§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consult opposition parties with a view to setting up a Select Committee to consider whether the inheritance or grant of a peerage should continue automatically to confer the right to take part in the proceedings of the House of Lords and to make recommendations on this and on related matters.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology for resurrecting this subject; indeed, I am rather glad to be able to pass from human anatomy on to the body politic. I am indebted for that felicitous suggestion to my noble friend Lord Cledwyn, and I think we are both happy to move on to this subject, though in no way minimising the importance of the Bill which has just received its Second Reading to the pleasure of us all.
§ Many of us—perhaps most of us—are conscious from time to time of an element of absurdity in our splendid House. Over the years some reforms have been made and, when she recently opposed a motion for further reform at a Conservative Party conference—I think it was the conference before the last—the noble Baroness, Lady Young, did so not on the grounds that reform was undesirable, but on the grounds that it would need all-party agreement and no such agreement was in sight. I shall be rather more brief than I had proposed because the hour is a little later than we expected, though not so late as it would have been if we had taken the Question last night.
§ I think that that statement would still be true if we were talking about a series of major reforms or about the abolition of the House of Lords. However, I thought that I might explore the possibility of agreement on a single point, or at least agreement to refer that point to a Select Committee. Why not leave well alone? The answer is that all parties are committed to some changes and that even those of us who think that two Chambers are necessary in our complex society—I have always been one of these and, possibly, happily for myself I said so in 1968 when I was a Member of another place and when the subject was before us then—cannot really defend one in which the right to vote on legislation can be inherited. There is also the problem of confusion between a peerage which is granted for reward for services rendered, and one which may be that but which also carries with it an expectation that the Peer will take part in the proceedings of this House.
§ All of us know noble Lords who have taken no such part in the proceedings of our House, who will take no part in those proceedings and for whom the grant of a peerage is solely an element of recognition of worth in 683 one way or another, and carries with it no expectation on their part, or anybody else's part, that the Peer will engage in the legislative process.
§ Constitutional changes can be brought about by revolution or by all-party agreement. To think that today there is any halfway house between those two extremes is. in my view, a delusion. There is no reality in the idea of mass creation of Peers, any more than the Chinese warlord of old times really created Christians by baptising his troops with a hosepipe. I do not think it can effectively be done. Indeed, a government which tried to introduce unagreed legislation, legislation which was not agreed between all sides of the House, would risk losing all the rest of its programme. It simply is not on. Indeed it was not on when there was agreement between the two Front Benches in the latter part of the 1960s, because there was a rebellion on both sides of another place for quite opposite reasons. Nevertheless, I think that perhaps a Back-Bencher can serve a useful purpose in floating an idea on such a question as this.
§ It will be noted that the Question is whether a peerage should continue automatically to include voting rights. It is not proposed to modify—certainly not in this proposal—the existing position, except that only those Peers who take part in our proceedings should, I suggest, continue to hold voting rights. But these details would be matters for the Select Committee.
§ The idea is not new, but it has hitherto been included with other proposals. I suggest this single change, that in future Peers should be divided between those who vote and those who do not. I believe that most people would think this a sensible change. There will be those who would regard it as a springboard for further changes. There will be those who would regard it as sufficient in itself. But I suggest that this single proposal would introduce into the situation the desideratum of clarity which is so signally lacking at the present time.
§ In the future, the right to vote would not be inherited, although the peerage could still be inherited. But may I again make it clear that I am not suggesting that there should be any direction to the Select Committee which would involve loss of rights at present exercised. With those few words, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Lord Banks
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, has raised an important question this evening. At first, when I saw his Question on the Order Paper I thought that he was contemplating the possibility of a complete separation between peerages and membership of this House and that would, of course, have raised the whole question of reform of the composition of this House. Then, last Friday, I read a column headed "In House Briefing" in The Guardian, which suggested that what the noble Lord was going to propose was, first, that the right to participate in the proceedings of this House should be withdrawn from those who do not attend with some degree of regularity; and, secondly, that a commitment would be obtained from new Peers, whether they were 684 hereditary or life, before they were given the right to participate in the proceedings of this House.
In the event, I think it is right to say that the noble Lord has advocated only the second of those two, and I must say that, when one thinks that there are 1,194 Members, or thereabouts, of this House and that the daily attendance, though it is rising, is approximately 330, it is possible to see a very strong case for what the noble Lord has advocated. Why should those who never attend regularly be able to turn up on some specific occasion and influence the course of events, and does it help the credibility of the House if there are large numbers of Members who never attend?
I would go further than the noble Lord has done. I would be prepared to say that if a Member did not attend on a specific number of occasions during a Session, his right to participate had lapsed for the remainder of the Parliament, but that he could reapply to participate at the beginning of the new Session or subsequently. And, of course, there would have to be some clearly established qualifications for reinstatement—changed circumstances, previous ill health, a new commitment. I recognise, however, that it might be difficult to determine precisely what the number of attendances should be.
