§ 3.9 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
rose to call attention to the constitutional role of the House of Lords; and to move for Papers.
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this Motion is concerned with the role of your Lordships' House in the constitution and not with the composition of your Lordships' House. No doubt the two are indirectly interconnected.
Perhaps I may say at the outset how gratified I am at the very distinguished contributions that are to be made to this debate. I am particularly grateful that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is to wind up on behalf of the Opposition.
I start with the assumption that it is common ground among us all that we desire to continue to live in a parliamentary democracy. Therefore, two questions arise on this Motion. First, what is the role of Parliament in a parliamentary democracy; and, secondly, how far can the House of Commons alone fulfil completely that role? I put it in this way because your Lordships will remember the opening lines of the New Decalogue:Thou shalt have one God only,Who would be at the expense of two?1542 If we could get by with one parliamentary Chamber it would be an unnecessary expense to have two. Practically every country in the world has found it necessary to have two Chambers, and that is an age-long tradition.
So I ask first: what are the main functions of Parliament? First, as its name suggests, it is a forum for the discussion of issues of national importance. Secondly, it is a forum where grievances can be canvassed and, if possible, redressed.
Thirdly, it is the forum where supply is voted and ways and means are voted for meeting that supply. No question arises on that in this debate. The other place has exclusively the machinery for both supply and ways and means. Your Lordships' House is very rich in experience of finance, industry, commerce and economics, but we do not have the machinery; that is exclusively in the other place.
Fourthly, one must mention legislation. After all, we are a Chamber of a legislature. Fifthly, and by no means least, your Lordships' Chamber, and Parliament in general, are required as a counter-balance to the Executive, with its pretensions, aggrandisement and ambitions. That is a very important function.
How far can the other place fulfil those various functions? First, one must note two characteristics, among many others, of the House of Commons. It is an elected Chamber and as such it is in the best position, in so far as it is in close touch with the electorate, to voice grievances. There was a notable recent example in the Child Support Act. That was freely criticised in your Lordships' House, which in fact was the main critic. But, as soon as it came into action, the Members of another place were left in no doubt that its provisions were bitterly resented.
Secondly, the other place, while it is elected, immediately becomes an elite, just as your Lordships' House is an elite and the Civil Service is an elite. There is high authority for such a pretension. Your Lordships will remember the words of Burke to the electors of Bristol,Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion".So as soon as the electors return the Members of the House of Commons they immediately become an elite. That is their justification for voting their own emoluments, however much that might be disapproved of by the electorate. It is their justification for taking a line on capital punishment which public opinion polls show consistently is not the view of the electorate at large. This aspect of an elite should not be overstated because Members of the other place, with their constituency interests (their "surgeries", as they are now called), are constantly aware of the movement of opinion. Nevertheless, it remains the fact that the House of Commons is an elite and is at times very much at variance with the electorate at large. No doubt noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches will provide an additional reason for that.
Except immediately after an election, your Lordships' House, in its composition and by reason, dare I say, of its Cross-Bench element, reflects far more 1543 truly the general colour of political society at large than any other institution. So, although we register that the other place is the elected Chamber, that is not to be used as a magic formula for invalidating any contrary view that your Lordships' House might put forward.
The other element which I wish to emphasise at this stage is that the modern House of Commons is very much a House of career politicians. That has been brilliantly shown in a recent book by Peter Riddell, Honest Opportunism. I need not develop that. It means that Members of another place tend to become out of touch with issues outside politics. They look very much to government business managers for their advancement and are therefore less independent than Members of the other place used to be. Moreover, some of its most talented Members are appointed to your Lordships' House together with a number of other very talented and experienced people. Therefore, your Lordships' House is far more independent of the Executive than the other place can be.
I should like to quote a recent notable sentence of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, when he was considering the changes that your Lordships' House had made to the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. Referring to a notable example of the value of your Lordships' House, the noble Lord said:I do not know what those in another place will think when they read about it"—that is, our solution—However. I daresay that the Government's majority will carry them through. They do not have to withstand quite the independence of mind which characterises this House".—[Official Report, 15/3/94; col. 116.]That point was taken up by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey.
That being so, in my respectful submission, your Lordships are entitled to feel confidence in your independence of mind, your age and your experience and are not necessarily hound to defer automatically to the view of the other place.
That brings me to the question of legislation. It is sometimes said that your Lordships' House is only a revising Chamber. That is grossly misleading. It may be taken to mean that your Lordships are concerned only to register the afterthoughts of Parliamentary Counsel in the Bills that come before us. Your Lordships' House is fully an amending Chamber and your Lordships are fully entitled to feel confidence in that role by reason of the matters to which I have referred. The only limitations are the Parliament Acts, whereby your Lordships can defer the operation of an Act of Parliament for only one year, and the so-called Salisbury Convention, whereby, if there is a commitment in a party manifesto of the Government, your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading—in other words, your Lordships will acknowledge a principle, but your Lordships are by no means bound to defer under that principle to every detail. That point arose recently in relation to the Railways Act, when a clash occurred on a late schedule dealing with pensions which was not canvassed at all in the manifesto.
In conclusion, I desire to say only that the inhibition on your Lordships deploying your full powers and full role is the desire of government business managers to 1544 treat your Lordships' House almost exclusively as a machine for processing government legislation. There often extraordinary Whipping, amendments taken late at night, with the payroll vote kept working in their rooms, and so on. Your Lordships will not be able to play your full role unless there is far more restraint by government business managers. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.24 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, over a number of years your Lordships' House has owed a great deal to my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale and to his contributions to our deliberations. He has added substantially to that contribution by initiating this debate today and by the extremely interesting and forceful speech that he has just delivered.
My only regret—and it is a very real regret—is that we are operating under the time-limited system, the application of which is very difficult when it comes to so enormous a subject as the operation of your Lordships' House. I appreciate that my noble and learned friend had no option but to take the opportunity offered, but I ask your Lordships to have it in mind that this is an occasion when it appears that, although extremely convenient to the usual channels, the time-limited system somewhat frustrates the functioning of your Lordships' House on matters of very great importance—and this is certainly a matter of very great importance.
My noble and learned friend made the point that the use of the expression "a revising Chamber" when referring to the duties of this House could be misleading. However, if it is looked at from the point of view of the function of supervising and, if necessary, improving legislation, I think it is probably an accurate description.
It is a fact that your Lordships' House contains among its Members an enormous assemblage of experience and ability. We have the Law Lords and the right reverend Prelates, both being the leaders of major activities in our country. We are full of former Ministers. We are full of people with high experience in business, in overseas administration and in all the enormous activities which this country can produce. We have, frankly, far more people with practical experience of high responsibility than is the case now in another place. It is because your Lordships' House has such a well-informed, intelligent and experienced membership that it is able very effectively to exercise a revision of legislation.
Your Lordships are only too well aware of the enormous flow of legislation to which we are exposed at the moment, and have been for a number of years. For that reason, it is all the more important that that legislation should be submitted to the scrutiny of people who know what they are talking about, who know what the legislation will do, who have seen the operation of legislation and who have seen it go wrong A very important aspect of your Lordships' House is that we have been able to exercise, and continue to exercise, a very real critical approach to the legislation that comes before us.
1545 It is equally the case that we have a duty to influence public opinion. That is the very great value of many of our general debates. We can influence public opinion when difficult public issues have to be discussed and when it is necessary to guide opinion with the experience of people who know what they are talking about. Again, that is one of the major features of your Lordships' House. It seems to me that your Lordships' House operates extremely well.
I shall not touch on the issue of our composition any more than my noble and learned friend Lord Simon because I know that opinions differ. However, I must say that overall our composition is enormously impressive and is, I think, generally so regarded. I am glad to be able to say that I can claim at any rate a small share in the action which secured the broadcasting of your Lordships' proceedings. Your Lordships may recollect that there was considerable opposition to that. Since the proceedings of your Lordship's House have been broadcast, that has not only greatly enhanced the reputation of the House, but has also exercised a good and extremely salutary influence on public opinion, particularly on difficult and complicated issues. Public opinion formulates itself easily on the broad right-and-wrong type of issue, but on so many of the complex issues of our modern society the guidance which your Lordships' House can give by its debates is of considerable value. Therefore I hope that none of your Lordships will feel that your Lordships' House is other than a major factor in the working of our society.
There is much—if one were not operating under a time limit—one could say and would want to say about the House, but I say, as one who has served in both Houses, that I find it an enormously impressive place in which to serve. It is sometimes perhaps rather humbling to see the enormous body of experience and knowledge that one confronts when one speaks. But, having said that, I know that the House is working extremely well, and to those who propose drastic reforms I would use the words of Lord Melbourne:Why not leave it alone?
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has earned universal gratitude for choosing a most timely topic for this debate. I have been privileged to become a Member of your Lordships' House at a time when its role is of such marked constitutional importance.
All attempts during this century at any significant legislative reform of Parliament have foundered; but this House has not stood still. It has sometimes shown itself well capable of evolutionary change, of adapting to new needs, as it must if it is to justify its constitutional role. The report of the Select Committee on the Committee Work of the House, chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, contains ample evidence of the success of the work done by the European Communities Committee, some of which we discussed yesterday. The Science and Technology Committee has a high reputation both inside and outside Parliament. 1546 The Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee has demonstrated rapidly the success of that modest but significant experiment.
