§ 4.33 p.m.
§ Second Reading debate Resumed.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, as the debate on the Bill of my noble friend Lord Alport has been interrupted, I believe I can best serve your Lordships if I first of all make two points in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, before returning to discuss the major issues of policy which my noble friend Lord Alport raised in his speech.
The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, was good enough to give way to me when, inadvertently I am sure, he misrepresented history. He referred to the debates in another place on the Parliament (No. 2) Bill introduced in 1968 and withdrawn in 1969. He used the expression, which as an old House of Commons man he knows has a precise significance, that the Bill was "talked out". The noble Lord will know that a major Government Bill is never talked out because in another place the Government command the time of the House, and he will know as a matter of history that after considerable debate but not, I suggest to your Lordships, debate excessive in view of the importance of the issue, the Government of the day withdrew the Bill.
There was no obstruction. If there had been, it stands to reason that the Government, with a majority of 100 in another place, would, if a Bill they really wanted was being obstructed, have introduced a guillotine. There was no mention of a guillotine. Indeed, the then Prime Minister—the now right honourable Gentleman the Member for Huyton— told the House that the Bill was being withdrawn— and here there is a certain irony in the matter— in order to make parliamentary time available to legislate the effect of the White Paper, In Place of Strife. The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, will remember what happened to that proposed legislation.
§ Lord Peart
My Lords, may I intervene? It just so happens that at that time I was Leader of the House of Commons and the issue of a guillotine, I can assure the noble Lord, was very important. The difficulty was that if we had put it to the House and had a vote, probably we would have lost because of the filibustering tactics of certain Members whom I will not name.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I find that intervention one of intense interest because what the noble Lord has said—and I do not think that he has quite realised it—is that, despite their majority of 100, there was so little support on the Government's side in the House of Commons for this Bill that he could not have got a guillotine through in the face of what he describes as obstruction. This is an extremely interesting admission, albeit 13 years late. Does the noble Lord want to add to it?
§ Lord Peart
My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, reads Hansard he will know that I 34 mentioned this when we had our last debate on this subject.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
Yes, my Lords, and the noble Lord will know that he did not do anything, even though he had a majority of 100. Of course, he knows, with respect, that he did not do anything because he knew he did not have support, even among his own large majority in another place, for a guillotine, because it was generally understood in his party, as in mine, that this was a rotten, bad proposition for a Bill and it was better dropped.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
I am so sorry, my Lords, but I have given way twice. I am dealing at the moment with the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, but if the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, wishes to intervene on something that I say later, then perhaps he would so indicate. The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, said something that astonished me. He said not only that he personally proposed to support this Bill—which, of course, he is perfectly entitled to do as a Member of this place— but that he knew of nothing in it inconsistent with the policy of his party in his so doing. My Lords, it is common knowledge that the policy of the party of which he is an ornament is to abolish this House. This has been affirmed by his party's conference, which I understand is now sovereign in these matters, and repeated by the Leader of his party, whose services on the 1968 and 1969 occasions I would at this point gratefully acknowledge.
My noble friend Lord Alport said specifically on the last occasion that the purpose of this Bill was to prevent this House from being swept away. It is a little difficult to see how the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, reconciles these two things. It is perhaps significant that he did not speak from the Despatch Box, although he opened the debate from that side. He spoke from the second Bench and it may well be that this is an indication that he will shortly be moving three Benches further back.
§ Lord Jacques
My Lords, there are several points to which I wish to reply. First of all, why am I speaking from the second Bench? It is not customary for a Deputy Chairman to speak from the Front Bench and so I speak from one Bench behind. Secondly, as far as "talking out" is concerned, I used the phrase "talking out" in quite a literal way and in quite a loose sort of way. I was not referring to any particular standing orders, and to all intents and purposes the Bill was talked out. Incidentally, I believe that the leader of the House of Commons on that day was polically wise not to put the guillotine question; to have done that would have been silly. I now come to my final point: how do I reconcile my party's decision to abolish with my support of the Bill? That is quite easy. This Bill is not saying, "Abolish" or, "Don't abolish". This Bill is saying, "Have a referendum". My party has made no decision on that issue and therefore I am quite free to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alport, into the Division Lobby.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, will always be free to follow 35 his conscience, as we all would. But he must recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, takes a different view of the effect of his Bill because he said last year that its purpose was to prevent this place from being swept away; to prevent precisely the thing which the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, knows perfectly well is the policy of his party. But I will leave him to discuss that with his colleagues.
I turn now to my noble friend Lord Alport. There are three basic considerations which I think your Lordships will wish to weigh in deciding your attitude to this Bill. First of all, is it light and sensible at this time to propose a constitutional amendment of this kind? Secondly, if it is, is it appropriate for this to be done by a private Peer? And, thirdly, if the answer to both those questions be "Yes", does this Bill effectively do it? I will not take up much of your Lordships' time on the first two points. They are very much matters of opinion and of judgment, on which noble Lords will form their own views.
My view, for what it is worth, is that this is not an appropriate moment to start seeking to alter the constitution. And I feel even more emphatically that, if this is to be done, it should be done on the responsibility of the Government of the day and after that consultation with all parties which, in my view, is a basic necessity of constitutional change, and which can in practice only of course be undertaken by a Government speaking for the party in power. My noble friend Lord Alport said, quite fairly, that he had invited Her Majesty's Government to do this last year and they had fairly clearly indicated that they were not going to do so, and therefore he felt free—he is, of course, perfectly free—to bring it forward.
My Lords, that does not get out of the practical difficulty that if the constitution is to be altered in a serious matter of this sort an attempt to get inter-party consensus and agreement is really essential. We cannot have a situation in which the constitution is altered from Parliament to Parliament in accordance with the varying ascendency or departure of particular Governments. I do therefore suggest to your Lordships that, praiseworthy though my noble friend's initiative is in putting this matter before your Lordships, there is a very real difficulty in his path, and that is that he does not speak for, nor, as far as I know, represent the opinions of, the Government of the day. I was going to seek to pay him a tribute for the way in which he introduced his speech. Then I looked at last year s debate, and I see that, in winding up, in a reference to me he said that whenever I paid a generous tribute this aroused in him the timeo Danaos syndrome and that he was pretty certain that if I said nice things about his speech I was going to introduce something unpleasant afterwards. As I should hate to say anything unpleasant to my noble friend, I do, therefore, feel inhibited from praising his speech today. I hope that that will quieten his apprehensions.
The third point of substance to which I desire to relate my remarks is whether this particular proposal does in fact make sense. First of all, as I have already mentioned, it is intended, according to my noble friend's words last year, to prevent this place being swept away. But it does nothing about the only direct threat which has been uttered. That is the swamping
36 of this House by the creation of 1,000 Peers. It does nothing whatever about that. That is the only specific threat that has yet been issued. As a defence, therefore, of this House, it rather resembles the defences before the war of Singapore Island, with all the great guns facing out to sea and the enemy coming up from behind. It is not in fact an effective defence of this House.
