§ Second Reading debate resumed.
§ 5.16 p.m.
My Lords, this is one of the saddest days of my political life. Unlike defeat in an election, when one may not only hope, but possibly expect to win on a future occasion, this Bill means the end of the House of Lords; the end of hundreds of years of history.
I stand by what I said last October: the Bill is a constitutional outrage. The Bill is nasty, short, and based largely on political prejudice. It will contribute nothing to better legislation, nor to more legislative control over the Executive, or benefit the British people at large in any respect whatever. It is not supported by a single serious political commentator or historian and, if public opinion polls are to be believed, nor by the public at large. No one has said in the course of the debates, letters, discussions or papers, that the House of Lords does a bad or ineffective job; quite the contrary. Above all, it will not lead to a Chamber with democratic legitimacy. We should all understand that life Peers are just as undemocratic as hereditary Peers. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, when looking for legitimacy in the future, this is something we should recognise in whatever follows from this Bill. It will not be a House that has any more political legitimacy.
The Bill will not lead necessarily to a stage two House based on any kind of political consensus. Indeed, in my view, it is the ultimate political irresponsibility to dismember the present House without saying what, if anything, will take its place. Any slight concessions have had to be dragged out of the Government and in my opinion it is a prime example of this Government's general contempt for Parliament and constitutional practice. It is for that reason, above all, that I shall support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, with whose speech and argument I agree.
48 The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, her colleagues in government and those on the Government Benches, may feel pleased with themselves this afternoon; but I wonder how history will come to judge them and the Labour Government. Destruction of institutions without reason or argument does not usually stand the test of time and is not usually well thought of. What business, what educational establishment, what organisation of any kind whatever would allow its destruction without saying what it intended to put in its place?
What are we destroying? The House of Lords is unique. It is a House of Parliament that regulates itself, whose members are courteous and whose customs and procedures are civilised and maintained by agreement. It is a House in which both sides of the argument are put with reason and indeed are listened to. Because of its character, the House has attracted very many distinguished men and women to come and participate in its debates and committees. I wonder whether such men and women will be as willing to come to the future House, particularly in stage one.
The present House is one in which women have done particularly well. They have been able to occupy all the top jobs. There is no glass ceiling and there is no intense power struggle or, indeed, a "macho" atmosphere about which so many women Members of Parliament complain. I believe that it owes these important characteristics above all to the presence of the hereditary Peers, many of whom have given great and distinguished service both to this House and to the country at large. It would be very wrong to let an occasion like this pass without recognising what they have done. Whatever may be the outcome, we must ensure that we manage to secure a House which works as well and which will attract people to give similar service.
I was delighted to hear my noble friend Lord Carrington speak this afternoon. He has given such long and distinguished service. I was also delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, in his place. He was the Deputy Labour Leader when I came to the House. Indeed, I recall so well his predecessor, Lord Shackleton. There are many hereditary Peers from all parts of the House to whom I should like to pay compliments if time would only allow me to do so.
This House has nothing to hide and nothing of which to be ashamed. After all, it was the first Chamber to allow in the television cameras. A surprisingly large number of people watched the House of Lords at work day by day and recognised its value.
As the Bill proceeds there will be a great deal of debate. Like other noble Lords I, too, have my views on what a future House might be like. However, perhaps I may answer three points which have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said that reform was frustrated in 1968. However, it was not frustrated by Conservatives; indeed, it was lost in the House of Commons. One of the people who contributed to that loss, as my noble friend Lord Carrington said, was Mr. Michael Foot.
When people talk about modernisation, I should point out that some of us are very sceptical about what it means. We have all watched the spectacle of the election 49 regarding the leadership in Wales, which was not exactly a democratic election judging by the standards of most of us. Those of us who take an interest in education are well aware of the unbelievably doubtful and rigged elections to get rid of grammar schools. There are many who are far more competent than I who would say that both referendums in Scotland and Wales left much to be desired.
I turn now to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers—a classic example, if I may say so, of the work of the Lib-Lab Pact. He compared the Bill before us to the Youth Justice Bill, which I recognise to be a very important piece of legislation. However, I should point out to him that there is no comparison to be drawn between that Bill and this constitutional measure and the time which should be allotted to it.
