HL Deb 03 November 1983 vol 444 cc642-60

4.5 p.m.

Lord Diamond rose to call attention to the need for the House to consider its procedure on Public Bills with a view to providing that decisions on amendments in Committee should be taken only by Lords selected by the House on the recommendation of the Committee of Selection, having regard to their qualifications and to the proportion of the votes cast for the main political parties at the last General Election; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, a Motion which shortly sets out to try to remove one of the major grounds of criticism against your Lordships' House and to do it in an area where we spend most of our time and do most of our useful work. This is a matter which was due to come up and, indeed, was one of the first casualties of the dissolution of the last Parliament. Therefore, my first act must be to thank the Government for reintroducing it so quickly after the new Parliament has started its work. I must also add my personal gratitude to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, who is able to spend time listening to the debate and who is to take part in it.

I hope I do not need to say that I am one of the foremost admirers of your Lordships' House. I do not think anyone can fail to be impressed by the enormous ability and wide experience shown by so many of your Lordships. We exercise appropriate powers wisely and well, on the whole, and I believe that we function in a way, drawn partly from self-restraint, partly from sweet reasonableness and partly from convention, which must be the envy of every other similar assembly in the world. But when one thinks of the composition of your Lordships' House, both I and many others present and most people outside this House, and everybody who has considered reform of the House of Lords seriously and reported upon it, find much to criticise. So the question is, what should be done about it?

There are three alternatives. The first one, which springs most readily to mind, is to do nothing. As to that I would merely quote two sources which I respect and which have given very careful consideration to this very question. The first source is the report of the Bow Group on the reform of the House of Lords. What they have to say is: Reform of the House of Lords is urgent if the second Chamber of Parliament is to be preserved". The second authority I would quote is the Conservative committee on reform of the House of Lords, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel. What they said, and what he said, was: We do not believe that leaving things just as they are should be considered a viable option". With regard to the composition of the House the report considered that it was: virtually impossible to defend". I agree with every single word I have quoted. I therefore rule out the option of doing nothing as being in the best interests of your Lordships' House.

The second alternative would therefore be a thoroughgoing reform of this House. That has been attempted; that has been considered. But what is needed for a thoroughgoing reform is a very substantial political will on all sides of both Chambers. In the present climate and in the present situation of some of the parties and their policies, this is clearly not possible for the time being.

We, the Alliance, have set up a joint commission which has recently reported and gone into these questions very fully. It has issued a report, which I commend to your Lordships, which comes to conclusions not so very different in many respects from the conclusions reached by the Conservative committee to which I have already referred. But that is for thoroughgoing reform, and what I am talking about is not that. Indeed, I come straight away to the third alternative, which is one small step and represents some small progress which is within your Lordships' own self-regulatory powers, which can be achieved without the consent of another place. It would, I hope—and as I shall try to demonstrate—not only achieve an advance in our standing with the public, and not only make a considerable step forward in what I might call "democratising" some of the work of your Lordships' House, but would at the same time increase the efficiency with which your Lordships conduct the business of this House.

Where does the greatest criticism come from? It comes from those who believe that it is repugnant to the ordinary citizen that some individuals should share in legislation which affects the way in which he conducts his life, purely by virtue of an accident of birth. That is the greatest bone of contention and the greatest criticism. It is the cause of the inbuilt Tory majority in your Lordships' House. The objection to that is a democratic objection.

The situation which arises is that when the Conservative Party is in Government, the Government of the day have the largest say—as indeed they should. But it also happens that whenever any other party is in Government the Conservative Party again has the largest say, because it is so numerous. I recognise that this power is exercised sometimes with understanding and restraint, but that understanding and restraint is not understood by the population as a whole and nor does it exist always. That is a situation which is wholly undemocratic.

That is the major criticism levelled against the composition of your Lordships' House and therefore it is in that area that one should seek to take a modest step forward. When I ask myself what is probably the most valuable work that your Lordships achieve, I believe the agreed answer would be that it is in the field of legislation; the way in which we revise or consider in great detail for the first time Public Bills and other Bills which are put before us—and my Motion refers in particular to Public Bills.

What I seek is a modest step forward, to add a democratic element so as to increase both the value of your Lordships' work and the standing of your Lordships' House in the area in which your Lordships do most of your work and spend most of your time. Statistics which have recently been issued to us all show that over the past three years approximately 50 per cent. of our time has been spent on legislation.

There is at hand an immediate, well-tried solution—the Standing Committee as practised in another House. It has been well tried in another place for a very long time; and as I happened to have been chairman of a number of Standing Committees during some 10 years in another place, it is a procedure with which I became somewhat familiar and one which I can recommend wholeheartedly to your Lordships' House. Most—I imagine, all—of your Lordships are very familiar with that procedure and know that it is not a Standing Committee as its name says but is a Committee selected for each Bill to deal with Committee stage; and its membership is selected on the basis of the qualifications of its members and the composition of the House as a whole. They consider Bills as we consider them as a Committee of the Whole House—an odd phrase, if your Lordships will ponder upon it for a moment. It is a somewhat illogical and self-contradictory phrase.

