§ 3.1 p.m.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, on a dreary January afternoon, when the candles had been lit, the House of Commons passed a resolution in the following terms:That the People are, under God, the original of all just power … that the Commons of England, being chosen by and representing the People, have the supreme power in this nation … that whatsoever is enacted and declared for law, and by the Commons in Parliament assembled, hath the force of law and all the People of this nation are concluded thereby, although the consent and concurrence of the King and the House of Peers be not had thereto".This Motion was read again on the day of the King's execution. A week later the Commons resolved:That the House of Peers in Parliament is useless and dangerous and ought to be abolished and an Act be brought in for that purpose".A few weeks earlier, all the Members opposed to what was essentially a revolutionary faction had been forcibly ejected from the House, and a few weeks later the Act of Abolition was passed by a House of Commons whose Members comprised a mere handful 591 of those originally elected to it. Thus began a decade of dictatorship and one-party government which was marked by the loss of liberty and the abuse of power and ended with a military coup.
The echoes of those far off days ring only thinly down the arches of the years, yet there are in English history persistent strands of continuity and repetition. Many of us here today can count among our predecessors men and women who played a part in the revolutionary events of that time. Many of the features of our parliamentary procedure derive from it, including the symbolic denial of entry for the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod into the House of Commons.
It is worth recalling that 10 years later the Lord Protector revived the Second Chamber seeing, as one historian put it,the need for a check or balancing power (in the constitution) such as the House of Lords or a body so constituted".Cromwell's Second Chamber consisted of a group of political commissars in the shape of the major-generals of his army and several members of his own family.
The purpose of this Bill, of which I now move the Second Reading, is to ensure that within the ambit of our unwritten constitution we retain for the Parliament of the United Kingdom a Second Chamber with adequate legislative powers. Of course, I recognise that ifthe People [who] are, under God, the original of all just powerdecide to concentrate the whole of the legislative processes of the British Parliament in the House of Commons, that is a decision which the majority of the nation are fully entitled to take. But no Government since 1935 has been elected by a majority of the voters who voted, and no Government in recent times, so far as my researches go, has been elected by a majority of those entitled to vote.
I am well aware that many of your Lordships, and even more Members in the House of Commons, have serious reservations about the use of the referendum as a constitutional expedient. I would be strongly against it in the case of social, moral or economic issues of policy, but in the case of major constitutional changes, I believe that where we have an unwritten constitution with a politically informed electorate and a free press and radio, the referendum is now an essential part of our consitutional machinery. Indeed, the precedents are already established. The two great constitutional issues of the post-1945 period have both been decided by means of a referendum: our membership of the EEC and devolution for Scotland and Wales. Listening to the recent most eloquent lecture by the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls, I sensed that perhaps he supported this view. If indeed the judgment of the Court of Appeal and that of the House of Lords, if this Bill gets its Second Reading, were on this occasion to coincide, I should feel myself on very strong grounds indeed.
Your Lordships will note that the preamble to this Bill says that it is expedient that the House of Lords should be reformed. Nearly 20 years ago when, against all expectations, I became a Member of your Lordships' House I was keen to see it reformed. This 592 Bill, however, is unrelated to the problem of reform. It does not seek to preserve our present membership or party composition. It does not seek, as some unfriendly commentator might assert, "to embalm a corpse", for this House is very much alive. I would draw your Lordships' attention to the wording of Clause 4 in explanation of that point. It seeks only to ensure that before a future Government, elected by a minority of the nation and relying on an incidental item in its election manifesto, seeks to take the revolutionary step of creating a unicameral Parliament for the United Kingdom by depriving it of a Second Chamber having adequate powers, the people of Britain, as a whole, will have a fair opportunity of asserting their will.
The whole question of reform is something which I believe must be tackled separately. A decade or two of membership of your Lordships' House generates its own standards of loyalty and behaviour. Today I find it difficult to envisage any pattern of reform which will command the agreement of both the major parties in the House of Commons, and I do not think that any significant reform which is not so agreed will stick.
We must remember that any reform which adds to the authority or increases the power of the Second Chamber automatically reduces the constitutional status of the House of Commons. Many of your Lordships have been proud to be, as I was proud to be, a Member of another place. If they will cast their minds back to those days, they will remember how jealous they were of anything which diminished their dignity as the elected representatives of their constituencies. It is no coincidence that while the Parliament Act of 1911 said that it was intended that a Second Chamber should be constituted on a popular, that is elected, basis, in fact 70 years have passed and nothing has been done. Some measure of reform may and, as many of your Lordships believe, should take place, but it is my belief that within the foreseeable future the real issue is whether Britain should have a unicameral Parliament or continue with two Houses, more or less on the present basis.
Personally, I regret that the proposals for reform inititated by all parties in this House, I think in 1968, were rejected by the House of Commons, as a result, so far as my memory serves, of the endeavours of Mr. Michael Foot, now Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Enoch Powell, the Ulster Member for South Down, and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, then Member of Parliament for Kingston-on-Thames. But in fact we all realise that the Life Peerages Act 1958 was in itself a major measure of reform, altering radically the party balance and political orientation of your Lordships' House.
The value of the constitutional role performed by your Lordships has been amply demonstrated by the record of the last Session. Despite the talk of "inbuilt majorities", Government Bills and policies have been strongly criticised by my noble friends on this side of the House, and on important issues the Government have been defeated in the Lobbies. No one can say that we on this side are simply a pack of poodles responding tamely to the whipping of my noble friend the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, whose greying 593 hair illustrates the weighty burden of his responsibilities. Certainly no one can accuse noble Lords opposite of being a pack—perhaps not of poodles; red setters possibly, highly intelligent and attractive dogs, but sometimes a trifle undisciplined and neurotic. No one who has listened to the long hours of debating during the last Session can have anything but admiration for the manner in which Labour and Liberal Peers and Independents on the Cross-Benches have combined to sustain the constitutional role of your Lordships' House; and for that matter all of your Lordships will, I am certain, warmly acknowledge the abilities of Ministers like my noble friend Lord Bellwin, who have argued with courtesy and conviction in defence of a mass of legislation, the virtues of which were sometimes not immediately apparent to your Lordships on any side of the Chamber.
Statistically, during the last Session 117 Bills were considered by your Lordships, of which 101 received Royal Assent. Of the Government Bills brought from the House of Commons, 45 were improved by 971 amendments, and the 11 Government Bills introduced into this House received 307 amendments. In that Session the House of Lords made 1,319 amendments to the Bills which came before it. In all, during that long process of discussion and argument, in accordance with your Lordships' Standing Orders, there was no closure or guillotine.
That the value of the Second Chamber in its present form is recognised by the public at large is illustrated by the recent National Opinion Poll survey published by the Observer on 16th October last. According to this, only 16 per cent. of the electorate want to abolish the Second Chamber; a third want to see it reformed and an almost equal number are content that things should remain unchanged. Even among Labour voters, only 26 per cent. are in favour of abolition and 22 per cent. are in favour of no change.
And so, my Lords, to the Bill. If the draft had been all my own work, I should be much more diffident than I am in recommending it to your Lordships. I have had a great deal of the most able and generous expert advice. I believe that in its present form it achieves the objectives I have in mind. No one can legislate against a revolution. If, at some future date, the House of Commons were to attempt to repeat the precedent of 1649, then the options open to all of us would be resistance or acquiescence. We may hope that it will never come to that.
In the Title are contained the words "substantially to diminish its legislative powers". The guidance to the Lord Chancellor and to the Speaker as to how these words should be interpreted is contained in the Preamble. A Second Chamber must have powers to revise and initiate legislation and must retain the power under the Parliament Act 1911 to reject a Bill which seeks to extend the maximum duration of Parliament beyond five years. This latter is a major safeguard in the constitution for the political rights and freedoms of the nation and, significantly, it owes its origin to the memory of those turbulent years which inaugurated the Cromwellian dictatorship of the 17th century.
I do not pretend that the whole process of decision by constitutional referendum for the future of Parliament in the United Kingdom as provided for in this 594 Bill is proof against the partisan judgment of some future Lord Chancellor or the pliability of some future Speaker of the House of Commons. But it is not, I think, for us to envisage a moment when either may be prepared to prostitute their great offices of state to making a judgment which is plainly contrary to the letter and spirit of a legislative Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, represented by this Bill, if it reaches the statute book.
Clause 1(1) says that no Bill endorsed with a certificate by the Lord Chancellor or the Speaker shall proceed beyond Second Reading in either House, and Clause 1(2) says that such a certificate shall be endorsed on the Bill if either Speaker is of the opinion that the Bill will abolish the House of Lords or substantially reduce its legislative powers, thus effectively concentrating the power to make law in the House of Commons. The reason for this Bill going to Second Reading is to allow either House, or perhaps both, a full opportunity for a debate on the principles of a proposed measure. That debate is, so to speak, the starter's pistol for the referendum contest which follows.
Between the Second Reading and the actual voting at the referendum at least, according to paragraph 1 of the schedule, three months must elapse. That follows exactly the precedent of the Scottish referendum. Consequently, there can be no legislative sleight of hand by the Government. The people must and will have a fair opportunity of hearing both sides of the great constitutional issue which they are being asked to decide.
Let me say at this point that the schedule follows exactly the wording of the Scottish Act, except that I have added in Clause 6 the words:necessary to extend its operation to England, Wales and Northern Ireland".Also, of course, the question in the schedule is different, but I will come to that in a moment. It has been represented to me that one further change in the schedule, as attached to the Scottish Bill, should be made—that is, to delete the provision for approval of the order by a resolution of each House of Parliament. This is, I think, something which may require further consideration at Committee stage. The argument is that if the order were rejected by either House, deadlock would ensue and that would be highly undesirable. An abolitionist majority in the House of Commons might, I suppose, vote against the order, but I am reluctant to deprive your Lordships' House of doing so if you were to feel that the order was ill-conceived or clearly unfair to the electorate.
Clause 1(1) of the Bill lays down that in the referendum under Clause 2 more than 40 per cent. of those entitled to vote must have voted "yes" if the Bill is to go beyond Second Reading unless, of course, a majority have voted "no". This again follows the precedent set by the Scottish Act, and represents a provision in it which owes its origin to the initiative of members of the Labour Party in another place. Surely, my Lords, what was considered by a previous Parliament to be good for the Scots and the Welsh must be good for Great Britain as a whole.
Roughly speaking, there are 40 million electors on the register in the United Kingdom. It means that 16 million and one must be the minimum "yes" vote.
595 The Bill would proceed even if 16 million voted "no". But then, as Sir Winston Churchill once said, "One vote is enough". That would entail a turnout of 80 per cent. of the electorate, the chances of which would not have a very high rating at Ladbrokes. I would add that in the case of the EEC referendum, over 17 million voted "yes" which is comfortably more than the 40 per cent. required by this Bill.
Clause 2(2) provides that if the referendum returns an adverse majority or if the majority in favour is 40 per cent. or less of those entitled to vote, then no similar Bill shall proceed beyond First Reading for a period of five years from the date on which the result of the referendum is announced. This means that before a further attempt can be made to abolish the Second Chamber, an election will have taken place. The fact that even an interim Bill is allowed a First Reading preserves our right as individual Members of this House to introduce any Bill for First Reading, whether your Lordships like it or not.
Clause 3 brings the Bill, if enacted, under the umbrella of subsection (1) of Section 2 of the Parliament Act 1911. This means that any attempt to amend or repeal it can be rejected, if your Lordships so decide, without the other provisions of the Parliament Acts with regard to limitations of time and delay coming into effect. It becomes, therefore, as much entrenched, as is the five-year term of Parliament, within our unwritten Constitution as is possible.
As far as the question in the schedule is concerned, I recognise that the answer to any question depends to some extent on the way in which the question is posed. The form in the schedule in which the question for the referendum is to be asked represents, I think, the exact issue which the referendum is expected to decide. It is:Do you want the House of Commons to be the only legislative Chamber of the Parliament of the United Kingdom?This would be achieved either by abolishing the House of Lords or so emasculating its powers as to achieve the same thing, leaving the Second Chamber a mere parliamentary husk.
I would remind your Lordships of the terms of the resolution passed by the House of Commons in 1649. It claimed:That the Commons of England, being chosen by and representing the People, have the supreme power in this nation … that whatsoever is enacted and declared for law, and by the Commons in Parliament assembled has the force of law".The wording may be archaic, but the principle is exactly the one advanced today by those who seek to establish a unicameral Parliament. The wording of the question is, I submit, clear and straightforward, and no one invited to vote in the referendum should be under any misapprehension as to the nature of the issue he or she is being asked to decide.
My Lords, this is a simple Bill, as all Bills of this sort should be. It has been represented to me from the highest quarters that a Bill which has considerable constitutional significance is not entirely appropriate to the initiative of a Private Member. I fully understand. The only other piece of legislation I sought to promote, long ago and in different circumstances, was something to do with what was known in those days as "ten-shilling widows". It is possible that 596 on that occasion I was as concerned for their votes as with their wellbeing. But on this occasion I have no doubt about the relevance of this Bill to the constitutional wellbeing of our parliamentary democracy.
I hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading. I very much hope that my noble friend the Lord President of the Council will indicate at the end of this debate that, if such be the outcome, the Government will seriously consider introducing a Bill along these lines during the lifetime of the present Parliament. Indeed, I should be very happy to offer a free transfer of this Bill to the Government, if that would be of any assistance to them. I am sure that my noble friend will have in mind the words of the present Leader of the House of Commons at the Brighton Conference last October. Mr. St. John Stevas said:What is important is to see if we cannot devise some means so that the Second Chamber cannot be swept away by an unrepresentative House of Commons, but can stand secure as long as it commands the approval and esteem of the nation".My Lords, that is the exact purpose of this Bill.
If, my Lords, you give this Bill a Second Reading then it will be my duty to take advice as to if and how the Bill should proceed. This is not a party Bill. I would feel it right to take the views of those who carry the responsibility for the leadership of the various parties represented in this House, and of those who sit on the Cross-Benches, as well, of course, as taking full account of what is said during this debate. It is in this spirit, which I hope your Lordships may feel is in accordance with our role and traditions, that I now beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Alport.)
§ 3.25 p.m.
§ Lord Lee of Newton
My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Lord on the presentation of his Bill and indeed on the manner in which he has introduced it to the House. He left open the question of whether we are "the watchdog of the constitution" or "Mr. Balfour's poodle". Over the years that is a question that has never been answered, and indeed the gentleman who suggested the poodle did so before he became a Member of the House.
The noble Lord's Bill seeks to establish the principle that the holding of a referendum should precede a far-reaching constitutional change involving the substitution of a single chamber Parliament for our existing two-chamber Parliament, or a substantial move to diminish the powers of this House. Like the noble Lord, I, too, am not sure that a Bill of this outstanding consequence is appropriate for a Private Member's Bill. On the other hand, this discussion has gone on widely throughout the press, throughout the media, and up to now this House has never had a chance even to discuss it. We are greatly indebted to the noble Lord for giving us that opportunity.
We have already seen the introduction of referenda on entirely constitutional matters in the cases of Scottish and Welsh devolution and our continuing membership of the EEC. Very certainly an issue which is directly concerned with the retention of existing parliamentary institutions cannot possibly be less vital than those issues were. The Bill also seeks to confirm the existing power of the Lords under Section 2(1) 597 of the Parliament Act 1911 to reject a Bill to extend the maximum duration of Parliament beyond five years. While it is obviously right and proper that this power should be retained, I am not sure that it is necessary to offer hostages to fortune by seeking to reaffirm that which undoubtedly now exists.
I do not, therefore, propose to address myself to the arithmetic of Clause 1. I should have thought that such matters are Committee points. Certainly, for my part, I have not been able to study their effect closely enough to do that. But as far as the principle itself is concerned, surely none of us in any of the political parties are afraid of committing our policies to go to the will of the people. For my part, I should have thought that on such an utterly vital constitutional issue as this it would be right and proper that it should be so dealt with.
I have always felt that in the atmosphere of a general election, in which so many huge issues are placed before the nation, any one item is apt to be buried in the manifestos, in the speeches, in the general atmosphere of the election itself. For my part, I accept the principle of the Bill. I should have thought that if indeed we go to a referendum on this subject all of us would consider ourselves bound to abide by the result of that referendum, irrespective of whether it came out in favour of the policy we espoused or not. I should have thought that that would be pretty vital. Indeed, it was in support of that principle that I concluded a letter to the editor of the the Guardian newspaper, which appeared on 20th September this year, with the words:The whole issue of one Chamber or two in future Parliaments is obviously of such outstanding importance that—instead of it becoming merely one of numerous issues to be canvassed and determined at a general election—it should be the subject of a referendum to be held before the next election".I stand by that view.
I hope that the House will give this Bill very serious consideration. But, for my part, I do not take the view that the noble Lord took; namely, that it is sufficient simply to hold a referendum. For my part I doubt whether it is sufficient to do that and to ask people either to vote for a single Chamber Parliament or to leave matters as they are at present. In my submission, there are very considerable numbers of people who are as convinced as I am that the time is overdue for radical change in the structure of this House. But, on the other hand, let us take the dilemma which faces people who are well aware of the problems of, let us say, an overworked House of Commons with its late nights and all-night sittings, and who are aware that many of the principal Bills which leave it do so with large sections of them undiscussed because they have been subjected to a guillotine Motion and who are therefore convinced of the need for a Second Chamber, but who are quite dissatisfied with the composition of this one. It was because we, on this side of the House, were conscious of this kind of problem that some time ago we set up a committee, of which I happened to have the honour to be chairman, to study the problem and to suggest certain changes which we felt were necessary. The noble Lord has said to us that he has not attempted to diagnose or to suggest changes in the set-up of this House. We did so, and I shall come to that matter in a moment.
598 There have, in fact, been many contributions to the discussion about changes which various people think should take place in this House. We have read in the press that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—the present Foreign Secretary—and, I believe, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, had offered the thought that the Second Chamber should be an entirely elected one. One's feeling about that was that the Commons would never agree to such a change as, quite obviously, an elected Chamber would be entitled to challenge for comparable powers to the Commons itself. I see around me many of my former colleagues from the Commons and they, I think, would agree with me that, certainly since the end of the war, there has never been a House of Commons, irrespective of the Government, which would have agreed to a Second Chamber being elected. I think that that is an issue which we should consider when we are thinking in terms of how people would vote, if they had the chance, in a referendum.
There have been other suggestions. Indeed, I think that a Private Member's Bill was introduced suggesting that the House should be partly elected and partly selected. To me that would seem to produce a House in which there may well be first and second class citizens, or at least where some are more equal than others. Finally, there are those whom we have heard argue that, unsatisfactory as the present position is deemed to be, they do not think that it should be changed and they do not notice any shortage of volunteers who are prepared to sacrifice themselves in the service of the nation.
I do not know how far these matters have gone in the parties themselves. I simply quote eminent members of the party opposite and the work which some of us have done on this side of the House. As yet no suggestion has been made by either political party as regards the setting up of a constitutional conference at which to attempt to resolve the differences between them. We are in enormous economic trouble. I should hate to see a huge constitutional crisis generated by the fact that there would be great differences between the parties on an issue such as this. Therefore, if, as I hope, the noble Lord's Bill gets a Second Reading and proceeds further—and I do not know what the noble Lord the Leader of the House will say to us later—and if his party takes it seriously and, indeed, the Liberals as well, I should like to think that some measure of agreement could be achieved long before we came to what could be, as I assert, a quite awful constitutional crisis.
The noble Lord mentioned the times when this House has been threatened. I was doing some research and found that Mr. Asquith said:On 30th November 1909 the House of Lords as we have known it committed political suicide".Well, it is taking an uncommon long time to die; and let us hope that the agony is still prolonged! I think that it was Macaulay who said:Reform if you would preserve".I think that those are quite pregnant words at this moment, and I hope that the parties concerned will consider them seriously.
I said that we on this side of the House had set up a committee to look at this matter. I should like to refer, if I may, to some of the proposals that we have 599 made. In a reformed Second Chamber, Peers by succession would cease to have a right to a seat but they would be eligible for nomination for life peerages. Life Peers and Peers of the first creation would continue in membership of the House. There would remain a place in a reformed House for the Law Lords and bishops. From the House as thus constituted there would be established a body of voting Peers of about 250. They would be selected in such a way as to reflect the party balance in the House of Commons. Each of the parliamentary parties in the Lords would determine the composition of their own section of the voting Peers. Provision would be made within the Opposition complement for the Cross-Benches.
Morever, non-voting Peers would have the usual rights of taking part in our discussions and moving Motions both on the Floor of the House and in Committee, but they would have no voting powers. Indeed, I can think of many eminent Members, especially on the Cross-Benches, who play quite an important part in giving us of their expertise, probably without ever going into a Division lobby from one year's end to another; and it is right and proper that they should have that opportunity. We went on to say that a list of nominees for creations to the House of Lords would be made as required from time to time by a Select Committee of the House of Commons to be chaired by the Prime Minister. And, from such a list, the Prime Minister would make a final selection for recommendation to the Sovereign.
I think that the delays which the House can impose are quite superfluous. There can, of course, be an interval of about 13 months from the Second Reading of a Bill in the Commons to it actually going on the statute book. I would suggest that we do not need such powers. With an unwritten constitution we should retain the power to prevent the Commons from extending its life beyond five years. I consider that to be utterly and completely essential.
I think that the case for a Second Chamber would have to be made publicly before the referendum took place. As it is, we relieve the First Chamber of much of the burden of work which has to be undertaken, and in this democracy, as we now see it developing, there is an ever-increasing demand for legislation. We have the task of adequately revising that legislation and initiating suitable legislation in our turn.
We believe that we should be providing a forum for full and informed debate on matters of public interest; participating in the task of scrutinising and probing the plans and actions of the Executive; and, I repeat, in the absence of the safeguard of a written constitution, providing a check against the elected Chamber's extending its life beyond the period of five years—or indeed against their dismissing judges. I do not know whether any of our noble and learned friends are present, but I understand that at the moment motions for this purpose have to go through the two Chambers, and if there was not a Second Chamber the Commons would have the power to do it themselves.
In addition to the work I have described there is the excellent work of the Committee and its sub-committees on the EEC proposals. Some 80 of our colleagues are engaged in that work. The reports of that Committee and the subsequent debates in the House perform 600 a major role in keeping Parliament and the public informed of the EEC proposals at a time when important areas of decision are moving to Brussels.
I know that the House is commonly spoken of as a "revising Chamber". As such it engages in something more than a mere tidying up. It receives Government amendments to Bills, and not only are these examined but also substantial amendments are often made as a result of mature examination by members with expertise, not necessarily that of full-time politicians but that of a blend of experienced politicians, lawyers, scientists, industrialists, trade union leaders, educationists and other leading members of the community. This close examination of Bills in the Lords is particularly necessary, I suggest, in the case of Bills which have been subjected to the operation of the guillotine in the House of Commons.
Indeed, on that point, in recent years many of those Bills have been the principal measures of the Session. They have reached the House of Lords without large sections of them having been subjected to any examination during the Committee and Report stages in their passage through the Commons. For these reasons, some of us have serious doubts whether a single Chamber would have the capacity to handle as it should be handled the vast range of complex business which faces Governments in Britain today, particularly when so many Members of the Commons (about 100 of them) will be members of the very Government which they are supposed to check and control.
On the powers of the Lords vis-á-vis the Commons, the one most frequently cited, as I said a short while ago, is that of delay. I do not think I need go through all those reasons again. I believe that in this day and age it is quite unnecessary for us to have the delaying powers of the type which we have. Turning again to the composition of the House, we believe that few people would now argue that anyone should be entitled to sit in a Second Chamber by hereditary right. I find that even hereditary Peers I have discussed this subject with do not believe that that is a basis for membership here. I repeat, there is not the slightest reason why those who have attended and been useful here should not be nominated as Life Peers anyway and continue to assist us in that respect.
Regarding the composition of the House, there remains the difficult area of future creations and the widely held desire to remove them so far as possible from the field of patronage. We believe that provision must be made in the system adopted for future creations for ensuring sufficient Peers to meet the requirements of a party balance of voting Peers; to enable the Prime Minister of the day to appoint to the House Peers for ministerial posts; and to ensure the nomination of individuals who do not wish to become fulltime politicians but who could nevertheless make useful contributions in debate on matters in which they have special expertise.
Many possible schemes to satisfy these requirements were canvassed during the time of our committee. The proposed solution, of a select committee of the House of Commons, chaired by the Prime Minister, seemed to promise the best results and at the same time to lessen the degree of patronage exercisable by one 601 person. A responsible committee of that character could ensure the continuation of an assembly which would be reflective of the nation's expertise.
On the point we made about voting Peers, it is essential that the Government of the day should have a reasonable chance of getting their business through the House of Lords. For this we propose a system of voting Peers, limited as to numbers and reflecting in their selection the party balance in the House of Commons. I submit that this, together with the proposals for the composition of the House, would end, once and for all, the in-built one party domination of the Second Chamber.
My Lords, you will have gathered that I agree with the noble Lord in a great deal of what he said. I feel that the precedent to which he referred and to which I have referred for referenda in constitutional cases only would be applicable to the position of this House. For those reasons I, for my part, welcome the noble Lord's initiative, and I wish it well.
§ 3.47 p.m.
§ Lord Byers
My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alport, on the way in which he presented this measure to your Lordships' House today. I must say, however, that I feel very much in two minds about the Bill itself. First, I am not a great supporter of the referendum device as a basis for constitutional or any other reform. I was doubtful about the wisdom of using it in the case of our joining the EEC, but, given the unrepresentative nature of the House of Commons itself, we on these Benches, thought, I think, that it would be better to accept the referendum as a second best. Nevertheless, I am worried about the way in which we are extending the use of the referendum in our political life. I have no doubt at all that a referendum held on the return of capital punishment would almost certainly return a "Yes" vote, despite the massive evidence available which does not support capital punishment as an effective deterrent. That is my first point.
