§ 2.53 p.m.
§ LORD MITCHISON
My Lords, I beg leave to call attention to the need for reform of this House and its powers, and to move for Papers. And the Papers will be a funny lot, if I ever get them! Many noble Lords are to speak to-day, and I shall try to put my views concisely. They are my own personal views, and while one always hopes for a measure of agreement, they are not, so far as I know, the views of Her Majesty's Government or of anyone else.
I think that the need for reform is widely recognised, and I shall not dwell on it. Over the centuries of our history we have struggled to achieve and apply democracy: the principle that we should govern ourselves. For that purpose we are a Parliamentary democracy and our main instruments are an elected House of Commons, run on a Party system, and a Government responsible to the elected House. In such a set-up any independent legislative powers, at least on matters of general public policy, vested in a Chamber which in the 20th century still contains an appreciable, indeed a high, proportion of hereditary Members, and which nowadays has an inbuilt Tory majority, are an obvious denial of democracy. Such powers have been limited, but they still exist in the form of powers to frustrate, delay and defeat the wishes of the elected Chamber.
In their last Election Manifesto the Labour Party made a promise in the following terms:Legislation will be introduced to safeguard measures approved by the House of Commons from frustration by delay or defeat in the House of Lords.I call your Lordships' attention to two points about that promise. It was a definite, unconditional engagement in no way dependent on your Lordships' conduct, and it went significantly beyond the conditional promises in previous Manifestos, including the 1964 Manifesto. It is also a promise to introduce legislation about the powers of this House, not necessarily about its composition.
The Motion to-day is widely drawn in order to elicit the views of your Lordships on both subjects—powers and composition. In view of what I 1288 have just said, I begin with powers. Your Lordships will remember that it was on powers that the Conference of Party Leaders in 1948, convened at the instance of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and of which he and the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, were members, broke down, while reaching and recording a broad measure of agreement on composition. That Conference was convened in connection with the Parliament Bill of 1947 and 1948. That Bill provided the last occasion on which a major Government measure passed by the Commons was rejected on Second Reading by this House and had to be represented, in those days three times, in order to become law.
The power to reject a Government Bill which has passed the Commons is in-defensible in principle and obsolete in practice. It should be withdrawn. Speaking on February 16 on the London Government Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, pointed out that Tory Lords had:… allowed a lot of legislation to go through to which they were bitterly opposed and about the effect of which on this country they had the gravest misgivings."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, col. 419, 16/2/67.]They were not going to fight in the last ditch but one. We waited to hear what the actual last ditch would be.In the last resort and in quite exceptional circumstances"—we were told—"a matter of great constitutional and national importance, on which there was known to be a deep division of opinion in the country or perhaps on which the people's opinion was not known."—[col. 420.]I cannot recognise the right of a majority opposed to the Government of the day and sitting in a non-elected Chamber to draw the line between legislation about the effect of which on this country they have the gravest misgiving, but which they will let through, and legislation on a matter of great constitutional and national importance, which they will reject; nor, if it is a question of the opinion in the country, do I recognise the right of this House to enforce their views on that in opposition to the views of an elected Chamber.
As to the Constitution, it is flexible and largely unwritten. If something socially good is found to be unconstitutional, 1289 there is ground for changing the Constitution, but not for abandoning the good. In fact this Chamber, fundamentally unrepresentative and with its built-in Tory majority, ought not to be allowed to wait for a convenient occasion on which to provoke a clash with the Commons. If the occasion ever comes, the convenience will be that of the Tory Party under a Labour Government and although, of course, they will believe themselves to be acting in the national interest, that belief will be founded on Tory principles and policy, not on the proper judgment, that of the elected Chamber and of the Government of the day. The longer the occasion is delayed, the longer your Lordships will be hampered by obsolete and indefensible powers, the continued existence of which seems to hamper your Lordships' work and to divert the Chamber from its proper function of discussion, consultation and revision, to the entrancing game of teasing the Commons and the Government of the day.
I turn to Amendments—in the first place to Amendments made in this House to Government Bills which have passed the Commons. The governing principle, I suggest, must be that once any difference of opinion appears between the elected Chamber and your Lordships' House, then in a democratic system, as we now understand it, the will of the elected Chamber must prevail without further ado. The present practice, however, does not work that way. I would not interfere with the right of this House to make any Amendments it chooses, even Amendments involving questions of public money and accordingly privilege; but provided there is a fundamental alteration of the subsequent procedure on those Amendments. Without such a fundamental alteration I should have something to say about money Amendments—a sort of half-forbidden fruit which has a strange attraction to your Lordships.
Nowadays, your Lordships' rights in connection with Amendments matter more in practice than any question of the acceptance or refusal of a Bill. It was by insistence on an Amendment that the Iron and Steel Bill of 1948 and 1949 was delayed in operation, so that the Corporation which took over the industry had not sufficient time to get under way before the General Election of 1951. Just as the Parliament Act 1949 was 1290 the last Government Bill brought from the Commons, refused a Second Reading in the Lords and carried by representation in successive Sessions, so the Iron and Steel Act 1949 was the last Government measure brought from the Commons and, in effect, frustrated, or at least, seriously hampered in its operation, by the Lords' insistence on an Amendment.
To insist on an Amendment at present would be to bring about a clash between the Houses and the political Armageddon or political suicide which we have it on the authority of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, can occur only once before the Lords or their political powers vanish into oblivion. In plain language, the Amendment would be the last ditch.
In accordance with the governing principle that I have suggested, it is for the Commons, and only for the Commons, to decide which Amendments made by this House to a Government Bill originating in the Commons they, the Commons, wish to discuss or to discuss again; for sometimes those Amendments repeat contentions which have already been discussed and defeated in the Commons on the first passage of the Bill. How the Commons make that decision is a matter for them. I suggest, therefore, that all Amendments made by this House to a Government Bill which has come from the Commons should be sent back to the Commons and there should lie on the Table for a suitable period, during which the Commons may select any of them for consideration, and at the end of which any not so selected should lapse and be of no effect. On consideration, the Commons may adopt an Amendment, with or without some derivative Amendment of their own, and the Amendment so adopted, with any derivative Amendment, shall then be made in the Bill. An Amendment with which the Commons disagree shall lapse. There is, and ought to be, no room for any question of insistence on Amendments.
Under the procedure I suggest, the Commons would, in practice, select for consideration some Amendments from this House. Some of them would be Government Amendments introduced here; others, perhaps, Amendments on minor points; but none, I venture to think, Amendments of a wrecking 1291 character, such as your Lordships opposite have from time to time thought fit to move into recent Bills. Fir instance, one such Amendment was the recent one in the Iron and Steel Bill not to take over the debentures of the nationalised companies, a proposal which, if accepted, would have frustrated one of the main purposes of the Bill, and a proposal, too, which had been discussed in the Commons and rejected there on a Division. Your Lordships Amendment was rejected in the Commons on the simple ground that it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons—half-forbidden fruit again, my Lords—and that rejection surprised no one here or in the Commons.
That is only one instance; there have been others in other recent controversial Bills. Your Lordships have not been as moderate and virtuous as is sometimes alleged, and the result has been a considerable waste of Parliamentary time in the elected Chamber. No doubt an Opposition always seeks to waste Government time, but though I have played it myself, it is rather a silly game and, in the long run, I doubt its wisdom. Perhaps one objection to it is the high rate of mortality among Members of Parliament—of all Parties, I hasten to add.
My Lords, Amendments by the Commons to Government Bills originating in and passed by your Lordships' House present little practical difficulty; for such Bills are allocated to this House by the Government of the day and are rarely, if ever, of a seriously controversial character. I am not sure whether it is even worth while to make provision for the immediate and final prevalence of Commons Amendments. After all, if such Amendments are to be considered again by this House, the time so spent will be your Lordships' time, rather than the more scarce commodity, time in the Commons.
I turn to a third major point about powers in connection with Statutory Instruments, which have increased in number and in importance since the days of the Parliament Act. They are made by Ministers, or as Orders in Council, and many of them are subject to Parliamentary review because the particular Statute empowering them to be made calls for Parliamentary approval of a draft Order 1292 or allows Parliament to pray for annulment within a given time after the issue of the Order. The financial privileges of the Commons are preserved, in so far as Statutory Instruments dealing with public money or Supply are made subject only to the review of the Commons; but in the great majority of cases the modern form of clause in the empowering Statute provides either that the draft Instrument must be approved by each House or that, once made, the Instrument is subject to annulment on a Resolution by either House.
I cannot put the resulting point better or more concisely than it was put by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in the debate on February 16 to which I have already referred. I quote from columns 421 and 422 of Hansard. He said:We have had more difficulty on Statutory Orders because, as they were a comparatively novel way of legislating and very seldom used when the original Parliament Act was passed, they do not come within the scope of that Act, and therefore, if your Lordships decide to divide against an Order and carry the day, that Order lapses for good and all. It can, of course, be reintroduced in exactly the same terms by the Government, but we can throw it out again and again and it can never become operative, since the House of Lords cannot be overruled. Though I can visualise occasions when your Lordships would wish to vote against an Order, I should have thought that they would be rare indeed.My Lords, for myself, I cannot see the sort of rare occasion that the noble Lord had in mind. I think he was only reserving, once more, his desire to choose the last ditch to die in.
There are strong and obvious objections to this House keeping its present control. One, for instance, is that these Instruments, in the nature of the case, involve an exercise of ministerial discretion, and almost always the responsible Minister is in the Commons and should answer there. Another, even more serious, is the practical inconvenience that would follow on the rejection or amendment of some of these Instruments by your Lord-ships or at your Lordships' instance
Recently, for instance, we have had a number of Orders, Statutory Instruments, about changes in the structure and boundaries of local government units. One such Order required your Lordships' approval of changes in the West Midlands which had been the subject of discussions, consultations, disputes and inquiries for six years before the Order 1293 came up here. If your Lordships care to look at columns 819 and 820 of Hansard for December 16, 1965, you will find staggering figures of days spent and numbers of witnesses and counsel engaged. One inquiry had been supported after an attempt to invalidate it in the High Court, carried to the Court of Appeal. Two successive Ministers of Housing, of different Parties, had approved the substance of the Order. It raised the usual differences between county councils and borough councils, and in this House 12 of your Lordships divided against it. If they had succeeded, the whole statutory process of consultation and inquiry and the like would have had to take place again before the Minister could make a second Order, doubtless in the same terms as the first.
The trouble in this connection does not come so much from the Front Bench opposite as from the efforts of groups of noble Lords, often small groups, to represent local patriotism, local interests or the views of local authority associations. The groups are odd armies, because they never fight unless they are sure to be defeated. I suggest that a power so exercised, so capable of causing grave inconvenience, not only to the Government of the day but to the ratepayers and inhabitants immediately concerned, and so open to the fundamental criticism that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, made, should be abolished. I reject as infinitely laborious and ultimately impracticable any attempt to sort out of the mass of Statutory Instruments some few, if they exist, where the present powers of this House would be appropriate. If provoked, I will read out a draft clause of eight lines which I think would do the trick as regards any Statutory Instruments made after the passing of the legislation I have in mind, whatever the date of the Statute under which those Instruments were made.
My Lords, so far I have tried to keep strictly within the purport of the Election pledge I quoted. I have not mentioned Private Members' Bills originating here or in the other place. I think that the present machinery deals with them effectively. Similarly, I have not mentioned Private Bills. They are dealt with by the two Houses through a system which in general satisfies the promoters, the objectors and the public or Govern- 1294 mental interest. Also I have not mentioned the procedure of this House, partly for reasons of time, partly because it must depend on what is done about powers. I would only say about procedure that, once the question of powers is settled, there seems to me to be some points for consideration. One is how far one can, or should, try to enforce order and relevance; another, whether more use could not be made of ad hoc Committees and Committees on Bills and, in the same connection, whether a power to select Amendments would be useful.
Before I sit down I should like to say two things about the composition of this House. In the first place, the Conference of Party Leaders in 1948 reached such a broad measure of agreement that I would not despair of quite a deal of agreement in such a Conference, probably informed, once the question of powers is settled, as I think it should be without delay. I hope that this debate will give some indication, not only of the views of noble Lords but also of how far they agree, or are willing to agree. In the second place, looking at the conclusions of that Conference, I think that the main difficulty may lie in No. 2, which ran as follows:The revised constitution of the House of Lords should be such as to secure as far as practicable that a permanent majority is not assured for any one political Party.That is not saying that the proportion between noble Lords with Party allegiances should always be the same as it is at the time in the Commons; but the difficulties I foresee may arise in adapting the constitution of this House to successive changes after General Elections. It may well be a not insuperable difficulty, and I hope that noble Lords will take this opportunity to tell us whether they regard the conclusion as broadly right; what, if any, modifications should be made to it, and how best to achieve the result they desire.
Finally, my Lords, my impression is that my Party's Election promise, and what I have suggested to carry it out, may have much more support from all sides of the House now than it would have had directly after the war, when the second Parliament Act was passed. If I may say so with respect, I believe most of us to be public-spirited men and women who wish to serve our country 1295 and our fellow citizens, having various beliefs and various knowledge and experience. We recognise that the will of the electorate must prevail and, imperfect though our democracy may be, that the expression of that will is in and through an elected Chamber, not of delegates but of representatives. On Tuesday last the Guardian had a short leader headed:The Lords power to frustrate",and as regards what I am suggesting today they concluded:These changes would achieve the Labour Party's object with the minimum of fuss and the sooner they are made the better.I adopt those words. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.16 p.m.
§ LORD HARLECH
My Lords, this Motion calls attention to the need for reform of your Lordships' House and its powers. I am bound to say that, before I read the Motion on the Order Paper, I was not aware of any widespread feeling that this particular need existed at the present time. Having heard the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, in a very interesting speech, move the Motion, I remain unconvinced; and I expect that many noble Lords will feel the same. He spoke so swiftly about changes in the procedure with regard to Amendments in this House that I should like to study in Hansard what he said before I comment on it. I thought he had a stronger point when he got on to the question of Statutory Orders. It is rather anomalous that, although we have this power to vote against a Statutory Order, we have never exercised it in a way which has won in the Division Lobbies, and that is certainly, I think, something that might be looked at if there were a need at the present time for a serious review of the powers of your Lordships' House.
It was with some reluctance that I agreed to take part in this debate, since it was only just over one year ago that I first took my seat in your Lordships' House and made my first speech here. I am certainly not qualified to speak from any long experience, or with any authority, about the effectiveness and the efficiency of your Lordships' House in recent years. Perhaps I should just say 1296 here that it had been the intention of my noble friend and Leader, Lord Carrington, to take part in this debate, and he very much regrets that, owing to the fact that he is abroad this week, as I think some of your Lordships know, he is unable to do so. It has therefore been left to me. But in the course of my remarks I shall draw on some of his wisdom, which I think was expressed in the speech to which the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, has already referred, when he was speaking on the London Government Bill on February 16 of this year.
Whatever else I have to say will be an expresion of my own very tentative views on the Motion before us, and not the considered policy of the Conservative Party in this House; for, quite frankly, not being aware of any urgent need for a change in its composition and its powers, and not being aware that the Government themselves saw the slightest urgency in this matter, the Conservative Party has made no serious attempt to arrive at any agreed policy on this issue at the present time. It would therefore appear that this is an occasion largely for the expression of individual Back-Bench opinion from all quarters of the House, in order that we may see whether many share Lord Mitchison's views about the need for reform, and, if so, whether any consensus exists as to the purpose of such reform and the shape it should take.
It seems to me that if we are to make a sensible appraisal we must ask ourselves: what is the purpose of this Second Chamber; what functions is it called upon to perform? Only then can we ask ourselves whether it is in some way failing in these purposes or is incapable, as now constituted, of carrying out these functions. In his speech of February 16 my noble friend Lord Carrington set out, reasonably briefly and clearly, what he considered to be the purpose of the House of Lords, and I do not think his description was much disputed at the time.
He thought that it had three roles. First, there was the revisionary role, and I need not expand on that this afternoon. Secondly, there was its role as a forum for debate of important and urgent public issues for which time can often not conveniently be found in another place. Then he said, in the passage which has 1297 already been quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison:… but there is a third role. There could arise a matter of great constitutional and national importance, on which there was known to be a deep division of opinion in the country or perhaps on which the people's opinion was not known. In a case of this kind, it seems to me that the House of Lords has a right, and perhaps a duty, to use its powers, not to make a decision, but to accord the people of this country and Members of the House of Commons a period for reflection and time for views to be expressed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, col. 420; 16/2/67.]Frankly I thought that this, in its broad elements, was the view that was taken by leaders of the Labour Party at the time of the Conference which took place in 1948.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE EARL OF LONGFORD)
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, but if he will look back at the Hansard for the day he mentioned he will see that I did, very clearly and as soon as possible, dispute the third role.
§ LORD HARLECH
My Lords, I am coming to what the present position of the Labour Party is and why it should have changed its mind since the passing of the Parliament Act 1949. I think most of your Lordships will find it rather strange that the noble Earl the Leader of the House should have stated a totally different opinion from that held by distinguished members of the Labour Party over a number of years from 1947 up to 1950.
Those roles certainly seem to me to be the roles that are assigned to this House in Parliament as at present constituted, and while, of course, it would be foolish to suggest that there is no room for improvements of a relatively minor character, I have not myself gained the impression that any very radical changes are thought to be urgently necessary by opinion either in this House or in the country at large. I say this as one who, ten or twelve years ago, was a passionate believer in reform of the House of Lords, but that was before the introduction of Life Peerages and before there was any question of payment for attendance in your Lordships' House, and at a time when attendance in this House had fallen to such a low level on occasions that there was serious concern, and possibly a real danger, that it would become incapable of carrying out in a 1298 satisfactory way its role as a Second Chamber within our Constitution.
Indeed, in those days I recall writing what I thought was a powerful article in the Spectator, urging reform of the House of Lords, although I seem to remember that I rather mocked the idea of the Second Chamber providing an effective barrier to totalitarianism in another place. I said that in such a revolutionary situation—which I am happy to think is not very imminent at the present time in this country—your Lordships would be of more use manning the barricades in Whitehall than manning your Benches in the Palace of Westminster. However, it seems to me the situation is very different now, and although it is no doubt useful that we should discuss possible improvements, I think we can do so in a reasonably relaxed manner in the knowledge that until general agreement can be reached on reform, the functioning of Parliament is not likely to be seriously hampered meanwhile.
I, like the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, have been looking back to the Agreed Statement which was issued at the end of the All-Party Conference held on House of Lords reform in the early part of 1948. This seems to me to be an important document because it shows that at that time the three Parties reached agreement on composition, broadly speaking, although, as is well known, they failed to reach agreement about powers. It strikes me that what the Party Leaders then concluded would, with certain minor modifications, find pretty general acceptance in your Lordships' House to-day, and I should like to comment on the main propositions which were set out in paragraph 5 of the Report, to one of which the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, has already referred.
The first proposition is:The Second Chamber should be complementary to and not a rival to the Lower House, and, with this end in view, the reform of the House of Lords should be based on a modification of its existing constitution as opposed to the establishment of a Second Chamber of a completely new type based on some system of election.I believe that to be right. In those countries where the Second Chamber is elected it usually is only a pale reflection of the First Chamber. It does not really complement it in any way, and in most instances it has a minimal influence in the 1299 country. This is not, of course, true of a federal Constitution like that of the United States of America, but that is not really comparable with the situation we have in this country.
The second proposition, which the noble Lord referred to, says:The revised constitution of the House of Lords should be such as to secure as far as practicable that a permanent majority is not assured for any one political Party.I think this remains a desirable objective, and the chief criticism which could be levelled against your Lordships' House at the present time is that there is a built-in majority for the Conservative Party. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, that in this present day and age it is not really a rational basis on which to run a Second Chamber in a democracy.
The third proposition was:The present right to attend and vote based solely on heredity should not by itself constitute a qualification for admission to a reformed Second Chamber.The fourth proposition rather goes with it. That says:Members of the Second Chamber should be styled ' Lords of Parliament' and would be appointed on grounds of personal distinction or public service. They might be drawn either from hereditary Peers, or from commoners who would be created Life Peers.To some extent of course this has been implemented by the creation of Life Peers, but we have not really grappled with the problem of the hereditary Peers, and perhaps I could say something about that. If we are to achieve a fair balance between the Parties in this House, and if there is to be no permanent majority for any one Party, then clearly this particular nettle will have to be grasped, and I suppose there are a number of ways in which it could be done. It would mean by some means or other limiting the number of hereditary Peers who could sit, or at least vote, in this House. I imagine that it could be done by the hereditary Peerage electing, say, 50 or 75 of their number to sit and vote in this House. But I see very serious snags to such a procedure. In the first place, I think it would inevitably lead to lobbying on behalf of certain candidates. I think it would lead probably to the selection of those who were agreeable to the Party managers, and I think it would make it very difficult indeed for 1300 young Peers, or Peers who had recently succeeded to their titles, ever to gain the attention of their fellow Peers and thus enable them to become an elected hereditary Peer in this House.
It seems to me that a more promising method, which I have heard suggested, might be to limit the numbers by reference to the record of attendance of your Lordships in the previous Session. You could confine the right to vote, although perhaps not the right to speak, to those Peers who had attended a specified number of Sittings of the House in the previous Session, and obviously you could set this limit at a level which would exclude all but, say, 50 or 75 members of the hereditary Peerage. It would mean again, in the case of a young Peer or a Peer who had recently succeeded, that possibly a year would have to go by before he would get his right to vote, but this does not seem to me to be an overwhelming objection. It certainly seems to me to be a method with certain advantages, and I think it is worthy of examination.