I hope that it will not appear too bold or forward if I, a comparative and humble newcomer, revert to a suggestion that I made in my maiden speech last November for a modest further experiment to enhance the constitutional role of the House in a way which draws upon the special expertise of noble Lords. I refer to the idea that there should be scrutiny and report by a suitably composed committee on the consistency of pending Bills and subordinate legislation with the international obligations imposed upon the United Kingdom by ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is the vital fourth function of Parliament to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, referred. Parliament needs, in the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to know what it is talking about in this area as in any other.
Under the European convention, the UK is bound to secure its human rights and freedoms to everyone in this country. The convention is binding on all public authorities: it binds Parliament as well as the Executive and the Judiciary.
No one could fairly criticise this House for failing to take the convention seriously by seeking to give it direct effect in our law. Of the 12 Bills introduced into Parliament since 1971 to incorporate the convention into domestic law, most have been introduced into this House and not into the other place, and four of them by Lord Wade from these Benches.
The Law Lords—the second branch of government —have also done their best to give effect to the convention by presuming, when interpreting ambiguous legislation, that Parliament must have intended to comply with rather than to flout the convention. What our courts cannot do, of course, is to strike down legislation inconsistent with the convention, for that would be contrary to parliamentary sovereignty; nor, in the absence of incorporation, do our courts yet feel constitutionally able to limit broadly delegated Ministers' powers so as to comply with the convention.
What happens when a breach of the convention occurs because of the primary or subordinate legislation enacted by this House as one of the three Estates of the Realm? What happens, in other words, where Parliament exercises its sovereign legislative powers in breach of the convention? The only remedy is for the individual victim to have recourse to the European Commission and European Court of Human Rights. That is not an uncommon happening. There have been many instances of proven breaches of the convention by the United Kingdom resulting from primary or subordinate legislation for which this House is jointly responsible with the other place. None of those involved a deliberate breach of the convention by Parliament. Neither House considered the potential impact of the convention during the passage of any of the relevant primary or subordinate legislation. The breaches occurred by legislative inadvertence.
There is something seriously wrong with our system of parliamentary government when the executive and judicial branches have regard to the convention, but the 1547 sovereign Parliament itself lacks any means of properly and efficiently considering whether primary legislation or delegated powers are likely to require or authorise breaches of the convention. The reality is that Parliament does not consider the convention when enacting legislation, because Parliament lacks any machinery to take the convention systematically into account in the course of its legislative work.
As last year's authoritative report of the Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process, Making the Law, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, suggested, it would be worth considering whether the powers and resources of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee might be enlarged, to enable it to consider potential legislative conflicts with the convention. The commission pointed out that such a task raised questions of a legal nature, not involving political judgments, that the scrutiny committee (with enlarged terms of reference) could monitor, if thought appropriate.
That is the sort of constitutional role which Members of this House could perform expertly and efficiently. It would not be a substitute for incorporation, but it would provide an effective prophylactic means of reducing the likelihood of breaches of the convention by Parliament. It would discourage governments from introducing constitutionally dubious measures; it would enable parliamentarians to take better informed legislative decisions; and it would raise public awareness of the constitutional values at stake. I submit that it would enhance our constitutional role for the benefit of our fellow citizens.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, I would have put my name down to speak in the debate if it were only to pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, whose untiring energy on matters with which he is concerned—he is concerned largely with human rights and proper parliamentary procedure —has the admiration of us all.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, I often think that every time the noble and learned Lord rises, the body of his late Majesty King Henry VIII turns in its grave. The noble and learned Lord is of course an ideal Cross-Bencher—he mentioned the duties of a Cross-Bencher—because he so often opposes the Government, a habit which I hope will not endure after the next general election.
I apologise for the fact that my small contribution is upon the same subject as that upon which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, addressed the House, but I shall try to deal with it in very much more general terms. In the 17 years during which I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House, I have noted often the contribution that noble Lords have to make in the cause of human freedom, human rights. Your Lordships have taken it upon yourselves to act in place of a written constitution, which we do not have. It is a little extraordinary that, coupled with the absence of a written constitution, we have nothing by way of an Act of 1548 Parliament which describes the rights of United Kingdom citizens. That puts us in a singular and, I think, undesirable position. It means that we who have signed the convention expose our citizens to the almost unbearable task, if a right under the convention has been breached, of having to go to the court in Strasbourg. Time, obviously, is not one of the greatest advantages of that court and I, as a practitioner, can inform the House of that. Also, of course, the expense of doing so is beyond the ordinary means of a United Kingdom citizen. There is no legal aid to go to the court in Strasbourg.
What does it mean? Even with those disadvantages, because we cannot go directly under our domestic law and plead for human rights guaranteed by the convention, and despite those difficulties it means that we feature in an unfortunate championship. We are the champions in that we have had the greatest number of judgments entered against us in the European court of any country that has signed the convention. That is not fair to our reputation. Of all countries, I proudly say that we have at heart human rights more than, or certainly as much as, any other country. Why we should not be able to go to our local courts as part of our domestic law and plead the convention, I know not.
The Law Society, of which I am proud to he a member, has taken the matter very seriously indeed, purely on the basis of accessibility to justice. It is a definite fact that without the ability to go to our domestic courts a considerable amount of hardship is endured and our reputation is adversely affected.
This House has the ability to push the issue forwards. The Law Society has written to the Home Secretary giving all its reasons as to why that should he done. The Home Secretary has replied—a little late, I believe it took some five months, but he has replied. In the reply he pleads, among other arguments, the vagueness of the convention. If it were so vague that it had no proper meaning or enforceability, why did we sign it? If it is a convention which can be dealt with by our courts, ought not it to be so?
My contribution has lasted five minutes and in an endeavour to persuade fellow speakers to copy my example, I sit down.
§ 3.44 p.m.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, I share a room with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and have lived with the issue for some months, so one might say that I have been subpoenaed to speak in this debate. I do so with some temerity because I have been in your Lordships' House for only two years. I have endeavoured to follow the admirable advice which I used to give to Members of the other place who complained to me as Speaker that I never called them. It was the advice of Disraeli to one of his disgruntled supporters. He said:It's better for the House to wonder what you would have said rather than why you said it".In our country we have a habit of acquiring our institutions by chance rather than by design. I have no doubt that in relation to today's debate, if we were 1549 starting from scratch very few of us would be sitting here in your Lordships' House by birth or by appointment.
Some of your Lordships may know that my father, who led the last successful strike of tailors against the sweatshop conditions of the day in 1912, was all for abolishing the House of Lords. He was not wrong about many things, but I think he was profoundly wrong about that.
I understand and respect the views of those who think that this should be an elected Chamber, but if it were we should think through the consequences. First, an elected Chamber would quite rightly seek and acquire powers. I wonder whether the other place would be happy with that. When I was there, there was not much discontent about the European assembly because it had no or very few powers. But now that it is an elected parliament, there is considerable concern. Secondly, an elected House would demand and should get better facilities and better accommodation. Thirdly, it would be vastly more expensive. We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for his Written Question of 17th December last year asking at col. WA 155 what was the cost of running the European Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I remind your Lordships of the Answer: an MEP costs our country £919,000 a year; a Member of the House of Commons costs £261,000; our House costs £38,000 per active Member. So I think that we give very good value for money!
In relation to the debate, could it be better done? The answer must be a qualified "Yes". I believe that we need better accommodation and facilities to fulfil our role and function of refining or revising legislation and complementing rather than duplicating the work of the other place. I hope that I may mention a private conversation I had with the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. He said that he had been here seven years before he managed to get a room to himself. That is not only wrong but mean to a former Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. We should definitely have better accommodation.
There should be better facilities for our wives. Many of us have to stay here fairly late at night and sometimes our wives come by car to pick us up and take us home but they have nowhere to go while they wait. Something should be done about that. I see no reason why we should not try to obtain the Queen's Robing Room as a meeting place for our wives. I see some noble Lords tut-tutting at that, but I leave the thought with the House.
Furthermore, the Opposition parties should have more support to enable them to hold the Government to account. I believe that every department should be covered by an individual Minister. I pay a warm tribute to the Ministers who now cover several departments, but is it really fair on them and on the House? It would cost very little more and I think it would certainly improve our functions in this House.
I do not believe that we should be paid. As the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said, the appointment system which we have enables men and women of very 1550 great experience and distinction, who would not otherwise be able to stand for an elected Parliament, to participate in the government of our country.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, mentioned Edmund Burke. I give your Lordships a less well-known quotation:There can be no independence of mind without independence of means".That is not to say that the other place does not have men and women with independence of mind. Bob Cryer, who was sadly killed in an accident yesterday, was certainly a man with considerable independence of mind.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, mentioned that there are those of us in this House who have had experience outside the realm of Parliament, where I sat for some 28 years. I remember when the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, invited me to join the Whips' Office way back in 1967, he shook me to my roots by saying that as a new Whip, I should never forget that we put the interests of our country first, even though we had to fight our own party. He said that we opposed only if we believed it to be against the best interests of our country.