There is also the question of who would make the decisions within these rules. I imagine it would have to be a committee of the House. But, leaving that proposal on one side. I should like to make it clear that we on these Benches would have no objection to a committee considering the proposal which the noble Lord has put forward and other related matters such as those, perhaps, which I have just sketched out. I shall indeed be interested to hear the Government's view when the noble Viscount replies to the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, has raised this matter at a time of increased public interest in this House and its operations. In the Financial Times of 23rd March, there was an article in which the following words appeared:in all sorts of ways the reputation of the House of Lords is on the way up. In contrast to the Commons, it comes out as dignified and detached in the sound broadcasts of 'Today in Parliament'. Attendance has been rising: on many afternoons it is now fuller than the elected Chamber".Two days later Adam Raphael said in the Observer:It is indeed odd that the often despised, unrepresentative second Chamber should suddenly become the champion of the people".He pointed out that this House is the only arena where Ministers cannot be certain of getting their own way. We on these Benches feel that it is very salutary that there should be an arena of that kind. At a time when there is an increasing regard for this House and the role which it plays, all that can be done to remove anomalies in the working of the House should be done. If some reform, perhaps along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has in mind, were introduced, it would be a natural follow-up to the considerable reform of this House which was effected by the introduction of life peerages.
The more fundamental question of the composition of this House would remain to be dealt with. Liberals have certainly stood for reform of that composition at least since the Parliament Act 1911. That Liberal measure dealt with the limitation of powers but it contained in its preamble the statement that reform of 685 the composition of this House "brooks no delay". It certainly has been brooking delay ever since, but perhaps now is the time, or soon will be the time to put an end to that delay. It is interesting to reflect that as long ago as 1920, Mr. Asquith, as he then was, put forward this solution:I desire to see substituted, for our present second Chamber, a Chamber much smaller in number, constituted partly by nomination but to the extent at any rate of two-thirds elected. My own preference would be elected in part by popular constituencies for a fixed term of years and in part by the House of Commons for the duration of its own life.In August 1983, a joint Liberal and Social Democrat commission on constitutional reform put forward the proposal for a second Chamber of around 500, partly elected from the regions by proportional representation and partly nominated by a standing commission of Privy Counsellors. That solution was not dissimilar to the one put forward by Mr. Asquith all those years ago. So we on these Benches have consistently sought and still seek a reform of the composition of this House. We do not expect all other noble Lords to agree with us on that, but we do believe that the great majority of noble Lords in all parts of the House would agree with us on the need for an effective second Chamber.
We welcome the increasing esteem in which this House is held and we are ready to consider ways short of the more fundamental reform of its composition which we believe to be necessary, by which the House can further improve its image and effectiveness. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, has put forward one such this evening.
§ 8.45 p.m.
My Lords. I do not see how any Committee can discuss the question of the automatic right of Peers, hereditary or otherwise, to take part in the proceedings of this House and to vote or not to vote on the business of this House in a vacuum, as it were, without discussing in depth the reform of this House and, indeed, of Parliament as a whole. In 1967 an all-party conference was set up to work out a scheme for House of Lords reform, which the then Labour Government proposed to implement the following Session. They produced a White Paper, and in November 1968 this House spent three days debating the proposals in that White Paper. If I have counted the number correctly, I believe 103 noble Lords spoke in the debate, some at considerable length. Many are still with us. Everything that can possibly be said for and against the present system was said in that debate, often several times. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, has read that debate.
I do not think that very much has changed in the 15 years since the debate took place, except that the number of Life Peers has greatly increased, while a number of hereditary peerages have become extinct and the number of Cross-Benchers has greatly increased, making the reaction of the House more unpredictable. The House is slowly but surely 686 reforming itself by the process of evolution, which is as it should be. Although the Motion that the proposals set out in the White Paper should be agreed to was carried by 251 votes to 56, nobody could then agree on the details of how the proposals should be implemented. So we are wasting our time, because I do not think it is any more likely that a joint Select Committee would be able now to agree about these details—they are precisely the details which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, has mentioned—than it was then.
When you have a pool of voluntary labour of some 750 Peers—I say 750 because that is the number of Peers who attended at least one sitting of this House during the 1982–83 Session—with experience in almost any field you can think of, who believe that it is their duty to come here and help to govern their country, often at considerable inconvenience and some sacrifice on the part of themselves and their families, it seems to me to be sheer folly not to continue to make use of it and to be thankful. When Peers, particularly hereditary Peers, take their seats in this House, it is usually with the idea of doing some kind of service to their country—not for glory and certainly not for financial reward. If you abolish the right of Peers to sit and to vote in this House, you will have to find people to do the work by some means or other, and whatever means you adopt—whether it is some form of election, or nomination, or a mixture of both—five things will happen.