In their Agreed Statement the Party leaders put forward as proposition (5):Women should be capable of being appointed Lords of Parliament in like manner as men—and this proposal has, of course, been put into practice. Proposition (6) says that:Provision should be made for the inclusion in the Second Chamber of certain descendants of the Sovereign, certain Lords Spiritual and the Law Lords.That is the situation to-day. Proposition (7) suggests that:In order that persons without private means should not be excluded, some remuneration would be payable to members of the Second Chamber.That proposal has been implemented to some extent, but if the Government were to decide on some radical reform of Parliament as a whole which required this House to do a good deal more work than it is already doing, then I doubt whether the present system of payment would be sufficient to attract to this House for the kind of hours that would be necessary the calibre of men we should wish to see here.
Proposition (8) was that:Peers who were not Lords of Parliament should be entitled to stand for election to the House of Commons, and also to vote at elections in the same manner as other citizens.1301 In the intervening years since 1948 we have dealt with that point in a rather different manner, and it is now possible for a member of the Peerage to renounce his Peerage and to stand for Parliament, if he so wishes, provided that he decides within one year of succeeding to his title.
Proposition (9) was that:Some provision should be made for the disqualification of a member of a Second Chamber who neglects, or becomes no longer able or fitted, to perform his duties as such.I think this provision would apply only in a reformed Second Chamber: it does not affect our workings with the Chamber as it is at present constituted. Here again, the suggestion that I mentioned earlier by which the right to vote would to some extent be bound up with the record of attendance would largely take care of that particular proposal.
So much, my Lords, for composition. I should like now to turn for a few moments to the question of powers. As was recognised at that time—and I am convinced that the arguments apply with equal force to-day—it would not be right to divorce the question of powers from that of composition. If the Government were now to say that they wished to alter the constitutional powers of the House of Lords, then we on these Benches would demand that we should also have a discussion about the composition of this House. But are there any respect able arguments for attempting to change our powers at the present time? After all, the existing powers are those which a Labour Government, after long and careful deliberation, thought were appropriate in 1948.
Their general philosophy on this subject was set out in paragraph 8 of the Agreed Statement, where they said:The Government representatives agreed that it is important that points of dispute between the two Houses should be appreciated by the public, but they considered that the proposals of the Parliament Bill"—that is, one year delay—adequately safeguard constitutional rights in this respect, and afford sufficient time for public opinion (which formulates more rapidly in modern conditions than was the case thirty years ago, to understand and pronounce upon a disputed issue.During the course of the debates on the Parliament Bill in 1948 the late Lord Addison said: 1302I would like to say, in reply to the noble Viscount who has just spoken, that it never entered anybody's head, so far as I have heard, to reduce the period below one year." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 153, col. 745, 2/2/48.]I am not aware of any events since that time which would lead the Labour Party to change their views. The powers which they then thought right and appropriate have not been abused; and since the introduction of Life Peerages this House has become more representative. What possible reason is there for interfering with those powers at the present time? 1 know of none, my Lords.
To sum up, we on these Benches will always be very ready to discuss proposals for improving this House and the way it does its work.
§ LORD MITCHISON
My Lords, may I intervene?—I am much obliged. The noble Lord did not deal at all with the question of Amendments or the question of Statutory Instruments, and I think that in practice those two questions are more important than the question of the outright acceptance or rejection of a Bill.
§ LORD HARLECH
I am sorry, but I said at the beginning of my speech that the noble Lord had spoken so fast about the question of Amendments that I should like to study his words before giving my views about it. I conceded that he had a point with regard to Statutory Orders, and I pointed out that over many years now there never has been a vote to defeat the passing of a Statutory Order.
I was saying that we on these Benches would always be very ready to discuss proposals for improving this House and its working, but I am not conscious that there is any general consensus in favour of any radical changes at this moment in our history. If, however, the moment did arise when it seemed right to introduce some constitutional reform, we on this side of the House would consider it wholly wrong for one Party in Parliament to attempt to impose its own ideas on the other Parties. If there were to be changes they would best come about as a result of all-Party agreement, and I do not see why this should prove difficult of achievement. Finally, I would repeat what I said earlier in my speech. We, for our part, believe that all previous experience has shown that the question of 1303 powers and the question of composition are inextricably bound together, and we would wish to discuss them together.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, that we are indebted to him for initiating this debate. I was surprised at the line which the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, took in saying that he was not convinced of the need for change or, indeed, for debating change in the composition and the powers of your Lordships' House. I should not like that to go out as the image which we in the House of Lords present to the public, because I think that the public feels that there is a good reason for having another look at the House of Lords to see if it is playing its proper part in the Constitution.
I do not think that Lord Mitchison would claim that his speech was startling or radical; nevertheless, I think it gives us an opportunity of debating this matter once again. I think he is absolutely right in saying that we should not wait for a real clash to be provoked between the two Houses before we tackle this problem. To my mind, this is a most serious danger, particularly as the Labour Party, as Lord Mitchison reminded us, has committed itself to some form of legislation, possibly in this Parliament. I think it would be true to say that Parliamentary democracy has survived as it has in this country because we have usually been prepared to meet these problems and to accept changes in our practices and our institutions when we felt that they were necessary.
The reform of the House of Lords has been a subject of frequent debate, and as the debates have gone on I think different aspects of the problem have become clearer and, on analysis, have pointed in certain directions for solution. In the Liberal Party there is a strong feeling that further changes in the powers and composition of the Lords are needed, and that they should take place within the next five to ten years if we are to do the job properly. We shall be setting up a committee of Liberal Members in the Commons and the Lords and from outside Parliament to see whether we can come forward with more comprehen- 1304 sive proposals than the Parties have been able to do in the recent past. In the meantime, I should like to suggest some of the areas where I believe there is a certain amount of agreement and some of the directions in which we might look in this area of reform.
In the first place, I believe—I think this is an important change—that support for the abolition of the Upper House is now far less than it was just after the war, when the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, and I and others in this House were in the House of Commons. I believe the vast majority of people want a two-Chamber system. I think the points of contention are, as both noble Lords have said, the functions, the composition and the powers; but the bone of contention is not the existence of the House. I think that is accepted.
I think, also, there is much support for the view that the Upper House must not be in competition with the Lower House—rather that it should be complementary to it. If this is accepted, then I think that the case for the whole of the Upper House being directly elected, which many people are putting forward, falls to the ground. There might be a case for part of the House being elected from multi-Member constituencies in the regions by proportional representation, but, as one noble Lord said, election from single-Member constituencies duplicates the Lower House and it becomes merely a pale reflection of the properly elected Chamber.
On functions, I believe that the main consideration here is that the Lords should perform, and be seen to perform, a useful function, indeed, a helpful function, in the national interest. Its function should certainly not be to obstruct the Government of the day in carrying out policies on which the voters have pronounced at an Election, or which the majority of the Lower House support. On the other hand—this I think, is where I may be differing with the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison—if the Upper House has no sanction at all at its disposal the tendency of the Lower House must surely be progressively to ignore the Upper House. Some delaying and amending power is therefore, in my view, essential if this House is to keep its own self-respect and to be respected by the House of Commons.
1305 As to functions, I doubt if there is much that needs radically to be changed. The House initiates legislation, quite often more progressive legislation than Members of the other place are prepared to sponsor at that particular time; it acts as a useful revising Chamber, and it affords—this, I think, is most important—an opportunity for airing publicly problems which the Lower House may wish to avoid as being inconvenient to the Government or to the Members. If this House needs an additional task, there is a great deal that it could do in examining the efficiency or inefficiency of the Government administration and the way in which we perform the administration of our Civil Service.
I think the criticism which can be justified is that the House does not, on the whole, perform its present functions as efficiently as it could, although it makes a far better showing than it is given credit for in many quarters. We tend to rely too much on the dedicated services of a relatively few Members who can find the time, for instance, to tackle the details of the Committee stage of Bills. I think those who turn up do a wonderful job, and we should be grateful to them, but, looked at from an efficiency point of view, it is a pretty haphazard arrangement and one, I think, which could bear further study.
This points to some considerations concerning the composition of the House. If the House is to be useful, there must surely be a strong cadre of Members able to do the work of the House efficiently. That means that this basic group should be limited. The figure I have in mind is something like 400 strong, if we are to have an efficient working group. I do not think the number can be unlimited, but this is a matter upon which noble Lords of course differ. I believe that this cadre will have to be properly paid if they are to do the job properly. They must also be provided with adequate facilities for carrying out an efficient job. As a digression, may I say that I wish there were more emphasis on the fact that membership of this House is an appointment to a place in a law-making institution and far less an honour for services which have been rendered, or not rendered, to the nation. We need Peers who are able to attend and to do a good job of work.
1306 If we are to get them, I think we shall have to pay for them.
However, the point is, how to get a good working group and from where should they be selected? I think the general acceptance of the need both for a degree of regionalism in this country and the desire for devolution which is strong in Wales and Scotland, as the by-elections have shown recently, provides a good reason for a proportion of the formed House to be appointed from the regions, from Scotland and from Wales and from Northern Ireland. In the case of Scotland and Wales, this would not be an alternative to those nations having their own Parliaments, for which many of them have struggled for so long. But it might well be that out of a House of about 400 Members one-quarter might be appointed in this way from the regions, from Scotland and Wales and also from Northern Ireland. I think this is something which we ought to consider in a reformed House.
If election by proportional representation in the regions is not accepted, as I think it should be, such Peers would have to be nominated by the Parties in the regions, and the allocation would be according to the votes cast in the previous Election; or, if there were proportional representation, it could be based in proportion to the Members who have been returned in those regions. I think those people would have to be nominated for a fairly long term, say nine to twelve years, and one-third or one-quarter would have to be newly nominated or re-nominated every three or four years.
As to the rest of the House one thing is clear to me. I do not think that in future membership can possibly be based on the hereditary principle. In many ways it has served very well indeed, but it is out of keeping with modern democratic ideas, no matter how highly we may regard the holders of hereditary titles with whom we have worked in this House in past years. I do not want in any way to lose the contribution of the hereditary Peers who are with us now and who have been regular attenders and have made great contributions to the working of this House. I believe that the proper thing to do with those who are regular attenders is to make them Life Peers in the reformed House. In addition, I believe a place must be found in the Upper House for a 1307 number of distinguished Peers who may not be able to attend regularly but whose occasional contributions are of the highest quality in specialist fields. But if the House is to be a working organisation, obviously we shall have to limit the number of those independent Peers who are unable to attend regularly to help in the routine work of the House.
The major problem, as I see it, is how the basic House is to be appointed or nominated if it is to perform a useful and objective function. Coupled with this is the delaying and amending power which the House needs if it is not to become a mere cipher. I think a properly constituted House, from which the fear of the unheralded descent of the Backwoodsmen has been eliminated, would need a delaying power of not more than something like three months, but I believe that it must have a delaying power if its amending power is to be of any value. I believe that to-day the period of one year, which we all agreed to in 1948, is probably too long. It is the one-year delay which can really undo Government legislation and which makes everybody in the House frightened of imposing any delay at all, whereas a three months' delay is something which is reasonable. If the Government insist on getting their business through without any further delay, then they can give in on some of the points which the House of Lords has made; otherwise they will accept the three months' delay. But without any delay at all, I do not see that this House would have the power to perform a useful function in the Parliamentary democracy which we possess. There may be a case for having the three months' delay in the first four Sessions of a Parliament and a rather longer delay of perhaps six months in the last Session of a Parliament, although one should remember that there is an opposing view that the tendency is for a Government to need prodding, rather than delaying, in the last year of its life. However, if the House is to preserve a useful function it may be that towards the end of a Parliament it will want to hold up legislation until the electorate can again pronounce on it.
May I revert to composition and how Peers should be appointed? I have mentioned the possibility of the regional, Scots, Welsh and Northern Ireland Peers.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord on a point of clarification? The noble Lord said that perhaps a quarter of his House of 400 would emerge from the regions, and he has mentioned Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Surely 100 out of the new House would not come from those areas alone—or would they come from all the regions of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, I am sorry if I did not make it clear. One has to be careful here. We must remember that Scotland and Wales are not regions; they are countries. They are nations, and they may well have within them their own regions. To make it specific, I would say from the regions of England, and from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But I hope that I shall not be criticised for implying that those great countries are in any way small regions, for they are not. As I have said, we should have these regional and national members.
The appointment of the remainder presents a real problem and I do not propose to put forward concrete suggestions to-day. I would say that the other 300 obviously cannot be in the gift of the Prime Minister of the day. In my view, the Prime Minister has far too much patronage already. What we want to see is a well-balanced House broadly representative of the strength of the Parties in the country, but including a substantial number of Independents. This is the strength of the House. The method of appointing a House of fixed numbers is extremely difficult, but it is important that we should tackle it.
In addition to the regional Members, one assumes that all the Life Peers would be nominated to the House and that the remainder of the House would, in the first place, be drawn from the remaining hereditary Peers now in the House. I think that the Independents could initially be agreed upon between the Parties and the Prime Minister of the day, and thereafter as vacancies occurred the Prime Minister could fill them. The aim, however, should be to get a House which broadly represents the strength of the Parties in the country but which includes within it the sort of Independents who we all know make a very important contribution.
1309 One hesitates before putting forward these ideas as concrete proposals because there are so many details which have to be thought out. There are such matters as the term of office of regional members, which I have mentioned. The very real problem, if one gets rid of the hereditary principle, is that of trying to find a young age group in the House, which is very important unless we are all to become a lot of "squares" of retiring age. I think we must get down to something definitive in the way of reform in the next year or so. I believe there is a perfectly good starting point, as the noble Lord, Lord Harlech said, but it is only a starting point; and that is the Agreed Statement at the conclusion of the Conference of Party Leaders in February to April, 1948. I found myself involved in this as the then Chief Whip of the Liberal Party in the Commons. We thought that we had got real agreement between the three Parties at that time, and I think I may say that we were extremely sorry and disappointed that we could not get that document accepted. It shows how close the Parties were, and I think we could move on from there. I would ask the Government to ensure that there is proper consultation on this matter between the Parties and between the Houses before they bring forward legislation.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ LORD STRANG
My Lords, I had not intended to speak in this debate, more particularly because I regret that I shall not be able to stay until the end, and for that I apologise to the noble Earl the Leader of the House. But discovering this morning that no Member from the Cross Benches had put down his name to speak it seemed to me to be only right that there should he at any rate one voice from these Benches. On these occasions one can only throw one's personal ideas into the pool. That is what I propose to do, as shortly as I can. In view of the large number of speakers I shall be brief.
There are still, although the noble Lord, Lord Byers, does not think that this idea is now very strongly supported, root-and-branch men who would like to abolish the Second Chamber altogether. One reason is that they object to Second Chambers as such. Another reason is that they would like our Second Chamber to be of a totally different kind. As to those ideas I would say this. A single omni 1310 competent Chamber without the safeguard of a Written Constitution would be highly dangerous, and I think that that is now generally accepted. Secondly, I doubt whether, short of a revolution, we are likely to see such root-and-branch changes. That is not the way we do things in this country.
Short of abolition, there are ideas for drastic modifications in the matter of composition. One such idea would be for a House on the present model but purged of the hereditary element. By some, the hereditary element is held to be objectionable in itself. By others, it is objected to because it leads to a built-in majority for one of the two main Parties. I have not much sympathy for the first objection. The hereditary principle is deeply rooted in our history: in the past the hereditary Peerage has made a notable contribution to our affairs, and it makes a notable contribution to-day. I should not, therefore, be in favour of the total elimination from this House of Peers who have succeeded their fathers. But some limitation of their numbers would be of advantage.
There have been perfectly respectable propositions to this end which have received a fair degree of assent, and the noble Lords, Lord Mitchison, Lord Harlech and Lord Byers, have all referred with approval to those all-Party propositions. I would agree with them that that is the basis on which we ought to work from now onwards. With the existing power to appoint Life Peers—and that power has come into being since 1948—it should now be possible, in combination with a process of selection among Peers by succession, to adjust the balance of the Parties, and to do so in a way which would still bring some younger men into this House. Both the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, made some extremely interesting suggestions about various possible ways by which this objective might be achieved.
I should not myself be in favour of reproducing accurately in this House the Party structure of the other place as it is after each Election. What would be worth consideration would be a reasonable balance between the two main Parties. The two Parties could then, if I may venture to say so, compete for the votes of the Liberal Party and the Independent Peers. This would add, I think, to the significance of our debates. It 1311 would also add to the status of this House as a legislative body.
§ LORD STRANG
What could happen would be what happens now sometimes. There is one member of the Government Front Bench who, when he is facing a difficult Division, turns and faces the Cross Benches—the only place where he can hope to win votes. As I was saying, in that event the House would be no more likely than at present to insist on its views vis-à-vis the Commons, and its proceedings would no longer bear the stigma of Party unfairness. That is all I have to say about composition. I do not have time to go into all the details of the possible methods of selection. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, have both made some extremely useful suggestions, with a great number of which I agree. So much for composition.
Now a word about powers. The present extent of the delaying power of this House in the matter of the passage of Government Bills rests upon an Act passed during the time of the first post-War Labour Government. I believe that some delaying power should be retained. In this I agree with both the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and the noble Lord, Lord Byers. It would be all the more justifiable, it seems to me, to retain the delaying power if the composition of the House could be reviewed, in point of Party balance, in the way I have suggested, and on this I am inclined to agree again with the noble Lord, Lord Harlech. In the first place, the exercise of the delaying power would be based not upon a purely Party vote but upon a wider consensus, with a substantial independent element. I am grateful for the importance which the noble Lord, Lord Byers, attaches to those Peers who sit on these Benches. We are very jealous of the contribution which we can make to the House, and we are much touched when this is recognised in other parts of the House.
In the second place, while this may not be accepted, it seems to me to be a mistake to assume that it would be only a Right-Wing opposition in this House 1312 which would wish, if the case arose, to resort to the delaying power. No one can foresee how our political life will develop. It seems to me quite conceivable that in some future circumstances it might be a Left-Wing Opposition which would wish to delay some measure of a Right-Wing Government, and with the new composition which I suggest those two alternatives would be perfectly possible. In this matter, the present practice, as has been emphasised, is not to abuse the delaying power in the passage of Bills. Its abuse would be still less likely in the new circumstances than it is at present if we had a House with a revised composition. My conclusion is that the retention of the delaying power in some measure would provide in some degree a safeguard against possible Government legislative irresponsibility.
There is one reform in the matter of powers which might be considered, and to this the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, has referred. In the matter of Orders, as distinct from Government Bills, this House possesses not merely a delaying power but an independent power of rejection. I think that this power needs to be reviewed. It seems to me that the fate of Orders should perhaps be the joint concern of the two Houses and not of each House severally.
Finally, there is the question of procedure in the field of legislation. I do not have much sympathy with some of the current proposals to tamper with our procedure. The House works extremely smoothly and flexibly, and in its work on Bills performs a most useful service. Tributes to this effect are paid from time to time in another place, even by members of the Labour Party. But the most powerful encomium upon the utility and efficiency of this House as a legislative Chamber was expressed some four years ago by the late Lord Morrison of Lambeth, who could speak with great authority. Speaking on March 7, 1963, on the concluding stage of the Water Resources Bill, a Bill which started its course in this House, the late Lord Morrison of Lambeth said—and with your Lordships' permission I should like to quote a few passages from his speech. He said [OFFICIAL REPORT, 7/3/63, cols. 548–550.]:The point to which I wish to draw attention is that some people object to there being 1313 two Houses of Parliament. They believe their views are progressive, and I quite understand their feelings. But if there were not two Houses of Parliament, the output of legislation would inevitably be much less than it is…When I was Leader of the House of Commons, one of the things which impressed me was that if there were no Second Chamber—which we call the House of Lords—then that great programme of legislative output could never have been achieved.A little later he said:… if there were no Second Chamber…If this House, with all its perfections—and, let me add, its imperfections—did not exist (it is not perfect, and I should like to see some com- position changes: I do not want changes in its powers, because it has its virtues) the capacity to handle Bills and tidy them up would be greatly curtailed.A little further on he used these words:If we had not this Second Chamber we should have to invent another stage, if not two more stages, in the House of Commons, in order to get the necessary detailed examination of Bills…I would say, therefore, that this institution is time-saving. It is a good Chamber at revision, and it does the work in a businesslike way.I have never forgotten a Road Traffic Bill which I as Minister of Transport, introduced in another place in 1930…They nearly killed me in another place on that Bill, whereas here it went with expedition. As I say the House of Lords is a time-saving institution. It contributes to the perfect drafting and wording of Bills; and so, to quote the words of Sir Alan Herbert, in his play Big Ben:There's a lot to be said for the Lords.So much for Lord Morrison of Lambeth.
On the matter of procedure, there is one further point that I should like to make. In the case of non-controversial, non-political, less important Bills, it might be useful for the Committee stage to be taken upstairs rather than on the Floor of the House. I think that earlier speakers have made the same point, and it seems to me to be quite an important one.
Finally, on quite a different point, it may be that sooner or later, and as I would think for better or for worse, we shall sign the Treaty of Rome and join the European Economic Community. That would be a most momentous step, which would have very great consequences for the status and the scope of operation of Parliament. No-one can yet foresee, I think, what those changes would be, but it seems to me that, if we are thinking of reforming Parliament, we had better wait and see whether we get into the Common Market, and what effect that would have on Parliament, before we start reforming Parliament. I believe 1314 that those changes would be much greater than most people imagine.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ LORD CHAMPION
My Lords, I would congratulate my noble friend Lord Mitchison on introducing this Motion and upon his well-prepared and carefully thought-out speech. It has already produced three speeches, besides his own, well worthy of the attention of the House. Whether this debate will produce any consensus of opinion I very much doubt, but certainly it is worth while and right that we should from time to time consider the matters which are now before us.
