HL Deb 04 March 1998 vol 586 cc1198-200

2.59 p.m.

Lord Hooson

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they envisage that the future role of the House of Lords will he changed, having regard to the impending changes in the United Kingdom's constitutional framework and her future relationship with the European Union; and when they intend presenting their views on this matter to encourage public debate.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard)

My Lords, it is unquestionable that this House plays an important and valuable role as a revising chamber and makes an important contribution to the legislative and political process. We envisage that this will continue after reform.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal aware that the Government are giving the impression that they have embarked upon a journey with little idea of their destination'? The Lord Privy Seal's Answer today reinforces that. In order to dispel this unfortunate impression, would it not be better for the Government to publish a preliminary paper on the possible enlarged function of this House in the future? That surely will govern how the House is to be constituted. Alternatively, are we to look forward to a future where this House as a second Chamber will depend entirely on patronage?

Lord Richard

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's last point is no. One should not look forward to a future where this House will depend upon patronage. I am happy to tell the noble Lord that the Labour Party manifesto was distinctly clear on the subject.

As regards the remainder of his questions, I do not think that we are on a blind journey. The Government are considering all the options, as one would expect a responsible government to do. When we have considered the options, we shall publish our conclusions. I hope that there will then be ample opportunity for public consultation.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I welcome the last statement by the noble Lord the Leader of the House. I do not think that it was of great surprise to anyone who has followed his remarks in the past on this important question. However, he knows, as does the House, that the history of the reform of your Lordships' House has always foundered on the difficulty of deciding the form of stage two of the reform after the abolition of the rights of hereditary Peers. That is the easy part and constitutes stage one. Can the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that the best guarantee of achieving the objective he has enunciated today is for any reform to take place simultaneously: that is, stage two simultaneously with stage one? We all recognise the temptation for any powerful government, in particular a powerful Prime Minister, to ride roughshod over the legitimate concerns of specific interest groups because of his majority in the other place. I imagine that above all this week students will readily understand the force of that argument.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the picture that the noble Viscount paints of this poor, defenceless House in which about 500 Conservative Peers shrink in the face of a Government who have a majority in the other place is somewhat fanciful.

I am delighted to welcome the noble Viscount's statement that the abolition of the hereditary Peers' right to sit and vote is easy. It will be easy if the Opposition accept that in principle. I am delighted to note that both the noble Viscount and his leader in another place, Mr. Hague, seem to be indicating that it is something they are now prepared to accept.

As to whether one has stage one first and stage two afterwards, I commend the noble Viscount to read the Labour Party manifesto.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal aware that there is a growing volume of opinion in the United Kingdom that the role of the House of Lords, as distinct from its composition, needs but minuscule changes compared with the drastic changes that are required in the structure, powers and institutions of the European Union? Is he further aware that on present form and indications it is likely that your Lordships' House will be in existence long after the European Union?

Lord Richard

My Lords, resignedly, and somewhat wearily, I congratulate my noble friend on managing to bring the affairs of Europe into any single question. No doubt he will have ample opportunity to express his views in future, as he has had ample opportunity to do in the past—opportunities which he has taken, and no doubt will take in the future—but, with great respect, not on this Question.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that there is no intention to modify the powers of this House to veto any amendment on quinquennial action thereby delaying another general election?

Lord Richard

My Lords, at present I am not proposing any variation whatsoever in the powers of this House. Speaking for myself, I find it inconceivable that any government even, if I may say so, one composed of representatives of the noble Earl's party, would wish to remove that part from our constitution.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, can the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal at least say whether the Government expect to publish their views or intentions on the future composition of this House in the long term before any legislation is introduced into Parliament concerning the status of hereditary Peers?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I repeat what I said. The way in which the Government are approaching the issue is set out in the Labour Party manifesto which I have no doubt the noble Lord has read. We shall conduct our work inside the Government with, I hope, due deliberate speed. When we have done so, we shall publish our conclusions.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal will appreciate that he cannot rely for ever upon the terms of the Labour Party manifesto. Your Lordships' House will expect to see a development of those ideas very soon. Not all of us share the argument that stage one must be accompanied by stage two. However, my noble friend Lord Hooson made an important point which I hope the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal will accept. When we have stage one—and the sooner the better; I hope preceded by a Green Paper for full discussion in this House at least before the Summer Recess—the Government must clearly point to the direction of stage two. It would be inadequate to go through the first stage of reform without knowing what the final destination might be.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am well aware that that is the view held by the noble Lord and his party—indeed, it is a view which I have heard often expressed.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, the Question refers to constitutional changes. Can I direct the Minister's attention to the major constitutional change that will take place in May of next year? Is my noble friend aware that from that date Scottish Questions will no longer be in order in the House of Commons? Can we have some assurance that similar strictures will not be applied in the House of Lords in these new constitutional arrangements?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am aware of no rules of order in your Lordships' House which would prevent a noble Lord from putting down such Question.

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