HL Deb 12 March 1986 vol 472 cc671-84

6.13 p.m.

Lord Perry of Walton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Some years ago my colleagues and I on this Bench were looking at possible ways in which the structure of this House might be reformed. It was at that time that I made my very first acquaintance with the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. Until then I had laboured under the delusion that the people of the United Kingdom enjoyed a sort of God-given right to have a general election at least once every five years and that at that time they could remove from office any Government with whom they disagreed. When I discovered just how wrong I was, I suffered from a profound form of culture shock.

I realised for the very first time—and I was very ignorant—that our system of democratic government elected by universal suffrage rested on very shaky ground. I also discovered that my delusion, which by this time had been shattered, that the system rested on terra firma was shared by almost everyone that I met. I started talking to my friends and colleagues; I started talking to people I met on buses and trains and in clubs and in pubs; and I found an almost universal belief—and I still do—that, come what may, there will always be a chance to change the Government at the next election. When I told people that it was perfectly possible that, without any revolution and quite constitutionally, the next election could be the last one ever held, they were profoundly shocked, as I had been, and yet, however improbable it may be, it remains a finite possibility.

Parliament is sovereign and paramount. No matter what laws have been passed, they can always be repealed. It follows that one cannot safeguard a constitution by legislation. Were we to legislate that any change in the constitution required a referendum, as some have suggested, that legislation itself could be repealed by Parliament. The only actual safeguard would be the adoption of a written constitution which could, for example, state that the constitution could be amended only by a two-thirds majority in a referendum.

I share the belief of many other people that the adoption of a written constitution would be a very wise move, but it would undoubtedly take a very long time to achieve, and through that time we would remain, I believe, at risk. In short, there is no way in which, through legislation, the paramountcy of Parliament can be removed. It follows that should any Bill that changes the constitution be passed by both Houses of Parliament the Bill will become law and the change will come about. There is nothing that we can do to alter that fact other than by adopting a written constitution.

My Bill does not attempt to alter that fact. It is not a great leap forward. It is a very tiny step in what I believe is the right direction. It would have effect in only one circumstance; namely, when a Bill that changes the unwritten constitution is passed in another place but is rejected in this House. My Bill provides that in this particular circumstance, and only in this particular circumstance, the Bill may not be reintroduced in the Commons until five years and one day have elapsed since it was first passed. In effect, this would ensure that there was another general election before a constitutional change could be forced through without the agreement of this House.

I contend that this is a very sensible precaution. It would, for example, allow this House to prevent any government springing a surprise by introducing a constitutional change that had not been mentioned in the election manifesto. As an example, and a purely hypothetical one, the Labour Party—and that is not a hypothesis—fought the last election on a manifesto that included the intention of abolishing this House. Let us assume for a moment that they had won the election and carried out that intention. That would have been perfectly fair. The electorate knew of that intention. But having won the election, they could then have legislated, in the only remaining Chamber, to extend the life of Parliament indefinitely. That second constitutional change was not in the manifesto on which they would have been elected; but nevertheless, it could be carried and the electorate would have no redress whatsoever. Noble Lords may say that this is an unlikely scenario, but if the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, were here—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I am, my Lords.

Lord Perry of Walton

—he could tell you (I now see that the noble Lord is here; I beg his pardon) and he will no doubt tell you from personal experience of the GLC that such things can happen. And those who made them happen there can and do stand for election to this Parliament.

I was interested and pleased to see when I read the book by Frederick Forsyth that he had reached the same conclusions as I have. He wrote a splendid novel—I wish I could—based on the precise situation that I have outlined. I commend The Fourth Protocol to your Lordships as a very enjoyable way of studying the matter further.

The Bill as drafted seeks to amend the Parliament Act 1911. That Act introduced a definite and special category of Bills called Money Bills. A Bill became a Money Bill if the Speaker of the House of Commons certified that it was. He was required to consult certain named persons before issuing a certificate; but the certificate, once issued, could not be challenged in any court of law.

It struck me that it ought to be possible, by amending the Parliament Acts, to introduce another new category of Bills—namely, Constitutional Bills—and to define such Bills as one certified by the Speaker as a Constitutional Bill. Constitutional Bills, like Money Bills, could then be made subject to special conditions.

