HL Deb 27 March 1969 vol 300 cc1473-88

8.30 p.m.

VISCOUNT DILHORNE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: Whether they will publish the reasons and calculations which led to the conclusion that 230 would be the right number of voting Peers in a reformed House; and whether they will publish the number of Cross-Bench Peers who fulfilled the proposed attendance qualification in the last five Sessions of Parliament. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, even at this late hour I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name. I know that this is the last Question to which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton will have to reply before the House rises. I am sorry, but it is not my fault that it should come on at such a late hour. But I do not think that the noble Lord will dispute that the proposals in the White Paper proposed the biggest constitutional change which we have had for 50 years. I am not seeking to debate to-night whether those proposals are good or bad. We have discussed them. What I am seeking is information—not as yet provided—so that we can see on what grounds some of the conclusions in that White Paper are based.

The procedure which has been followed in relation to this big constitutional change is very different from that which is normally followed. Industrial relations are very important. We had a White Paper which we discussed quite recently called, In Place of Strife. We discussed that White Paper with the advantage of having before us a Report of the Royal Commission presided over by my noble and learned friend Lord Donovan, which provided very valuable and informative back- ground. We also have Bills, and sometimes White Papers, which are produced as a result of Reports of other Commissions. We had this afternoon a Bill based largely on Reports of the Law Commission. Because the Reports of those Commissions are very factual, one can see when one reads them the precise reasoning which leads to a particular conclusion, whether that conclusion be accepted in the White Paper or not.

But in considering these White Paper proposals we have nothing of that kind—although, of course, a Constitutional Commission is being set up, ant one would have thought that the first thing to do would be to submit the question of the reform of this House to an impartial and highly qualified body, as no doubt that Constitutional Commission will be. It was, I think, because of the absence of such information as is normally available that there was such a commotion in another place about a document in the Library with respect to your Lordships' attendances. Rightly or wrongly, it seems to have been thought that that document would contain the key to some of the conclusions in the White Paper.

Now we have before us, published in answer to an Order of this House, the Return of your Lordships' attendances in the last five Sessions. I should have thought that for anyone familiar with this House that was a useful document, though for others, unfamiliar with this House, it was likely to be a most misleading one, and possibly one that would lead to false conclusions. It gives a record of attendances, but, of course, it does not in any way disclose how long in a day any one of those Peers has in fact attended. When one looks through the list of some of the highest attenders—I would except the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, who I am glad to see has the record number of attendances, and who in some Sessions scored the maximum and has always just beaten me—one notices (or at least I noticed) one curious thing. It is that so many of these regular attenders, within the terms of the White Paper, were regular attenders whom we do not see here fairly late in the day and who (I say this with the greatest of respect to them), for one reason or another do not and have not played a very active part in our proceedings.

But that qualification of regular attendance seems to have had a very significant part to play in the determination of what I consider to be one of the most important questions in relation to the reform of this House—that is: "What size should it be?" I would hope—and I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will tell us—that when the Government reached the conclusion they did about the size of the House, questions of composition were disregarded and that what was considered was: What was the right size for this House if it was to go on to conduct its proper functions? Surely that is the first question that should be considered.

Am I not right in thinking that some of these other bodies which have considered the reform of this House have recommended a House of the order of 300 Members? For myself, I say straight away that I doubt very much whether a membership of 230 is large enough for this House properly to discharge all its functions including its functions on Private Bills, bearing in mind that to be a regular attender one has to attend only for some part of two days out of three. Taking into account the considerations of illness or Leave of Absence, I must say that I am very inclined to doubt whether 230 is the right number. But if it is the right number, if investigation has been made and consideration given, and if the process of reasoning and the calculations lead to that conclusion, surely we of this House, and the Members of another House, ought to be informed of that process of reasoning and of those calculations. So far they have not been so informed. And it was in an endeavour to obtain those reasons and calculations which have led the Government to that conclusion, that I put down this Question.

