HL Deb 20 June 1968 vol 293 cc863-9

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I should like now to repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been making in another place about the situation resulting from the vote in your Lordships' House on the Southern Rhodesia (United Nations Sanctions) Order 1968. His words are:

"As the House will be aware, the Southern Rhodesia (United Nations Sanctions) Order 1968 (Statutory Instrument 1968, No. 885) dated the 7th of June, 1968, made by Her Majesty in Council under the Southern Rhodesia Act 1965, which was approved by this House on Monday, the 17th of June, was on Tuesday rejected in another place.

"I do not intend to enter into the merits of this Order, which were argued in this House at length on Monday, and accepted by this House.

"What the Conservative majority in another place, are arrogating to themselves is that this elected chamber, and the Government of this country in its international relations and international commitments, can be frustrated, and its actions nullified, by another place, on one condition, namely that a Labour Government is in office. By a simple majority in another place they, accountable to none, have now, quite deliberately, sought to assert a power to put this country in default of international obligations solemnly entered into and particularly Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations which binds this country and all other members of the United Nations to implement decisions, having mandatory effect, of the Security Council.

"This decision was taken after the clearest warnings as to its meaning, and as to its consequences.

"No Government could for one moment tolerate action of this kind which was taken not in pursuance of any democratic objective, but in pursuance of calculated Party advantage.

"This House cannot accept what has happened and cannot but treat it as a denial of democracy and a total frustration of the spirit of our Constitution.

"This House will expect that the verdict of the elected Chamber will be given effect to. It is the Government's intention to advise Her Majesty to make a fresh Order in Council which both Houses will be asked to approve at the earliest possible moment.

"Sir, the House will recall the terms of the gracious Speech: 'Legislation will be introduced to reduce the powers of the House of Lords and to eliminate its present hereditary basis, thereby enabling it to develop within the framework of a modern parliamentary system.' "The House will be aware that on the initiative of Her Majesty's Government constructive talks have been continuing for several months about House of Lords reform, talks which have been directed both to the powers of another place and to its composition, in the confident and not unreasonable hope that an all-Party consensus could be reached about the place, powers, and composition of the Second Chamber in the second half of the 20th Century.

"The deliberate and calculated decision of the Conservative Party to take the action they did on Tuesday was in direct contravention of the spirit in which these talks were being conducted. There is no precedent for the voting down of a statutory instrument by the non-elected Chamber in which in present circumstances most of its Members sit not by the right of creation but by the right of succession from some near or distant ancestor.

"Not since the Parliament Act have they deliberately set themselves out to frustrate in this way the executive actions, and in this case actions to fulfil the international commitments, of an elected Government.

"Since this decision was clearly taken after the fullest consideration, and after every warning of the consequences, there can be no question of these all-Party talks, in these new circumstances, continuing.

"Although, the time has not been wasted, and valuable proposals have been put forward both about the powers and the composition of another place, I must tell the House that it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government, at an early date of the Government's choosing, to introduce comprehensive and radical legislation to give effect to the intention announced in the gracious Speech."

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think that this is the right occasion to argue the Prime Minister's Statement, but I should just like to say this: that I am saddened by it—indeed, I really cannot accept what the Prime Minister says. This House has done nothing unconstitutional. Nor have we put the country in default of its international obligations. This is untrue and it is a travesty of the facts. [Interruption.] I do wish the Liberal Party would keep quiet for one moment: they had their say all yesterday. Perhaps the Conservative Party may say something to-day. I am sorry to say that I do not think the Prime Minister can have read my speech, or he would not have used such extravagant language. I have the inescapable impression that he welcomes the opportunity to create a constitutional crisis where no constitutional crisis exists.

I am particularly sorry that the Government should have decided to break off the talks on reform when they had in effect all but reached agreement; and it is, indeed, quite contrary to what the Prime Minister himself said, because in the speech that he made on the debate on the Address at the beginning of this Session he said: I hope that a broad measure of agreement can be reached on the means of giving effect to the principles laid down in the gracious Speech"— that is, on House of Lords reform— and we do not intend to make detailed proposals unilaterally ourselves, unless the prospect of agreement in the consultations seems so unlikely or so remote in time as to rule out agreed legislation this Session."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 31/10/67, col. 291.] May I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House when it is the intention of the Government to introduce this legislation? For I still hope that wiser counsels I will prevail. We on this side certainly are prepared to continue these talks. I believe that on constitutional questions of this sort it is really important that all the Parties should be agreed and Governments should not legislate unilaterally; and I must say to noble Lords opposite that I think it is a great pity that the Prime Minister, in a fit of pique, is prepared to forgo an agreed solution.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, this really is not good enough. The Conservative Party cannot escape its responsibility for the crisis which has occurred. While sharing the anger, and indeed the bewilderment, of the Government at the irresponsible action of the Conservative Party on Tuesday, may I nevertheless plead with the Government not to give in to their extremists, as the Tories did when they capitulated to the Rhodesia lobby? We do not want two mistakes made in a situation as serious as this. I believe the Conservative Party will bitterly regret the action which they took last Tuesday. I hope the Government will not allow the chance of creating a workmanlike and defensible Second Chamber to be lost through the short-sighted stupidity of Tory reactionaries.