Secondly, we owe the noble Lord gratitude for having introduced a Bill of this nature, because it highlights our need for a proper procedure for constitutional reform, particularly if we are contemplating any fundamental reform. I doubt whethet this Bill is the right way to proceed; but what the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has shown up is that we have to do a great deal of hard thinking before we embark on fundamental constitutional reform.
It is a great pity, as the noble Lord said, that we did not make some progress on House of Lords reform in 1968–69. Although the scheme we recommended had its imperfections—I say "we recommended" because I was fortunate enough to be a member of the three-man sub-committee, with the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, which worked for something like 18 months, and there is a considerable amount of evidence available somewhere in this House to those who are contemplating the sort of reforms to which the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Newton, was referring and which they had obviously considered when the Labour Party in the House of Lords discussed this matter—it was a great pity that our efforts were frustrated by that most unusual Parliamentary combination in 1968–69, something, I 602 regret to say, that the three of us never contemplated at all when we thought we were embarking on some useful work.
As for the unicameral system, I believe we must retain the Second Chamber with powers adequate not only to prevent the Commons from extending its own life but to put the brakes on extremism of the right or left at any particular time. There may well be a need for an element of elected members in the Second Chamber. I say "element" because I accept all the arguments about the grave difficulties of this being a fully elected Chamber vying with another place in the powers it seeks to exercise; I believe this Chamber must always be subordinate to the House of Commons. However, I am convinced that it would be quite wrong to reform this House before we have tackled the major cause of our political ineffectiveness and the political and economic instability which stems directly from the electoral system by which the House of Commons is elected.
That is the root of the evil and it is made far worse by the fact that in the sort of two-party system we now face, a Right-wing monetarist party will inevitably be succeeded by a Left-wing Socialist party controlled by militant Marxist management committees in the constituencies through the party conference and through the National Executive. That is a real live danger to our democratic system. I commend to noble Lords a pamphlet entitled Industry Needs Electoral Reform, which has just been issued. It is significant that it has been written by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, and issued on behalf of the Conservative Action Group for Electoral Reform. It is a significant step forward.
I believe that the real constitutional danger lies not in this House but in the first-past-the-post voting system, which one day will bring to power a party dominated by Left-wing Socialists, not because the country sees merit in their manifesto but because the electorate has become totally disenchanted with the alternative of monetarist Conservatism. It is true to say that Oppositions never win elections. Governments lose them. That will happen if we are not careful.
In my view, the Bill does not make any contribution to a solution to our constitutional problems. We must go much deeper and recognise that under our present electoral system no Government since the war has been elected by a majority of the electorate. Even in 1979 this Government came to power with the support of only 33.3 per cent. of the electorate. We should not tinker. We should debate this whole question either through a constitutional conference or by using the methods we used in 1968–69 and should try to get all-party agreement to see how we can achieve a more acceptable First Chamber and a more acceptable Second Chamber without seeking the protection, if protection it be, of a referendum.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I join with the noble Lords, Lord Lee of Newton and Lord Byers in the tributes they paid to the way in which my noble friend Lord Alport introduced the measure; it was, as always, a delight to listen to him, and it is always a delight to this House to be able to talk about itself, 603 so we are grateful to him for giving us that opportunity. However, on the substance and merits of the matter, I find myself a little disturbed by finding that my thoughts are going very much on the same lines as those of the noble Lord, Lord Byers—something that does not often happen either to him or to me. I share his apprehensions about referenda; you are submitting, in the nature of things, very important issues to a vast electorate for a once-for-all decision made on one particular day. You cannot foresee the mood there may be in the nation on that day, nor can you see the accidental circumstances that can sometimes sway opinion for a few days inside a country.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
I am obliged to the noble Lord, my Lords, because it is even more dangerous, in that, with television, some scare or alarm goes out on, say, the night before the vote, and then the fatal decision, as it may be, is taken the next day once and for all. I have always had grave doubts about the use of referenda, except perhaps for the very purposes for which other noble Lords discard them—such social questions as, for example, capital punishment.
But I am sure that the difficulty that faces us all in this debate in deciding what we are to do, if we have to do anything at the end of it, is whether we think it is possible, as my noble friend appears to do, to make a constitutional change of this kind, as he said, unrelated to reforms of the House. In other words, is it possible—I ask your Lordships to reflect on this—to initiate a step of this kind without inevitably raising the kind of questions which the noble Lord, Lord Lee, raised? Are we not therefore, if we go forward with a Bill of this sort, going to initiate a process the end of which none of us can at this moment foresee? Are we not going to initiate a process as regards which I think it is fair to say that most of us have not yet even thought out exactly what we want to do?
Are we not initiating a process in which, so far as I know, there has been no attempt yet to obtain the measure of inter-party consensus which is so enormously desirable when you start amending the constitution? It may not be possible, and it may be that a government must proceed on its own, but it is at least in our tradition that we make every effort to get a consensus of a kind that will stick. Is it prudent, therefore, to start legislating on one point, however important, unless we are really sure in our minds that we are not in this way starting a process and going on a road the route of which we have not yet thought out, thus beginning a process whose end is uncertain to us all? I confess to considerable apprehensions about this proposal for that reason.
I was delighted, as I am sure all noble Lords were, to hear the tributes paid to this House and the work that it does. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Lee, was extremely convincing and effective on that, and I hope I am not introducing an extraneous note if I say I hope he will talk to as many of his colleagues as his time permits and educate them in this admirable manner. But we have to deal with things as they are and this is 604 a measure which, as I understand it, is intended to entrench—that is the technical term—this House against an attempt at abolition or emasculation. But, if one looks at it closely—and I hope my noble friend will not mind my saying this—it is an entrenchment which rather resembles the Maginot Line: it provides a powerful fortification on that part of the front which is not in fact threatened with attack. It ends at the Ardennes or the Belgian border, through which the attack came.
The only direct threat to this House that has been made is the threat made by Mr. Wedgwood Benn to create 1,000 Peers pledged to its destruction. This Bill does nothing whatever to inhibit that. If there were appointed to this House 1,000 Peers, selected presumably on the basis of their reliability as acolytes of Mr. Benn, and pledged to the destruction of this House, from that moment this House would be effectively destroyed; legislation would not be needed from the other end of the corridor. The House would have become a place of such ridicule, such absurdity, that it could not continue, and would not even wish to continue. So, despite my noble friend's most admirable researches and studies, and despite the care with which he has drafted the Bill and the support he has received for it, do not let us kid ourselves that it provides an entrenchment against the only threat which so far has been uttered in recent times—because if one looks at the Bill one sees that it does not.
I want to say only a few more words about the Bill itself. My noble friend called in aid the precedent of the Scottish and the Welsh devolution Bills, but he did not point out—I am sure by inadvertence—a very significant distinction between this measure and the Scottish and Welsh Bills. As my noble friend explained, under this Bill the referendum would have to be taken immediately after Second Reading in the House in which the Bill is first presented. Under the Scottish and Welsh devolution Bills the referendum took place after the Bills had been through both Houses and before presentation for Royal Assent. There is a very important difference there. It meant that when the people were called upon to vote, thanks to the media they had the advantage of having heard the matter argued, rather perfunctorily perhaps, in the Commons, but extremely well and in great detail in this House, month after month before they were called upon to come to a decision.
I shall venture one private opinion. If under the Scottish Bill, in the full tide of devolutionary enthusiasm the referendum had been taken immediately after Second Reading in the Commons, almost certainly there would have been a majority in favour. Yet, as your Lordships know, after the long discussions, in particular in this House, had revealed the weaknesses and defects of the Bill and of the system that it would set up, the result was a failure to obtain the necessary qualifying 40 per cent.
So I would suggest that if, for the reasons that I have given, we were to go for a referendum, it ought not take place at the early stage. It should take place as the penultimate stage in the process before the Bill was presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent. Some of your Lordships may object to that suggestion on the grounds that it would mean a waste of much parliamentary time, as was the case with the Scottish 605 and Welsh Bills. But we are dealing with major constitutional matters, and I suggest that if they are to be decided it is more important that they are decided accurately and well than that a little parliamentary time is saved.
Those of your Lordships who have served in the House of Commons will also reflect on the point that if there is a risk in regard to parliamentary time, that is a considerable deterrent to any Government in relation to introducing the legislation at all. Your Lordships have already heard reference made to the ill-fated Parliament (No. 2) Bill, and to those gallant and independently-minded Members of the other House who successfully defeated a Bill introduced by a Government with a majority of over 100 and supported by the Opposition Front Bench. It was on the grounds of shortage of time, ironically, in retrospect, to provide for the legislation to embody the White Paper In Place of Strife that the Government of the day abandoned that disastrous measure. Therefore, the argument for having the referendum early in order to avoid waste of parliamentary time is, from the point of view of those who want to preserve this House in one form or another, an argument which cuts the other way.
Then there is the matter of the question to be put, which is included in the appendix to the schedule to the Bill. Very wisely, my noble friend has realised that most people, if given the chance to frame a question in a referendum, can so frame it that they will get the answer they want. It is certainly not beyond the parliamentary skill of the occupants of any of the Benches in this House to do that. If one looks at the schedule, it will be seen that the question that my noble friend proposes to make statutory is plainly relevant to a measure to abolish this House, but I think that the question would be calculated to confuse the voter if the proposal were not to abolish this House, but substantially to diminish its legislative powers—to diminish, not to eliminate. Therefore, that question would really be quite inappropriate. Yet the difficulty of the whole procedure is that if one does not legislate to provide the question, one exposes this House to the danger of a cunningly drafted question, designed to elicit the kind of answer that the Government of the day want.
Finally, I wish to raise one quite small point, which arises from paragraph 11 of the schedule. I cannot understand why—and he did not tell me—my noble friend seeks to prevent the courts of law, in an appropriate case, from investigating the question of whether or not the count was carried out properly. It would seem to me that in a case where great passions might have arisen, in which the future of this House was in issue, with the Government of the day determined to destroy it, let us assume, there might be great pressures on the counting system, the counting officers, and the practices used. If I may call in aid the admirable Dimbleby lecture the other night by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, surely that is precisely the point at which the courts ought to be able to intervene and protect the people of this country from any irregularity being perpetrated. I am sure that thanks to my noble friend we shall have a most interesting debate, and I must leave with your Lordships my very grave doubts summed up as follows. 606 I doubt whether this is the right answer, and even if it were, I doubt more so whether this is the right moment at which to try to give it.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ Lord Crowther-Hunt
My Lords, all of us must be most indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for introducing this Bill, because in my view there are two major reasons why the Bill is so important that it should, as I hope it will, get on to the statute book in the very near future. First, I see the Bill as important in itself in these difficult political and constitutional times. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, in my view it is the only way of preventing a possible head-on clash between Her Majesty the Queen and a future Labour Government committed to the abolition of your Lordships' House and to a unicameral system of government. That could be a clash in which Her Majesty was in direct personal conflict with a Labour Government as she sought to carry out her constitutional duties.
Let me briefly expand on those two points in a minute or two, but in this context let us remember that the Labour Party is committed to the total abolition of your Lordships' House and that it is committed not to seek a consensus on this matter. I do not believe that there is a possibility of a consensus here. The Labour Party is committed to the total abolition of your Lordships' House and to a unicameral system of Government.
It is against that background that it seems to me that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is so important and so necessary. As the noble Lord pointed out, any future Government, be they Labour or Conservative, who come into office committed to the abolition of your Lordships' House will almost certainly be a minority Government. That is to say that though they might well have a comfortable overall majority of, say, 40 or more seats in the other place, almost certainly the majority of voters would have voted for the opposition parties. As the noble Lord, Lord Alport, said, every Government since 1935 have come into office backed only by a minority of the voters. We all recall Mr. Attlee's Labour Government of 1945, with a huge majority in the House of Commons, even though in the election more people had voted Conservative and Liberal than had voted Labour.
That has been true of all Governments since then, up to and including the present Government of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, when, at the last election in 1979, more people voted Liberal and Labour than voted Conservative. Therefore, if a Labour Government win the next general election they will almost certainly not have won a majority of the popular vote; and on that basis, in my view, they will not be able properly to claim a mandate for major constitutional reform and the abolition of your Lordships' House, even if they make that point and promise that in their election manifesto.
This might not matter so much if your Lordships' House merely performed useful political functions rather than crucially important constitutional ones. As we have heard this afternoon, we do perform useful political functions; but, here, I think it is important not to claim too much—and we are often in danger of claiming too much about our useful political functions. 607 We do, of course, for example, carry out a revising function, and we also relieve the burden on the other place. But I think we have to be careful about this. It is, in my view, no part of a Second Chamber's job to revise Bills just because the Commons have not had time to consider them fully or properly, as so often happens now. A Second Chamber is not here to compensate for deficiencies in another place which can be remedied by fairly obvious reforms in the other place itself.