And, it does introduce the referendum. I have, as I said last year, grave doubts about the wisdom of a referendum. My noble friend, in a splendid outburst of rhetoric—perhaps he will allow me to say that—in his winding-up speech last year, said that those who did not want a referendum failed to trust the people, and he referred today to trust in the people. But, my Lords, it is a question of trusting the people to do what? We do trust the people under our constitution, at a general election, to judge between the parties. They there have as material for judgment not only the records and programmes of the parties, they have the personalities of the leaders, the personalities of the local candidates, which I still firmly believe is of very great significance in a great many constituencies. They have a broad spectrum on which to apply their judgment. It is quite a different thing to introduce "the people" in this sense in the middle of the legislative process, to take a vote on one particular day, regardless of what else may be happening on that day, whatever else may be distracting the attention of the people on that day, to take a decision as part of the legislative process, which historically, and I think for good reason, has been the prerogative of Parliament.
It is no indication of lack of trust in the people to suggest that not all the 35 million—or whatever it is— electors will actually have read the Bill to abolish or emasculate this House, or studied with anxiety the Committee stage debates in another place. It is at least possible that some of them might not be able to pass an examination on its detail. Therefore, the task they have is totally different from that which they face at a general election, difficult though that can sometimes indeed be, and wrong though their decisions, as all of us in this House would agree, have sometimes been in the past, though we may differ as to which occasions. It is totally different. It indicates no lack of trust in that sense of the people to say that the referendum as a part of the legislative process is a very inappropriate and dangerous thing.
It is dangerous because it is not clear where it stops. The abolition or weakening of this House is certainly an important matter. So are many others. And, if we accept this as part of the process of legislation and reform of this House, why should it not apply to the Budget, which is very important, or the rates, indeed? They do not seem to have aroused enormous enthusiasm, even in my noble friend, and certainly not with me. What about the levels of national insurance benefit, or half a dozen matters of major import, many of them, let us face it, of even greater import to the people of this country in their own judgment than the future of this House? So I think we must be very wary of introducing the referendum.
Even if we are to introduce it, it is, with respect, in the wrong place—after Third Reading in the Commons, in effect—because the Bill we are talking about will not have passed this House. We are talking 37 about doing this after Third Reading in the Commons. This means that the electorate will be called upon to pronounce before the Bill is finalised. It will still, if the vote is favourable, come to this House. It will certainly be amended. It is more than possible that the amendments or some of them may be accepted in another place. Yet the people's judgment will have been taken at the stage when the measure is not complete. It will also have been taken at a stage when this House will not have debated it as a Bill. My noble friend sought to avoid that by saying that we could during the three months' standstill debate the issue. There is all the difference in the world, as everybody knows, between debating an issue and debating a Bill. And it is the Bill which the people will be asked to approve; they will be asked to approve it before this House has had an opportunity of debating it and expressing its views. In these days, when the media treat this House, I am glad to say, very well, when debates here are well reported on the air and in the press, it could well be that debates in this House would influence the people very much. Surely to take the referendum before this House has debated the matter is really to condemn us before we have been heard. Therefore, this does seem to me a very wrong place in which to put it.
There is another difficulty. The Bill will come here only if it gets 40 per cent, on the referendum, plus having got a majority in the Commons. If it comes to us on this basis, may not many of us feel that this measure has the assent of the elected Chamber and has the express consent of the sovereign people at a referendum, and who are we to seek even to amend it? There will be a very strong moral feeling that the whole issue is settled and that we should not exercise our remaining powers in order to seek to modify it or to delay it. Therefore, if we are to have a referendum —and I suggest that it is too dangerous and too bad a precedent to have at all—then my noble friend has certainly put it in the wrong place.
I wish to make two other brief comments, and am sorry to have detained your Lordships. Last year I drew attention to the fact that paragraph 11 of the schedule seeks to exclude the courts from examining whether the vote on the referendum has been properly taken. I asked my noble friend last year why he sought to exclude the courts. He did not, in fact, find time to answer that question. I therefore repeat the question this year because we are assuming a vote taken on a matter of intense party feelings, intense excitment, and it is just in those circumstances that those of us who have fought elections know very well that irregularities, personation and loss of votes take part. And, in advance, to deny to the courts of this land the right to examine whether the vote has been properly taken seems to me a very dangerous error indeed.
Finally, there is the point in the recital to which the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, referred, that it is assumed that this House shall be reformed. Until I know what sort of reform is contemplated I would feel great difficulty in giving support to a statutory statement, on the authority of this House, that it is expedient that we be reformed. It is easy in a woolly sort of way to say that by "reform" we mean the type of reform that we, individually, would like. This is a little ducking the issue. For this House to put on record that it is 38 expedient that we be reformed, without the slightest indication of what shape that reform would take, seems to me a very dangerous thing to do. Although, as my noble friend knows perfectly well, his Bill has no chance whatever of passing on to the statute book, it would still, I suggest, be dangerous for your Lordships to affirm this.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Baroness Burton of Coventry
My Lords, a few minutes ago it seemed to me that we might never reach this next speech, but if the time taken has settled the difference between the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, it probably was time well spent. I should like to return to that point a little later but possibly with a little less erudition on actual principles.
We have, indeed, been here before. It was practically a year ago to the day—Monday, 8th December— when we had the Second Reading of Lord Alport's previous Bill. I should like first of all to renew the appreciation I then expressed for what the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has done. It seems to me that it gives us an opportunity of discussing something which is very important to that overworked word today, "democracy" and parliamentary democracy. I welcome it and I thank him very much for the opportunity that he has given us.
In common, probably, with other noble Lords— because I think there is not a lot of disagreement in this House on this matter—I am not particularly in favour of a referendum and I do not believe that perhaps that is the best possible way of dealing with the matter. But I am entirely convinced that we should look again at the future of this House and I personally would hope that we could do so during this present Parliament.
We on these Benches believe in the reform of a Second Chamber and that is the one plank on which I wish to speak today. I agree with, I think it was, Mr. Macmillan, who said that there were advantages in a speech which dealt only with one point, particularly if one hoped to make progress. One can hope and one does not always make progress, but it seemed to me sensible to try to follow that out.
Today I very much wish to stress that the aim of my remarks is the retention of a Second Chamber, but I am not going to be led astray into saying how I think it should be composed or what should be done about it. In common with the noble Lord, Lord Jacques—I nearly said with my noble friend Lord Jacques, but I expect he will bear with that—he and I were both members of the two groups which merged into one which was set up by the Labour Peers in recent years. We considered the whole question of the future of a Second Chamber and we made certain recommendations. The first group was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Champion, whom we remember with much affection and who we were very sorry was not able to continue any longer coming to this House. The second group was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Newton, who did a first-class job and to whom we all paid tribute at the debate of a year ago. I thought that we produced a good report and one which we hoped would prove a reasonable basis for discussion. Personally, I hoped that it would be discussed by the whole House, quite irrespective of political divisions.
39 We worked under the considerable disadvantage— and the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has referred to this—of knowing that it was, and is, Labour policy to abolish this Chamber and install single chamber government. That is the official policy of the Labour Party at present. The great majority of my noble friends—and I hope that my past noble friends will not mind being referred to in this category when I am making this speech, because I believe we feel alike on this matter—the vast majority of the Labour Peers in this House, wished to see reform and not abolition of this House. I took note of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, earlier today when he said that if this matter went to a Division he would support the Bill. He hoped that it would receive a Second Reading and I took it as meaning that he was not in support of the abolition of a Second Chamber.