I should find it difficult to believe that the Government had not approached the matter in that way; but the White Paper itself seems to indicate a slightly different approach—though I may have drawn the wrong inferences from it. If one turns to paragraph 46, one sees first of all that it says: …the Government considers that in the first instance a reasonable size would be between 200 and 250 (excluding law lords and bishops)". We are given no ground for that conclusion; we are given no indication of the reasoning that has led to it. As I say, we have had nothing like a Royal Commission Report which we can examine to see whether that really is likely to be the right figure.

Then the White Paper goes on to say: At the outset the voting House would consist principally of those present created peers who were able to attend regularly—there were about 150 during the session for 1967–68… So you start off with a basic figure of regular attenders without regard (because there is no record of it) to the duration of each attendance. And then it is recommended—although the Paper says "the Government contemplates"— that about 80 new life peers would be needed for this purpose in the first instance". That is how the figure of 230 is arrived at as the proper size for this House.

If I have drawn the right conclusion from the White Paper, you start off with the number of regular attenders and add 80. I cannot, however, believe that that was all that was done in determining the right figure. There must I feel have been some consideration of what really was the number which was required for this House to function permanently. Was it not considered before that the right number was of the order of 300? Of course, if it is the number of 300 that is required, the extent of the Prime Minister's patronage will go up from 80 to 150. That would alter the whole picture. So I submit to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that it really is vital, if consideration was given to what was the proper size of this House in the future, disregarding its composition, that we should know the facts and the figures which led to that conclusion. If it be the case—reluctant as I am to believe it—that all that was done was to find the number of regular attenders of first creation, and then add the number of 80, that seems to me an entirely arbitrary figure. If that was all that was done, I ask that the Government should "come clean" and tell us so.

My Lords, it is not without interest to notice that if you leave out Peers of first creation the number of regular attenders, if you include all Peers, in the Session 1967–68 was 291; and I think this House functioned very efficiently with that number. I do not want to prolong this debate by one word more than is necessary, but I think it is right that I should say that I personally attach very great importance to this question. I do not know what took place at the talks between the leaders of the Parties, or what stage the negotiations had reached before they were broken off in a moment of petulance. I do not know what materials were put before that body; that is all covered with a cloak of secrecy. I think it would be a very good thing if all the documents which were before that body, and those who attended those meetings, were made public; and I hope that that can be done. I see no reason why they should not be. What is the need for secrecy about those discussions? Then, my Lords, we shall be able to see, if not the whole of the picture, at least a considerable part of the picture. I think we ought to know the facts precisely, long before a Bill comes before this House, so that we may have ample opportunity to consider exactly why it is that the Government have concluded that about 230 should be the right number.

My Lords, I would agree that it is not a very firm conclusion, because the White Paper goes on to say: The voting House would therefore consist at first of about 230 peers: provided that non-voting peers were also prepared to attend in reasonable numbers and where appropriate to serve on committees, this number should be sufficient for the business of the House, at least for the remainder of this parliament. What grounds are there for reaching that conclusion? I must say that it seems to me very odd that you should say that this House could function properly for the remainder of this Parliament if nonvoting Peers were prepared to serve on Committees on which, it follows, they would have no vote. So much for the first part of my Question. The second part—


Oh, my God!


The noble Lord says, "Oh, my God!" I am sorry to inflict this on him now. I would rather have inflicted it on him at an earlier stage of our proceedings to-day. This is really a much more important matter than bacon curing and matters of that sort. The noble Lord's interjection, I am afraid, rather encourages me to press the second part of my Question more firmly than I had intended.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount needs no encouragement.


My Lords, indeed I do, and, what is more, I can tell the noble Lord that I usually respond to it. But, my Lords, despite the temptation, I will deal with the second part of my Question—perhaps the noble Lord had not observed that it has two parts—quite shortly. It is this. It is said that if you have 230 Peers, then 30 Cross-Benchers will suffice. So far as I can see, the number of Cross-Benchers of first creation, or Life Peers, who attended in the 1967–68 Session was, in fact, fewer than 30. I do not want to go into what will be the test to be applied before anyone is made a Cross-Bencher in future, what examination papers they will be required to answer; but it seems to me that as we have been given the figures for five Sessions of attendances at your Lordships' House, the figures for one Session for Cross-Benchers—which is what appears in the White Paper—are really insufficient. Therefore, all I am asking for is that those figures should be extended to cover the same period as the Return which has now been published pursuant to the Order of this House.