If you have a limited number of voting Peers, you will have to decide in what proportions you are going to elect or appoint them, having regard to their political affiliations. If you appoint or elect them in the same proportions as in another place, you will have a rubber stamp. What is the good of that? If you try to do it any other way, I do not know on what basis you will do it. Secondly, you will lose that splendid independence of mind which is the hallmark of the Back-Bench Peers, because they will be looking over their shoulders all the time at those who put them here, just as Members of another place look at those who elected them, or those who nominated them, or whatever. Thirdly, the people who put them here will expect them to be here, or about the business of this House all the time—or for a very large part of it. Therefore they will have to be paid well, if we are to get people of the calibre of many of the Peers who attend regularly at present, or as often as they can, having regard to the necessity, to them, of earning a living.
Fourthly, you will lose the immense variety of experience which Peers—and hereditary Peers in particular—can offer. For instance, not long ago the Earl of Essex died and was succeeded by a cousin who is a baker or a grocer (I cannot remember which) in North West England. He did not in his first interview sound at all adverse to taking his seat in this House. I wish he would because we do not have many small shopkeepers here and his experience might be very useful.
If this House is to be elected or nominated, I cannot see many small shopkeepers or traders getting in. I am not thinking about the owners of large establishments such as Fortnum and Mason but of owners of small shops in small towns, in country districts. Apart from anything else, they could not leave their businesses or 687 would not be prepared to do so in order to stand for election. We would end up with nothing but important people, and this House and the country would be the poorer. We would not have any ordinary people at all and we would lose precisely the quality that makes this House unique among second Chambers and the envy of the world; the balanced, commonsense view that it has and its understanding of the problems of ordinary people.
Also, there would be very few Peers under the age of 50 and, if some people have their way. there would be none under the age of 70. You would lose a great deal of experience and no young people would be coming along to learn how this House works. Some of the most able Members of this House are hereditary Peers who succeeded very young and who today, after many years' experience in the ways of this House, and while still in their forties or fifties, are occupying prominent positions. The noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, is one. He made his very distinguished maiden speech in that great debate on the reform of this House which took place in this Chamber in 1968.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, if the noble Lady will give way, may I suggest to her that she is not dealing with the proposal that I made but is dealing with a series of other proposals which I have not suggested?
My Lords, I quite appreciate the noble Lord's point but it seems to me that if his suggestion was put into effect, all these other points would require consideration by any committee. I know all the arguments against hereditary principle but the trouble is that it is a matter of fashion, and heredity has been out of fashion for a long time—like virginity and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. That does not mean there is nothing in heredity. To anyone who has known even several generations of one family and has seen how looks, mannerisms, talent, ability, likes and dislikes reappear from generation to generation, the hereditary principle cannot seem altogether invalid. We all know that cattle breeders and race horse owners have not found it to be so. The majority of hereditary Peers of the first creation were people of some ability—even if it was only in the field of making money. Is it therefore unreasonable to suppose that they may have handed some of that ability down to their descendants?
Research now being done suggests that some characteristics tend to be handed down, particularly in the male line. Some psychologists have noticed that eldest children tend to have qualities of leadership to a greater degree than their siblings. The noble Lord, Lord Caccia, said in the great debate in 1968 that one day there might be a demand that none should participate in a second Chamber unless they had by heredity an approved DNA rating. It would be a pity if we were to throw out the hereditary principle only to have our successors say in 20, 30 or 50 years' time, "How silly they were to abolish the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House—but, of course, they didn't know any better in those days, and now we do".
688 The peculiarities of our unwritten constitution have for a long time saved us from Aristotle's dread cycle that,autocracy begets tyranny, remedied by aristocracy which begets oligarchy, remedied by democracy which begets demagogy, remedied by autocracy",and so on, back to square one. We have so far managed to avoid all three traps during the past few generations. In Britain, we have evolved historic safeguards in our constitutional monarchy and an Upper House, many of whose Members are bred to a sense of duty and not swayed by the fears and ambitions of elections. As some ancient Greek city state democracies—faced with the divisive rivalries of election—chose their officials by lot rather like we choose jurymen, so we choose some of the Members of this House by the lottery of birth, from a group of families originating in all classes who have shown some sense of responsibility in advance, and who are of all ages, various races and nationalities, an infinite variety of professions, and both sexes. Those without that sense of responsibility do not come here in general; the unsocial hours we work see to that.
Finally, as has been said more than once in this House, "It shouldn't work but it does". I am sure that it is always a mistake to change anything that works unless one is very sure that one is going to put something better in its place. Are the noble Lords who want to alter the composition of this House so very sure that doing so will be an improvement—or are they advocating change for the sake of change and on the basis of a possibly soon-to-be-disproved theory that heredity is of no consequence?