I have read once more the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Peart, of a year ago and it was obvious, I venture to suggest, that he was no supporter of single chamber government, either. I do not want to go into who withdrew what or why it was withdrawn, but I think it was withdrawn because the votes were not there. I have gone back to 1968, and the noble Lord, Lord Peart, gave us the actual voting figures in 1968 when the White Paper was debated in another place. Those voting for reform and in support of the White Paper numbered 159, and those against, 270. In this House approval was given by 251 votes to 56. I think that those figures speak for themselves.
A year ago the noble Lord, Lord Soames, as Leader of the House, told us that this Government—this present Government—were totally committed to the maintenance of a Second Chamber. Indeed, at column 628 in our debate on 8th December, speaking of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and of himself, he said: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 ".That is exactly what I, from a much less exalted position, tried to express in our original debate, and it expresses what I feel today.
Is it under threat today? I am quite sure that the great majority, I would think the overwhelming majority, of your Lordships' House believe in the existence of a Second Chamber. That must apply to the Government Benches, to the official Opposition Benches, to the Liberal and to the Independent Benches, and to our new party, to which I am proud to belong, the Social Democrats.
Where, then, is the threat? The threat, of course, comes from the extremists in another place, which of course means—and I regret the remark being made here—from the present official Opposition. They have no room for parliamentary democracy as most of us understand it, and this is being underlined day by day, not only by what they say but is being made evident by the steady drift away of so many of us who served the Labour Party for many years and who left it with great sadness. This extremist attitude and the refusal over many years to fight against it, is the reason for the existence of we Social Democrats,
40 and it is the reason, I believe, why we offer hope today to so many disillusioned people.
Reverting to my question of whether or not this House is under threat today—is it? If the main thrust comes from an extremist minority, should we leave it and just hope that it will go away, or be defeated? Other noble Lords may have had longer in Parliament, but I have had 30 years in both Houses of Parliament and I know this extremist element. Rest assured, it will not go away. Then, if it will not go away, will it be defeated? Yes, I think that it will be defeated at the next election; but one never knows, and what you and I mean by parliamentary democracy must, I suggest, be maintained until both Houses of Parliament and all Members of both Houses can look at the reform not only of this House but of procedure in general.
So what is the attitude of the Government? I hope and believe that it is what was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Soames, in my quotation from 8th December. But, of course, we did not get the action for which the noble Lord, Lord Alport, was asking. On the other hand, when the noble Lord pressed his Bill to a Division, the Government did not appoint Tellers and the noble Lord, Lord Alport, won by default.
So I repeat, what is the attitude of the Government today? Speaking in advance of the final speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Young, the Leader of the House, I do not doubt that their attitude remains the same; that is, a total commitment to the maintenance of a Second Chamber. But I want to be sure. We want reform but, speaking for myself and I am sure for my noble friends on these Benches, we do not want to run the slightest risk of abolition before constitutional reform can be discussed in the detail which is necessary for so important a step in this Parliament.
I have not heard the noble Baroness, Lady Young, speak on this issue, but I have a copy of the report in The Times of 17th October stating what she said in reply to a Motion calling for reform of the House of Lords made at the conference of the Conservative Party. If I may quote—and I trust that the report is accurate—the present Leader of our House said:that reforms could not be achieved in the lifetime of the present Parliament…that major constitutional reform, which was far-reaching and fundamental, could only proceed on the basis of all-party talks. Those would need in turn to be on the basis of agreement on the type of reform which might take place, and there was no sign of that agreement ".The noble Baroness, Lady Young, went on to remind the conference:that, in case she sounded too pessimistic, when there had been all-party agreement for reform in 1968 it foundered on an unlikely alliance of Michael Foot and Enoch Powell, who objected for totally different reasons ".Many of us will remember that disappointment— successful largely because of considerable skill on points of order and procedure permitted in another place which made progress impossible. I think that the vote was not there, but that the points of procedure contributed very greatly to that defeat. I know that the noble Baroness concluded by saying that the Government would continue to search for changes in the House of Lords which could be widely acceptable to all parties.
But I come back to the point where I started: the 41 one point that I am after. And here I use the same word as I used a year ago—despotism—and I use it deliberately. I am firmly convinced, as are my noble friends, that single Chamber government would spell the end of parliamentary democracy in this country, irrespective of whichever party was in power. Because of that belief we on these Benches support the Bill put forward today by the noble Lord, Lord Alport. As I said at the beginning, a referendum 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.
Apart from anything else, I see considerable difficulty in framing the right question to be asked in the referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Alport asked those of us who were speaking today to say whether we felt that it would be wiser—he definitely used the term "wiser" —not to include the appendix as set out in the Bill with the suggested questions. My humble opinion is that it would be much better not to include them, and I do that for a cowardly reason: that I do not like either of those questions and I cannot think of a better one. I think that it would be very difficult to ask a question which the public really understood—and I am not being insulting to the public—for they would not have a clue as to what type of work we do in the House of Lords. I think that to do so would be pointless. So I would suggest that we do not include any questions in that respect.
For many of us who do not want a referendum the giving of a Second Reading to this Bill would mean an opportunity for further discussion, and that we would welcome. I was very glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, make a point that I had not heard made before; namely, how willing we in this House had shown ourselves to adapt ourselves when possibilities came forward. I hope the majority of people will not believe—but some will say it—that we are speaking here simply to preserve our own existence, but rather because we really believe that we have a job of work to do and that it would be useful if we were here to do it.
I should like to put one further suggestion to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. Would the Government feel able to offer all-party constitutional talks to take place during the lifetime of this Parliament? Included in such talks could be the future of the House of Lords and also—something very important—the improving of relations between our two Chambers. My noble friends on these Benches believe that this constitutional problem should not just be left in abeyance. I hope that the Government will agree.
Perhaps I may end oh a strongly held conviction. I believe that the British people do not want a Government of extremists, either from Right or Left. We are not an extremist country and single Chamber government would open the way to such extremism. We on these Benches, and I believe the whole House, would oppose the destruction or the erosion of our parliamentary democracy. But I would beg the Government to realise that goodwill is not enough, not with the people who are lined up against us. We have all seen what inaction has done to the Labour Party, and I would not want that to happen here.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Lord Reigate
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on having shown a degree of persistence in, again, bringing forward the Bill, a slightly different Bill from that which he brought forward last year. I supported him last time and I shall support him again this time in, I hope, the Division Lobby. If he is slightly despondent at having to go through this more than once, he can take some comfort from my own experience when I introduced the Bill to establish what is now known as the National Heritage Fund. It was rejected twice by Governments, it was subsequently adopted by a Government, which gave, I thought, singularly little credit to your Lordships' House for its initiative.
It is a year since we last debated this subject, and much of the debate then related to reform rather than to the referendum, and some of the debate has today. I do not propose to discuss reform myself. I think that it is quite right that my noble friend's Bill should include the expediency of reform in the preamble; but, if I may say so, I think that he is copying the precedent —not a very good precedent—of the Parliament Act 1910, which also includes a reference but that, of course, would make one rather depressed about the prospects for reform. I think it would allay some of the suspicions of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter.
The majority of speakers last time and I think today, with one notable exception, favoured the Bill. Even last time there were only two who were wholeheartedly against. There were one or two speeches—I re-read them the other day—where I am not certain on which side they came down, but I think on the whole they were in favour. In fact, there was clearly a general consensus throughout the House and across the parties in favour of the Bill.