But where Bills have been carefully scrutinised in their entirety in the Commons and appropriately amended there, there is, in my view, a very strong case for those Bills to be scrutinised and revised from the very different point of view of this Chamber; from the point of view, in particular, of the special interests which are primarily affected by them and are able to express their views without slavish adherence to strict party discipline. This way, in my view, we get better and more practical legislation than might otherwise be the case, thanks to spokesmen from the Churches, from business, from the professions, from agriculture, from the trade unions and so on.
In the revising function too, we can provide an opportunity for experts who have not the time to be full-time professional politicians to help with the improvement of our legislation. Today I believe we have in our midst some 15 Fellows of the Royal Society and two Nobel Prize winners—and this is just the tip of an iceberg of expertise which cannot be matched by any directly-elected assembly anywhere in the world. All this helps to enhance the quality of the way in which we are governed. Your Lordships' House gives the experts the base from which to operate—experts who have not time to be full-time professional politicians and who, indeed, could not be full-time professional politicians and maintain their expertise; and experts who could not be expected, if they were to maintain their expertise, to court the voters to become Members of a Second Chamber.
But, important as our political functions are, they are not, I think, quite worth dying at the stake for: but our constitutional functions are so important that they are worth dying at the stake for. Because, as noble Lords have pointed out, if your Lordships' House is abolished there is nothing to stop a House of Commons extending its own life indefinitely and dismissing any judges the Government found inconvenient. Here we have, as has been pointed out, a total veto, and in a country without a written constitution guaranteeing regular elections and the independence of the judiciary, it is crucial for us to continue to exist to fill what would otherwise be a dangerous gap in our constitutional system. We must have some mechanism, which at present is only ourselves, to stop a transient majority in another place from extending its own life indefinitely and from dismissing any judges that sought to defend our liberties against what another place might want to do to them. This is where the Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is so important. It will prevent us from being abolished by a Government which, though they might have a majority in the other place, will have secured only a minority of votes; and at least as important is the fact that Clause 3 of the noble Lord's Bill will stop a future Government from repealing the Bill 608 without the consent of your Lordships' House.
But, my Lords, the noble Lord's Bill is important, in my view, for a second and perhaps even more fundamental reason, and that is that it will help to ensure that Her Majesty the Queen is not involved in a direct personal clash with a Government committed to our abolition; because the fact is that our abolition will be much more difficult than the Labour Party at present believes. A Government committed to our abolition have two alternative courses of action open to them. The first of these, of course, is the Parliament Act procedure; so such a Government might seek to use the Parliament Act procedure if the Lords threw out their abolition Bill after such a Bill had passed the Commons. Such a Government would then hope to present such a Bill for the Queen's approval after it had been passed in the Commons in two successive Sessions and been twice rejected by the Lords. In that way, there would be at least 13 months of political and constitutional turmoil—the minimum period technically required for such a Bill to get on to the statute book.
But if we played our cards correctly in those circumstances (and I hope we might) we could impose rather longer delay than that. We could cause havoc in a whole number of ways with the time-table of such a Government. For example, when the Bill came before us a second time we might not reject it a second time; we might just let it lie on the Table. That would cause some difficulty, since the Bill would not have been technically rejected a second time. Secondly, we might seek to delay the process by introducing amendments of various kinds for the consideration of the other place; and there could be some rather nice to-ing and fro-ing which would add to the period of delay. Thirdly, even if we were only imposing our 13 months of delay, during that time we could, if we wanted, reject any of the Government's other major measures that they were putting forward during this time and which we thought might not be very popular with the electorate. We could in that way create havoc with the Government's time-table.
But suppose the Bill was in the end presented to the Queen for her approval, the crucial question arises as to whether Her Majesty and her private advisers would feel that she had to approve such a Bill passed by the Parliament Act procedure. My Lords, there can be no certain answer to this. The Queen and her advisers might well believe that there were powerful constitutional reasons why in these circumstances she should withhold her consent. First, for example, it can be argued that the Parliament Act procedure cannot properly be used to bring about a unicameral system of government. The 1911 Act, as your Lordships will recall, envisages the maintenance of a Second Chamber, the continuation of your Lordships' House, and it could certainly well be argued that an Act which envisages the continuation of your Lordships' House cannot properly be used for its abolition. Secondly, as we all know, the abolition of this House would remove, as I have mentioned and as other noble Lords have mentioned, the only two safeguards our present constitutional system provides against the threat of tyranny from an all-powerful first Chamber. As I have said, if we were abolished there would be nothing to stop the first Chamber from extending its own life 609 indefinitely and dismissing any judges.
There would be the added consideration—and this is the sort of consideration which would be very much borne in on the Queen at this time—that all this was being done by a Government elected on a minority vote: ample reasons, then, for the Queen to believe that if she approved the abolition Bill she would be falling down in her duty of being the ultimate guardian of our rights and liberties. That is a duty which is specifically imposed by Her Majesty's Coronation Oath, where she promised—and I quote—to govern the people of the United Kingdom according to the Statutes in Parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same".Her Majesty might well feel that if she were approving such an abolition Bill she was not carrying out her oath to govern the peole of the United Kingdom "according to the statutes in Parliament agreed on with the laws and customs of the same". But Her Majesty could employ and deploy weapons short of a stark veto which would lead to an immediate general election. She might follow the example of her grandfather, King George V, and seek some all-party compromise by calling a constitutional conference. Alternatively, with the referendums on the Common Market and on devolution fresh in mind, Her Majesty might take the view that the voice of the people should be tested before agreeing to abolition. That certainly would be a prudent course, again given the fact that the majority of voters would have voted against the Government which was seeking to impose such a far-reaching and possibly irrevocable constitutional change.
In most of this, it is important to stress that the last word would be with Her Majesty herself. Short of seeking to abolish the monarchy itself, the Government would have to acquiesce in her final decision whether that was a flat veto or an insistence on a referendum or on another general election. But in spite of all this, if the Queen approved an abolition Bill passed by the Parliament Act procedure, its validity as a proper Act could still be challenged in the courts, with the ultimate appeal to the House of Lords in its judicial capacity. I think that that was what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, was getting at in his recent lecture.
Of course, faced with the prospect of all these constitutional crises and uncertainty, it is no wonder that a certain Member of another place has advocated an alternative approach. But this suggestion to create up to a thousand Peers committed to abolition bristles with constitutional difficulties as well. I believe there is an extension of the "Maginot Line" here that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was talking about when suggesting that, by adopting this means, a Government committed to abolition of the House of Lords could outflank the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Alport. The fact is that if a thousand Peers were to be created, the new Peers might grow to like the place before they had the opportunity to vote for its abolition. Slightly more seriously, if we chose to admit the new Peers, as one noble Lord has pointed out, at the rate of two or three a week it might take upwards of 10 years before there was an actual majority here for our abolition.
§ Baroness Jeger
My Lords, just to get the record 610 straight, as I was chairman of the Labour Party at this time, the suggestion about a thousand Peers was made entirely out of the top of the head of a Member of another place with no authority from the National Executive.
§ Lord Crowther-Hunt
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that intervention. This is not yet the official policy of the Labour Party; it was made by a Member of another place, off the cuff, as it were, at the last Labour Party conference. One of the things which tends to happen is that what the same gentleman says one day often becomes the policy of the National Executive the next day. But, more seriously, the point that I want to emphasise is that if there is such an official proposal eventually from the Labour Party itself, and if such a proposal finds its way into the election manifesto, the one thing that is certain is that the Government themselves cannot create Peers, even if they commit themselves to the mass creation of Peers in an election manifesto. Only the Queen can create Peers.
For the Labour Party there is an unhappy constitutional precedent here. In 1910, there had to be two general elections within the year before Edward VII and George V were ready to promise to create enough Peers to bring about what was simply a straightforward reduction in the powers of this House. I think there is much more at stake today when it is total abolition and unicameralism and all the far-reaching implications of that; and the Monarch would then, in my view, be perfectly justified in insisting either on a second general election devoted solely to the question of whether the Queen should create enough Peers to secure the abolition of the House of Lords, or to insist at the very least upon a referendum before agreeing to create the Peers demanded by a Government elected upon a minority vote—and referendums, as we know, are notorious for their tendency to maintain the status quo. So, to avoid all these constitutional crises, it would be much better to pass the noble Lord's Bill; and I hope that it will become Government policy.
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask whether he has not rather exaggerated his statement to the House that the abolition of the House of Lords is an official commitment of the Labour Party? It is traditional in our party that conference makes decisions and loyal members remain in the party and try like anything to alter them. We remember Hugh Gaitskell on the famous occasion. It is absolutely misleading to saddle us, many of us who totally disagree with this commitment of the National Executive Committee—with that view. We shall fight as hard as we can to alter it. If it comes into the manifesto, then we shall have to go.
§ Lord Crowther-Hunt
My Lords, if I may respond to that, it is the official policy of the Labour Party. I was very careful to say that it was the policy of the Labour Party. Anything passed by the annual conference with a more than two-thirds majority, as this was, is the official policy of the party. It is true that it is not yet in the Labour Party election manifesto—and the former leader of the Labour Party got into enor- 611 mous trouble for not including it in the last manifesto when it was the official policy of the party. But as my noble friend will know, there is on the stocks for next year's annual conference a proposal that it is the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party that shall have the final say on what goes into the election manifesto and not the parliamentary part of the party.
§ 4.28 p.m.
My Lords, it is not for me to join in this interesting exchange concerning members of the Labour Party and the relationship of the Front Bench and the Blackpool conference. This is a mystery to which we shall perhaps one day discover the answer. I think that I have been a Member of this House for as long as anybody else, over 55 years, and for the whole of that time I and other hereditary Peers have been subjected to a sort of ritual campaign of abuse—sometimes very rude. The curious thing is that, after all this time, the whole result of this protracted campaign is nothing at all—we are still here, still patiently awaiting reform. It also suggests that whatever anybody may think about the present House, it is not very easy to invent a better one in a country which has no written constitution. That has been brought out by events. In my period, there have been seven serious attempts to reform this House, and all have failed. All failed for the same reason: they all attracted more hostility than support. I feel that there is little reason to suppose that any new suggestion for reforming our composition and powers will be any more successful, although I may be proved wrong.
The beauty of this Bill is that it does not concern itself with these complications at all. It simply says that before the constitution can be changed there should be a referendum. Whether it comes to this House or some other form of House or any form of Second Chamber, if there is that sort of proposal it should be the subject of a referendum.
I think that is very reasonable. The Swiss are a sensible people. They had a national referendum on the compulsory wearing of seat belts in motor cars. It would be sensible for us to have a referendum when some revolutionary proposal is made to change our constitution. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has pointed out very forcefully that it is revolutionary change that the extremists are after. I am hoping, therefore, that at long last we shall have here a proposal that will attract more support than hostility. I have never believed that any Second Chamber could prevent revolutionary change if that is what the majority of the people want, but surely it would be right to ask them if they do want it, particularly since proposals of this sort, as has been pointed out, will probably be put to the House by a minority Government.
It is really astonishing how this question of Lords reform drags on. I noticed recently in a book on Holland House that Lord Holland, who was a member of the Whig Cabinet, said in 1835:I cannot but believe that in England at all times and particularly since the Reform Act the majority of the Commons backed by the majority of the people are the big battalions which secure the favour of the Almighty".612 Lord Holland was a distinguished Whig and I am an undistinguished Tory, but I agree with what he said, particularly when he referred to the majority of the people, and that is where we come in.
Unless and until we have a written constitution setting out the role of the two Houses it would seem that the principal weapon of this House is the power to delay—delay under the Parliament Act and, as I hope, delay under this Bill. I am wondering therefore whether it would not be as well to leave this House as it is and to give up for the time being any idea of reform. I know that this is not the view of some of my noble friends who have had much more experience of Government than I have. But without a written constitution I cannot see that we could avoid getting into some serious confusion. Suppose, for example, there was such an elected House now. Some people think that a lot of controversial legislation has been and is being passed and it might happen that the two Houses would take opposing views. That would be unfortunate. But the present House has over a long time discovered what it can do and what it cannot do. I am sure that unobtrusively and perhaps indirectly we would have an important effect on legislation. But we must be reinforced by this Bill or something else or we shall end up by being abolished.