8.42 p.m.


My Lords, I shall not be a moment, particularly at this late hour, but the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, talked about two days in three as an attendance measure. I would remind the House that so far as Scottish Peers are concerned it is one day in three in which Scottish business is being considered, as of to-day.


My Lords, the noble Lord says "two days in three". Surely, to be a regular attendant—I think I said it—you have to attend one day in three.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount said two.


My Lords, if I did, I said it wrongly.


My Lords, that was what tempted me to rise—I think it was a slip of the tongue. I rose only to point that out and to draw attention to some of the matters which the noble and learned Viscount has mentioned in his speech in regard to the attendances of Peers. Because I think I am right in saying, from the point of view of those of us who come from great distances (I do not say only Scottish Peers; there are English Peers from the North and West of England, and so on), that the problem of attending here is a matter of very much greater importance, in terms of service to your Lordships' House and the sacrifices that they make, than for people who live just round the corner. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will bear that in mind. As a matter of interest I worked out my own attendances. I support what the noble and learned Viscount has said, that the bare figures have to be taken very much in perspective; not only in respect of the amount of time which the attenders spend in this House and the contribution which they make to the business of this House, but also the distance from which they have to come; and the fact that, because of engagements in distant places, they cannot fulfil all the attendances that they would like.

8.48 p.m.


My Lords, I clearly did an injustice to the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne. I might have known that the short nature of the second part of the Question would lead to only a very short speech, and I apologise. I recognise the solemnity of his approach, which did not entirely succeed in concealing the naughtiness of his intention. I regard the noble and learned Viscount with growing affection, all the more since he has sat on those Benches opposite, and I regard him as a formidable and careful debater. But on the last occasion we covered quite a lot of the subjects which he has mentioned.

I have always understood that the debate on an Unstarred Question should be rather narrow, but—and I know that there is much more that the noble and learned Viscount could have produced—we heard about the Prime Minister's patronage and the great constitutional change; and I agree with him on that point. He talked about the process of reasoning. On the last occasion I said that I thought he needed a further tutorial; that he failed to pass his examinations; and I am sorry to say that he does not seem to have done very much in the meanwhile. If only he had read the White Paper properly it would have helped—


My Lords, if I may intervene for a moment, may I say that I am asking for information? I have read the White Paper more than once—it may be because of the way in which it is written—but this Question is directed to obtaining that tuition for which I am asking the noble Lord.


My Lords, I am very willing to provide it. It will not be a tutorial; I am afraid it will be a lecture, but I see a number of noble Lords here ready to listen. I must ask the noble Viscount, when he has had my lecture, to again read the White Paper, because there he will find some of the reasoning, and I think he might even understand some of the limitations that apply to amateur "statisticating". I acclaim the noble Viscount's skill in playing round in an area that could give rise to difficulties, but he may be aware that in another place in the consideration of the Parliament (No. 2) Bill there has been a debate which is somewhat germane to the noble Viscount's Question. Indeed, I am almost inclined to think that there is some connection between the two.

I am sure that the House, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, would agree with me that in these circumstances it would not be in accordance with our usual practice to enter deeply into a matter which is at present under consideration in another place, and that we should await the time when the Bill comes to this House, when we shall be required, and indeed shall wish, to give it our full attention. Some while ago we devoted three days of debate to the White Paper and we shall have a further opportunity.