Clause 1 of my Bill—and effectively, there is only one clause—would insert a new provision, Section 1A, into the Parliament Act 1911. Section 1A(3) of the Act would then define a Constitutional Bill as a Bill that had been endorsed with the certificate of the Speaker that, in his opinion, it contains provisions affecting either the powers of the two Houses of Parliament, or the relationship between them, or the relationship between Parliament and the Crown. It would exempt any Bill that sought to extend the maximum duration of Parliament and would say that such should not be a Constitutional Bill. That exclusion may seem surprising but there is a very good reason for it, which I shall explain in a moment.

Section 1A(4) of the Act would require the Speaker to consult certain persons before issuing a certificate. I felt that it was only right and proper that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor should be one of them; and I considered that all three major parties represented in the House of Commons should be consulted through their leaders. The certificate of the Speaker, once issued, would, like that for a Money Bill, not be challengeable in any court of law.

Section 1A(1) of the Act would prevent any Constitutional Bill that had been passed by the House of Commons but had been rejected by the House of Lords from being reintroduced into the House of Commons until five years and one day after the date that it first passed in the Commons. Section 1A(2) of the Act, however, would ensure that a Constitutional Bill that was passed a second time by the House of Commons after an interval of five years and one day, and was then rejected again by the House of Lords, would still become law if the House of Commons so wished.

In other words, the supreme authority of the House of Commons would be retained but the power of delay of the House of Lords would be increased in respect of Constitutional Bills—and only in respect of them. I was not in any way seeking to increase the power of this House but I could not achieve the objective that I set out to achieve without doing so in that one respect.

That, in turn, leads me back to the reason why Section 1A(3) provides that a Bill that sought to increase the maximum duration of a Parliament would not be a Constitutional Bill. The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 currently require the agreement of both Houses to such a Bill and only to such a Bill. If such a Bill were included in the new definition of a Constitutional Bill, that requirement would be lost—because if a Constitutional Bill were to be passed a second time by the House of Commons, it could no longer be stopped by this House.

Finally, were this Bill to become law, any measure that sought to repeal it would in that respect be a Constitutional Bill. So, the current Parliament Acts could then be amended and repealed in the life of one Parliament only with the agreement of this House.

I do not pretend to have introduced a major safeguard; I claim only that this Bill could not do any harm and just might be something that we were all very glad we had adopted. I should like to see it become law during this Parliament, and I hope that the Government will accept it and give it time in another place. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Perry of Walton.)

6.24 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I feel privileged to follow the noble Lord who has just proposed the Second Reading of this Bill. We ought to thank him for bringing forward for our consideration a matter of great constitutional as well as practical importance. Earlier I was thinking that this was a day of debates on large subjects but with small attendances. However, I am glad to see that the Chamber has filled up somewhat for this topic which is one of profound importance.

I do not believe that we debate enough the role of Parliament in the constitutional fabric of government. We take far too much for granted. We assume that there are far more safeguards than there are. People are under an almost complete illusion as to the stability and strength of our constitution. I have long been associated with the work of the Hansard Society and of its offspring, the Politics Association. Both organisations have tried to enlarge the area of interest and study of our parliamentary institution.

We take great pride in talking about Parliament as being the mother of Parliaments—which I believe is a misnomer anyway, because the Isle of Man claim to have had a parliament before us. One wonders what is the condition of our exported parliamentary system in many of the newly-independent Commonwealth countries today. I do not believe that we should feel very proud of some of them.

The public are very confused about Parliament in many respects. It is probably a pity that the proceedings in this House have been televised and that the House of Commons has not. The public have a higher esteem of your Lordships' House than they used to have.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, thank God!

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, the public think that it matters more than some political propagandists were saying. On the other hand, they have not received a particularly favourable impression from some of the noises coming from another place that they have heard on the radio.

I believe also that a lot of simple-minded people feel that so long as the Queen is on the Throne, she is reigning over us and we can all sleep at nights. They think that we still rule the waves and all that kind of thing. If there was not some kind of public belief in that fantasy then we would not be singing songs about it. I believe that the words of our national anthem are not any longer worthy of the intelligence of the British people, and yet we go on singing that anthem as though it represented some kind of literal portrayal of the position of Britain in the world and of the Queen's relationship with our enemies and whose function it is to frustrate their knavish tricks.

