceedings.
I thought while listening to my noble friend Lord Alport that I detected a wish that the House of Lords could be a good deal more independent of the political Parties than he feels it to be at the present time; and he stressed particularly independence from the Executive. Anybody who has been a Conservative Whip in this House could never have any doubt as to its independence. I remember that long ago, when I was a Whip and we wanted to get a good attendance on a particular issue to defeat the Labour Government of 1945-51, we sent out a two-line Whip. Quite a number of those 739 who came, having listened to the arguments advanced by both sides, wholeheartedly aligned themselves with the Government in the Division, against the Party to which they belonged. I must say that I have known it happen in more recent times when I was Leader of the House, and the Government of the day were soundly defeated on a number of occasions, not by noble Lords opposite alone but with the help of Conservative Peers.
Though that may have been very frustrating for me, I make no complaint about it. Noble Lords listened to the debate and the arguments on the merits of the case, and made up their own minds; and that is one of the most valuable things that anybody can do in this House. But, having said that, there is no doubt that there must be some kind of political organisation and control in the House. After all, we are a House of Parliament, the legislation proposed by the Government of the day has to go through this House if it is to get on the Statute Book, and so there must be some organisation on both Government and Opposition sides to see, on the one hand, that the legislation does get through and, on the other, that it does not get through without constructive opposition.
I am bound to say that I do not think that the rather loose political organisation which we have in this House has meant that any noble Lord, of any political Party, or on the Cross-Benches, has greatly suffered. There are a number of ways in which any Member of the House, of any or no Party, can raise issues. He can put down a Starred Question, over which no control is exercised by Government or Opposition, and on which the only limit is the number. He can at any time put down an Unstarred Question for any day, and he can be neither prevented from so doing nor compelled to take it off, unless he falls under the spell of the Government Chief Whip's silver tongue. He can put down a Motion on any subject he chooses to call attention to, or on some aspect of a particular problem; he can move a Resolution; or he can move for Papers. In regard to Motions, of course, the situation is more difficult, since it is generally desirable to devote the whole of a day, or the greater part of it, to a Motion; and 740 in the nature of things, there are not all that number of days, so that on Motions there must be some consultation through the usual channels.
But if there is any burning topic which it is proper that this House should discuss, I do not think that there is ever the slightest difficulty in finding time for it. The only difficulty, I think, is that what may seem of burning importance to one particular noble Lord may not seem so important to anybody else. The noise of grinding axes is not necessarily music to your Lordships—even "Backwoodsmen". So the noble Lord concerned may feel that he is being thwarted by the Whips. But even then, my Lords, if he wants to, and has the persistence, he can still put down his Motion for consideration after the Business of the Day ordered by the Government and the Opposition has been concluded—that is, if he is prepared to sit in the House, and the House is prepared to sit a little longer than it would normally.
It seems to me that the Motion we are discussing to-day is a perfect example of an issue which is of interest to the House, and is important, because it has a bearing on how efficiently we do our job. My noble friend has put his Motion down on the day allocated for the purpose; he is airing the subject and moving for Papers. I do not know whether he intends to withdraw his Motion, but if he does not, he may get a surprise. I remember that, once, one of my colleagues, against all advice, accepted a Motion for Papers. He was told the next day that it would require eight pantechnicons to transport the relevant Papers to this House, before which they had to be laid. I do not know what my noble friend would get, but I will tell him in advance that he will not please the Clerk of the Parliaments.
So, my Lords, though I agree with much of what my noble friend has said, I am not entirely convinced that he is right in suggesting, as I think he did, that the control of our business procedures should be through the means of a Standing Committee. There is, however, one aspect of our procedure which I think does call for some improvement; and on this it is within the power of the Government of the day to help. What we usually find is that there is no legislation before your Lordships at the beginning of a Session,
741 since most Bills start in another place, and that it is not until well into the summer that legislation starts to come up from the Commons and to build up to an almost intolerable level. This happens every summer, under every Government; and just before the Summer Recess we are at great pressure and the workings of the House are made much more difficult than they would be if legislation were spread out over a longer period.
If I may say so, in passing, it looks as if the situation is going to be even worse this year, when a number of very long and controversial Bills must come to this House at a time which would normally be just before the Recess. I do not know what noble Lords opposite intend—and perhaps we may be told sooner, rather than later. Perhaps they intend to go on sitting after the end of July, when no doubt there will be many political jokes made that Parliament is still sitting on August 12. But, whatever solution is proposed, I very much hope that your Lordships will be given enough time to study these Bills thoroughly.
The answer to the problem, of course, is that more Bills should start in this House. I know that there are difficulties. Ministers in charge of Departments naturally want the credit, the publicity and the glory (if there be any) of introducing their own Bills in their own House, and it is obviously right that Bills of major importance, as well as Finance Bills and legislation of that kind, should start in another place. Even so, there is more scope for starting Bills in this House. Incidentally, one which I thought could perfectly well have started in this House was the Law Commissions Bill. As everybody knows, it is the favourite child of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack. He is, I believe, the father and the mother, and I should have thought it entirely appropriate that he should have been also the midwife to the Bill in this House. And there are other examples.
I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Rea, said about the presence of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in this House. All recent Lord Chancellors have spent a great deal of time on the Woolsack, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, is no exception. It is, of course, very flattering 742 if he should stay and listen to our speeches, but I sometimes wonder whether he would not be better employed elsewhere—not, of course, on this occasion, because this is probably the one bit of the one speech that I shall ever make with which he will agree; but, still, perhaps he would read it.
Lastly, there is the question of the length of speeches—and in this respect, unless I sit down very shortly, I shall be as guilty as everybody else. Of course, that is just the trouble: there is always an excuse why one should make a long speech oneself, but never much of an excuse why anybody else should. My Lords, I hope that I have not sinned too much in that respect, because I am sure it does not help debate. It makes the attendance a great deal less than it otherwise would be; it means that a number of noble Lords who come and want to listen to all the arguments of more than two or three speakers an hour do not find it possible to do so. It also means, sometimes, if I may say so, that noble Lords who have spoken in a debate do not find it possible to stay until the end to hear what the Minister says in reply—and that, I must say, I find a pity.
My Lords, to sum up, I think that, broadly speaking, without being too complacent, I hope, our procedure is satisfactory, though there are obviously small ways in which it could be improved. We have a Procedure Committee, which I hope will look at the suggestions made in this debate; and I trust that they will look at them sympathetically and in the knowledge that, as with the suggestions of my noble friend Lord Alport, they will have been made only with the purpose of making your Lordships' House more effective.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, both for having given us the opportunity of a certain amount of introspection into our procedure—which is always a very gratifying thing to happen to one—and also for having introduced the subject with such breadth and vision, and with an understanding of the functions of this House. The noble Lord has been here a relatively short time, and it is useful to have what 743 are virtually the first impressions of someone who comes to this House with considerable experience of another place. I am speaking as one who has been here not so long as the noble Lord who has just sat down, but in the fifteen years that I have been here I have made, probably, as many speeches in this House as any other noble Lord. I do not claim that as a merit, as it has been in the past an unfortunate necessity; but I have made a great many speeches, and I am therefore in a position to express certain views about the conduct of this House.
I am very glad that we are not discussing composition or powers, but merely procedure—although, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, said, it is sometimes a little difficult not just to impinge upon functions and powers. I would agree with the noble Lord about the three main purposes of this House, and I think we must bear them in mind if we are to consider how we can improve the procedure. I do not agree that the procedure is, on the whole, satisfactory. I think it is not. I believe that there is tremendous scope for improvement, and perhaps I may devote the rest of my speech to a number of proposals for improving the way in which this House conducts its business.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, have referred to the expenditure of time by the Lord Chancellor in sitting on the Woolsack; and I definitely agree with them. But I would go much further. What is the purpose of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack sitting there at all? It is not just to listen to the debates. He is, nominally, and on the face of it, conducting the procedure of this House; but in fact all he is doing is acting as an announcer. He announces the business and sometimes, when the spirit moves him, he takes two steps to the left and becomes a protagonist, a strong, hearty, political protagonist. I think it is completely out of keeping that the person who even purports to be in the Chair should sometimes leave the Chair and become a Party political protagonist while wearing the robes of office of a person who is the head of the Judiciary. It seems to me quite out of keeping that he should take a strong political line (and, of course, I am not speaking about this particular Lord 744 Chancellor; but of all Lord Chancellors) while appearing to sit on the Woolsack as an objective and impartial person, which for most of the time he is, because he is silent.
That brings me to the point that we have no one in control of procedure in this House at all. The noble Lord, Lord Alport, and the noble Lord, Lord Rea, made reference to the fact that any Member can put down any Motion or any Amendment he likes without restriction. The noble Lord went further and said that he could, if he was sufficiently persevering, force a discussion on it. I do not regard that as a merit. In a well-conducted Chamber there must be some limit to what we should be permitted to discuss; and the subjects should be confined to those within the limits of the three functions that the noble Lord put before us. But, in fact, there is no limit whatever. A Member can discuss whether a particular horse ought to have won a particular race. He can put a Motion down on it; there is no one to stop him from so doing, unless my noble friend stands up and makes himself unpopular by moving, That the noble Lord be no longer heard".
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend? While that may fall to my unhapy lot, any Member of your Lordships' House can move it; it is not solely a matter for the Leader of the House.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, in actual practice I do not remember anybody else moving that a noble Lord "be no longer heard". The noble Earl and his predecessors have been able to convince a noble Lord who is transgressing that he should "shut up" and not be heard any further. But, theoretically, there is no way at all of preventing somebody from putting down a Motion or putting a Question—or even moving an Amendment which is completely out of order, either because it goes outside the purposes of the Bill or because it is outside the functions or the powers of this House. The Clerks at the Table can advise a noble Lord that such an Amendment ought not to be moved; but they have no power of enforcement and no power to prevent it from going on the Paper.
745 Although we have been a very orderly body, and noble Lords have not taken too much advantage of this state of affairs, the fact remains that from time to time something goes on the Order Paper that should not, or a Question is put that should not be put, or speeches are made that are completely irrelevant to the topic under discussion. Therefore, I feel that, if we are honest with ourselves, and want to make this House more efficient, there should be somebody in charge of our proceedings: an objective person outside Party politics; a person, like the Speaker of another place, who would take charge and sit here and be able to control what is said and to whom questions of order and relevance and so on could be referred. If there were any doubt, he could rule that an Amendment ought not to be put down or that a speech ought not to be made, and so on. In other words, as I say, he would be somebody very much like the Speaker in another place.
But that, of course, gives rise to the question of the functions of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. His function is an historical one, and there is a certain amount of pageantry about the Lord Chancellor's procession. I would not wish that that should not continue for we can do with all the colour we can get. But, somehow, the two functions should be reconciled. I should like to see every noble Lord who is introduced into this House shaken by the hand by the Lord Chancellor, and possibly also by another noble Lord, as Speaker, and I should like to see other ceremonial functions continue to be carried out by the Lord Chancellor. But the business and procedure of this House, I feel, should in some way-and I am not defining it more exactly at this moment-be in charge of a Speaker in this House.
That is the first thing that I would suggest as something that ought to be considered. I will in a moment elaborate on how I think we should consider it. I do not think there would be any dispute about the three purposes of this House, but I think I ought to make my own position clear about one of the functions of this House. That is that it should remain. so far as possible—though it is, of course, a political body— 746 objective and independent in its outlook. There are matters which strongly divide us and over which it is quite impossible to reconcile our differences, but there are other matters (a recent example of which was the War Damage Bill) where there is no irreconcilable Party political difference between the two sides.
If this House is not to be in a position to express its views—and not only express its views, but vote on them—freely and without fear or favour, then I can see no future for this House at all. What was saying about the War Damage Bill applies also to an Amendment which was carried to the Law Commissions Bill—although I myself did not vote on that occasion; and in fact I voted with my Party on the War Damage Bill. If this House were not free to say on such a matter as the Law Commission that it should continue in existence for five years or three years, as the case may be; if that is to be outside the function of this House, then really there is no point in our discussing any Bills before the House.
Of course, as the noble Lord said, when we have passed an Amendment which is hostile to the Government, it is for another place to make up their minds whether they want to press it or not. We have discharged our responsibility in voting on the matter, and in letting, them know what are the views of this House. So long as we discharge our duty in a responsible way then I think we have done our duty. If we do not do that, then we have not done our duty.
There is another point: it is not new, but I think it is right that I should speak about it in fairly strong terms—namely, the fact that to vote against one's Government is regarded in some quarters as an affront. I do not think it is anything of the kind. It has happened before. I well remember one particular case where an Amendment which I moved in this House—an almost identical one had been defeated in another place—was carried by 125 votes to 25. The noble Lord will remember it, because it gave this country a Prime Minister and it has given to another place a Leader of the Opposition, very much to the loss of this House, where the right honourable gentleman would 747 have been much better employed. But, be that as it may, it was a momentous decision and it was carried in the face of the opposition of the Government and in spite of the very large majority which noble Lords opposite had at that time.
I want to pass on to one or two, as I think, important suggestions about improvements we could make in our procedure, apart from those to which I have already referred. As I have said already, there ought to be some control over Questions. A number of them are quite irrelevant to the machinery of government. They are Questions for which no Minister is really responsible and with which no Minister can really deal. As the noble Lord said, though not in the course of this debate—possibly in anticipation of it—there ought to be some kind of control over the number of supplementaries, and equally over the kind of supplementary that is put—and may I, greatly daring, also say, over the length of some of the answers that are given by some of my own noble friends.
§ SEVERAL NOBLE LORDS: Oh!
§ LORD SILKIN
Well, I have said, and say again, that when a Member asks a Question, he is not asking for an essay on the subject; he is asking for a simple statement of fact. If we want to be educated, we do not want to be educated when asking a Question. Some Answers are unduly long and this encourages equally long supplementaries. I do not know that there is much that anyone can do about it, except for noble Lords who are answering Questions to exercise a little restraint and perhaps censor some of the briefs they are given and not try to repeat them verbatim. But I am sure that a great deal can be done to improve the position and deal, with Questions more effectively. I think also that there ought to be a certain period of time allocated to Questions—half-anhour or three-quarters, or possibly an hour, if we can spare the time—at the end of which time any Questions which remain unanswered would be treated as questions for Written Answer, as in another place. I think we could get a substantially larger number of Questions if we exercised restraint in the number of supplementaries and in their length, and also in the length of the Answers.
748 I come to debate. One of the charms of this House is that every noble Lord who wants to speak has an opportunity of doing so. He may not always speak in the order in which he would like to speak, but, at some time, if he exercises sufficient patience, he will get in and be allowed to say what he wants to say. When he comes into the Chamber he knows exactly when he is going to speak. That is a great advantage. But, from the point of view of debate, it also has its disadvantages. It tends to stereotype the form of debate. Speakers tend to come along with prepared speeches, which they read, disguising it with more or less skill. Some are completely unsuccessful in disguising the fact that they are reading; others are able to pretend that they are not reading; but a great many speeches are read. Knowing that one is to come on, say, roughly at half-past six, there is a tendency to come along with a speech all ready, regardless of what has been said before. And not only that: sometimes speakers do not even turn up for the debate until a short time before they expect to speak. That does not make for good debate.
