HL Deb 19 May 1981 vol 420 cc831-3

2.55 p.m.

Lord Alport

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the Lord President of the Council's undertaking on 8th December 1980 that they would "give urgent consideration to the strategic purpose" of the Constitutional Referendum Bill, now before this House, any statement of past progress and future intentions can now be made.

The Lord President of the Council, Lord Soames

Yes, my Lords. Since the debate in your Lordships' House last December the Government have carefully considered the matter to which my noble friend refers. The Government are entirely committed to a Second Chamber as an essential part of the constitution. They have, however, decided not to come forward at this time with proposals to afford some form of statutory protection to the House of Lords without reference to the broader issues of the composition and powers of your Lordships' House. The Government are considering the many different proposals which have been put forward for reform.

Lord Alport

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether I should be right in interpreting his Answer as meaning that in fact there is unlikely to be any action in this field for a very considerable time? Since the programme of legislation ahead of us is now so great in this Session and it would be wrong therefore to ask your Lordships to give consideration to the further stages of the present Constitutional Referendum Bill in this Session, would the Government perhaps consider giving some support to a revised Bill, taking into account the criticisms made at Second Reading, and for it to be introduced at the beginning of the next Session so that some progress may be made on this matter while they are making up their minds about the future form and powers of the House of Lords?

Lord Soames

My Lords, my noble friend is really asking whether the Government would consider giving support to some measure of the character of the Bill which he introduced, giving us a valuable opportunity, as I think the whole House will agree, to debate this matter at the beginning of this Session. He is asking whether the Government would give support to a similar measure to be introduced next Session, again without consideration of the composition and powers of your Lordships' House. What I tried to say in my original Answer was that we think the two should be linked together and that it would be wrong to proceed with one without giving due and proper consideration to the important question of composition and powers at the same time.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that so long as we have a sovereign Parliament both this and any other similar Bill is a necessary futility because it can be repealed by the next Parliament just as easily as it can be passed by this one?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I do not think it is quite as simple as that. As I have said, my noble friend did a service to the House in introducing this Bill. Many views were expressed in the debate on the Second Reading of the Bill, but since that debate the Government have weighed all the pros and cons and, in particular, what was said during the course of that debate and, although there seem to be advantages and disadvantages on both sides, we felt that what I have put to the House today was the right answer.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Leader of the House aware that the Labour Party has decided to abolish the House of Lords when it is returned after the next election, which is by no means unlikely, and therefore what is the use of a constitutional referendum?

Lord Soames

My Lords, there are many reasons why I think it unlikely that such an eventuality will come to pass. One of them is that I do not think the country would like to see single chamber government.

Viscount Gage

My Lords, is it not extremely unlikely that there would be any general agreement about comprehensive reform? Would not the Government be well advised to consider a modest measure of this sort, and by doing so might not the Queen be relieved of having to take some very difficult decisions?

Lord Soames

My Lords, all this was taken into account. There was a balance of arguments, but I do not think that Question Time is a proper time for a further debate on the advantages and disadvantages, such as took place on the Second Reading. All I can say is that the Government have considered every aspect of this question and have come down on the side of what I have suggested to the House.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, are there not constitutional dangers in the fact that this country has no written constitution? We have no Bill of Rights. It is certainly unlikely that in the short term we shall have any electoral reform. Does my noble friend recall that the Lord Chancellor delivered an exceptional Dimbleby TV lecture drawing attention to the danger of an elective dictatorship and wherein it was shown that a minority Government of extreme views could be a considerable danger to our whole constitution? Would he therefore remember that there are considerable dangers, that it may be later than the genuine democrats in both Houses think, and that it therefore is necessary to take some steps to protect our parliamentary system? So the suggestion he made in his first reply, that the Government are examining this matter, is welcome. Would he say that there is some sense of urgency about this examination?

Lord Soames

My Lords, we are indeed examining it, and we realise that this is a matter that cannot be allowed to trail too long.

Lord Lee of Newton

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that by far the most sensible propositions yet put on this issue were those contained in the report of the Labour Party Peers, which I tried to outline some months ago? If a Bill such as that proposed was put forward, would the Government support it?

Lord Soames

My Lords, that is a hypothetical question.