A number of objections have been raised to the Bill, and I shall deal with one or two, and with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Is a Bill of constitutional significance appropriate for the initiative of a Private Member. I am tempted to repeat what my noble friend Lord Alport said, "Yes, of course, if the Government will not do it". I hope the Government will take the Bill over. But if they are not prepared to do it in this House we shall have to persist until we persuade them to.
Secondly, and the much more cogent argument, is the one raised in the words of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter on the last debate.… no attempt yet to obtain the measure of inter-party consensus which is so enormously desirable when you start amending the constitution? "—[Official Report, 8/12/80, col. 603.]It is enormously desirable, but it is not absolutely essential. There is nearly a consensus in this House, and that consensus should be the authority for this House to proceed further with the Bill. And anyhow I can hardly think that the Parliament Act of 1910 or 1911 was passed as a result of consensus, if my memory is right. Even the Life Peerages Act of 1957–58 was divided on in another place. The House may be interested to know that—and I looked it up today— there was a Division on that. There was no consensus. What was fascinating was to find that, of those who voted against the Second Reading of the Life Peerages Act, no fewer than 45 are at present 43 Members of your Lordships' House. I am sure there is a moral in that, but I am not sure what it is exactly.
Another argument I have heard quoted is that this Bill would entrench an unreformed House. I should have thought that that would have commended itself to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who does not seem very enthusiastic about reform at any stage. But I do not accept that that really is an argument. The Bill contains a preamble about reform. Reform will come, if it is going to come, regardless of whether this Bill is passed or not. What we are seeking to do in this Bill is to prevent its summary abolition. The Bill would add an extra stage to the process of enactment, but if it justifies being described as an amendment of the constitution it is certainly not of any great permanent substance.
My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter gave us his interesting views on referenda. I should have thought that it was by now fairly well accepted that referenda are only acceptable on constitutional matters. Most of us do not want to have a referendum for the sake of having one. If you have a difficult constitutional position it seems wise to go back to the people of the country and ask for them to confirm it. I do not think it is a matter on which the people should not be consulted because they have not read the Bill as it stands.
Another argument was put forward in the debate last year that abolition of the House was not very likely, to which I comment I have not been burgled but I still have an insurance policy. My noble friend Lord Eccles said that it does not look as though abolition of your Lordships' House is a winning political card. I hope that my noble friend is right. I hope I am not buigled, but I still maintain my insurance policy.
If this optimism is justified, then at worst what is the result if this Bill becomes law? At the worst you have yet another piece of obsolete legislation which ultimately has to be removed from the statute book. There are plenty of examples of that, as I found once when I was defending a Bill. But if our worst prognostications are true, the Act would at least be an impediment and a tripwire to the summary abolition of this House.
My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, in his exceptionally able speech—and I am always reluctant to cross swords with him because he is such a good arguer—said that it does not solve the problem of the House being swamped with Peers. Of course it is true. If my noble friend can bring in a Bill to prevent that happening without the people being consulted, I am sure he would get warm support from the country and from this House, but that does not dismiss this Bill as an important step forward.
I appreciate the dilemma of the Government. I can almost visualise the traumatic feelings of my noble friend the Leader of the House at having to deal with this matter. Their reservations and hesitations in this respect were well expressed last time by my noble friend Lord Soames. I hope that my noble friend the Leader will be able to give us more encouragement on this particular occasion. I hope she will be more encouraging and forthcoming than we have had previously from the Government.
I should like to put one small point forward for 44 consideration. I was going to say that I do not put it forward with any great enthusiasm, but I should not mind if it was rejected by my noble friend in particular; that is that instead of going to a Committee of the whole House in the ordinary way after Second Reading consideration might be given to its going to a Select Committee. A Select Committee has the power to call witnesses, and can deal with what you might call the side issues which have been brought in during the debate. It would be interesting to have a Committee representing a consensus of opinion in the House, one hopes, which could deal with the matter of the question to be put into the referendum, although I find the present question acceptable.
If such a Committee achieved agreement it would demonstrate the required consensus of opinion in the House. I offer this as a tentative suggestion for consideration but not necessarily for decision at this stage. Meanwhile, we have to come to a decision. I shall support my noble friend warmly and with enthusiasm, but I hope that those who oppose the Bill will on this occasion choose not only to voice their opinions but to stand up and be counted, as will those who support the Bill. In short, I look forward to supporting my noble friend Lord Alport in the Lobby.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, I too wish to add my support to Lord Alport's underlying theme and principle behind the Bill, which he has done so well to bring to your Lordships today. The principle and attitude I feel must surely be right, but I have reservations over the means that might be used in justifying the end. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton, rightly said, "Have a point, and stick to it", and her point was the justification of the second Chamber. My point this afternoon is the question of referenda as a whole.
I have severe reservations about the real dangers of allowing referenda to govern our lives on matters which are admittedly of the widest and possibly the most far-reaching importance. I realise that it can be argued that it is only right and proper that the country as a whole should have the right to consider what action should be taken in relation to matters of supreme national importance. It is partly for this reason that general elections are held, and various political parties put their manifestoes forward on principles to the people to allow them to judge whether they will give their respective political parties a mandate to carry out that which they say they have every intention of so doing. Once a political party has gained the necessary majority, it should be left to that party in Parliament to carry out the undertakings, insofar as it is possible or indeed desirable, having regard to change of circumstances during their tenure of office, and I am doubtful that it is right for any government from time to time to decide quite arbitrarily that they should go back to the people to ask their views on what they propose to do, presumably having told them already in their manifesto.
There is, however, one major snag to this theory. Let us consider a hypothetical situation. Suppose the time is the present and a general election is due to be held, and the state of the political parties as they stand today is the same. Let us suppose that the opposition 45 parties combined all decided to fight an election on the basis of the issue of proportional representation, which, again let us suppose, all the opposition parties strongly supported but which the Government opposed. A situation could develop whereby, say, 20 million people in the country were very much in favour of a change of selection of Members of Parliament, and were strongly in favour of PR. While I would agree that a fair proportion of those 20 million might be supporters of one or other of the opposition parties, some might well wish to subscribe to many other policies for which the opposition parties might stand. Those electors would then be placed in a most invidious position whereby they either had to choose to vote for a major constitutional change, and vote for a party or parties with whom they did not in broad principle agree, or they would have to support the party that they have traditionally supported but knowing full well that they would not achieve what they would like to see. And, of course, this works the other way round; namely, a large number of people might not support the principle of proportional representation, and yet did not support the Conservative Party either. This would make it very difficult for the electors to come to any satisfactory choice on election day and is the strongest argument against what I have always generally felt; namely, that decisions by the people should be made at election time and not by referenda.
Let us now consider the effects of allowing referenda to become increasingly more part and parcel of our political way of life. At present, there is no laid down guideline on specific areas and matters when referenda might be held. In the past, over the question of the European Common Market and devolution for Scotland and Wales, it was decided to hold a referendum on each of those issues, and rightly so. It suited the Government to do so and it helped them to carry out what they themselves believed was the right thing to do in the one case, and not in the other.