I will try to keep personal considerations out of anything that I say here this afternoon, for I cannot think of any change which might take place in the composition of this House which might exclude me, at my age, from it—and as the House knows perfectly well I thoroughly enjoy being a Member of your Lordships' House. I admit to hating losing my seat in the other place, and to feeling deprived during the period when I was no longer attendant at Westminster. I felt that I was away from the centre of things, for once a man or a woman is injected with the drug of Westminster, for ever after he or she is an addict; and I myself am an addict.
Trying to keep all my personal feelings outside what I will say, what is now my approach to this House, to its composition, to its duties and powers? Its value, as I see it, and as my experience here has taught me, is that as a legislation revising Chamber it does an excellent job in the main, with purely Party considerations on Amendments to Bills obtruding themselves only on the rarest of occasions. It is a valuable sounding board of opinions, which I find, as I am sure the Government do, of very great value, although in the main I am bound to admit that they are the opinions of the more conservative—and I use the word "conservative" here with a small "c"—elements of our nation. They are, in fact, mostly the opinions of the "squares", as Lord Byers called them, and many of us.
I cannot pretend that I regard this as a debating Chamber of the highest class for debating as such, but it is a Chamber in which individual speeches are at times, 1315 in the quality of their content, their thought and contribution to subjects often highly specialised and expert, unsurpassed in any Chamber of which I have any knowledge. We know that these speeches but rarely have an immediate effect—which is also true, of course, of speeches which are made in the other Chamber—but they help to change climates of opinion both inside and outside Governmental circles. If this were not so, I am sure that on most days when a Motion is under discussion here most of the distinguished Lords who come specially for the purpose of participating in debate would not give up their precious and valuable time.
Although the majority of Peers who sit here have a Party affiliation, there is this strong Cross-Bench element, to which reference has already been made; and I would join with the noble Lord, Lord Byers, in paying tribute to the excellence and high calibre—of which we have had an example this afternoon in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strang—of this element within this Chamber of ours, and to its participation in our work. Indeed, the Cross-Benches have been considerably strengthened in recent years. I am glad about this in some ways, though of course, I am still something of a Party animal. This Chamber has also the supreme advantage of never being likely to vie in public esteem with the other Chamber.
What are my objections to this House in its present form and with its present composition? The radical in me strongly objects to a system in which a man or a woman has any right to participate in government merely on the grounds that he or she was born a Peer, although I immediately concede that many of those who come here as a result of their inheritance are of a quality which would justify their selection or election to any legislative Chamber. I must add that the system of inheritance has an advantage in so far as it results in young men coming in; and it is also true, I think, that in any process of selection the tendency would inevitably be to bring here mostly the "grey-beards". I cannot see any other way in which you might achieve any other result.
I am positive, as a member of the Labour Party, that an inbuilt Conservative 1316 majority is an offence to every democratic principle of which I can think. In my very early life I hated a system which gave the country as part of its Government what Mr. Lloyd-George called, "Mr. Balfour's poodle". To-day, if I felt in the same sort of mood as I was in then—and this is many years ago—I would call it, "Mr. Heath's organ", even though, judging by Lord Carrington's recent speech, he is playing it pianissimo. But the fact is, my Lords, that by a process of what someone has called" a kind of happy evolution common in British institutions", a second Chamber has evolved which caused the late Viscount Esher to say with some truth:We are fortunate to have inherited an institution which we certainly should never have had the intelligence to create".Some of your Lordships will remember his words on that occasion.
My Lords, we have a Second Chamber which by no stretch of the imagination is ever likely to compete in prestige with the elected Chamber; but this Chamber brings to its counsels a large number of wise men from the professions and many other walks of life. Its powers are rightly limited but, as I have said before, I believe that it has considerable influence on Governments and on public opinion. It is an essential revising Chamber, for we can here take our decisions free from the pressures and fears of the personal effects that might result. When I speak here—and I am sure that this applies to practically every other Member of the House—I am not looking over my shoulder at what my constituents might think about what I say, or whether they might call me to account on my next visit to my constituency; and I am not looking over my shoulder to a trade union and wondering what they will think of it. When I speak from these Benches—but not from the Government Benches—I speak as I think and feel. I believe this to be a very great advantage.
But having said that in favour of this House, I believe, with my noble friend Lord Mitchison, that the time has come to make some modification of its powers. There is a gap in the limitation of our powers which was clearly not foreseen at the time of the 1911 Act; namely, the growth of Statutory Orders under various Acts of Parliament. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, admit 1317 this, and say that he thought perhaps we might have a look at this and do something about it. This House can delay Bills for a period which, although we talk about twelve months, really boils down to a delay of some five or six months; if you work out the timetable of a Bill which might have to be forced through, I think it might be found to be a delay of five or six months rather than of twelve. This is not a very long period for most Bills and does not do much to frustrate the will of the elected House. But this House could, if it were determined, completely frustrate the will of the other House on Statutory Orders, whether they be of the Affirmative or the other kind, by refusing to pass them or by rejecting them on a Prayer. I am of the opinion that this power should be taken away from us. I am sure also that we should have the right to express our opinion on them, but that the Government of the day should be able to get their way after they have considered our views on any such orders.
My Lords, despite all I have said in favour of this House, as at present constituted, I would end the system that gives it a built-in majority; I would end the hereditary system which is repugnant to me—although I have admitted some of its advantages—but, like so many who have considered what sort of Second Chamber we should have, I cannot make up my mind what we should put in its place. Every system that I have been able to study—and I have looked at quite a lot—seems to me to have disadvantages which far outweigh its advantages. That is my difficulty. It is also the case that when I see something that works fairly well I tend to say: "Leave it alone. Do not change it for the sake of change."
I have yet to be convinced that change, except in the limited aspect of Statutory Orders, is either desirable or necessary. To many of my friends, both inside and outside this House, this will seem a very negative and a not very "with it" approach. But my attitude stems from some 20 years of Parliamentary experience, from five and a half years here during which there was a period in which as Deputy Leader of the House I suppose I spent as much or perhaps more time watching every aspect of its work than any other Member, from the Lord Chancellor downwards. That is my honest opinion. I am here this afternoon to 1318 give that opinion, as, I am sure, is every other speaker.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ LORD ALPORT
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to, and to follow, the noble Lord, Lord Champion. I was one of those who greatly admired his geniality and courtesy at the Dispatch Box, and I am glad that he now has the opportunity, in an independent position, of contributing to our debates. I am sorry in some ways that he is not still at the Dispatch Box; but I have the consolation of knowing that if he were still on the Front Bench he might by now be airborne for Aden.
We have had from the noble Lord, Lord Byers, a detailed forecast, presumably, of the survey of the problem which the Liberal Party is to undertake. I cannot find myself convinced, either by what the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, said or by what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said that there is any particular advantage in the introduction of an elected element into this House over the existing advantages—which are widely accepted—of nomination. What would be the point in adding an elected element, which, so far as I can make out from the Liberal proposals, would consist of 100 superannuated county aldermen who would be injected into the membership of this House?
§ LORD MITCHISON
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but would the noble Lord allow me to state that I did not suggest anything of the kind.
§ LORD ALPORT
My Lords, I was at that moment referring to the proposals which I understood had been made by the new Leader of the Liberal Party in this House.
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to put the blame on me, and not on Lord Mitchison.
§ LORD ALPORT
My Lords, I was about to come to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison. I personally am indebted to him on two grounds for initiating this debate. In the first place, he has enabled me to make a speech in this House which in other circumstances I saw no prospect of being able to make for at least a year or so. He has also assumed, though in a modest way, I thought, some of the responsibility and 1319 some of the opprobrium of suggesting to your Lordships that this House might be of greater service to the nation if it approached its tasks in a somewhat different way. He began by giving us a classic description of the social democratic approach to an Upper Chamber that was based on the hereditary principle; but I thought the conclusions he drew as to the changes which were necessary were confined almost exclusively to a relatively limited aspect of our procedure. But I am grateful to him for any support that he may feel able to give in the future for the reform of certain aspects of our procedure which I personally believe to be essential.
As your Lordships will remember, I invited this House last year to agree to appoint a Select Committee to examine our procedure—as indeed has already been done by the House of Commons. In doing so, I drew on my head the rebukes of many of my noble friends on this side; and not least from my noble friend Lord Conesford. I was accused of discourtesy to the distinguished personalities whom we have on our existing Procedure Committee. The Lord Chairman of Committees assured the House that any suggestion that I made came within the terms of reference of that Committee. At the end the noble Earl the Leader of the House suggested that in his view it might be a good thing if the membership of the Procedure Committee were widened. Perhaps it will be possible for me at this point to ask him whether his proposal has, in fact, been put to the Committee; if so, whether it has been accepted, and when this change in the composition of the Procedure Committee will be brought into operation.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, may I interrupt at this point, in case the noble Lord and other noble Lords are not here when I come to reply? The proposal has certainly come before the Procedure Committee and is being closely studied.
§ LORD ALPORT
All I would say is that, while I am sure they will give careful study to it, it seems to me that such a modest proposal should not, perhaps, take the greater part of a year to consider before a definite decision is made on it. It seems to me that this proves the point 1320 I made: that this particular Committee, because of its origin and its distinction, is not an appropriate body to carry through a programme, even a limited programme, of reform.
I realise very well that most of your Lordships who are active Members of this House do not think that any reform of this House or of its procedure is necessary. This is apparently the conclusion which has been drawn from the recent survey made by a body outside this House of the opinion of your Lordships. But if there is anyone, apart from myself, who sees in a reform of the procedure of our House a chance of ensuring that your Lordships make a more useful contribution to the government of Britain, I hope that he will give the House the benefit of his views on this occasion. We must realise, my Lords—and I certainly do—that there are powerful and established forces seeking to preserve your Lordships' House in its present form and its present impotence.
Not long ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, has already indicated—and the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, also referred to it—the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, gave a very frank and honest statement of opinion during the course of our discussions on the 1967 London Government Bill. What he said was, I think, in its essence a severe criticism of the House in its present form and with its present powers. I would draw your attention to one passage in what my noble friend said:… it has always been my view that the House of Lords will only be able to use its delaying powers once. Members of the Party opposite"—that was, of course, the Labour Party—in another place will, I am sure, make certain either that this House is abolished or that its remaining powers are removed, if there is a direct confrontation of this kind between the two Houses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16/2/67, col. 422.]This, my Lords, is the doctrine of the one bisque. A dauntless Conservative majority in this House has the power once, and once only, to frustrate a decision by a dictatorial Labour Government possessing a majority in the House of Commons. And, apparently, having made this gesture in defence of the Constitution, we should then be required to queue up to be carted off in the tumbrils to have our heads cut off on Tower Hill 1321 or to be bundled into a gas chamber in Smith Square. And thus an outraged Labour House of Commons, supported by public opinion, would wipe your Lordships off the face of the earth for ever—to the accompaniment, of course, of tears and groans from true patriots.
This is magnificent in theory, but it does not seem to me to be politics. I wonder whether it has been considered what would be the position, and how different would be the position of your Lordships' House, if it could be assumed that a majority in this House of Lords could frustrate a decision of a Government relying on a Conservative majority in the House of Commons. Such a possibility, naturally, does not often cross the minds of noble Lords here, but my noble friend, Lord Carrington, did say that it was the "built-in" Conservative majority here which was at the root of the weakness of your Lordships' position. He said, in the same speech to which I have referred (col. 419):The composition of your Lordships' House can be held up to ridicule.…The fact is, my Lords, that it is to this that we owe our impotence as a Parliamentary institution. It is due to this that we have in Britain to-day, whether in this House we admit it or not, a single-Chamber Parliament. It is due to this, in my view, that, at any rate in some degree, the institution of Parliament in Britain has fallen into disrepute and inefficiency. It may well be that the recent survey to which I have already referred is right in showing that an overwhelming majority of your Lordships are satisfied with the present composition, powers and functions of this House. I must admit—and I think that perhaps your Lordships have already guessed it —that I am not. I think the present alignment of this House, with the Party confrontation in the House of Commons, is bad for the Conservative Party; is bad for the House of Lords; is bad for Parliament and is contrary to the interests of good government in Britain.
During my lifetime I have acquired a passionate belief in the ability of the British people to adapt, to temper their political and social institutions to meet the needs of the times. I referred earlier to the powerful and established forces seeking to preserve your Lordships' 1322 House in its present form and its present impotence. The Conservative Party and the Labour Party in the House of Commons both form part of these forces: the Conservatives because they rely on a built-in majority as a tactical instrument in the Party struggle, and Labour because they prefer a one-Chamber Parliament, knowing that in anything that matters this House will give way to the elected Chamber.
But, my Lords, it is my belief—I may be wrong—that, slow to rouse as they may be, the political instincts of the people of this country make them realise that, in the tumultuous generation which separates us from September, 1939, the tremendous changes which have taken place in the status which we occupy, and in the problems which we face as a country, must involve the adaptation of our institutions, including this Upper Chamber of Parliament, to cope with the new situation. It may well be that the noble Lord, Lord Strang, is right; that in considering this new situation not only must we consider our position as we find it politically and economically at the present time, but we shall also, within a relatively short time, have to consider it also as a member of the European Economic Community.
It may be that some Members of this House will feel that the progressive emasculation of our powers since 1911, the extension of the Peerage for life beyond the ranks of the Judiciary and Episcopacy, and the addition of women Peers, involved sufficient change, in all conscience, to meet the needs of the times. Yet, as my noble friend Lord Carrington made clear in his speech, the present position of this House is impotent, unbalanced and liable to ridicule—apart from the myth of the one bisque.
I have not tried to suggest to your Lordships what sort of reform is required. As a result of my previous excursions into this field I have learned that our first problem is not to establish how this House can serve the nation better, but simply that there is a convincing case for seeking ways and means of doing so. Of this I personally have no doubt. Further, I believe that nothing would confer a greater distinction upon your Lordships' House than the fact that the initiative in achieving such reform was 1323 not forced on us by an impatient Government or by a critical public, but was taken by us ourselves.
I therefore regret that any offence or misunderstanding that I may have caused may have misled any noble Lords to oppose in the past something which anyone, I should have thought, with political realism and public spirit would realise is vital to the future welfare of Parliament and to good government here in Britain. By this I mean the taking of the initiative by your Lordships' House in introducing a measure of reform designed to enable it to play a more constructive role in the Parliamentary life of the nation. I hope, in fact, that I shall have your Lordships' support for a Bill which at some appropriate date in the future I hope to introduce into this House to give effect to the reforms that I have in mind.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, we are grateful to my noble friend Lord Mitchison, not only for introducing this Motion and for the speech which he made in support of it but also for promoting the speeches which have since followed. This is an unusual occasion for this House, because we all have indulged in a certain amount of introspection and have spoken our true minds, free from the views which we are supposed to hold. The result has been somewhat surprising. I could hardly believe my own ears when I heard the speech of my noble friend Lord Champion; but, as he said, he was speaking his mind. I hope that I shall not shock noble Lords when I express my own views, which, let me say at once, will be rather different from the views of my noble friend Lord Champion.
My noble friend Lord Mitchison outlined the powers of the Chamber he had in mind and what changes he would make, and I would broadly agree with him, except in two respects. First, if we had the kind of Chamber he visualises I think it would be rather humiliating if any Amendments we made to legislation should merely lie on the Table of another place and that it should be left to them to decide which of them they would condescend to discuss. I do not think that we could submit to that. In the kind of Chamber I visualise—and I am going to describe it—I would assume that any 1324 Amendments we put forward would be worthy of consideration and discussion. I hope that my noble friend will not persist in that idea.
The other aspect is this. Having heard the speeches to-day, I am not so sure that a certain amount of power of delay would not be an advantage. I agree with my noble friend Lord Champion that in practice this does not amount to twelve months; it is a matter of a few months. My difficulty is that it in fact gives this House power to prevent legislation in the last year of the life of a Parliament. If some means could be devised to get over that difficulty, then I should certainly not be opposed to the idea of a certain power of delay.
I hope, whatever happens, that we shall never so alter our machinery and procedure as to prevent the kind of discussion we are having to-day. Perhaps this is the most valuable part of our work, possibly every bit as valuable as the power to amend legislation. But I do not wish to pursue to-day the matter of the powers of this Chamber. I think they have been discussed adequately. I want to say something about two aspects of the Second Chamber which my noble friend Lord Mitchison did not have time to deal with fully. The first is procedure, which nobody has touched on except the noble Lord, Lord Alport, who I know is keen on this subject, and the second is composition.
We should all agree that the first essetial of a Second Chamber is that it should be effective and businesslike. In my view, and I know that this is not going to be very popular, the essential for conducting an effective, efficient and workmanlike body is to have, and even more to observe, ordinary rules of debate. In this House many compliments have been paid about the way in which we conduct ourselves, but if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that speeches are not always relevant to the issues that are before the House, and there is no effective check. Occasionally my noble friend the Leader of the House stands up and gently comments on a speech, with greater or less effect; but that is not the way in which a Chamber should be conducted. It may be nice to he able to ramble on irrelevantly and reminisce, and to do so without being checked, but it does not add to the stature of the House or to the value of its discussions.
1325 Then Amendments are often put down which in another place would be completely out of order, which are irrelevant, which sometimes are even beyond our jurisdiction as we now accept it, and which in many cases have been so fully discussed in another place that any discussion here is mere tedious repetition. And there is no power to prevent such Amendments going down or being discussed. Many of those Amendments are discussed at great length, even though, as I say, they have been fully discussed in another place and in many cases the arguments disposed of.
Again, in spite of what my noble friend Lord Champion said, I believe that some Amendments go down purely for the purpose of obstruction, simply because noble Lords do not like the measure before the House and want to delay and frustrate it as much as possible. This is not something which is confined to any Party. I admit freely that I have been as much responsible for putting down obstructive Amendments as anybody in your Lordships' House. For nine or ten years I was Deputy Leader of the Opposition, in the days when, I regret to say, there were few noble Lords who could or were willing to do the job, and much of the burden fell on my shoulders. I know that on a number of measures we were objecting to, Amendments were put down which were purely destructive and obstructive. I should not like to assume that that does not happen to-day.
There is no-one who can stop this practice, but it ought to be stopped. It quite inefficient and wrong, and it certainly lowers our stature and our dignity. Therefore, some time ago I had the temerity to suggest that there ought to be some person above Party who would be able to deal with those Amendments, to pick out those that were out of order or which no longer needed further discussion and reject them. And this same person ought to be able, as the Speaker in another place does, to deal with speeches which are becoming irrelevant and straying beyond what is reasonable. Of course, there is not anybody. I hope that my noble and learned friend will not mind my referring to him, but we have the Lord Chancellor on the Woolsack. If he were able to do this it would be ideal, but he cannot. He might be called upon at any moment to make a controversial speech in the debate, and it would 1326 hardly be appropriate, and I am sure it would not be acceptable, that he should also be in a position to tell speakers in the same debate that they were out of order. The same applies to the Leader of the House.
Therefore, once we are considering changes in this House—changes in composition, and changes in powers—one of the matters we ought to consider is the question of procedure and also the appointment of somebody who would have the power to deal with irrelevancies or the selecting of Amendments. I know that this does not appeal to the noble Lord, Lord Strang, who gave the impression that he would fight to the death against it. But that is one of the difficulties that we have to face in this House: so many people are tied down to the past and object to any kind of change; they are prepared to put up with what exists today even at the expense of a certain amount of inefficiency. In passing, I may say that I would not necessarily rule out all Amendments which have been rejected in another place. There may be some that are worth considering once more, and I would leave that to the discretion of the Chairman of Committees, whoever he might be.
If our procedure is improved along the lines that I have suggested, I think we should be capable of dealing with many more important Bills in this House. I know that from time to time we introduce measures here, but certainly not the most important or the most controversial measures. With an improved procedure and an improved composition (and I will deal with that later), I think we ought to be able to deal with Bills of importance and have them introduced in this House as early in the Session as possible. Those noble Lords who have experience will know that this would prevent the terrible congestion at the end of the Session, when we get Bill after Bill in this House and are under tremendous pressure to get them through with a minimum of discussion and amendment. To that extent, we are really frustrating the avowed object for which we are here. We are supposed to be a revising Chamber, but that it is the last thing we are in the months of June and July each year: we are just a piece of machinery for accepting what has been done in another place.
1327 I am sure that one way of avoiding this would be that we should, to a much greater extent, exercise our right to introduce legislation in the first instance in this House.
There is one other matter of procedure that I wish to mention. A number of noble Lords have referred to the question of Private Bills. It seems to me rather anomalous, and certainly time consuming and expensive, that a Private Bill should have to go through both Houses of Parliament. I have in mind a particular Bill which took 19 days in the other place and, I think, 16 days here. A large number of expensive counsel represented interested parties in each place, and the result was very much the same at the end of the day. But it had involved an enormous amount of expenditure and delay. I should have thought that it was possible for these Bills to be dealt with by a Joint Committee of both Houses. It would be a relatively small change in our procedure, but I am sure that it would be well worth while. This is not a comprehensive list of the changes that I would make in the procedure of this House with a view to making it more efficient, but simply some of the more important ones.
I want to turn now to the question of composition. I noticed that every noble Lord who has spoken has to a large extent ducked this question. I know there are difficulties; but if one is putting forward proposals for changes in the composition, then one should be a little more concrete than anybody has been up to now. While I myself am not going to to make really concrete suggestions, I think it might be useful if I put forward a number of principles, not by way of a blueprint, but principles which I think ought to be followed in the provision of a new Chamber.