I sincerely hope that nothing that I am saying or will say will be regarded as any personal reflection upon Her Majesty, nor that any reference to political possibilities will be taken as a reflection of any existing political party as we know it today. However, I am going to be a little candid; it is not entirely within the range of constitutional theory.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord who has introduced this Bill for an ingenious suggestion for a remedial safeguard of some kind in respect of the constitutional position as between the powers of the Commons and the powers of the Lords. When people say, "It could not happen here", the answer is that it could. Anything could happen here. We are wide open to anything happening here. Theoretically there are no holds barred. This is not the first time that the lurking dangers of our flimsy constitution have been exposed for us to see. I remember in times gone by Sir Stafford Cripps, in his revolutionary days before we threw him out of the Labour Party, saying that socialism can never come to Britain through our parliamentary system. Of course, he was quite right; it never can and never will. That is why the Labour Party is referring now to democratic socialists. The emphasis must be on the "democratic" because there is no working model of socialism in a true democracy anywhere in the world today; and that goes for Sweden which is the paradise to which so many people refer for their guidance to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sir Stafford Cripps said that the first thing for a Labour government to do with a revolutionary programme was to pass enabling Acts of Parliament, to subjugate the Lords in the process, and thereafter rule by Orders-in-Council which a constitutional monarch would approve no matter what was in them. That could go on for quite a time and if things went smoothly a revolutionary socialist government could see about extending the lifetime of Parliament.

Then we had on the other side of the political extremes the National Front. It was impatient of the slow workings of the parliamentary system, with Oswald Mosley taking his copy from fascism and Nazi-ism. Europe told us that Britain was decadent and that it should sweep away all the junk of parliamentary procedures and get down to business in a real sort of way.

We are talking more about democracy these days and I think that, on the whole, our confidence in democracy is perhaps stronger than it was many years ago. But when we come to the lifetime of this Parliament what is so sacrosanct about five years? When I negotiated the equal pay agreements for the public services with Rab Butler years ago, and we introduced it in instalments over seven years, I asked: why seven years? He said that it was because there is a good biblical precedent for it. There is nothing sacrosanct about five years and in fact, as we all know, it used to be seven years. We have had extensions in the lifetime of Parliament in conditions of national emergency—wartime. I think I am right in saying that we had no election between 1910 and 1918 owing to World War I. We had no election between 1935 and 1945 owing to World War II.

I think a persuasive case can be made out for an extension of time for a Parliament like this one which can reasonably claim that it takes longer than five years to complete a peacetime revolution; that the programme of change is so drastic and so urgent that one wants a longer period of unimpeded progress towards the electoral promised land, and that there is every justification for suspending the intervening nuisance and disturbance of a general election and to get on with the continuity of our parliamentary and political programme.

I believe it is true that President Nixon toyed with the idea of a third term. He must have been of the same opinion that it would take longer than two terms to accomplish what he wanted to do. I think our present Prime Minister could be excused for believing that she needs an assured third term—an assured third term, my Lords; not a chancy one but a real one—to bring about her revolution of our society by peaceful parliamentary means.

The more sinister threat has been the stronger intentions in some political quarters to abolish this effete, unrepresentative, unelected piece of parliamentary obstruction; to abolish it because you cannot think of any sensible way of reforming it. That has been a real piece of political doctrine within recent memory. Well, if that were to happen we should see what an elected dictatorship could really do. At present our much vaunted British constitution is not worth the paper that it is not written on. Parliament would be the sovereign power and Parliament could, under our present electoral system, produce a government which is unrepresentative of the popular will, wielding power little short of tyranny.

Our electoral system provides no safeguard against a dictatorial government. Nor would our parliamentary system do so in the absence of a statutory constitution which had been approved by a referendum and could only be changed by one. We have no head of state who takes an oath to defend the British constitution. That is a point I made recently in a debate. Persons summoned to both Houses of Parliament do not take a pledge to defend the constitution or our parliamentary institutions. They do not mention them. It is an oath of personal allegiance to a personal Monarch. The reason for that is that the monarch is the constitution. The British constitution is the monarch. It is to the monarch alone that we make our oath of allegiance. As far as I understand it, there is no law of treason against the state; it is treason against the Crown because it is a breach of an oath of allegiance given to the Crown.