I think that this House could improve its debating methods. We are regarded as a first-clas debating Chamber, but in fact we are a Chamber in which, in the main, we get a series of first-class speeches, usually having very little relation to what has gone before. So I would plead for rather more flexibility in the order of speaking. If a noble Lord is moved to come in because the noble Lord, Lord Rea, or one of his colleagues, has said something provocative, he should be able to come in straight away or as soon as possible after the noble Lord, and make an impromptu speech.
§ LORD SILKIN
Called by the Speaker, of course. I think the House would be far better for that opportunity.
There is one other matter which the noble Lord touched upon—that is, the length of speeches. I know that I have made some pretty long ones myself, and I am making a long one now, but I want to get this off my chest. I was once a member of an assembly where it was the rule that speeches were limited to fifteen 749 minutes. There were exceptions for speakers moving Motions and introducing particular topics but, by and large, speakers were limited to fifteen minutes. A member could get an extension up to five minutes, with the leave of the assembly, which he usually got if he was talking sense, and, exceptionally, he could get another five minutes. It was very unusual for anybody to get more than a second period of five minutes. I think there could be at any rate an understanding in this House, if not a rule, that the period of speeches should be limited and that it would be regarded as not being discourteous to any noble Lord if a Member of the House drew attention to the fact that he had been speaking for an hour or for fifty minutes or some time of that sort. At present, we are much too polite to say anything of the kind—we merely walk out and have tea. I would not object to even an experimental period of limiting the length of speeches to something like fifteen or twenty minutes. I think there might be some advantage.
Something has been said—and there has been a variety of opinions—about the desirability of referring Bills to Standing Committees. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, went a bit too far in saying that Bills should automatically, with certain exceptions, go to Standing Committees. I think, equally, that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, went too far in saying that they should not. I think it should be the practice that certain Bills should go to Standing Committee. I think that the Bill on the Law Commission was one that could quite well have gone to a Standing Committee, because in fact only four or five noble Lords understood what it was all about, or spoke on it, or took any interest in it. A Bill of that kind, which took two days of the time of this House, could well have been dealt with in Standing Committee with much less friction and much more agreeably. After all, it is much easier for a Government to give way in Standing Committee than in the whole House. The discussions there are on a more intimate basis; you can interrupt one another, and get your views across. And there is no loss of face in Standing Committee in giving way if the case requires it. So I think that a good many more Bills could go to Standing Committee.
750 I should not like there to be a committee to decide which Bills should go to Standing Committee, because that would lend itself to a good deal of controversy when they reported. But I think if a Bill has received its Second Reading, there could be a Motion from the Government that the Bill be referred to a Standing Committee or that the Bill be referred to a Committee of the Whole House; and it could, in my view, be decided usefully there and then.
I think I have said enough to indicate that I think there is scope for a good deal of improvement in the procedure of this House, starting right at the top and coming down to noble Lords themselves in the speeches that they make. The question is: how can this best be considered? obviously, we are not going to come to any decisions this afternoon —at least, I hope not, because even what I have said is purely tentative and provisional. I do not think it could come within the province of the ordinary Procedure Committee. In my view, if we are really serious about this, we should set up a Select Committee to examine any suggestions that might be made, including those that have come forward during the course of this debate, and they should bring out a considered report on the procedure of this House so that we may examine all the proposals with the greatest care.
The Procedure Committee is a very good Committee for dealing with isolated questions of procedure. One that I hope will be considered quite soon is Questions. I do not think we are going to get very far. The noble Lord and I are at one about the undesirability of the way in which Questions are dealt with now. I think that might be a suitable subject for them to consider, even if they decide in the end that there is nothing to be done. But I think that discussion of the whole procedure of this House over a wider field is not a matter for that Committee, but is one for a Select Committee on Procedure. I hope that, as a result of this debate, we shall set up such a Committee, and, with the greatest modesty, I hope that I may be allowed to be a member of it.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ LORD GIFFORD
My Lords, may I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord 751 Silkin, for pointing out to me some of the pitfalls which I should avoid. I assure your Lordships that I shall be brief, and I shall try not to read my speech. I have enough sins on my conscience, since, to start with, I am a comparative newcomer to your Lordships' House, and I have little experience in your Lordships' forms and practices. What is more, I have the temerity to address your Lordships perhaps in a controversial way and to put forward views which may seem disrespectful to many of your Lordships. I assure you that no disrespect or offence is intended.
My only qualification to speak to-day is my youth. If I have a contribution to make, it is in telling your Lordships how as a young man with an independent political outlook I reacted to my status as a Member of this House. I am proud to belong to such a distinguished gathering, and I wish to play my part in it in whatever way I can. But I am also proud to have been born into an age when prejudice and class are being broken down, and where old-fashioned ideas and institutions are being constantly questioned. I hope that I may occupy my seat in this House for another fifty years or more, but I want to be sure that it will be worth occupying.
I believe that this House possesses two fundamental assets, and that these should make it an ideal Second Chamber. First, its functions and powers, having been evolved over many years, are, I believe, wholly admirable. It is not so strong as to be a rival to the elected House of Commons, but it is too strong to be considered a mere debating society. Secondly, its Members include some of the most able and distinguished men and women in the country. Yet, in spite of these advantages, I believe that this House is rapidly losing the respect of the Government in power, and it is considered an anachronism by the majority Party in the country. Why is this? It is because the voting, the making of decisions in this Chamber, is unreasonably and disproportionately influenced by the purely hereditary element. The work, at least the bulk of it, is done by men and women who would be universally acceptable members of an Upper House, but the voting does not reflect the consensus of their considered opinions.
752 My Lords, I do not intend in this speech to venture an opinion on the composition of this House. I should be adding irrelevance to my other sins, and I should be in very deep water indeed. But I think it relevant to this debate to consider the voting: and the point I want to make is that, however valuable it may be for the views of a wide cross-section of people to be heard in debate, it is not right that legislative decisions should be made by people like myself, who are unrepresentative, unqualified, and not selected by any reasonable process.
It is worth considering whether in fact, as many people believe, we are a Chamber which is dominated by a purely hereditary element. If we are, it is small wonder that the Government are losing patience with us. I have been doing some research into the 1963-64 Session of Parliament, and I was astonished to discover how far the contribution of meritorious "Peers—that is to say, first creations, Life Peers and a few notable hereditary Peers who have held ministerial appointments—exceeds that of the purely hereditary Peers. The figures are briefly as follows. "Meritorious" Peers made 72 per cent. of all speeches at the Second Reading of Bills, proposed 77 per cent, of all non-Government Amendments, and made 70 per cent. of all the speeches in debates on matters of general interest. But when it comes to voting, the power of the Conservative aristocracy makes itself felt: only 55 per cent. of the votes cast in Division were the votes of "meritorious" Peers.
These figures are significant because they indicate where both the strength and the weakness of this House lie. Its strength is in the quality of its active membership. When three speeches out of every four are made by men and women of unquestioned distinction, this House cannot justly be accused of being a hangover from an aristocratic past. Its weakness is that the purely hereditary element, by contributing nearly one vote out of every two, makes its greatest impact in the field where it can do most damage and cause the greatest annoyance.
My Lords, here surely lies the right way to change
to restrict the right to vote to those Peers who are entitled 753 to it by their merit and achievement. If a reform along these lines were carried through, I am convinced that it would enormously increase the effectiveness of this House. I envisage a voting membership composed of Conservatives and Socialists in roughly equal proportions, balanced by a strong body of Liberals and Independents. A situation would then arise which is not at present found in either Chamber, which is that no Division could be treated as a foregone conclusion. I believe that this would be extremely healthy, and that our debates, and especially our Committees, would be highly stimulating as a result. Furthermore, our decisions would have a real significance and would command greatly increased respect. A Conservative Government could no longer assume that it could force through measures which an assured majority, and a Socialist Government could not treat lightly the rejection or amendment of its Bills by such an undeniably able and distinguished body.
I have one final thing to say, and that is that the need for change is urgent. It is not enough to stop making hereditary creations and to let the heredity element die out; because it will take a long time dying. Unless we remove those elements which bring this House into disfavour with the present Government, we risk the curtailment of our powers and the removal of our sting. This would be a tragedy and, speaking personally, I should be ashamed to be a Member of a quaint, slightly ridiculous relic of the past. But I should be proud to give up my vote to ensure that this House becomes the dynamic revisory body which it is so superbly equipped to be.
§ LORD FRASER OF NORTH CAPE
My Lords, the noble Lord said that he had no qualifications. Surely youth is a great qualification.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ LORD WILLIS
My Lords, I think the House would venture to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, in saying that his only qualification was youth. I thought he brought to his speech tremendous 754 sincerity and a vast amount of truth. It is with great pleasure that I welcome his speech to this House, not only for the reasons I have already indicated but because, in a large measure, there is hardly a word in it with which I would disagree myself.
I welcome very much the Motion put down by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and I wish that a few more people could have got under the gate, as it were, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, endeavoured to do, to explore what is really the issue in this discussion. My qualification for taking part in the debate is not youth, I am afraid, nor can I claim a very long membership and experience of the House. I lack the long and profound experience of many noble Lords, but, at any rate, perhaps I can look at things with the fresh, or fairly fresh, eye of a newcomer who has been here for only just over a year. I hope that this may be some compensation.
I think the first impression—and to me it is a tremendously important one—of anybody coming into this House is the impression that one gets from the atmosphere of the place. The building itself is beautiful and dignified beyond belief. The feeling of history lies behind every door and down every corridor. I think this is especially so at night, when it can be sometimes astonishingly beautiful, when the House is up and the lights have been lowered. Then, in the shadowed Chamber, or on the stairs, it is sometimes quite possible to imagine that you can see the great figures who have dignified this House in the past, as if they have left some part of themselves here, in the House they served so long ago.
This wonderful atmosphere of the House to me is one of its greatest glories, and also one of its greatest dangers. It is rather like the atmosphere of that land that was discovered by the Lotus-eaters in Tennyson's poem:In the afternoon they came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon.It seems to me that the atmosphere here, the languid air of your Lordships' House, is just as insidious, because it encourages that most common, most understandable, and yet most alarming of all human frailties, the gentle art of self-deception.
We have had several speeches in the course of the debate this afternoon, and 755 I have had the opportunity to speak to many noble Lords in the last few months, and it is very rarely that one hears a word of criticism of the House and of its procedures from inside. Mostly it comes from outside. Indeed, one of the things that puzzled me most when I first entered the House was the number of Lords who came up to me and went out of their way to tell me how independent, how intelligent, how important the House was, and what went on in the House. Of course, it is easy to convince yourself of this because it is a House dignified, as I have said, by more than a thousand years of history, and it is easy to believe, in such an atmosphere, that it is important and that what goes on here is important. I am sure that all those noble Lords were trying to help me and to be friendly, but, being a bit of a cynic underneath, I had a sneaking feeling that they were sometimes talking to convince themselves.
Of course, there is a great deal of truth in many things that have been said in this debate, and I greatly welcome the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, about the work and procedures of the House. It is true that we make a powerful and important contribution to a number of Bills, a number of debates, and so on. All this has value. But, seriously, to turn a realistic eye on the situation, if we rise above the gentle intoxication of the atmosphere of this House, can we really claim that the existence of the House of Lords is justified by the contribution it makes to government? Would there be any more than the slightest ripple in the great world outside, or the slightest halt in its progress forward, if we were to shut up shop tomorrow? This is, in my view, the only real and the only honest question which we must ask. We ought to ask it, and we ought to keep on asking it. I think we should be guilty of gross self-deception if we gave a false answer to that question. We ought continually to search for the right answer and to convince ourselves by our procedures, by our discussions, and by our composition, that we do justify our existence.
We should not deceive ourselves about our image, either. This has already 756 been referred to in the debate. It is not just because there is a lack of publicity about the House of Lords. The fact is that, if we were honest, we would recognise that outside this particular Chamber there is not a great deal of respect for your Lordships' House. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that our departure would inflame a great popular movement of support. There will be no marches in Trafalgar Square, no sit-downs in Piccadilly. There will be very few to mourn our passing, and there will be many who will look upon the wake as a wedding.
The truth is that the vast majority of people look upon us as a museum, a showpiece, to be visited along with the Tower of London, the Albert Memorial, Windsor Castle and the Hampton Court Maze. We ought to be serious about this, and think about it for a moment. They see us as a historical anachronism, something which has survived beyond its day and age and, some of them think, beyond its use, and they think it is tolerable because it is quaint. There is much truth, however painful, however exaggerated, in this point of view. It is from that point of view that we ought to look at our problems of procedure and otherwise, to see what can be done about them.
It is my view that we are the victims of history in more ways than one. Historically, we represent one side of a non-existent triangle; we represent a theory of Government which no longer has any validity. In 1642, Charles I, in a famous letter to both Houses of Parliament, put forward the conception of mixed government. He abandoned the idea of the divine right of kings, and declared that Government henceforth should be a three-fold partnership between monarchy, aristocracy as represented by the Lords, and democracy, as represented by the Commons. What he advocated out of expediency was elevated into a constitutional principle and theory. It must be admitted, in fairness, that it worked very well for a great number of years.
But in fact over the years, as was inevitable and as was right, the Commons has gradually asserted its supreme authority. It has taken the power and left us with very little except the 757 trappings. It has always had a traditional suspicion of the Lords because of its non-elective basis and its hereditary foundation. One by one it has pulled our teeth until we have very little bite left. In almost any other country we should have been abolished years ago. In Britain, because we worship tradition and have a built-in love of compromise, the House of Lords has been allowed to linger on, a faint and rather sad echo of its former self, possessing in abundance the shadows but none of the substance, a house of impotence. We cling tenaciously to life, and like all ancients deceive ourselves into thinking we still have some great importance. This, I submit, is the real background to this debate, and it is because I have grown to be fond of this place, it is because I believe we have a need for it, because I believe we have a need for a powerful Second Chamber, that I should like to see us get to grips with the real problems instead of just talking about odd items of procedure.
There are certain changes in procedure that I should welcome very much indeed. First of all, I should like consideration to be given to the idea that Unstarred Questions should not be left at the end of the day's Order Paper. I believe that sometimes our debates lack immediacy, and it ought to be possible to have an Unstarred Question higher up in the day's Order Paper, to be dealt with when many more Peers are here, so that we can discuss topical questions with very much more speed.
My Lords, may I point out to the noble Lord that he has only to put his Unstarred Question in the form of a Motion, a very slight difference, and if his Whips allow it it would certainly appear at the top of the list.
§ LORD WILLIS
I am afraid the noble Lord does not know our Whips. On the other hand, I was thinking, too, in terms of a small debate.