I had the great privilege of serving in an Indian cavalry regiment—the 19th King George V's Own Lancers. On the walls of Chetwode Hall in the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun are these words:The safety, honour and welfare of your country comes first, always and every time. The safety and welfare of the men you command comes next, always and every time; your own safety and welfare comes last, always and every time".Those words were engraved upon the hearts of all of us who were privileged to serve in the Indian Army. I believe that they are the guiding spirit which should influence all of us who sit in this House or the other place. If that were so, I believe that we would be held in much higher regard by the public whom we represent in the House of Commons and here in the House of Lords.
§ 3.52 p.m.
§ Lord Colnbrook
My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Weatherill—and I insist on calling him my noble friend although he sits on those Benches—I am a relatively new Member of your Lordships' House, certainly in comparison with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and others. Therefore, what I have to say is based not so much on a long study of your Lordships' House but much more on my understanding of the role of Parliament as a whole.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, gave his understanding of that role under five different headings. I should like to put the matter in a slightly different way. When I was in the other place, constituents would sometimes write to me to complain about what was being done by the government. They would finish their letters by saying, "You run the country, why don't you put it straight?" My reply to that was always, "I do not run the country; the Government do that. All I am, as your Member of Parliament, is a paid critic"—now 1551 unpaid. That is my belief as to what Parliament is for. It does not run the country but it stops the Government doing things that the people do not want.
Government can do only what Parliament allows it to. Let us face it, we have had quite a number of examples of that here in the past few weeks. In my judgment, it must be right that the elected House has the final say. It must be allowed eventually to prevail over any of the views that we, in this non-elected House, express; however strongly we express them and, for that matter, however good they are.
So it is. That is what happens. Our power, in effect, is to ask the other place to think again. We can do that only once. That process may take only a day. In an extreme case, it can take a year. But the other place has to think again and it seems to me that there needs to be someone in the country who can say that to any elected Chamber. It is my view that this House is the best instrument which can be devised to do that.
I give your Lordships two reasons why I hold that view. The first—and this has been touched on before —is simply the volume of legislation. I can produce no supporting figures but it is my firm belief that since I was first elected to the other place 39 years ago every year, with possibly only one or two exceptions, the volume of legislation has increased. Not only the volume, but the length and complexity of it has increased. I believe that we have now reached the stage at which it is virtually impossible for Parliament, even as it is present constituted, adequately and properly to consider it.
The other place certainly cannot do that, even though it has those excellent weapons available to the government business managers—the closure and the guillotine—in order to get legislation through. That means that the legislation cannot be properly considered, and I do not believe that it is or see how it can be. Therefore, it is essential to have another Chamber—and it is the House of Lords—which can do at least some of the work that is left undone.
I am sure that we can all recall examples of legislation that has been passed and subsequently found to be defective. That reflects on both Houses—that we have not considered legislation as well as we should have done in spite of working long hours and in spite of our very best efforts. Of course, that is the fault of the government—and I am not talking about any particular government because all governments in power do the same thing.
That leads me to the second reason why I believe that your Lordships' House is as good an instrument for giving proper consideration to legislation that can be devised. One of the defects of too much legislation being passed too quickly is that, very often, it takes quite a long time for those who will be affected by it to realise just how much it will affect them. This House has a unique role to play in that area. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred to the experience that is available here. One only has to look round the Chamber to see the vast range of practical experience of life outside these walls which is available to be brought to bear on the consideration of legislation. In my view, that is far wider than is available in the House of Commons 1552 and it is available to an extent that I do not: see how else it could be provided. As the noble and learned Lord said, we are not talking about the composition of the House but such consideration would not be possible by an elected Chamber. Your Lordships' House can and does provide that consideration to the best of its ability and I believe that it works remarkably well.
My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter concluded his remarks by quoting Lord Melbourne. I borrow a phrase from our cousins across the Atlantic:If it ain't broke, don't fix it".
§ 4 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, the last speaker and the speaker before him spoke with great authority about the House of Commons, where they were both so pre-eminent. I never achieved that. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, has fled. I now see that he has returned. The noble and learned Lord's barnstorming talents in 1945 prevented my arrival at the House of Commons, so that I speak from 48 years' experience here. That is nothing very much compared with the 60 years' experience of my noble friend Lord Listowel, but it is longer than those who have addressed the House hitherto.
I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, to whom we are so indebted, will not mind if I say that it is impossible to discuss the House of Lords in a real sense when we are talking about its composition. I believe that we have the best debates in the world—that is, debates in the sense of being the most valuable to the country that you can find anywhere —but the worst voting system. However, both spring from our composition.
If one looks at the composition of this House, it will be seen that there are four times as many who have taken the Tory Whip as the Labour Whip. If one asks how many hereditary Peers (Peers by succession) there are, one is told that there are 750 and that 13 have taken the Labour Whip. I have never been able to count up to 13, but that is the figure I have been given. It makes nonsense of the voting system. One cannot properly discuss the role of this House without looking at its composition.
However, I am all for trying to improve the voting system without damaging the quality of our debates. But that needs a little thought. I am certainly someone who thinks that the hereditary representatives will eventually have to go, although I do not think that they will go very soon. I speak with some impartiality here, having been made a Peer and also having inherited a title. I am not biased one way or the other.
I believe that the hereditary peerage will have to go, but probably not in my lifetime. I believe that the Labour Party will have so many other things to do when it comes to power that those peerages will be spared for many a year. Therefore, it is not an immediate prospect, but it will happen eventually. The system is quite indefensible: 750 hereditary Peers and only 13 receiving the Labour Whip. It is ludicrous and makes nonsense of the system. One cannot imagine anyone drawing up such a constitution today; but there it is.
1553 I now have something to say with which I believe some of my noble friends may not agree. However, I must offer my testimony based on my experience. Everyone who comes to this House admires not only the quality of the debates in the sense of the learned contributions from experts in many different fields, but also the courtesy and the civilised relationships between those who oppose one another. Further, they admire the kindness, which I should say expresses itself just as strongly among the devoted staff as among Members of the House. Those are fine qualities. I venture to think that the aristocratic tradition here is in no small way responsible for those qualities. If eventually hereditary peerages disappear from the House, I hope that those qualities will somehow be carried over into the new institution.
When we have a new institution, I shall certainly be strongly opposed to any elected Chamber. That would be a ghastly kind of second rate version of the European Parliament. I cannot imagine most of the eminent people who give extraordinary quality to our debates—although, I suppose, a few of the veteran politicians might gravitate here—standing for election, especially in later life. Therefore, the quality of our debates would go down if we had an elected Chamber. It must be an appointed Chamber.
There is no easy answer. The idea that the Prime Minister of the day should have complete charge of the appointments could work out very badly. I was rather surprised when I looked at the figures today to see how greatly the number of Conservative Peers has increased. Indeed, when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, spoke here, I remember that she referred to the number of people whom she had nominated. In a long period of Conservative rule, there is a great increase in the Conservative representation: that is exactly what has occurred. We must find a system; but I am not saying that I have the ideal answer. We shall need to have much discussion on the matter. I believe that there should be an advisory body and that it should not be left entirely to the Prime Minister of the day.
Nevertheless, having been in this House for 48 years, I can say that I have loved the life here and will always love it. If anyone is entitled to say that he feels part of the House of Lords, I believe that I can put myself forward in that respect. I do not think that we have an ideal Chamber. As I said, the composition is ludicrous. I hope that it will change in time and that our great traditions will somehow be carried on.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I rise to speak now, somewhat to my surprise, but it somehow always happens that I either speak immediately after or before the noble Earl, Lord Longford. When I was young enough to ride a bicycle, I was taught that the great thing was never to wonder how the thing kept upright. I feel much the same about debates on the constitutional position of the House of Lords. We may regret discussing so curious a phenomenon, but as we are no longer reported—despite the somewhat optimistic remarks made by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter 1554 about our ability to influence public opinion—that means that all we are saying now is in private. I see that my noble friend wishes to respond. I give way.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I am much obliged. As my noble friend was good enough to refer to me, can he tell us whether he also bears in mind the very considerable amount of coverage by the broadcasting agencies of debates and speeches in the House. Does he take that into account?
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I take it into account, although I have no method of judging how important it is. It does not seem to me to compensate for columns of print as used to be the case in the more serious newspapers.
We are discussing a highly anomalous body. No one trying to invent a second Chamber would have suggested such a composition. Now that we send people to Eastern Europe, and so on, to explain the merits of constitutional government, I sometimes wonder how they explain the House of Lords. Nevertheless, we perform a useful function which has been described as either "amending" or "revising". However, the risk is that it is too easy to say, "Well we are a revising Chamber or an amending Chamber". I say that because we may mean quite different things by those words.
Perhaps I may give your Lordships a few practical examples. We may have a Bill which starts in the House of Commons and which appears here in the usual ill-digested state in which that place leaves it, as the noble Lord, Lord Colnbrook, reminded us. We then improve the Bill and return it to the other place for reconsideration. That is the conventional view of our role in revision. But what happens as in the two recent cases when Bills started their passage in this House? I refer to the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill which was substantially amended and to the Education Bill which was amended almost out of recognition. What does the other place do? It is not having a second thought: it is having a first thought. What ought it to do?
Of course, one can take different views on the matter. Only yesterday in the debate on the Education Bill my noble friend the Minister said:We must of course let the full parliamentary process take its course, and allow the other place to consider the desirability and workability of that aspect of the current draft".—[Official Report, 12/4/94; col. 1460.]But that is a fiction, as the Government who command the majority in the other place can, if they wish, replace our text by their own preference.