I had a great deal of sympathy with large parts of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. However, I hope that he is right to say that we shall have some cross-party debate. If this could only really be so—indeed, if any of us could believe it—we might view the coming procedures with something approaching a modicum of confidence. In my opinion, this is a bad day for the House; it is a bad day for public life; it is a bad day for Parliament; and it is a bad day for Britain.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Viscount Tenby
My Lords, it is with a sense of some surprise and trepidation that I rise to address the House, as I am not accustomed to being so highly placed in what is a very long list of speakers. I hope that I may not owe my exalted position to the expectation of a final family flourish on this most longstanding of issues. Things were very different in those days, as the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said earlier. I would only remind noble Lords that the Budget of 1908, which, to coin a phrase, nearly brought the House down, involved many all-night sittings in another place and ran to some 550 Divisions in all. I hope—and I am sure that the Chief Whip hopes with me—that even with the intensive and constructive criticism of the Bill, which we all anticipate, we may nevertheless escape with rather less strain on our constitutions.
I would not be presumptuous enough to suppose that anyone would be swayed by anything that I have to say or anything I do in this debate, unless perhaps it might be to follow my example by only speaking for a few minutes. I take it to be correct that I should confine my remarks to the Bill itself and to the intermediate stage which it creates. Therefore, I will resist the temptation to observe that, in my view, it would be a very great mistake indeed to have an all-elected second Chamber. So, with apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, I have to declare myself as a mish-mash man or a pot pourri Peer. On this issue the noble Lord, Lord Richard, has my vote—much good will that do his reputation, I fear.
The proposal to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House was contained in the victorious Labour Party's election manifesto. Although, of course, no one would seek to claim that it was that 50 promise which swayed the electorate more than any other, I must say to my noble friend Lord Cobbold that, in our democracy, such speculation is pointless. Accordingly, the Government are implementing what they have every right to implement; namely, their election pledge. However, perhaps I may be permitted one mild observation. It is perhaps a little disappointing that a party which has had this aim as an act of faith for so long should have devoted so little time to studying how it might be accomplished when it was in a position so to do.
Much has been made of the undesirability of proceeding on the path of reform until the composition of a revised second Chamber has been agreed. In the best of all possible worlds, that is undoubtedly right. Indeed, if there were time enough and the will, we should surely embark on the root and branch reappraisal of Parliament itself, for few can doubt that another place could do with the treatment as well.
On the other hand, deciding on the second stage is the difficult bit. It always has been. That is precisely why only minor progress has been made towards solving the problem in the past 87 years. Further, although there are many who believe passionately that an all-in-one reform is the only way to tackle the problem, I nevertheless wonder if there are not some who see this position as offering the best let-out, tactically, for doing nothing at all.
However, be that as it may, we now have the Bill. It is a comparatively short one given the complexity and sensitivity of the subject. The Government will hope, just as their opponents will hope to the contrary, that its draftsmen and advisers have got it right. There will be many tremors of excitement, as one legal hare after another is flushed from the undergrowth. But let us all keep a sense of proportion in the weeks to come.
The principal innovation following the Bill's publication has been the production of the so-called Weatherill amendment. I am sure that it is not necessary for me to emphasise that this is not an official Cross-Bench amendment, that being impossible in the nature of things. It is an amendment by three distinguished Peers who happen to be Cross-Benchers. I very much hope that as many noble Lords as possible will vote for it as it provides a constructive and practical means of carrying on the work of this House in the interim period. To seek to change its content fundamentally—by, for example, increasing the suggested number of Peers to be retained—would be at best unproductive and at worst might jeopardise the amendment itself.
In my view the selection of the 92 Peers to be retained is a matter of some importance. Some would see the correct procedure as being the establishment of an electoral college of hereditary Peers only, rather on the historical lines of the Scottish and Irish electoral colleges of former years. I believe, however—and it is only a personal view—that this is to run counter Ito the point which is surely behind this Bill. Such an election implies the continued legitimacy of the hereditary principle in this House and additionally disenfranchises those Peers—that is, the life Peers—who will have to 51 work alongside them. It would undoubtedly be too prescriptive to observe that we are not electing friends to a London West End club, but, coming at the problem from the opposite direction, it must surely be right to take the view that we should select the most competent Peers to facilitate and enhance the work of this House in what is likely to prove an indeterminate period. Accordingly, a case could be made for not only including life Peers in the electorate but also for confining the voting to those who are regular attenders of this House and who might therefore be supposed to have some knowledge of the capabilities of those offering themselves for election.