My Lords, I do not propose to turn this into a debate. I have, of course, listened most carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said and what the noble Lord, Lord Byers said, and I cannot help expressing my own regret at the consequences of the act of folly by the Conservative Party on Tuesday. I cannot accept that my right honourable friend's statement is a travesty of the facts. I share the noble Lord's sadness. I also agree about the word "ridiculous", but of course the ridiculousness was in the performance of the Opposition in the debate last Tuesday.

I have the greatest sympathy for the Leader of the Opposition. He knows how many of his side abstained and how many of your Lordships' House in fact voted for the Government. The noble Lord has said that there is no reason not to continue the talks. If someone with whom you are in daily communication on a certain matter suddenly decides to cut your throat, even though he succeeds only in scratching it, you do not at that moment continue talking with him.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will recollect, as indeed will my noble friend Lord Carrington, that at their request, I did not proceed to the Second Reading of my Bill for the reform of the House of Lords, in order not to produce any complications with regard to the discussions which were taking place between the two Front Benches. May I take it that I am now at liberty, and will be given facilities by Her Majesty's Government, to proceed without delay to the Second Reading of that Bill?


My Lords, and mine, too?


My Lords, while bitterly regretting the irresponsible folly of the vote on Rhodesia, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he agrees that it would be a tragedy if we were to lose the best chance we have ever had, and ever may have. of reaching reform by agreement? And may I express the hope that the Government in their own plans will in any case proceed on the lines already discussed?


My Lords, I understand my noble friend's feeling in the matter. I know how much he had contributed personally towards a rational solution of the problem of the House of Lords—and let me stress "the problem of the House of Lords". I am not unaware of the virtues of your Lordships' House and of the contribution that your Lordships have made on notable occa- sions. But I think all noble Lords must appreciate that it is not possible to talk about proceeding at the moment.

On the point of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and of my noble friend Lord Mitchison, and those who have Bills which they would wish to introduce, we are going to be a little short of time in the next few weeks, and the Government have indicated their intention to proceed with comprehensive and radical legislation. I cannot indicate when that will be introduced, and I think my best advice would be for your Lordships now to let the dust settle a little. That is my own personal feeling.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, in view of the concern that some of us feel as to the international consequences of last Tuesday's vote, may I ask my noble friend whether, in order to remove any possible international misconceptions as to the result of the vote, Her Majesty's Government will utilise fully their Overseas Information Services to convey crystally clear their intention fully to implement the Security Council resolution?


My Lords, the noble Lord was kind enough to make this suggestion earlier. I can assure him that that has been done, but for the reasons I gave in my speech it is a little difficult to explain to other people in the rest of the world what the decision means or, indeed, to explain away the House of Lords. The point has been fully taken and I hope the damage will be undone.


My Lords, several times in the course of this debate, and on Tuesday, reference was made to an alleged agreement, or a close approach to an agreement, for the reconstruction—shall I put it?—of this House. Some Members of this House will, if they are like myself, be completely ignorant of what those proposals are. How, therefore, can we possibly judge what is the right course for those of us who support the Government to take, to see that the most constructive and best results occur as a consequence of this action of the Conservative Party on Tuesday? There are some of us who would like to see the total abolition of the hereditary element in this House. There are others who believe that some system of representation on the Scottish principle might be acceptable. We are quite ignorant as to what is being talked about and we are being treated like children. We are being expected to reach some conclusion as to the right course for the Government to take without knowing the merits of the matter that has been discussed.


My Lords, I do not think this is the moment to debate this matter, but if my noble friend has no inkling of what has been going on he must be one of a quite small minority in your Lordships' House. Most noble Lords have rather more of an inkling of what has been going on. When the Government have the opportunity to announce their proposals no doubt these will be the subject of debate. But we are not now being asked to judge upon any particular type of reform, or any particular solution, either those that have been canvassed or those that in future will be put before Parliament, and ultimately it will be for Parliament to decide.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the proposed legislation which the Government intend to introduce will have to pass both Houses of Parliament, with or without the help of the Parliament Act?


My Lords, it is one of the most notable qualities of the British Parliamentary system that legislation does, in fact, have to pass both Houses.

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