My noble friend Lord Alport has put forward a positive Bill. I hope that any noble Lords who want to criticise it will explain what positive suggestions they have. I do not have in mind reference to some committee and some possible new scheme which has never been formulated. Discussion about reform has always followed a pattern. There is usually a scare, often in the Conservative ranks, and that is followed by the appointment of a committee. The committee reports and, after a short time, a majority view is developed saying that that scheme is no good. By now this has happened seven times in my period of membership of this House. I feel that the time has now come for something specific. Speeches in criticism of this Bill simply have the effect of adding to the general impasse that we have reached, and adding to a situation which will soon become absurd, if it has not already done so. I was very pleased that Lord Alport's views received an apparently favourable reception. Unless anybody produces anything better, I think we should all vote for his Bill.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, some of your Lordships will remember that over the past five years I have stressed the need to make gradual, as opposed to revolutionary, changes in our parliamentary and party systems if our democracy is to endure. I have stressed how the enormous changes which have occurred in our society in the past 30 years make such changes essential. Moreover, our present system is not working at all well. I would dearly like to elaborate on these statements but the point which is relevant to this debate is that we have not made the gradual changes when we ought to have done. The fairly recent proposals for some reform of this House are a case in point, but you only have to look outside to see that the cause of this nation's decline in most areas is because even obvious change has not taken place and been resisted. This has often been with the remark 613 that those who necessarily criticised the state of affairs were selling Britain short, and if only they did not do so all would be well. Inevitably, we are now faced with the threat of sudden, violent, unreasonable and disastrous change in our parliamentary system, of which abolition of a Second chamber is one of the more extreme examples.
We in England are almost uniquely vulnerable to this sort of threat because we have no written constitution. Any party, possibly elected by a minority of voters, who consider it only as the best choice of evils can do almost what they like when they come into power. Moreover, with the so-called doctrine of the mandate, which is really very recent, much of its content could be anathema to a large majority of voters.
To alter this situation is in my view a top priority in the changes which I want to see; but this is certainly not easy. I cannot at this moment see inter-party agreement to any useful change being a practicable possibility—obviously not as regards the Second Chamber. The referendum solution put forward in this debate is one I had independently arrived at before I knew of Lord Alport's views. I do not for one moment suggest that it has not got many disadvantages, and in fact many of them have been pointed out already; but I would maintain that in spite of those disadvantages it is really the only way forward to get a written constitution or any guaranteed stability in our democracy.
Wherever you look in life you nearly always find there are advantages and disadvantages to any course of action, and I believe that a referendum is virtually the only way forward. The Bill may possibly be mistimed politically and I suggest that it may not go wide enough. It is open to criticism on the grounds that it is motivated by the Lords' self-interest. Of course that is not so, but that is how it will be seen by many outside. I personally advocate a much wider approach: for example, to say that pending a written constitution no major changes in our existing parliamentary system can be made without a referendum, and inter alia such major changes would include the abolition of a Second Chamber and of course proportional representation.
Who would decide what was a major change requiring a referendum?—possibly something on the American model. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, would no doubt agree. There may be other alternatives but I look upon this idea of the referendum merely as a temporary measure because we must get to a written constitution. If we got proportional representation, again I think much more could be left to Parliament; but I do not see any of this occurring very quickly. Therefore, in the meantime, it seems to me that a referendum is the most sensible answer. What I fear, as in so many other areas in Britain, is that precisely nothing will be done. We talk, we see the disadvantages and nothing is done until it is too late.
§ 4.43 p.m.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
My Lords, at this stage in the debate it seems to me that almost everything that needs to be said has been said; but there is one thing that has not been said, and I am surprised it has not been mentioned at all, even by the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt. It is this. In 1914 Professor Dicey published 614 his critique of the referendum in the eighth edition of his Law of the Constitution. It was done, of course, soon after the Parliament Act of 1911 and it was looking forward to the possibility of the use of a referendum. I should like briefly to quote two or three things that he said.
He describes the referendum as "the people's veto" and he said this:Its strength lies in the fact that the people's veto is at once a democratic institution and, owing to its merely negative character, may be a strictly conservative institution. It is conservative since it ensures the maintenance of any law or institution which the majority of electors effectively wish to preserve".He also said:The referendum is an institution which, if introduced in England, would be strong enough to curb the absolutism of a Party possessed of a Parliamentary majority".It has been introduced in England, and for that reason this Bill really raises no matter of principle. We are all deeply indebted to my noble friend Lord Alport, whose sturdy independence is fully recognised in this House, even if perhaps it is not so clearly discerned outside.
The principle that there are circumstances in which an issue should be entrusted to the electorate to decide by way of a referendum has already been conceded; first, as has been said, on the question of whether this country should join the European Community, where the question was left to the electorate of the United Kingdom as a whole, and, secondly, on the question of whether a particular form of devolution for either or both of two parts of the United Kingdom (Scotland and Wales) should be adopted, where the issues were left to the electorates of Scotland and of the Principality respectively. The first precedent obeyed the classic injunction that questions put in a referendum should be simple. The second may have appeared to do so but in fact the issues were certainly not simple.
This Bill proposes that should any Government in the future propose to abolish the House of Lords or seek to alter its role, as distinct from its composition, the issue should be put to the electorate of the United Kingdom as a whole. That this is also a constitutional issue of major importance can hardly be disputed, and I do not think I can disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, when he says it is an issue for which it would be meet—he did not use that word, I think—to die at the stake.
It is quite distinct from any proposal to reform the composition of the House of Lords. I listened with great attention to what the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Newton, said on this subject, and I do not think it has been suggested that the reform of the House of Lords should be a precondition of this Bill. Certainly I would not support such a suggestion if it were made. The composition of this House has already effectively been altered by the Life Peerages Act, which has greatly strengthened the influence of the House without increasing its powers.
There is one really significant power—and, of course, this has come out in almost every speech—which the Second Chamber can exercise; namely, the power to withhold consent to a measure proposing the extension of the life of a Parliament. There is also the need for the approval of this House to an order to dismiss judges. Both these are of great importance. The essential feature that distinguishes a parliamentary democracy 615 from an authoritarian so-called "democracy" is the right of the electorate at maximum intervals prescribed by law to change the government. Different countries have different ways of safeguarding that right. Here in the United Kingdom the safeguard lies in Parliament's hands. To abolish the Second Chamber or deprive it of the power to refuse consent to a Bill extending the life of a Parliament would, to say the least, expose the country to the risk that the House of Commons might see fit to extend its own life and so permit the party which possessed a majority for the time being to continue to provide the Government, without the consent of the electorate, and so in effect allying this country with the authoritarian "democracies". This it might do on the specious grounds that it had not yet completed the programme on which it had been elected.
Of course, it is true, as several speakers have said, that numerous attempts have been made in the last 70 years to obtain agreement on reform designed to enable the Second Chamber to perform better. Some, of course, are on more doctrinal lines than practical lines. None of them has yet resulted in obtaining sufficient all-party support in Parliament as a whole to give promise of an enduring solution. I suppose that we ought never to despair. Certainly I, for one, would be very glad if a constitutional commission were to be set up and I should hope that all parties would be agreeable to any such proposal. But it has not always been so in the past that all-party agreement to set up a constitutional commission has been achieved.
But it is not due to impatience, or even petulance at failure to reach agreement on composition that some are proposing to dispense with the Second Chamber. It is, in my submission, because a minority wishes to impose its will on the nation, untrammelled and uninhibited by constitutional safeguards, whatever the people may think. It is because of this that I believe that, before they have their way, the electorate should have its say on the particular issue. I accept the misgivings of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Indeed, to quote Dicey again, he also foresaw that there might be cross-currents of opinion at the time of a referendum. Nevertheless, he felt bound to accept this as the least of the possible evils.
I do not intend to say any more, because I think that so many of the other points that have been raised are strictly Committee points. All I would do is to urge your Lordships to give support to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and give this Bill a Second Reading—and, I hope, without a Division, because any Division on this matter is bound to be misinterpreted. I am bound to say that I doubt very much whether a Division after this debate would necessarily provide a true reflection of the opinion of the House as a whole. It would be a great pity if we were to divide on this, because we all recognise that this is a matter which needs further discussion, whether or not we want to see the Bill proceed in this Parliament. I would discount the time that may be spent on this measure, because it would be time well spent. So I urge noble Lords to give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Reigate
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Alport in his enterprise. I have known the 616 noble Lord as an honourable friend and as a noble friend for 30 years, and this is a piece of characteristic, individual enterprise on his part. Furthermore, may I say that I support him without hesitation or equivocation, or even much criticism of the Bill itself, because it is quite the right Bill and what we need at this stage of our history.
It is, of course, unusual for constitutional changes to follow from an effort on the part of only one individual. My noble friend Lord Drumalbyn said that he hoped the Bill would be passed without a Division. So do I, because it would mean that the House had given, as I wish, a Second Reading to this Bill. But I do not want to forbear from saying that were a Division called I should have no hesitation in voting for it. I am sure that that is the right course. There are occasions when one really must stand up and be counted, without hedging too much on the issue. There are always arguments for procrastination.
Like other noble Lords, I have never been a wildly enthusiastic supporter of the referendum. When I was a young student of politics, I was told that it was a clumsy constitutional device—an odd foreign contraption. It was all right for Switzerland, but certainly not for us. It was as silly as the United States custom of electing judges and chief fire officers at local elections. However, it has now become respectable and has been used here twice and, in my view, very effectively. If used sparingly, it could and should become a permanent and welcome feature of the constitution.
Need I say that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, in his very helpful speech, brought in the subject of electoral reform and quoted from an admirable pamphlet by the Conservative Committee for Electoral Reform, of which I am a member? So I noted his approval. But we must face the fact that that is a very remote possibility and this Bill is before us here and now. Therefore, let us support it now.
I have one other point on the referendum. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter made a very cogent and telling speech. It is only with the utmost reluctance that I find myself disagreeing with him on any occasion, particularly this one. But it was a speech which I should like to study more carefully, because he is the only person whose misgivings have carried any conviction so far as I am concerned. He mentioned the fact that a referendum might take place while the electorate was in a curious mood, swayed by some transient issue. Surely that applies even more to general elections. I see no reason for rejecting on those grounds, a Bill which would be considered by the electorate for three months, as compared with an election, which takes place over three weeks.
I am, I confess, a 100 per cent. dyed-in-the-wool believer in the virtues of a Second Chamber. But we have to face the fact that bicameralism is not a cause for which people will die on the barricades. I doubt very much whether it would provoke even het smallest demonstration down Park Lane to urge the retention of the House of Lords. That does not mean that it is a bad cause. On the other hand, the cry "The Lords must go" sends the blood of the wild men coursing through their veins, whereas the quietly reasoned arguments for a Second Chamber are sensible but soporific. I think that we need a Second Chamber for the smoother working of Parliament itself.
617 Of course, the House needs reform. I favour reform, or rather continued reform, but I confess that I am not very enthusiastic about any of the proposals. I listened with particular interest to the exposition of the noble Lord, Lord Lee, of his committee's report It seemed to me that it was nearer good sense than any other proposal that I have heard. But it is one of many and I do not know how we are ever going to conduct that debate as a Parliament, or as a country, and get near to cohesion and coherence. As I said, I am not enthusiastic about any of the proposals. I think my attitude is rather like that of St. Augustine, who, on another subject, said "Not in my time, oh Lord!"
When I reached the haven of this House, I was asked by a friend what it was like. I said that it was a cross between Valhalla and an eventide home for retired politicians. I hasten to add that I qualify for the latter and not for the former. But, however constituted, it does an exceptionally good job and we must recognise that it would do an even better one if only it enjoyed the support of both parties in both places.
Its abolition is a recurring theme. It was in 1910 that the Labour Party first said that the Lords must go, and the theme has now recurred with rather more force than for many years past. I think I am right in saying that some noble Lords opposite have, in their time, probably demanded abolition. Now I suppose they are here on the principle, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em". But they are none the less welcome and the House is enriched by their presence. In many ways, the House is more representative of all shades of opinion than the House of Commons has ever been.
I should not want to guess what are the prospects of there being a Labour Government in the immediate future. They do not seem to me very good But, as an outsider, it seems to me that they would have to make some step forward towards abolition, in order to satisfy the party organisation. It might happen. This Bill is a long-stop, and I do not really see how the most extreme abolitionist can object to the principle that is enshrined in this Bill.
I was fascinated by the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt. He seemed to feel, although he supported the Bill, that there were many other means by which the House of Lords could be preserved. But it seemed to me that all his prognostications argued a state of political crisis into which this country would be plunged. That has happened before. This Bill is by far the simplest and best long-stop that has yet been devised. It is designed to prevent the abuse of the perhaps temporary possession of power. Putting it at its very lowest, what harm is there in the Bill? If an Act to abolish this House were passed and confirmed by referendum, it would be the will of the people and their considered verdict and one would reluctantly accept it. In my view, on any criterion this Bill is wise and right, and I commend it.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Baroness Burton of Coventry
My Lords, I should like very much to pay a particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alport. In case he wonders why I am paying a particular tribute to him, it is because I feel that we on this side of the House are letting so much 618 go by default. People are afraid to speak up. I am very much afraid that your Lordships' House might go by default because people are afraid to stand up and make their views known. Therefore I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and have very much pleasure in supporting his Bill.