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Viscount Ingleby
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, particularly because she happened to mention a kinsman of mine—Robert Capell—who, if we can succeed in proving his claim to the satisfaction of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will, I hope in the not too far distant future, take his seat here as the Earl of Essex. As the noble Lady was not absolutely sure, let me just say that he does indeed run a family grocery business in Morecambe, and I feel that he would be a very useful addition to our House.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. Lord Jenkins of Putney, for introducing this subject. I am at a slight disadvantage because the terms of his Question seem to be much wider than the proposals we have heard from him tonight, which seem to come down to the fact that for Peers to have the power to vote in future, they would need to have a minimum number of attendances here, and that the right should not be inherited.
The composition of this House may be illogical but as the noble Lady has just said, it works quite well. The usefulness of this House is growing, and I believe that it is growing in the public estimation, too. I have been a Member here for only 13 years but I am sure that this House is much more active even now than it was when I first arrived here. As the noble Lord, Lord Banks, has said, attendances now average more that 300 every day. I wonder whether the noble Viscount can tell us when he replies what the attendance was 25 years ago, before the life peerages Act was passed.
689 The most striking point to my mind about this House at the present time is that the Government are no longer certain of commanding a majority. I do not mean just this Government, but I think that it is a vital part of any second Chamber worth its salt that there should be certain occasions when it can say to the elected House, "You must think again on this particular matter".
In this objective I feel that the Cross-Bench Peers have a particular part to play. There are in fact 219 of us. If we were a party (which, of course, we are not) we should be the second largest party here. There is a daily attendance of 40 to 50 from the Cross-Benches. I suppose that we are roughly equally divided between life and hereditary Peers. Of the hereditary Peers, there are a considerable number who do not come here at all. There are also a considerable number who come only when their special subject is being discussed. What worries me a little bit about the proposition of the noble Lord. Lord Jenkins, of a minimum number of attendances is that it seems to me that we would lose the value of those Peers, because they really come only when their particular subject is being discussed.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, the proposal for a minimum number of attendances is not mine. It came from the Liberal Benches.
§ Viscount Ingleby
My Lords, then there are the 150 or so hereditary Peers. I am assuming that our daily attendance is roughly equally divided between hereditary and life Peers. I would just ask the question, what would this House look like without any hereditary Peers? I do not want to mention names, but we have here among the hereditary Peers the chairman of the County Councils Association, the chairman of the District Councils Association, the chairman of the Finance Corporation for Industry and many other hereditary Peers holding high positions in universities. One even asks oneself the question, what would the Conservative Front Bench here look like without any hereditary Peers? There are some young hereditary Peers whose presence here we greatly value and I personally welcome.
The hereditary principle, allied of course with the life Peers, the bishops and the judges, results in a random cross-section of people having the right to come here. I am sure that no one would want this House to be a pale shadow of the other place. I feel that this House has evolved greatly, even in my short time here. Rather than make any sudden changes, I should like to see the House continue to grow—as I believe it is growing—in usefulness and in public esteem.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, in the first instance I apologise for not having put down my name on the list of speakers. Manning my Front Bench, and having listened to the arguments, I should briefly like to make one or two points. First of all, there is no doubt at all that the SDP and the Alliance are in favour of reforming the House of Lords, but in the meantime I think that we should be making a grave mistake if we tinkered with the existing set-up which is working really very well. We depend to a great extent on those noble Lords who are still in very important positions, and who are in the main hereditary, coming here and Vol. 450 690 giving their advice. Although we have already said that those who do not attend fairly regularly should apply for leave of absence, we cannot define this because it would eliminate some of the most important people who come here and give their advice.
We should come to terms a little bit more with what we mean by "democracy" and "elected". Somehow those terms seem to be absolutely magic. I do not want to go into this too far, but people should realise that they do not mean as much as a lot of people like to say. If you really believe in democracy as thought about by people as a whole, you straight away of course move to proportional representation. In most cases the voter has a choice of two evils—one person or the other. I am not for one moment suggesting that we should move away from this, but we should not be too frightened of saying: "Here we are in this House. It is anomalous in principle, but nevertheless we are doing a good job. It should be reformed in the long run; but, for goodness' sake, do not let us tinker with it in the way that this Motion proposes".
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney has asked a Question which has, as he himself recognised, great constitutional importance. He made a reasonable speech and there was much in it with which I think most noble Lords would agree. For example, like him I have believed for many years that a bicameral system is preferable to a unicameral one. There are those, including many in my party, who take a different view, and they can make out a respectable case. Therefore, the fact that the agreement of this House is required before the other place can extend its life beyond the statutory five years must be regarded as an important constitutional safeguard.
Even so, while those arguments about bicameralism and unicameralism must be given due weight, the primacy of the elected Chamber cannot and should not be challenged. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 have so limited the powers of this House as to make it impossible for it to challenge the House of Commons in any really significant way. If there is to be an argument it should be not whether the House of Lords should be abolished but whether this country should have a unicameral or bicameral system, and, if the latter, what form should the second Chamber take.