If we were to consider adopting this procedure for major Public Bills, what we should be doing would be considering them exactly as we do at the moment; with every single peer able to participate, to attend, to speak, and to move amendments—but not to vote. Voting would be restricted to those who are selected be the Committee of Selection, in the words of the other place, by virtue of their qualifications and—although I cannot say "having regard to the composition of the House"—having regard to the votes cast at the last general election, as being the nearest approach to a definition of democracy that we can achieve.

If that were done then we will at a stroke show the world outside that your Lordships' House is prepared to go as far as it can in present political circumstances in reforming itself in a way that will reduce the objections felt by people at large about your Lordships' House, which will enable the Government of the day—whichever Government that is—to have the largest say when considering details of legislation and which will at the same time increase our efficiency.

It would of course mean that if one desired to have two or three such Standing Committees sitting at the same time, one could avoid the worst of the "end of term" scramble from which we always suffer when we have too much legislation to deal with properly in detail and avoid carrying out our responsibilities to the full, as we are inevitably compelled so to avoid doing.

For those reasons, I believe that that which I am suggesting is something which your Lordships ought to consider very carefully and very sympathetically indeed. Let me say straight away that it is no part of my intention that we should exclude Cross-Benchers from the selection of voting peers in a Standing Committee—far from it. I suspect most of your Lordships share my own view that Cross-Benchers add their experience and special objectivity to our debates and considerations. My suggestion would not detract in any way from the proposal that I am making—partly for the reasons I have just given and partly because, in any event, if one looks at the voting of Cross-Benchers, one sees that the tendency is for them to divide half and half, more or less, for the Government and against the Government.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me, may I ask him how many votes were cast in the last general election for the Cross-Benchers?

Lord Diamond

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, for asking that question, for obviously he would not have done so if he were not in something of a quandry and in doubt. Clearly, I have not explained fully the arrangement to which I have just referred; namely, that it would be right and proper in this Chamber to have full regard to the Cross-Benchers, notwithstanding that they do not come within the formula I have described, because it would be your Lordships' wish, I am sure, to have the benefit of their objectivity, knowledge and experience. I do not believe—and I repeat this to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, who has just questioned me—that this detracts to any extent from the validity of the argument I am putting to your Lordships; particularly because, in the event, the Cross-Benchers' vote tends to divide fairly equally and would not upset the proportions. The answer to the noble Lord's question is, of course, none.

That is what I am suggesting and those are the benefits which I claim. I recognise immediately, arising out of the Cross-Benchers, that such a commit tee would not be manned in exactly the same proportions as a committee in another place would be. I say that not as a criticism against my proposal, but as an advantage. I do not think it is your Lordships' desire that this House should pretend to be a pale image of the other place. Nor is it your Lordships' desire that it should be a rubber stamp, which would be the situation if the representations in the other House were exactly repeated here and the Government of the day would know therefore that they would have no more difficulty getting legislation through this House than through the other. So I think that is an advantage which the curious composition of your Lordships' House provides.

The disadvantages which have been put to me during the course of some two years of discussions and six years of thinking about this proposal—I thought about it long before I became a member of the party to which I am proud to belong, and it is no party matter that we are discussing—I do not know why the noble Lord on the Front Bench thought that a matter for laughter. This is a conclusion I reached when I was sitting in the same place as he is now sitting—a conclusion I reached as being in the best interests of the whole House, whether you happen to be sitting on the Front Bench of the Labour Party, on the Front Bench of the Social Democrats or in any other place in your Lordships' House. What we are all considering is what is in the best long-term interest of your Lordships' House, what would be the most likely to assure it of a long and useful life.

The criticism which could be levelled against it is that I say nothing about Report stage. I do not need to say anything about Second and Third Reading, because of course your Lordships already exercise self-restraint in not voting against the Second or Third Reading of Government Bills coming before your Lordships' House. That is a convention which is now well established. The only other part of our procedure that one need consider is Report stage.

I think it is wiser to go a step at a time, but more particularly I think it is wiser to have the Report stage as a longstop in case the decisions reached in Committee are not the decisions which would have been reached had a full Committee been present—and one does not want the kind of "whipping" which is anathema in this place to see that every single Member of a Committee is present the whole time. It should be regarded with the same relaxation by the Chief Whip and the other Whips, as by all the membership of your Lordships' House, that people get along when they can, and if they cannot then they cannot. If, as a result of some accident of that kind, the vote goes against the way the Government intended had all the Committee members been present, the Report stage can put it right. The Report stage can alter the decision of the Committee if, for example, the Committee has made a decision which the Government of the day do not think fits in with the overall important plans which the Government may have. My conception of democracy is that the Government of the day should have the final say. Therefore, one has to leave the Report stage as a longstop, as a safeguard.