I am more optimistic than the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, who said that he did not think that anything would be done about it. I should like to think that he is wrong. Indeed, I believe that he is wrong. People say that the Labour Party have for many years put forward the abolition of the House of Lords but it may never happen. I do not believe, though, that extremists have scruples. I would rather be sure that we could put a stop to it before anything could be done. The noble Lord, Lord Alport, has given us an opportunity to make our voices heard, and I hope that they will be heard elsewhere.
As may be obvious from what I have said, I do not believe in single Chamber Government. Many of your Lordships have been here longer than I have, but I have been here for 19 years, during which time legislation has come to this Chamber, some of which we have amended, some of which we have agreed to and some of which we have sent back. In many cases we have taken that action irrespective of the party in power and quite frequently to the great annoyance of the then Government.
I did not know that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was involved in 1968 in the opposition with the two other people who have been mentioned. If my memory serves me correctly, we created opposition in the other place in 1968 because this House took a contrary view about Rhodesia. I have on my wall a cartoon of Queen Victoria, though the face is not that of Queen Victoria herself but of Mr. Roy Jenkins. It says underneath the cartoon, "We are not amused". This was what killed us in the other Chamber.
I do not want to be unduly provocative, but I believe that some of the legislation that was refused or amended would have been bad for this country if we in this House had passed it. When we have been able to put this strongly enough and to say that this was done on the basis of all-party feeling in this House—or on the basis of opinion in all quarters of the House, because much of it was non-party—the Government of the day have accepted our reasons.
Professor Alan Thompson, speaking of the Lords, said in a letter to The Times of 11th August last:The impression is one of an authoritative and expert body—yet not without strongly and sincerely held opinions. No one who listens regularly to the debates can believe that the Upper House is a mere rubber stamp for the prevailing political and administrative machine".I contend that at the moment we have authority and influence, but we do not have power—I venture to suggest that that is right—but I believe that the public accepts our work and believes that we in this Chamber stand as a protection against what appear to be extremist policies.
I am firmly convinced that the despotism—I use that word quite deliberately—of single Chamber Government would spell the end of parliamentary democracy in this country, irrespective of the party in power. Because of that belief, I support the Bill put forward today by the noble Lord, Lord Alport. A referendum 619 may not be the best way, or the only way, of maintaining the existence of a Second Chamber, but at least it is a practical proposal and the only one which we have had before us up to now.
None of us knows what the noble Lord the Leader of the House will say when he replies to this debate, but I hope that he will be able to indicate whether, by referendum or not, consideration will be given to the prevention of the Second Chamber being swept away by extremist opinion. That is what I am after and, if the noble Lord's Bill is the best way, I am all for it. It is the only way which we have at the moment. I accept entirely that anything we can do in this direction must be done by consensus, and I support the quotation by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, of the remarks made by Mr. St. John-Stevas about what we really want.
May I take advantage of this Second Reading debate to have a look at the possible composition of the Second Chamber, although the point could be made, and made rightly, I think, that until it is decided that a Second Chamber is essential it is a waste of time to discuss its possible composition? I was very glad that my noble friend Lord Lee of Newton referred to this point. If we wish to influence public, as distinct from parliamentary, opinion, it is useful to take this opportunity to indicate what we think might be done. My noble friend Lord Lee of Newton was the chairman of a committee of Labour Peers, of which I was a member. May I pay my tribute to him, as I am sure every other member of the committee wishes to do, for his chairmanship of that committee and for all the work which he did? We are all very grateful to him. We could not have a better ambassador to our troublesome colleagues in the other place than my noble friend.
Succinctly, and without the explanation in detail which I know is necessary, I want to mention four of the points made by our committee. The first was that there should be an end to the hereditary membership of the Second Chamber, but that consideration must be given to certain hereditary Peers becoming life Peers. The second point was that the power of the Prime Minister to nominate persons for membership should be modified. I am sure that I need not tell this House that fear of patronage is very strong. Wherever you go people say, "Yes, but who would choose who should go there?" But patronage has to come from somewhere, unless the Chamber be an elected one, and I personally am not in favour of such a procedure.
Our third point was that there should be an end to the permanent majority in the Second Chamber of one political party. While accepting that this permanent majority has not been used unduly, it should not be present when we are dealing with "voting" members. Our fourth point was that we should ensure, for any Government with a majority in the Commons, a majority of "voting" members in the Second Chamber. That is fair and essential.
To save noble Lords the trouble of asking me questions about these points and to give publicity to our proposals, copies are available in the Opposition Whips' Office, and we shall be very glad if people will read them.
Those suggestions conclude the middle section of my remarks. They are separate from the action which has been proposed today and which I support, but I 620 have included them for a definite reason: not to muddle what the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is proposing but because of my fear—I keep coming back to this—that we may do nothing until it is too late. That is a further plea to the Lord President of the Council when he replies to the debate.
Earlier this year, I wrote to a colleague in the other place drawing attention to these matters and asking for an opinion, and I hope that my noble friends on these Benches will be interested in the reply, which I propose to quote but with no indication either as to sex or to name:Quite frankly, I have never thought that either abolition of the Lords or reform of it was a priority. I am content with you as you are, doing a good job of worthwhile work, but not having too much power! On the other hand, I quite see that the strength of the campaign for abolition now requires a practical alternative. There are certainly no votes in abolishing the Lords and it could take a lot of time and effort. We could be worse off in the end.My own judgment is that this is a battle which could be won provided it were fought hard. I am afraid that there has been no disposition to do this and sometimes your colleagues have been rather shy of stating their position".Well, my Lords, I am not afraid of stating mine and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has already stated his today. I have put my head above the parapet on several occasions. It is still there and it will be there for a long time yet. I hope that what we are doing in this House today—it may not be necessary on the other side of the House, but it is on mine—will perhaps persuade some other adventurous soul to get up and put their heads above the parapet. Otherwise they will not have any left.
In common with many other speakers today—I should think with all other speakers today—I have been looking at correspondence in the press on this, to me, vital matter. I think it is vital in the long run and therefore we cannot neglect it today. Obviously I do not propose to quote from my own correspondence, but I should like to say something because I think the House agreed with the point. I did say in one of my letters that I did not agree with an elected Chamber and of course somebody wrote in to ask why, and I said, "Quite simply, apart from my opinion, I think that would never be acceptable to the Commons", and I think that many of us must feel that.
Dealing with press correspondence in a few comments—and I dare say some noble Lords will recognise their own—I am not going to mention names. It would be impossible to mention all, many make similar points and of course some names might persuade while others might have the opposite effect. I just want to take five points. The first is that a referendum should be held during the lifetime of the present Government. Secondly, it is suggested that there should be legislation to limit the power of the Crown to create more than a small number of Peers in any one year, and, thirdly, that such a provision should be entrenched so that it is not subject to operation of the Parliament Act. Fourthly, it has been concluded that even if 1,000 new Peers were created, it would take some 10 years to complete their swearing in. Fifthly, the last of my five selections comes from one who states that he has observed our working at close quarters.The beauty of the House of Lords is the very fact that the Peers are not elected. As a result, they are not as ambitious as 621 elected politicians. Like justices of the peace, they serve the nation through a sense of duty. They have a wealth of experience, use common sense and not party dogma and because of this are a remarkable safeguard against tyranny".I hope that opinion is true.
In conclusion, and quite apart from my personal opinion, I suggest that it is undisputed that the close examination of Bills in the House of Lords is particularly necessary in the case of those Bills which come from the Commons and have been subjected to the use of the guillotine. We can all recall instances where some of the principal measures of the Session have reached us without large sections of them having been subjected to any examination during either the Committee or the Report stage of their passage through another place. I think it is not too much to assert that a single Chamber would find it impossible adequately to handle the complex business facing Governments today.
In the report that we Labour Peers put before our colleagues on these Opposition Benches, we stated:As the law now stands, the House of Commons cannot prolong its own life, nor could a judge be dismissed without the agreement of the House of Lords. If there were no second Chamber, the House of Commons could, by itself, make these vital changes and enjoy virtually unlimited power not only over ordinary legislation, but over the constitution. We believe this would be wholly unacceptable to the people of the United Kingdom or, at the very least, that they should be consulted by means of a referendum before so fundamental a change was made".I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is successful today.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve
My Lords, it is my privilege once again to follow the noble Baroness. We always come into the Chamber to listen to her with rapt attention and she has not disappointed us today, for she has got a "commercial" in, as usual, and she has made a speech of great courage. It was an excellent speech and a delight to hear. I was also grateful to my noble friend Lord Alport for introducing this very difficult discussion this afternoon, but there is a long list of speakers so I will intervene only very briefly. Like other members of this House, I wear many hats outside this Chamber. My hats are all non-political, but during my speeches and afterwards, when questioned, I am invariably asked about my views on the future of this House. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Reigate, I find that all groups of people are not only intensely interested but also want information. I must admit that at these times I put forward my own views, and although, as your Lordships will know, I am by no means a persuasive speaker, I do find that most audiences agree with what I say.
Having been "in the wings" of the other place for 20 years, and known the problems of elections, I feel that two elected chambers or even one elected chamber and one partly elected chamber, would be a retrograde step. One of the reasons why your Lordships' House is so well thought of in the country at the present time is because we are able to express our own views without having to conform with the views of the electorate in the constituency. We are not having to look over our shoulders in the fear that we may lose a few votes. Having lived in the constituency which my late husband represented, I know how inhibiting can be the necessity 622 to try to see that the member represents the views of the voters. If this Chamber had an elected element, they would also have to be paid, like the Members of another place. The noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, made one of my points much more eloquently than I could do, which is that the expertise in this House is second to none. We have the benefit here of hearing the views of men and women with brilliant brains who take the trouble to come to this House to help us.
One point which I should like briefly to make is that any committee which is finally asked to submit a proposal about the future of this House, should consist of men and women who have themselves had the experience of working in both Houses. It seems that as the work of each House is so different, the atmosphere is so different and the work is mostly done in a different way, it is vital to have the wisdom of those people and of all parties. To illustrate that, my Lords, may I say that the other day I was speaking after a Member of the other House who is on my side in politics. After his speech he was asked a question about the future of the House of Lords, and he quite categorically told his audience what the future of the House of Lords should be. Nobody seemed to agree with him and eventually it came to my turn to speak. I tore up my original speech and told the audience my views of the House of Lords. I hesitate to tell your Lordships, but I got a standing ovation.
I feel very strongly that in the fullness of time, after careful and much deeper thought and consultation, the people of the country should be asked, by the method of a referendum, for their views. Having used the words "in the fullness of time" I must say that in my view that time is not yet. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter expressed my views, drawing as he did, our attention to some of the problems involved, the prognosis of which we can know nothing of at this time. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton, also is right, in my view, in saying that the people do know and they do care. After this excellent debate I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his Bill at this time, though if later this is taken further I hope we shall, in the old words, "trust the people".
§ 5.22 p.m.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, I must apologise for being so late in the Chamber and being slightly out of breath in starting to address your Lordships. I hope your Lordships will forgive me for seeking to involve myself in this debate. I find the problem that is before us an extremely difficult one upon which to arrive at a proper decision. I would like to thank my noble friend Lord Alport very much indeed for putting down this Motion for starting this Bill before Parliament. On great reflection, I feel that there are three particular points of importance to this House, and I shall mention them very briefly, very much in order of priority.
I think that it is terribly important that, come what may, there is no possibility of this country being deprived of a Second Chamber for its parliamentary processes. I think that it is beholden on us all to make quite certain that we have a Second Chamber. That is the first priority.
The second is that in having such a Second Chamber we have one which is complementary to another place and not one which challenges it in any sense. I think 623 that gives us great difficulty in deciding just exactly what sort of Second Chamber it should be. I speak always of the second Chamber and not of the Upper House. I think it appropriate that there should be a House of Parliament, and perhaps it should be this one, which is ceremonially the Upper House, but in practical detail of legislation I think that the Second Chamber must be a second chamber.
The third point I would make, and the third priority, is that I think that, if this Bill were to become an Act—and I am open-minded about that—it would be very much beholden on us somehow to seek a way of altering the composition of this House to meet the needs of modern times. I believe that that is something that will come about one day. Whether it should come now I am not quite sure, and whether indeed after studying the problem we find that a change is in fact better than no change I leave open at this stage. But I do think that if this Bill were to become an Act it would be most important that the problem should be studied by all parties and by both Houses of Parliament, and that a conclusion should be reached, rather than drifting on.
As to whether my noble friend should be encouraged to take this Bill to a Division, I am not sure. I feel that if he does he will be defeated, and I think that if he is that might be worse than not being defeated. I shall be most interested indeed to hear what my noble friend the Leader of the House has to say, and on that I will base my own action should the Bill be taken to a Division.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Viscount Eccles
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Alport for raising this subject, which is very close to all of us. We are prejudiced in favour of this House, but our attachment is not irrational; it is based on the knowledge which we gain day by day that a Second Chamber is a necessary part of our British parliamentary institutions. I agree with the last speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, that what we want is to go forward to an agreed character of this House, whether changed or not, still to be discussed, but one which is accepted by the principal parties, and then it would be possible to feel more secure about our future than perhaps some of us do now.