The noble Viscount referred to the concern in another place that a certain document should be made available to them. It would appear that some people may have thought that this would be the explanation of everything. That is an illusion which many of us are apt to fall into until we become more experienced. I would remind the House of the practice, which is set out in Erskine May, on page 451 of the 17th Edition: The rule that allusions to debate in the other House of the current session are out of order prevents fruitless arguments between members of two distinct bodies who are unable to reply to each other, and guards against recrimination and offensive language in the absence of the party assailed: but it is mainly founded upon the understanding that the debates of the Upper House are not known, and that the House can take no notice of them. Erskine May goes on to say: The daily publication of debates in Parliament offers a strong temptation to disregard this rule. Even the noble and learned and strong-minded Viscount has succumbed to this temptation.


My Lords, the noble Lord may think that, but I do not think that he is right in thinking it at all. I did not refer to any discussion in the debate; I referred to a document. The noble Lord referred to that document in moving for the return that was ordered. I did not go beyond that. The noble Lord is trying to deal with a serious matter in a most facetious fashion.


My Lords, it is clear that the noble Viscount did not need much tempting. He entered into sin willingly and quickly. The whole question has arisen out of demands in another place, but it raises difficulties in this House, and the question really is how far I should go at this stage into matters which are constantly before another place. I am in a difficulty in this regard and I only hope that the noble Viscount will appreciate that in attempting to give an answer I shall give as much as it is possible for me to give at this stage.

I will deal precisely with the noble Viscount's arguments. There is one misconception which I think must be corrected. I am not sure whether the noble Viscount entirely suffers from this misconception, because I am sure he has studied the Paper fairly closely. The terms of the White Paper do not imply, as the Question does, that in the Government's view 230 would always be the right number of voting Peers in a reformed House, for all the reasons which the noble Viscount himself gave—because of the inevitable uncertainties of projecting past practice into the future. That is not what the White Paper says. What we said was that, in the first instance, a reasonable size would be between 200 and 250, excluding Law Lords and Bishops. The White Paper recognises that it is not possible to fix for all time a figure which would be, as the noble Viscount puts it, "the right number". What the Government propose is that the voting House should consist initially of some 230 Peers, not counting Bishops and Law Lords, and that thereafter a larger number might be found necessary as the work of the House developed and expanded in the future. This subject was discussed exhaustively in the Inter-Party Conference, and the conclusion was that 230 was (I use my words carefully) a viable initial figure.

The Government's aim has been to create a House of sufficient size to fulfil the duties which are to be placed upon it or which it chooses to undertake both as a debating Chamber of distinction and authority, which I believe your Lordships' House to be, one which will play a developing part in the Parliamentary task of scrutinising the activities of the Executive—this has always been an important part of the work of a reformed House and is clearly crucial in regard to the numbers—and also as a legislative Chamber which, while not rivalling the Commons, will complement it and relieve it of as much work as is practicable, both in initiating legislation and in scrutinising that which has been passed by the Commons. I think we can fairly say that we do a pretty good job in this House, and I would say to the noble Viscount that I am conscious of how much he contributes to this. An example has been the Foreign Compensation Bill. I did not follow the ins and outs of the Bill and I am not in a position to judge, but I am sure that he must feel that he achieved quite a lot.

In relation to the qualification period, the proposed initial number takes into account the frequency with which noble Lords attend this House and also the figures for average daily attendance in the last five Sessions. The noble Viscount has drawn our attention to the fact that the return of attendance over the last five Sessions is available, and from if your Lordships will see that there has been an increase from 151 in 1963–64 to 194 in 1964–65, to 191 in the following year, to 199 in the next and finally to 225 in the Session of 1967–68. A further factor, of which the House will be aware and which is referred to in paragraph 46 of the White Paper, is that at the outset the voting House will consist principally of those existing created Peers who will find themselves able to attend regularly. As shown in the table on page 5 of the White Paper, there were 153 of these in the last Session up to the 1st August. I need to point this out because the White Paper was written when figures did not give the complete Session—in fact, as I say, they went up to August; but there is no significant difference.