My final example is even more topical. We understand that yesterday in another place the Home Secretary, in order to fight off a particular amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill (which will shortly confront us), agreed to introduce a clause roughly to the same effect as that proposed in the House of Lords. That was sufficient to prevent the amendment which he disliked, feared or disapproved of being moved. But what happens if it comes to the House of Lords and the Government amendment is not accepted? For all I know there may be devotees of violent videos in this House. There are certainly libertarians who might come up from the backwoods and who are against any form of 1555 regulation. I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, is not in the Chamber as I am sure he would not vote for the government amendment on libertarian grounds.
We are in a way being asked to revise and amend in a quite different set of circumstances from those in which the phrase is usually used. In other words, it is important that we do not think that by saying, "Well, it is all right; we are an amending House and a revising House", we have solved all the problems, because the problems will arise in a different form in the case of every piece of legislation.
My next point has been referred to many times by noble Lords with even longer experience in this House than I have. My regret is that we cannot exercise that role in relation to the delegated legislation which is even more plentiful in our days than primary legislation.
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, I join with those who have thanked the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for introducing this debate. I am bound to say straightaway that I am among those who think that one cannot really separate the constitution of the House of Lords from its composition. When I first came to the House of Lords I was struck by its immense capacity for self-congratulation. My initial reaction was that it was a kind of overweening pride but I found myself in the course of time to be quite wrong about that. What it is, I think, is a consciousness of our own absurdity. Because of that we appear to find it constantly necessary to justify ourselves in one way or another. That is why, I believe, we are so much given to self praise, forgetting that it is no recommendation outside this House.
I have also discovered in my fairly long political career that the quality of debate is often in inverse ratio to the importance of the subject being discussed. That was particularly so in the House of Commons. When issues of great importance were being debated speeches were often passionate, upsetting, rubbishy and had no quality at all. If one wanted to hear good debate in the House of Commons one had to attend on Fridays. Then one could listen to the speeches of civilised Members such as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, when engaged in a debate along with the late Dick Crossman for example. The debates in the House of Commons were of high quality so long as everyone was relaxed and realised that at the end of the day the discussion was not of great importance. When immensely important matters were being debated, speeches became scrappy and passionate and did not read well in Hansard. Therefore it may be that we have high quality debate in this House because we recognise that ultimately we are not the deciding Chamber. I believe that for as long as that continues to be the case our debates will have shape and substance.
When I say that I and the Labour Party are of the opinion that this House should he an elected Chamber I am conscious that one of the things we may have to sacrifice, should that come about, is the quality of the debates. However, that is a sacrifice which it is proper 1556 to make if, as a consequence, we obtain a Chamber which is defensible generally and not merely inside itself.
The wisest of the many wise comments Winston Churchill made was when he commented that we are, more than we know, the creatures of our institutions. That statement perhaps holds more truth than we recognise. Those of us who have been Members of the House of Commons have to be careful riot to imbibe the traditions, courtesies and other characteristics of this Chamber and in so doing forget the impulse which sent us originally into politics and which may be quite different from the establishment traditionalism which properly informs this Chamber.
This Chamber is part of the establishment. If one has any doubt about that, one has only to compare the development of the Chamber when Conservative and Labour governments are respectively in power. The House of Lords is very different in each case. We have an Opposition who are sometimes extraordinarily effectual. However, to be effectual they have to persuade some government supporters, and certainly Members on the Cross-Benches, of the correctness of the position they hold. If a Labour government are in power they can be defeated at any time in this House without difficulty. That position simply cannot be, sustained. However, it is pleasant to be a Member of the House of Lords. I believe a Cross-Bench Peer once said that being a Member of the House of Lords was like taking a hot bath. I cannot remember who said it, so perhaps we had better forget it.
In 1908, the year, incidentally, when I was born, the Labour Party accepted a resolution pledging the party to abolish the House of Lords. Following the exact words Arthur Henderson had used in the Commons, it resolved that,the Upper House being an irresponsible part of the Legislature and of necessity representative of interests opposed to the general well-being, is a hindrance to national progress arid ought to be abolished".We can now see what immense progress the Labour Party has made in the period between 1908 and 1994. Now the Labour Party says:The House of Lords, even in its current form, is a valuable revising chamber, its debates are often of high quality precisely because of the different experience of its members, and a second chamber is a necessary and important check on the power of the first. But it must be made democratically acceptable. We therefore propose replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber".I share that view rather than the view expressed by the Labour Party in 1908. I have grown a little older and wiser since 1908.
I have just referred to the position of my party as regards the House of Lords and for once I am entirely in favour of that position. The suggestion sometimes made that an elected second Chamber must of necessity be in conflict with another place is, I believe, not necessarily correct. This House can be constitutionally subservient to another place and its electorate can be quite different to that of another place. I believe it is possible to devise a system whereby this Chamber could acquire the standing outside the Chamber which noble Lords so often, and in the view of some people, quite rightly, claim that it has inside the Chamber.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I still have a feeling of total disbelief each time I walk through the door of the Chamber. Therefore I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for giving me the opportunity to tell your Lordships how I as a newcomer see your Lordships' House. As with most members of the public, but also as a long time political activist, my attention has been almost entirely focused on the other place. It is a great pity that the television does not devote more time to showing the public what your Lordships' House does, and more particularly how it does it. The television could emphasise how speakers in this House can make speeches without constant interruptions from Members asking them to give way. That is because in this House anyone who wishes to speak can usually do so.
What is more important, however, is the decorum effected by your Lordships' system of self-regulation and self-restraint. That is not to say that our debates and exchanges are bland. That is far from being the case. Political points are made with full-blooded vigour. While courtesy is the order of the day, I have listened in admiration to the barbed insults delivered with wit but at the same time with the point of a rapier—not by swinging a battle axe or a mace; or dare I say the Mace?
What the public would see is contributions from Members of your Lordships' House drawn from a wide range of long-term public and political service and with experience in commerce, industry, education, health, foreign affairs and many other fields, as many noble Lords have already said this afternoon. One has only to look at the list of Members' special interests in Dod's to see what a vast pool of specialised knowledge is available to this House. Even the so-called backwoodsmen, who may attend only infrequently, join in debates when they have something relevant to contribute. In other words, this is a place where people speak because they have something to say not just because they feel that they have to say something.
Certainly it is not a criticism to say that the other place does not have the time for the detailed Starred Questions, the mini-debates generated by Unstarred Questions or informed short debates such as this one.
Your Lordships' House has already been called a revising chamber, but it is much more than that. It is a place where governments can be told to stop and think again, as has happened dramatically in the past few months.
Whatever may have been the situation in the past, your Lordships' House does not provide an automatic majority for the Conservative Party. Furthermore, when the Conservative Party was not in office, the Salisbury Convention ensured that government legislation did not suffer the same gridlock or stalemate that the elected United States Senate can and does impose on the President. This is not some condescending act of self-denial. It is one of the many facets of the unwritten constitution by which this country runs, and runs very well.
In a few weeks' time your Lordships will discuss the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, a central feature 1558 of which is a highly modified and circumscribed version of the so-called Henry VIII clause. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, is a doughty defender of constitutional propriety, and in preparation for this debate I read the speech that he made on 6th February 1989 on the Children Bill. His efforts, and those of my noble friend Lord Rippon of Hexham and others, resulted in the creation in 1992 of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, which is one of several committees of your Lordships' House which provide invaluable and impartial service to both Houses of Parliament.
If newspaper reports are to be believed, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been persuaded to modify one of the right of silence provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill merely by the Lord Chief Justice indicating that it would not be acceptable to your Lordships.
There are those who have reservations about the position of the hereditary Peers. However, I firmly believe that the aspects of your Lordships' qualifications, experience and service that I have just described more than offset the unelected manner in which we all find ourselves in this House. The fact that your Lordships can and do exercise your personal judgment free of the tyranny of the Whips is more of an expression of the will of the elector in the street than those Members of the other place who campaign on a manifesto and then, as soon as they are elected, turn on their own parties' policies and elected leaders. Your Lordships' House stands as an independent bulwark against extremism at either end of the political spectrum. Those who advocate abolition are, contrary to what they may think, proposing a course which is a danger to democracy. No government should be left without a totally independent brake on its activities.
Nothing remains unchanged forever although, as the American proverb says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, the Life Peerages Act 1958 and the Peerage Act 1963 were the last fundamental changes to a system which had otherwise worked well for centuries and has worked well ever since. If, and I stress "if" because it is not for me to say, any constitutional changes are needed then they have to be made after discussion between all the political parties and the Cross-Benches. Such changes can be made only after a full, detailed and impartial study, perhaps by a Royal Commission. Such changes as are recommended to be desirable can be made to the extent, and only to the extent, that is mutually agreed. Emphatically and definitely no changes to the very basis of the structure of this ancient Parliament should ever be made for doctrinaire reasons or in an attempt to obtain some political advantage.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Bletso
My Lords, the occasional glance in the mirror is no bad thing. It could, of course, give rise to indulgent expressions of vanity, but I believe that regular introspection by your Lordships' House must be healthy. To that end I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale for once again calling attention to the constitutional role of this 1559 House. As many noble Lords have mentioned, the noble and learned Lord is an acknowledged authority. Although I am a solicitor, I do not profess in any way to be an expert in constitutional law. I am, however, a hereditary Peer, one of four, including the noble Earl, Lord Longford, to contribute to this afternoon's debate.