On this subject, I suspect that the majority of people in this country would vote in favour of leaving the composition of our House largely alone, leaving things as they stand—that they would let sleeping dogs lie, although that possibly is not parliamentary language. Change for the sake of change is not popular—like, for instance, the change in county boundaries—and I have heard no argument of any substance to justify a substantial change in the composition or functions of your Lordships' House. There are, however, other areas and matters on which the people should perhaps be consulted by referenda, if the principle of such activity is to be accepted and used more frequently in the future, which is a tendency which might come; one might call it the thin end of the wedge in that we have had two referenda, we might then have a third and that would lead to a fourth, and so on.
Sometimes these matters may not be to any Government's liking because they may feel that if a referendum was held, the decision of the people might go against what the Government would wish to see. I refer in particular to the issue of capital punishment. I am sure that if a referendum was held on the issue of whether capital punishment should be restored for most types of murder—and corporal punishment, for that matter, for thugs and bullies, so that a stick across the backside might do a good deal more good than a spell 46 in an overcrowded prison—there is little doubt that such a referendum would be carried overwhelmingly in favour of such restoration. But on any occasion when these issues have been considered in Parliament they have, for one obscure reason or another, been turned down. In other words, all Governments of recent years have frankly funked this particular issue of referring back to the people, because the result is highly likely to go against the grain of what most Members of Parliament have, in their own Houses, decided upon.
To turn to this Bill and this issue, I am sure that such a major possible constitutional change must receive the overwhelming support of the country as a whole, and it would be quite wrong to leave the decision to either a small committee from both Houses or indeed a decision of MPs alone. One major problem, though, is that if a referendum was held on such issues, for people in the country who have not had the benefit of hearing the arguments for and against put forward—the deliberations which we in Parliament have—it might occasionally be unfair to expect the people to reach a decision on a matter about which they have not had the opportunity of hearing all the arguments thrashed out.
While I feel the Bill should receive a Second Reading, I feel that serious consideration should be given to whether we should accept that on certain issues referenda should be held, but that it should not be left to the Government of the day to decide whether or not to call such a referendum. I wonder if it is perhaps possible for a working party to study various issues of major national importance on which it would be mandatory for the Government in power to hold a referendum, or alternatively there might be a suitable body of representatives from all political parties to consider applications made either by the people through their MPs, rather like applications to the Ombudsman, for the Government to hold a referendum on a particular subject, and then, if they so decided that it was a suitable matter, the Government would then be bound by that decision. I therefore feel that, while we should give the Bill a Second Reading, the whole aspect of holding referenda should be more thoroughly investigated and not used just as and when the Government feel so inclined.
§ 5.28 p.m.
The Earl of Selkirk
My Lords, two words will stand out in my memory of this debate. One is "integrity" as used by one of my noble friends when he referred to "the integrity of the constitution". The other is "adaptability" as used by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, adaptability which we are quite willing to undertake. We have prided ourselves on being the Mother of Parliaments and on having had a form of parliamentary government for 700 years. We have tried to copy that form of constitution and send it to 40 or 50 countries all over the world. They have adapted it in many ways and, on the whole, they have wanted to copy the way in which we conduct our affairs. Indeed I would say that we are still regarded with envy. Yet here we are worrying about how we should govern ourselves. It might therefore be worth casting our minds back rather further than even the Government of Lord Attlee when he formed it in 1945
47 Looking at the English genius, perhaps particularly from north of this island, one notices the ability of England to have strong government without dictatorship and to do that without ever bothering to write down the constitution on a piece of paper. Why has that happened and how have we succeeded in doing that? My answer is that we have had in this country a sort of tripartite government, the Monarch and two Chambers of government. They are quite independent of each other and that is why I would regret a House nominated by the other Chamber. The independence of the House, however it is formed, is of the greatest importance, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, made that point with absolute force.
We have had in England a number of insurrections— the Peasants Revolt, the War of the Roses, the Chartists —but each time the country has come back to its basic structure, It might have been the Monarch, the Commons, or the Lords, but this tripartite structure has always continued. I believe that the importance of this situation has never been better stated than in the well-known words, which I venture to quote, of John Stuart Mill, when he spoke of:The evil effect produced upon the mind of any holder of power, whether an individual or an assembly, by the consciousness of having only themselves to consult".Richard Crossman was a man of very powerful intellect, with an extremely curious mind, trying to open up passages. From reading his examination of our constitution, it appears that he was always looking somewhere or other for a power house, somewhere where somebody could make a decision which would be carried into effect. Of course he never succeeded in finding it. The reason for that is that power is diversified over a wide sphere.
The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, emphasised the importance of consultation and persuasion, and I am sure that that is the basis on which we have been able to govern in this country. Today that is being challenged. We are living in a world of fluid ideas. Indeed, I think we can say that it is full of ill-digested theories, many of which would not work in the least in practice. If we are to gain a leadership from Parliament, we must also reckon that outside Parliament there are very powerful influences which might well gain the upper hand. I do not want to make too much of this, but take television, for instance. It provides probably the most important, formative influence on ideas in this country. It is very colourful, very exciting, but I cannot say that it is full of mature ideas and thoughts.
I should like to go back to the one occasion on which the situation of which I speak has been broken— that was of course at the time of Cromwell. Cromwell's case is an extremely interesting one because once his period was over, the country immediately bounced back into exactly the same form of Government that it had had previously, with a Monarch and two Chambers, and, so far as I know, there was no question at all about that.
What is even more interesting is to examine what Lord Morley said in his very interesting life of Oliver Cromwell. He said:There is no branch of the political industry that men approach with hearts so light and yet that leaves them so dubious and melancholy as the concoction of a second Chamber. Cromwell 48 and his Parliament set foot on this pons asinorum of democracy without suspicion of its dangers ".That is a warning to us to go on—Morely knew fairly well what he was talking about.
We of this generation have a duty to maintain the quality of our constitution in this country. There is never a simple solution. No Government are ever wholly successful. There is no Government in the world of unqualified excellence. But we can try to see that our structure remains intact. It is essential to see that we have a system of consultation and of structure which enables political change to take place, but which seeks to provide Government by consent, strong enough, but without undue weight of either party or political ambition. Those I believe are the principles for us to proceed on, and if we can find a way of adapting a Second Chamber to them, we will do well. It will not be an easy task.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Viscount Eccles
My Lords, I welcome very much what my noble friend Lord Selkirk has just said. I, too, think that our institutions should change, and I am wholly behind what the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, said: namely, that we are now in a situation where inter-party talks are badly needed in order to discover whether we should reform—and, if so, in what way—or not reform, the Second Chamber.
I am rather astonished that so far the debate seems to have been something of a re-run of what we had a year ago. The subject is the same, but the background has changed dramatically. In December 1980 inside and outside Parliament it was widely believed that the Labour Party might win a big majority at the next election and come to power mandated, and eager, to abolish your Lordships' House. Your Lordships may remember that Labour had a substantial lead in the opinion polls, and, despite the gallant efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, to which I pay tribute, the Labour Party voted with enthusiasm for abolition.
How unpredictable and fascinating is the course of politics! Here we are, only 12 months later, watching the Labour Party destroy itself with astonishing rapidity—
§ Viscount Eccles
The Social Democrats and the Liberals are now on the crest of the wave. We cannot tell what will happen when they begin to slide down the other side, but at least we know that, apart from the Left-Wing Labour Party, all of us are committed to two-Chamber Government. The fear, which reverberated around this Chamber a year ago, that abolition was a real threat in the next Parliament has disappeared. So 1981 is very different from 1980. Today we are free to consider the composition and powers of the Second Chamber as problems which should be solved before we attempt to entrench the House more firmly in the constitution.