With that, I think we have a suggestion here which could do much good. What I am asking is merely that the House should give it consideration now, and that the Government should consider whether it would not be in the best long-term interests of the House to set up a Select Committee—because there is no existing committee which is apt for the purpose—to consider these proposals in detail, for there is a great deal of detail I have not the time to go into. This is, of course, a Short Debate, and I see the clock is continuing to tick. That committee would report and come back to your Lordships' House, when we would have a full debate. Then, hopefully, if the committee so felt, we could adopt this variation in our procedure for a fair experimental period. I say an experimental period because if, after a year, say, it turned out that for some unforeseen reason it did not work there is nothing whatever to prevent your Lordships returning to the present method of a Committee of the Whole House considering the Committee stage. So that is the proposal I put before your Lordships. I hope the Leader of the House will give it a fair wind. I beg to move for Papers.

Lord Kinnaird

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down may I ask him, as he has two or three times referred to this, about the millions of members of the public who seem to be discontented with the present composition of the House? I know that perhaps we are all very old-fashioned over on this side of the House, but could he tell us who these masses of people are?

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I can only repeat exactly, word for word, what I said: that everyone who has given consideration to this matter in great depth has come out with the answer that the present composition of the House is "indefensible", or similar words. I am quoting the noble Lord, Lord Home; I am not quoting a single person other than respected Conservative Members or groups. If the noble Lord cares to talk to people he will find that there is no body at all which considers these matters which believes that there is a right in an individual by virtue of birth to legislate and affect the liberty of another individual by that reason alone.

Lord Kinnaird

My Lords, then I put it to the noble Lord that the hereditary principle is really what he is attacking.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I am not attacking any principle. I am repeating—and your Lordships can make your own judgment; if noble Lords take a different view, they take a different view—that the only expressed view which your Lordships have given is the view which I have quoted. I hope that that will restore the confidence of the noble Lord.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he has considered the position of the Lords Spiritual?

Lord Diamond

My Lords, if the Select Committee which I am recommending be set up to consider the detail of this feel that the Bishops should be treated in the same way as the Cross-Benchers, there is no reason why there should be any difficulty whatever.

4.28 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, knows that I have been for a long time a great admirer of his and in particular of his work as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It is difficult enough to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury in a Conservative Government, but in a Labour Government it must be sheer hell! I see the noble Lord assents to this proposition. He will allow me to say—I hope he will assent to this—that, given the difficulties of that position, any of us who know a certain amount about the subject greatly admired his handling of it.

The noble Lord said he had had experience as chairman of a Standing Committee in another place, a recollection which I share with him, and I recall an occasion when the noble Lord came out with a really superb display of endurance. In the late 1940s, on the Bill to nationalise the gas industry the noble Lord was chairman of the Standing Committee, and there was no provision then for any deputy. That Standing Committee sat continuously for two days and nights subject only to a short interval after luncheon. That the outcome of its deliberations was quite disastrous was not the responsibility of the chairman, without whose sheer physical stamina the Bill would never have been enacted at all.

However, I think the noble Lord, if he reflects, will feel, as many of us who have spent a good many years in another place and are very fond of another place do, that we are all rather subject when we come here to the danger of regarding what happened and what happens in another place as being so good and so efficient that we are tempted to see some part of its procedures reproduced here. I am conscious that I am subjected to that temptation and I suspect the noble Lord is too. Indeed, I suspect it has a little bit to do with these particular proposals that he has brought forward.

I should like to comment on the noble Lord's speech—admirable and moderate and lucid in tone as it was—in two divisions. First, there are the general political assertions which he put forward as a basis for the proposed specific procedural changes. As he pointed out in reply to one of my noble friends, the expression "democratizing" the House" meant that he was attacking, as he did specifically attack, the hereditary element in your Lordships' House. Indeed, he went so far as to say that it was wrong that what he called the accident of birth should give to some of your Lordships a certain position in our constitution.

The noble Lord is wrong in thinking that that particular state of affairs is obnoxious to any substantial body of opinion outside. We have—and are fortunate to have—an hereditary monarchy. We have many occupations which are hereditary in practical terms—as any young man who some years ago sought to work in the London docks, without having taken the precaution of having a London docker as his father, quickly discovered. We are not unsympathetic to the idea of hereditary rights; and not only rights but duties. I hope your Lordships will not think I am being frivolous by saying that when our fellow countrymen consider whether to entrust their money to a horse or a dog they are extremely interested in that quadruped's heredity. The noble Lord is barking up quite the wrong tree in suggesting there is a very serious feeling on the question of an hereditary element. As he knows full well, the appointed or Life Peer element in this House has steadily increased since the Life Peerages Act 1958.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. If he is right that there is nothing open to criticism in the principle, can he comment on the circumstance that when the matter was considered in the late 1960s there was agreement between both Front Benches as to the need for the abolition of the hereditary principle? At that time this was a matter of discussion between both Front Benches in the other place.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I well recall the episode of the 1968 Bill which, as the noble Lord said, was approved by the Labour Front Bench and by some elements in the then Conservative Party leadership. I can however claim very clean hands on this matter because in company with the late leader of the Labour Party and Mr. Enoch Powell I was involved in the fairly firm opposition to that Bill which finally caused the then Government to abandon it in another place. If the noble Lord is quoting that measure as an indication of the appropriateness of this sort of proposal I can only remind him that the measure, although a Queen's Speech measure and supported by some elements in the Opposition, failed to pass the House of Commons and, if I may say so, deservedly so failed.