Also, I should like us to have a look —and I beg noble Lords not to be prejudiced by traditional background, and I have noticed that not many are—at the ceremony of Introduction, which may 758 have been hallowed by time but really has become, to use a rather strong word, a little tatty. The object of tradition and the object of the ceremony is to dignify the entrance of a Peer to your Lordships' House. I believe this to be right. But I do not think the present ceremony of Introduction really does this. It is rather badly stage managed and it goes on just a little long. I am sorry, but that is my opinion, speaking perhaps as a professional. I should like to see also some attention given to the robes. I think we are coming to rather an absurd situation when, as your Lordships know, many noble Lords either borrow or hire robes from a costumier for various occasions. It would seem to me that one might discuss whether or not we should go in for the simple black academic gown for any occasion other than major State occasions.
I also welcome the suggestion that we should have shorter speeches in your Lordships' House. I realise that your Lordships would like me to be very much more brief at the moment. It seems to me it ought to be possible to have an introduction—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Alport, set a very good example in this respect—which did not exceed half an hour, and contributions by noble Lords which did not exceed twenty minutes. I think something along those lines could be done.
I do not want to touch on the thorny question which brought the noble Earl the Leader of the House to his feet earlier in the debate. I am one of those lesser ones who might be dangerously influenced by what the noble Lord, Lord Rea, had to say. But I must say, in welcoming the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, that I agree very much that the knife ought to be taken to the hereditary principle, and that we ought also to relinquish once and for all our right to delay legislation for any period of time.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, as I intervened in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, the least I can do is to intervene in the case of my own colleague. I think that in many of his remarks the noble Lord has gone very wide of the Motion. As always, it is for the House to decide, not me, but that is my opinion.
§ LORD WILLIS
I am about to finish. I do apologise for that. In conclusion, in throwing out these points the main point I wanted to make was that I believe that what is necessary now, in order to consider our procedures, is that we should not only get together among ourselves, or in some form of Select Committee, but revive the Conference of 1948 to consider the whole relationship of Lords and Commons. This would be important from the point of view not only of the composition of this House, but also of consideration of how much more legislation and how much more work of Government could be taken at this end. I think that, while we could make a number of small moves which would improve our procedure here, the basic question lies in working with the Commons to see how both Houses can become efficient arms of government in this country.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ LORD ROBERTSON OF OAKRIDGE
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Stuart of Findhorn, told me that he did not think he would speak, although he had put his name down, because everything he was going to say had been said already. Perhaps the noble Marquess whom we were all looking forward to hearing came to the same conclusion; and I have a sneaking feeling that I ought not to be standing up myself, because anything I thought to say has already been said several times; but if we all go on like that the debate will perhaps suffer.
I hesitated a good deal before deciding to speak on this Motion at all. We are given to understand, if I may put it that way, that a certain element of delicacy has now entered into the relationship between this House and the Government, or between this House and another place. When a person is delicate it is very important not to upset him. But I concluded that I should not really upset anybody. After all, we Back-Benchers are not very important people: it is when the "big boys" talk that the trouble comes. What we say cannot get anybody worked up. May it not be that those who do get worked up at the moment are imagining things? I think perhaps they are imagining things that are not happening; that will not happen, and, in effect, cannot happen.
760 I noticed that in the Motion which the noble Lord has tabled he has used this expression of our "challenging" the elected Chamber. I should have thought that any idea that this House tries to challenge, or could challenge, the elected Chamber is unrealistic. It is over a hundred years ago, if I may remind your Lordships, that the excellent Walter Bagehot said:In truth it is idle to expect a Second Chamber, a chamber of notables"—I suppose we can still call ourselves that—ever to resist a popular Chamber, a nation's Chamber, when that Chamber is vehement and the nation vehement, too.That is a very simple truth that was enunciated over a hundred years ago. It is correct that it has been forgotten once or twice. I think the last time was at the end of the first decade of the present century. But I see nothing in the present situation to justify anybody's saying that it is being forgotten at present or is likely to be forgotten.
I warmly support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Alport. He suggests that we should look at our procedures. I think that it is an inevitable task of all big organisations or institutions to look at their procedures from time to time, to look at them with a fresh mind, to be prepared to change them drastically. I wonder (though I have, of course, far less experience of this House's affairs than the noble Lord, Lord Carrington) whether the ordinary machinery of the Procedure Committee is the best instrument to use when we want to take a really fresh look and get some fresh ideas. I intend no discourtesy to that Committee, or its members, but I think that experience shows that in these cases an organisation does better to set up a special committee or party in order to ensure that a really fresh look is taken.
The noble Lord referred to Committee work; and it seems clear that that is something which should be examined. But I am also impressed with the need for us to look at those procedures which perhaps can more conveniently be described as "manners". The noble Lord said, quite rightly, that our prestige is largely in our own hands, and I think that sometimes we are not quite careful about it. I agree with the reference made 761 by the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Silkin, and I think others, to this question of Members' coming down just in time to make their set speech, and then going off without waiting to hear the opinions of others. It is true that we in this House have had a wonderful reputation as a debating Chamber. I claim that we still have a wonderful reputation as a debating Chamber—some first-class debates take place here; but they are not improved by that kind of behaviour.
I also entirely agree on the question of long speeches. I must keep an eye on the clock myself. I am sure that the reason why one makes a long speech is that one has not worked on it long enough. Anybody can make a long speech. It is much more difficult to make a short one, especially if you are going to try not to read it too closely. That is what I think some noble Lords are not doing. I warmly support that part of the Motion. I find it difficult to consider this question of our prestige completely in the abstract. I think that one is bound, in talking about it, also to look at what this House is itself. I keep a weather eye on the noble Earl the Leader of the House, and I do not think I shall cause him too much uneasiness over this; but I cannot avoid the subject completely.
Before I start, I should like just to say one word on the maiden speech that we have just heard. One is supposed to agree with a maiden speech. It is not quite that I disagree with it, but I should like to comment on one aspect of it—namely, that the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, was, unfortunately, himself a wonderful advertisement for the hereditary Peerage system. That is the only thing I have to quarrel with; that he stands up and delivers a first-class speech which comes as a breath of fresh air to the whole House; and I am sure that we are all most grateful to him for doing it.
To get back to my point, what kind of a House are we? I have read to your Lordships a little quotation from the excellent Walter Bagehot. I should like to read another. He said:The abolition of proxies would have made the House of Lords a real House. The addition of Life Peers would have made it a good House.He said that over one hundred years ago. I wonder what he would have to 762 say about us to-day, if he were here and alive? Of course, the proxies have gone, years ago, and the Life Peers have been with us now for some time, to the great strengthening and adornment of this House. I believe (and here I clearly disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Willis) that Walter Bagehot would say, as I say myself, that this House is a wonderful institution. It is, of course, full of anomalies. It is, of course, quite easy to poke fun at it. But the fact remains that it is a wonderful institution, and it is the envy of many other countries.
I personally go further than that. I go so far as to say that we who are in it are wonderful people. Of course, your Lordships may think that I go too far; that that is immodest. But I do think so. But if you disagree, if you do not think this is a wonderful House and you do not think that we are wonderful people, then—and I address myself to those who are sitting on the Front Benches of both sides of this House—why have you done nothing about it? Why have you not shown any signs of doing anything about it? I think that until you do you should be careful with your criticisms of this House.
As to the composition of this House, I think it is most important, as one or two noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, have brought out, to realise the large part now taken in the proceedings of the House by the Peers of first creation and by the Life Peers. The voting figures were quoted to us by Lord Gifford, and what he said was illustrated by the voting on the War Damage Bill. If all the hereditary Peers had stayed at home, the result would have been practically the same. The noble Lord, Lord Gifford, devoted a good deal of his speech to voting. Of course, voting in this House is not the same as it is in another place. But I do not see how one can avoid a voting. It is indicative of the feeling of the House. Our voting, I think, needs to be looked at—analysed, as it were; but it is an important and inevitable part of our procedure.
Speaking as an independent Peer, perhaps I may be allowed to add this comment: that on these issues the independent Peers are generally much divided. It is only on certain occasions 763 that we nearly all troop into the same Lobby. When that happens, especially if the independent Peers are accompanied by some of the Peers who are not going the way their Whips would like them to go, I think that a situation is created which a wise Government will look at and consider fairly seriously.
My Lords, to sum up what I have to contribute on this subject, I think that it is largely a matter of attitudes. It is a matter of the attitude of the political Parties to this House; of the attitude of the Government of the day towards this House, and of our own attitude to our work. If all Parties would consistently regard this House, not as something which it is not—namely, a rival to the elected Chamber, something to be resented—but as a complement to the elected Chamber, a junior partner, capable and desirous of making a valuable and constructive contribution to the work of Parliament, but neither capable nor desirous of thwarting the will of the people or of their elected representatives; if Government, whether Labour, Liberal or Conservative, were to treat this House in the same sense, making more use of us to speed up their legislative programme, and being always conscious of the awesome responsibility with which the Executive now, under our present conditions, is invested, receive our suggestions, and even our criticisms, in good spirit, and without being too thin-skinned about it, and, lastly, if we, for our part, having expressed our views as well as we can and may, offer our suggestions, but in the end are careful to refrain from pressing the counterattack on issues that have already been decided at the hustings—if these were the attitudes adopted then our prestige would, I think, take care of itself.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, if Sergeant George Dixon happened to be in the Gallery listening to the speech of my noble friend, Lord Willis, and if he should happen to tap him on the shoulder as he leaves this Chamber, my noble friend can rest assured that many of us would willingly bail him out, and possibly even go so far as to give recognisances for his good behaviour. I think my noble friend was wrong on one rather technical point, in suggesting 764 that the Unstarred Question might be given an earlier position in debates. That sounds attractive—I was attracted to it at one time—but we have to bear in mind that this House, in addition to being a debating Chamber, is also a machine for passing through legislation, and obviously the legislation put forward by the Government must have precedence at most of our Sittings.
As an old newspaper-man who spent forty years in helping to produce newspapers in this country, some of those years being spent under the guidance of my noble friend Lord Francis-Williams, who for a time was my editor, I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Rea, suggest that the image of this House needs to be improved and that the Press was really to blame for the bad image. This House does not get a very large number of inches in the reporting columns. It is usually among the cartoonists that this House is lampooned and criticised, and if Lord Rea wants to start censoring cartoonists, that is a very new idea of what I always thought Liberalism was supposed to be.
I think that this House works, and works fairly well. Whether it should work at all, or should be called on to work at all, depends upon whether one takes the view that a Second Chamber is necessary. If we look round the Legislatures of the world we come to the conclusion that a Second Chamber is often a blessing. There is a fair amount of work of revision to be done, there is sometimes the need for somebody to have second thoughts, and so long as the Second Chamber does its revising work without trying to usurp the position of the elected Chamber, then I do not think any great harm is done.
But I am not going so far as to suggest that everything is perfect with regard to this House. I feel that there has been a good deal of "shadow boxing" during this debate. Ostensibly, we are discussing procedure, yet we know that in the minds of many of us there hovers over us the question of the powers and constitution of the House. I shall not be tempted into channels which lead one into discussing those matters. They are being discussed in the Press—the Press of all shades of opinion—at great length. Whilst I would 765 not believe everything I read in the newspapers, we have to take it for granted that these matters are obviously being discussed in other quarters as well. I think that this House can perform a very useful function, but I am definitely of the view that we should discipline ourselves and aim at making this a debating Chamber, a deliberating Chamber, rather than primarily a legislative Chamber. That may require us to dilute to some extent the power, limited though it may be, which we enjoy over legislation at this moment. I think that in that role this House can have a valuable and long and useful life. I feel that the more we switch ourselves over into the deliberative stream and away from the legislative stream, the more outspoken and frank we are able to be in any contribution we make to debates on public affairs.
I extend to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, a warm welcome for having introduced this Motion, for having given us an opportunity to let our hair down—I hope that some of my noble friends will not take that too literally—and to think aloud for a few hours about this particular aspect of public affairs. Although Lord Alport spoke from the position of Back-Bench impartiality, I have to recall that for many years he was the Director of the Conservative Political Centre, and therefore I approach him with some little degree of suspicion. Of course, the noble Lord and I are closely associated in one of the most exciting enterprises of this age, the new University of Essex. We find ourselves able to agree on many questions—I could probably agree on a few of those which he adumbrated this afternoon—but on others I must beg leave to disagree.
The noble Lord really wants this House to be given the power to do things which it has not the power to do to-day. He wants a more effective House, as he says in his Motion. The word "effective" may have many meanings, but the dictionary I consulted gave as its meaning "powerful", and I do not want to see a more powerful House. It can probably have more influence won on sheer grounds of merit; but I do not want a House endowed with more power, particularly power over legislation, than it has at this moment.
766 Certain of the proposals put forward by the noble Lord have some merit in them, but I want to ask—following up that same line of suspicion at which I hinted a few moments ago—why were not these munificent proposals put before us during the thirteen years of Conservative rule? That would be a test of their genuineness. As it is, it appears that they were allowed to remain in cold storage for thirteen years, and were brought out only when a Labour Government attained power, on the eve of two such controversial Bills as the Steel Bill and the Land Bill. Therefore, I entertain a slightly suspicious attitude towards it all. There was once a feeling in this country that this House was nothing more than a Tory Party Sub-Committee. I agree that it is not so much that now, but I should not like to see it getting back to the kind of reputation is used to have years ago.
I want now to do something which nobody else has so far done in this debate: to turn to the actual terms of the noble Lord's Motion itself. It starts off by saying:…now that various changes have been made in the composition and powers of this House…So far so good; but there may be more changes in the composition and powers of the House. Is this therefore an appropiate moment to come forward with proposals for altering our procedure? Would it not be better to wait until those possible changes of powers and composition have been effected, and then to view the whole matter in its new light and frame our procedure in accordance with the needs of that new situation? Then the noble Lord uses the words:without involving any extension of its legislative powers…That is hardly an appropriate expression for him to use, because even its present powers are considerably out of keeping with a good deal of political and public opinion.
This House at this moment could have the power to throw an enormous burden on the taxpayers of this country. For instance, to take the action which many Members of the House took a short time ago on the War Damage Bill, if the Government were thereby involved in paying many millions—perhaps scores of 767 millions—in compensation to the Burmah Oil Company, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in order to raise money to pay that compensation, would be compelled to put a shilling on the higher grades of surtax or abolish all the privileges in the matter of death duties on large landed estates. I feel it is not right this House should have the power, either by its direct vote or by compelling the other place to drop its legislation, to ask the taxpayers of the country to pay out huge sums such as those which might be involved in the case I have outlined.
§ LORD ROBERTSON OF OAK-RIDGE
My Lords, may I, with respect, interrupt the noble Lord for one moment? As I understand the position, this House has not the power to do these things. We make our suggestion, it goes back to another place, but in the end it is for them to accept or reject it. We can only hold it up for a certain number of months, and there is nothing to compel the Government to pay out the compensation during those months.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
The noble Lord is quite right. We are able to cause a year's delay, and if the Government were defeated—which we hope they will not be—during that year that Bill would be stone dead, and the other place, acting in the light of the legislation needed to deal with a current situation, would have been deprived of the opportunity of enacting it, by a vote of this House.