I have always understood that all power in this country derives from the Crown. Both Houses of Parliament were fashioned out of power wrenched from the Crown and both Houses still acknowledge the supremacy of the Crown. In any constitutional crisis, other than the appointment of the Prime Minister, how could the monarch safeguard the constitution? If the House of Commons passed a Bill to abolish the House of Lords and we threw it out, could the Commons invoke the Parliament Act to get rid of us? Would the monarch of the day give the Bill Royal Assent? That is a very important question because any political party that threatens to abolish this House must surely know that such a Bill would be rejected here and that it would not get through unless there was a general election intervening at which it was the principal matter for public debate, or it obtained some other authority for its action. What would be the role of the Crown in that event? In short, I think we are exposed to the gravest possibilities and we really do not know how grave they could be.

When I had a note about this Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Perry, I wondered how he had lighted on this idea. I had visions of him having a disturbed night, in which he dreamt that it had actually happened, and when he woke up in the morning he resolved to do something about it, because it might portend some serious constitutional development.

An all-powerful government elected by a near fraudulent electoral system to control Parliament could abolish the first and most historic Parliament. Suppose that so paralysed is the Head of State by convention and so entrenched the concept of a constitutional monarchy in which the Crown acts only on the advice of Ministers that the monarch decides that there is no option but for the Act to be given the Royal Assent. Is that a feasible hypothesis as to what might happen? I think it is what would happen. I cannot see any obstacle in the way of that process as our constitution is at the moment.

I think that we are in the dangerous position that when we destroy the Royal power we destroy the Head of State in any constitutional form that matters. We should be saying that this must not happen here. It must not be possible that it could happen here, and I think we ought to face the consequences of taking that decision.

Many dictatorships have begun by having elected leaders, and usually theirs is the last election for a long time, because power will never reform itself; it either has to yield or be overthrown. Sometimes when I have a disturbed night and think about the constitutional possibilities in this country, I feel rather frightened about the future, because I have a feeling that there are still to come strains on our institutions that they may not be able to bear in the rational and sober way that we have come to expect. I think that explosive situations can arise in countries which today have stable, conventional and historic traditions behind them in a manner which was never thought of in the past. When I think about all this, I ask, "Where is George Orwell today, when we need him so much?"

6.42 p.m.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will forgive me if I do not follow him in his debate about "God Save the Queen versus Land of Hope and Glory", if that is what he was getting at, because it seemed to me not to be strictly relevant to the measure before us, and I lack that seniority which enables the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to range so delightfully far and wide beyond the terms of the Bill which we are discussing. However, I join with the noble Lord in thanking my noble friend for introducing so attractively this measure which, in his own words, he describes as "not a major safeguard". No doubt he is right about that, but it gives us great food for thought.

It is a Bill which I think has a positive and a negative implication. On the one hand, if it becomes an Act it will add to the law of the constitution, but on the other hand it may never need to be invoked. I imagine that we all hope and trust that it never will need to be invoked. So the question surely arises: are we justified in spending scarce parliamentary time in discussing a measure which will have only such remote implications?

It is a common human failing to do nothing until some rather acute situation arises. This is not a failing into which the prudent householder falls. He supposes, and earnestly hopes and believes, that it will never be necessary to use fire-fighting appliances in his house, but that does not prevent him prudently installing them. So I should have thought that this Bill was indeed worthy of your Lordships' consideration and worthy of consideration now, at a time when we seem to be heading much more for a hung Parliament than for the extremist situation which this Bill envisages. I imagine that we shall produce a very much more satisfactory Act if we set about it in the calmer atmosphere of today rather than if we wait and hurriedly cobble together a measure in the feverish atmosphere of an impending constitutional crisis.

I do not think that we should be deterred by the thought that those who might seek to commit the mischief which this Bill prohibits might contrive to have the Act repealed first, because public opinion is rather good at standing in the way of people who seek to change the law without good reason. I think that this Bill is a worthy matter to be discussed. I am most grateful to my noble friend for having introduced it and I hope we shall give it a fair wind.

6.47 p.m.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me, though I did not put my name down to speak upon this Bill, if I detain you for a few seconds rather than minutes with a word or two about this Bill. I am persuaded to say just these few words by the attractive and persuasive way in which my noble friend Lord Perry presented the Bill to your Lordships and also by the good humoured but at the same time serious speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I hope that your Lordships will seriously support this Bill because of course it restores your Lordships' House to the traditional position from which it was dislodged only in 1909 or 1910 by that wicked Earl, Lloyd George, when he said, in those immortal words which I need not repeat to your Lordships, that this House was no longer the watchdog of the constitution.