Finally, I come back to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. As a general proposition he referred to the inbuilt Tory majority in this House. There is no such thing. If one takes the various elements—the very substantial and immensely influential Cross-Bench element, the official Opposition and the ingredients of the Alliance—there is no overall Conservative majority. If there was, the life of my noble friend the Chief Whip might be a great deal easier than it is. In so far as the Conservative element is still the largest separate one, that lead is steadily diminishing as the years pass. Therefore, the general philosophy behind the specific proposition put forward by the noble Lord is based on a number of fallacies and misunderstandings.

I come now to the rather curious specific proposals related to the Committee stage of Bills. As I understand it, the Committee of Selection, aided in the normal way by the Whips, is to nominate a number of your Lordships to have a vote on the Committee stage of Bills in accordance with the outcome of the popular vote for another place at the preceding general election. The obvious beneficiary from that precept is so plainly the group with which the noble Lord now says he is himself that I was not wholly surprised when the noble Lord, the Opposition Chief Whip, was unable to restrain his hilarity at the suggestion that there was no party advantage involved. The Opposition Chief Whip has a very good sense of humour, and he needs it. These people to be selected would be the only people to have a vote. I still do not understand how the noble Lord deals with the Cross-Benchers who have no vote at the general election, the right reverend Prelates, or those Members of your Lordships' House who have no strict party alignment. The effect of his proposal must be to exclude them from a vote in the Committee stage of Bills.

Let us think this through a little. The Committee of Selection will be aided by the party Whips, and the party Whips— despite, sometimes, appearances to the contrary—being human will select as the Peers to have votes those Members of your Lordships' House who are the most loyal party members, unlikely to dissent or to vote the wrong way and likely to attend with considerable regularity. That is the kind of Peer they will select. That proposal would destroy a great deal of the value of discussion in Committee in this House. It is suspiciously reminiscent of one provision in the 1968 Bill of which the noble Lord opposite reminded us a few minutes ago. There was this same business of each side nominating their gladiators who could be relied upon to vote the party ticket for better or for worse.

This seems to be an extraordinary pity. It also seems very odd that the noble Lord should be advocating it. With such a system the Government of the day basically have a watertight majority in Committee. Yet the strength of this House is the ability of noble Lords to vote separately from their parties—if they have any—on the merits of the matter under debate. I believe that is very well understood outside.

I shall not weary your Lordships with examples, many of which, if the same principle applies, arise for the Report stage. But there was the famous occasion when the noble Duke the Duke of Norfolk and my late and very much lamented noble friend Lord Butler of Saffron Walden succeeded in carrying an amendment on school transport against the Conservative Government of the day. There was the occasion in which I was a little involved where the rights of the citizens of Gibraltar to United Kingdom citizenship were preserved. The noble Viscount the Leader of the House will recall this. I should like to say in his presence that his handling of that matter as Home Secretary seemed to me impeccable. He treated the House with great fairness and justice on that occasion. If we had this party orientated voting system of Peers selected by the parties to vote specifically for the parties we should lose this flexibility. We should lose the right of the House as a whole to decide an issue on what seem to be the merits of the matter.

I think that so far from strengthening the position of the House in the minds of our fellow countrymen—as the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, seems to think—it would greatly weaken it. If I may say so as still a relatively junior Member of your Lordships' House, a great deal of the ever-increasing public standing of this House in the eyes of our fellow countrymen derives from the very fact that we are thought of and known to be not 100 per cent. party loyalists but exercise a freedom and discretion of voting in the way that we think will serve the national interest best. There is sometimes thought to be a contrast between that freedom and flexibility in this House and the discipline which perhaps inevitably exists in another place. It seems to me therefore that the proposal of the noble Lord, so far from strengthening the popularity and standing of the House— as he said and as I am sure he intends—would have the exactly opposite effect.

The noble Lord asked for a Select Committee on the details of his proposals. I hope that no such Select Committee will be appointed. It could be appointed only on the basis that the general principles behind his proposal were approved. The duty of the Select Committee would be, as I understand it, simply to make sure that the general principles were enacted in a form that made them workable. I am sure that we are indebted to the noble Lord for an interesting debate. It never does any harm to any organisation to have the chance to contemplate its own physiognomy and to hold up a mirror to itself to see whether improvements could be made.

I am the last man to say that improvements— quite substantial improvements—could not be made to the procedure of your Lordships' House. Indeed from time to time I have ventured with diffidence to suggest some. But I do suggest to your Lordships that this is not one. This is a retrograde step and one which would be harmful in its effect on your Lordships' House and harmful to its reputation. I hope that after we have discussed this today it will be the end of the matter.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I check back on a part of his earlier argument about which I was a little puzzled? Was the instance of hereditary dockers given as an example which the noble Lord thought should be followed in legislation or as a warning to us not to follow it?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, if the noble Lord had been good enough to follow my observations with the courteous attention that I am sure he normally gives them, he would have seen that I was quoting hereditary dockers as an example of the fact that at all levels of our society, so far from there being antipathy to the hereditary idea, there is a great deal of practical sympathy with it.