§ LORD ALPORT
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt for one moment, because he and I have discussed this matter in a different sphere? I do not want to introduce any Party controversy, although he has tempted me almost beyond endurance. I gather from his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, that he would do something if he possibly could to prevent the electorate of this country from having a chance of second thoughts. He would like to get such legislation through and into action before the electorate had a chance to have any second thoughts in case the Government of the day were defeated at a subsequent Election. Is not that an undemocratic point of view?
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
I should be wanting something similar to what the last Government did when they sprang the Rent Bill on to this country without any warning or any mandate at all.
The noble Lord's Motion went on to say, "without…challenging the House of Commons". My Lords, this House does that now. It challenged it on the War Damage Bill; it will probably challenge it on the Steel Bill, and on the Land Bill. I think those are fair assumptions for me to make. It does not mean to say it will make the other place impotent, but the noble Lord's Motion says, "without…challenging the House of Commons", and I say that this House does that now and it can very effectively challenge the other place in the final year of a Government's term of office. Does the noble Lord, Lord Alport, by incorporating that clause, suggest that it should surrender such power as it at present has to challenge the House of Commons?—because if that is the case —and I cannot see that the phrase can mean anything else—we shall not disagree very strongly with him. But are noble Lords on the other side of the House prepared to back the noble Lord, Lord Alport, in that point of view?
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord for one moment, if we may not even challenge the other place or, to use a probably more appropriate term, advise the other place, what is the purpose of the Second Chamber at all?
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
That is a highly intelligent remark, if I may say so, but I am not putting forward this proposal that we should not challenge the other place. It is the noble Lord, Lord Alport, who is suggesting that; and I am saying that he is "ratting" on the powers which this House at present employs, and I am inviting noble Lords opposite to say whether they agree with him on surrendering the present powers of this House. If they do not, they will probably vote against his Motion.
The noble Lord's Motion goes on to say that this House could be made a more effective forum for the discussion of public policy. That is excellent. I find myself marching alongside him here, our hearts beating in unison—and note, my Lords, he is talking about discussion 769 not about legislation. That is the dividing line between the two points of view on the whole question of the activities of this House. I feel that this House is superbly fitted to be a grand forum for the discussion of public affairs. It has Members of long experience, of long service to the State, Members representative of the law, the sciences, medicine and all the professions. In fact, one can hardly mention a single question in this House but some noble Lord gets up and is acclaimed to be a first-rate expert on that particular subject. I am quite sure of that, no matter how wide one takes the sweep, whether it is from constitutional law to contraception, as we had demonstrated here only a few nights ago. I am sure that if I were to get up and address your Lordships on affairs in the Virgin Islands, some noble Lord would get up and say, "Oh, but in 1906 I was Governor there", and would proceed to address us out of the wealth of his experience.
The noble Lord's Motion then goes on to say that there should be an "independent examination of defects in the apparatus of national administration". I am reminded of the days, forty years ago, when I used to dine each night with Professor Joad in the 1917 Club in Soho, when he so often said, "It all depends upon what you mean by…". What is meant by that word "independent" in the noble Lord's Motion? My dictionary says the word means "not subject to bias". I wonder whether the examination which the noble Lord wants to make into the affairs of the National Coal Board, the British Railways Board and the welfare services would really be without bias? I am wondering whether we are probably in danger here of begging the whole question. He says, "independent examination". Independent of what? Of the House of Commons? In such an event, we might be setting ourselves up over and above the House of Commons, and that would not be a good constitutional precedent. The noble Lord has mentioned national boards and the welfare services. The House of Commons already has its machinery for investigating this matter. It has its Select Committee on Public Accounts, its Select Committee on Estimates. Are we to set up a body to 770 duplicate that work? Would it be possible for this House to investigate something like our electoral system?
Then, on the general question of "national administration", which is the core of the phrase, all national administration involves expenditure, and ought this House to be taking upon itself a greater power to deal with national expenditure than it possesses at this moment? There is a sum of £400 million paid in subsidies to farmers, there are many millions of pounds paid in subsidies to council house tenants, many more millions of pounds in tax subsidies to people buying their houses with the aid of mortgages. Is this House going to be entitled to probe deeply, albeit independently, into big financial matters like that? Admittedly, it could probably do a good job probing such matters as the Ferranti affair, the wasted war contracts, and so on; but the House of Commons already has its watchdogs. Are we to become another watchdog to watch the other place's watchdogs? I feel we are running up the wrong street. We are also heading for a possible clash with the other place, and we should be doing a job twice instead of being content with doing it once.
The noble Lord also included in his Motion the phrase "within the framework of the present-day British Parliamentary system". That is too vague. It is not a real guarantee. The frame could remain unaltered but the picture inside the frame might be altered very drastically. There is nothing very static about our affairs. No doubt reform of this House will be discussed some time. This is not the time to discuss it. Personally, I do not think the reform need be very fundamental, but there is an immediate need—and this is the point that matters—for the Queen's Government to be carried on in accordance with the express will of the people, and the position of this House at this moment is unique inasmuch as the Government have not got a majority. One would normally expect, if we were setting up a new Second Chamber, to ensure that the Government of the day not only had a majority in one place but in the other place, also.
That leads me to say that we are living in a very complex, high-speed society where the passage of legislation, to deal 771 with the current evil which has immediately shown itself, is sometimes a very urgent matter. This House can delay a Bill for twelve months, and, as I said, in certain given circumstances it can kill a Bill altogether. In the interests of good will I should like to see this House, of its own volition, putting forward a proposal that its delaying period should be reduced to three months. That would give ample time for second thought; it would give time for negotiation between the two Houses, and it would show that this House was accommodating itself to the new outlook on political affairs that we have—
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I am loth to interrupt the noble Lord, but, practically speaking, the period is at present three months. It is a year from the first Second Reading in the House of Commons. As a contested Bill takes nearly nine months to come through both Houses, by the time the conflict arises there are only three months left. We could hardly have less than that.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, I did not ask for less than that; I asked for three months. Twelve months is wrong and has within it the seeds of mischief, if one calls the destruction of Government legislation mischief. I do not think it right that this House should have power to circumvent the will of the House of Commons.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I am sorry to keep interfering, but I think we are now right bang on the question of power, and I feel that that must be outside this discussion.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, all right then. We will pass now to the precise proposals which I, as a newcomer, would very humbly put before your Lordships for the amendment of procedure in your Lordships' House.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said that this House was justified in putting its delaying powers into operation, if the Government of the day brought forward a Bill which had not been an issue at the preceding Election and for which it therefore had no mandate. I want to present to this House the reverse side of that picture. If a Government brought in a Bill which had been a big issue at 772 an Election, for which they had a mandate from the people, then I suggest that the Speaker of the House of Commons might be entitled to treat that as he treats a Money Bill, and to say that a particular major, operative clause in the Bill is as sacred to the House of Commons as is the operative clause in a Money Bill.
As the second point, I would endorse what has already been suggested from various parts of the House (it is strange that four or five of us should have hit upon it independently) and that is that the Lord Chancellor should not be compelled to sit here, hour after hour, listening to speeches which he could no doubt make much better himself, when he has the affairs of the Judiciary to look after; when he has legislation to attend to: when he has Cabinet meetings to attend, and when, as with the present occupant of the Woolsack, he has the gigantic work of the Law Commissions to which to devote his time. I think we should have a Chairman of the House who would rule out of order those of us who were transgressing the rules, and thus save my noble friend the Leader of the House any embarrassment which he might feel in doing the job at the present moment.
Another of the suggestions which I had intended to put before your Lordships. but which has already been mentioned, is that there should be Standing Committees to which we refer some of our legislation. I would not go so far as the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and suggest that all Public Bills should be referred there. I think there are some Public Bills which ought to be taken on the Floor of the House. Steel is one; Land will be another, and War Damage, obviously, was one. But I agree that many of the minor Bills could be disposed of in Committee, with the result that the time of the full House would be saved.
I suggest that after Questions on Tuesday the House should adjourn itself into five or six Committees, which would sit simultaneously on five or six different Bills. An enormous amount of time could then be saved. I would also suggest that there should be a longer period of time for Questions, and that the limit of four should be expanded so that 773 our Question Time could go on for, perhaps, an hour. That would enable noble Lords to ventilate in this House, in the full glare of publicity, many public questions which really require ventilation. It would enable noble Lords to criticise the Government—and I am not against criticising the Government—in a non-legislative way. I think that the time saved by the Committees would give us the extra time for the longer Question Hour. We should then be able to entertain ourselves with more debates on urgent, important public affairs. Those are the positive suggestions that I make. I suggest that their adoption would be in the interests of this House itself and of the country at large.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ LORD FERRIER
My Lords, I, for one, welcome the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and congratulate him on his presentation of it. As to its timing, I am satisfied, as the debate has developed under the keen eye of the noble Earl the Leader of the House, that it is well-timed and that we should consider the matters which the noble Lord has raised. In that respect, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, who has just sat down, because I feel that the proper course is without delay to adjust our procedures so that they are in accordance with the needs of to-day.
To that end, it would seem that the early review for which the noble Lord asks is a satisfactory proposal, and I am glad that it has been welcomed by other speakers this afternoon. I say "this afternoon", because one reference which has been made to procedures has been in regard to long speeches, and a number of noble Lords speaking to-day have said that they were going to make short ones. I, my Lords, am going to make a long one. I seldom have the chance to do so, coming generally at the end of the list, but it seems to me that we are very much ahead of schedule and a great deal of interesting matter has arisen with which I wish to deal.
Regarding procedure, I feel that we must always remember a point which has been made by a number of speakers: that the system seems to work, and largely due to the efficiency of what goes on behind the scenes. The work which is done at the Table and in Com 774 mittees contributes beyond belief to the facility and speed with which matters are dealt with in your Lordships' House. The actual business capacity could, I am sure, be improved as other noble Lords have said.
I turn again to the question of long speeches. When I say "long speeches", I refer to the ones which come early in debates and which are often read. Of course, there are occasions—and we must all admit it, as I should be the first to do—when, from the Dispatch Box, complex and heavy matters of policy have to be dealt with, when some written statement must be the basis of a speech to your Lordships' House. But I sometimes feel that some of them contain redundant material, and it would be proper that speakers from the Front Benches watched their writers, so that redundant material was ruthlessly cut out.
Again, is it necessary that matters dealt with on Second Reading should be tackled again absolutely de novo in Committee, with a possible repetition, very largely, of a speech that has been used on Second Reading? I believe that that talks down a little to your Lordships' House; and though it is proper to realise that there are sometimes a number of noble Lords present in Committee who are not present on Second Reading, generally that is not the case. And may I add that, though some of us may look rather simple, it does not follow that in fact we are.
My Lords, I have another worry in regard to the length and the repetitive nature of some of the longer speeches, and it is one which has already been mentioned in the debate. It is that of speakers who speak early, often at some length, and do not stay to the end of the debate. It is all very well for them to say that they have to go home; but, speaking as one who, when I come to this House, comes, like many other noble Lords, from what we used to call when we were in India "up-country", if I have to come then I come for three days or more. I will return to that point later, but I believe it is a discourtesy to this House to make a speech here and then to leave before the end of the debate, without having listened to the reply. In the same way—and this also is a point that has been made 775 already in this debate—I think it is a discourtesy to speak late in a debate without having heard the opening speeches. I think the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, made that point. If the House —and it has the power, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said—were to make it quite clear to the speakers that, if they are going to speak in a debate, they must come and stay until the end of that debate, then we might not have such a long list of speakers as we sometimes have.
I trust, my Lords, that you will forgive my reference to people who come from a distance, but the second point I want to make in that connection is that when pressure of business upon the House makes it impossible for that business to be dealt with within the present hours, I beg of you to remember that, rather than have a Sitting on a Monday and/or a Friday, some of us would much prefer to sit far into the night on the Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, because it means a larger sacrifice for those people who come from afar if the Sittings of this House, which many of us like to attend regularly, extend practically throughout the week.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord, in case he has had to go before I come to reply? I may have come a little late into the debate, but I wonder whether the other side of what he has just been saying has occurred to him and to other Members of the House. There seems a general condemnation of speakers who do not hear the earlier speakers; but one thing which always strikes me here is the very regrettable absence from our debates of so many of our business leaders, and leading industrialists. I think that perhaps half of the most famous industrialists and financial leaders of this country are Members of this House, but they play very little part in the debates, partly because they feel they cannot give the whole day to it. I think we must bear in mind that other side of the question.
§ LORD FERRIER
There is much in what the noble Earl says, I agree. The noble Earl's reference to my having to go before he replied was perhaps a reference to the other day when, unfortunately 776 I had to catch an aeroplane. To-day, I expected the debate to go on so late, and perhaps that is why I am making a longer speech. I am flying back to-morrow morning. But the point the noble Earl makes is perfectly correct. Nevertheless, if I may talk theoretically, theoretically it is one way to concentrate the debate in the Chamber if you can get people to come early and stay late, as most of us who come from far off have to do. That is my point, although I agree that an insistence of that nature might rob the House of the attendance of people who live and work in the City and who, when they do come, contribute very importantly to our proceedings.
My Lords, let me now turn to the question of Introductions, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Willis, mentioned. Personally, I grudge the time sometimes given to Introductions, though I would not for one moment suggest that the pageantry should in any way be trimmed. But when I became a Member of your Lordships' House a special Sitting (there were two of three of them, I think) was held at 12 noon when the first batch (if I may so call it) of Life Peers was introduced, and a number of noble Lords had the courtesy to attend. I suggest that is a practical proposal which might save us a number of precious quarters of an hour in our working time.
I hesitate a little about my next point, especially as at this particular moment of time the Front Benches are sitting absolutely still and silent. But I have a feeling that, in terms of the proceedings of the House, we are not quite so strict as we might be about movements during speeches in the Chamber. I recognise, again, that some movement is unavoidable and necessary, but I think it should be kept to the minimum limit.
Now I turn to what the noble Lord says in his Motion about this House continuing to fulfil a constructive role. Here, I refer to the image of the House in the country. This point was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, in his speech. It was his third point, and I believe it to be of paramount importance. Indeed, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, dotted many of the i's and crossed the t's of what the noble Lord, Lord Rea, said and what I am going to say. In my view, my Lords, both the Press and the radio are failing 777 the public and Parliament in their reporting of the proceedings of Parliament. The Press, which is concentrated mainly in large groups—and these groups are dominated by individuals who wield tremendous dictatorial powers—is an important factor. These men at the head of the Press groups may deny that they wield dictatorial powers. My Lords, they may not do so by deliberate policy, but they do hold the purse strings.
This is a matter which, from personal knowledge, I have reason to regard as most important. I do not think that editorial and writing staffs are paid sufficiently in relation to what is paid to technicians in that industry; and this tends (and I refer very largely to the Press in the Provinces) to concentrate the best talent either in London or in freelancing. There seems to be some levelling down here. Sensation seems to be the paramount influence behind the Press at the moment. This, of course, is sales promotion, but sensation is inclined to take the place of genuine news and comment. One thing I would say is that I think Sunday newspapers are far too bulky and far too expensive. There is page after page of rubbish, so far as I can see, and advertisements; and I find it impossible to warrant the expenditure of what they cost. Weeklies, with few exceptions, seem to hunt individual Party lines; and they are expensive.