A number of noble Lords have already referred to the hereditary system. I am convinced that it has no place in a legislative assembly or in a modern and efficient Constitution. I realise as much as anybody that it has produced some excellent young men, unite fortuitously, through the premature death of their predecessors. This is something which we cannot control, and to rely on that happening in order to get young people here is surely a purely fortuitous affair. I do not think that anybody to-day could 1328 justify a Constitution in which the hereditary system plays such an important part.
The second principle is that the Government of the day must be reasonably certain of being able to carry their policy, and should be able to rely on a majority. I do not think anybody would for ever tolerate a permanent majority of any one Party. Indeed, I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Harlech (who made what, with all respect, I would say was a very tolerant and reasonable speech), say that he did not feel able to justify a permanent Conservative majority. Some means must be found for ensuring that in the last resort the Government of the day are able to enforce their policy.
Then, as I think nearly every speaker has said, there ought to be a place in this House for men and women with expert knowledge and experience, even if they come here only occasionally to give us the benefit of their wisdom. It would be invidious to mention names, but we have people in this House who are of national and even international repute, and any Chamber of this kind ought to be able to find room for them. I agree with those noble Lords who have emphasised the need for having a number of Members of independent views, who do not owe allegiance to any political Party.
I now come to two sections of this House which I have not yet mentioned. One (fortunately, none of them are here) is the Bench of Bishops. I have grave doubts, first, as to whether they have a real part to play in a modern legislative assembly. I am in a difficulty. I like them all as individuals. They have shown themselves very progressive in recent years, and one hesitates to say anything about people who have rendered service. But, to my mind, they really have no place in a modern institution, and it would be well worth considering whether in revising our composition there would be room for a Bishops' Bench. Apart from that, they represent only one section of religion in this country. I hesitate to say—I am not an authority—whether they represent the majority. I should doubt it. But certainly they represent only one section. If we are to have a religious Bench I think it ought to be much more widely representative than the existing one.
1329 I am even more hesitant about the other section I have in mind, and that is the Law Lords. I am not quite sure what their place is in a Legislative Assembly. They are really acting in a dual capacity. Their function is to interpret the law, and although they may be useful occasionally in commenting on laws which are about to be made, the fact is that by the very nature of their occupation they are not able to be here very much. Mostly they are sitting in a judicial capacity and frequently they are not able to come here when this House meets. In any case, I should think that in considering composition we ought to give serious thought to the question of whether we want Law Lords to form part of our Chamber.
I agree with those noble Lords who have referred to the fact that we ought to have a limited number of Peers sitting in this House. Ideas have ranged from 400 downwards. I myself have in mind a figure of between 250 and 300, which is about the number who come to this House when we have a very good attendance. I think that number is quite adequate, especially if they sit through the debate.
The implementation of these principles is not going to be easy; it would have to be gradual. I am not suggesting that hereditary Peers should cease to come here as from January 1, nineteen hundred and something or other. Many of the hereditary Peers have given their lives to this House, and it would be cruel, inhuman and wrong to deprive them of what has been in many cases their life's work. In any case, we do not carry out revolutions in this country in this way. It would have to be a gradual process, and, in my view, if we do abolish the hereditary system, it would be by way of successors to noble Lords not having the right to come here. In other words, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said, hereditary Peers would in practice become Life Peers.
I think I should retain the Life Peerage system. That would enable us to appoint independent people and people of outstanding capacity such as those to whom I have referred. But I should in addition allow—and this would be my machinery for ensuring a permanent majority for the Government in office—by agreement with 1330 the two Parties, the appointment of Members for the life of the existing Parliament; and it would be in such proportions as to ensure a majority for the Government in office. It would naturally cut both ways. At the end of the Parliament those particular Members would go out of office and would be subject to reappointment; but, again, naturally, if the fortunes of the Government in office changed, so would the relative proportions change, and some would have to go.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord, because he may have said something he did not intend to say? If all existing hereditary Peers became Life Peers we should have a Chamber very much bigger than the one he has in mind.
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, may I also interrupt to correct the noble Lord, as he referred to me? I referred to hereditary Peers who were regular attenders being in the new limited House.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I was not as cruel as the noble Lord. I would take them all. Then, in answer to my noble friend, I believe that my arithmetic is as good as his is. It would involve more than 400 at the outset. I spoke of 250 to 300 Members, but I was speaking of what I regard as the ultimate kind of Chamber that we should have. Of course it would take many years to achieve this, and I think that that is quite in accordance with our tradition that we move slowly, but we should be moving in the right direction. The process might outlast certainly the lives of many of us in this House to-day, but I should not mind that, especially in view of the fact that many people think that there is no great harm in the House as it stands at present.
Of course, people who are appointed for the life of a Parliament would, if they went out of office, be entitled to stand for election to another place. I hope that we should not nominate only people who are of high repute, but also young people as well. Here the Leaders of the Parties would have the opportunity, if they so chose, to appoint promising young people who would serve for the lifetime of the Parliament and show what they were made of, and it would give 1331 them the experience which would enable them possibly to stand for election elsewhere.
I am not in favour of election; I think few of us would be in favour of election of any Members at all. But the Members of a Second Chamber constituted along the lines I have suggested should be paid a proper remuneration if we are to attract the right people. We must ensure that nobody is deterred from serving through lack of means. I suggest that the proper remuneration would be about half what the Members of the other place are getting having regard to the fact that we should not be giving much more than half the time they do. But we should have to make provision for ensuring that people who are paid put in a reasonable amount of time.
Having said all this, I want to confess that there is a conflict in my own mind. I love this House. Some of the happiest times of my political life have been spent here. An easy-going, friendly atmosphere exists here, and it can be said that it should not be destroyed. Some people might say, "It works. Why interfere?" But I must confess that this is an emotional reaction, and I do not think it can be allowed to interfere with our consideration of the matter if we are out to achieve the most effective and efficient kind of Second Chamber. The fact is that the present composition is quite indefensible on any logical or rational grounds as an instrument for efficient Government. It is tending to get into disrepute among thinking people, and we are not being taken quite seriously.
Moreover, the position of this House is rather frustrating. We are constantly having to exercise restraint. Things which noble Lords opposite think they ought to do they cannot do without fear of the consequences—fear that they will incite another place to take action. That is not a satisfactory basis on which to carry on our work. This House has been under a threat of abolition ever since 1911, and I think that, once and for all, we ought to get a satisfactory Chamber, properly constituted, rather than live in a state of suspended animation. Incidentally, there is no other country in the world which has a hereditary Chamber, except possibly (and I am not 1332 sure about this) Japan, which is not a precedent that we should necessarily wish to emulate.
Finally, I agree that changes of this kind should be carried out only after prolonged discussion between the Parties. Certainly I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, that it would be quite wrong for either Party to impose its views on the other. Having regard to the negotiations in 1948, when it appears that all Parties acted in the most reasonable way and nearly came to an agreement, there is every reason to hope that an agreement could be arrived at which would be mutually satisfactory. I agree that my own proposals would require a great deal of consideration, and I am quite sure that at this moment the majority of your Lordships would not accept them. But time is on my side, and I believe that eventually we shall be forced into something of this kind. I have thrown these ideas into the general pool, and I hope that they may be of some ultimate value. Whatever happens, I pray that the friendly, tolerant and, on the whole, progressive atmosphere and outlook of this House will always remain with us, and that, whatever alterations we make, these will not be changed.
§ LORD RAGLAN
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down I should like to ask him a question. I have listened to him with great care, interest and agreement, and I assure him that there is nothing personal in this question. There may be some difficulty in this, but has he considered whether there might be a gain by having a retiring age?
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ BARONESS ASQUITH OF YARN BURY
My Lords, I do not want to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes because the Liberal view has been so admirably stated by our Leader, Lord Byers, and every one of us on these Benches wholeheartedly supports him. There is only one matter that I should like to pinpoint, and that is the composition of your Lordships' House. But, before I do so, may I dissent—and dissent strongly—from the view which has just been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, about the presence of 1333 the Bishops on the Benches opposite. To my mind, the Bishops are the most modern and progressive influence in this House. They are the spearhead of reform. When the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, says they are not modern I think that he must be thinking of their sleeves, or some outward and visible sign; because certainly in their views they are one of the boldest and most progressive elements. I very much hope that there will be no question of dispensing with the Bishops, however much we approve of a reform of the House.
I have been surprised by the atmosphere of—what shall I say?—rather cosy complacency in a good many of the speeches to which we have listened this afternoon. For instance, I was rather surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, say he was quite unaware that there was any need for reform of this House. He must lead a very sheltered life—far more sheltered than my own.
§ LORD HARLECH
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Baroness, in order to explain that I said I did not detect any great feeling of urgency for reform; and when the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said that his reforms might come in about five to ten years I thought that that rather indicated a lack of urgency.
§ BARONESS ASQUITH OF YARN-BURY
My Lords, I took down the words uttered by the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, because they surprised me so much, and I have quoted them correctly. He said he was unaware that there was any need for reform. I was even more surprised when I heard the noble Lord, Lord Champion, express the rather sombre view that any change would probably be for the worse. I have heard this view expressed in many circumstances and from many quarters, but I never thought to hear it from the Labour Front Bench. I disagree with both. I believe that if this House is to be taken seriously, and as a new and loyal Member of this House I want it to be taken seriously, then it must reform itself; and that without any delay.
Nowhere else in the whole wide world, from China to Peru, does there exist an organ of Government mainly—almost wholly—composed of hereditary legislators. The composition of this House is a unique phenomenon, and as a result 1334 it produces a chronic ideological unbalance. I ask your Lordships for one moment to analyse its anatomy. Of its 1,020 Members only 120 are Life Peers —a mere drop in the ocean. The remaining 900 owe their right to sit and speak and vote here solely to the merits—or, in some cases, the demerits—of their ancestors, some remote and others not so remote. An American visitor, who had just been confronted with the first Lord Riddell, asked: "Is he an ivy-clad Peer?". Well, my Lords, some hereditary Peers are more ivy-clad than others, but whether ivy-clad or not, nine-tenths of them owe their right to sit and speak and vote here solely to the accident of birth
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, may I intervene for one moment? Although it will not make much difference to her argument, I think the noble Lady has overlooked those Peers who are of first creation in their own right.
§ BARONESS ASQUITH OF YARN-BURY
Even if they are subtracted, there will still be debit balance on the other side.
§ BARONESS ASQUITH OF YARN-BURY
My Lords, I leave the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, to do the bookkeeping. I am not suggesting for one moment that many of these hereditary Peers are not admirably qualified to discharge their duties on their own merits. Of course they are; but nobody can possibly justify such a dispensation, and to my mind the fact that it has survived to this day can be explained only by the desire of many people to preserve the composition of this House in a wholly indefensible and unjustifiable form, and therefore reduce it to impotence or, better still, to non-existence.
I want this House to survive, and I want it to inspire public respect and confidence. I believe that it has a vital function to perform, not only in revision and delay; not only by putting on the brake, but by applying the spur, by blazing new trails, by initiating urgent reforms—a task for which it has proved in the last few years it has an admirable capacity.
1335 Therefore I want it transformed into a shape which will command respect and confidence, and credibility, and will commend itself to reason. I do not want it to remain as it is at present, one vast and highly vulnerable Achilles' heel. This does not necessarily mean a holocaust of hereditary Peers—"ivy-clad" or otherwise—many of whom are among the most assiduous and most essential Members of this House. As my noble friend Lord Byers has suggested, these can be translated by a stroke of the pen into Life Peers.
But the chronic absentee Peers—I return to this charge—some 500 to 700 strong, who have not applied for Leave of Absence, should be deprived, once and for all, of their rights to sit and vote here —rights which they are now perfectly free to exercise if and when the spirit moves them. When I last made this suggestion (I think it was on a Motion for reform introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Alport) the noble Earl, Lord Arran, went one better, or one worse, as you may think. He suggested that these chronic absentees should be divested of their titles. I do not plead for any such savage and Draconian remedies—and, incidentally, such sanctions might lead to the return of some of them, which would not ease the task of reform. We are not concerned here with what they call themselves, but with the performance, or non-performance, of their functions in this House. What matters is to make this House a perfect, competent legislative instrument, which makes sense, not only to ourselves but to the nation. It must cease to be a bundle of anomalies, anachronisms and absurdities. It must not only work but be seen to work. May I suggest to your Lordships that only by such drastic surgery as this will public opinion support us in retaining such powers as we have?
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ LORD ROWLEY
My Lords, like the noble Baroness who has just spoken, I do not propose to take up much of your Lordships' time. I feel rather like the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, in that I am a recent arrival in your Lordships' House, and it was with some trepidation that I decided to take part in this debate. On the other hand, I have sat in the other House, beginning in 1923, and even before that my memory goes back to the con- 1336 troversy of the Parliament Act 1911, and I think it is impossible to overlook the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I must say that in the time I have been here I have come to consider it a privilege to be a Member. The courtesy and tolerance that characterises Members on both sides of the House, and the high level certainly of individual speeches that characterises most of our debates, I think justifies anyone who takes his place in this Chamber in having a good deal of pride in the House.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is not here, because like myself he is a comparatively new Member, and he suggested that the House of Lords was impotent. That is a nice phrase, but I do not think it is correct. It is not what we would like to see it. I agree with the noble Baroness that it is possible and highly desirable, so long as we are to have a Second Chamber, to ensure that it carries more influence perhaps than it does to-day. We were given some figures the other day with regard to the Iron and Steel Act; 43 Amendments from this House were accepted in the other place. I do not know what the statistics are in relation to the Bills that have passed through this House, but I imagine that quite a large number of Amendments in the aggregate have been passed by this House and accepted by the other House. Therefore, do not let us overpaint the picture, because it seems to me to indicate something of the development on the part of some noble Lords of an inferiority complex.
I must join issue with the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, when he referred to the fact that there appears to be no urgency about the problem we are discussing to-day. I do not think that is the test. I very much agree with what my noble friend Lord Silkin said, and indeed my noble friend Lord Champion, that any reforms that are likely to take place will not come about in the very near future. That is no reason why we should not look at and discuss the problem; and if we do not do that I very much doubt whether we will make any progress at all. I personally should like to follow up the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Silkin, perhaps putting it a little more formally. I should like to take up the problems of the powers and the composition of the House of Lords from 1337 the place where it was left in 1948. In other words, I should like to see another all-Party conference representing the three Parties in the State. I have very strong views, perhaps stronger than either of my noble friends, on what should be done. I should not wish to see it done on a Party basis. I do not think you can amend, drastically at any rate, the Constitution of our country, even though it is an unwritten Constitution, on a purely Party basis. Therefore, I should like to see this all-Party conference established, and I would very shortly suggest what I think they might consider.
As regards the composition of the House of Lords, I think it is very difficult to argue the question of powers divorced from the question of composition. The noble Lord, Lord Harlech, said that it is difficult to understand why there should be any objection—and indeed it was echoed by one of my own noble friends—to 6 months, 9 months or 12 months delay. The reason there is this objection is because of the composition of the House of Lords.
Like many other noble Lords, I have been a Member of the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Molson, was in the House of Commons with me thirty or more years ago, and while he would not agree with what I am about to say, he knows what the problem was. There has been this bitter resentment on the part of the Labour Party, inherited to some extent from the bitterness felt by the Liberal Party before the 1914 War. The father of the noble Baroness who has just spoken and my own father were both concerned, one as Prime Minister, and the other as Leader of the Labour Party for part of the time when this bitter controversy took place over the Parliament Act and the action of the House of Lords at that time. Therefore, there is this psychology which has been created and manifests itself in the bitter resentment that there should be 1,100 Peers about 900 of whom have inherited their peerages; although, according to information I have, out of the 1,100 Peers available to sit in this House only about 650 have taken their seats during this Parliament. Therefore there are something like 400 Peers who are entitled to sit in the House of Lords, but who never come near the place. In my humble submission, that is a farcical posi- 1338 tion. It certainly is an untidy position constitutionally. It is one of the problems that has to be faced up to, not this week or next week, or even next year. It ought to be something that the political leaders of our country are getting their minds on to with a view to securing some sort of solution.
At one time I was rather attracted to the idea of a single Chamber. Some noble Lords may know that in Norway they have a single Chamber, the Storting. What they do is to delegate about 20 per cent. of their Members of Parliament to act as the revisionary Chamber. Norway has a population of two or three million, and the volume of legislation that goes through the Storting is, I was going to say, using the Americanism, "chicken feed". Certainly it is much smaller than the great volume of complicated and controversial legislation which goes through our own Parliament. Therefore, somewhat reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that I have to change my views. I believe, as the noble Baroness said, that there is a strong case for an effective Second Chamber.
The problem we have to face up to is, how are we to arrange its composition? That is something in regard to which some of us have tried to put forward suggestions. Whether it can be done by nomination, or whether it should be for 5 years, 8 years or 12 years, are details that have to be worked out once the principles are accepted. I should have thought that there was general agreement throughout this House that we must end the hereditary right to be called to take part and to vote in this House.
As regards powers, I would put forward another aspect that has not been put to-day. The reason why many people want to reduce the twelve months' delay —either to wipe it out altogether or to handle it in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, proposes—is because it operates, and is only of importance, when there is a Labour Government. It does not mean anything when there is a Conservative Government. That, I think, is in accordance with the facts of life.
§ THE EARL OF IDDESLEIGH
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but it is a fact that I can remember a number of occasions on which the 1339 House of Lords has rejected measures brought forward by Conservative Governments.
§ LORD ROWLEY
My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl would let me have those details in due course. Certainly I was not aware of that fact. I do not know whether it is generally agreed in the Conservative Party that when there has been a Conservative Government on a number of occasions Conservative Bills have been rejected, and finally disposed of by the votes of their own Back Benchers. That is the other side of the coin. There is this resentment, that whenever there is a Conservative Government the question of delay does not matter; it arises only when there is a Labour Government. At the Conference in 1948 the basis on which the Conservative Leaders put their case for the retention of the 18 month's delay was for no other reason than that we should give the people time to reflect.
Radio and television have developed to a great extent since that Conference in 1948. Surely no-one is going to suggest that, with the television appearances that all Party Leaders make—whether they make too many or not enough is another matter, but they make them—the position has not drastically changed, and that public opinion is educated as a result of the controversies that characterise the passage of certain major Bills through both Houses of Parliament. I would say only this, that I believe we have to look at the situation as we find it. If we believe that there is a need for change, it does not mean that we are advocating that it should take place in the near future, but that we are rather pointing the way to modernising our House, the House of Lords, and bringing it into relation with the modern concepts of society. I believe that Lord Mitchison has done a great service by introducing this Motion this afternoon. I think that it is another proof of the great value that is to be attached to this Chamber, that there is a system whereby a noble Lord can call attention to this or that problem apart from the Whips and apart from Party considerations, and we can have an objective discussion. This, I think, makes a great contribution to the political health of this country.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ LORD FERRIER
My Lords, as a Life Peer of the first vintage I have listened with great interest to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, and to every speech that followed. I frankly confess that I did not expect that the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, would attract such a weight of interesting speeches. Like the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, I was not aware of any great feeling of urgency in the matter of proceeding as of now with the reform of the House of Lords.
§ LORD FERRIER
My Lords, I feel that I have a contribution to make, from an angle which is uncommon on these Benches; namely, that of a Life Peer who has not been in the House of Commons. With due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, I got the impression, from the terms and the extent of the reforms which he urged, and the speed with which he thought they should be brought about, that he was rather overstressing the position. Indeed, I was more impressed, in terms of the need for some immediate approach to the matter, by what the noble Lord, Lord Alport, said. Over a number of years now I have watched this House change. I have watched it with the eye of one who never sought a place in Parliament but who, nevertheless, believes passionately in Parliament, and as one who has come to hold in the highest regard the system as practised here. Indeed, I am an addict such as the noble Lord, Lord Champion, described, although perhaps not incurable, as I may later suggest.
At the same time, it is fair to say that when I came here in 1958 I was certainly of the opinion that the hereditary system was on the way out. The fact is that it did not take me long to reverse that opinion entirely. It is a fact that, the system works. Regarding what the noble Lord, Lord Rowley, said, while I admit that there may be hundreds of hereditary Peers who take no interest in this place (of course, we take no interest in them), it is conceivable that from them may stem Parliamentarians of the future. In regard to those who work in this place, whether hereditary or otherwise, I am greatly struck by the deep sense of duty which 1341 actuates all who take part in our proceedings. If there is that sense of duty, as I believe there is, as a characteristic of this House, I think it is our duty not to be battered too much by the verbal bludgeonings of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison.
The fact is, my Lords, that the House has changed down the centuries, and it is changing fast now—and I use "changing fast" as a comparative term. Take, for instance, the large number of Cross-Benchers—and reference was made to this matter by the noble Lord, Lord Strang, and by the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh. In these circumstances, I doubt whether there is any need to accelerate that change beyond the pace at which it is now going, as I have seen with my own eyes in a very few years. That is not to say, and I should not dream of saying it, that the process of change should be arrested. Far from it. I feel that what the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, wants is a swift, "chop-chop", root-and-branch, bag-and-bag-gage sort of change. For such radical change I see no need. Indeed, it may be said that what is required is a period in which this House can settle down in the new form which derives from the Life Peerages Act 1958—because the implementation of that Act still needs very careful handling.