In recent years these debates have appeared to draw on a regular core of speakers, several of whom contributed to a most interesting series of articles on the subject of "Looking at the Lords" which appeared in The House Magazine of 7th March. Most of the arguments have been relentlessly marched into battle on a number of occasions. I should like to set a slightly different pace in my remarks today by addressing, first, the need for a bicameral legislature and, secondly, the effectiveness of your Lordships' House as currently constituted.
I am acutely aware that the debate focuses on the role rather than the composition of your Lordships' House, but I would like to make brief mention of the role of hereditary Peers. Your Lordships' primary function is and, of course, always will be to act as a revising Chamber and, as my noble and learned friend Lord Simon mentioned, an amending chamber —to coin a phrase, 'to make the other place think again'. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 formally recognised our subordinate nature to the other place. It is our role, and the role of most second chambers, to check and balance the powers of government and to be complementary rather than to be competitive, a point made by my noble friend Lord Weatherill.
There are some of us, I would add, who would like the other place not only to think again but also, on occasions, to act again. Some noble Lords, and I include myself among them, were disappointed that the House felt unable last year to persevere with its amendments to the Railways Bill—now the Railways Act. Others have expressed concern that this House does not more often review statutory instruments but leaves that task entirely to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. It seems incongruous that we should employ our rights of review on primary but not secondary legislation. That said, however, our role is more persuasive than directive. So often there is a delicate balance to be found. I join in expressing my great sadness at the tragic loss yesterday of the honourable Member for Bradford South who chaired the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments.
If one point of a second chamber is to scrutinise legislation, then I dare suggest that it is a role which the House plays with distinction. This is an effective House. As the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, pointed out in his closing speech in the debate on the Salisbury doctrine on 19th May last year, well over 50 per cent. of our time is spent reviewing legislation in Committee and on Report. General debates account for 16 per cent. of our time. As the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, mentioned, the work of the European Communities Committee, the Science and Technology Committee, and other Select Committees of your Lordships' House is rightly acknowledged and respected, not just by the other place but by the public at large. Indeed, it is all time well spent.
1560 In a similar debate last year, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, suggested that we should push collectively far less legislation which ought to be "more elegantly and precisely drafted". That is a sentiment I enthusiastically support. The point has been well made that much of the legislation arriving in your Lordships' House is clumsily drafted.
If we accept the paramount need for a bicameral system, then a second question arises: does this House still fit the bill at the end of the 20th century? There are many who propose reform; and that is not a word that I believe we should fear.
As a Cross-Bencher who took his seat in 1978, and. who has spent most of his life living in South Africa, I dare say that I am precisely the sort of Member whom some reformers would wish to remove from this House. However, I humbly submit that my presence in this Chamber illustrates in a small way some advantages of the hereditary system. First and foremost, it ensures a diversity in this House which is quite unmatched by any elected form of legislature in the world. From a personal perspective, I hope that my own experience of South Africa qualifies me to speak with a depth of understanding of southern African affairs which no amount of reading or study could provide. Other noble Lords have their own fields of interest and, without any hint of vanity or complacency, I think it is right that we should acknowledge that that diversity is our greatest strength.
There is also diversity of age: young and old sit side by side. There is a diversity of expertise and experience. The hereditary principle, I humbly suggest, should be protected as the buttress, not only of this precious diversity but also of an ongoing tradition—one could almost say an inherited tradition—into the next century, and beyond.
There is much more that I would wish to have spoken about in the debate today; I have many more points to raise. However, in closing I would point out that the history of this country tends towards evolution rather than revolution: gradual change by consensus rather than by sudden and compulsive acts of conviction. The House of Lords, in many respects, is a creature of evolution, hewn by the experience of passing years. If it is to be reformed, I hope that it will be done by consensus rather than by confrontation. I hope that if this House is to be reformed, it is not because an alternative system seems more democratically acceptable but because such a "reformed" system would be more effective. I challenge the contention that another Chamber would be more effective than this Chamber. For all its quirks and anachronisms, this House plays its full role within a bicameral system. It works. That is a fact which all reformers should bear in mind.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My Lords, I find myself almost entirely in sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso. The points of view that he expressed are well based. They fit in with the experience that we have all had.
We all accept the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, as the expert on the workings of this House. I 1561 should like to think that when he chose the subject for debate today he had in mind the continuance of this Chamber as we know it, apart from the individual criticisms which may justifiably be directed at it.
Some years ago an Italian journalist came to ask me a question. He said that because I had headed a local authority and had 25 years' experience in the House of Commons, 20 years in the House of Lords and five years in the European Parliament, I was the only person in the United Kingdom who had had experience of the workings of all the institutions which contribute to the governance of the country. His question was this: in the light of that experience, which of those institutions carried out their remit most effectively? I did not hesitate. Of the four, I said that the one which carried out the remit most effectively and constructively was the British House of Lords. There was no argument about that. I believe that this House is unequalled in its impartial and constructive approach to carrying out the tasks entrusted to it. The fact that the composition of this Chamber consists in part of hereditary Peers is a strength rather than a weakness. The hereditary Peers produce the youth in this House. The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, is a good example.
In quoting certain figures, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, sought to imply that every hereditary Peer automatically became a member of the Conservative Party. I found that comment somewhat amusing. I do not know whether Stanley Baldwin believed that his descendants would finish up anywhere other than on the Conservative Benches; but they did. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, himself sits on the Benches of a Party which he states is under-represented. The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, is not an accredited member of the Conservative Party in the sense that he expresses the view that he truly believes is right, based on his own personal experience.
Let us consider the European Parliament. I believe that nominated Members, as distinct from elected Members, are more representative and more likely to give the guidance which would be in the interests of Britain as well as of Europe as a whole. Too many of my colleagues—for whom I had great respect—whose individual ability and knowledge were of the highest standard spent too much of their lives living in other countries. Yet that factor was produced as a great advantage for being a Member of the European Parliament. I felt that there were times when someone steeped in British as well as European needs was required. I believe that such a contribution came better from nominated Members.
The noble Lords, Lord Mishcon and Lord Lester, made very good points with regard to some of the weaknesses which exist in our present set-up. However, those weaknesses are details. I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, hoped that we would consider this House as an institution. Any institution or machine which is dependent upon people will never be perfect because people are not perfect; they are the opposite of perfection. All that one can hope for is the 1562 minimum of imperfections. One hopes that those who are more acceptable, and perhaps hold more to truth, form the majority.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, is right. The strength of this place is that it has evolved. If one had attempted a written constitution, we would not have arrived at this system. However, I do not believe that the result would have been as good. If one had wished to write such a constitution one could not have anticipated the problems, the developments and the different reactions. The fact that this House has grown and has developed from practical day-to-day experience is its strength. That is why I hope that it will continue.
I should like to be assured on one point that interests me. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, the Leader of the Opposition, is to wind up in this debate today. The noble Lord's contributions in the past have always been of a very high standard indeed. I should like to know whether he will be speaking for himself today or whether the fact that he is the Leader of the Opposition means that his speech will be a Labour Party contribution on the vital question of whether we should continue to have a House of Lords.
I remind noble Lords of an anecdote that I believe to be true. In 1908 the Labour Party at its conference accepted a resolution to abolish the House of Lords. One of the older members went to Mr. Attlee (as he then was)—a very sound, "feet on the ground" Prime Minister if ever there was one—to ask: "When are we going to carry out what we have pledged ourselves to do?". Mr. Attlee replied, "What is that?". His questioner said, "Abolish the House of Lords". Mr. Attlee asked, "When did we do that?". "Oh", he said, "40 years ago". "Ah", said Mr. Attlee, "there doesn't seem to be any great urgency about it, does there?". I hope that that will be the mood which will flow from this debate, and the mood of any actions which may be taken later on.
§ 4.41 p.m.
§ The Earl of Strafford
My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for introducing this debate on such a basic issue; namely, what our job is and, following from that, what changes should be made to enable us to do it better.
For a 600 year-old institution over which the last rites have been frequently read we are in remarkably robust health. That is clearly due to the introduction of life Peers. In gardening terms, it is like giving a plant an annual mulch of compost. The virtues of good compost are that it is mature and well balanced. Those qualities were especially evident in this House's treatment of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, which in its virgin state was not fit to be let loose on the public. The weight of the expert opinion that came from all sides of the House was enough to enable the Bill to be pummelled into an acceptable shape. In that process the Opposition Front Benches played a leading role and showed the fundamental importance of an effective opposition in a parliamentary democracy. They form an essential part of the framework of government.
1563 However, the value of that role is not reflected in their remuneration—because they do not get any. To be accurate, the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition Chief Whip are paid a salary. But it takes more than two to fill an Opposition Front Bench. The same disparity between contribution and financial recognition applies of course to prominent Back-Benchers. The Top Salaries Review Body accepted that our system of allowances is adequate for those Peers whose work in the House is very much a part-time affair but totally inadequate for full-time working Peers.