Over the past 100 years and more no single constitutional issue has been debated more frequently and continually than the reform of this House and the point which my noble friend has raised. The House will know of the bitter feeling which resulted from the defeat of Mr. Gladstone's second Home Rule Bill in 1893, which eventually led to the setting up of the Select Committee in 1907. This concluded in due course that:it was undesirable that the possession of a Peerage should of itself give the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords".It recommended a House of about 400 Members, largely consisting of hereditary Peers elected for the life of one Parliament from within their number, a few hereditary Peers sitting by virtue of past office held and a limited number of life Peers. We know that no action was taken on that report, but it shows that my noble friend's suggestion has respectable antecedents.
691 The Act of 1911 dealt with powers and not with composition, and as the noble Lord, Lord Banks, has said, its preamble contained some interesting words. I think they are worth repeating today. It said:Whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis, but such substitution … cannot immediately be brought into operation …".Interestingly enough, these words were written into our statute book only two years before the Senate of the United States became a directly elected second chamber. We must also concede that at the time Lord Lloyd George's description of Conservative peers as:Six hundred men chosen accidentally from among the unemployedis no longer true. The next step was the appointment of a conference of Members of both Houses under the chairmanship of Lord Bryce in 1917—a very important historic point in the study of this subject. This conference laid down four functions appropriate for a second chamber; namely, first the examination and revision of Bills brought from the other place. Secondly the initiation of Bills dealing with subjects of a comparatively non-controversial character. Thirdly. the interposition of so much delay—and no more—in the passing of a Bill into law us may enable the opinion of the nation to be adequately expressed upon it. Fourthly, to act as a forum for the discussion of general questions of policy—such as foreign affairs.
I believe the general views in this House would be that this exposition holds good today. The greater use of the guillotine in another place makes the work of revision more important, and we can also add to Lord Bryce's list this House's European Communities Committee, which has gained a first class reputation throughout Western Europe for the quality and importance of its work.
As to composition to which a number of noble Lords have referred. Lord Bryce it may be remembered recommended a reformed House of 246 Members indirectly elected by MPs on a regional basis and the remaining 81 Members appointed by a Joint Standing Committee of both Houses, with a proportion being hereditary peers and bishops. In the end, the conference failed to agree to the scheme and it too was in due course dropped.
The House will recall the subsequent changes and party reactions which occurred, the most notable of which were the Parliament Act of 1949 and the abortive all-party conference which preceded it. What is interesting was that agreement was reached on composition on that occasion as shown by paragraph 5 of the White Paper (Cmnd. 7380). Subparagraph (c) is relevant to my noble friend's proposal. It reads, and I quote,The present right to attend and vote based solely on heredity should not by itself constitute a qualification for admission to a reformed second Chamber".I thought the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, defended her corner staunchly, but I believe the general view is against her. The hereditary peerage, as we know, does produce some outstanding public figures: but I believe the trend of basing this House, the second Chamber in this country, on heredity to the extent that it is and has been based, is no longer acceptable to the British 692 public. The noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, asked a question; namely, what would this House look like without hereditary peers? Well, it might look very much like the elected House of Commons, which is the primary Chamber but what could happen is that the Government could convert a number of hereditary peers into a sufficient majority on the Benches opposite. That is one of the solutions that has been suggested from time to time.
For the next substantial change, which took place—and it is one of very real significance—was the Life Peerages Act, 1958 and I think it would be agreed by noble Lords on all sides that it has made this House more effective, more industrious and more representative of a wide range of interests. For this we are indebted to my right honourable friend Mr. Tony Benn. Notwithstanding this, since 1911 it is the argument about composition which has preoccupied people because it is the way in which this House is composed which is regarded by many as unsatisfactory and unfair, and powers have long since ceased to be of primary concern.
If this House decides to revise a Bill during its Committee or Report stage that may be, and probably is, an irritant to the Government in power, although it can overturn that decision in another place. However, in doing so. in the process of revising, this House is acting in the spirit of the Bryce conference. My own experience over the past few years is that where the Government have been defeated it has been on a substantial issue, and that the delay imposed on the Government has been justified. This House's recent acceptance of the amendment on telephone tappiing in the Telecommunications Bill and the Government's subsequent reaction to it is a classic example of this House performing an important constitutional function. The proposition that the work of the other place can be so reorganised, given its present already huge burden of Select and Standing Committees and other peripheral activities, is, to say the least, debatable. The tendency is to denude the floor of the other place, apart from at Question Time and for the opening and closing speeches of major debates.
But in his speech my noble friend has recognised and made plain that it is the composition of this House which makes it unacceptable to so many people and which blurs the arguments in favour of two Chambers—in favour of the principle of bicameralism. Notwithstanding what the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, has said, the Conservative Party can still command an overall majority in this House, whatever the complexion of the Government in power. The Official Opposition alone cannot, and never has been able to, defeat the Government in the Division Lobby. It is a combination of all the elements in the House, including Conservatives, of whom there are many with an independent cast of mind, which halts the Government in their tracks. It is an interesting, obsolete and peculiarly British situation.