My noble friend Lord Alport made an excellent parliamentary speech, and I think that he must have had these changes in mind in the recital part of the Bill, where it is stated that it is expedient to reform 49 the Second Chamber. Is it expedient? We do not know; it is a matter of opinion. It is hardly suitable to put that opinion in a Private Member's Bill, the purpose of which is to strengthen the position of the House of Lords as it is. It can hardly help us in our search for agreement on reforms for the Second Chamber.
Look, my Lords, for example, at Clause 1(2)(b). The Speaker of the House of Commons is to call for a referendum if a measure which provides for any diminution of our present legislative powers has been read a third time in another place. That prejudices the issue of reform. That is not the way to start inter-party discussions. It puts the other place on notice that we in this House are against any reduction of our powers. I do not believe that the other place would vote for a Bill that contained such a proposition.
I do not propose to comment further on the text of the Bill itself, which my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter dealt with, and which no doubt the Leader of the House will mention later. In my opinion it has several other defects. I want, instead—
§ Lord Elwyn-Jones
My Lords, would the noble Viscount forgive me for interrupting him? Will he indicate where in the Bill there is reference to a proposal to strengthen the powers of your Lordships' House?
§ Viscount Eccles
Not the powers, no, my Lords; the noble and learned Lord has got it wrong. It is to strengthen the position of the House within the legal framework of the constitution. That is something quite different.
I do want, though, to ask this question. Whether your Lordships favour some kind of reform or whether you think things should be left pretty well as they are now, having in mind the changes that have followed from the introduction of life Peers (a revolution in this House), having in mind the growing appreciation by the public of the work we do and having in mind the undoubted difficulty of getting any major reform of this House through another place when embodied in a Bill—whether, that is to say, you are for reform, for modest reform or for no reform at all—ought not a matter of such importance to be considered between the parties before Parliament is asked (and I hope the noble and learned Lord will appreciate my use of the words) to strengthen the legal position of the House within the constitution? Are we not fortunate that the threat of abolition has so far receded that we now have time to undertake all-party discussions?—and the discussions must be all-party, since no reform Bill would be permanently acceptable to another place unless there had been agreement beforehand.
It is said that so many and so various are the opinions about whether or how to reform your Lordships' House that agreement between the parties, or most of them, is impossible. I do not believe that. We cannot know until we try. We have not yet tried; and now we can try in the knowledge that the abolitionists are a dwindling minority. We should try again, because there is in the country a fairly widespread feeling that some changes, at least in the composition of your Lordships' House, are overdue. It is therefore our duty to show, either that the desire for change is not 50 justified, taking into consideration the role of your Lordships' House at present—that is to say, that it is not in the best interests of parliamentary government to make any major changes—or that it is justified, and that we are searching for agreement on what to do about it. Let us decide first, before we ask another place to consider a referendum Bill.
In conclusion, I should like to make two further short points. What chance would this Bill have of acceptance in another place? None at all, my Lords, unless the Government were willing to take it over and make it official policy. My right honourable friends tell me that they have not any intention of doing that. They do not believe that a referendum should be enacted before the problem of reform (as the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, has said) has been much more carefully considered. I completely agree with that.
So if this Bill were sent by your Lordships to another place, it would have to be moved by a Back Bencher. What kind of reception would it get? I ask this question most especially of noble Lords sitting on the Labour Benches. Do they think that the speeches that their right honourable and honourable friends would make on this Bill in another place would help to create the climate in which we could search for an all-party or most-party agreement on the reform of this House? Of course they would not. Much predictable abuse would be thrown, and many people who might have been willing to come into those conversations would probably hold back. So if we send this Bill to another place it will be killed in confusion, and there will be many speeches which will do nobody any good. We now have the opportunity to get things in their right order: first to see if we can agree on any reforms, and afterwards to strengthen the legal position of the House in the constitution.
Last year I hoped that my noble friend would withdraw his Bill because I thought it offered the abolitionists exactly the platform they needed. This year I hope he will withdraw it for a very much better reason. We can now discuss reform in the knowledge that abolition at the hands of the next Parliament is not a serious threat.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Lord Peart
My Lords, I believe we have had as equally a good debate as we had on the previous occasion—a debate which was outstanding and was referred to earlier in the House by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I shall never forget him because he generally likes to put the barb into others as well, and today he scored a political point. But I tell him sincerely that the consideration that I had to face when that other Bill was going through the House of Commons was a very difficult one for the reasons I mentioned. However, there it is; one can argue about it.
I think we have had an excellent debate, but may I make my first point? I think this is too important a matter to be dealt with by means of a Private Member's Bill. However, we welcome the opportunity to debate the issue. After all, debates are still going on in many places. I have just read today thatLabour Left-wing urges Benn to fight again for deputy leadership ".51 At one of the meetings at which this was mentioned there was a call by Mr. Benn for extra parliamentary action, and Labour Peers, including the Front Bench, were urged to pull out of the House of Lords. Then it goes on to say (thank goodness!)His speech infuriated some of his colleagues at Westminster ".Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, when he was a noble Lord, had some wonderful things to say about us. I have quoted this on many occasions: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' ".—(Official Report, 8/12/80, col. 627.)Who was the author of this? It was Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn. I say to my colleagues who are interested in this matter that they should read this pamphlet very carefully.
As I have said, this, I think, is too important a matter to be dealt with in a Private Member's Bill. However, we welcome the opportunity to debate it. Why does the Bill come into operation, I should like to know, from the Third Reading of a proscribed Bill rather than from the arrival of the Bill in the Lords? The Labour Party, broadly speaking, is generally in favour of referenda on constitutional issues; for example, the Welsh and Scottish devolution and our continuing membership of the EEC. It would not be sufficient simply to put the abolition of the Lords in any manifesto. This, I believe, would put the Sovereign in an invidious position, and would provoke a constitutional crisis.
There is another point. We must not be unmindful of the fact that these issues have implications for the Monarchy, and none of us would wish to deal with them without very long and careful study. This is why I have always been in favour of a Royal Commission to enable expert evidence as well as the views of leaders in our society to be presented and discussed by an important body of that kind. I think that that is the sort of approach which would be better than the approach which is now proposed.