It is impracticable to apply the Life Peerages Act to young men, as the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said. It therefore follows that, unless this is to become an eventide home, the hereditary system is the best for injecting young blood into it. No one could have said it in more courteous and polite terms than the noble Lord, Lord Champion, did when he asked, "What other way is there of doing this?" It is recognised that Life Peers have invigorated the House and I am not suggesting that those who come from the House of Commons do not make a tremendous contribution to our work. But I think that a greater proportion of Life Peers on this side of the House should be from outwith the other place—I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, has left the Chamber. This may be difficult, especially as some such Life Peers already created under the Act have not attended as often as they might.
Having listened to Lord Silkin's ideas, and also to some of the suggestions made 1342 by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, I was struck by the question of the supply of Life Peers. It must be remembered that Life Peers who are not already "addicts", such as those who come here from the other place, may be very delicate plants. They might be difficult to get for short periods, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, suggested. Again, I feel that if the wings of the House of Lords were to be clipped there are men of mind and spirit who would not be prepared to accept a Life Peerage if it meant being a rubber stamp for life.
I come to another matter in connection with Life Peerages. Can we not get away from classing Life Peerages as honours? This matter has already been mentioned from the Liberal Benches. I suggest, with respect, that the creation of Life Peerages should not be announced as part of one of the ritual Honours Lists. I make this specific suggestion because it is important, to my mind, that the public should appreciate that a Life Peerage is not just an honour. It is, of course, an honour to serve your Lordships' House, but with it goes a duty which does not accompany the other degrees which take their place in a ritual Honours List.
One question that occurs to me in regard to the creation of Life Peerages is whether the terms of such invitations as they receive are specific enough as to what is expected of them and what the acceptance of the title means. I do not know. Times may have changed since I was approached. That they should be elected, or even appointed, as representative of regions, as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, is to my mind a very complex matter. I feel that it would be undesirable, because any element of election, any feeling of looking over one's shoulder, such as the noble Lord, Lord Champion, mentioned was his impression when moving from one set of Benches to another, would, I think, impair the almost delicate texture of this place—a House which stands, and has stood, as a curtain-wall between the people and dictatorship, whether by the Monarch or by the many-headed. I shall read carefully what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said about Scotland, and I look forward to returning to the matter on another occasion. I must say that 1343 I am not in agreement with him in what he said about hereditary Peers.
I believe that the need for reform is not so widely recognised as the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, said, although I am greatly impressed by what has been said here to-day. But what do the public themselves think? Indeed, what do the public know? I put it like that because, as for public opinion, it should be borne in mind in this place that thanks to the—I was going to use the word "neglect"; but I will say the near-neglect, by the Press and broadcasting services, the people as a whole know little or nothing of the part this House plays in the process of Parliament. I think this is an important matter which is worth bearing closely in mind. If Lord Mitchison's ideas were to prevail, the number of individuals of mind and spirit willing to accept Life Peerages might be restricted.
My Lords, one organisation which has my address on its mailing list adds the letters "L.P." after my name. I rather accept this as a regular reminder not to be a "long player", so I do not propose to engage your Lordships much longer; nor to refer to the matter of the Church to which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, referred, especially as I come from North of the Border. In conclusion, I would say that the present pace of change, as I see it, is fast enough. If it is not, I suggest that whatever we do, we should not hasten unduly lest we stumble.
§ 5.50 p.m.
THE LORD BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK
My Lords, I am sorry that I was not in the House for that part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in which he made reference to the Bishops, but it was reported to me. Whether or not we are useful it is not for me to say; though one noble Lord opposite said to me a few weeks ago: "We do not by any means always agree with the Bishops, but you set us one very good example". Whether or not the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, would approve of this example, I would not know. Of course, the noble Lord then went on to say: "You Bishops are accustomed to say what you have to say and want to say within a quarter of an hour, otherwise your congregation gets up and goes out. Your speeches in this 1344 House are often models of brevity." Whether or not the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, would think that this was a good example, I would not know.
In any discussion about the future of this House it is right that those who sit on these Benches should be interested, for the Bishops, in their capacity as Lords Spiritual, have been involved in the history of your Lordships' House from its earliest days. However, I should make it clear that I speak for nobody but myself. So far as I am aware, there is no official Lambeth policy, still less a Lambeth Whip. From what has already been said, there seems to be a measure of agreement in many parts of the House with regard to the two questions which have to be faced. If I listened aright, here they are. First, what should be the function of this House; and, secondly, what should be the composition of this House? When we have made up our minds what we are supposed to be doing, then we can go on to consider the changes which may be necessary to enable us to discharge our duties adequately.
I come to the function of this House. It has changed many times, just as the function of the House of Commons has changed. To-day Parliament is often spoken of as the bastion of our democracy. Perhaps it is to-day, but Parliament was in existence long before we had anything remotely resembling a democracy. There were Parliaments in Plantagenet times and Parliaments in Tudor times, but there was no such thing as Parliamentary Government then. Parliament was an accessory to a monarchical system, and even when Parliamentary Government came to life in the 18th century Parliament was not the servant of democracy, but an accessory to an aristocratic and hierarchical system. During the past century the function of Parliament has continued to change. To what extent it is now the tool of the Prime Minister and the Government of the day is a matter of opinion, though Mr. Harold Macmillan said some years back, no doubt with his tongue in his cheek, that the Constitution had developed in such a way that, when it came to a Government debate demanding a decision, it might be more sensible to vote first and have the discussion afterwards.
In this debate we are concerned not with Parliament in general but with this 1345 House in particular, and my contention is that the function of your Lordships' House is different to-day from what it has been in the past. Our task is no longer to interfere with the processes of Government, but to offer advice, whether or not it is heeded. We can do this in many ways, but especially by initiating legislation on matters of public importance which are not Party political issues, and by putting down Amendments to Bills on the clear understanding that the Amendments are advisory only, and that it is left to the discretion of another place after those Amendments have been fully and properly discussed to accept or reject them.
If this contention is admitted, then we shall no longer be over-concerned with our suspensory powers. Those days are, I think, over. Our function to-day is different. We advise, but we do not interfere. Not only is this sensible in the light of Parliamentary development, but if we try to retain those powers we may create such opposition that we shall no longer be tolerated. I do not believe that this is any longer an argument between Right and Left as such. The fact is that times have changed and no adult society, whether its sympathies are Conservative, Liberal or Socialist, will allow a non-elected House to interfere with the decisions of a democratically-elected House. We may think that we in this House have a greater wisdom, are less partisan and are more in tune with the mood of the country—all of which, if true, may entitle us to delay legislation and place a brake upon Government—but I doubt whether such arguments would be accepted in another place or by any political Party of any colour.
I said that we could not discuss the composition of this House until we had made up our minds about its function. The reason is obvious. If our task is to interfere with the processes of Government, what we need are armies of partisan gladiators who will engage in battle at the crack of a whip. But if our task is to stimulate a wise public opinion, to initiate certain types of legislation, to advise and to revise, then we need something quite different. I should have thought that the way forward was to take as a basis for discussion the proposals of 1948.
1346 Here again there seems to be a developing consensus of opinion in all parts of this House, for these proposals are typical of the way we usually do things in this country. They aim to adapt an existing institution rather than to bring to birth a new one. Moreover, the proposals grasp the nettle of hereditary Peers and suggest a solution which appeals to me, and it would seem to many noble Lords as well. Members of this Chamber are to be styled Lords of Parliament. While hereditary Peers may be among them yet—and here I quote from the proposals:The present right to attend and vote based solely on heredity should not by itself constitute a qualification for admission to a reformed Second Chamber. Members … would be appointed on grounds of personal distinction or public service. They might be drawn either from Hereditary Peers or from commoners who would be created Life Peers.I find it difficult to think of a more satisfactory solution to a very complicated problem.
These proposals make provision for the inclusion of certain Lords Spiritual, and so long as we have an Established Church in this country that seems to me to be both fair and right. If this country and Parliament should decide that an Established Church is no longer desirable, then that is another matter. But so long as we have an Established Church, I am glad of the inclusion of the Bishops in your Lordships' House for two reasons: first, it is an admission that the Church should concern itself with the day-to-day problems of the nation.
In Communist countries religion is treated as a private hobby, and Churchmen must confine their activities to a spiritual ghetto quite unrelated to the affairs of daily living. That, I am glad to say, is not the tradition in this country. In Britain, Church and State have often been awkward partners, and not infrequently there have been head-on collisions when heads have toppled. But the mere presence of Bishops in this House is, I think, a recognition that religion must always seek to relate itself to life, and that Christians must try to be active in the service of their fellows for the wellbeing of the community.
I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that I do not suggest for a moment that the representation of the Churches should be limited to the Bishops 1347 of the Established Church. Perhaps in a reformed House wider provision can be made, though I appreciate the difficulties as in most cases the moderators, presidents and heads of Free Churches remain in office for only a year. Meanwhile, it is heartening to find that the position is already being rectified by the conferring of Life Peerages on distinguished members of other denominations, and I am sure that all Members of the Bishops' Bench would be delighted to welcome more of them to this House.
A second reason for welcoming the provision for the inclusion of the Lords Spiritual is that it admits the principle (which I have not heard mentioned this afternoon), not of a Life Peerage but of what I might call a "Work Peerage". One noble Lord referred to the Bishops as Life Peers. We are not. The Bishops are, I believe, the only Members of this House whose membership is limited to their office. If a Bishop resigns his See and returns to private life, he ceases to be a Member of your Lordships' House unless, as in the case of Lord Fisher of Lambeth, a new Peerage is conferred upon him.
As I say, this principle of a "Work Peerage" has been recognised by this House for centuries in the case of the Lords Spiritual. Would it not be wise to extend this principle to the Lords Temporal? Does it necessarily follow that, once a Member, then you must always be a Member? And might it not be true that some eminent men who have no wish to be Peers for life might be willing to contribute to the discussions in this House while they held certain offices? After all, that is already the custom in another place. If our role is to be advisory, we want to attract to this House able men from all walks of life, even if their sojourn with us might be limited.
Before sitting down, may I express the hope that if there are to be changes in this House and in its affairs we should take a close look at our procedure? Surely there is too much waste of time; and we cannot expect busy men to be enthusiastic about serving here while this waste continues. I give one example, that is all. Is it really necessary for the Committee stage of a Bill to be dealt with independently in both Houses? Years 1348 ago Lord Altrincham suggested that Bills should be introduced simultaneously in both Houses, and that the Committee stage should be held upstairs in joint session, with the Lords submitting opinions but not voting. As it is, there are so many obstacles and hindrances that laws which ought to reach the Statute Book in a Session never get there. As Mr. Quintin Hogg remarked when he was a Member of this House:Year by year I have seen legislation delayed, or worse still, left to die uncompleted, for want of Parliamentary time.This state of affairs could, I think, be partly brought to an end if we rationalised our procedure in the way I have suggested.
My Lords, I put forward these suggestions with regard to function, composition and procedure in the hope that they may contribute constructively, and in a non-partisan way, to a debate which, as I understand it, has as its object the marriage of the aristocratic machinery of government with the spirit of modern democracy.
§ 6.4 p.m.
My Lords, I am speaking, first, as one of the two hereditary Peers who have so far addressed your Lordships, and, secondly, as someone who has been a Member here for a very long time. In fact, it was with some sense of shock that I learned that I have probably been here longer than any other noble Lord who normally attends at all regularly. Like an elderly "square", I naturally enough revert to other debates to which I have listened on this subject, which I think now number something like 17 or 18. I feel that the would-be reformer of this House might start by discovering why, after this orgy, almost, of self-criticism and after some rather dubious remarks have been made about the House itself, so many of your Lordships come to it. Your Lordships do come here, practically every evening. You sit to what, in the old days, we should have called an unreasonably late hour; and, in fact, we have debated one Motion aimed at reducing the time—at least, the time of the speeches. I am sure your Lordships would not have come here in this way unless you had felt that there was some real point in your doing so.
Another question that might be asked is why, after so many proposals have been made for the reform of this House, many 1349 of which have been recapitulated to-day, none of them have been adopted and none of them have made any difference at all except one, which is embodied in the Life Peerages Act. I am not the least surprised that that is the only proposal that has made any headway here, because it was the only proposal which was intended to improve the everyday working of your Lordships' House and had no real concern about the possibility of a constitutional crisis. I confess that I have always been somewhat amazed at the concern so many of your Lordships have shown—and it has been shown to-day—about this question of a constitutional crisis. There was a constitutional crisis in 1911. The whole time I have been a Member of this House there has never been a constitutional crisis. In 1947 I think we acted entirely in accordance with the agreed constitution of the House. I suppose there may be one at any time, but I feel tolerably certain that if there were a constitutional crisis it would arise in quite a different way from that in which anyone has yet foreseen; and I think that something which can happen only once in fifty years, or even longer, can really look after itself.
I suppose those taking part in this debate should perhaps state the general premises on which they approach this question. I, for my part, take the view that we are living to-day under a form of Government which has been called, in between Elections, "an elected dictatorship". Furthermore, I believe that that is inevitable. The very size of the Government machine does something to bring that about. It now takes four times as many pages of Whitaker's Almanack as did the governmental machine of 1911. A second and most important reason, which has only just been touched on, and that by the noble Lord, Lord Strang, is that we seem to be getting more and more concerned with international bodies and organisations, with the initials of which we are familiar although not all of us could pass an examination in what they stand for.
My Lords, I cannot see that any Government charged with these enormous responsibilities could carry on at all if they were to be subjected to frequent interruption, either from this House, however composed, or, indeed, from another place. Therefore, I am not particularly 1350 sympathetic to those elaborate, root-and-branch proposals which seem to aim at giving this House some logically-sounding authority to enable it to do just that. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, and unlike some noble Lords who have spoken, I believe that we ought to have some residual powers to make ourselves a nuisance to the Government, but that is simply for the purpose of ensuring that no Government should treat this House in a perfectly perfunctory way. If that happened, I believe there would either be an explosion or your Lordships would, like old soldiers, merely fade away—and I think that would be an unfortunate end to this House.
I agree that there is very little evidence that it is happening now, but I can remember, as my noble friend Lord Harlech said, that there were times when it was more possible. I recall many years ago coming to this House on a dull, foggy, November evening to find myself listening to a very long speech from a very senior noble Lord with a very thin House, with whom he was discussing the deposits at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Possibly, it was that concentration of gloom that led a noble relative of mine, a Cabinet Minister of great experience, to say that he thought the future sittings of this House would probably consist of the Lord Chancellor, the Bishops, one or two Whips of either side and nobody else. It has not happened; he has been proved quite wrong. But I think the possibility of that happening would be enhanced if, in Whitehall, Ministers and civil servants became aware that we really could do nothing whatever except talk. Apart from that one power, I think, with other speakers, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, that we should seek to influence rather than control Government thinking.
The only thing that really matters, it seems to me, is that there should be here a sufficiency of Peers whose personal qualifications rather than Party affiliations entitle their views to consideration. To my mind, this means that apart from a comparatively small core of professional whole-timers, the bulk of the House ought to consist of part-timers of distinction who are willing and able to work in this House. And this is more or less what is happening to-day. There are a number 1351 of such Peers. We do influence Government thinking when there is a general all-Party support for a particular proposition. Incidentally, in my long experience here I have never known a proposition put forward and voted on, purely on Party lines, which got anywhere at all against the Government of the day. Equally, I have never known any proposition supported from all sides of the House that failed to make some impact on Government thinking. A recent illustration of that (not one to which I am particularly sympathetic) is Lord Arran's recent Bill. Not only his eloquence but the degree to which he received all-Party support seemed to influence the Government and another place, and will probably lead to that Bill's being on the Statute Book.
My Lords, it would be a mistake to think that this sort of influence always went against the Government of the day. Perhaps one of the most effective speeches I have ever heard in this House was that delivered by the late Lord Keynes, speaking from the Liberal Benches in support of a Conservative Government who were then engaged in negotiations for the American loan against, I may say, quite a large number of Conservatives who did not agree.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. Surely the noble Viscount's recollection is not quite correct. Lord Keynes was then supporting the Labour Government.
My Lords, I stand corrected: I made a mistake. I know that it was an important measure, and that there was unofficial Conservative opposition to it. But the fact is that Lord Keynes's speech influenced the whole House and, indeed, the country. The noble Lord, Lord Byers, made some suggestion about a proportion of the House being experts who did not regularly attend; and that, I thought, provided a very good illustration of the part-time Peer who speaks with great authority but cannot regularly attend.
I should like to see this non-Party influence extended, if only to offset what I believe to be—and I suppose that here I should speak with great deference—almost an excess of Party influence on various matters of legislation. Let me put it this way. I believe that there are num- 1352 bers of Bills, which are really connected with long-term administration and, because all the ultimate objectives are agreed, not really Party issues at all. But it seems to me that, owing to Party pressure, a succession of Governments feel it almost a point of honour to have a new approach to such problems, whatever disruption that may cause. I think that is a pity. It is just conceivable that a House which is distinguished more by its qualities and professional competence than by Party affiliations might have some influence on a succession of Governments to approach these problems in a more bi-partisan attitude (with very beneficial results) and would, I believe, get considerable support in the country. We must also fall in with the people's will—though I have found very often that the people's will is very difficult to understand; and occasionally, particularly after elections, it jumps about like a grasshopper.
But whether the House would have an influence in that or in any other way depends on a number of imponderables which could not be put into the words of an Act of Parliament. I think that a great deal depends on the relationships between the Government of the day and this House, and on the Leader of the House and the Leaders of the Parties. Their personal views may play a part. I can testify to this. When Lord Addison was Leader in this House of the Labour Party, in the early Labour Administration, he seemed to have a high standing in the Cabinet and a belief in this House. All I can say is that he managed somehow to convey to humble Back-Benchers that if only they talked sense—of which, of course, he was the judge—their views would receive proper consideration. That had a very good effect on the morale of the House. That was perhaps just as well, for a considerable quantity of legislation was arriving from the other place which, owing to the operation of the guillotine, had never been considered there at all.
With an unwritten Constitution a great deal is bound to depend on these imponderables. Very few of the basic facts of our political life, such as the two-Party system, the rigid Party discipline in another place, or the predominance of the Government and the Government machine, have their origin in legislation.
1353 They have just evolved. Similarly we have our traditions here. We have a tradition of service and of high-quality debate; we also have a tradition of liberty to come to work and vote as we please. That would be a very difficult tradition to change under any scheme, unless we reverted to the mediæval practice of fining and imprisoning Peers for non-attendance. I believe that new measures which conform with the traditions of this House, as did the Life Peerages Act, will succeed; but I believe that other schemes of a much more root-and-branch type will probably fail, or at least produce some quite unforeseeable complications. It is not possible to invent a new tradition overnight by passing an Act of Parliament.
My Lords, I want to say one final thing about the hereditary Peers, of whom I am one. Of course, one or two things are sometimes forgotten by would-be reformers. The first is that I am in very respectable company. The Leader of my own party and the Deputy Leader and Chief Whip all sit here by hereditary right. The noble Earl the Leader of the House, if he had succeeded a little earlier, would have sat here by virtue of heredity; and the Chief Whip already does so. Then there is the point about youth. I quite agree that the hereditary principle is the only thing that enables us to get young people to this House. Nevertheless, very little provision has been made for youth in any scheme that I have seen so far. But the most important matter is one that is often forgotten—and I was rather surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Rowley, should have spoken as he did, because so far the real protagonists of the unrestricted attendance of hereditary Peers have been the leaders of the Labour Party, and not the rank-and-file in another place who always go through what one might call the ritual incantations against the hereditary principle.
Lord Morrison of Lambeth brought this out very clearly when he wrote his book. The argument simply was that because of the hereditary element the House would never be what he described as a danger to the democratic House, which is another way of saying that they would never be a nuisance to the Government. Some people may think that is the very reason why the hereditary element 1354 should be abolished: that it is too vulnerable and has too little influence.
I must confess that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that, if that ever was a sine qua non, the simplest way, and the way that would best fit in with our traditions, would be to proclaim that, as from a certain date, all Peers who have a present right to attend Parliament should become Life Peers. I do not think I agree that this is quite the time to do that. But, my Lords, despite everything that has been said by some of the more radical Members of this House, I doubt whether the time has come to do anything of a dramatic nature. I may be wrong about this, and, now that betting is legal, I should be quite interested in any proposition which suggested that there would be a large measure of reform of your Lordships' House in the next three years.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ LORD AILWYN
My Lords, perhaps I may preface my three or three and a half minute contribution with a quotation, "Whence cometh this passion for change?" We all know "the wind of change" and the source from which that celebrated saying came, but as your Lordships know that was in a very different and far wider context than arises in the situation which we are discussing to-day. Criticisms of the House of Lords, its composition and its powers, emanate almost invariably not from those who have the longest memory and experience of its workings, who have watched and listened and taken occasional part in its varying activities over the years; who have appreciated the wealth of knowledge and experience, yes, and judgment, that are brought to bear on almost any subject of general interest and importance that comes up for debate and discussion; not from those who are proud of its traditions and history and achievements, and doubly proud at having the honour of belonging to this company of privileged participants in its day-to-day activities. No, these criticisms hail from those like the noble Lord opposite, the mover of this Motion, a comparative newcomer to your Lordships House, whose work on the Front Bench opposite was distinguished by a uniformly high standard, if I may be allowed to say so; whose eloquence I greatly admire and vastly envy, but who since his retirement 1355 to the Back Benches seems to have assumed something akin to the mantle of a reforming zealot, and I sometimes think, perhaps unfairly, a somewhat disgruntled one at that. I hope I am not being unkind. I certainly bear nothing but goodwill towards the noble Lord.