This issue deserves serious attention. It would be prudent of the Government to take action now, if merely for reasons of self-interest. As they well know, the political pendulum swings sooner or later. When it does, they will find themselves sitting on the Benches opposite, possibly suffering from withdrawal symptoms. I believe that we have an increasingly important role to play, and that adequate financial reward is a necessary part of the acceptance of that role.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, not for the first time, this House has great cause to be grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. The noble and learned Lord symbolises many of those things that entitle this House to be proud of itself. An institutional pride is a necessary part of the equipment of any working institution. That pride has been in evidence today. There is much to justify it.
This House's track record is extremely good. The House said that the poll tax would be a mess. It was. It said that the football membership Bill would be a mess. The noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, if I remember correctly, was in the forefront of that debate. Thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the mess did not actually happen. The House said that the Child Support Act would be a mess; and it is.
Last night this House did even better. In the final debate on the passage of the Education Bill, we saw that all the interested parties had talked the matter out until they had achieved a common interest and welcomed what was happening. That did credit to the whole House, and especially to the Minister in charge of the Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. It shows the advantage of the weaker party discipline in this House.
We have not heard for a very long time the traditional cry of "Peers versus people". That is because—so far as the opinion polls can tell us—when the two Houses disagree, nine times out of 10 the people agree with the Peers. On the measure to impose charges on eye tests and dental checks, in the opinion polls 87 per cent. sided with this House. It raises the question as to whether what we ought to be thinking about is how far another place represents the people.
Yet, for all that we express an institutional pride on such occasions, when it comes to push of pike with another place, as on the Railways Bill on 4th November last, this House does not always have the courage to put its votes where its mouth is. Sometimes this House suffers from cold feet. I think that that is the result of underlying doubts about its legitimacy.
1564 It is of course difficult in this day and age to make any serious justification for the argument that heredity confers legitimacy. In fact, the best one can do is to quote Aristotle's principle that the lot is the most democratic form of selection. It brings people to this Chamber who would not otherwise be heard. I remember reading the maiden speech of the late Lord Milford, who was a card carrying member of the Communist Party. The task of congratulating him on his maiden speech fell to Lord Attlee, who said:It is an irony that the voice of the Communist Party can only be heard in this House. It is an advantage of the hereditary principle".For all that we say about this issue, it is difficult to base legitimacy on heredity. I think that the proper answer to the question of legitimacy is to look at the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. Those took from us some of our powers. The same Acts left us other powers. By leaving us those powers, they created a situation in which we enjoy our power by grant of another place —until, as was stated in 1911, a better system can be devised. We are on probation. We are an example of the potential redeeming power of probation.
We are therefore in a dilemma which is very like the dilemma which affected another place in the 17th century. It also had to give advice which, if it was to be good, had to be sometimes unwelcome to those from whom it derived its power. That is a very difficult tightrope to walk.
In another place in the 17th century some people used to worry about whether they were taking too much risk and unduly inflaming an irritated Executive. Others, perhaps more perceptive, expressed the fear that, if they were too modest in the exercise of their powers, those powers might moulder away from lack of use and that would be as great a danger as the other. Those reflections apply to us too. It is a tightrope on which one never walks with quite accurate balance. But although we have occasionally swayed violently from side to side, at the moment we are still on it and until another place chooses to take away our powers, we should be prepared to exercise them with confidence.
Such power is not only a matter of amending Bills. I once looked at the debate in this House on the Bill to postpone the general election which was due in 1940. A Bill to postpone a general election is not subject to the Parliament Acts, and quite right too. It was the unanimous opinion of this House in 1940 that, because it had the undoubted right to throw out that Bill, therefore it would not do so. That was a good decision and good exercise of a power which it is right that we should continue to have.
I listened with great interest and approval to the proposal of my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill for a committee to scrutinise the compatibility of legislation with our international obligations. I once had occasion to ask a Minister if the Government had taken legal advice on whether a measure that they were introducing was contrary to European law. The Minister replied, "I would have to take advice on that point". I feel that he ought to have known the answer when he came before us. Such a committee would ensure that an expert opinion on such a question was available to us.
1565 I share the concern about regulations which we have heard from many quarters. But I should point out that the joint committee is responsible only for pronouncing on the values of the regulations. That is a competent legal job which is well left to the committee. Our job is to pronounce on the political propriety and convenience of those regulations. I shall not speak further today on how that matter should be addressed. But one thing that pleased me most about the changes in the Education Bill was the general agreement throughout the House—in which the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee played a very important part—that Clause 20, the framework Bill clause, was the kind of thing which should not be put in front of this House.
In any changes, I should like to see attention paid to two points about composition which affect our function. One is the role of the Cross-Benchers, who are vital in this House not only for what they themselves say, valuable though it is, but also for their effect on the way the rest of us talk. I remember one occasion when Labour and Conservative Front Benches were swapping insults on their economic records—exactly like another place—and a Cross-Bencher asked, "What is this to us? Can you get back to the question?".
The other point is that in this Chamber there are people whose occupation is outside politics. I regret to say that there is a decline in the reputation of the whole political class. We cannot have a genuinely representative institution if there is no way for people to have a voice without belonging to a political party.
I end with just one more thought. According to my colleague, Adrian Lyttelton, in 1923 there was only one person who could have stopped Mussolini. That was the king. The king did not act because he did not believe that he had the power to do so. So when the war was over and there was a new settlement, the king disappeared along with Mussolini. I do not want us to make the same mistake.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate. Perhaps I may eschew the normal courtesies of winding up a debate and not mention everybody who has spoken in the course of it. To do so would eat into the little time that I have and there are one or two matters that I should like to put to the House.
First, and it is not a common courtesy on my part, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, for raising this subject tonight. It has been a useful and certainly a revealing debate. I am bound to say that there was a tinge of self-congratulation and self-satisfaction in a number of the speeches, which I did not think exactly equated with the reality of the situation. However, so be it.
Writing in 1989, Professor Griffiths and Michael Rile said about the House of Lords:The description of the House of Lords as it is today is one of a legislative chamber in flux: great changes have taken place in the last two decades, and the House is now so changing and enlarging its functions, largely as a result of external pressures, that it may appear fanciful to think that it can continue with the same procedures, powers and composition for much longer".1566 It is against that background that we should approach the debate tonight, as did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, himself.
At the outset, let me say that the Labour Party is firmly not in favour of a unicameral legislature. We believe that the legislative process in this country—indeed political life in general—demands that there should be two Chambers of Parliament. The argument, as indeed is not unusual in these matters, is best set out in Bagehot. It is a good quote which I should like to share with the House. He wrote:With a perfect Lower House it is certain that an Upper House would be scarcely of any value. If we had an ideal House of Commons perfectly representing the nation, always moderate, never passionate, abounding in men of leisure, never omitting the slow and steady forms necessary for good consideration, it is certain that we should not need a higher chamber. The work would be done so well that we should not want anyone to look over or revise it. And whatever is unnecessary in government is pernicious. Human life makes so much complexity necessary that an artificial addition is sure to do harm: you cannot tell where the needless bit of machinery will catch and clog the hundred needful wheels; but the chances are conclusive that it will impede them somewhere, so nice are they and so delicate. But though beside an ideal House of Commons the Lords would be unnecessary, and therefore pernicious, besides the actual House a revising and leisured legislature is extremely useful, if not quite necessary".I do not think that I can add anything to that argument, either the way in which it is expressed or the substance of it. The country needs two Chambers.
Therefore, we should go on to consider what this debate is about, which is the role of the Chamber and not necessarily its composition. The 1968 White Paper on the Lords identified a number of functions: six main ones, in addition to acting as the Supreme Court of Appeal. These were: first, the provision of a forum for full and free debate on matters of public interest; second, the revision of Public Bills brought up from the other place; third, the initiation of public legislation, including in particular those government Bills which are less controversial in party political terms than Private Members' Bills; fourth, the consideration of subordinate legislation, fifth, the scrutiny of the activities of the executive; and finally, the scrutiny of private legislation.
That description of our basic functions and roles remains as true today as it was in 1968. But over the past 20 to 25 years this House has developed its work in one further field which now deserves special mention: the work of our investigative Select Committees. I refer in particular to the European Communities Committee which reviews the legislative output of the European Union in a far more comprehensive way than does its counterpart in the other place. I refer also to the Select Committee on Science and Technology which took over the role of the former Commons committee of the same name in 1979. Both those Select Committees are extremely valuable and constitutionally innovative. They form part of the functions of this House if one is trying to judge it and assess its value.
If those are our functions, it is difficult to judge objectively precisely how effectively our functions are carried out. Governments are understandably reticent to tell people why they decide to change their minds. However, there is now some more objective data. The analysis of the 1988–89 Session recently carried out by 1567 the Study of Parliament Group revealed the way in which this House actually uses its time. It is perhaps a useful piece of data for the House to consider.
Just under two-thirds of our time was spent considering legislation, the great majority of it on government Bills. Almost one-third was spent on deliberation including Questions, short debates, Statements, Unstarred Questions, general debates and consideration of reports from Select Committees. The amount of time being spent on legislation has increased consistently over the past five Parliaments, as has the total number of hours that the House sits. The sheer volume of legislation has also increased. Earlier in the debate somebody asked for figures.