There are problems, no doubt, in relation to what I said earlier. There are constitutional precedents for this: For example, when the Lords refused consent to the Reform Bill of 1832, William IV asked for a general election prior to granting Earl Grey's request to create 50 new Peers. Similarly, in 1910 King Edward VII informed the Prime Minister that he could not contemplate the creation of new Peers until a general election had been held. A Bill of this kind is therefore unnecessary and could foster resentment to no good purpose; so that I believe we must be careful. Broadly I support the referendum. I think it worked well in relation to the EEC. I remember making my way there to see the count, but unfortunately I was involved in a train crash and never got there; but that is a minor point. My Lords, all I would say is that the Bill is a good Bill. I believe that the mover of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Alport, deserves to be supported, but I still think we must be careful in our approach. There are various approaches. Long 52 before this Bill has a major effect in shifting political opinion in your Lordships' House I believe the time will come when inevitably we will have to make a final decision; but I think we should be cautious. In principle, I believe in the referendum; it has worked and I must regard that as a guideline. For that reason, most noble Lords who have spoken have broadly supported it. My noble friends have produced a very good White Paper—if I may call it that— and I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Lee. He has not been well and I am sure we all wish him a quick recovery. He spent so much time with Lord Champion on working out positive proposals for the reform of the House of Lords and for us to put them to the electorate, and also for the House to debate them properly in Parliament. I believe this has been a very fine debate and, looking at the issue, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, deserves to have his Bill.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Young)
My Lords, at the beginning of my remarks I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Alport for giving us a further opportunity to debate this important matter. I am sure the House listened with great interest to the way in which he introduced his Bill and the care with which he put his arguments. More particularly, I thank him because he has enabled me to take part for the first time as Leader of your Lordships' House in a debate touching on the House of Lords as a whole and the role it plays in our constitution. I can assure my noble friend that I listened carefully to what he and other noble Lords have said; and if what I have to say about the Bill from the Government Front Bench is not as encouraging as he would wish, this does not mean that we consider the wider constitutional issues raised to be anything but of the most fundamental importance. Indeed, the Government have given a good deal of thought to these issues since the Bill was debated a year ago.
I must begin by echoing the views of all speakers today in stressing once again the Government's total commitment to the maintenance of a Second Chamber. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton, was good enough to quote at least part of what I said at the Conservative Party Conference in reply to a debate on the House of Lords; but perhaps I may quote what I said then about a Second Chamber and the House of Lords in particular.The House of Lords is an essential safeguard for individual liberty. The House of Lords is the only constitutional guarantee that general elections must be held at intervals of not more than five years. We have in our country no written Constitution so that the majority party in a single-chamber House of Commons could so easily become, as Quintin Hailsham so aptly put it, the elective dictatorship. The House of Commons could extend its life indefinitely, the classic route to tyranny throughout the ages ".I believe that, above all, that is the justification for the House of Lords and, in particular, for a Second Chamber, although there are many other reasons, which have been advanced this afternoon and on other occasions.
In case what I have said might sound as if I am repeating great constitutional arguments and am not 53 speaking from any personal experience, I should like to say that, as a Member of your Lordships' House for just 10 years I have come to recognise its value. It is true that I have spent almost all of those 10 years on one or other of the Front Benches, but I am bound to say that the time has been exceedingly full, interesting and rewarding. I prefer not to think of how many Bills I have taken through this House or opposed. I fear that I may have played far too active a part in at least three all-night Sittings; and although I am a relative newcomer I can say that I have become devoted to this House, to its customs, to its experience, to its remarkable ability to regulate itself, to its tolerance and to its friendliness. And to these must be added the powers which the House of Lords possesses and which have been referred to.
My Lords, there are two specific points about the House of Lords which strike me as particularly important. The first is that it is simply not true to say, although the belief is still widely held, that Governments of my own political persuasion cannot be defeated from time to time in your Lordships' House. I have the dubious distinction of having secured the biggest defeat of all. Secondly, the House has changed out of all recognition, certainly since the Parliament Act 1911. We should not forget that. Early reform of the Second Chamber was proposed then as it has been now in my noble friend's Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, so aptly said, the House of Lords has adapted itself as times have gone by.
The House of Lords has changed most dramatically since the Life Peerage Act 1958, but I have discerned further changes since 1971 when I came to this House; and the increased daily attendance figures speak for themselves. In 1957–58 the average daily attendance was 124 and the total number of Peers eligible to sit was 885; in 1970–71 the average daily attendance was 265 and the total number of Peers eligible to sit was 1,078. Ten years later, 1980–81, the average daily attendance is 290 and the total number of Peers eligible to sit has risen to 1,179. But I think the significant figures are the average daily attendance which shows a marked increase and shows that the House of Lords is changing all the time.
I would not necessarily suggest that all the changes have been for the best. When noble Lords rise and talk of "this late hour" they mean, these days, some time between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Twenty years ago, I understand, they would have meant 6.30 in the evening. But I believe that the two points that I have made— the myth of the House of Lords dominated by one party and the concept of gradual change from within— are points which both a small minority of abolitionists and those who favour wholesale and speedy reform would do well to reflect upon. There is one further point that I would add. It is at least arguable—I put it no higher—that if this Bill were enacted at the present time it could be interpreted by some as weakening rather than as strengthening our total commitment to bicameral Parliament. Whatever result from the referendum that we in this House would hope for and expect, it cannot be denied that my noble friend's Bill would hang a permanent question mark over the existence of your Lordships' House.
My Lords, I turn now to the Bill itself. First, may I compliment my noble friend on introducing a number 54 of changes to last Session's Bill. The omission of any certification procedure in the Lords, the introduction of two alternative questions rather than one for the referendum, and the fact that the whole referendum exercise will now be triggered off after Third Reading in the Commons instead of after Second Reading, are all changes which take account of criticisms voiced during the Second Reading debate last Session. It would be churlish of me not to say that these changes make it a better Bill.
There are, as some of my noble friends—particularly my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter—have pointed out, still defects. I shall confine my remarks to the more general difficulties, some of which perhaps inevitably arise in any attempt to impose a referendum procedure during the passage of a Bill through Parliament. It is surely wrong that the referendum verdict on an abolition Bill introduced in another place should be received before any consideration of the Bill at all in this House—a point well made, I believe, by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I can think of few Bills on which noble Lords would be more entitled to express their views; and to hold a referendum before the Bill even arrived here would, in my view, be both misleading and premature.
It would—as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said—mean that the country was making judgments about a Bill before the measure was complete; and, in any event, before your Lordships had had an opportunity to express a view about it. As my noble friend Lord Soames said a year ago, even if a referendum procedure were to be introduced, it should surely be held after all the parliamentary stages of the Bill had been concluded.
I should also make two points on the question posed for the referendum in the schedule to the Bill, although I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, in the course of his remarks, suggested that the appendix should not be included in its present form and went on to suggest another procedure.
I have considerable doubts as to whether the questions could possibly be understood in a way which would lead to a decisive result at a referendum. Let us take the second question, which reads:Do you want the legislative powers of the Second Chamber to be diminished?I must say that even I would have some difficulty in explaining accurately and concisely to a layman what are the precise powers of the House. I wonder whether we could really expect a high turn out were such a question to be asked at a referendum. It was the late Lord Esher, in a debate in this House in 1963, who said that we were fortunate to have inherited an institution which we should certainly never have had the intelligence to create. I feel sure that he would be the first to agree that the work and significance of the House of Lords cannot be reduced to a single question. Then, my noble friend's second question provides no opportunity for the expression of a view in favour of a limited change in powers or composition. At the very least, a voter who believed in the Second Chamber but who also believed in the need for reform would face a dilemma.
Lastly, under the Bill the Speaker must certify whether a Bill in any way diminishes the powers of this House. He would have to do so and the referendum 55 procedure would automatically have to follow even if a very minor limitation of powers was proposed. I offer these points not because I wish in any sense to score debating points on a Bill but to elucidate some of the practical problems which arise and which I hope will be of help to the House. They do, I believe, reflect the very real difficulties involved in superimposing a referendum procedure upon parliamentary consideration.