My Lords, I believe—and I am coming round to the point in the noble Lord's Motion about a review of procedures—that one of our problems is that provincial papers report your Lordships' Proceedings, or any proceedings in Parliament, in much too cursory a fashion. They go to press early in the evening, not having taken the trouble to include the latest news from Parliament in their pages. Take the matter of the War Damage Bill, to which reference has been made. It concerned, in many respects, a Scottish company, and, of course, in a major respect, the decision of a Scottish court.
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for one moment to ask him what on earth the way in which this House is reported in Provincial papers has to do with the procedure of the House? Surely, Standing Order No. 26 ought to be invoked.
§ LORD FERRIER
It was for that reason that I referred to the Motion. I am coming to what I believe to be a necessary committee or movement in this House, because (and I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has gone) this, to my mind, is of great importance, in view of these particular words in the noble Lord's Motion, where he says it should "fulfil a constructive role as an Upper House of Parliament". It cannot do it if, as the noble Lord, Lord Willis, said, its image in the country is what it is to-day.
What I was saying about the Scottish papers was that the Scottish public were not informed that the noble Lord who has just intervened and the noble Lord, Lord Guest, who made a most important speech in the debate, had even spoken. In broadcasting it is different; it is not so much what is not said as what is said. It seems to me that a little snigger from Cliff Michelmore or a barbed shaft from Robert McKenzie—
§ LORD FERRIER
That is a fair remark. Nevertheless, a ponderous contention by James Mossman or Kenneth Alisop, goes into every home.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
I am sure the noble Lord will forgive me, but, once started, this habit of interruption grows on one. I must say that I have never heard a speech that passed further from any possible aspect of the Motion than the speech of the noble Lord. I know that he told us that he was going to make a long speech. Surely that is not an absolute obligation on him.
§ LORD FERRIER
My Lords, I am reaching the point which I trust will go home. It is that the public, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said, have no knowledge of our proceedings. Noble Lords have said that the Press do not report them. I have said it. The public see the antics, sometimes, of journalistic entertainers like Malcolm Muggeridge and Bernard Levin. It is for this reason that I suggest we are too complacent. The very fact that the noble Earl has interrupted me leads me to take the view that we are too complacent in our belief that the people understand us aright.
779 One noble Lord who spoke to-day mentioned that he had been impressed by the statement of a newcomer that he did not realise how much work was done in this House. I suggest that one of the things that should be done under the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is to create some sort of "watchdog" organisation whereby the image of this House should be kept in proper proportion, if it is possible, in the present publicity arrangements. To illustrate my point, I may say that I was motoring on the M.6 the other day, and turned on my wireless, and I heard some dictation about the House of Lords, read at 80 words a minute, which was taken from the Anatomy of Britain. I will not weary your Lordships with it; but I looked up the current edition of this book, and I find that the same thing appears, except that for "three guineas" they write "four and a half guineas". There was also a reference to the fact that one matter in which the House of Lords have taken a notable part was when Lord Milford, the first Communist Peer, made his maiden speech, calling for the abolition of the House of Lords, in 1963 and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, mildly pointed out that there were many anomalies in this country, and one curious one was that the voice of the Communist Party can be heard only in this House. That is the advantage of hereditary representation, Lord Attlee said.
To bring this back to the Motion before the House: how did this extract come to be broadcast at 11.20 on a Saturday morning at 80 words a minute? There was nothing deliberately mischievous about it, but the fact remains that this is what happened. It seems to me that we should be well advised to be less complacent in the matter and not be happy to sit back and say that the image of the House of Lords is bad among the people. And that is the case at the moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, referred to Members being able to put down Questions, both Starred and Unstarred, without restriction, or of asking supplementary questions without restriction. But surely the restrictions rest with this House. Talking of Starred Questions, I felt to-day, when those multitudinous supplementaries came forward, that the 780 Minister was extremely patient. It struck me as odd that, although the noble Lords who asked the supplementaries had not been present on the debate on road accidents in November of last year, nearly every question asked as a supplementary had been asked at that time and dealt with then by the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren. It might have been made a shorter session of questions had the Minister been brusque enough to point out that if the noble Lords had attended the debate in November they would have heard the answers.
In other words, on what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said, I do not see the need for any individual with power to direct our procedures if we are more strict about directing them ourselves. After all, we have already referred to the length of speeches. I have heard many prolix ones but not a really irrelevant one; although a number of noble Lords, I imagine, regard mine at this moment as being such. The Procedure Committee is available—
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
The difficulty is that the only way to stop the noble Lord in his irrelevancy would be for me to move "That he be no longer heard." I have much too much respect for him to want to do that. But that is the proper and correct procedure at the present time.
§ LORD FERRIER
This is rather interesting, in that I am trying to make a debating point. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, suggested one thing and I am suggesting another. I am not reading a prepared speech; though I noticed that the House permitted a prepared speech, which was not a debating one, this afternoon. If it is not your Lordships' wish that my view should be expressed in some respect in contradiction of what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said, then I will not continue.
However, I should not like to sit down without referring to the maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, which all of us found interesting to hear. I cannot help looking back to my own appearance in this House some six years' ago, when I was of the same opinion as the noble Lord, Lord Gifford; but, it did not take long for me to come to the contrary view. It will be interesting to see whether, as the years go on, the noble 781 Lord also may change his views. Incidentally, in talking of the spread of age in the House, it is interesting to note that one Question asked to-day was by a noble Lord in his nineties, and a maiden speech was made by a noble Lord in his early twenties.
So far as the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, is concerned, although I am devoted to "Dixon of Dock Green", I would not agree with a great deal of what he said. The fact was that it was a splendid piece; but it was read; and it was read in a way which was not so much a contribution to a debate as an address. It is for this sort of reason that the noble Lord, Lord Willis, is prefectly right in saying that the proceedings in this House have so little publicity. He said that if the House sunk this day, it would not make a ripple. Perhaps not, but it might make a ripple which would conceal from the people that a bastion had gone between the people and tyranny, either from above or below, as this House has been in the past.
I agree with the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, about the advantages which might accrue from the House having more power to help with the stewardship of nationalised industries. It seems to me also that the point which he made about the reduction of Committee work is something which could be discussed early in the review, which presumably will follow from the consideration of this debate. I agree also with the contention of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that we are much concerned with the importance of public opinion and should not set this aside. I support the Motion, and if the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has the surprise I had the other day of having my Motion for Papers accepted, I can inform him that he can get out of any embarrassment by telling the Clerk what Papers he wants—and he need not specify a load of five pantechnicons.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ferrers, will forgive me for saying that during the course of his speech I felt myself irresistibly reminded of a poem by G. K. Chesterton, which had the refrain:The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Beachy Head".
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord in order to get the record quite clear? I did not in fact open my mouth.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
I am so sorry. I apologise to the noble Earl. I meant, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier.
In the matter of the Motion, I approach it rather as, one might say, a radical conservative or conservative radical—in both instances in lower case. In other words, I believe that this House requires radical reforms in its powers and composition. I will not say anything more about these, however, because I do not wish to bring my noble friend the Leader of the House to his feet. He frowns so rarely that when he does, it tears one's heart. While I believe that radical changes in the composition and powers of this House are necessary, I do not believe—and in this I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—that any very great or radical changes are necessary in its procedures. Indeed, I would see—perhaps the noble Lord would not —some disadvantages in any such changes, at any rate until the more radical alterations in the structure of this House were made. I do not want the House to put on the white sheet of what is not yet an entirely blameless life.
I have arrived in your Lordships' House in middle age, perhaps late middle age, against my expectations and, indeed, against my natural inclinations. I am bound to tell your Lordships that I have found it, on the whole, a very enjoyable experience. I could borrow in regard to it a phrase used by my noble friend Lord Attlee, with his customary modesty, in regard to much greater matters, in the final words of his autobiography, where he remarks that he had enjoyed serving in a state of life to which he had never expected to be called. I feel a little the same. I well remember, when I first arrived in your Lordships' House, that as I walked through the Lobby I felt a rather martial clap on my shoulder. I turned and saw the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, who said, "My boy"—which, in view of my age, I thought was rather civil of him—"It is nice to see you here, and I am sure you will enjoy it because they are all decent 783 chaps here". So far as my acquaintance goes, I would agree with him.
Like many of your Lordships—perhaps an increasing number—although politically concerned, I do not regard myself as a politician or as in any sense a Parliamentarian. I like to believe that I have a small record in that I refused no fewer than 26 invitations to stand for constituencies in 1945 and some six or seven "safes". I never wanted to be a politician. And, having entered Parliament by a side door, although a very ornate one, I do not believe that I should assume—or, indeed, if I may say so, that the House itself should assume—any of the responsibilities, duties or privileges of an elected person.
It is in relation to what I believe to be the proper function of a non-elected assembly that I look at the procedures of this House. We are not, as has been said, considering in any way the composition of the House, but I think it probably would be agreed that, whatever happens to it in future, it will always remain a nominated and not a popularly elected body, and as such (and in this I again agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington) it should exercise influence rather than power, and its procedures should be devised to that end. So far as I can see, in future, as now, this House, even if it should become a wholly nominated body, will fall, as to some degree it does at present, into two parts—those who have come here after on active Parliamentary life, with a good deal of experience of and interest in legislative matters and with a good deal to contribute on that side of our affairs as well as on other matters of political concern, and those who, like myself and many others much more distinguished than I, have no Parliamentary experience and cannot claim any particular competence in legislative matters, except perhaps in some particular field in which they have special knowledge. Those in the latter group may not themselves quite know why they come here, but possibly it is because they are believed to possess some special experience or knowledge in particular fields such as business, industry, science, education, medicine, the social services or the Arts, which it is considered may be of some 784 value to your Lordships' more general debates.
I suggest that our procedures ought to be directed to taking the fullest possible advantage of what I may perhaps describe as these two main streams which feed, and are likely in the future to feed, your Lordships' House, while, as I say, remembering always that we are not an elected body, and therefore ought not to seek to exercise power, but only, in so far as our judgment or special knowledge allows it, to exercise influence.
May I ask the noble Lord one point? How does one show influence unless there is some sort of vote to show the conclusion of the people who have not spoken?
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
I do not yet quite understand the point the noble Lord is making, since I have not been discussing voting. I have not suggested that Members of your Lordships' House should be prohibited from voting on a particular issue. I am not clear what the noble Lord's point is.
I understand the noble Lord to be adumbrating the point that this House ought not to be able to exercise power, but should exercise influence. Many people would agree with him. But the great problem is how to show in what direction the House wishes to exercise its influence unless at the same time it has some method of exercising power by voting.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
I would agree with the noble Lord on that. I have not suggested, and did not intend to suggest, that on matters on which it was felt desirable that a view of this House should be expressed which might have influence, a vote should not be taken in order to show what that view is. But I think, with other speakers (I do not want to venture too far into it, because of the rather self-denying ordinance that we have placed upon ourselves not at this stage to go too far into our powers), that such votes should be taken only on matters not of major political substance, and the results should be sent to another place, as an indication of a view, without any intent to restrict or delay further the decisions of that House. But, as I say, we have a sort of self-denying ordinance not to go too 785 deeply at this time into those questions of powers.
All I want to suggest, therefore, is that our procedures should be devoted to facilitating a more efficient amending and revising function, though, as I believe, with Amendments of form, of drafting and of clarification—technical Amendments, if you like—on which I think this House is often extremely competent, rather than Amendments of substance. I agree that it is extremely difficult to devise procedures which can particularly stipulate what Amendments are properly to be regarded as of clarification or drafting and what fall over to the other side and are to be regarded as Amendments of substance. But I feel that, if this matter is to be considered further, that is the kind of thing on which it might be interesting for us to bend our minds.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but I have been listening with great interest to what he has said. What he suggests, as I understand it, is that we should confine ourselves to Amendments of technicality and detail. Does he imagine that, if that were the case, noble Lords, with the experience they have, busy as they are and distinguished in many walks of life, would bother to come down to this House to move technical Amendments?
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
In answer to the noble Lord, whose views I obviously take with great seriousness, since he has a great deal of experience, I believe that, because this House, as I tried to suggest earlier, is increasingly being fed by two streams—those with Parliamentary experience who are interested in the legislative processes, and those who come from another stream who have no Parliamentary and legislative background and are not concerned with this—at any rate the Parliamentary stream side can have important and valuable legislative functions. But I would believe it to be completely wrong that a nonelected House—an appointed or hereditary House—should have the right, or should consider itself as having the right, to amend in points of major substance legislation passed by an elected Assembly.
I believe that this House has the right—and it is a great advantage for it—to bring its corporate mind to bear on seeing whether such legislation is clear, and 786 whether there are points of amendment which would ensure that what is intended by the elected House is carried out efficiently and well. And I would suggest, without going too far into these aspects of power and function, that that should be the proper legislative role of your Lordships' House.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I am reluctant to interrupt the noble Lord again, but do I understand him to mean that in all matters of substance this country should have single-Chamber government? That is what it sounds like.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
I would certainly and absolutely say that I believe that in all matters of substance this country should have government by an elected Assembly.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
But only by one Chamber—because the noble Lord has already said that there would only be one elected Chamber.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
If it is decided, as I believe it will be decided, that there should only be one elected Chamber; that the present elected Chamber would not be prepared, in any reform of your Lordships' powers and so on, to consider a second elected Chamber, then I would certainly agree that on matters of substance decisions should rest—and I would say properly and rightly rest—with an elected and not a non-elected Assembly.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
The noble Lord is very patient in giving way, and I apologise for interrupting again. But does he not draw a distinction between this House making an Amendment of substance as a proposal and sending it back to the other place for their consideration, or perhaps reconsideration (after all, new circumstances may have arisen, and new arguments may be used), and the House insisting upon the Amendment at a later stage?
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
Yes; I see a substantial difference. I should hope that that is what would happen. But I also believe that only in very exceptional circumstances should this House regard it as its duty and responsibility to seek to delay legislation, even by a small period of time, on Amendments of 787 substance. As I say I believe it has a valuable work to do, with Amendments of another kind. I should certainly agree with the noble Lord (perhaps this is going further than he intended) that in no circumstances whatever ought this House, if the other place sends back a Bill with our Amendment not accepted, continue to resist. I believe that only on rare occasions should it regard as its business dabbling in matters of substance in legislation coming from another place. I apologise to my noble Leader for being egged on or drawn into these discussions, much as I should enjoy an even fuller discussion of them.