Quite seriously, from what has been said from all sides of the House tonight, this is what this Bill, which is paradoxical and ironic in the context of the history of your Lordships' House, will do. It will restore matters to that kind of position. For these reasons, I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill your enthusiastic support.

6.50 p.m.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

My Lords, may I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, on the clarity, care and perhaps I might say courage with which he, from the Back Benches, has presented this Bill. Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, supported it on the basis that the events that it is intended to deal with are very unlikely to happen and very improbable. I rather wondered, on hearing that, what sort of scenario they were suggesting might be the scenario following the next general election. To some extent, my anxieties were assuaged by listening to my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby whose speeches are always so very entertaining.

I realised from what my noble friend said in the middle of his speech that the real danger must be the possibility, not that some government of the left with a large majority might take power at the next election, which those on the Alliance Benches, I am sure, do not, for a moment expect, but rather, that the present Prime Minister may take it into her head to secure the third term that my noble friend was talking about without the difficulties and dangers of a general election. For my part, I am bound to say that I believe that this is equally unlikely and that the use of the term "improbable" which the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, used, is a correct one—one which, in the circular that he kindly sent out to explain the Bill, he used three times. So we are not dealing with a situation that is particularly likely to be a problem.

I agree of course with my noble friend Lord Houghton that in this country, as in any other, anything might happen. I feel personally that it is far more likely that if we were to have an extreme government that sought to take over power, they would do so not through the use of parliamentary procedures but through other procedures altogether and that they would need the backing of force to do so. Those qualities that the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, exhibited in producing the Bill and, in producing what is no doubt a very ingenious way of endeavouring to meet the difficulties of avoiding entrenchment, are, I have to say, worthy of a better objective than this Bill. In my view at any rate this Bill is misconceived and should not pass into law.

Why is it unnecessary? The noble Lord, in the valuable explanation that he gave, justified the Bill on the basis, as he put it, that it is designed to prevent something that is improbable. However, not only is it improbable but in three-quarters of a century since the enactment of the Parliament Act, it has not been attempted. The noble Lord says, "Yes, but it is the current policy of the Labour Party to abolish the House of Lords, and abolition could also leave the Commons free to extend its life indefinitely". I am bound to say that the relevance of that point escapes me. Of course, if the House of Lords were abolished, the noble Lord's Bill would be unnecessary and ineffective. The Commons could then extend the life of a Parliament indefinitely without any bar from this House. The Bill is not directed to that point. The Bill assumes the continued existence of this House and seeks to add, in the context of that continued existence, to the delaying powers of this House. I find it very hard to believe that an extremist House of Commons, whether of the left or the right, would legislate to empower itself to extend Parliament's life indefinitely, retaining this House in being, rather than to abolish the powers of this House, which would be very much simpler. In short, in my view the noble Lord is tilting at a non-existent windmill.

Why, then, do I suggest that the Bill is ineffective? The noble Lord himself referred to the difficulties of entrenchment and accepted that Parliament can repeal any legislation. I would go further. This Bill seeks to achieve its ends by purporting to remove the power of the House of Commons to reintroduce a Bill, described as a constitutional Bill. That term is, incidentally, extremely widely defined, far more widely than is needed to deal with the mischief that the noble Lord suggests is the real mischief. In the Explanatory Memorandum, we have it described as the type of Bill that affects the role of Parliament, perhaps even wider. It removes the power of the House of Commons to reintroduce a Bill, so described, until five years and a day from its first passage in the Commons. I have difficulty in following how that power of the House of Commons can be removed. I do not follow how an Act of Parliament can prevent a Member of the other House from introducing any Bill he pleases. If it could do so, it would be in direct conflict with the fundamental principle of our constitution that no Parliament can bind its successor.

If this Bill could be effective in the way the noble Lord suggests, then the noble Lord's formula could be used to enable any Parliament to bind its successors to prohibit the passage of any legislation—legislation to privatise or to bring into public ownership, to restore or to remove the death penalty, and to introduce or remove proportional representation. I wondered myself whether proportional representation might not fall within the very words of this Bill in its definition of a constitutional Bill. It is no answer to this point to say that here the bar is only for five years and a day. If it can be for five years, it can be for 25 years or 500 years. In short, the device of the noble Lord, which I accept is ingenious, could, if successful, be highly dangerous; at least as dangerous in its potentiality for future conflict as the improbable danger against which it seeks to protect our constitution. I personally do not believe that it will be dangerous because I cannot believe that it can ever be effective.