The two questions are, are we right to believe that abolition is round the corner, and, if so, is this Bill a sensible weapon to be used in the contest to ward off such a grave danger to our institutions? I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Alport and some other noble Lords who have spoken, who evidently think this danger is very near. As a matter of fact, the House of Lords appears to be in better shape than it has been for a long time. We are not as vulnerable as we were, and the work which we do, and for which the other place is not equipped, is being steadily more appreciated. But, even so, politics not being a rational pursuit, there might be an egregious body of politicians pledged to abolition and likely before long to dominate the majority in another place, and if that is the case then, of course, we ought to prepare ourselves for battle now.
624 But, my Lords, is that really the situation? Is it really true that public opinion is so indifferent to the form of our institutions that the next Government or the one after could carry abolition through Parliament? I should like to examine that as objectively as I can. Your Lordships' House has changed very much in recent years and changed, it should be noted, far more than the other place has changed. And further, the other place, or at least a fair number of the Members there, have not yet fully appreciated the extent of the change in the House of Lords. Since early 1963 we have welcomed a large influx of Life Peers, and from that two results have followed. The proportion of those who regularly attend your Lordships' House who are hereditary Peers has sharply declined. Then, the ranks of the Cross-Benchers have been raised, perhaps from 50 to some figure well over 200.
The result is that the non-party-political element in your Lordships' House is now a very important factor in all our debates and in all our decisions. We are stronger, better balanced and more expert. That may be so. But do the public know that? I believe that they do. By an accident they are beginning to appreciate the change. Not so long ago our proceedings were reported—if they were reported at all—only in the quality newspapers. Today, these proceedings are reported by radio and television. Every household has a chance to hear something about the House of Lords. It is quite clear from talking to all sorts and conditions of people that, from time to time, they do listen. That is a huge gain. I cannot help adding that this House is more interesting now that a Conservative Government cannot be sure of winning every single Division, and we have much for which to thank my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk.
In short, we are not so vulnerable as we were, and the recognition of our usefulness is by no means yet complete. In those changing circumstances, is the threat of abolition so near and so ominous that we should try to forestall it by a Bill of this kind? The threat comes from Messrs. Benn, Heifer and their friends. It was loudly endorsed at the Labour Party Conference. But then, your Lordships will remember that that conference also passed a number of resolutions of such a foolish nature that not a week goes by but we see some respected member of the Labour Party moving to the Right. It really does not look as if abolition of your Lordships' House is a winning political card. In my view that is the first matter to have in mind when considering whether this Bill is a good Bill.
On the other hand, there are, in all parties, many people who feel uneasy—as has been said several times in this debate—about the composition of this House, and they are worried that our membership should remain exclusively by inheritance or appointment. I felt that difficulty when, in 1968, I supported the proposal for reform of this House which was thrown out in another place with the assistance of my noble friend who is sitting beside me. Since that time, as I have said, there have been significant changes in our composition. I am not now sure, as I was then, that an element of election would be in the best interests of the country or—and this is much the most practical point—could ever be squared with the wishes of another place.
625 Nevertheless, it must be right to remain open-minded about all serious proposals for the improvement of our institutions. In respect of a reform of your Lordships' House, it is for the other place to tell us first what powers they would be willing to see exercised in a reformed House. I say that because experience has shown clearly that, unless there is prior all-party agreement on the basic principle of a great constitutional reform of this kind, you cannot get it though Parliament. Therefore, one must judge the Bill against the background of wishing to do something, or perhaps nothing, about the House of Lords as it is now.
I think that the majority of the other place—I cannot be sure, but this is what I think—would like to examine more carefully the possibilities of some changes in our powers and composition. Therefore, one has to ask: Would this Bill open the way to all-party negotiations of that kind? I was much impressed by the account of the views of the committee of which the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Newton, had been chairman.
We must think about the abolitionists. If we passed this Bill, would it not give the abolitionists an excellent pretext for saying that the Conservative Party wanted to entrench the House of Lords as it is? My noble friend Lord Alport made it very clear that there is no connection between his Bill and the process of thinking towards reform. I believe that the Bill would be not an invitation to negotiation, but a signal for battle. That obviously is a big difference between me and my noble friend.
I respect my noble friend's views. I think that I am right in saying that he believes that his Bill would open the door towards all-party discussions. I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and say what I think—I think that exactly the opposite is true: the Bill would make a search for agreement more difficult. Of course, if we were really frightened of abolition, if we really thought that it was round the corner, we would not bother about reform—we would have this Bill in the hope that it might do something to stop abolition being carried out. However, I do not believe that to be the case. I think that we should try in all possible ways to secure the future of this House, and it is not going to be so difficult as it was, because our reputation is growing and deserves to grow.
Therefore, I suppose that the probability is that the House will give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading. That, of course, would allow the abolitionists to claim that in principle we were in favour of entrenching the House of Lords as it is. That would not be true, but that is what they would say. I shall listen with great care to what my noble Leader has to tell us, hoping that he might add his powerful voice to those of us who think that, at this particular moment, it might be well to withdraw the Bill.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Lord Peart
My Lords, I think that this has been one of the finest debates that we have had for a long time. We have had speeches from all sides of the House and our noble Baronesses have also taken part. I especially enjoyed the contribution of my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry. I hope that she will believe that some of us do stand up and let our voices be heard on 626 this very issue.
I strongly agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, has said about the change in character of the House of Lords and also about what has happened. I never believed that television or ordinary broadcasting was good for this House, or indeed, the other place, but there is no doubt about the fact that the Lords' debates which are broadcast on the radio are listened to by a large section of the community. Our contributions, generally speaking, are excellent and no doubt this debate will also be in that category. I hope that I can live up to the tradition which I have mentioned and the speeches which have been made.
I wish to put one or two matters right from the point of view of history. Mention was made of the first attempt at comprehensive reform by the Labour Government in 1967 and 1969, and how the Labour Government was frustrated in certain circumstances. I should like to refresh the memories of noble Lords. They will remember that inter-party talks on Lords reform took place at a conference between party leaders from 8th November 1967 to 20th June 1968, when the talks were broken off by the Government after the Southern Rhodesia United Nations sanctions order was rejected by the Lords at the suggestion of the Conservative Opposition in that House. I was then Leader of the House in another place. I remember the long conferences that we had here in this House. I was quite pleased with the response of the noble Lords who were representing noble Lords at that time when we had negotiations. I believe that it was a tragedy that we did not achieve success then.
We all know the people who frustrated us in another place. I can remember trying to get a guillotine as we could not get our business through because of the long-drawn-out debates when they were filibustering to frustrate what would have been a reformed House of Lords. It was a tragedy. I had to go, on behalf of the Government, to speak to the leaders of the Opposition, the former Prime Minister and my good friend Willie Whitelaw, who was then the Opposition's chief man in this respect. The response I got—and I understand why—was that they said, "Your people are frustrating here, and therefore we are not prepared to play with you". In the end we could not get agreement. It was a terrible tragedy that a minority in another place should frustrate what I believe was basically the general view of my party, which was putting forward these proposals.
However, this is now history. Of course there were attempts after that, and indeed right up to the period when the White Paper was debated in both Houses. In the Lords, after three days' debate, in which opinion was generally favourable despite, I understand, some Conservative Back-Bench opposition, it was approved by 251 votes to 56. In the Commons—and this is recorded—there was a bigger majority against. With the exception of the two Front Benches which were united in support of the measure, Members who spoke in the debate were overwhelmingly hostile. With the imposition of a three-line Whip by the Government and on a free vote by the Conservative and Liberal parties, the Motion to reject the White Paper was defeated by 270 votes to 159. Since then we have had no progress in this direction. Whether or not we could get a majority now for this, I do not know. All I believe 627 is that what happened then was a tragedy. One day there will be a reformed House of Lords. I do not believe that there will be an abolition of the House of Lords.
Mention has been made of my party conference and Mr. Benn. I ask noble Lords to read a fine Fabian tract, The Privy Council as a Second Chamber, which goes on to argue against the abolitionists' point of view. May I use this passage:To sum up, the case for a Second Chamber rests on the fact that the Commons alone simply could not cope with all the work now done by the Lords. This would be particularly important when there is a really heavy legislative programme. Paradoxically, therefore, a Labour Government needs a Second Chamber more than does a Conservative Government".Who was the author of this? Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn. So all is not lost. The next time I see "Wedgie" Benn, who I rather like and am friendly with, I shall remind him how your Lordships received his pamphlet today. I hope your Lordships will read it.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has done a marvellous job today. He made a first-class speech; concise and straight to the point. I would not advocate my colleagues to oppose it. I do not know what the Opposition are going to do. I suspect they will do the same.
§ Lord Peart
The Government. We are so used to being in government. I do not know what the Government are going to do. The Lord President will reply, and we await his views with interest. I have a feeling that he will be progressive. He is very sensible, as I have told him so often. We are not greasing up to each other, I assure you. I just respect him, and I think he will have something to say which should be of importance.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Soames
My Lords, there is at least one consistent theme which has run through this whole debate, which is one of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Alport for having introduced this Bill and given the House the opportunity to talk about this matter of fundamental importance. I should like to add my words of thanks and congratulations to him not only for the form and the manner but the matter of the speech he made introducing this Bill.
May I say at the outset—and I do not think it will come as a surprise to the House—that this Government are totally committed to the maintenance of a Second Chamber. Indeed, there has been no dissenting voice from that during the whole of this debate from either side or any corner of this House. Therefore, in no way is it necessary to elaborate on the reasons for this conviction for all of us know it in our hearts, so do people outside on the whole; and so, I believe, on the whole do the vast majority of Members of another place.
Suffice it to say that from a practical angle the experience of recent Sessions, as my noble friend Lord Eccles remarked—and I have only really known the last Session; I suppose that I have had the privilege of being in this House probably for a lesser time than 628 anybody who has spoken in this debate—shows the considerable demands that have been placed on the House. What the House had done in the last Session shows all too well that this House plays a crucial and indispensable role in the parliamentary process. Furthermore, we are not solely a revising Chamber, important thought that role is. Legislation can and should be introduced here, and there are of course many other aspects of the work of the House which complement rather than repeat the work of another place.
From a constitutional angle the full horrors of single Chamber Government were spelt out by a number of noble Lords in this debate, and by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor in his powerful speech on the humble Address. As he remarked, we as Ministers have a duty to ensure the passage of Government legislation; but he and I, and of course our predecessors before us and those who will come after us, are bound to have a constitutional bias in favour of the independence of a Second Chamber. If the House of Lords is under threat, if that be true, it is not simply a threat to this House but to what this House represents; something of a guarantee of constitutional government in this country.
This House of course has been threatened before, as my noble friend Lord Alport said. In 1649 it was abolished, but by all accounts things were a little different then. The daily attendance was down to a handful, and they spent most of their time sitting on the club fender in front of the fire chatting. A little bit different from today! There is no fire, and precious little time to chat. But I must say—without intending any embarrassment to the Front Bench opposite, and without commenting on the policies of, and differences within, their party—that there is no doubt of the view of the Government and my noble friends on this side, that the need for a Second Chamber is primordial.
So it is that we in Government are listening with interest to the growing arguments for various ideas of possible legislation to protect the constitutional powers of your Lordships' House, and my noble friend has explained one such proposal today. I repeat that we are grateful to him for publicly airing the subject and giving noble Lords the opportunity of letting us know their views and for concentrating our minds on the problem. I need hardly say that it is a sensitive and difficult area, and it might be of assistance to the House if I made some comments on the Bill, some of a general kind and some directed to specific provisions.
First, I know my noble friend will not take it amiss—he made the point himself—when I say it is the Government's view that legislation dealing with constitutional matters of such importance is probably more appropriate (the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Newton, made this point) for a Government Bill than for a private Member or private Peer. Changes of this nature require very detailed examination by all concerned, not least by the Government of the day. Any Administration must be under a duty to consult widely about any proposed constitutional changes, with the object of making the proposals properly understood in the country at large as well as securing as wide a volume of support, extending, one would hope, well across party lines, for the particular measure 629 with which it is concerned, if that be in any way possible.
Secondly, a comment on the referendum as a device in our constitutional machinery, a subject to which the noble Lord, Lord Byers, referred. We have adopted it twice, on each occasion for a specific purpose, but we have not sought to build the referendum mechanism into our system on any permanent basis. Whether or not we should do so, and the referendum should become part of our normal constitutional scene, is a major question. It is perhaps bound up with the prospect of wider constitutional reform, again referred to by Lord Byers; but that is an avenue I should not wish to be tempted along this afternoon.
Nevertheless, your Lordships have shown a desire to give much thought to the suitability of the referendum device in the context of the potential abolition or major reform of the composition or powers of this House. Could the question be framed so as to enable the country to give an unequivocal answer which would effectively settle the question? A measure to abolish the House of Lords would, of course, be fiercely contested in Parliament, but would the issues be translatable into a brief single question which could be understood and appreciated in a way that would lead to a decisive result in the referendum? Those are just some of the questions which need deep consideration.