The point I was trying to make is that it seems to me that the House should recognise—and I quite appreciate that Members on the other side whose opinion, judgment and experience I fully accept will not go all the way with me—what I think our legislative functions should be. But we are fed now, and increasingly are likely to be, by two quite different streams from the public life—by those with Parliamentary and legislative experience, and by those who have no Parliamentary experience, who have come here for very different reasons and have been invited here for very different purposes. As other noble Lords have suggested, I believe that, in furtherance of the influence of this House, and particularly perhaps in view of this second stream of what I would roughly call in shorthand non-legislative persons, though persons of special knowledge and experience, there would be some advantage in our extending the Question period in your Lordships' House. I think it is often the case that people drawn into the House from outside because of a special experience or knowledge would be able to raise questions of importance to the Government, and that this could, if extended, provide an even more important part than it now does in the influence-forming functions of this House. It must be the case that any Member of your Lordships' House who has gained some reputation, however small, in some particular line or area of experience finds himself approached by all sorts of people who are concerned in that area of experience, much as a Member of another place is approached by constituents for the discussion and raising of matters 788 which seem important. Therefore, I believe that there is a great body of inquiry as to what is happening which could be used more purposefully if we sought to extend our Question period.
I would not agree with those Members of your Lordships' House who suggest that we could release the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, and have a chairman with powers somewhat comparable to those of the Speaker. While I appreciate that it may sometimes be tedious for the noble and learned Lord to sit listening to us, he is, in addition to being the Lord Chairman of our House, a senior Cabinet Minister, and we have not so many senior Cabinet Ministers in this House that we can easily dispense with any of them. I think it is desirable on many grounds that there should be, at any rate, one or two senior Cabinet Ministers around who, in pursuit of what I have described as the influence of this House, are in a position to confide in the Cabinet the general feeling in your Lordships' House on important matters. Therefore, if the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will forgive me for seeking in this way to lay down what the pattern of his life should be, I hope that he will remain with us.
I should, however, if possible, like to see a little more flexibility in debates such as we are now having. The present position seems to be that only those who have submitted their names beforehand speak, and a sort of batting order is drawn up. I am never quite clear by whom and on what principle the batting order is devised, except that I always seem to come on after the tea interval when the light is fading.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I do not know much about the management of cricket teams, but I am told that you put in a very hard-hitting batsman somewhere near the end.
§ LORD FRANCIS - WILLIAMS
I thank my noble Leader. I feel that, although speaking to a prepared pattern, when one has said one wants to take part in a debate, has a great advantage, it sometimes takes the edge and excitement off our debates. I sometimes feel that the most customary phrase heard in your Lordships' House is, "I was very interested in the observations of the 789 noble Lord who preceded me, but I do not intend to follow his arguments." I feel it a pity that more arguments are not followed more often, more vigorously, and I should like us to consider whether there could not be some possible combination of these two procedures: speaking by having given notice before, but with some possibility of intervention by those who were particularly excited or otherwise moved by a speech in the debate who had not previously intended to speak. I believe that this is to some extent possible, but I should like it to become a much more general practice. I believe it would add to your Lordships' interest, and perhaps even to that public image which we were told it was so necessary to improve.
In conclusion, I should like to suggest that in this debate on our procedures we should not allow ourselves to be influenced too much by the procedures in another place, admirable though they may be—or, for that matter, may not be—for its purposes. I always think that in many ways your Lordships' House has some of the distinction and charm of a vintage motor car, for which I have a great feeling. But nobody would suggest that one should seek to drive vintage motor cars by the same methods and procedures as those for more up-to-date models. I do not think that, in concerning ourselves with our image, we should now regard ourselves as very much a part of the mainstream of British political life. I would rather see us as fitting a little into the great tradition of the English eccentrics who had their value and their variety in British life. Certainly l would suggest very strongly that we should not in any way try to turn ourselves into a carbon copy of another place, or seek to model our procedures on those of perhaps more practical, more democratic and less esoteric assemblies.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF IDDESLEIGH
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for putting down this Motion, but I am rather critical of his speech on one ground: that it was much too short. The noble Lord introduced a number of exceedingly interesting points and I could wish that he had developed them at greater length. As it is, I shall have to sit down to-morrow morning and 790 consider very carefully the points that the noble Lord has made, but I much prefer other people to do my thinking for me. I have not made up my mind—he has not yet convinced me—that the Standing Committee procedure would be of advantage in our present circumstances.
I am rather surprised that nobody has mentioned the Select Committee procedure. In the 'twenties and 'thirties it was the custom of your Lordships quite frequently to refer minor Public Bills to Select Committees, which had the power to call evidence. I remember when I was a very young peer sitting on a Committee to decide the age of marriage. We called a great deal of evidence and we had some interesting discussions, and we set the age at 16 for girls; and it remains at that age to-day. I believe we came to wiser conclusions in the Select Committee than we would have reached had the Bill been discussed in the House. We have still the power to appoint Committees of Inquiry and I served on a Committee of Inquiry into road accidents. We heard at Question Time that Her Majesty's Government have no fewer than sixty-three Committees going at the moment. If some of those sixty-three Committees had been Committees of your Lordships' House a certain amount of money would have been saved, because we get our expenses whatever happens, and we might just as well be usefully employed in inquiring into some subject which Her Majesty's Government think needs probing.
A great many Peers have mentioned the possibility of relieving the noble and learned Lord who sits upon the Woolsack of part of his duties. May I say that we have in the present Lord Chancellor a singularly conscientious one who devotes a greater part of his time to those duties than other Lord Chancellors I have known. Before expressing any final opinion on that matter I should like the opinion of the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees and the noble Lords who are so good as to act as Deputy Chairmen and who are too seldom thanked for their work, because they, of course, may have to work harder.
Now I come, though he is no longer here, to the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, whom I congratulate on his maiden speech, and I should like to say how glad 791 we are to hear a Gifford again taking part in our debates, for we regarded his father with a very real affection. His speech made me feel a little nostalgic, because when I was a young Peer I, too, made an analysis of the speakers and voting in the House of Lords, very much on the same lines as the noble Lord, Lord Gifford. I have quite forgotten the result, but I know that the created Peers did most of the speaking and, in those days, too, the hereditary Peers did most of the voting. But my conclusions are buried in the files of the Nineteenth Century Magazine, somewhere around 1930, and I do not suppose anybody will dig them up.
I succeeded to the Peerage when I was the same age as the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, and I, too, at that time shared his opinion that the hereditary element of the Peerage really could not last much longer. At that time Mr. Baldwin was bringing forward some proposals for House of Lords reform, and I hurried back from Africa, where I was then working, thinking it would be a great privilege to sit once in the House of Lords before its hereditary character was abolished or curtailed. I thought, "I shall pass down into history as the last Peer to sit there by pure right of heredity". When the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, has reached my age he will no doubt, I strongly suspect, be making the same speech as I am now making. I succeeded in 1927.
I want to say a word, if I may, about a subject which has not yet been broached, and that is the working of the provisions for granting Peers leave of absence from your Lordships' House. When those provisions were introduced, some nine years ago I think, we hoped that they would largely deal with the problem of what is sometimes called, I think a little unfairly, the "Backwoodsmen". There was another object: we hoped that Peers having a copy of the Writ of Summons before their eyes would realise its importance and pay more deference to what is, after all, a Royal Command of the most strict character. How far have those Leave of Absence provisions been effective? I understand that over 200 Peers have in the present Parliament asked for, and of 792 course obtained, leave of absence. If that were the beginning I should say it was a good beginning and we hoped for better results in the future. But it is not a beginning, and I do not think we can feel at all satisfied that all the Peers who should have asked for leave of absence have in fact done so. The problem is not solved.
There are, I believe, just over 60 Peers who have received their Writ of Summons and who have not applied for leave of absence, and who in the six months that this Parliament has lasted have not come up and taken the Oath. There are always circumstances that influence the conduct of any particular person, and I am not naming any names; I cannot do so. But I feel that the position, at any rate of those 60 Peers, deserves some consideration and possibly a certain amount of action.
Why do not Peers pay more attention to the very imperative Writ of Summons? I imagine because it is a mediaeval document written for those times when Parliament met irregularly for a few weeks at a time at the most, and that therefore the language of the Writ is unsuitable for the present day. Perhaps some Peers feel, "Oh this is a mere mediæval formality", and do not, for that reason, pay as much deference to it as they should. I have wondered whether that position could be remedied, either by re-writing the Writ of Summons—but perhaps that would be a rather drastic course, in view of its venerable antiquity—on at least issuing with the Writ of Summons an authoritative explanation in modem terms of what it means to-day.
I have attempted to consider what I should write, roughly, if I were re-writing the Writ of Summons, and I came to the conclusion that it might run something like this:We, strictly enjoining, command you, upon the faith and allegiance by which you are bound to Us, that you be personally and regularly present at the Sittings of Our aforesaid Parliament, except in case of sickness or other necessity, in so far as other duties imposed upon you by Us or by Our Ministers shall permit, unless you be duly excused from attendance.I should explain the phrases I have introduced. No provision is made in the present Writ for cases of sickness or other 793 impediment of the kind. I have taken the phraseexcept in the case of sickness or other necessity",from an allocution first delivered by the then Lord Chancellor to the House of Lords on the command of the King in the year 1610. It is a most interesting allocution. You will find it in the Report of the Select Committee of 1955.
Turning to "other duties", I would say that of course to-day many Peers are in the service of the Crown, and the Crown does not expect a man to be in two places at once. We do not ask an officer to fall out from parade in order to attend the House of Lords. That covers a great many Peers whom we should welcome in the House on the few occasions when their special subject is being discussed. Most of the scientific Peers hold some important positions in the D.S.I.R. or other scientific bodies. Many of the academic Peers are Vice-Chancellors, which is an office under the Crown. These Peers would not be expected to take leave of absence; they would automatically be excused from regular attendance by the actual terms of the Writ. As for the reference to excuses—
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but I am not quite clear why the phraseology that the noble Earl has chosen gives such permission, or presumes such permission, only for those employed in some way by Her Majesty or by the Government. Surely in a modern age there are a great many people who are engaged on work of various kinds of equal national significance and importance, who ought to be included in this?
§ THE EARL OF IDDESLEIGH
My Lords, I am coming to that. I phrased it in that way because my powers of draftsmanship to cover all the cases failed me. But I am coming to those other noble Lords, whose importance I fully recognise. I have brought in a reference to the excuses. It seems to me rather anomalous that the Writ should say: "waiving all excuses", when your Lordships set up a Committee to excuse Peers from attendance. We had better bring in some reference to the excuses which are received.
Then comes the word "regularly", which is a most controversial word. What 794 does the House mean by "regularly"? It may have some bearing on the matter if I point out that in the regulation regarding Peers' travelling expenses, we read as follows:Claims for travelling will be accepted only for those Peers who have attended not less than one-third of the Sittings during the month in which a claim is made. A special relaxation of this condition is made for those who live in Scotland, by applying it to Scottish business only.Those phrases show the mind of the House with regard to the meaning of regular attendance, although, of course, provision will always have to be made for Peers who are abroad on Parliamentary delegations or similar proper business. The matter is one for consideration.
I come now to the question of the other Peers alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams. I am grateful to him. I am thinking particularly of the case of the medical Peers. I should like to draft something that would cover their case, but it is rather difficult. But, after all, we need not worry much about this matter. If they have applied for leave of absence and do not wish to take it, it can be rescinded extremely easily. They give a month's notice to rescind their application for leave of absence; they have it cancelled. But if there is no time for that, if they do not receive sufficient notice of some debate in which they want to take part, then they can apply to the Leave of Absence Committee to terminate at once. That can be done, and undoubtedly would be done in the case of a distinguished Peer if he were in business or in medicine, whom the House wanted to hear. And if all else failed, and if some Peer came down to this House and forgot that he had taken leave of absence, and put his name down to speak, the difficulty is still easy to resolve, because the House has power to cancel the leave of absence. It would be a matter for the Government Chief Whip to move a brief Motion in the House that would go through "on the nod". But the leave of absence would do something to prevent voting by noble Lords who are not, so to speak, in politics—
My Lords, I beg the noble Earl's pardon for interrupting him, but I think it was agreed during the debate on that matter that, whatever was done in the way of leave of absence, 795 the House could not stop any Peer, even though he had asked for leave of absence, from attending, and even voting. I think that was agreed. It was only held that probably they would not do so.
§ THE EARL OF IDDESLEIGH
My Lords, I am quite aware that the constitutional correctness of our regulations has been held in question and that possibly no action could be taken against the Peer. But, after all, we are dealing with people who have a considerable respect for convention; we are a conventional House, and, though we are not gentlemen here, we generally try to behave like them.
For those reasons, I think that some steps might be taken to render the leave of absence provisions rather more effective than they are at present. For example, it would perhaps be possible for the Leaders of the Parties to write privately to some of the 60-odd Peers who have not taken the Oath, pointing out that it would be nice if they either came or applied for leave of absence. If their advice were ignored there would be a great many other steps, graduating in severity from a warning or publication of names to an admonition or a fine, which the House is empowered to take. In the past, the House has imposed very considerable fines on Peers who have not been in attendance. In the year 1515 a fine of £10 was imposed on such Peers, and I suppose that £10 at that time represents something like £150 in present-day terms—with which dreadful warning I will conclude my speech. I hope that others with a greater position in the House than I have and with more responsibilities will take this matter into consideration and see whether the Rules can be made more effective and whether the credit of the House is not to some extent involved in their being made effective.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, if, with the permission of the noble Earl, Lord Arran, I may intervene in the debate for a moment, I should like to say how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for having given us this opportunity to consider the procedure of your Lordships' House. Secondly, I would say how sorry I am that, through no fault of mine, I have 796 had to miss so much of the debate. I can assure all noble Lords who have taken part in it that over the week-end I will read, with interest and I am sure profit, every word they have said, as I take particular interest in the procedure of the House. I feel that as I have missed so much of the debate it would be an impertinence on my part to express any opinions.
Accordingly, I intervene only in order to make a short statement of my personal position, which I am sure I shall have the indulgence of the House to make. During the Easter period there appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, I think with a photograph alongside, a statement that I was either the head or chairman of some group or committee of Ministers which had been considering various methods of reducing the powers of your Lordships' House. I trust, therefore, I may have the indulgence of the House to say that, so far as I know, no such group exists or has existed, and I have certainly taken no part whatever in any such discussion.
§ 7.14 p.m.
THE EARL OF ARRAN
My Lords, I intervene briefly. I fear that inevitably I shall be rather repetitious, but I hope not vainly so. I intervene because I think that, however skilfully disguised, the terms of this Motion seem to indicate that we are on trial, that we have something to apologise for, and that to justify our survival we must put our House in order. Personally, I see no such need. If either House cries out for reform it is surely the other place. There discussion becomes more sterile, the interchanges remind one more and more of a teenage debating society, and the main anxiety seems to be whether old So-and-So will be well enough to vote. No, my Lords, so far as this House is concerned as compared with the other place, I see no cause for shame. Nevertheless, since seemingly we have put ourselves in a position in which we are called upon to defend ourselves, may I, as an ordinary backwoods, Back-Bench Peer, put once again the arguments for our continuing procedures and activities—and unchanged?
What do we do here? We do the nation's business, and on the whole we do it pretty well. We are an effective and useful institution. We are an important 797 part of the Legislature, and over 60 years no one has thought of anything better. Many people criticise us, but the truth, as has been said before to-day is that most of our critics have not the faintest idea of what we do or even why we do it. Their dislike, their prejudice, is an a priori prejudice. They just do not like the sound of it. "An hereditary system? How unjust, how utterly disgusting! Is not every man and woman born equal? Am I not as good as you? What right have youæ", et cetera.
