HL Deb 13 July 1998 vol 592 cc5-8

2.48 p.m.

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they propose to take to strengthen the safeguards against a government seeking to extend the duration of a Parliament beyond five years.

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

My Lords, we believe that the present safeguards are sufficient.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his somewhat complacent reply. Is it not obvious that if the hereditary Peers' right to sit and vote were abolished and nothing else done to change the composition of this place, the constitutional safeguard in the 1911 Act giving the Lords an absolute veto on Bills to extend the life of Parliament would be gravely weakened in that the Government could easily secure the creation of enough Peers to get such a Bill through? Would it therefore not be rash and irresponsible for the Government to press ahead with their plans to create a wholly nominated Chamber when history shows that decades could elapse before a comprehensive reform took place—decades during which a vital safeguard against arbitrary power would have been rendered virtually useless?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe that my reply was complacent. Parliament has had its life extended on only two occasions this century; once in 1916, for obvious reasons, and once in 1940 for the same obvious reasons. I agree with the noble Lord that a speedy reconstitution on rational bases of your Lordships' House is long overdue.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in view of the Minister's definitive Answer to the Question, is not the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, tilting at windmills?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, partly.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, has the noble Lord forgotten that in Cromwell's time the Parliament was extended?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, is right in saying that Cromwell's time was before the relevant Act. The Septennial Act was passed only in 1715, so the Lord Protector's many virtues would not have been interfered with by that Act.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we were to go forward as is proposed—or likely to be proposed by the Jenkins Commission—to a form of proportional representation which would entrench a Lab/Lib government for ever, future elections would not be necessary and therefore there would be no point in the safeguard?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that is the best recommendation for the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that I have heard in many a year. As everyone knows, it is true that there is overwhelming support for the Prime Minister and all his manifold deeds. But I believe that the public ought to have an opportunity—say, every five years—to reinforce their absolute confidence in Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, in recollecting that over the years Her Majesty's Government have granted many former Commonwealth colonies written constitutions, has the Minister considered that one part of a long-term programme of constitutional reform might be to provide this country at last with a written constitution?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is certainly an argument to be made for that. There are also arguments to the contrary. I did not understand that it was the present policy of the present Opposition that we ought to have a written constitution.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, since the Minister declared that the Government were satisfied with existing safeguards, would he be very careful not to remove them in such a way that your Lordships' House might become a mirror image of the House of Commons and thereby wholly amenable to the Party Whips—a dreadful prospect?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I can see no immediate or long-term prospect of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, being a mirror image of anyone at all, nor indeed being subject to any whipping of any kind in any circumstance. The present safeguard is the Septennial Act of 1715. As I said in Answer to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that Act has worked extremely well over more than 250 years because it has been put on one side only twice; once in the First World War and once in the Second World War. That is not a bad record.

Lord McNally

My Lords, has the Minister noticed that hobgoblins such as threats of an extension of Parliament or needs for a government of national unity and so forth arise only when there is a non-Conservative government? Would not the best guarantee of our democracy be a functioning Opposition? Would it not be better, following the rather mediocre interventions from the Government Front Bench this Question Time—

Noble Lords

Opposition Front Bench!

Lord McNally

My Lords, the Opposition Front Bench—I will correct that in Hansard. Would it not be better if they followed the example of Miss Widdecombe in another place and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in this place and knuckled down to being an effective opposition because they have a long time to get used to it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there are no hobgoblins in your Lordships' House, whether hereditary or nominated. The fact is that I have not heard an intervention from the Opposition Front Bench on this pressing question. I am sure that we are all agog to have such a contribution.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Liberal Democrats have far greater experience in opposition than either the party in government or indeed ourselves and that it is therefore not surprising that they have used that experience to good effect during the course of the past 90 years?

Is the noble Lord also aware that there is a serious point behind my noble friend Lord Waddington's Question to which the Minister has not faced up? It is that if the hereditary peerage is to be removed—in other words, if the Government go ahead with their stage one without producing stage two—it will create a real danger that the life of Parliament could be extended against the interests of the people of this country.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I have heard some pretty thin arguments in my time, but I have to say that that pretty well takes the biscuit. The hereditary Peers are not necessarily the sole or indeed significant bastion of our rights in this country. The Act has worked well in the past; it does not need alteration at the moment. Ingenious though the noble Lord is, I cannot see that the Septennial Act has much to do with the reform which is long overdue. As the Lord Privy Seal said the other day, it is unfinished business since 1911. It has nothing really to do with it at all—has it?

Lord Annan

My Lords, has the Opposition Chief Whip forgotten that there is one safeguard in this House against abuse of this kind—the Cross-Benchers?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

And long may they remain, my Lords.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, while in any way refusing to criticise the role of the Cross-Benchers, I invite the Government to answer the much more important question as to when they will make an effort to safeguard the rights of the British Parliament as a whole against the ever encroaching European legislation that is being inflicted upon us without, in many cases, any approval of our Parliament at all?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, life is really such fun! I did not imagine that even the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, could have got the European Parliament into this Question. But my answer to him is that the safeguards of the independence of this Parliament here in Westminster lie with the individual conscience and duty of every Member, whichever House he or she inhabits.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, is not the noble Lord overlooking the fact that the difference between the present situation and the situation which has appertained over the past few centuries is that if the hereditary Peers' right to vote and to sit is abolished and nothing else is done it will only need the Prime Minister to recommend the creation of quite a few Peers for the government of the day to dominate this House absolutely?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is of course the position, and over the past 18 years incumbent prime ministers have used their power of party patronage to increase their representation in this House. It has been the fact that, numerically, Conservative Peers have always formed the largest segment. That does not seem just, it does not seem rational and it ought not necessarily to be tolerated for all time.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that the answer to the Opposition was actually given to this House last Tuesday in the debate and the decision on Scottish education fees when the existing Government were defeated, and would have been whether or not hereditary Peers had voted?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is factually correct. Whether that is the answer to the noble Lord's question, I am not quite sure.