As my noble friend well knows, his proposal has been anticipated on more than one occasion. I find the White Paper of November 1968—to which the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun. referred with approval—as cogent a summary of the problems as we are likely to get. It coincides with my own view of the position. It followed the conferences of 1910, 1917, and 1948 in 693 recommending the radical modification, or the total elimination, of the hereditary principle. Paragraph 73(b) of the 1968 White Paper summarised its recommendations as folows:Alter the reform came into effect, succession to a hereditary peerage should no longer carry the right to a seat in the House of Lords but existing peers by succession would have the right to sit as non-voting members for their life-time.".The Government of which I was a member converted that White Paper, with its many practical proposals, into legislation, and the noble Viscount will well recall that time, because I believe that he then sat on the Opposition Front Bench in another place. At that time the parties had achieved a substantial measure of agreement, and it is regrettable that it was not possible to translate that agreement into an agreed Act of Parliament. Since then many suggestions have been advanced, both by political parties and by constitutionalists, across the whole spectrum, from abolition to election by proportional representation.
A Conservative committee, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel, considered the problem in 1978, as did a number of my noble friends, with my late noble friend Lord Lee of Newton in the chair, and both committees made some well argued recommendations. I believe that the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Home, recommended an element of proportional representation at that time.
In conclusion, I wish to make merely two remarks. First, abolition would leave this country with one-Chamber government and would effect a huge constitutional change, with complex implications which have never been propery considered by either Parliament or the general public. Secondly, an elected second Chamber would surely in due time claim equivalent powers to the first Chamber. That would not necessarily be wrong, but it certainly raises fundamental issues. Sooner of later a solution to the problem will have to be found, and we must be grateful to my noble friend for pointing his finger in one possible direction.
My noble friend has a lively awareness of the difficulties, as he made clear when he said graphically that the constitutional changes could be brought about only by revolution or an all-party agreement. Another practical possiblity is a Royal Commission, followed by extensive parliamentary debate, and possibly a referendum. This has been suggested by the noble Lord. Lord Alport, on more that one occasion. In the meantime, my Lords, we must conduct our affairs here as well as we can and as efficiently as we can in the public interest.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to point out that I referred to the 1968 White Paper, but not with approval.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lady and I am grateful to her for that correction. I hope that she will read the White Paper carefully because I am sure that there is much in it with which she might find herself in agreement.
§ 9.19 p.m.
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins 694 of Putney, for initiating a short debate which has produced so many interesting points of view, and which has indeed brought us back to considering an issue which must be considered on many different occasions. The noble Lord referred to what I think he described as an element of absurdity in this House. I do not think that I would accept that, but perhaps it would be reasonable to say that there is an element of absurdity in the fact that I, a recently created hereditary Peer, should be the person to reply to this debate.
The noble Lord also said that there should be an expectation that those who are granted peerages should play a part in the proceedings of this House. I think, possibly, that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, when she sent me here, did expect me to do that, and since I have been here, I have certainly found that I have at least endeavoured to serve your Lordships' House. As for the expectation, I suppose thai, again, 1 am in rather an absurd position because, when I was given a hereditary peerage, it was perhaps in the comfortable feeling on the part of most people that the expectation in my case of a male heir was. to say the least, somewhat unlikely. And so, I am. I suppose, an element of absurdity that might appeal to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins.
More seriously, I think it is important that this debate has brought forward some measure of agreement that I think i should record and endorse. First. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord. Lord Jenkins, say that he believes that two Chambers are necessary in our constitution. I was pleased to hear that. It was endorsed by every other speaker and strongly so by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, the leader of the Opposition, who said that there were those in his party who did not accept a bicameral system but that he most certainly did. I think that all the other speakers said exactly the same. That is very important.
There was also considerable agreement that, whatever may be the shortcomings of its composition—I shall come to that, for it is probably there that some disagreement exists among those who have spoken—this House, as a second Chamber, does in fact perform a most important function in our modern parliamentary system. I must say, with all due humility as one who has recently come to this House, that I strongly confirm that. I believe that it is important, although it does not give me or my noble friend the Chief Whip any great satisfaction, that, in the House as it stands today, the Government have to work extremely hard to get their legislation through. That is perfectly proper and perfectly right. I do not complain about it for one moment. Perhaps sometimes I complain a little, but on the whole, when I do, I realise that I have been wrong.