As to the general Government reaction to proposals for statutory protection for the House of Lords, the House will know that in reply to a Starred Question by my noble friend Lord Alport in May of this year we announced our decision not to come forward at that time with proposals of our own. I regret that I can go no further today, and I must say that the Government do not now propose to pursue any form of protection or entrenchment legislation, whether by referendum or otherwise, during the present Parliament. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Alport will accept that legislation dealing with constitutional matters of such importance cannot make progress on the basis of a Private Member's Bill. It would only be right for me to tell the House that I cannot extend any Government support to him.
On the wider question of the Government's attitude towards House of Lords reform, which was raised by several speakers today, I can say that we shall continue to search for changes which would be widely acceptable to all parties. But such changes can only proceed on the basis of all-party talks which must in turn depend upon some measure of agreement on the type of reform which might take place. At present there is no sign of this agreement and I would go so far as to say that this has been reflected in the debate in your Lordships' House this afternoon. I listened with great care to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, who set out— I thought very fairly and clearly—the proposals from his own group of Labour Peers on a possible reform for the House of Lords. I have myself read the document and I understand the sincerity and strength of the feeling behind those proposals.
But the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, carefully prefaced her remarks by saying that she was going to concentrate on the principle of a bicameral legislature. I do not wish to be unfair to the Social Democratic Party, but perhaps she was somewhat more coy about saying what her proposals or her party's proposals for a Second Chamber actually are. So we did not hear —
§ Baroness Burton of Coventry
My Lords, I do not wish to interrupt the noble Baroness. I do not mind being drawn on that. I think the noble Baroness may have forgotten that I said that I was copying what was said by Mr. Harold Macmillan: that it was better to keep only to one plank and concentrate on that.
§ Baroness Young
Yes, my Lords, I did hear what the noble Baroness said very carefully, and of course the plank that she has kept to is a plank on which we can all agree that there should be a Second Chamber. The argument at the moment is: What form should reform take? It is not meant, again, simply as a debating point. It would be helpful to know what view 56 the Social Democratic Party actually take on the kind of reform that they would like to see. I must tell the noble Baroness that she did not enlighten us this afternoon on what is her party's view about this important subject.
My noble friend Lord Reigate argued in favour of Lord Alport's Bill and he, if I understood him correctly, said that he believed that there was sufficient agreement in your Lordships' House to the principle of reform. But he knows—because, after all he was a Member of another place—that it is essential to get some measure of agreement of Members of another place if we are to proceed with a major reform of this sort.
My noble friend Lord Mountgarret also supported the Bill, although, if I understood him correctly, he was against this particular form of referendum, feeling that it should not be left to another place to determine when there should be a referendum, but that there should be some other mechanism for deciding when this should take place. Here—if I may put it in these terms—on a relatively smaller issue of reform we have a wide variety of opinions expressed and it is, I believe, very difficult indeed for a Government to proceed where there is so much diversity of opinion, particularly when it comes to any kind of major reform of the House of Lords.
I should like to conclude by saying again that I believe that we have had a most valuable debate this afternoon, and that the House of Lords have discussed a most important issue—an issue which I believe is not just important to your Lordships' House but important to the country as a whole.
I am afraid that I have not been very forthcoming to my noble friend Lord Alport and I hope he will realise that his two Bills, this Session and last, have given us an opportunity in this House to consider the possibility of some form of protection for the House of Lords. I hope he will also realise from what I have said that his Bill stands virtually no chance of reaching the statute book. In these circumstances, I hope he will feel able to withdraw the Bill, or at least not to proceed with it further, after Second Reading. But of course, as usual with Private Member's Bills, ultimately this must rest with your Lordships' House.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I should like to start by saying how very grateful I am to all those noble Lords and Baronesses who have taken part in a debate of this sort in climatic conditions which arouse great apprehension among all of us as to how we are going to get back tonight. Therefore, I do not want to be very long in trying to reply to the many points which have been put forward. I should like to say first, if I may, that I had a message from the noble Lord, Lord Wade, from the Liberal Party, to say that unfortunately he was unable to take part in this debate although he would like to have done so on behalf of his party, because he is deep in snow in Yorkshire at the present time. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, for his contribution and for his support.
This Bill has nothing whatever to do with reform. The Preamble refers to "reform" in the sense that the importance of the reform of this House, as has been twice pointed out during this debate, has already been agreed by your Lordships by an overwhelming majority 57 of your Lordships a few years ago. It would be very interesting to find whether there were any of your Lordships who, if the question had to be voted on as to whether or not this House had to be reformed, would vote that it should not be reformed.
I was somewhat interested in the point made by my noble friend Lord Eccles. I thought it was a very encouraging speech from the point of view of the Social Democratic Party. My noble friend seemed to be saying that whereas a year ago there was a fear that the abolitionists, represented by the official Labour Party, possibly would be able to form a Government in the not far distant future, now that fear, from our point of view here, has receded. If there is going to be no alternative to a Conservative Government, are we to assume that a Conservative Government will go on indefinitely? That may be the case, for all I know; but if there is to be an alternative to it, it must, I should have thought, be the alliance, the Liberals and the Social Democrats. I must say that if that is my noble friend's view it is an interesting one and we shall see whether it works out in practice when the time comes.
But I also remember a leading article in The Times in 1945—and here I would like to encourage my noble friends on that side of the House—which said, according to that editorial, that they did not think there would be another Conservative Government at Westminster within the confines of the twentieth century. Six years later we were back in power and it is quite possible that the party opposite may be back in power, and although I do not imagine that many of your Lordships on that side are abolitionists, we must remember that in fact the official policy of the Labour Party is the abolition of the House of Lords, and that is a policy which is being strongly supported by a powerful element in that party at the present time.
I do not want to be in any way offensive to my noble friend, but I do not think we can afford complacency in this matter. The object of this Bill is simply to provide a fail-safe procedure in the event of a government getting into power which, without having put it specifically, except in the small print of a manifesto at an election, finds itself committed to abolishing the second Chamber and converting our Parliament into a unicarmeral Parliament. They must go to the people first of all.
My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, in one of his usual very eloquent speeches, made a number of points, most of which were replied to by my noble friend Lord Reigate. There was one point which he did not reply to and one which I did not reply to last year, but I do so now. That was the question as to why the results of the referendum, according to the schedule, should not be referred to the courts. The fact is that it was in the Scottish and Welsh referenda. I merely put it in because I thought there was a good precedent. If we go to Committee stage it would be quite possible, if the House thought it advisable, to take it out. The whole object of taking this Bill to the Committee stage is to get your Lordships' views on certain details of the Bill.
My noble friend Lady Young, who is always very gracious and kind on these occasions, has indicated that the Government are not going to let this Bill through. Frankly, I did not expect they would; but that should 58 not inhibit a Private Member from asking your Lordships to support a Second Reading of the Bill and I do not think it should inhibit a Private Member from introducing such a Bill into the House. My personal view is that if, by any unhappy chance, there is not a Conservative Government after the next election then there will not be another opportunity of providing our constitution and this Chamber with the fail-safe device which is proposed. So what I would ask you to do this evening—and I will not keep you any longer— is to give this Bill a Second Reading and to take it through Committee. I will undertake one thing, which is to try to ensure that any further stages do not place an unbearable burden on the proceedings of this House or on your Lordships' energy and time; but I should be very sorry if this Bill were defeated on the Second Reading because I am quite certain that that fact would be very seriously misunderstood in the country at large. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.