What do we do in this terrible place? We discuss proposed legislation calmly and without passion, for very few of us have any axe to grind? We examine Government Bills and amend them, not for Party reasons but because we think that the Bill might be better another way. We ask Parliamentary Questions and, because our House has more time, we get them answered almost immediately. We vote—sometimes no doubt unwisely. Indeed, in the weeks before Easter I felt that noble Lords on this side of the House had been inspired by the death-wish. We do all these things in almost every case without a political motive. True, we are officially divided into Parties, but our debates are rarely conducted on Party lines. What we do is to speak and vote according to our personal principles, according to what we think best. We represent nobody but ourselves. We have no constituents except our own consciences.
The advice given me by one of my political chiefs when I became a Peer —I am officially a National Liberal—was "Vote against the Government whenever you feel you possibly can". I have followed his Lordship's instructions to the letter, and the Whips have long since given me up. It is surely in these things, in our unwillingness to toe the line, in our contempt for the Party machine, above all in our independence of thinking, enjoyed by no other body, that our strength lies. The power rests, and rightly, with the elected House of Commons. The objective, critical, corrective functions and procedures are ours.
But these, of course, are legislative functions and are only a part of our duties and, to my mind, the small part. What we also do, and what the other place rarely does, and what I believe is the basic justification for our existence, 798 is to discuss the great issues of life and to discuss them with a knowledge and experience unparalleled elsewhere. This has been said before to-day, but I want to say it again. I say, quite definitely, that I believe the House of Lords to be the most brilliant debating Chamber in the world. It is generally accepted that the standard of debate is far higher than in the other place. What one should also realise is that the Peers—I am not, obviously, speaking so much of the hereditary Peers, though some of them are no fools either—are a cleverer bunch of men than the Members of the other place. This is not a wide statement, but the truth.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I have said the same sort of thing myself, but in this exercise does one take the average of all Peers or those who attend?
THE EARL OF ARRAN
My Lords, there is no ultimate criterion of brilliance or virtue. One can only give a personal opinion; and I feel that the noble Earl the Leader of the House probably shares my view in this. If I may elaborate on the point, the House of Lords has among its Members the most outstanding of the elder statesmen—your Lordships know all these things but they are worth the saying. It has the greatest Judges in the land; it has the Bishops—and you cannot be a Bishop unless you are clever as well as godly; it has the cream of the ex-diplomats; it has the greatest soldiers, sailors and airmen whom the country has thrown up in fifty years of almost uninterrupted war; it has the trade union leaders, the great doctors, the scientists and the schoolmasters.
In our midst often—though, alas!, not often enough, one will find the biggest assembly of talent to be found anywhere. This is why our discussions are infinitely more worth while than anything to be heard elsewhere. I am afraid I keep repeating myself, but it is more or less inevitable. We alone have talked, for example, about Christian Unity and subjects such as leisure—long-term matters for which there is no time in the House of Commons. True, those debates do not get so well reported as our little sallies into such things as Lady Chatterley's Lover, or what to do with the prostitutes. They are, however, recorded in Hansard 799 and make their impact upon those who read the more serious newspapers, magazines and publications.
But inevitably people will say that all the true things I have mentioned about the talent in the House of Lords applies only to the Life Peers and those who have been elevated because of the great things they have done. Where do the hereditary Peers come in? This is a difficult question to answer. One is immediately upon dangerous ground. In theory and in fact, no man or woman has a right to authority because of the accident of his or her birth. It cannot possibly be justified. But, again, the plain fact is that it seems to work. Some people may think us hereditary Peers a pretty mediocre lot; but whether they like it or not, we do from time to time—and not so rarely as all that—throw up someone quite outstanding, such as Lord Home or Lord Salisbury. In addition to the top-notchers, we also seem to produce some pretty competent second eleven men—men who make good junior Ministers and know what Government means. I am afraid I shall not have support on this, but I honestly believe that government is very largely an art and a tradition and it is a fact that where there is a tradition of government, as in the great Whig and Tory families, like the Cecils, the Stanleys or the Cavendishes, the knowledge and the know-how is carried on from father to son and to son again. It is all wrong, if you like, but it is still true.
Now to go to extremes, I do not expect your Lordships to go very far with me on this, but I honestly believe that the House of Lords is a no less democratic place than the House of Commons. True, we are not elected. But, as I have said, the country has in us an utterly independently-minded cross-section of the whole population—some of us clever, some of us stupid; some of us rich, some of us poor; some who have done well in life, others who have done badly; some of us great, some of us very small indeed; some of us who have amassed great fortunes, others who have gone bankrupt; some who are Knights of the Garter, others who have been in prison. We are simply men and women whose names have been drawn out of the hat in some divine lottery, and the only thing 800 that could remotely justify our presence here is that we are average British human beings.
My Lords, that is very briefly and superficially, as I see it, our dear House of Lords. Do we really need to change it? It works; it is a place of contrasts; it comprises a cross-section of the community of a kind to be found nowhere else in the world. It has no constituents, it represents nobody but the consciences of its Members. It says what it thinks and does not give a damn. It is a very British institution. I, for one, am proud to be a Member of it, and I hope it will continue.
§ 7.28 p.m.
My Lords, I am here only through the silver tongue of the noble Earl who leads the House, and I hope I shall not detain your Lordships long. I shall commence with a confession which has some bearing on what has been said, and also some bearing on procedure. When the Parliament Act was passed in 1911 I was in your Lordships' House during the concluding stages of that Bill because, although I was not a Member, I was standing as the guest of Black Rod—and in those days male guests of Black Rod had to stand throughout the whole debate; they had no chairs. After the passage of that Bill the Leaders on both sides of the House were very busy trying to reconstruct a Second Chamber to which greater powers could be entrusted than were given to your Lordships' House under the Parliament Act. I had to devil a lot of that work and in my heart I never believed in it. I always said to myself that the House of Commons had the whole power in the State and it would never consider giving greater powers than it had left your Lordships' House, to any artificial Second Chamber, and I had a private opinion that probably the best thing that could happen to this country would be for the House of Lords, if it were possible, by a resolution, to abolish itself.
My reason was that a Chamber like the House of Commons, which has absolute power, should have the responsibility of that power and should not have to share that responsibility with a body that had no power. I believe that if that had happened at that time it might have been better for the country than what did 801 happen. However, I had a personal feeling there, because of course as soon as the Parliament Act was passed I, who was likely at no very distant time to be clothed in the sepulchral integuments of a British Peerage, realised that, like Cromwell, I must fling away ambition—and as a young man I naturally was ambitious.
My Lords, I have gone into all that detail for two reasons. The first is this. Your Lordships will notice that I have referred to "the House of Commons". I believe that noble Lords are mistaken in thinking that our procedure enjoins us always to refer to "another place". That is very inconvenient and it mars the English language. The fact is that you should refer to the House of Commons as "another place" only when you are referring to something which has happened in the current Session. It is a courtesy, to prevent any clash over what is going on and which both Houses are interested in at the moment.
The second point concerns something I had from Lord Donoughmore who was a Member of the House of Lords at that time and very much interested in everything going on. He was one of the greatest of our great Chairmen of the past and he died only after the last war. He told me that at that time the Leaders of the Parties on both sides met together and came to the following conclusions: there was nothing in the Parliament Act to limit the action of the House of Lords on any subject on which it wished to express an opinion; it was not prevented from amending a Finance Bill; it was not prevented from passing a Financial Resolution. What happened was that if it did so then the Parliament Act was invoked and brought into action when the Bill went back to the House of Commons; and it was always realised that the House of Commons might—and I believe on occasion it has done—endorse an Amendment made in your Lordships' House. I make that point for two reasons. One is that Lord Silkin, in his very interesting speech about your Lordships' House, talked about people putting down Motions and Amendments which were not proper. I believe that that cannot arise, because a Member may put down any Motion he wishes to. Whether it will pass is quite another matter.
802 I want to discuss procedure points because they are what interest me. There is one rule that we used to have, and I think the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, and I are the only two Peers who have taken part in the debate this evening who remember the House of the 'thirties. It was always laid down by our elders and betters, as soon as we joined the House, that one must never repeat anything that anybody else had said. One could adhere to it or adopt it, but a speaker should never repeat an argument. That tended to shorten the debate considerably and also made it much more interesting.
There are several other points on procedure to which I would draw attention. As has emerged from many of the speeches, and from what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, there has been a very large increase in the number of new Peers in your Lordships' House. In the old days, when new Peers came rather infrequently, they were put through the mill, they had to learn all the rules, and they were expected to observe them; and the whole House was the judge. I remember the very heated debates that took place before 1909, when the Lord Carrington of that day, in winding up a debate, said something, by accident, which was quite un-Parliamentary. Both sides of your Lordships' House called him to order, but he was so quick in correcting himself that it would hardly have been noticed. And in the House of the 'thirties, both sides were equally vigilant to keep order. If somebody got up and made a speech when putting a supplementary question, cries of "Order, Order!" would come from both sides of the House. It is far more compelling when both sides are calling one to order than when it becomes, as it might be, a Party matter. That is very important.
We are greatly indebted to Mr. Henry Burrows for the immense trouble to which he put himself in producing the Parliamentary Companion, and I should like to pay a tribute to many noble Lords on my left who, when they came to this House, got the Parliamentary Companion and studied it and know it very well. That is most valuable. We always used to say that we have no written Rules. But we have Rules, and people used to take the trouble to learn them. And 803 when we have people who will learn the Rules, then it is important to put them into practice.
There is something which I have never heard done but which we ought always to be ready to do. It is always in order to ask the Clerk at the Table to read Standing Order No. 28, with respect to "Asperity of Speech". I believe that it is always in order to ask the Clerk at the Table to read any Standing Order which it is thought is being infringed. I half-suggested it to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, this evening; and I think it would have been perfectly proper if I had asked the Clerk at the Table to read Standing Order No. 26, which says that a Peer must confine himself to the matter before the House.
There is another point of procedure which it would be of advantage to observe; that is, that if there is a list of speakers a noble Lord has an opportunity of correcting a speaker whom he is to follow, and it is not necessary to interrupt him. If one goes on interrupting, it is like a footballer dribbling a football down a field; for every kick you give you make him go further. It lengthens the debate in the House, and is very unfair to the speaker.
I do not feel that I want to discuss what most people have discussed, the composition of your Lordships' House. It seems to me that that is not really before us, as we are supposed to be discussing procedure. But I should just like to tell your Lordships a story. A good long time ago I was lunching in an officers' mess with a Member of the House of Commons (I think he is dead now) who was a very strong supporter of the Party of the present Government. For some reason or other—I do not know what gave rise to it; it was not anything I did—he started saying what he thought of the hereditary principle, and he was listened to with great attention by the mess. Then I discovered that they all backed horses, and the one thing which they did was to follow the breeding of their horses in backing them. Of course, I kept my mouth as tightly shut as I could, but it occurred to me that the real trouble with the hereditary principle is not so much the hereditary nature of it, as the way we pick our sires—and our sires are mostly politicians. 804 I give that to your Lordships, as a possible reflection when you are feeling very bad about the hereditary principle.
I do not think I have anything else to say which bears on the subject. I will wind up by saying that we do not need to create a Speaker; we do not need to alter the House, if we will learn the Rules and join together, as a House —not just as Parties—to put them into operation. The matter will then be perfectly simple, and we can do almost anything we like—and do it politely.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ BARONESS GAITSKELL
My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for intervening as a nameless speaker. I did have my name on the Order Paper, but I withdrew it because I decided that I was too ignorant of the procedure of this House and I was more interested in practice than in theory. I have only two brief points, and I hope that by now I have established my claim to be a very brief speaker in this House.
Many references have been made today to the length of speeches, and I should like to stress this from a very different standpoint. This is not an elected Chamber, but noble Lords can elect to speak at any time they wish by putting their names down. There is absolutely no competition about speaking, and I believe that this is the greatest privilege that we have in this House. Because of this privilege, I think that we need a certain self-discipline. A long speech is so often a matter of self-indulgence. On this matter exhortation is not enough. There should be an unwritten law, or a gentlemen's agreement, about the length of speeches, and I suggest, perhaps, 35 minutes from the Front Bench and 15 minutes from the Back Benches. This would speed procedure and it would add variety and interest to our debates. People say that debates in this House are much more brilliant than debates in the other place. I am not sure that this is not like a piece of public relations, in the same category as "Gentlemen prefer Blondes"; but no one has really put it to the test.
My second and last point refers to the speech of my noble friend Lord Willis. He has a very stringent test about the abolition of this noble Chamber. He said that it would cause no ripple on the 805 earth's surface. I should like to ask my noble friend whether he would apply this same test to other institutions in which, say, journalists, scriptwriters and playwrights are involved, and whether abolition in those fields would cause a tidal wave.
As for the contempt of the public for this House, they have the same contempt, very often, for the House of Commons: they have the same contempt for an kinds of institutions, even certain religious and social institutions. I think, my Lords, that the most valuable function of this House is in educating and changing public opinion, and I believe that it has done this on many and very serious occasions. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for initiating this discussion, and I should hope that any improvement we can make in procedure would be valuable for this House.
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I should like to join all those who have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for initiating this debate, which I am sure must, in the long run, prove of value to our House. As he knows, I was not a great enthusiast when he suggested a debate along these lines, although I believe that any Member of the House who has some subject near his heart should be given the opportunity of raising it here. But, as things have turned out, starting with that wise and dispassionate opening speech by the noble Lord, I feel that nothing but good can result from our debate this afternoon. Listening to the noble Lord, it was difficult to believe that once, apparently, he had been a militant king of propaganda —or, at any rate, that he lay for a long time very close to the heart of Conservative propaganda. But I know that it is possible to survive these experiences. I myself once worked in the Conservative Research Department, but one thrives on it and, with the passing of the years, one mellows—and the noble Lord is certainly well calculated to instruct us in a dispassionate approach.
I should like to join all those who have paid special tribute to, and congratulate, with even more than usual warmth, the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, the son of an old friend of so many of us here. I must not say that I agreed with all his con 806 clusions if only because I have myself advocated views of that kind in other places, and on this occasion I am supposed to be debarred, having preached to so many others, from offering any views on powers and composition. But I felt, if I may say so, that the noble Lord brought forward a very compelling argument at the end of his speech, and addressed us in an altogether most delightful way.
A number of noble Lords have found it difficult—and I daresay that I shall find it difficult before I close—to keep clear of powers and composition. I gather that I am allowed 35 minutes, even by the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, but I do not think I shall take so long, because I have to speak in honour of the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House in about ten minutes' time—I am rather late for that engagement, I am afraid. As I was saying, noble Lords have found it difficult, and I myself may find it difficult, to keep quite clear of powers and composition.