This has two effects. It is important that I should say so. The first effect is that my colleagues have to understand—I say "have to understand" because that is what I must tell them—that sometimes their legislation does not commend itself in certain details to your Lordships' House. They have then two alternatives. I am entitled to offer them one which goes something like this. "If all the Opposition Peers plus a large majority of Cross-Benchers think that your legislation is wrong in a particular, just perhaps and 695 maybe they are right." I am entitled to say that to my colleagues. And sometimes my colleagues have the understanding to accept that this may very well be the case, and they agree with me that some changes should be made in accordance with what your Lordships would wish or that they should go some way to meet your Lordships' point of view.
I believe that, if that is what happens, it is absolutely right. I believe that it is a very important factor so far as this House is concerned. It is one which I have been determined since coming here to stand up for. I believe that it is very important. I think that noble Lords in all parts of the House accept that. Of course, there are those occasions when my colleagues decide—they have not done so yet in my time, but perhaps they will—that they cannot accept this and are determined that they must test your Lordships' views for a second time. Very well. That is again a proper question.
On several occasions, when I was in another place as Home Secretary, I was presented with the question of whether I was prepared to test your Lordships' view. It was long before I understood your Lordships as well as I now perhaps do. The question arose of whether I was prepared to test your view a second time. Perhaps it was weakness—I do not know—but I never did, when I was Home Secretary, test your Lordships on a second occasion. I gave way. In at least one case when I gave way, I have been most grateful ever afterwards that I was persuaded so to do. I thought there were good reasons when I put forward the proposal originally and still think there were, but I was very glad to be saved from them by your Lordships' House.
So again that is another way in which this House plays a vital part in our legislative system. I believe that it is generally recognised—and this has been said by all the speakers in the debate—that it is very important for our system. Therefore, the importance of a second Chamber and, secondly, the value of the House and the work that it does with its existing powers—and I wish to come back to that—are very important to our constitution.
I turn to where there is less agreement and that is on the question of composition. Those noble Lords who have said that it has been discussed ever since 1911, as the noble Lord. Lord Banks, and others have said, are perfectly correct. The noble Lord. Lord Jenkins, will appreciate that there is nothing new in the arguments that he is putting forward today. They have been considered, as many noble Lords have said, on many different occasions. On all those occasions they have fallen foul of one of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, put forward. He said that if there were to be changes they had to be accomplished either by revolution—and I was glad to hear him rule that out—or by all-party agreement. The truth is that when it comes to the question of composition of your Lordships' House there never has been all-party agreement.
When we came to discuss the matter in 1968–69, as the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, has reminded us, the proposals were agreed by Members of both parties. I had an unhappy experience on that occasion because—and the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, was right—I was on the Opposition Front Bench in another place. But it was much worse than that, because I was 696 the Opposition Chief Whip and it was supposed to be my job to persuade the Members of my party that they should vote for this particular compromise. I had a great many very powerful figures in my party who were totally opposed to agreeing with those particular recommendations. Indeed, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, would also say that there were some very powerful figures in his party who were equally determined to oppose those compromise proposals. One of these powerful figures in another place subsequently became the Leader of Lord Cledwyn's party, and many of those on the Benches that I had to try to persuade to support the compromise have blossomed in very many important positions since.
The truth is that there was no agreement. It came about that there was no agreement for the simple reason which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. also mentioned. The Commons in many cases felt that if they changed the composition of this House, if they made this House in some way an elected chamber, then they would have to give this House more powers. That is one of the main obstacles to any agreement between the parties: the one thing that both parties in another place will not wish to do is to give your Lordships' House more powers. They believe that if in fact they did change its composition they would have to give it more powers and I think I am right in saying that that was the reason above everything else why many of them—Mr. Foot, Mr. Enoch Powell, and many others—were opposed to those compromise proposals.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount. As one who followed both Mr. Foot and Mr. Powell into the Lobby in opposition to his proposals on a previous occasion in the Commons, may I say that the one point upon which my proposal differs from all others is that it is a proposal for a single change, and it does not involve in any way a proposal to give this House more power?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I absolutely accept that the noble Lord is quite correct in saying that, but if he will allow me I will come to his single change when I have dealt with some of the broader changes, because I think I will also have to say that that single change in itself would lead to many of the disagreements which have occurred in the past. However, those are the reasons why so far any efforts to change the composition of your Lordships' House have always failed. They have always failed and, until a new situation occurs, I believe that they are likely to do so. Therefore, on the broadest front I must and do go along with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, in saying that it has to be either by revolution or by all-party agreement. On the broader front there is neither at the present time, and therefore I do not think that the basis for a major change exists.
I should like to turn to some of the other speeches that were made on the narrower point of whether it would be possible to exclude hereditary Peers from taking part in this House. On this, of course, there is considerable disagreement. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, suggest that there should be a commitment: that those noble Lords who did not attend on a specific number of occasions should have their right to attend, 697 to speak and to vote removed, and they would have to renew it in the subsequent Session. To some extent I suppose that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, is met by the question of leave of absence, but although that is valuable in a limited number of cases, I do not think that it has necessarily been a satisfactory way of proceeding, and I think that the noble Lord wished to go further.