In the 1970s the average number of pages of legislation per year was 1,874; in the 1980s it was 2,540 and has certainly increased since then. In relation to amendments, according to Mr. Shell and Mr. Beamish who edited the Study of Parliament Group Report, 2,339 amendments were made to government Bills during the 1988–89 Session. That is a great deal. Over 99 per cent. of all amendments moved by the Government were successful, while amendments moved from other quarters of the House only achieved a success rate of just over 6 per cent. The report concluded thus:What is clear is that the vast majority of amendments made to Bills were the result of second (third, fourth and fifth?) thoughts by the Government itself as its legislation was squeezed through the so-called legislative sausage machine. The House is a place where errors and omissions can be corrected, where at least some details can be put right even if others are ignored. The House can act as a kind of legislative longstop. If it did not exist more care would have to be taken with the earlier stages of bills, or indeed more stages would be necessary in the Commons".I find that argument highly persuasive and conclusive. But while the other roles referred to in the 1968 White Paper are still undoubtedly carried out by this House, their intellectual emphasis seems to be changing somewhat. There seems to be a tendency now to revert to what political scientists refer to as the "referendal" inspirations of Lord Salisbury in the middle of the nineteenth century. At a time of "elective dictatorship" it is sometimes argued that this House has an additional role—as emerged in some of the contributions this afternoon—namely, that we represent within the constitutional limits of our operation the feelings of the nation.
The Commons has the legitimacy of election. But it is now argued that the legitimacy of the Lords is drawn from its greater independence and from the wider variety of interests that are here represented. That may be so. It is the balance between those two that our constitution must make work. I do not want to stray into a discussion on composition but perhaps noble Lords will forgive me if I merely give the statistics. As of 19th January 1994 membership of this House consisted of 774 hereditary Peers, 381 life Peers, 21 Law Lords and 26 bishops, making a total of 1,202. Excluding Lords without Writs of Summons and Peers on leave of absence, that meant that the total eligible to attend was 1,033 noble Lords.
The party breakdown is perhaps also slightly instructive. I merely give it for the convenience of the House. There are 384 Peers who take the Conservative Whip (that is 48.2 per cent.); 106 Peers take the Labour 1568 Whip (13.3 per cent.); 49 Peers take the Social and Liberal Democrat Whip (6.1 per cent.); and 23 Peers still call themselves Social Democrats and make up 2.9 per cent.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I beg the, noble Lord's pardon. We are the Liberal Democrats and have been for a great many years.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, labels change so often in some parts of the political arena. The point is still a valid one, whatever label the noble Earl, Lord Russell, wishes to ascribe to it. The fact is that the Cross-Benchers amount to 196 Peers; that is, 24.6 per cent.
What is interesting about those figures is that if we add up the total of the Labour, the Liberal Democrats and what I assume is the rump of the SDP together, it amounts to 22.3 per cent. of the House. Cross-Benchers amount to 24.6 per cent. of the House. I am bound to say that it is indefensible to have a situation in which the Conservatives amount to 48.2 per cent. of your Lordships' House, the Cross-Benchers amount to 24.6 per cent. and the combined political oppositions amount to 22.3 per cent.
It is argued that it is in the independence of the Lords and its unreliability on party matters that the strength of this House lies. It needs to be indicated from time to time to Members in the Commons—I do not dissent from this—that they do not always have it entirely right and should think again. Elected the Commons may be, but it certainly is not infallible and I would not claim that it was. And that role is in some ways more important under a Conservative Government than under a Labour Government precisely because of the enormous disproportion in party strength. With a Conservative Government in power this House can only defeat the Government by a coalition of the opposition parties, a fair number of Cross-Benchers and some free spirits on the Conservative side. For a Labour Government the perspective is totally different. It is always vulnerable to the majority opposition—a majority based on the hereditary Peers. To beat a Labour Government 360 times, as this House did between 1974 and 1979, is not a sign of any vigorous coalition of independent interests which we have heard argued this afternoon as the justification for this place. It is a reflection of the voting strengths of the party opposite being used for party political purposes.
But if, therefore, the way in which the House operates is somewhat different depending on which party is in government, the role remains or should remain the same; namely, to provide a constitutional mechanism whereby the Commons can be asked to reconsider. In the end, of course, that House must prevail. We all accept that. But provided the expression of views here is genuinely an independent one, then it would be as well for a government to ponder. The recent experiences, for example, with the police Bill and the Education Bill, to say nothing of the Railways Bill, ought to be sufficient to make that clear to any government prepared to listen.
Let me say quite clearly that if we have no function other than to be a talking shop or, alternatively, a rubber stamp, then we may as well be abolished, have done 1569 with it and move to a unicameral legislature—something which I personally would greatly regret. For this debate I looked up some of the great reform speeches made by noble Lords of the past. I read the great speech made by the Marquess of Salisbury on the Irish Church Bill, when he said,If we do merely echo the House of Commons, the sooner we disappear the better. The object of the existence of a second House of Parliament is to supply the omissions and correct the defects of the first. But it is perfectly true that there may be occasions in which the decision of the House of Commons and the decision of the nation must be taken as practically the same".I do not think our role has changed all that much since the days of the noble Marquess. However, I do have to say in conclusion that if this House is to continue to supply the omissions and to correct the defects of the elected Chamber, then in future it will have to do so on a more equitable and fair basis of composition than now exists.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)
My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, for choosing for debate this afternoon so fundamental a question as that of the constitutional role of your Lordships' House. It is right and valuable that periodically we should reflect upon our role and take stock both of its continuing validity and of our performance of it. It is helpful that there should have been contributions to this short debate from one as experienced as my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls and also from my noble friend Lady Miller, who confessed that she is a recent arrival in your Lordships' House.
Perhaps I may say at the outset that the Government take the view—it seems to be a view shared throughout the House—that we should remain committed to the principle of a bicameral legislature. We further consider that this Upper House performs essential functions, as a Chamber of deliberation and revision—I shall come back to that word and precisely what it might mean—and as a guarantor of constitutional continuity. The Government consider that the powers and composition of your Lordships' House are broadly apt for the effective discharge of these functions. Accordingly, we have no present plans for far-reaching reform, although, as my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal has recently written, that is not to say that the workings of the Lords may not be susceptible to improvement. That is demonstrated by the group that he has established under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Rippon to look at the sittings of the House. I have no doubt that there will be a valuable contribution to come from that group.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that prime among our responsibilities must be our role in the examination and revision of Bills. As he indicated, the statistics bear that out. We spend well over 50 per cent. of our time in discussing legislation, most particularly in Committee and on Report.
Secondly, and also of great importance, is our function as a forum—and a particularly well informed 1570 and constructive forum—for the discussion of general questions of policy affecting our country. General debates account for something over 20 per cent. of the time of the House, but to this we must add the many hours of work which are performed by Select Committees, whose sometimes rather narrow scrutiny remit is frequently belied by the breadth of their inquiries. Like him, I also tender a compliment to those who work on the Select Committees for the undoubtedly valuable work that they undertake.
The second role to which I referred is, indeed, highly valued—and rightly so—both by many of your Lordships and by many outside the House, including other members of the Government. One of the great strengths of this House is that there are comparatively frequent opportunities not only for general debates but also for more specific ones which attract extremely expert and professional opinions based on a wealth of knowledge and experience. As my noble friend Lord Colnbrook said, opinion in terms of general public opinion and also specialist opinion throughout the country is often beneficially affected by what is said within your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that there are many in this Chamber who have participated in valuable discussions beyond it. But what I come back to is the important part that the second Chamber has to play in the scrutiny of legislation. In so doing it makes a primary and tangible contribution within our existing constitutional arrangements.
I stress that the Government in no way underestimate the importance of the views of the House on the legislation that is placed before it. I readily accept that revising is not simply a matter of the House being restricted to correcting a few niggling errors made by the parliamentary draftsman. As my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter underlined, there is indeed a right of amendment. It is your Lordships' constitutional right to ask the other place to think again. It is central to the role of a second Chamber in our system that that should be so and it is one that all governments should take very seriously indeed. If, on occasion, Ministers appear to jib at the right when it is exerted, I hope your Lordships will recognise that even the skeeliest of skippers is inclined to resent nudges against the tiller.
The right of this House to scrutinise and amend is not in question. What we might do though, both to our benefit and to that of another place, is to examine how we might avoid unnecessary or repetitive consideration of those legislative matters brought before us. No doubt your Lordships have watched with particular interest the progress of the very complex Trade Marks Bill through this House. Perhaps I may say, to the tribute of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and all those who participated in the Committee stage off the Floor of the House, that the Bill was not only properly examined in Committee but when it returned to the Floor of the House for Report there was no undue reconsideration of the points. I suggest to your Lordships that we might have greater confidence in resorting to that model in the future.
Furthermore, in our paper Scotland in the Union, it was stated that the Government have acknowledged that it would be desirable to find ways of significantly increasing the throughput of law reform Bills proposed 1571 by the Law Commissions if this can be done without prejudice to the main programme. I consider that to be a valuable function for your Lordships' House—and I speak not only as a Scottish Minister and a Scottish lawyer but with an eye to law reform on both sides of the Border. While I was interested in the first thought of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, in looking to the role of your Lordships' House, it would seem to me that we could take a first thought on a number of matters of importance in law reform for both of our jurisdictions. In so doing we might bring about a further and broader constitutional achievement—a greater cementing of the nations of the United Kingdom by making sure that legislation that properly ought to go through is not left on the stocks without implementation.