§ LORD AILWYN
My Lords, I withdraw that at once; I gave my mere impression; I have immensely enjoyed many of the noble Lord's contributions. Being an addict like the noble Lord, Lord Champion, I agree with him that if a thing, and a good thing, works, leave it alone. I beg the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, and others who appear to be equally determined to alter (I almost said destroy, but that is a little too strong) the present fabric of your Lordships' House and its deliberations to hold hard and cease to advocate these changes in your Lordships constitution and powers—unless indeed it be in the direction of restoring some of those powers that have been wrested from us so unhappily and, in my opinion, so unwisely. That is all I wish to say, and if my few words are dubbed as those of a hopeless reactionary then, my Lords, I am old enough cheerfully and willingly to shoulder that sobriquet.
§ 6.29 p.m.
LORD BELHAVEN AND STENTON
My Lords, I do not think that I am as old as the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, but I must say I wish I had made his speech. When I came here this morning I had a coherent speech, but you will be delighted to hear that as I have listened to your Lordships I have crossed out sentence after sentence, and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I jump about a bit.
About 320 years ago a large and very angry mob surrounded your Lordships' House, making life very difficult and dangerous even for those within, and making it practically impossible to leave your Lordships' House. The mob were all shouting, "No Bishops, no Popish Lords"—and of course in these days our right reverend Prelates and the noble Earl the Leader of the House would be ex- 1356 cluded on that basis. In those days, of course, it was "with it" to be Protestant. If you were a Popish Lord you were right out, and if you were a Bishop you were fairly unpopular. That was the trend of the time. Now we have come to a completely different trend. In those days, if you were a Papist you were liable to be hanged; but to-day as hereditary Peers we do not stand in the same danger—not yet.
I think that the main point of attack on your Lordships' House is that it is hereditary. Generally speaking, I do not see that there is anything else which has been attacked. The question has been asked: "By what possible right can an hereditary Peer sit in your Lordships' House?". I suppose that according to the beliefs we have to-day it could be said, "None at all". On the other hand, I think that hereditary Peers have a useful part to play. They do not have to please people or to push themselves forwards, to represent a constituency or to be frightfully clever. They have merely to be born in wedlock. I have met many politicians in your Lordships' House and I must say that on the whole I like them. I can say that there are not any I do not like. But one fault of democracy could be that we are likely to be governed exclusively by people of a particular kind, people who are by nature pushing and aggressive. Your Lordships' House gives an opportunity for people who are perfectly ordinary and not likely to be any more clever or any more stupid than anybody else, purely by accident to have a seat in the British Parliament. I agree with the fundamental statement of Conservative belief: When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.
Of the evils prevalent in 1967 I would put your Lordships' House fairly low down on the list. The rising crime rate, the rack renting of slums, the almost uncontrolled gambling and all the beastly things that go with it—I cannot think of a single evil that is attributable to your Lordships' House. It has not been guilty of the irresponsible exercise of arbitrary power or of the unjust persecution of individuals. Of how many Parliamentary assemblies in the world can one say that, or, so far as that goes, of how many respected institutions—the Press, broadcasting channels, the large and powerful 1357 companies and trade unions? None of these can claim to be guiltless of these practices.
In fact, I think that the powers of your Lordships' House are about right for to-day. We have evolved the category of Life Peers. Since they came into the House they seem to have revived a corpse, if we can believe some noble Lords about the attendance in the House before that happened. But obviously the coming of Life Peers and their growing number are excellent things. In 1964, when I first took my seat, it was somewhat embarrassing to be on the Government side because the Government Benches were packed and there was practically nobody on the other side. Now the balance has been redressed to a large extent and I hope that it will be redressed even more.
As has been said, your Lordships' House has the highest standard of debate of any Legislative Assembly in the world. It has performed a unique and valuable service for hundreds of years. It has wisdom, tolerance and common sense in high degree. It is highly civilised and courteous. For which of these crimes are we going to change it, cut it to pieces? With the greatest respect, I believe that the sort of assembly which has been proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and other noble Lords, an assembly of Life Peers only, would not impress the British people. Though many noble Lords think it would, I believe that, were it to come about, it would be so difficult to decide who was going to be in it and how to stop it from being merely an assembly of elderly people nominated in the Honours List, that it could easily fall into ridicule.
I want finally to comment on one point which has been made frequently in your Lordships' House, about noble Lords who do not attend. Sometimes your Lordships are a little unfair to some of us who live far away and have full time jobs, to which we have of necessity to give the majority of our time. It is not easy for us to attend your Lordships' House frequently. But we attend as often as possible. Although some noble Lords do not want to attend, there are others who are good on some particular subjects and who may make a more valuable contribution by attending on one day than 1358 some noble Lords who sit here consistently for a year. I thank your Lordships.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ BARONESS STOCKS
My Lords, I wish that the noble Baroness, Lady Asquith of Yarnbury, were here, because, if the noble Lord, Lord Champion, surprised her, I am going to surprise her even more. Before I had the honour, or even dreamed of the honour, of sitting on these Benches, I had the privilege of listening to three debates from behind the Bar. The first was on January 10, 1918, when the matter under discussion was that clause in the Representation of the People Bill which conferred the vote on women over 30. An Amendment was moved to remove that clause from the Bill.
It was an interesting debate. There was a full House. It went on for a long time. There were many speeches in favour of the Amendment and therefore against women's suffrage. My impression was that the mass of thought in the House was against it. One could tell from the reception given to the speeches—that curious muted noise which your Lordships make when you approve or disapprove of what is said. At the end of the debate, Lord Curzon, the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House, got up to speak. He had been a leading and powerful opponent of women's suffrage. He made a long speech in which he used what were, to many of us, the familiar arguments against enfranchising women. I looked up some of those phrases. He said that the Bill was "opening the floodgates", because if they enfranchised a limited number the time would come when they would have to enfranchise all women—something which in fact has happened. He also said that it opened the gates to a very dangerous influence, which in the end would be a stimulus to Socialism. He described it as a "catastrophic change". He used all the usual arguments against bringing women into the political arena. Then he paused, and said that if he voted for the wrecking Amendment he might be accused of precipitating a conflictfrom which your Lordships' House would not emerge with regard".That was really the end of it. A Division was taken. Lord Curzon and a large number of noble Lords sat still on 1359 their Benches while the Division was taken and the Amendment was defeated by a substantial majority. Over the whole of the debate there hung the shadow of the other House and the fact that there was a considerable body of opinion in favour of the clause. I have no doubt that there also hung over the House the shadow of what had happened in 1832 and in 1911, and of what might happen again. The moral of that is that this House was extremely chary of running counter to the opinion which had been expressed in a democratically elected Parliament.
The second debate that I heard occurred on April 28, 1926, when Lord Buckmaster introduced a Motion calling upon the Ministry of Health to remove a prohibition against the giving of birth control information by local authorities to mothers who required it for health reasons. The legislation was opposed by the Government—it was opposed by Lord Cave, the Lord Chancellor—but the House on the whole were in favour of it, and it was carried against the Government by a majority of 57 to 44 votes.
In that debate, the House of Lords, I think, acted as what the noble Baroness, Lady Asquith of Yarnbury, described as a spur, because in the matter of birth control and local health authorities it was far in advance of the House of Commons, which at that time had not dared to touch the question: indeed, it was in polite society almost a dirty word. The moral of that is that here you have a House which is not always looking over its shoulder to see what is happening in the constituencies and what may happen in the next General Election, and, therefore, on a great issue of that sort, because it involved important matters of principle, was able to vote on a non-Party question well in advance—and it was well in advance then—of public opinion.
The third debate which I attended was on May 11, 1960, when the late Lord Simon of Wythenshawe moved for Papers to discuss higher education, not only in universities but in technical colleges and colleges of further education, and put forward a proposal for the appointment of a committee, with wide terms of reference, to examine all the possibilities 1360 of expansion in those directions. There again, it was a full House—perhaps some noble Lords here present to-day were present at that debate, too. It was an extremely well-informed debate there was not a single speaker who did not know his subject. There were several former members of the University Grants Committee, who knew the financial implications of what was being proposed; and there were several heads of colleges. The debate was extremely well-informed and of a very high quality. As a result of that debate, the Government, shortly after, appointed just the type of committee which Lord Simon of Wythenshawe had advocated, the Robbins Committee, which has had a considerable effect on higher education in this country. The moral of that is that you can get a debate of supremely good quality by well-informed specialists in this House which, in fact, affects what the Government do.
If you put those three morals together, you get quite a good case for the House of Lords as at present constituted, with the powers which it now possesses. I suggest that it is only a matter of time before we go a long way towards achieving many of the reforms that have been suggested this afternoon. If you take the question of susceptibility to what is happening in another place, we have had a good example of this recently—I think it has been mentioned by several noble Lords—in connection with the London Government Bill.
Consider the position of hereditary Peers and Life Peers. It will be known that the present Prime Minister has announced that he does not intend to make any new hereditary Peers. I think it is unlikely that future Prime Ministers will create new hereditary Peerages, and I believe that in due course the proportion between Life Peers and hereditary Peers will move in favour of Life Peers, because, after all, from time to time Peerages become extinct. Meanwhile, successive Prime Ministers have shown that in appointing Life Peers they are not necessarily impelled by Party considerations. Both the present Prime Minister and recent Prime Ministers, in creating Life Peers, have shown great independence in adding to this House persons of quality, of independent mind, and perhaps addicted to Parties other than that of the Prime Minister who 1361 appoints them. So time is on our side in the reform of the House of Lords. And the moral of that is: leave well alone, and it will work itself out.
There is one specific reform which I must say I should very much like to see carried, though it may violate some venerable, historic, symbolic precedent, and it is this. I should like to see the Lord Chancellor relieved of the tedium of the many hours which he spends on that rather uncomfortable Woolsack listening to our orations, in a position in which he is not even able to do a crossword puzzle or read a novel.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, I shall not speak for long, and I apologise to your Lordships for having to leave the Chamber immediately I have finished speaking. It is not because I do not want to hear the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, but because I have an engagement downstairs. I should like to start by agreeing very much with what was said by my noble friend Lord Ailwyn; namely, that those who criticise this House are in the main those who have little knowledge of how it works.
I can illustrate this fact by an incident that occurred a few weeks ago, when a small party of sixth form girls from a well-known school, who were members of a history group, came up to the House to be shown around. They had lunch, and then came in to listen to part of the debate. I had some most appreciative letters from them afterwards, one of which was most interesting. It said:I had for many years many ambitious ideas for reforming the House of Lords, but now that I have seen it in action, I think I prefer it as it is.This was from a young and, presumably, unbiased person, and evidently the House—it was not, so far as I remember, a particularly interesting day—must have made a very good impression upon her.
I am afraid I cannot share the reverence which the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, has for an elected Chamber and the democratic system. Democracy, after all, has its shortcomings. When one considers that the electorate consists to quite a major degree of people who have not the faintest idea of what they are voting for or why they are voting, and merely put a cross to a list because 1362 presumably it is going to do them some good, one realises that democracy has its shortcomings.
In the same way, the hereditary system has its advantages. I agree that there are shortcomings there, too, but there are advantages in an hereditary system. One of them is this—a very obvious one, and it is true of heredity in any profession. When you have been brought up in the atmosphere of that particular profession and have learned to cultivate an interest in it from boyhood and have, as is the case, of course, with heirs of hereditary Peers, the opportunity of being able to hear and listen to debates, and have heard your father talk about the more interesting subjects, you acquire a considerable knowledge of what is going on in the country before you even succeed. That is, I think, a great advantage of the hereditary system.
I am not saying that it is without disadvantages. It certainly has them, and I think most certainly that something should be done to stop this (as it has been called) built-in majority for the Conservative Party. But I think that that could be done in more than one way. It could be done by creating more Labour Life Peers; it could be done by a control of the membership of this House by limiting it to those who have attended for a certain percentage of the Sittings, or by some other method like that. As to the backwoodsmen, those who never have come near the place, some of whom have not bothered even to take their seats, I do not think we really need bother about them. They will not come, and we need not worry about them. Many of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, said, are busy earning their own living.
As to the powers of the House, I agree that one cannot discuss the constitution of the House without thinking of its powers as well. I agree that it should not have absolute power over the elected House, but I think that the powers which have been taken from this House and which were not absolute could be restored. I do not think there is any point at all in having a Second Chamber—and I think we are all agreed on the fact that we should have a Second Chamber—which is completely powerless. I think also that the insistence of this House on its Amendments, which power has never 1363 been exercised so far as I can remember while I have been here—and that is 14 years—could be exercised a little more often. As many noble Lords have said, I think that this House functions very well, and we should really think twice before trying to reform it simply because we have a theoretical objection to a system which works very well, and a theoretical adherence to some other system which might not work nearly so well.
§ LORD STRABOLGI
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he would explain a little more fully what he meant when he said that the powers that had been taken from the House of Lords should be restored to it. A great many powers have been taken from the House during this century; for example, the power of control over finance, the power to reject a Bill outright, and so on. Was it his intention that all these powers should be restored, or only the ones taken since the last war?
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, by no means all of them, of course. I was referring to the ones taken more recently: for instance, a reduction of the delaying power from two years to one, and certain other minor powers. By no means all of them, no.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ LORD GIFFORD
My Lords, in view of what has been said during the debate this afternoon, I feel that I am expected to present the "with it" view of this particular problem, and I must say that this puts me in an embarrassing position. I think my only option is to make a speech which is either so devastatingly Left Wing or so shockingly bad that your Lordships will conclude that the House would be better off without me. Because, as your Lordships may know, I do not want to have any part of this system which enables me to be here. In fact, I rather mistrust this "young man" argument. I believe it to be a last-ditch argument put up by the Conservative Party in wanting to retain the privileges of their aristocracy.
They have argued in the past that hereditary Peers are fitted by their breeding to sit here. They have now abandoned that argument. They have argued that the aristocracy represents the best in 1364 society. They have abandoned that. They have argued that a Peer is uniquely capable of interpreting the popular will. They have abandoned that. Now they throw at us who wish to reform the House the argument, "What kind of a system can you think of which would allow young men to attend?", and they do so with such success that my poor noble friend Lord Champion is forced to admit that he cannot think of one. My Lords, I say, "Let us axe the 'young man'". Our contribution is very small compared to the volume of work done by older men. Not every one is a grey-beard here; the noble Baroness is no grey-beard, and many other noble Lords are no greybeards; and I am sure my noble friend Lord Champion has nothing to worry about if the hereditary young men in this House no longer appear here.
I want to go straight into the question of composition, because I believe that this is the really relevant subject of our debate this afternoon. Power is rather an academic question. The House of Lords has no effective power at the moment, as recent debates have shown. What really matters is who should sit here, and the really urgent reform which is needed is the removal of the blight of the hereditary element. I have heard many noble Lords talk of the respect and the love which they have for this House. My position is that, while I respect the ability and the contributions of many of the individuals who sit in this House, in so far as this House is on an hereditary basis (and here I hope I speak as Lord Champion would have spoken when he was my age), I abominate this House; I find it repugnant, and I am ashamed that it should be part of the British Parliament. I hear my noble friend asking me why I come here. I hope that I can take some part in improving it.
I should have thought that members of all Parties should be vying with each other in making proposals for the removal of the anomalous and unrepresentative element and I am very glad that the Liberal Party, at least, is stepping in and saying firmly that reform of the composition is necessary. The present composition does no credit to this country or to Parliament, and I should have thought it cannot be considered desirable by the Conservative Party that all the influence which this House can command by reason of the 1365 distinguished nominated membership is utterly emasculated by the existence of the hereditary vote.
Members of the Party opposite—indeed, members of all Parties—like to talk of what this House does and what this House thinks. My Lords, this House collectively has no influence at all. Everybody knows that when this House expresses its view by vote, the size of the Labour Party's defeat depends merely on the number of hereditary Conservative Peers who happen to be attending. The result is that when people read in the papers about a Government defeat in the Lords, they laugh; they attach no meaning to it. A further result is that the House of Commons is unwilling to entrust this House with further responsibilities and further functions which it might well want to entrust to a more representative Chamber. If this House is a laughing stock, and if it is not thought fitted to take on further responsibilities, surely we should all wish to make reforms to it.
Some of my noble friends will say (they have not said it to-day, but I have heard it said): "Let the House be a laughing stock; then the House of Commons can carry on its work untrammelled." I find this a wrong-headed and narrow-minded view. I cannot see how a Second Chamber composed much as this one is at present, but without the hereditary element—and with, of course, many of the hereditary Members who would be appointed Life Peers—without any powers of suspension or veto, entrusted by the Commons with useful and mainly non-controversial work for which the House of Commons has no time, a House in which the governing Party would hold at least a relative majority, would pose the slightest threat to the Commons or to the Labour Party. On the contrary, believing as I do that any objective person must recognise that Labour policies are right, I think that such a Chamber would disapprove of Tory measures far more often than Labour.
There is another factor which my noble friends seem to have forgotten. Can our Party really tolerate for much longer the presence of the aristocracy in the Legislature of this country? I can appreciate that reform of the Lords occupies a low priority on the Government's list, and it is right that there are many other things far more worthy of being reformed. But 1366 looking ahead, perhaps, to the next Labour Manifesto, are we honestly prepared to admit that we can think of nothing better than what we have at the moment, and that we are obliged to bolster up the prestige of the upper classes? I do not think so. I thought that one of the inspirations of the Labour movement was its determination to fight against privilege. The fight is not over, and if the Labour Government would face up to this problem I believe that it would redound to their credit all over the country and would take us one step further towards the kind of society we want to see.
I have already indicated the kind of Chamber that I should like to see, and I believe it could be very simply arrived at. It would retain all the good features of the present House, and, indeed, would be similar to it. Three years ago, in a debate on this subject, I said that about two-thirds of the work of this House was done by people who would be members of a reformed Chamber, and with the ending of the creation of hereditary Peers this percentage is going up every year. It may be that an independent body will be necessary to secure certain limits of Party representation. It might be that as time went on further variations would be thought right. For instance, it might be considered right to introduce Members sitting for the life of a Parliament only—even young Members. It might be that, as a transitional measure, those hereditary Peers who now attend could continue to attend, perhaps deprived of the vote. But surely in this kind of thinking there is scope for the type of reform which, in the best conservative traditions of the English Constitution (and here I am not being revolutionary at all) creates a new institution by building on what is best in the old one.
If that were to be done, then the really important and constructive reforms of the functions of this House could well be considered. If this House were to become a body really worthy of respect, and seen to be worthy of respect by reason of its composition, with Members paid a reasonable remuneration for their services, then more of the work of Parliament could be entrusted to it. Public interest demands that Parliament does its work effectively, and with the growing complexity and power of the Executive 1367 it will be increasingly necessary for a Second Chamber to play its full part. For instance, there are possibilities in the realm of scrutinising legislation and administration. But to-night I will simply say this: that so long as the House of Lords retains its present composition it will remain merely a sleeping partner of the House of Commons, unable to serve the public interest as it should.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ LORD ROBERTSON OF OAK-RIDGE
My Lords, I should like to say how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, for putting this Motion on our Order Paper. Ever since I entered this Chamber I have longed to hear a good debate on the constitution and powers of the House of Lords, and I have certainly listened to a good debate this afternoon. It has been particularly good in that the speeches have been short, and I will not spoil matters by making a long speech. In point of fact I have not had the time to think out a long speech.
I intend to start by making a remark which I hope will not offend my many friends on all sides of the House. During my life I have constantly been surprised by the rather large number of men in political life whose political judgment is not as good as it ought to be. I once spoke with the Permanent Secretary of one of our Ministries. We were talking about his Minister and, after a moment of silence, he said, "The Minister makes all his decisions for political reasons; the trouble is his political judgment is nearly always wrong". This remark is certainly not directed at anybody here this afternoon, but we are all liable to make remarks which we should not make if we thought the matter out politically a little more deeply.
I am going to be so bold as to say that I think the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, has made a mistake when he said that there is no urgency in this matter. He does not sense any public demand for any urgent action. I think that was a mistaken thing to say. In fact, I do not think he really believes it himself. If the Conservative Party is going to maintain over the years an attitude of "nothing is to be changed", then one day they will wake up and find that a very big change has been made with which they are most uncomfortable.
1368 There is one point I think we ought to remember when we talk about public opinion. What is public opinion? The majority of little boys and little girls are "born into this world alive", either ardent supporters of the Labour or Liberal Parties, or they are "little Conservatives". But there is a section of the population which is not like that; a section of men and women who think things out for themselves and who, at various periods in our history, have suddenly intervened with great and drastic effect. This question of the House of Lords is such a one, and it is important that the political Parties should think it out carefully.
As to my own view on the subject, I will give it briefly. I think the essentials are, first of all, that we need a Second Chamber. We need a Second Chamber that is held in high esteem in the country and which has some real effect upon the decisions of the Government. Secondly, the in-built majority of the Tory Party is, as the noble Lord, Lord Alport, said (and I think I was in 100 per cent. agreement with his speech) a source of great weakness to this House and a great weakness to the Conservative Party. That ought to be recognised and something done about it. I also think it is a mistake to imagine that the country would accept a House that was a mere gasholder. The people to whom I have referred, who stand in the middle of politics, who think things out for themselves, are the sort of people who know—rightly, as I believe—that a single-Chamber Legislature is a very dangerous thing and that to adopt it is to put one's foot on the slippery slope of dictatorship. Many of these people, I believe, are saying already to-day, "Our Government is not rightly constructed; there is too much power in the hands of too few men"; and if that were made even worse, I believe they would speak their minds and tell us exactly what they think in no uncertain terms.