Then we come to the question of the position of the hereditary Peers. My position is curious, but the position of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, also has certain curious factors to it. Before I rose to speak my noble friend the Chief Whip said, "Remember, you call her Lady Saltoun and not Baroness Saltoun". That in itself is a change. Contrary to what the noble Lady says, sometimes heredity, through the female line, produces considerable and very beneficial results. It does not always happen through the male line. I have four daughters and if I were to say anything else and any of them bothered to read what I said, which I do not think they would, they would not be very pleased. Therefore, I am delighted to welcome the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, as someone who shows the value of heredity through the female line.
The noble Lady very properly made some of the important points about hereditary Peers. First, there is the question of age. It is perfectly true that if hereditary Peers were not entitled to attend, to speak or to vote in this House, it would immediately and at once become a very much older establishment. That would be greatly for the worse. As I think the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, said, the Government Front Bench would be a very empty place if it were not for hereditary peerages. I suppose that my position in it would only serve to underline that.
However, I must say that, but for the contribution that many of my noble friends on this Front Bench, who are hereditary Peers, make, I do not know what I would do. Above everything else, I am entitled to say that 1 simply do not know what I would do without my noble friend the Chief Whip; he would be a very serious loss indeed to me and one which I am not prepared to contemplate in any way at all. If I were to contemplate it, I certainly would not say it in public, but I certainly would not contemplate it under any circumstances. That is one point which is important.
The noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, asked me about attendances. The Life Peerages Act changed the composition of this House. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, should remember that credit is due to one of the most recent recruits to this House—the noble Earl, Lord Stockton—because it was his measure in 1958 which introduced the life Peers. Mr. Benn had some influence on some other rather remarkable affairs that took place later, but he did not have any direct effect on the introduction of life peerages.
Curiously enough, I made a speech in another place on the Second Reading of the Life Peerages Bill, but I did it for one of the worst of all possible reasons—that there were not enough speakers in the debate and I was pressed into speaking by the Whips. Nevertheless, I am assured that on that occasion I made a most excellent speech. However, I have never dared look it up since, and I certainly would not do so now. However, the average daily attendance in 1957–58 was 124. The 698 attendance in 1983–84 to date is 323. I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, has performed an important service in pointing that out to us, and in pointing it out to the House. It is very important.
Both the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, spoke of the introduction of people from many different walks of life whom we might not normally have here. They both mentioned the question of the possible arrival of the Earl of Essex as a family grocer. I should have thought that that would be an altogether valuable addition—the more valuable, of course, if he then decided to sit on my side of the House. But that of course I could not guarantee, and maybe with the keenness shown by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, no doubt they see in him a recruit for that important body, the Cross-Benchers, to whom I have already given I think the right tribute for the important part they play in this House and indeed in legislation.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, said, "Please do not tinker". I think in what I have said I have shown first the areas of agreement. I believe that most noble Lords in this House believe that we should have a second Chamber. That is very valuable. I would readily endorse that. Secondly, the value of this House as a revising Chamber in legislation is crucially important. I wish also it had more publicity for its most excellent debates. I would equally strongly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said about the valuable work of the Select Committees, which have gained a reputation far outside this House. I believe again that that is extremely important.
Perhaps I should also add in terms of the composition of this House that I have not always—"blessed" would perhaps be the wrong word—welcomed all the interventions of right reverend Prelates in various Bills for which 1 have been responsible in my political career, but I would stand up to the last for their right to speak in this House. I think I have said on a previous occasion how valuable it is for once in our lives—and it is only in this House that I think one can do it—to have the opportunity first to listen to right reverend Prelates and then to get up and disagree with them publicly if one wishes. That is not something that can frequently be done.
For all these reasons we should make a great mistake if we sought to change the hereditary principle. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, that we should be wrong to tinker. If we believe in the value of this House and in its importance as a second Chamber, and indeed with the feelings of those who believe that hereditary Peers—as I strongly do—have a most important part to play in this House, it would be wrong to make the minor change which the noble Lord suggests. 1 believe it would be wrong, in the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, to tinker in this way.
I have to come back to the specific point of the noble Lord's Question and say to him that I greatly welcome the fact that he put it down. I greatly welcome that we have been able to have this debate. But I have to tell him first that the arguments on this matter have been so thoroughly rehearsed, and the chances of a general agreement are so remote, that I see little purpose in pursuing the noble Lord's proposal at the present time. It would need a much wider body, and it would need 699 a body which then might reach agreement between the parties. I see no prospect of that at the present time. That is why I hope that the noble Lord will feel that he has performed a useful function to this House in putting forward this Question in the way he has. but I hope he will also see why I believe this is not the best way of pursuing it through a Select Committee at the present time.
§ House adjourned at twenty minutes before ten o'clock.