Finally, why do I say that it is wrong in principle and undesirable? The first reason is that legislation so constitutionally important—I say this with the greatest respect to the noble Lord—should not, in my view, be brought forward in this way as the last item on the agenda of a day when the House is not very well attended, a little better attended now than it was for some of the earlier debates but still hardly justifying a matter of such great constitutional importance, and brought forward by a Back Bench Member of the House, however distinguished. It ought not to consist of a major change whose repercussions have not been widely discussed within the whole context of our constitutional arrangements. Nor, perhaps above all, should we be debating and deciding upon so important a matter—the point I have already made—as the last business on a day of this kind.

Secondly, I regard it as wrong in principle and undesirable because, for the reasons I have given, if it were to be effected, it could have most far-reaching effects. It could erode a fundamental principle of our constitution to which I have already referred.

Thirdly, if effective, it could create a situation both dangerous and undemocratic. The noble Lord's Bill imposes a five-year waiting period irrespective of anything that might happen within those five years-irrespective, for example, of expressions of the people's will through general elections. Can it really be right to have that statutory delay even if within the five years the electorate has given a mandatory change in a general election?

Indeed, one could have this situation. A mandate to carry out a particular reform might be given in one general election, might be rejected by this House after the Bill had passed through the Commons, and the Government might decide to have an immediate further election resulting in a new and more powerful mandate to do the same thing. Should the five-year period nonetheless stand and prevent the execution of the people's will as it would if the noble Lord's Bill were given effect?

Fourthly, and finally, it is surely apparent from what I have said, irrespective of whether or not the House accepts the validity of all the points I have made, that a Bill of this nature could only give rise to conflict, uncertainty and frustration, none of which would be desired, I am quite certain, by the noble Lord who introduced it.

I hope therefore that the noble Lord will give full consideration to the very weighty arguments against the way in which he has sought to deal with the problem which undoubtedly exists and is bound to exist in any country where there is no firm written constitution with a safeguard put into effect by a supreme court or some such body. I hope that having by his Bill prompted a useful, however somewhat thinly attended debate, the noble Lord will accept the sensible course of withdrawing it.

7.2 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, I add my voice to those who have expressed gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, for so lucidly explaining his Bill which has given us the chance to debate a matter of great importance—indeed, perhaps the most important constitutional issue there is; namely, the system of checks and balances that ensures the existence and continuation of our democratic form of Government.

The Bill, as the noble Lord has explained, seeks to anticipate a situation in which a newly elected majority in another place might be tempted to remove restrictions on the maximum duration of a Parliament which, since the Parliament Act 1911, has been set at five years. He suggests that it could do this in two steps: first by introducing a Bill to remove from the Parliament Act 1911 the stipulation in Section 2(1) that Bills containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of Parliament beyond five years are (unlike all other Bills) subject to a continuing veto from your Lordships' House if it sees fit; and then by introducing a second Bill extending the life of Parliament indefinitely. Each Bill, he claims, would, under the terms of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, become law after two Sessions, notwithstanding that this House had rejected them whenever sent up from the other place. Thus it is argued that the Government, by steps which were allegedly quite legal and constitutional, might prolong their life indefinitely, a result which would be quite irreconcilable with the spirit of our own and every other democratic constitution.

The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Perry, seeks to avoid this possibility by requiring that any Bill certified by the Speaker, in consultation with the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor and other party leaders, as a constitutional Bill could not become law if rejection by this House in two successive Sessions occurred in the life of the same Parliament. By imposing a delay of five years and one day on the other place, Lord Perry's Bill seeks to ensure that a general election, and therefore the possibility of a new government, would need to take place before a constitutional Bill could be enacted without the agreement of your Lordships' House. The country would have a chance to vote on the constitutional issue in question.

I feel, however, that I should warn your Lordships that the effect of the Bill might not be limited to the extreme circumstances described by the noble Lord. On one interpretation, although opinions would differ on the question of whether such proposals would be constitutional under the Bill, it would prevent a government from altering the role of or abolishing your Lordships' House without an intervening election. In any case, abolition would give the Government a free hand to extend their life, or push through otherwise controversial legislation, as we heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, just now.