It will be necessary—and this has been made quite clear—for additional Life Peers to be created to give the working or voting House the appropriate size and balance between the political Parties, and the vast majority of these new Life Peers would be drawn from existing Peers by succession, who of course include many of the most active and experienced Members of your Lordships' House. The Government, however, have been anxious that the number of initial creations should be no larger than the work to be performed and the Party balance requires. I rather think that our desire in this matter to restrict the number initially is consistent with what I believe to be the views of the Party opposite. It is always possible to create new Peers, but there is no easy way of un-creating Peers. And one of the major parts of our programme and our proposals is that once a Peer is created, subject to a retiring age, his rights are there for life.

On the other hand, the Party breakdown of created Peers, given in the table on page 5 of the White Paper, makes it clear that a considerable number of conversions is inevitable if we are to have a voting House with the proposed balance between the Parties, referred to in paragraph 48 of the White Paper. To take the most obvious example, the Party of the noble Viscount has only 38 created Peers who attended over one-third of the sittings of the last Session. The White Paper also states, in column 46, that much would depend on the number of non-voting Peers who attended debates in the House or served on Com- mittees, and on the frequency with which they did so; and this we cannot possibly estimate in advance. But the Government consider that, provided that speaking Peers, non-voting Peers, are prepared to attend in reasonable numbers, and to serve on Committees when appropriate, the initial figure—and I stress this again—of 230 would be enough for the business of the House, at least for the remainder of this Parliament.


The noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting, but he said that he stresses this again. All I am asking him—and I did quote that 230 was the initial figure—is to disclose the reasons which led to the conclusion that this was a viable figure.


Perhaps the noble Viscount will allow me to go on. I do not think that I shall possibly be able to satisfy him, but we shall have further opportunities. The Government consider—and we cannot tell this—that 230 will be about the right number for the remainder of this Parliament. It is quite possible that this initial number of voting Peers may need to be increased. It may prove to be the wrong number, especially in a subsequent Parliament, if the work develops in the way contemplated, for example, in Appendix 2 of the White Paper, which is called, "Possible changes in functions and procedure".

I doubt very much whether I can hope to bring precision of the kind which the noble Viscount is seeking, and which the White Paper makes clear it is unable to provide. But we are looking into the future. We should all like to have a crystal ball, and perhaps the noble and learned Viscount would have a better one than I have. But this was a considered set of proposals from a number of very experienced people, and I have given some of the calculations that influenced our decision.

As regards the second part of the noble Viscount's Question, 52 Peers not in receipt of a Party Whip attended more than one-third of the Sittings during the 1967–68 Session, up to August 1; and this number is equally divided between Peers of first creation and Peers by succession. I admit that in saying this I am merely re-stating what is published on page 5 of the White Paper. Figures for the previous four Sessions can be provided only with the co-operation of the other political Parties, because if we define Cross-Benchers as those not in receipt of a Party Whip—which is the definition that we use in the White Paper—it is necessary, if we are to make the necessary breakdown, to have the complete list of those in receipt of a Party Whip for the last five years. The Government do not possess this information in the detail which publication would require. Nor, in my view, would it have any statistical certainty for what we are seeking to demonstrate.

One of the most striking features which emerged from our work on the proposed reform was the change in the work and attendance in the House during the last four Sessions. This again introduced another element of change. It is reflected in the Attendance Return to which I have already referred. The introduction of Life Peers, the Peerage Act 1963, the introduction of women into the House, the payment of expenses, the Leave of Absence scheme and the creations of Peers in the present Parliament have resulted in great changes, of which all of us are aware and which are reflected in the life and work of the House as we see it to-day.

The White Paper gives the most recent statistics, and it is on these that we should concentrate, since they provide the most accurate basis for any study of the work of the present House. In considering the size of the reformed House, I would warn noble Lords against simple extrapolation from patterns of attendance which exist at present, since these have been established in very different circumstances from those which will exist in the future. For the future, we shall have the Committee proposed in paragraph 71 of the White Paper to review the composition of the reformed House, and they will have, in their terms of reference, the particular duty of considering the size of the voting House against the actual performance of the House.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him to reply to one point put by my noble friend to which he has not referred; and that is whether the deliberations which took place in the inter-Party Committee, which were broken off, can be published, as they would be helpful? My noble friend raised that point and it has not been answered. There is another point, and if I am wrong in putting it here no doubt the noble Lord will tell me, but when we were having some exchanges about the publication of attendances in your Lordships' House my noble friend Lord Carrington raised the question of similar information being supplied about another place. I supported him in that. On that occasion the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said that he would have this matter looked into. I do not know whether this is the right moment to ask him whether he has done that. If not, perhaps he will tell me. But otherwise perhaps he can tell me how the matter stands.