4.44 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, not only in addressing your Lordships but—I hope I may say without impertinence—in expressing admiration based on long experience of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. Perhaps I ought to say that that admiration is widely shared. It is not limited to those who are former Treasury Ministers. I desire to say that right away because, like the noble Lord who has preceded me, I cannot follow the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, in his suggestions today.

It is with considerable diffidence that I address your Lordships on this subject. For many years a prior commitment to the judicial work in your Lordships' House has precluded me from playing a large part in the legislative work. Nevertheless last Session I was privileged to take part throughout the Committee stage of the National Heritage Bill. The lessons that I learned there, not only intrinsically but by comparing the work done there with that of a Standing Committee in another place, embolden me to address your Lordships today.

I hope that it is not being unduly cynical if I say that the main thrust of this Motion lies in the little words: having regard to … the proportion of the votes cast … at the last General Election". After all, this Motion follows the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Hams of Greenwich, proposing proportional representation in local government elections. I supported that Bill. Nevertheless this seems to me to be a far less suitable milieu than that Bill for inserting the thin edge of the wedge of proportional representation.

I have two main objections to the noble Lord's proposals. The first is that it seems to me that the procedure by way of Committee of the Whole House in your Lordships' House works extraordinarily well. It worked outstandingly well in the Bill that mentioned—the National Heritage Bill. The muster of expertise on that occasion was quite extraordinary. One noble Lord after another had special knowledge of the myriad aspects with which the Bill was concerned. It would be a great pity to limit in any way the number of noble Lords who could participate in such proceedings. I know that the noble Lord. Lord Diamond, proposes a dichotomy between speaking and voting, but surely it is not very sensible to say that those who know best may speak but may not participate in the decision on the matter on which they have spoken.

The second reason which precludes my following the noble Lord in his ideas is that it seems to me that an impossible burden would be placed on the proposed Committee of Selection. A number of aspects have already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and by way of intervention in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. But let us take the National Heritage Bill again. How could any Committee of Selection possibly have known the range of expertise, experience and knowledge that your Lordships' House had at its command?

I think that by supporting the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I demonstrated that I am no enemy of proportional representation. But I should have thought that this kind of niggling approach in procedure is not the right way to vindicate either that or the great principles of democracy for which the noble Lord declares himself so eloquently.

After all, we have been waiting since 1911 on the urgency of reform of your Lordships' House. We have been waiting under Conservative Governments, under Liberal Governments, under Labour Governments, and under coalition and national Governments; and of course all that time, too, proportional representation has been very much on the agenda: but nothing has been done.

It may well be—I think it should be—that, when the task of establishing an effective second Chamber is undertaken, regard is had in part to the votes cast at the previous election upon the principle of proportional representation. Whether it is by choice of Peer, by a popular vote, or by nomination by party leaders, is debatable, and this is not the occasion to debate it. But of this I venture to feel sure: that this present proposal is not the right way to attain it.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, this is a Short Debate, and under the rules governing such debates it should end at 6.35 and the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, should rise not later than 6.15. So under those rules I have about an hour and 20 minutes to speak. But I can assure your Lordships that it is not my intention to take up my full quota of time.

The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has spent considerable time and effort in developing the theme of the debate this afternoon. I noted that in the House Magazine of 22nd February last his article on the future of the House of Lords contained a leading paragraph which stated: For the first time since the Parliament Act 1911 the future of the House of Lords is going to be a major issue at the next general election". I did not note that that was the case during the general election. We have also had the benefit of a paper prepared by the noble Lord in February 1982. Therefore I should like to thank him for giving us the opportunity this afternoon to discuss his proposals for there form of the procedure, though I am afraid that I must join with other noble Lords in not welcoming the proposals that he has made.

It seems to me that the noble Lord is trying to achieve a major reform of this House by the back door. The noble Lord proposes that the House should set up committees on Public Bills and that the Committee of Selection should appoint people to those committees in proportion to the votes cast for the main political parties at the last general election. In other words, a system of proportional representation would be introduced into this unelected House, and inevitably a committee so composed would be comprised of people who would necessarily have to put their party allegiance first. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, commented on this point in his speech. It would go without saying that that would be a qualification for serving on a committee.

While the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, was speaking I laughed at his remark that there were no party implications in his proposals. There are serious party implications, because he is proposing that the effective power of this House should be based on a system of proportional representation. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said, this would be the thin end of the wedge. One can imagine a situation in which we would say that the Committee procedure is based on proportional representation, and then after a period of time we would move to the Report stage being based on proportional representation. So this particular cancer would spread throughout the whole House. To say that there are no political implications in the proposals is just not right.

One of the advantages of our present Committee procedure is that all Peers can take part and do not have to have the same strong party allegiance as specially chosen Peers inevitably would have on a Public Bill Committee. I should add that the whole body of the Peers includes over 200 Cross-Bench Peers who have no party allegiance at all; and some of the Members on the Benches opposite have not as strong a party allegiance as would be necessary for those who were asked to serve on a special Select Committee. This means to say that the House of Lords can be receptive to public opinion in a way that the House of Commons cannot be, and so on occasion can enable the other place to be asked to think again.