Some of my noble friends spoke with a great deal of style and audacity, such as the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and also the noble Lords, Lord Leatherland and Lord Francis-Williams, all of whom stimulated the House. They at times managed, so to speak, to wander a little far from what was perhaps intended to be the strait and narrow way. Even the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oak-ridge, whom I always regard as an absolute arbiter of correct conduct, found it necessary at times, I thought, to delve into fundamental things when he talked in a most interesting way about the necessary attitudes here. Obviously, it is most difficult to keep these things apart, and I apologise to all noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and the noble Lord, Lord Rea, whom I interrupted, if I put them off their speeches in any way at all, though I do not think they were, in fact, in any way deterred by my interventions.
My Lords, as the noble Earl has referred to me, may I make good an omission of thanks to him for his unerring instinct in interrupting me just at the point when I had finished that part of my speech?
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, apart from the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, the noble Lord, Lord Rea, is the only speaker who can be described as commendably brief, and he had finished with that subject when most of the rest of us would have been, as it were, clearing our throats. I did not realise that he had come to the end of that part of his remarks.
§ LORD FERRIER
My Lords, if the noble Earl will forgive me, I congratulate him on making my speech more brief than it would otherwise have been, but I would not agree with him that I was not put off.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
I apologise humbly to the noble Lord. The noble Lord rather frightened us by saying that he had decided to make a long speech. In all the years that I have been in this House I have heard many long speeches, but I have never heard anybody announce in advance that he was going to make a long speech, and make a virtue out of speaking at some length; but we all, of course, enjoyed the noble Lord's remarks very much.
My Lords, I will try to keep clear of powers and composition, but, of course, one cannot talk about the House of Lords as though it were an abstract body, just a Second Chamber, without any particular composition at all. Therefore, when discussing whether the composition could be improved, I think that, to some extent, for the benefit of those who may be following our debate, it is perhaps right to put on record what the composition of the House is at the present time, analysed in this way. The total number of Peers is 1,006. The difficulty of these figures, at any rate from my point of view, is that they change almost from hour to hour, as Peers come in and take their seats and, I suppose, occasionally die—because even Peers meet that fate: they are human, as the noble Lord reminds me. The figures change, but up to the moment they stand like this.
The total number of Peers is 1,006. Then one must deduct 90 Peers who are without Writs of Summons. These are 808 described as "minors, bankrupts, et cetera". I feel that the 90 must include a good many others, besides minors and bankrupts, because when I last looked at the figures there were only 10 minors, and I cannot think that there are 80 bankrupts among the 90 who have in fact not yet obtained their Writs of Summons. But one must take out that 90.
Then one must leave out the Peers who have been granted leave of absence, about whom the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, spoke in a very telling way. He did not speak in such a critical way about them, perhaps: I think he was speaking about noble Lords who might have added themselves to their number; but he spoke from a great deal of experience about that side of the Peerage. At any rate, there are 198 Peers who have been granted leave of absence. That brings down the number of Peers entitled to attend to 723. One must then deduct 63 Peers who are entitled to attend but who have not yet taken the Oath—and they also were referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh. This brings the present effective strength of the House down to 660. Here, the figures are not quite complete, but according to my information 382 are receiving the Conservative Whip and a nominal 80 are receiving the Labour Whip, although I am afraid that quite a number of our people are too old and too sick to come.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
I am glad that age and sickness are not the monopoly of any one Party. There are also 41 who receive the Liberal Whip. That gives us, roughly, 500, leaving approximately 150 to 160 who are attending the House, so far as one can judge, and are Independents.
I make one further point. I do not wish to say any more about it, but I think it would be wrong to treat the strength of the Parties exactly as reflected here, because undoubtedly there are a great many Peers on the Conservative side who would come here, I think, if they felt that their presence was necessary. At any rate, there is this large Conservative majority, as all the world knows. I am not going to argue whether that is a good or a bad thing, but, if one is talking about the House of Lords, one must take it as it is.
809 My Lords, there is one topic which inevitably has come up to-day and about which I am extremely anxious to be uncontroversial. I think it is one I can hardly avoid, if only because people outside will probably expect a few words from me on this subject. I mean what might be called the proper functioning or the proper conduct of the House and, in particular, its relations with another place. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who spoke so well, as he always does, touched on it lightly. I feel bound to say a few words. You cannot call it particularly "composition"; it is "functioning" and it comes close to the subject we have discussed to-day.
There is the question running through these discussions to-day of when it would be prudent—and I am not talking of morality or constitutional rights, for those are fairly clear—and statesmanlike for this House to differ from the House of Commons and when, if ever, it would be prudent to press that difference to the point of insistence. There is that underlying question. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, laid down certain doctrines on that matter. I will not argue with him about them; but he drew a distinction between what was proper in the case of a Bill for which there was a mandate from the people and what was proper where there was not a mandate, and he touched on that subject lightly. I must not he thought to agree with him in what lie said, but I do not want to argue it now. That is his doctrine and not ours. We must make up our own minds on it.
All this is concerned with certain hypothetical situations which one hopes will not arise. But I will say plainly, speaking not only for myself as the Leader of the House but for the Government, that there is no disposition on the part of the present Government to seek a quarrel with the House of Lords; there is no disposition to try to use the House of Lords for some electoral purpose; there is no intention of that sort. As I explained when this Government took office, we have a duty, a solemn duty as we conceive it, to see our legislation through; but we hope that can be done unprovocatively and without that kind of collision. That would not be to the benefit of this House or of the Government or of anyone. The Government and the House of Lords have a mutual 810 interest in harmonious relations, and certainly the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Lord, Lord Rea, have shown us how well on their side this task can be accomplished up to the present.
I must say a word about the procedural questions that have been raised, and it would be trifling with the House, in view of the serious approach of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oak-ridge, and my own colleagues if I came here with some pronouncement drawn up in advance about the issues raised. That is not the spirit in which I am trying to reply to this debate. I will take a few items and at the end say how I feel that we must pursue our studies further.
There is the very important issue of whether we ought to have a more effective Chairman, somebody whose position would be equivalent to that of the Speaker. This was looked at from more than one point of view. There was a desire to save the Lord Chancellor from the horror of listening to our speeches; and, as he is so good tempered, I feel we shall never know quite what pain he suffers, what pains he has to bear. I feel that that is a matter entirely for him. He has been exceptionally industrious. In these few months he has already, as it were, a credit in the bank in the last few months, and the question of how far he conceives it his duty to be here all the time is something he can work out with those whose opinions he values. There is the other side, the fact that, as the noble Earl, Lord Arran, said is a slightly different connection, we are the most democratic Chamber in the world in one important sense. I do not know of any other Chamber which has no Speaker or effective Chairman. We are self-governing. It was interesting to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, explaining how this tradition should be worked. When I first came to your Lordships' House, soon after the First World War—
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
I can go back some way, I agree, but not all the way back to the First World War, although it seems a long time ago. When I first came here, soon after the Second 811 World War, I remember speaking as a young Minister from a similar Dispatch Box to this one, when I was interrupted by some Peer. I stood there, anxious to oblige, but not conforming to the Rules. The late Lord Salisbury roared out: "Order! Order!". I dropped, as though shot. There is that tradition which I hope will be restored. For as long as I am Leader, it makes my task easier if noble Lords will follow the excellent example of the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, and play that particular part. It is a strange situation that there is nobody who can call anybody to order. Although I do not in fact favour this—I am speaking personally because I think it must be looked at thoroughly and I do not want to talk as though the Government or my colleagues have any special views—or exactly approach a change with a bias in its favour, because I have already got stuck in the ways of this House, I must say that if I were absolutely neutral and had walked into your Lordships' House this afternoon I should have been rather biased by my experiences in favour of an effective Speaker. I feel that the role of Leader is rather difficult on occasions like this, when a number of speakers have felt it their duty to travel very widely.
But that is not conclusive. Taking the matter as a whole, I personally do not approach a change with prejudice in its favour; but I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, will agree that this is a matter that must be looked at by the House as a whole very carefully, and that these other matters must be studied through the usual channels and, of course, also in the Procedure Committee. Perhaps later on, in relation to this and the other matters, the noble Lord, Lord Alport, may put down a Question regarding their progress, or may in some form of other be part of these studies. I am quite certain that the matter cannot just be disposed of; but, equally, I do not want to commit anybody to any form of investigation. I do not think I am in a position to do so. I have not the authority from the Government or from the House as a whole: but it is an important issue and one must see how it all turns out.
812 There was also the question of Standing Committees. As is known, this use of Standing Committees for Bills was tried between 1889 and 1910 and it was regarded, by and large, as having failed. That, of course, is not the final proof that it would fail if it was used to-day. There are many more Peers, perhaps, who would be available for work of this kind now than when the experiment was tried, although a number of Life Peers must earn their living and may not be better situated to attend the House than were some of the hereditary Peers when it was being tried. Nevertheless it is not something which can be disposed of, and it must be looked at with care by all those who have the responsibility.
Then there is the subject of Questions which was raised by various Members of the House—for example, the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland. This takes various forms. It has been suggested that there ought to be more opportunity to bring in Unstarred Questions earlier. I do not quite know how to bring an improvement there. But we shall see. On supplementaries, I am bound to say this matter of the extent to which supplementaries are to be carried is a little worrying. Perhaps a firmer Leader of the House would find a way to stop that, or perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, leading the Back-Benchers as a whole, will find his own remedy. But, in my opinion, there is no doubt that it can be carried too far, and on occasion the House does sigh for somebody who can say, "We had better move on." As I say, perhaps a strong leadership may avoid that, but certain difficulties remain.
My Lords, the simplest way is just to bring it up at the Procedure Committee. They have recently made an extension in the number of days on which Starred Questions can be asked and increased the number from three to four, and they might wish to reverse the process. A supplementary, if it is an honest supplementary, ought not to be stifled, I think.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, what the noble Lord says will be studied, but I doubt whether there will be a general desire to reverse the process.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, suggested that there should be a fixed time for 813 Questions. That is an interesting suggestion. I am not saying that it is the right one but, at any rate, it could be studied. In the case of all these proposals. I do not want to begin to seem to commit anybody this evening. Again, on the length of speeches, I cannot preach to others on that subject, though I should be well within the 35 minutes this evening. The simplest way of realising how long we speak is to ask the attendants downstairs, who mark one in advance, and it is always much more than expected. Seriously, I think that we should be justified in trying one experimental debate, in which a kind of vow would be taken that nobody would speak for longer than the fifteen minutes, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, with those speaking from the Front Bench being allowed a little more, though not necessarily 35 minutes.
When I came to your Lordships' House, our Leader was the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, who was very keen on short speeches. On one occasion I remember him kicking me on the back of my calf, saying, "Sit down now. You have got the House with you and you will only lose them if you go on any longer." He was a wonderful man.
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, I hope that the noble Earl will make an exception for those moving a Motion, even though it be not from the Front Bench.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
Certainly, my Lords. If I may speak for myself, I believe that every Motion could be moved, whether from the Front Bench or anywhere else, unless it is on a very complicated Bill or something which has to be explained in detail, within 30 minutes. My noble friend Lord Shepherd says, "War Damage excluded". I am not quite sure what he has in mind there. The point of Leave of Absence, dealt with by the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, needs looking into.
So I come to my conclusion. I should like to say how much I have enjoyed all the speeches.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
My Lords, before the noble Earl leaves the various issues, I raised the question of starting Bills earlier, and I hope this will be looked at by the Government, because I think it is important.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
I think it is very important. I assure the noble Lord, without giving away any secrets, that my noble friend Lord Shepherd has worked day and night during the last few months to achieve something here. It is very difficult, not only for this House but for another place, after a Government comes in after a long time in Opposition, to get Bills ready. Perhaps this is something on which the Opposition are fully entitled to criticise the Government, if they do not comply with reasonable expectations. It is certainly important.
I think the only speaker I have not mentioned is the noble Earl, Lord Arran. He has one special claim that many of us can envy. He has initiated debates in your Lordships' House which have gone far to substantiate his own claim that hereditary Peers, if no better than anybody else, are at least as good. In my recollection, he has initiated debates on leisure, on the Press and on Christian unity; and now he is to open a debate on the Wolfenden Report. If we take the example of the noble Earl, we have to realise that many noble Lords have been able to make contributions in this House that they could not have made anywhere else, either in the House of Commons or elsewhere outside this House. Therefore, I feel that the years one spends here are fruitful, if one chooses to make them fruitful. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, said about our attitude. It is nobody's fault but our own if we do not achieve something, given the tremendous opportunity of being Members of this House, whatever we may think of it, of its composition and power or anything else. It is a House of deep seriousness, of rather beautiful courtesy and consideration, particularly for older Members and for everyone who is one of us. I feel, therefore, that, whatever the future of this House—and I hope that so far I have within my powers been a good custodian during my short time as Leader—when we think of all that has been accomplished and of all that we are still trying to accomplish, we have every right to be proud and feel deeply privileged to be Members of your Lordships' House in this day and age. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for enabling us to discuss 815 this matter, I hope not in a complacent manner, but in a spirit of optimism about what lies within our powers to do.
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ LORD ALPORT
My Lords, this is literally a late hour, and I will not keep your Lordships for more than one or two minutes. My purpose in rising, apart from the formal conclusion of my remarks, is, in the first place, to thank those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It has been one to which a large number of speakers have contributed, all of them without any prompting or suggestion from me; and for that reason I am particularly in their debt. I should not like to miss the opportunity of congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, on what was a brave speech to make in addressing your Lordships' Chamber for the first time: we greatly appreciated it.
At the end of this debate I am in two minds as to whether the impression that I have personally, that there is a sickness in the Parliamentary institution, is right, or whether the impression that the majority of your Lordships have, that things are going along on a fairly even keel and along traditional lines, is correct. When I say that it is my impression that there is a sickness in Parliament as an institution, I am not referring to your Lordships' House alone, or indeed primarily because the balance of power, or authority and of activity lies in the House of Commons. I am worried as to how, not in the immediate future but over a period of time, quite apart from political differences, and quite apart from the policies that may be followed by any particular Party or Government, the Parliamentary institution is going to cope successfully with the pressures of the circumstances and times in which we live, and how far we in this House, with the very special privileges to which your Lordships have referred, can help in maintaining the good health of the Parliamentary institution.
I have sought in this Motion to draw your Lordships' attention, to encourage la debate, only upon those things over 816 which we have ourselves power to do something. Perhaps the answer is not in our hands. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, that, although II have been and may be again fully implicated in controversial politics, on this particular occasion the origin of the Motion is one that is quite irrespective of the membership of any Party or any Party point of view. It is concern for a Parliamentary institution here in Britain which is labouring, I think, under very heavy weather now, and which in so many countries in the Commonwealth has failed and disappeared. I do not think we can afford to be complacent; and I do not think your Lordships are.
I am glad, therefore, that the noble Earl the Leader of the House was good enough to say in his closing remarks that these matters which have been raised from a number of quarters in the many speeches we have heard, and covering many aspects of your Lordships' procedures, should be considered through the usual channels by the Committee on Procedure, and, if necessary, by some other instrument to decide what should be done. This must take time; it must have thought. This is merely an opening phase, so to speak, in order to see what ideas are available, and to give the opportunity for further thought. As I say, I am very grateful indeed for the way in which your Lordships have supported this Motion, and I beg leave to withdraw it.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.