My Lords, I wonder whether, before the noble Lord finishes, he will also tell us, in view of what he has already said, his opinion on the question of discussing in this House the future of this House before the Bill comes here, if it comes here. Could he give an undertaking now to the House that the House will be given ample time to discuss the Bill during Committee stage; that we shall not be asked to sit right the way through August or be asked to sit all through nights a ad so on, but will be given ample time to discuss the matter; and that if necessary the Bill will be carried over to next Session?

9.10 p.m.


My Lords, I suppose that my affection for the noble Lord the Leader of the House would prompt me to be extremely brief in any event, but he did not really appeal to me as he might have done when he created the word "statisticating". If anything was calculated to lose the sympathy which I normally feel for him that invention would have done so. I intervene not for the purpose of saying that but to say that I entirely agree with him in what he said about Erskine May and what he based upon it. My only quarrel with him about that is that he used it as a method of rebuke to my noble and learned friend who had not offended in that way at all. He had not made any use whatsoever of the proceedings in another place to discuss this.

But what I would ask the noble Lord to bear in mind is this. He says that we could not be given further information at this stage. If that is so, I think we shall clearly have to have the information at some other stage. But whether he will like that any better, I very much doubt. The information already given in this White Paper was given to meet a request from another place. I entirely agreed with the reasoning that, as the other place was apparently asking for information that was available, as a matter of courtesy and good manners we should certainly give it. But, my Lords, it was given in order to oblige another place. Is there any real reason why information should not be given to oblige this House? There is nothing absurd in that demand.

If it is said that anything we want to know cannot be given until the House of Commons has finished with its deliberations on the present Bill, I must warn the noble Lord that that may very much delay proceedings in this House. If we have to wait until the introduction of the Bill in this House before we can get information which some of us may think essential it may not have quite the effect that the Leader of the House either desires or expects.


My Lords, I really am put in a very considerable difficulty. If one of my noble friends had been speaking or was answering this Question, I really should have had to suggest that this was turning into a most irregular debate.



I am saying this quite seriously, my Lords. I will still do my best since we have become so irregular, but it is in my experience very unusual for a debate to continue on an Unstarred Question after the Government spokesman has spoken. It can be done, but it is very unusual.


It depends on the answer.


My Lords, I was careful to say "before the noble Lord sits down".


My Lords, I fully accept that the noble Lord employed an acceptable and correct device. The debate is already going enormously wide in that we are having threats from noble Lords. It is not unknown for answers to be given—


My Lords, would the noble Lord give way? If we are being very pedantic at this late hour, is the noble Lord speaking with the leave of the House?


My Lords, I entirely agree—the noble and learned Viscount is perfectly correct. Indeed I wrote down the words, "leave of the House" before I rose. If the House will give me leave I will reply.




My Lords, this is the sort of muddle we get into on these occasions. I have rarely known a Government spokesman to speak twice in reply to an Unstarred Question, and I doubt very much whether anything I can say will satisfy the evident intentions of certain noble Lords in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Conesford, was correct—and the noble and learned Viscount, as I expected, was extremely circumspect—but the fact is that at this moment we are discussing something which is becoming rather like the mirror image of a debate in another place at a time when legislation is before the other House, and I say quite seriously that if we go along this path we shall find ourselves in difficulties. This is not in any way to question the rights of noble Lords to question the Government on any matter coming before the House, and I look forward to the sort of questions we shall have at the time when the Bill arrives here. But I really do not think that I can go any further, beyond saying that as I used the word "statisticating" I thought happily we should have a response from the noble Lord, Lord Conesford.