The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has argued with some validity that it is only when the Conservatives are in power that there is a democratic impact at Committee stage, in that the Government of the day have the largest say, and that the problem is how to achieve this for every Government. This is a misleading argument in that the noble Lord is trying to achieve a situation where this House has an electoral mandate to challenge the will of the elected House. Those who are aware of the problems which arise where the two Houses of a Parliament have equal, or almost equal, authority and are elected on different electoral franchises—for example, such as in Australia —will certainly want to avoid a situation where an authority is given to this House on the basis of a different but valid electoral authority.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, the question of House of Lords reform is a matter which has been discussed for almost all of this century. Indeed, it has been discussed since the 1906 Liberal Government were elected and immediately found that their radical measures were being opposed by the then vast Tory ranks in this Chamber. It is a matter to which no ready solution has been found. Some of my friends have become so frustrated in this situation that they have felt that the only answer to the problem of an unelected and unrepresentative second House is to opt for single Chamber Government. I do not myself believe that that would be satisfactory unless there were further radical changes in the way in which the other place operates.

The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has sought to show how the procedures which he is suggesting would work. I am sure that if there were a will, there would be a way in which the procedures could work. But from the short debate that we have had this afternoon it is clear that there is not in the House a will to want to see such procedures work. I do not therefore feel it incumbent on me to discuss the detailed procedural arrangements that would be necessary. Suffice it to say that the noble Lord's idea that the end of Session pressure could be relieved by increasing the number of Standing Committees considering Bills would not be a feasible arrangement because of the staffing implications that would arise for this short period of time during the year and also because it would be necessary for each one of those Committee procedures to be repeated at Report and Third Reading stage on the Floor of this House. Therefore, it would not even solve that particular problem.

As the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has stated, the most useful work of this House—and, indeed, the work that justifies the existence of the House—is our detailed work on the examination and amendment of Public Bills at Committee stage. Behind this work lies the ability of this House to ask the other place to think again about certain aspects of its legislation without challenging the principle of that legislation on which the Government have been elected. We are the Chamber that enables the other Chamber to have a second thought; and, so far as we are concerned on this side of the House, since we have been the official Opposition in this House we have never sought to challenge the principle of the will of the elected Chamber, although I am bound to say that the present Government party only accepted this view after the 1945 General Election.

I should add of course that we have constantly and with great success during the last Parliament sought to amend the details of that legislation. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has pointed out, there was the conspicuous occasion when the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, led people from all parts of the House into the Lobby to defeat a particularly pernicious proposal of the Government. That was only one of 48 occasions during the last Parliament when the Government did not have their way. I am sure, as we enter into a new Parliament, there will be many more such occasions to come.

So far as this Motion is concerned, I hope that we have had a useful discussion about it today. But, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I hope that it goes no further.

5.3 p.m.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, for what he said about my participation in the debate. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, as to so many noble Lords, for their kind help in what has been the extremely difficult task of arriving for the first time in your Lordships' House and finding oneself seeking, to the best of one's ability, to lead it. To the extent that the noble Lord (or, rather, the debate) has given me some further instruction and food for thought, I am for that reason extremely grateful to him.

I should perhaps start by recalling a comment that I heard during a conversation between two noble Lords not long after I arrived in your Lordships' House. One turned to the other, not apparently seeing me—that is in itself a difficult thing to do—and said, "I hope he does not think that he knows everything". I said to myself, "Lord—I certainly do not do that". Then the noble Lord said, "I hope to goodness he will not come here and say that as he has been in another place for 28 years he now intends to tell us how to manage our affairs". I thought to myself that I could survive both those remarks, because they are the last things I have in mind. I have no intention of acting in that manner. Indeed, it has almost been borne in upon me that my own prejudices are becoming such that I am most anxious not to do something that has happened in another place if I can possibly avoid it. I have become a quick convert to the view that your Lordships' House does things in its own way quite differently and, I believe, in many instances, exactly as it should.

For the House to be a mirror of another place would not be a good idea. There would be the danger of it becoming a pale image, and that would be even worse. While, as Leader of your Lordships' House, I am only too ready and, I believe, must be ready to listen to all proposals, I do not necessarily start with prejudices in favour of bringing any thoughts of mine here from another place.

I should like now to turn to a few reflections on the debate: first, about thorough-going reforms. I think that your Lordships would consider it reasonable for me to say that, in present circumstances, I am not perhaps the best person to comment on the wisdom or otherwise of hereditary peerages. I shall therefore not go further down that road. To follow my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter in his reflections on the 1968 Bill, I can only say that I was at that time Opposition Chief Whip in another place. My noble friend Lord Carrington and I, who have agreed on practically everything in our political lives, did not, however, agree on that occasion. I am not saying that we did not agree on the merits necessarily, because, as Opposition Chief Whip, I was not really entitled to a view on the merits. I was there presumably to do what Lord Carrington and others among my leaders felt should be done.