Any consideration of our functions inevitably invites reflection on the suitability of those persons accorded what is the privilege and responsibility of their undertaking. It has been said during the course of the debate that this House is wide in its composition. I am proud to be a Member of your Lordships' House, but I nevertheless believe that we are here with a certain degree of humility and a recognition of the responsibilities of the elected nature of another place. Like the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, I have some knowledge of South Africa. As we all watch with great hope, but not without trepidation, its moves towards democracy, I do not believe that it would be right to imagine that it is only in an unelected Chamber that all which is to be achieved is to be achieved.
I believe that it can be correctly claimed that our membership brings to bear in debate, both of legislation and otherwise, an invaluable range of knowledge and experience which is often, as has been said, both different from and arguably wider than that found in another place. I may not entirely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Strafford, that the views expressed as regards a recent Bill were the right ones; but nevertheless there was a wide range of experience brought to bear on the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill.
We also have the benefit of views which are not necessarily committed to the line of any particular party. I am here thinking of the role of the Cross-Benchers, who offer us both authority and expertise from an independent viewpoint. I readily acknowledge that that is not something that ought to be underestimated.
The powers of your Lordships' House are well enough known. I noted in a recent article that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, described a reconsideration of them as the equivalent of opening up a can of worms. I would have been interested to hear whether he had any further thoughts on that. What is important is that we should have regard to the voluntary limitations on the powers of your Lordships' House. The Salisbury Doctrine has been considered on a number of occasions recently. There appears, and there should continue, to be an appreciation that it should remain in place. I do not accept, as the Opposition Front Bench might like me to, that after the next general election there will be a reversal of positions in your Lordships' House. But wherever anyone sits in your Lordships' House, I would have thought that the desirability for the continuation of such a doctrine was important.
1572 I too have some anxiety that as we consider our role and function we should not—however vigorously we debate matters and however carefully we scrutinise the legislation going through your Lordships' House—usurp to ourselves, as it were, the role of being the voting articulation of the opinion polls in the country at any particular time. We do not have in this country a system of government based on single-issue politics. Governments are entitled to be judged on their records as a whole. If elections are to continue to be based on discussions of policy, they are entitled to set a whole package of measures before the electorate. For that reason I similarly take the view that we ought to be careful about taking up that particular position.
If there is one issue which seems to have come to the fore more prominently than in previous years it is the anxieties in your Lordships' House as regards delegated legislation. I know that a number of your Lordships have considerable concerns about such legislation. The Government are fully aware of the strength of feeling about the growth in the amount and the scope of such delegated legislation. It is only right that your Lordships should be vigilant. I believe that the knowledge of your Lordships in the rigorous scrutiny of such delegated legislation is a significant factor in the consideration of such matters by government. As has been indicated, the establishment of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, which has built up, and rightly so, a strong reputation with your Lordships, has reinforced the role which your Lordships have in scrutinising the powers which government propose to take in the Bills in which delegated legislation appears.
Allied to that, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, introduced an interesting line as regards our international obligations in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights. As I understood his proposal, it was either that the existing Select Committee should expand its remit to take on that responsibility or, alternatively, as I believe his noble friend indicated, there might be a separate Select Committee established. I say to him that if such a proposal is to be put forward, I am sure he will appreciate that it is not for government to consider. Initially it is a matter for the Liaison Committee. The noble Lord may wish to put forward a memorandum to the committee in due course setting out his views.
I say to him that it should be no secret that before any department of government now puts forward legislation, be it primary or secondary, it is certainly under an obligation within government to seek to assess whether there are any implications arising out of those international obligations. From time to time there are certainly circumstances where there are breaches of that convention. But they are seldom deliberate ones. They have occurred more frequently as a consequence of the developing jurisprudence of the court rather than of any other particular approach by government.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for what he has just said. Does he agree with me that it is slightly odd that the Government and the judges take the convention seriously but that Parliament has no machinery at all ?
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
My Lords, I have indicated to the noble Lord that the Government take it seriously, and the courts should too. If this House is to take the matter forward, I hope that the noble Lord will appreciate that it is not for me in any sense to attempt to direct or even to influence any attempt to do so. I suspect that that might be counter-productive. As I have suggested to the noble Lord, he might like to make his own approaches to see how the matter could be taken forward.
However uneasy some of your Lordships may be about the conventions as regards not voting against Motions to approve or annul delegated legislation, I counsel you that the existing arrangement ought to be maintained. If delegated legislation is voted down it is not to ask another place to reconsider its decision but to ensure that that delegated legislation cannot come into effect at all.
I had hoped to have time, as I considered matters, to look to what might be proposals for change to the composition of your Lordships' House. Some of your Lordships will know more directly than I can recall the curious and celebrated alliance between Mr. Enoch Powell and Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn when it came to considering—
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
I beg your Lordships' pardon. That was an equally celebrated alliance.
From the consideration there has been recently of what changes there might be to the composition of your Lordships' House, exactly the same picture emerges. Despite what the noble Earl, Lord Longford, had to say about it, no one has come forward with any proposal for the composition of your Lordships' House which will secure anything like a majority in any part of this House, in the country or in the House of Commons.
If one looks at any particular model, each has within it serious flaws which are probably the safeguard of the present composition of your Lordships' House. I cannot believe that there is anyone here—when so much attachment is given to the influence and independent role of your Lordships' House—who would consider that an opportunity for the Prime Minister of the day to have the sole right of nomination for the time being would he at all attractive. I have no doubt that Members of another place would be extremely concerned if there were to be a complete arrangement for elections to your Lordships' House. The idea that there should be Class A or Class B Members of your Lordships' House would equally seem to be a proposal which would be highly undesirable.
I hope that in taking something of a view of the various powers of and roles that your Lordships' House performs, I have been able to explain to your Lordships why the Government consider that the present composition and powers of this House are broadly right. The evidence is that membership comprising hereditary, ex officio and life Peers provides a House that is capable of discharging most effectively its vital roles—of deliberation, revision and continuity—in our constitutional arrangements.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord really justify a situation in which roughly two-thirds of the Members of your Lordships' House are Peers by succession?
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
My Lords, I really do want to conclude, but I have indicated that whatever the particular criticisms of any individual Member of your Lordships' House or elsewhere about the arrangements for the composition of the House, what is singularly lacking is any proposal that would command anything like a majority view elsewhere. That is undoubtedly the position. I notice that the noble Earl indicated his disapproval of that arrangement, but, if I may say so, his speech was singularly lacking in offering any alternative, spelt out in detail, which would attract widespread support.
A number of distinguished constitutionalists have been quoted during the debate. I regret that my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham is not in his place because I should like to refer to the book that he published just two years ago. His chapter on the House of Lords concludes:Human institutions are of two classes, the traditional and the contrived. The contrived must be judged by reason. The test of the traditional type is how well it works in practice, and the quality and value of what it produces. By this test, the House of Lords should survive".
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, I am truly grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. It would be invidious to single out individual speeches, but perhaps I may be allowed to say that I found the speech of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition exceptionally informative.
I wish to make just one or two points in relation to matters that arose late in the debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, who so agreeably replied to the debate, said that your Lordships should continue the convention of not voting against statutory instruments. I very much hope that you will reconsider that. It is a very weak convention. It is weak in the sense that it does not make any constitutional sense and weak also because it has been breached—notably in connection with the order relating to Rhodesian sanctions.
I hope that the noble and learned Lord will forgive me if I take him up on another point, which is his apparent enamour of Public Bill Committees. The great danger is that they might be taken as a means for the Government to load yet more legislation on Parliament. A consistent theme of this debate has been that we have far too much legislation.
I turn now to the suggestion that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that the European Convention on Human Rights should be repatriated. I entirely agree—not only are we signatories, but British lawyers played a large part in framing the convention. If we cannot go so far, I think the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, merits serious consideration. At least the Scrutiny Committee could examine subordinate legislation as to its compatibility 1575 with the European convention. That would be within its general scope—and it would not be going as far as its Australian counterpart.
My last point is one that I wished to make in opening the debate but omitted. I am very glad that a number of your Lordships referred to the sad news of the death of Mr. Cryer in an accident. He was a highly admired chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Statutory Instruments and, as your Lordships' House is the principal parliamentary organ of scrutiny of such instruments, we are all greatly in his debt. I know that your Lordships would wish to be associated with expressions of sympathy for his family and colleagues.
As for the rest, there is only a Motion for Papers outstanding and, in case there should be a pile of papers in the way of the next debate of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, on behalf of the Labour Party, I should like to express to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and to other noble Lords who have mentioned this tonight, our thanks for what they have said about Bob Cryer. He was a remarkable man and those of us who knew him respected him greatly. We are extremely grateful for what has been said.
§ Lord Elis-Thomas
My Lords, as a Cross-Bencher and a colleague of the late Bob Cryer from 1974 to 1979 and subsequently from 1983 onwards, I should like to add my condolences to his family and to express my long-standing high regard for him as a parliamentarian in the other House. Despite our many differences on European and other issues, his stance on such matters only deepened the admiration of all of us and our high regard for him.
§ Motion, for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.