During my short membership of the House the esteem in which this House has been held has gone up enormously, and that is owing mainly to the introduction of Life Peerages. A fellow called Bagehot, who wrote a hundred years ago, said of this House:
The House of Lords would become a good second Chamber if it did away with proxy 1369 voting. It would become the best second Chamber in any Parliament if it adopted the principle of Life Peers.That was a hundred years ago, and the measure has been adopted with wonderfully good effect; and I personally agree with the policy of the present Government in their creation of Peerages.
Those are the only thoughts I want to put to your Lordships to-night. I think this is a matter which should be thought out carefully, to which the answer can be come only after consultation between the political Parties, with, I hope, a slight representation from the Independents, and that we should not move with precipitation, but we should move.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, in rising to make the last speech from this side of the House, I know that there is no chance of my developing all my considered thoughts on the subject of this House. When I saw that I should be immediately followed by the noble Earl, the Leader of the House, my mind went back to a debate on December 5, 1957, which was also a debate about the House of Lords, in which he immediately followed me. I like to think that there are certain things we have in common: a love of this House, I think, and a love of Parliament. I think I am the eighth speaker to-day who has served both in another place and here. I may say I also spoke more recently in the debate on the Motion of my noble friend, Lord Alport, on July 4 of last year.
One of the things that astonishes me most about this debate is the number of noble Lords who have spoken about what is desirable for this House but not of what is desirable for Parliament. Of course, there have been exceptions to that. But my approach is to consider what is good for Parliamentary Government, and I would assure noble Lords in all quarters that I shall say nothing for this House which I do not believe to be in the interests of Parliament as a whole. In this country Parliamentary Government has a long and splendid history. I served some twenty years in the Commons, and I have served some twelve years in this House. If some noble Lords who have spoken are correct, I have entirely wasted the last twelve years of my life, in which House, in which I imagined, perhaps quite my principal activity has been in this 1370 wrongly, that I was serving worthy public causes.
The first and most obvious fact about the subject that we are considering is that the composition and powers of this House are indissolubly connected. You cannot separate, if you are to make any useful contribution to our discussion, the question of composition and the question of powers. I shall not endeavour to give my own proof of that proposition, because it was the unanimous conclusion of all three Parties who took part in the discussion which culminated in the White Paper of 1948, to which much reference has been made. That discussion broke down because they were all agreed that powers and composition were indissolubly connected, and, since they could not come to an agreed decision on powers, they could not come to agreement on anything. It is perfectly true—and here I do not question the use made of the document by noble Lords—that we know, if they had been able to agree about powers, how far they had gone in agreement on composition. But we really cannot consider one without the other.
Let me assume, and I am going to assume it for the moment, that with certain possible exceptions noble Lords in this House are agreed that there ought to be a Second Chamber with some powers. There is a Party in the State that does not take that view. The Communist Party thinks that this House ought to be abolished, and members of other Parties who share that view ought to observe the company they are keeping. It is a perfectly tenable view, though I do not share it, that we ought to have single-Chamber government. But if you reject that view, as I believe the immense majority of people in this country do, then you must face the intimate connection between composition and powers.
The fact about the House of Lords is that of all the celebrated Second Chambers throughout the world it now has the smallest powers. Almost the solitary power that it possesses is the power of limited delay. It can so delay matters that legislation, apart from Money Bills, can only be carried in defiance of the House of Lords, if the same Bill is introduced in two Sessions and a period of at least a year elapses between the date of the Second Reading in the House of 1371 Commons in the first Session and the date of the Third Reading in that House in the second. That is the only power that this House possesses.
I am not myself an advocate of increased powers for this House, but what I think every serious student knows is this; that, if you changed the composition, you would almost certainly increase the powers. I am not in favour of that; but there was a unanimous conclusion of all Parties that these two problems are indissolubly connected, and I invite the attention of this House to the fact that of all Second Chambers in the world, this House has the smallest powers.
It is sometimes assumed, quite wrongly, that this House, as it exists at present, is indefensible in the country. As I ventured to point out in the debate in 1957, this is always asserted either by those who have no experience at all of the hustings, or by those who in another place sat for a safe seat. I never sat for a safe seat, but in twenty years' experience in the House of Commons never once was I embarrassed on a public platform by any heckling on the subject of the powers, the composition or the performance of the House of Lords.
May I give a slightly comic story that is true and that I gave to the House on a previous occasion? I was once heckled by a Socialist who said that a most deplorable nationalisation Bill, introduced by the Socialist Government, had passed into law, and asked why the House of Lords had not stopped it. I had to explain that the House of Lords did not consider it as its duty to stop the enactment of laws for which the country had voted at a General Election. I do not know whether he was satisfied, but at any rate we remained on friendly terms.
If this House is to be valuable at all, its powers must not be limited to revision. As the late Lord Samuel often said in eloquent speeches, it must be in every sense a House of Parliament. I once ventured to quote the celebrated line of Terence: "Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto." Roughly adapted, that means: "We are a House of Parliament; we can discuss anything under the sun." We can discuss these things quite usefully.
1372 I have taken part in many debates initiated by Members on all sides of the House, many of which had their immediate influence on current events. In view of the late hour, I shall not quote them. Of one of them I was reminded in to-day's issue of The Times—William Holford's plan for the surroundings of St. Paul's. I do not believe that that plan would ever have been carried out but for a debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in which I and several others took part. We were unanimous against an attempt which was then about to be made, to secure that that plan should not be carried out. I could mention many other subjects. It happens that I am greatly concerned with amenities, architecture, the preservation of the countryside and many other subjects, on which this House has not proved at all impotent.
But the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, comes down with a quite simple proposal this afternoon; namely, "Let us abolish all its remaining powers. Let us sweep them away." The first thing that strikes me about that is the extraordinary lack of any modesty. After all, the British Constitution is a rather famous Constitution. The British Parliament is perhaps the most famous in the world. In a phrase, often misquoted, England was described by John Bright as "the Mother of Parliaments". That phrase is often inaccurately attributed to the Parliament of Westminster itself, of which of course it is not a description. A well-known captain of the Oppidans, as the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, is, might, I think, show a little more modesty in proposing to throw out the British Constitution just because it has caused him some temporary inconvenience.
I am delighted that some sense has been talked in this debate from both sides of the House. There was the admirable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and a speech that gave me great pleasure from the noble Baroness, Lady Stocks. Perhaps her speech gave me particular pleasure, because 21 years ago we were opponents at an election for the House of Commons. There were several candidates, but I had the good fortune to win, she being the runner-up. I think it was on the occasion of the count at the Combined English Universities by-election that we first met, and it is one of the joys of life in this 1373 House that, although we are on opposite sides, I have as a colleague in this House so admirable a former opponent and so good a Parliamentarian.
On the contribution of this House as at present constituted to the great debates of the day I shall say nothing, because it is well-known to every section of the House. If the noble Earl the Leader of the House will permit me to say so, when he was in Opposition we owed him a great debt for the number of useful debates that he initiated, using our good formula of moving for Papers.
The noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, proposes to abolish all the remaining powers of this House. I will examine in a moment the reasons for this, but let me say that, with one possible exception, I am wholly opposed to everything he proposes. One of the things he proposed was that if we passed an Amendment to a Statute, the House of Commons should not even have to consider or debate it. If I understood him correctly, although they might sometimes accept an Amendment which we in this House had passed and which was lying on the Table, they might think fit to substitute an Amendment of their own which they thought was on the same subject, and which I gather we should never have any opportunity of considering at all. That, I understand, is the noble Lord's proposal.
§ LORD MITCHISON
No, that is not quite right; and let us get it right. There are derivative Amendments at present. Although they are not always called that, it is a convenient word, and I meant no more than that.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, the noble Lord may not have meant any more than that; but the House has not got the slightest conception of what he means by it.
§ LORD CONESFORD
Well, it is a pretty stout volume. I have studied numerous passages in Erskine May on many occasions. I understand the noble Lord's proposal is that, if the House of Commons makes what it considers to be a derivative Amendment, then this House shall have no opportunity whatever of considering whether it is good 1374 or bad, if the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, says that that is not his proposal, he can either interrupt me now or subsequently; otherwise the House will justly conclude that what I have said is true.
Then he gave various rules as to the way this House should behave. With some of his propositions I was in some agreement; but, of course, what he described is the exact opposite of what his Party habitually practise. He said that we should never divide against the Second Reading of a Bill passed by the House of Commons. The only occasion that I remember such a thing being done in this House was when the Labour Opposition divided against the London Government Bill in 1963. That, so far as I know, is the only attempt in this House in recent years to thwart the will of the Commons on the Second Reading of a Bill. But the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, assumes that it is only the Tories who are guilty of this sort of conduct. In the eleven or twelve years in which I have been a Member of the House the solitary attempt on these lines has been made by the Labour Party.
Then he mentioned with disapproval an Amendment on something connected with money which I carried in this House, an Amendment dealing with debentures when the Iron and Steel Bill was before this House. I wonder whether he is aware that in the National Health Service (Amendment) Act 1949 the Amendments which made possible the prescription charges were introduced by the Socialist Government in this House. Those were not unimportant Amendments. They were Amendments on the strength of which the present Prime Minister and the late Mr. Bevan resigned. I think we should have a little less from the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, suggesting that the pretensions in this House to have some powers were always raised by the Tories and never by his Party.
If I may now deal with the question of the composition of the House, surely the question is not whether we like the hereditary principle, or would introduce it if it were not already there, but are the alternatives suggested better or worse? One alternative was raised in this debate, in the first instance, I think, by Lord Byers (and as this is the first time I have spoken since he has been made Leader 1375 of his Party, perhaps I can add my congratulations, since he is an old personal friend of mine from House of Commons days) when he suggested that, for at any rate part of the House, it should be subject to elections. I am wholly against that, and for a very simple reason: nothing would be more resented by the House of Commons. There is no possible form of election that would not make this House a rival of the House of Commons in some way in which it is not at present. I think that the idea of any form of election is completely wrong.
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, while thanking him very much for his congratulations, not to misinterpret what I said? What I said was in the context of the development of regionalism and the natural aspirations of the Scots, the Welsh, and the Northern Irish to be represented here. Therefore, there is, I think, a case for some part of this House having people from these regions either, I said, by election or by nomination—by election only if there were proportional representation.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for interrupting me to correct any misunderstanding of my words, but I am wholly against this House representing anything but itself, for the simple reason, which was well given by the noble Lord, Lord Champion: that this is the one Second Chamber in the world in which nobody who rises to speak is even tempted not to be honest. There is no reason at all in this House why we should not always say what we think. That is something of the very greatest value.
If we exclude election, I wonder why we should necessarily condemn the present system. This system of a certain number of hereditary Peers has something in common with sheer chance. We choose our juries by chance. The use of chance does not necessarily give one a very bad result. Perhaps I might remind the House (I hope your Lordships will forgive an old classical scholar quoting this example) that in the year 487 B.C. the Athenian democracy introduced the use of the lot as an improvement in democracy for the purpose of electing their Archons.
Naturally, I am not suggesting for one moment that this House is not capable 1376 of being improved. Of course it is. It would be a much better place if we were all better men; but it would not be improved, I think, by altering our procedure in any important way. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was absolutely wrong when he suggested that it would be a good idea for somebody on the Woolsack or elsewhere to have a power to call to order for irrelevance. It is perfectly true that some noble Lords are at times irrelevant. Nobody knows that better than the noble and learned Lord who sits so patiently on the Woolsack; but perhaps he will accept a fact from me, based on twenty years' experience in the House of Commons, that much more time is wasted in the House of Commons by points of Order on whether a Member is or is not in order, than is spent in this House by a noble Lord being at times irrelevant.
The noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, rose to reply to a noble Lord on this side of the House and said that he was not at all disgruntled. That may have been true, but we all know that he was by no means "gruntled", to use that glorious expression of Mr. P. G. Wodehouse. The powers of the House of Lords are to him what King Charles's head was to Mr. Dick, and I often think that Charles Dickens showed extraordinary foresight in naming that character "Mr. Dick".
§ 7.39 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, it is always a joy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Conesford. I shall be taking up one, at least, of his large themes sympathetically later on, but meanwhile I should like to thank him for attributing to me a love of this House which I share with him. Certainly there are a number of us here who love this House. The noble Lord, Lord Champion, showed a deep love of the House, as did many other speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Stocks, but I hope we shall all agree that there is a good deal to be said for somebody speaking to us who does not particularly love the House as an institution, though I am sure that he loves us all as fellow human beings. I think we would all agree—and the noble Baroness, Lady Asquith of Yarnbury, implied it—that possibly our one grave fault here is a tendency to mutual admiration, and it is very salutary when some young Peer comes along and says that he 1377 does not think this is the most wonderful place, and that he does not regard it as a unique privilege to be among us. It is just possible that his opinion might be at least as valuable as that of anybody else.
I feel that this qualification, which I share with the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and particularly with the noble Baroness, Lady Stocks, is not necessarily the only one. This House may or may not be the wisest; we agree that it is not the strongest Chamber in the world, but it seems to be the most seductive. When people have been here a few years they undoubtedly fall deeply in love with the place, and we know the consequence of that. But at any rate I was very glad—I think we must all be particularly glad—to hear what fell from the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, and I hope he speaks to us very often, even if his sentiments are not those of most Members of the House.
We are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, for initiating this debate, and for the way he spoke—so ripe in experience, so youthful in spirit, so gentle and yet so deadly. I felt that he had got under the skin of some noble Lords when the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, described him as disgruntled, and the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, said that he was far from gruntled. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn (who I realise has been here a good many years longer than I have, and I have been here over twenty), that I feel that noble Lords are entitled to criticise this place the first day they arrive. I do not believe that one has to wait, as in my case, twenty years or, as in the case of the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, longer still, before one offers any thoughts at all about the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, modestly suggested that he might be regarded as a hopeless reactionary. Since he went on to tell us that he was looking forward to the day when some of the lost powers were restored to the House of Lords, I would call him a very hopeful traditionalist. I think I would leave the argument there between him and the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison.
The noble Lord, Lord Harlech, discounted the idea that there was any urgency to be attached to this subject, and he was rebuked, I thought quite justly, by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson 1378 of Oakridge. But if I may respectfully put it in this way to the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, I thought that although he apparently claimed that the Conservative Party had not given much attention to the question which we are discussing, he had given a lot of thought to it himself and he adopted a far from reactionary line. I would not say that he went all the way with some of us, but I think that when his speech is read it will seem quite radical and that eyebrows will be raised in many quarters. I think his speech showed a very hopeful trend. The noble Lord, Lord Byers, is clearly pursuing this subject even more actively on behalf of his Party than the noble Lord, Lord Harlech. He is setting up a committee and pushing very hard for a Liberal policy. I have very great hopes of what may come out of it, though again there were differences between my point of view and his.
It may be asked: How do the Government approach this debate? From the point of view of the Government, it may fairly be described as a "look and listen" debate. That will not prevent my speaking at some length but that is, at any rate, the angle from which we approach it. We do not come here with totally fixed ideas. Certainly this debate has not been promoted by the Government with a view to making some new or definitive statement of Government policy. I very much welcome the debate, but it springs from the unaided initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison.
I would, however, remind the House—which is hardly necessary, and certainly the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, referred to it, though not many other speakers did—that rather more than a year ago this Government were elected with a large majority on a Manifesto which included one specific reference to this House.Legislation"—we were told—
will be introduced to safeguard measures approved by the House of Commons from frustration by delay or defeat in the House of Lords.As we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, that is what we said at the time of the Election, and that is what we say to-day.
It is an obvious inference that, in some sense or other, reform of this House will once again be embarked upon during 1379 the present Parliament. I am not able to-day to go into any details, but it would be rather strange, in view of the Election promise, if nothing were done in that direction. May I remind noble Lords opposite that the House was certainly not left unchanged during the years of Conservative rule.
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, before the noble Earl leaves that point, may I put to him a point which I raised in my speech? Will there be consultation with the Parties before the legislation is introduced?
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I shall make sure that anything that was said to-day on those matters is carefully studied. I think we can all agree that great constitutional reforms are all the more satisfactory if there is agreement, but I cannot say any more until the remarks of noble Lords have been studied. I say in the most friendly way, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, that when, for example, the very beneficent change, as I think it now is, of Life Peers was introduced it was not an agreed measure. That was introduced by the Government of the day. I say that just to show that one must be careful before giving pledges when standing at the Box. But I quite agree about the desirability of the widest possible measure of agreement.
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, I do not want to press the noble Earl into a firm statement, but in 1948 the Labour Party did the right thing, in our view, of calling the Parties into consultation before legislation was brought forward.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, as I say, I am sure I can promise that what has been said will be studied with special care. But I am sure—and I must just add this—that the reforms which are brought forward will owe a great deal to what has been said or implied in our discussion to-day.
I repeat my gratitude for all the suggestions, and I am sorry that I missed most of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier. But if we take that particular concrete suggestion which he made, that the Life Peerages should be separated from the other Honours, I will see that it is given particular attention. 1380 My own emphasis is comparatively novel, though I will not pretend that it differs in all respects from what has been said by other speakers. I can illustrate my emphasis, perhaps, from the writings of Dr. Bernard Crick which have aroused a good deal of well-merited attention in the last few years. Dr. Crick makes two points in particular, though they go closely together. In the first place, he insists—and here I am quoting him—that:no real progress can be made in clarifying or reforming the relationship between the Executive and Parliament until Parliament is looked at as a whole and not just the House of Commons—which he was then setting out to discuss. That is what I meant when I said just now that I was very much in sympathy with one of the larger themes developed by the noble Lord, Lord Conesford.
Secondly, Dr. Crick asserts-and here again I am quoting him—that:the key to any worthwhile reform of the Lords is no longer the question of its powers, even of its composition, but primarily of its true function. Argument about powers…is over; and argument about composition can only be fruitful if it is first made clear what is the nature of the task for which people are needed".Until we know what we want the Peers to do, we cannot really agree on the kind of quality which we desire of them.
I must not commit the Government to anything new at this point, but I feel able to express a strong personal sympathy for both propositions. I accept, first, the need for considering the reform of Parliament as a whole, not just taking one Chamber in isolation from another. Also, I look upon it as our overriding duty to consider the proper functions of our Second Chamber, in addition to its powers and composition. The Election Manifesto, to which I referred just now, said that we wouldimprove and modernise the work of Parliamentin order toreinforce the democratic element in modern Government ".We have been witnessing an impressive list of reforms, actual or projected, in another place. I mention, for example, the setting up of Select Committees on Agriculture and on Science and Technology, and the experiment of morning sittings; and there is much else.
1381 We in this House have agreed to experiment in one field where, up to now, the other place has hesitated to tread. We have agreed to an experiment, at any rate, in the televising of our proceedings. But otherwise we seem, in our two-and a-half years of Government, content with our old ways. We still attempt, for example, to do all our Business on the Floor of the House, when perhaps we could do some of it, at least, more efficiently in Committee upstairs. I am always ready to agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and with my noble friend Lord Silkin, and with the noble Lord, Lord Alport, who has left us, that we must give unremitting attention to our procedure, but I will not say more about that to-night.
I do say one thing, however, to the noble Baroness, Lady Asquith of Yarn-bury: that there is a limit to what we can do on our own in these matters. She made a very striking speech, which I much admired, but she said at one point, I think, that we must try to set our own House in order. We can go some way along that line, but, of course, it must become part of a general policy for Parliament as a whole. Nevertheless, every Member of this House clearly has a right and a duty to offer his thoughts to the best advantage.
My Lords, the last great attempt at reform by general agreement was made, as we have heard several times to-day, at the All-Party Conference of 1948. The Conference broke down over the period of delay—that is, on powers; although the actual difference was not very large. It is usually said to have been three months, although there is sometimes a little argument on that point. But, looking back, it is striking to observe—and various speakers have made this point —how much tentative agreement was reached on composition. I do not think one can talk as though hard and fast agreement was reached, because really all that was reached was a basis for further exploration; but still, it is remarkable how far they got towards agreement. And to-day we have heard from various speakers—for example, Lord Byers, Lord Strang and the right reverend Prelate— that 1948 would seem to make a good starting point for new talks.
1382 I will quote some of the proposals which the Party representatives wished to use as a basis for discussions if the matter of powers had been resolvable. First of all, it was agreed that the Second Chamber should be complementary, and not a rival, to the lower House; and secondly, that the revised constitution should be such as to secure as far as practicable that a permanent majority is not assured for any one political Party. That point in particular was dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Harlech. Thirdly, it was agreed that the present right to attend and vote based solely on heredity should not by itself constitute a qualification for admission to a reformed Second Chamber. Fourthly, it was agreed that Members of the Second Chamber should be styled "Lords of Parliament" and should be appointed on grounds of personal distinction or public service. They might be drawn either from hereditary Peers or from commoners who would be created Life Peers.
I will come back to those fundamental propositions, which have governed quite a section of this debate; but may I point out, before doing so, that some of the other reforms suggested by the Conference have been adopted? We have benefited delightfully from the presence of women. They have admirably improved our style and our elegance, and have greatly strengthened our knowledge of social questions. Then there has been the renunciation of Peerages. That has deprived us of some outstanding Members who are in the fond recollection of all of us, but I suppose we must see it as a step in the direction of human liberty, and certainly it is in line with what was proposed by the Conference of 1948.
But if we are going to claim, as can be done fairly enough, that this House to-day is substantially altered from the House of that time—say, twenty years ago—we must find certainly the main explanation in the coming of Life Peers under the Life Peerages Act 1958. The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, speaks with especial authority. I gather he can be regarded rather as unofficial "Father of the House." He put in a claim to that, and I am myself very happy to join in awarding it to him. I therefore think that his opinion is of especial value, not only for that reason but for all the disinterested service he has done in this House over so 1383 many years. But it was important that he should have reached that conclusion, that Life Peers had made this vast difference.
