HL Deb 16 December 1986 vol 483 cc105-7

3.1 p.m.

Lord Bridge of Harwich rose to move, That the special report of the Committee for Privileges of the last Session on Peerages in Abeyance [H.L. 1985–86 176] be agreed to.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships may recall that last July the House agreed the report of the Committee for Privileges on the petition to call out of abeyance the Barony of Strange. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay told the House, when moving the agreement of that report, that it was the intention of the Committee for Privileges to make a further report to the House regarding the appropriate procedure for the consideration and examination of such petitions, and it is that further report that I now commend to your Lordships' approval.

Consideration of the petition in the Strange case brought to the attention of the Committee for Privileges what seemed to us to be a quite unnecessarily cumbrous feature in the present procedure. That procedure is governed by the terms of the humble Address which the House presented to His Majesty King George V in 1927 following the report of the Sumner Committee into Peerages in Abeyance.

By that procedure the Attorney-General must refer to the House, and the House must refer to the Committee for Privileges, any "arrangement"—that is the word used— between a petitioner for a peerage in abeyance and any co-heir", to see if the arrangement, and again I quote, is "tainted with any impropriety". What seems to have troubled the Sumner Committee was the possibility that a Peer might die entitled to more than one peerage and that there would then be some kind of trade-off between two or more co-heiresses, one petitioning to call out of abeyance barony A, another barony B, and so on, each agreeing not to oppose the petition of the other. The Sumner Committee evidently thought that the House would not consider such a proceeding proper.

In fact, in the 60 years which have elapsed since the Sumner Committee reported, no such case, nor indeed any case which smacked in any way of trafficking in peerages, has come before the Committee for Privileges. Nevertheless holders of the office of Attorney-General from time to time have felt themselves obliged, when learning that there had been, as there must have been, some discussion between co-heiresses preceding a decision as to who should petition for the abeyant peerage, to treat that discussion as an arrangement which necessarily involved a reference to this House and in due course consideration of the matter by the Committee for Privileges. Such references were made even in cases where the Attorney-General himself considered that the discussions were wholly innocuous.

As your Lordships will appreciate, the reference of a petition to the Committee for Privileges, however simple and straightforward the issue may appear to be, is an expensive and time-consuming matter. The amended procedure, which the committee's special report now recommends for your Lordships' approval, will if adopted require the Attorney-General to refer a petition for a peerage in abeyance to this House if, and only if, after investigating the matter, he is of opinion that there may be some taint of impropriety about the matter.

In order to give effect to the committee's recommendation it would be necessary that a new humble Address be presented to Her Majesty to supersede that presented to her Royal predecessor in 1927; and I understand that if your Lordships agree to this report it will be the intention of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor to move the necessary motion at an early date. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the special report of the Committee for Privileges of the last Session on Peerages in Abeyance [H.L. 1985–86 176] be agreed to.—(Lord Bridge of Harwich.)

Lord Shackleton

My Lords——

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, it may help the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, as he was a member of the committee, if he hears what I say. He may like to comment. Your Lordships will see the point when you have heard what I wish to submit to the House.

I have no objection at all to the decision that the Committee for Privileges made in connection with this particular barony claim, but I think that we ought to look closely at the suggested alterations which, if we approve them today, will alter the procedures for the future. I ask whether a committee looking at a specific case ought to extend its powers to the point of wanting to alter the procedures under which it works.

I am a little disturbed that there have been one or two instances where the House seems to be altering its procedures in a rather casual way. In this instance I feel that we can draw to the attention of the various committees with powers the fact that they should not redefine those powers and so affect traditional procedures.

The point made by the noble and learned Lord was that until this Motion is passed, the Attorney-General in future would have to show that prima facie there was a taint of impropriety before it could be questioned. Under the alteration now being made, he has no longer to satisfy himself that prima facie there "is" a case but that there "may be" a case.

This significant change in the procedures, although not important in this particular instance, could be so in future. Ought we to encourage committees—even the Committee for Privileges—to make recommendations arising out of a specific case which will alter the future procedures of the House? Recently, under the guise of an experiment, we passed through on the nod, that a Committee stage is to be taken, as another place does, in a room upstairs. I wonder whether that is in accordance with what this House ought to do? The House as a whole has always controlled its Committee stage, and it has worked. There was also a case some years ago when I raised the question of the 1911 Act. We had seen tacked on to a money Bill something that was not a money Bill. The matter was eventually sent to the Procedure Committee which agree with my criticism.

The point of my intervention—the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will be interested because he sat on the Committee for Privileges which took this step—is whether it is right for the Committee for Privileges to recommend an alteration in our procedures which arises out of a specific case. Ought they not to wait until they are asked to look into any necessary alterations which can be done at leisure and with greater detail than at present seems the case? I have no objection to approving this report and I have no strong objection to the change that is embodied in it. But if it is that we are easily going to allow even minimal changes in our procedure, we may be undermining the whole basis on which this House operates.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I admire the skill of the noble Lord in bringing in the question of the Public Bill Committee upstairs. He is obviously right to take any opportunity, however out of order it may be, to raise a point with which he is concerned.

As a Member of the Committee I wholeheartedly support the Motion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge. I think the arrangement is entirely sensible and that the Attorney-General should be given discretion. I should like the noble and learned Lord to comment on the following. There may be circumstances other than the question of tainting. Indeed the argument of primogeniture comes up. It was not clearly understood until it was discussed in Committee that in this case no right of primogeniture arose. Is the Attorney-General still free, even if he is satisfied that there is no tainting or potential tainting, to have access to the Select Committee?

Lord Bridge of Harwich

My Lords, I apprehend that it is open to the Attorney-General to refer, before he advises the Crown, any petition for a peerage in abeyance to this House if on any ground he feels that such a reference is called for. This House would then refer the matter to the Committee for Privileges. It is in the first instance for the Attorney-General to investigate every issue which arises on a petition to call a peerage out of abeyance. In due course the question of the establishment of the necessary pedigree and the propriety of the petitioner are examined before the Crown is advised. But I do not apprehend that there would be any bar to a reference to this House on any ground which the Attorney-General felt was appropriate as a matter to be examined by the Committee for Privileges.

Lord Shackleton

I am much obliged, my Lords.

On Question, Motion agreed to.