There are a few other specific comments I should like to make on the Bill, the first a rather important one—in his opening speech my noble friend addressed himself to it and other noble Lords have referred to it—namely, is it the right question in the Bill? Of course, it might be appropriate—one can see that it could be appropriate in some circumstances—to ask the electorate if they wanted the House of Commons to be the only legislative Chamber. But one can envisage circumstances in which the criteria for having a referendum under the Bill were satisfied but the question would not be the question at issue. Suppose, for example, a Bill did diminish substantially the legislative powers of this House but there was no question of its abolition. Would it be appropriate in those circumstances to ask whether the House of Commons should be the only legislative Chamber?
To take a different example, a future Government committed to the principle of bicameral legislatures might wish to introduce proposals to reform the composition and powers of this House. Such proposals could take a number of different forms; they might involve the replacement of the present House with another. It might be right to go to the people to seek their approval for this major constitutional change, but your Lordships will immediately see that the question prescribed by my noble friend's Bill would, in that event, not be the right question to ask.
If we were to take this path, noble Lords might wish to consider whether some greater flexibility should not be introduced in this respect. What is needed, perhaps, is a question which is related directly to the constitutional proposals that are under discussion, if that is the path we decide to take. Otherwise one might risk confusion of the kind that occurred some years ago with the very complicated question of the possible abrogation of the Italian law of divorce, where in effect "Yes" meant "No" and "No" meant "Yes". In any event, I would point out that a voter who 630 believed in a Second Chamber, but conditional on its being a reformed Second Chamber, could face something of a dilemma.
Clause 1(1) envisages that no Bill which would abolish or substantially diminish the powers of the House of Lords should proceed beyond Second Reading in whichever House it was introduced, unless the country so indicated in a referendum. But would that be the right stage in the legislative process for a referendum to be held? My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred to this. If you take it to the country in a referendum at Second Reading stage, the Bill could change a lot in its subsequent passage through Parliament. Should we have been asking the people what might turn out to have been a false point because the Bill had changed beyond all recognition by the end?
The noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, pointed out forcefully, and with good reason, that a Bill to abolish or totally emasculate the Second Chamber would never pass your Lordships' House in any event. To that I would say that a referendum might be held only if and when the machinery under the Parliament Acts had been invoked by the Government of the day and the measure became law without the consent of this House, though whether that machinery could be used to abolish this House is a matter on which I suspect learned opinion might well differ. It is, I think, possible that a referendum at any earlier stage in the Bill's passage through Parliament might well prove to have been misleading or premature, and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said that the Bill on Scottish devolution was put to a referendum before Royal Assent. It had actually become law and Royal Assent had in fact been given; it had gone right through all the processes before it went to a referendum.
Another important point of detail—this is a Second Reading point, I assure the House, and not a Committee stage one—is that in Clause 1(2) my noble friend Lord Alport has cast on the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker the task of endorsing a Bill with a certificate that it contains provisions to abolish the House of Lords or diminish substantially its legislative powers. There might well be a need for some form of certificate—some trigger for the referendum machinery—but the decision might, to say the least, be a difficult one, as noble Lords will readily appreciate.
Of course it may be easy to say whether a Bill abolishes the House of Lords, but what about a measure which would diminish its legislative powers? Clearly, a Bill which left the House of Lords in being, but allowed it to pass only a Bill of attainder would diminish "substantially" (as the Bill says) the powers of this House. But might there not be a grey area? Could the same be said, for instance, of a Bill which reduced to, say, six months the present delaying powers under the Parliament Acts?
My Lords, I think it no exaggeration to say that the determination of this particular question could cause considerable anxiety to either the Lord Chancellor or the Speaker and place them in a position where their judgment, whichever way it went, would be vigorously attacked and the independence of their officers impugned. That would be particularly true of the Lord Chancellor who, as a Minister in the Government of 631 the day who might be bent on abolition of this House, would be placed in an invidious position, to say the least. I see that the noble and learned Lord has a smile upon his face, and perhaps there is some agreement here. As I say, that might be rather an invidious position. That is another point that requires some careful thought. I say no more than that.
I hope that those comments have been of some help to the House. Frankly, I make no apology for the fact that I have asked more questions than I have answered, because I think that this is what it is all about; we are deliberating among ourselves. But I can assure my noble friend and the House as a whole that in coming months the Government will be looking carefully at the arguments put forward for legislation to protect the constitutional powers of this House, and we shall pay all due attention to the points made by my noble friend Lord Alport in moving the Second Reading of this Bill and by other noble Lords during the debate. However, I am not in a position to give an undertaking that we shall necessarily come forward with our own proposals for legislation, let alone a commitment to do so during this Session of Parliament. But we take note of much of what has been said, and we shall give urgent consideration to the strategic purpose of the Bill.
I would add only one further point. To introduce and enact legislation to protect the principle of a Second Chamber is one thing. But to seek to protect what at least some noble Lords have referred to as an unreformed Second Chamber is rather different. From the third paragraph of the Preamble to the Bill which we are discussing it is clear that my noble friend regards his measure as preparatory to full reform of this House; I think that I am right in saying that. But among those noble Lords who have spoken today—I would mention among them my noble friends Lord Boyd-Carpenter and Lord Eccles—there are those who would not wish to go as far as that; and I suspect that there are others who have not spoken who feel the same. It is certainly true that your Lordships' House has evolved of its own accord, both in what it does and in what it thinks about this matter, quite markedly since the last substantive, but unsuccessful, attempt at reform in 1968.
The noble Lord, Lord Alport, has said that this matter is distinct from any question of reform and stands on its own. But is that so? I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Newton, thinks that it is, and I believe that even those who are the most cautious on the question of reform will agree that it is at least arguable that any measure of protection should be seen in the wider context of reform. Indeed judging from the debate, there seems to be a body of opinion in this House which feels that any such measure of protection should essentially be for a Second Chamber rather than for the House as it is at present composed, and that such a measure should therefore be seen essentially as a precursor of reform. Those who hold that view might well feel that they would like to see what was envisaged at the end of the road before beginning to march along it; though, in the words of a Chinese saying that I learned in Peking, and which I found rather attractive, the longest march begins with the first step.
632 Finally, may I once more welcome the debate and congratulate my noble friend Lord Alport, as well as thank him for providing us with this opportunity? I hope that he may feel, as I do, that the debate has of itself served a useful purpose. As I say, I am not able to give any firm assurance to my noble friend, other than to say that the Government will be giving their careful attention to this matter in the months ahead.
However, I think that I should put a few questions to the House, if I may. First, would it be on the basis of a Private Member's Bill that this House would wish to proceed along this road? Secondly, is it envisaged that a Bill for protection or entrenchment should go forward anyway—that it should stand on its own? If so, is the referendum the right means of protection? Do we see a Bill of protection as the beginning of the road, the end of which has to be seen before we start along it?
That is a matter on which noble Lords can express their views, but finally it is the duty of the Government to make up their mind on such matters, and frankly I must tell the House quite plainly that we are not ready so to do at this time. There have been one or two other matters which have been occupying our attention in recent months, and this is a long process—
§ Lord Lee of Newton
It is the case, is it not? that one or two influential voices in the Cabinet have already given their opinion as to where we should be going in regard to this matter; namely, in favour of an elected Second Chamber. Is the noble Lord saying that there are no ideas in that direction?
§ Lord Soames
My Lords, I do not know how many different views there are in another place about what sort of reform, if any, there should be of this House. Certainly some of my colleagues think that there ought to be radical reforms of this House. There are others who think that there should be some reform, and yet others who think that at the moment it is probably better as it is. I am not sure that I could not make a speech in favour of either view, or in favour of all three views, if put to it.
However, what I am saying is that the Government have not made up their mind. As I say, we have had one or two other minor preoccupations on our mind, and we have not got around to this question. My feeling, and the advice that I must give the House, is that to proceed with a Bill, in these circumstances, with all these question marks hanging over it, would not necessarily be the best thing to do. So given all the circumstances, as well as all the matters that we have been able, or unable, to see or foresee, I ask whether it would be right to take this important matter further before more mature consideration has been given to it and to its ramifications. Therefore, in view of what I have said, I hope that my noble friend would think it right to withdraw his Bill today, though of course I appreciate that this is essentially a matter for him to decide.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, first, I should like to say how very grateful I am to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. In particular I wish to thank 633 my noble friend Lord Gage for his contribution. If we had a Father of the House, I think that my noble friend would occupy that position; and he has made a special effort to come on this occasion to support the Bill.
During the course of this debate there have been several criticisms in detail. Indeed, we had many of them in the speech of my noble friend Lord Soames. Most of these, I think, should be considered at Committee stage if Committee stage is reached, and I do not wish to try your Lordships' patience by endeavouring to deal with them now, nor do I want to repeat the arguments I advanced when I moved the Second Reading earlier this afternoon; but I think I must make it clear that there is nothing in this Bill which aims at altering the authority of Parliament or detracts from the present position, whereby the House of Commons is its political powerhouse.
My noble friend Lord Eccles said that abolition is not round the corner. Of course, if it were round the corner it would be far too late for this House, or the Government, to pass a Bill of this sort. I always find it so extraordinary that even the most sophisticated and experienced political thinkers believe that what other politicians say they do not believe, while what they themselves say they believe implicitly. For the first time the Labour Party has a leader who is an acknowledged abolitionist. The Labour Party has said that it intends to abolish the House of Lords; and if further evidence is wanted, those who did not hear Lord Crowther-Hunt's splendid and interesting speech should perhaps read it tomorrow, because there was the view of a member of that party about that particular problem.
My noble friend Lord Eccles also said—and, indeed my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said exactly the same thing—that I was concerned merely to maintain this House, to safeguard this House. But I made it absolutely clear in my opening speech, and it is absolutely clear in the Bill, that I am concerned only with the Second Chamber. The fear that people outside will misinterpret our words and our actions here is, I think, largely illusory. I find it strange that we should be so diffident about committing our interests, and indeed our future, to general opinion, the nature of which we know from public opinion polls and otherwise, of which evidence has been given in this debate tonight.
So far as the speech of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter is concerned, I must say that when he starts with a particularly generous compliment to a speaker I always think of the Greeks and their gifts, because I know that something particularly unattractive is likely to follow. My noble friend drew attention to the Scottish Bill and wondered, as indeed my noble friend Lord Soames wondered, why the referendum should start from the Second Reading and not from the passage of the whole Bill on to the statute book. The fact of the matter is that it is not necessary to have the whole Bill on the statute book. It is a pure illusion to believe that the Scottish people—or the Welsh people, for that matter—read and understood the small print of the Bill, or followed closely the discussions on it in the Committee of the House of Commons, or indeed here. They were voting on a general principle, and that is what a referendum is 634 about. That, my Lords, is what this Bill is about. It is concerned only with the question of ensuring that the principle of maintaining a Second Chamber for the Parliament of the United Kingdom is referred to the nation as a whole, and does not come into the constitution by a side-wind as the result (as a number of your Lordships have mentioned tonight) of the decision of a Government elected by a minority of the people relying upon some item in their manifesto.
Many of your Lordships, certainly on this side of the House, started your political careers under a slogan, "Trust the people". It was a very effective slogan. It is a slogan which, frankly, as far as I am concerned, is one I shall believe in until my dying day. I find it extraordinary that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter should be so frightened that, in a great matter like this, by some incident just before the poll or the referendum the whole of the nation's opinion should be swayed. That does not happen in elections. I know it is always said by the defeated party that it has happened, but it is never true.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, my noble friend has referred to me twice. I am sure that, with his habitual courtesy, he will allow me to interrupt him. Does my noble friend recall that the general election slogan, "Whose finger on the trigger?", very nearly turned what was then a large Conservative majority into a minute one?
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I do not believe that, and I was also a contestant in that election. The fact of the matter is that if your Lordships are not prepared, as those who vote against the Second Reading of this Bill will show themselves as not being prepared, to trust the people, then the people will no doubt draw their own conclusions.
I have been asked by my noble friend the Leader of the House to withdraw this Bill at this stage. I have already undertaken to seek advice as to if and how the Bill should proceed if it gets a Second Reading. Frankly, at this stage I am not prepared to withdraw it, since I think it would make a mockery of the procedures of this House. It would, I think, be discourteous to the majority of your Lordships who have spoken in this debate and who have spoken in favour of its Second Reading; and I think it would give the impression outside this House that this debate was simply a piece of political play-acting. There are moments when it is a good thing when we, quite apart from Governments, as Members of this House of legislature, should be faced with the necessity to make up our minds. I trust your Lordships will now give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, the Question is, That the said Bill be now read a second time? As many as are of that opinion will say "Content"? To the contrary "Not-Content"? I think the Contents have it. Clear the Bar.
635 My Lords, Tellers for the Not-Contents have not been appointed pursuant to Standing Order No. 50. A Division therefore cannot take place. I declare that the Contents have it.
§ Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.