My Lords, accepting that, what of the House to-day? I will not attempt to assess the atmosphere or the culture of the House in these latter days. It is generally regarded as much more liberal, which is usually understood to be a complimentary word. In my eyes it is complimentary when applied to the attitude of the House in recent times to hanging and homo-sexualism, but not when applied to abortion. One really has to pick and Choose what is and what is not liberal.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
It may be, but religion is not a bad thing occasionally. It is not necessarily a vice. At any rate, I think we should all agree that the House has moved on and is generally regarded to be far more progressive to-day than it was in past years.
But let me deal with hard facts, which are less open to dispute—and no one will accuse me, I am sure, of introducing theology into these. In the first place, let us take our attendance. Many more of us come here. For example, in the Session 1954–55 the average daily attendance was 92, whereas in this period it is 194. It is twice as high. Last week it was over 200, and to-day it is 225. That is two-and-ahalf times what it was in the Session 1954–55. So this represents an important change. In the same ten years, the number of your Lordships who spoke at least once during a Session rose from 263 to 363—a rise of over a third. The number of Starred Questions, which I suppose we can regard as an index of vitality, rose from 203 to 370.
Let us then take a look at the composition of the House. At present, we have rather over 1,000 potential Members. Of these, 739 are Peers by succession, 130 are hereditary Peers but of the first creation, 138 are Life Peers (including 17 Law Lords and ex-Law Lords), while the Bishops remain at a constant 26. Here I hope I shall not be accused of religious prejudice if I turn aside to pay my tribute to the Bishops, who have, I think, made 1384 a magnificent contribution—an evermore magnificent contribution, if I may say so—as the years go by. Fortunately, perhaps, for those of us who attend regularly, these figures are not borne out by the actual attendance. That has gone up a great deal. Out of the total of rather more than 1,000, about 100 are without Writs of Summons for one reason or another, and another 190 or so are on Leave of Absence, and this reduces the House to 746. This can still be regarded as the upper maximum. The daily attendance, as I was saying just now, is in the 190s.
I am often asked—and I expect other noble Lords who perhaps speak about the House are asked—what proportion of the House regularly attend. I do not think it is possible to answer that question precisely, but it may be of interest if I say that during the last complete Session, 177 Peers attended 50 per cent. of the Sittings and 222 Peers came on a third of the possible occasions. But in giving these figures, I should certainly not like to give the impression that I am in any way critical of those who do not come here or speak very often. It is my firm belief that many of the occasional speakers are among the most valuable Members of the House, and I should always be nervous—and I was a little nervous when the noble Lord, Lord Byers, dealt with this related aspect—if the test of attendance were taken as a kind of measure of virtue. I think one should be very careful before adopting that particular criterion.
§ LORD BYERS
I would accept that; but there must obviously be a number of Peers who do attend. One could not have a House of those who attend only once every two or three years in their own specialist field. This is the balance that I feel one has to get in the House.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
I do not want to pursue this. Obviously, "balance" is the key word. At the moment leaning towards two hereditary Peers, if we take two hereditary Peers who have gone from us, the late Lord Halifax and the late Lord Feversham, I cannot imagine applying some test which would have ruled them out because they did not come very often from Yorkshire. When they did come, the whole House was most anxious to hear them. I am not dealing 1385 with the whole of the hereditary question, but I am pointing out the difficulties of taking too sharply the test of attendance.
My Lords, let us take the division by Parties. At present, the approximate division of the Parties is of this kind on paper. It is not easy to say, for example, how you rank the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, who I believe sits on the Cross Benches. I do not know what Whip he receives or in what form he receives any news of the proceedings of the House. There are noble Lords on the Cross Benches whose sympathies for the Labour Party are extremely well-known. But giving approximate figures, I would offer these: Conservatives, 350; Labour, 100; Liberal, 40—all these are approximate figures—and Communist, 1. That seems to be a definite figure, the others are approximate. Of the rest, the following are identifiable: Independents, about 96; Law Lords and ex-Law Lords, 17; Bishops, as I have said, 26. That makes a total of 632 in all. That suggests that the figure of 746 which I offered the House earlier cannot all be accounted for. In practice, if we are talking about the working membership of the House, then 630 or thereabouts would be a reasonable figure.
The predominance of the Conservative Party—and now I come to an issue of great importance—in the routine divisions is less remarkable than those figures suggest. The figures I gave were Conservative, 350, Labour, 100. If we take the voting on the Defence Estimates in March, 1966—a pretty straightforward well-organised Party demonstration, I think we might call it, on both sides—the voting against the Government was 107 to 55, with the Liberals voting in their own fashion; that is, two to one. On the Rent Bill, the numbers were much closer—I am taking the voting on some Amendments—they were 62 to 54 on one occasion and 54 to 49 and 56 to 35 on another. But more recently the gap has been wider, though this may be fortuitous. On the London Government Bill, the Conservatives won by 86 to 61; on the Iron and Steel Bill by 39 to 26; and on the Agriculture Bill by 89 to 42 and by 66 to 37. So no-one can deny that there is still a clear gap. I would say that the gap had narrowed. If you pick up a Division List on the Iron and 1386 Steel Bill in 1945 you find, for example, that 23 votes were cast for the Government and 86 votes against. The difference is not quite so pronounced now.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming fact remains—and I think that all Members of the House looking at this dispassionately (as I am sure does the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, as he is much concerned with this issue) realise this—that if the Conservatives in this House want to beat the Government they can still always do so. That is the clear fact. There is no getting away from that or thinking that it could be easily overcome by a small adjustment here. It would reed a large adjustment to alter that situation. This domination will never he altered while this remains in any sense a Chamber where all hereditary Peers, by virtue solely of their inherited titles, can come and vote. There is only one way to alter that—in my opinion it is a fantastic way—and that is to swamp the hereditary Peers by a vast creation of new Peers. But in any practical sense the proposition that I have laid down must, it seems to me, be accepted.
To take one simple illustration of the difference that the presence of hereditary Peers makes—I am not saying a word against them personally; for as the House knows I am myself an ambidexterous figure along with the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, in this discussion—let us take the Defence Division to which I referred, where the Opposition defeated the Government by 107 to 55 votes. If the voting had been confined to first creations, if hereditary Peers had not voted at all, the Government would have won by 44 votes to 29. That shows the difference on a well-organised Party occasion. While I have not any very carefully worked-out figures, in this case the hereditary Peers represented a good deal more than half the total vote. Roughly speaking, day in and day out, the hereditary Peers represent about half of those who go into the Division Lobbies on one side or another.
My Lords, returning for a moment to the proposition agreed as a basis in 1948, let me point out that we are still far from achieving the most fundamental aims that were laid down there. We are still far from ending the permanent majority of one Party. Although we have introduced 1387 Life Peers in the meanwhile, in the last resort the influence of the hereditary Peers is still decisive, when the Conservative Party wish to use it. The ultimate control by the Conservative Party and the continued predominance of the hereditary principle go hand-in-hand. This is a simple fact, and no one can deny that it is a fact. In my opinion it does not reflect on any individual whatever; it is just in the nature of things.
I was much struck by the clear statement of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, that, so long as there is a built-in Conservative majority, this House does not possess a rational basis. He quoted the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, to the same effect. I thought it was certainly very valuable to have that from him. The noble Lord, Lord Alport, went further and said that this fact, the predominance of one Party was the cause of our impotence. But whether that is an overstatement or not, I think it was very notable that the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, in discussing a form of composition, started from the proposition that the predominance of one Party was barely defensible, if it was defensible at all.
My Lords, I was referring just now to domination in the Division Lobbies. In terms of speechifying, oratory, the position is totally different. I am still talking entirely of quantities and not of quality, either way. The majority of the speaking is certainly done by the first-creation Peers. In the Session, 1964–65, for example, there were over 5,000 interventions by first-creation Peers against 3,300 interventions by Peers by inheritance. If you take three recent debates in this House you find, for example, that first-creation Peers (I use the term to include both those who were given hereditary Peerages and those who were given Life Peerages) were responsible for 14 speeches out of 20 in the debate on the Press; they were responsible for 13 out of 21 in the debate on economic growth and for 11 out of 15 on the Plowden Report. I have eliminated myself and the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, from both lists because we are, as I said, ambidextrous—some people would call us hermaphrodites. At any rate, I have left us both out. One would not be far wrong if one said that in the main debate, two-thirds of the speaking is done by first 1388 creation Peers. I am trying to give a little picture, for the benefit of noble Lords and others outside, of the House of Lords as it stands to-day.
May I now come back to reform? Nothing was said in the Manifesto about the composition of the House, though from both sides to-day the point has been strongly made that the composition and powers must be taken together. My noble friend Lord Rowley, from our side, argued that strongly; the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, and other speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, argued it from the Conservative Benches. As nothing is said in the Manifesto about composition, I must beg all those who note my words to understand that nothing should be read into my remarks which might suggest a new development of policy. It is certainly strange, to put it mildly, in 1967 to find a Second Chamber of potentially more than 1,000 people of whom more than 700 acquired their titles by inheritance. There is nothing remotely comparable to it in the world to-day. If we were starting afresh, beginning from scratch, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, would hardly say that he would have concocted a Chamber of this kind; and to me it is hardly credible that if we were making a new start we should devise any such Chamber, whatever our political persuasion.
It is just as incredible that the country would welcome or tolerate the establishment of a body of this sort, and with those thoughts in mind, my noble friend Lord Rowley referred to bitterness, and my noble friend Lord Champion agreed that there was still a strong radical within him when he thought of these facts. But what of this hereditary principle? I am sorry that the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, is not with us: I hope that he is not unwell. I am sorry that he is not with us—
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
—because he has spoken so eloquently in past years on the hereditary principle. To-day the hereditary principle was defended ingeniously along a new line, that it was the best way really of casting lots. The noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, told us that on the whole the hereditary Peers were perhaps more typical than all these nominated people. I am not caricaturing 1389 unkindly, but he implied that, on the whole, nominated men would be rather a pushing crowd, that they fought their way there, and were not like the ordinary, genial, benevolent citizens of the country; arid that one could get a better cross-section by the sheer accident of the hereditary process.
The noble Lord, Lord Conesford, cast a kind of Greek clothing over this by saying that there was something to be said for the process of the lot. Of course, we could have a Gallup Poll. I do not think the market research people would regard this as a very representative sample. I do not think they would take the view that the representative Peers were, in any known sense, typical of the country. If you wanted to draw lots, you could collect 700 people chosen by a lucky dip, but you would he unlikely to arrive at 700 hereditary Peers.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for yielding. I agree with him, of course, that this Chamber is unique among Second Chambers in this hereditary principle, but it is also unique in two other respects. First, no other Second Chamber in the world, so far as I know, has a higher reputation; and, secondly, no other Second Chamber in the world has such limited powers. What I was suggesting was that for the very limited powers, namely delay, the hereditary principle was the best until something better was suggested.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
Well, my Lords, the last point is harmless enough. I am always in favour of suggesting something better before I try to destroy something which is there.
But it is difficult to know in what sense this is an hereditary Chamber until it comes to the vote. Two-thirds of the speaking is done by people who have been selected on other grounds, so that if this House enjoys this vast reputation in the world, as I should like to think that it does, we have to bear in mind that we have all sorts of distinguished people here—great experts, professors, business leaders and all the rest—for whom there is no parallel, so far as I know, in any Second Chamber in the world. The peculiar fact about this House is that we have, on the one hand, hereditaries and, on the other, all these 1390 nominated experts. Most Second Chambers are full of somewhat elderly politicians, so undoubtedly this is a very strange place.
Let us take just the hereditary principle—and I will not argue it at any length now. Certainly Labour and Liberal sympathisers, who still cover rather more than half the country, and a great many others who would not be included in their ranks, as well as, I should think, a good many Conservatives (though that is not for me to say) would presumably tell us, if they were asked, that they were strongly opposed to the idea of an hereditary element as a permanent feature of the British Second Chamber. I think that would be the opinion of everybody in the Labour and Liberal Parties, and a good many others besides.
My Lords, I should like to know from the noble Earl whether or not he has any sympathy with the view expressed by Lord Morrison of Lambeth: that it was necessary from the Labour point of view that there should be an hereditary element in order to act as a sort of guarantee that this House would not seriously challange what he called the democratic principle though I think he meant the Government.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I have sympathy with every other view that I can recollect having been expressed by Lord Morrison of Lambeth, except that one. I hope that that makes my position plain enough. But that is not the same thing as saying that all these people who regard themselves as progressive would wish, or would necessarily agree, to eliminate this element to-morrow. It is one thing to say that it ought to go, and another to agree on what should be put in its place. Clearly, that would depend on their decision. I do not think, and the noble Viscount the Father of the House has told us—
My Lords, I must correct this. I think the noble Earl said that he would look upon me as the unofficial Father of the House, which is a somewhat dubious reputation. In point of fact, there are five Peers who have longer service but who hardly ever come to your Lordships' House.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
At any rate, I would refer to the noble Viscount as the acting Father of the House.
I certainly do not set too high a value on the argument that the more irrational the composition of this House, the better. There are people who, frankly, want it to be as indefensible as possible; they think that then it cannot be dangerous. For myself—and in a great deal of this I am, naturally, speaking for myself—I have no use at all for that argument in trying to make real sense of our two-Chamber Parliament. I cannot believe that kind of reasoning will prevail, once the problem of a two-Chamber Parliament is approached in an adult fashion and taken, as the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, would have us take it, as a whole. If we provisionally agree to set aside the hereditary principle as a basis of the Second Chamber, then clearly we must be ready to put something in its place. I should hesitate to say at this moment that a consensus has emerged or that public discussion has really got under way on this question, though in a sense I can say that it is being inaugurated this evening in this House.
Some of us have had the duty of studying all available foreign experience, and this demonstrates that the basic choices are few and fairly simple. I leave out the role of a Second Chamber in a federal constitution, which is not relevant here. If we abandon the hereditary principle, the Second Chamber would be elected, directly or indirectly. Is it to be elected through the regions or is it to be nominated? Or we could have a combination of the two principles. But basically that is the cardinal issue, though there are many possible refinements. I would say that there is little doubt about how that issue will be settled in broad outline in this country.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Conesford—considering that I disagree with his viewpoint as a whole, it is amazing how much I agree with him on particular aspects—that any elected Chamber would be regarded as a rival by the House of Commons. I cannot believe that anything we could call an elected Chamber would ever be established here or tolerated. The logic of all this points inescapably to a nominated House.
1392 What, then, of the hereditary Peers? Clearly some would emerge as fully fledged nominated Peers. I am not talking of any number or in terms of voting strength, but only of personal distinction. It is inconceivable that noble Lords like Lord Harlech and Lord Carrington and the Chief Whip, my noble friend Lord Shepherd, would not receive whatever was necessary to establish themselves in full fig in the new Chamber. Obviously a number of Peers would be nominated on the ground of personal distinction. That was foreseen in the 1948 Agreement. If the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, will forgive me, I am not following him into numbers but would rather study what he and the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said in conjunction with my colleagues.
But what of the vast majority of hereditary Peers who could not qualify in this way? I do not think that we can get round this as some people think. They assume that we could trim the edges of the hereditary Peerage to comply with the principle that no one Party is to have a clear majority. I think we need a large change to meet the requirement the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, accepted. As my noble friend Lord Silkin suggested, we do not want to be brutal to the hereditary Peers, many of whom have done yeoman service in the House in many different ways and few of whom would be young enough to embark on a career in the House of Commons. I think it would be quite inadequate to tell them that they cannot come here and that they should go for another place. That would be derisory. We have to pay great attention to their individual positions and to the services they can render to the House.
If we accept the proposition that in the long run hereditary Peers must disappear totally from the House, is there any transitional arrangement which could overcome the position of the existing hereditary Peers? I am not going to commit the Government this evening. Various transitional arrangements could be worked out. I mention only one, which I recommended when I was in Opposition, which has been supported by my noble friend Lord Gifford, and which I also detailed in a book of memoirs. It is usually referred to as the two-writ plan. Under my interpretation of it, hereditary 1393 Peers would be allowed to come and speak as now, but not to vote unless a special voting writ was conferred on them.
May I draw the attention of the House to the special advantage of this plan? On the one hand, we should remove the extraordinary anachronism in this year of Grace, 1967, of a legislative House still dominated in the last resort by the hereditary principle, and, on the other, the life, the spirit, the tradition, the attractiveness, the special ethos, the rather remarkable courtesy and friendliness of this House, would be fully preserved. I submit that our views would be more effective in future because they would no longer be associated in the public mind, fairly or unfairly, with one particular layer of society and one particular Party. My noble friend Lord Gifford put it more strongly than someone my age would put it, when he said that people do not take our decisions seriously because they are the opinions of a body nominated in a particular way. I think that the influence of the House would be considerably enhanced by a proposal of this kind. However, I am speaking only for myself and do not want anyone to suppose that this is a governmental proposal.
There are other questions of far from negligible importance into which I will not go now. If Peers are to be nominated, are they to be nominated for life or for a period of years or for one Parliament? Do we want full-time Peers or mostly Peers who would be part-time, with some full-time Peers? Who, if anyone, will be paid, and how much? And in making nominations should we not consider regional nominations, not only for Britain and Northern Ireland but also for the Commonwealth? Clearly there are many issues here and I have only opened them up to-day.
But as I draw towards a close, it is time to turn to powers and functions, taking them together, because I do not think that we can draw an absolute line in this discussion between powers and functions. By powers I mean what the House can insist on doing and by functions I mean the service which the House would ordinarily render. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington—I fully understand the reason for 1394 his absence, which I very much regret—recently defined what he called the functions of the House of Lords under three headings: first, a revisionary function, and secondly, the function of a forum, in which the great issues of the day could be debated with great authority. Thirdly, he said that…there could arise a matter of great constitutional and national importance on which there was known to be a deep division of opinion in the country or perhaps on which the people's opinion was not known."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16/2/67; col. 420.]In that case, it seemed to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that the House of Lords had a right and perhaps a duty to afford the people of the country and Members of the House of Commons a period of reflection and a time for views to be expressed. He added that he thought that it would not be possible to use such powers more than once.
I entirely agree with the statement of the first two functions suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington; that is, the revisionary function, which the House has recently been carrying out in such a valuable way, for example on the Companies Bill and the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill, and the function of exercising public influence and educating the public mind through our general debates. Certainly we are, as has been said by more than one speaker, remarkably well equipped, in a way that the House of Commons cannot claim to be, through the possession of such a large body of part-time experts, of national and international fame in many cases.
But when we reach the third of Lord Carrington's functions, the power, the right of resistance in certain cases, we cannot go along with him. We on this side of the House could never agree to any Second Chamber, and least of all a Second Chamber which in the last resort could be dominated by hereditary legislators, which could be permitted to resist the will of the elected House or force a reference to the people by laying claim to be the interpreters of the popular will.
The real danger to a Labour Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, has well brought out, and which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, stressed strongly, arises in the last year or 18 months of its life. At that point, the Conseravtives could do through the House of Lords what they could not do through the House of 1395 Commons; that is, they could bring legislation to a standstill and force a General Election. In other words, a Conservative Government elected with a substantial majority can count on five years of effective life, a Labour Government on only four. Hence, the reference in the Election Manifesto which I mentioned earlier.
But I do not wish to close on a negative note. Those who have studied such works as those of Professor Crick and other constitutional thinkers may be asking themselves whether there are not new functions which a rational Second Chamber could be allotted; and it is for a rational Second Chamber that I personally shall always plead. Are there functions not now performed by this House which could be undertaken without any challenge to the Commons: functions which could supplement and complement the work of the Commons, and which might even by undertaken at their invitation? Professor Crick argues strongly that there are. The examination of subordinate legislation is one of the examples.
Personally, I am sure that the House of Lords—and I am sure everyone here agrees with this—could play a still larger part in initiating Bills, whether Government or Private Members' Bills. There is a big field for expansion there. I do not wish to give even an impression of committing the Government this evening, but I should like to leave all who hear or read these words with the hope that reform of the House of Lords need not weaken its influence for good in the future, but may enable it to perform still more distinguished services to the nation than those it has rendered in the past.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ LORD MITCHISON
My Lords, I hear the distant urgent dinner gong. This, surely, is no time to speak for long. I should like to thank everybody who has said kind words about me. There have been quite a number who thought that everything I said was utterly wrong. I 1396 should like to thank my noble Leader, and I think I know him well enough to say that he did at times make me wonder whether, on the composition of this House, we should not bring in the computer. That is not the serious comment that I want to make. What I want to say is quite short. I started this discussion about powers. I said nothing more about any other subject than I hoped would lead your Lordships to give your individual or Party views on composition and functions. It worked admirably, and I am grateful to everyone who has taken part.
So far as powers are concerned, I would stress that all I was suggesting your Lordships should do is to get rid of one power which has not been used since 1940, another power which has not been used since 1950, and of the power of reconsidering Amendments returned from the Commons and deciding whether or not to insist on them, which I think hardly anybody has defended to-day, and which seems to me to be something which has happened by accident.
I hope that I did not seem too violent and unreasonable. I thought myself that I was really putting forward some quite minor propositions; putting them forward strictly in accordance with the passage of the Election Manifesto, and putting them forward, of course, with my customary diffidence. I ask leave to withdraw the Motion, because I should not know what to do with the Papers if I got them.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.