HL Deb 20 April 1998 vol 588 cc917-9

2.48 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the announcement by the Baroness Hayman on 25th March in the Statement on the Greater London Authority that "there is no substitute for democracy" (HL Deb, col. 1279) will also be applied to any proposed reform of the House of Lords.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard)

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by congratulating the noble Viscount. To succeed in linking my noble friend's answer about a London authority with the Government's proposals on reform of the House of Lords is lateral thinking of a very high order. If I may say so, the noble Viscount is obviously extremely skilled at textual badinage. I am sure that he is also very good at crosswords. Turning to the Question, I assure the House that, as set out in our manifesto, the removal of the rights of hereditary Peers to sit and vote will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for those compliments. However, I am quite hopeless at crosswords. In the light of his comments and the fact that the reform of the House of Lords is a relevant subject at the moment—it has been discussed both inside and outside this Chamber—can he explain in what way politically appointed life Peers have more democratic legitimacy than others who arrive here by accident of birth?

Lord Richard

My Lords, it occurs to me that those of us who are life Peers in this House are here for what we are meant to have done and not for what our parents are meant to have done.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, although the democratically elected House of Commons should always have the last word, it is a valuable part of our constitution and in the interests of democracy that we should have the power to ask the Government and the House of Commons to think again, and that we are more likely to do so effectively if we have a degree of independence of party political influence? Therefore, if we were democratically elected we would become a mere microcosm of the other place and a rubber stamp.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I agree with the first part of the noble Lord's question. Of course the second Chamber has, and must continue to have, the right to ask the elected House of Commons to think again. However, I do not share the connection that the noble Lord makes between the hereditary peerage and independence of political party. I am sorry to inform the noble Lord that according to the figures that is just not true. Some 360—I believe I have the figure correct—hereditary Peers take the Conservative Whip. On the whole, when they enter the Lobbies they tend to do what the Conservative Whips are pleased to see them do; namely, vote with the Opposition. As regards the Cross-Benchers, the Labour Party has consistently said that it is in favour of retaining an independent element in a reformed House of Lords.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, has the noble Lord the Leader of the House read the article in this morning's edition of The Times to the effect that the appointed working Peers do not turn up to do any work?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I read the article in The Times this morning. I should be interested to see an analysis of how often the hereditary Peers turn up to work. I suspect that the level of absenteeism among those who are here by accident of birth rather than by appointment is rather larger than it is in the case of the life Peers.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, may we take it from what the noble Lord the Leader of the House so clearly said that the Government's mind is now made up on how to proceed and we may take it for granted that a Bill will be included in the Queen's Speech? I hope the noble Lord will not say that it is not the habit of governments to declare their intention in advance of the Queen's Speech. That is simply not the case. The present Home Secretary and previous ones have often said well in advance what the Queen's Speech was likely to contain.

Lord Richard

My Lords, it is not the habit of governments to reveal what will be in the next Queen's Speech. Having said that, the noble Lord is as capable as I of doing the political arithmetic.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House not think that the time has come to have a better informed debate on this subject? Does he not feel that the Government should now publish an options paper to consider various alternatives for a reformed and—in the words of his party's manifesto—more democratic House?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I do not think it is appropriate to publish an options paper. My party's policy was clearly set out in its manifesto, upon which it was elected with an overwhelming majority.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal aware that what he said about a first stage in effect repeats the preamble to the Parliament Act of 1911? We are still waiting for a second stage. Can the noble Lord give us any reason to think that we shall have reached the second stage before the year 2011?

Lord Richard

My Lords, someone once said that a week in politics is a long time. Eighty years in politics is almost infinity. As I believe I said previously, I regard a Bill to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote as unfinished business from 1910.