One night long before the phrase was coined in the manner that has become familiar in recent times, my noble friend Lord Carrington turned to me and said, "You are very wet indeed". I asked, "Why is that?", to which my noble friend replied, "Because you haven't the courage to Whip our party properly and to make sure that the proposals that I believe to be right for the House of Lords will get through". I reflect now that when I was said to be "very wet", it was because I was failing to Whip successfully my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, Mr. Enoch Powell and one or two other people of such eminence. I think it will be seen that, whatever my attributes, it was not altogether wetness that made me fail on that occasion. I have one thought for your Lordships as I look back on that effort—that on thorough-going reforms it will be very difficult indeed for the other place ever to bring forward worthwhile reform. There is a very simple reason. Too much reform would make the other place feel that this House has to have more powers than it has now. That is the last thing in the world that the other place actually wants to give this House. Whether the other place should feel like that, I am not sure; but I know that that is its view.

I must refer to the ideas of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, about an inbuilt Tory majority. I shall not trespass upon the territory of my noble friend the Chief Whip in this matter. My noble friend constantly tells me quite a different story. I have become so conditioned to it that I now fully believe—if I did not do so before—what he tells me. My noble friend has told me that if I do not believe it now I very soon will, to which I have replied that I do not expect to be shown and do not desire to be shown, but that I will accept his view.

I can, however, tell your Lordships what happened to me as a Minister in another place when seeking to take Bills through Parliament. It was a most instructive experience which taught me lessons I have learnt and which I shall pass on to my colleagues who are Ministers now. I do so from the position that I now hold. It is this. It is very dangerous in legislation to take your Lordships for granted. It is worth reflecting, if you are not going to succeed, that, just possibly, your Lordships are right and that it is you, the Minister, who is wrong. I do not say that this is always the case. I have to admit that there were moments at the Home Office when I would not have wished right reverend Prelates collectively to hear what I was saying about them. I am not of course referring to them individu ally. But, collectively, I was having to pay attention to their views which, while irritating at the time, I recognised as right and a wise course to follow. So, as when I lost one particular amendment on the Nationality Bill in your Lordships' House—and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter was most generous to me in this matter—I fully realised that probably I was wrong and I went to my colleagues in the Cabinet and said that I thought I was wrong and that it would be sensible to allow what your Lordships had done to go through. I believe that that is the right way to look at legislation.

Therefore, I hope that no one will imagine that any Ministers—certainly in the last Parliament and, indeed, I hope in this one—will ever be under any illusion that they have a built-in Tory majority in this House. On many occasions I have had to tell them why I know that they have not, and I am very ready to do so, and, on behalf of your Lordships, will certainly do so. There is no such thing now as the built-in Tory majority. I think that it is to the good of this House, although it will not be to the good of me always when I have to account to my colleagues as to why I have failed. So I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, will not think that we should proceed to reforms on the basis of something which does not exist in the working of this House at the present time.

Many of the points that I was about to make have already been made. They have been made by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who, when I first joined another place was someone I looked up to very considerably, and by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, with his considerable knowledge, and I shall not repeat too many of them. But on a very short experience I am bound to reflect that the procedure in Committee on Public Bills in this House seems to have very great merits. I personally would suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, that the fact that Public Bills are considered in a Committee of the Whole House may be one of the great strengths of this House. In a House which is composed predominantly of part-time Members it provides the opportunity for noble Lords to take part on those occasions when they are able to and when the Bill under consideration deals with a subject in which they are specially interested or expert.

Surely it is one of the great strengths of this House that it has Members who are expert in so many different fields that their wisdom on a particular aspect of a Bill should not be lost to the discussions in this House. It would be a great pity if that were so. Indeed, if we moved in the direction which the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has suggested I think there is a danger that that is exactly what would happen. If it did not happen that way, there is a risk (and I have been told that this has happened sometimes in the past) of Report stages becoming more protracted, because many Members might hold back or, if they had been denied a position in the Committee, they might seek to make their particular points on Report.

It is for that reason I join with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in believing that the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, would not help the appalling problem—which I fully appreciate I face—of congestion in the summer months at the end of the Session. It is a problem that greatly worries me, about which I consistently speak to my colleagues. But from the evidence that has been given to me of the past, I do not believe that these particular proposals would help. So I do not think that I can support them on those grounds.

Therefore, I do not believe that the case has been made out. Indeed, since, on a very short experience in this House, I also profoundly believe that this House must work by consent, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby said, there is no sign of consent for a change of this sort and therefore I believe that my duty as Leader of the House is to point to that and say that if we were to succeed we would have to move by general consent. Equally, when the experiment was tried before I do not believe that it was all that successful.

Quite possibly the best way forward is through the Select Committee procedure, using committees like the Select Committee on Science and Technology and the European Communities Committee with its very eminent membership. They have, indeed, been a considerable advance in this House. I believe that that is the right way in which we should seek to go forward.

Of course, I would be very ready to consider any proposals if there was a general feeling of consent for them in this House. To everyone who asks me how I enjoy this House or how I find my job in this House I consistently say that it is extremely interesting to have to win consent for what you want to do. A House which works by consent needs a great deal of understanding and a great deal of work to obtain that consent. I shall seek to proceed on that basis and I shall certainly consider any proposals that come to me on that basis.