Before I set out the Government's view on this Bill, I would like to make it abundantly clear that the Government are wholly committed to the principle of government by popular vote, expressed through our current system of elections to another place, and the limitation of the duration of a Parliament by statute, and to the principle of a bicameral legislature.

Your Lordships' House performs an essential role as a forum for revision and indeed introduction of legislation, for auxiliary debate and generally for sharing the legislative load. The limited powers of delay, which Lord Perry's Bill seeks to enhance, gives time for public opinion to declare itself on matters of great importance that might otherwise be rushed through a single chamber. In short, your Lordships' House acts as a substantial safeguard of constitutional government. While the Government always listen with interest to proposals to reform or protect the constitution or powers of the House, I can tell your Lordships that the Government have no proposals to legislate for any such changes.

While they consider the aims of the noble Lord, Lord Perry, to be entirely laudable, the Government are unable to support this Bill for a number of reasons. First, I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Perry, will not take it amiss if I say, rather as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, said, that in our view matters of such importance would not normally be supported by the Government without widespread debate extending beyond the legislature to the electorate, and until after trying to achieve as full support as possible, ideally across party lines. Indeed, if it were to be taken forward the issue is one that would normally be taken in a government Bill.

Secondly, as I have already mentioned, the Bill has consequences that might go further than the prevention of abuse and these need to be examined very carefully because the provisions could be seen as a curb on reform as well as on abuse. Thirdly, although the Labour Party, as we have heard, have made plain in their manifestoes a wish to abolish or at least to reform your Lordships' House, they curiously always seem to have found reasons for doing neither when in power. But as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said, there is an arguably sustainable—at least theoretical—view that an extremist government of the Left or Right determined to hold power indefinitely could be elected, although it would probably be a minority government. But even if it commands a majority in another place, is it likely to treat Lord Perry's Bill—or Act as it would be—as somehow entrenched and unrepealable? It was Oliver Cromwell, though he failed to prevent the abolition of this House in 1649 by the other place which had first been purged of opposition, who said (and I quote): That Parliaments should not make themselves perpetual is a Fundamental. Of what assurance is a law to prevent so great an evil, if it lie in the same legislature to un-law it again? As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, said, with our unwritten constitution we cannot bind future sovereign Parliaments in any way.

Fourthly, assuming that this Bill, if enacted, were not repealed, would the Speaker not be put in a very delicate position in deciding whether a Bill was indeed a constitutional Bill? Could the Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor in a government bent on prolonging their life or abolishing your Lordships' House give the Speaker truly disinterested advice?

In conclusion, although it would be a tragedy if the unthinkable were to come about, I do not think there is any way in which a country can guarantee a bicameral legislature or regular elections for all time. A government with no commitments to the democratic principle are unlikely to feel deterred by this Bill, if enacted, from effectively abolishing your Lordships' House or elections, let alone constitutional Bills. We see many examples around the world of extremist or unrepresentative governments who ignore not only their country's legislation but even their own written constitution. Our ultimate guarantee in this as in so many other political matters, is the good sense of the people of this country in rejecting those who advance extremist views.

I have set out the Government's views on this Bill. While its aims are praiseworthy, for the reasons I have given, the provisions it contains are inappropriate. While it is not the Government's intention to oppose its Second Reading tonight, I have to say to your Lordships that the Government will not seek to provide succour for it at any future stage.

7.11 p.m.

Lord Perry of Walton

My Lords, I should like to start by thanking all those who have taken part in the debate. I should also like to thank the many noble Lords who wrote to me expressing support, but who were unable to be here. There is only one comment that I have heard tonight that has made me wish to change anything, and that is the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, about the intervening general election. I should be happy to see an amendment made to the Bill to the effect that five years and one day would only hold if there had not been a general election in the meanwhile. I had overlooked that possibility.

Many of the fears expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, and indeed by the noble Lord the Minister, seem to me to be based on the assumption that this House will always oppose any constitutional change that is passed in another place. That is very far from what I believe. I believe that the Bill would only be operative on very rare occasions. However, I note that I am duly caned for presumption both by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, and by the Minister for having dared to bring up such a matter from the Back-Benches. The trouble is that if I did not do so nobody else would do so, despite the fact that I spoke to members of both the Government and the Official Opposition suggesting that they might do so.

In view of what has been said on both sides of the House, if the Bill receives a Second Reading I should like to consider the possibility of moving that it be referred to a Select Committee where it could receive the type of detailed attention which it has been suggested it needs.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.