Therefore, as the evidence given to me leads me to believe at this time and from what has been said in this debate, I do not believe that the proposals of the noble Lord. Lord Diamond, as such would improve the procedures. So I could not agree to the procedure that the noble Lord proposes on behalf of the House because, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter and as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said, I do not think that that consent exists at the present time.

I do not believe that we could make major reforms by a side wind and, with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I rather suspect that perhaps it has something to do with the position of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, although I appreciate that he also believes that the Standing Committee procedure might be best. On the experience of another place, it is perhaps fair to say that not everybody in another place believes that the Standing Committee procedure, as they practise it, is to the best advantage of the House. I personally have considerable doubts about it. Of course, another place also sometimes has doubts about it, for whenever they deal with a Bill on which a great many Members of another place wish to speak the Government of the day are flooded with the most clamant demands for the legislation to be taken in a Committee of the Whole House, and they allow it because the Bill in question is a constitutional Bill or because it is a Bill of such importance that many Members will wish to take part in it. I hope that your Lordships will ponder on that, because I believe that the procedure in this House is a particular advantage. If another place believe that it is sometimes an advantage to them, all the more is it an advantage to this House.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, will not proceed with his proposals, but I thank him very much for having raised them. If some of my remarks seem to many noble Lords to be rather lacking in experience or understanding, perhaps this afternoon has given me an opportunity to gain both in experience and understanding.

5.18 p.m.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I should like to express my gratitude not only to those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate—particularly to the noble Viscount, who has been good enough to spare his time to do so, but also to many of your Lordships who have been good enough to stay and listen to the debate. I am sure that that will be a great encouragement to those who believe that the House of Lords takes great care to ensure that it is managed in the best possible way. That is what this debate is about.

I am most grateful to noble Lords who, notwithstanding that they are not of my party, have been good enough to make such kind references to me. It is very moving and I am most grateful indeed. Therefore, there is no need for me to repeat that the proposals which I have in mind are directed purely not only to improving the practice of this House but more particularly to ensuring its permanence. That is what I am after. I am bound to say that I do not entirely accept the views which have been expressed on the two major criticisms—proportional representation and the hereditary principle. Perhaps I may say why. I shall read to your Lordships again the views of the Bow Committee, as expressed in their report. The first recommendation is: 75 per cent. of the Upper House should be elected by the regional list system of proportional representation at the same time as a General Election", et cetera. That is 75 per cent. They propose proportional representation, and some weight must be given to the fact that here a number of intelligent people spent a great deal of time thinking about it. What element do they propose of hereditary representation? Nil. Then I return to the Conservative Party's committee on the reform of the House of Lords, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel. What proportion of the House did they recommend for the hereditary principle? None. None in each case. Therefore, it is not surprising that I should take it that there is a body of informed opinion which takes the view that the hereditary principle is not here for all time. I was making an attempt to move a step forward in the only way in which we could move forward, and which is wholly in line with these two committees to which I have referred.

I have already quoted one reference to proportional representation. If one is to get a direct democratic impact of a kind that would be seen by the outside world for what it is—an attempt to introduce more democratic understanding of some of our procedures—I do not see what formula is better than the formula of votes cast at the last General Election. I do not know of any other way of demonstrating that principle. If anybody can think of a better answer, then by all means let us have it.

If one considers this Mother of Parliaments, as we so happily call it—this fertile Mother of Parliaments—I am bound to say that it is the case that of all the offspring she has produced there is no single offspring in her own likeness. There is no single offspring which has a hereditary element in it, and one can see Parliaments all over the world which take our basic approach as their principle for creating their own Houses. Therefore, I do not think that I need to go further in demonstrating the view of solid, hardworking committees of the Conservative Party, views held by other parties, views held by the population at large here, and views held by other countries as shown by the Parliaments which they have established.

The only other thing I would say is that I know that it does not necessarily form part of this debate, but nobody has come forward with a better idea. I wish they had. It is not making much progress towards something which I think we need to progress towards, although I am much assuaged by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who makes it clear that at all events this part of the Labour Party is not in favour of the destruction of the House of Lords, though other parts of the Labour Party may have it as their official policy. That is good news, which I welcome, but I wish that somebody had come forward with some other constructive idea.

Nobody has said that this is the only idea. It is an idea which of course is similar to the idea adopted by the Labour Committee which looked at this in 1977 under the chairmanship of Lord Champion, with which I was closely associated. If there had been another idea we could have looked at that as well. I hope that that will be so. I hope that Members will turn over what has been suggested in their minds. One does not expect victory at first go. If the noble Viscount will recollect, there was a time in the other place when we sat opposite one another, and I used every opportunity I could of bringing in a Private Member's Bill to provide for compensation for loss of jobs. He did everything he could, and he was completely successful at the time, to prevent that Bill having any chance of seeing the light of day, and he talked it out very successfully on every occasion. But, my Lords, this has been the law of the land for a considerable time now, and I am somewhat encouraged by that recollection of the past. I am grateful to everybody who has participated. I am most grateful to everybody who has listened. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.