Some of us have been pondering on this problem for what seems to have been an eternity. Some four years ago I was privileged to be invited to join a group formed by the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, to investigate the subject of Lords' reform. I recall thinking at the beginning, with all the certainty of the uninformed, that the solution was a simple one: just do this, and a little bit of that, and hey presto, end of problem. Six months, and a great many distinguished witnesses later, I was fairly sure that I did not have the answer. Indeed, I was not even certain what the question was.
I wish the Royal Commission well in its daunting task. When we began our survey we took the view that we would not look back at all with sadness at what had been, provided that what came after was better in every way. Let us in our future deliberations try to make this hope a reality. Let us in the weeks to come act in such a way that people will say of us, "Nothing so became them as the manner of their leaving".
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, I do not want to weary the House and I hope that the noble Viscount will forgive me if I do not follow him in my speech as I wish to concentrate on one important point. This is not a transitional measure. I say with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that this is not a paving Bill, or anything like a paving Bill. There is nothing on the face of the Bill to suggest that it is a transitional measure. There is nothing in the preamble which suggests that it is a transitional measure. There is no sunset clause. There is no clause saying that it will cease to have effect on a particular event or after a particular length of time has elapsed. That is the legal position and that also is the practicality of the matter, and we had better keep it very much in the forefront of our minds.
The Government say that the Bill is intended only as the first stage in a two-stage process. I do not doubt for one moment that that is the Government's intention. But the reality is that the Government cannot guarantee that there ever will be a second measure providing a replacement for the nominated House created by this Bill. I have been over this ground before but we really must remember that history shows how difficult it is to get any consensus on reform. Anyone who has read the Second Reading debate on this Bill in another place will have seen that there is no consensus now in another place as to what kind of House should take the place of 52 this House, or take the place of a wholly nominated House. It is unlikely that there will be any consensus in the future.
It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and other noble Lords give us their views on what should be the shape of ultimate reform. But as the House created by this Bill may never be replaced, the real question is one which has not yet been addressed. We should ask ourselves whether the Bill as at present drafted contains all the safeguards one would expect to see in a Bill creating as a more or less permanent feature of our constitution a House wholly nominated by government. That is the real question. I ask Ministers to address it because it certainly has not been addressed yet.
In our debate a month or two ago I reminded the House that a government with dictatorial tendencies could pack the House with its own supporters and procure the passage of any legislation it wanted. In his response the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that I was scaremongering. He said that what I feared had never happened in the past and that, indeed, I was impugning the integrity of life Peers who could always be relied upon to do the right thing in any circumstances. The noble Lord was wrong for three obvious reasons. First, the hereditary Peers are a uniquely independent element in the present House simply because, unlike anyone else here, they are beholden to no one. It insults the intelligence to suggest that a wholly nominated House would be as independent; quite clearly, it would not. Secondly—
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, let me finish this passage and then I shall certainly give way. Secondly, the removal of the hereditary Peers—constituting more than half the total membership of the present House—will obviously make it easier for a government to dominate the House by packing it with people prepared to do their bidding. Thirdly, now that the Government have embarked on constitutional change, it is no answer to a demand for safeguards against possible abuse to say that that has never happened before. Our job, when we are creating a new House which may well be a permanency, is to make sure that this new House will be an effective barrier against the abuse of power. If it is not going to be that, there is little point in having it at all.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The noble Lord said that hereditary Peers are independent. Can he explain why 300 hereditary Peers take the Conservative Party Whip and only 18 take the Labour Party Whip?
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, clearly they have come to the conclusion that the Conservative Party better reflects their values than the Labour Party. The noble Lord fails to recognise the fact that they do not have to take any Whip. They do that of their own volition. They are beholden to no one. They could 53 decide tomorrow not to take the Conservative Whip if they decided it no longer reflected their views. The noble Lord was wrong in what he said.
I must emphasise that in The Times last week a common misunderstanding of the Government's position was given further currency. Valerie Elliott wrote,Mr. Blair has already announced that he intends to give up his powers of patronage for life peerages".Of course he has done nothing of the sort. What Mr. Blair has said is that he will relinquish his powers to make recommendations for Cross-Benchers, but he has not given up his power to decide the total number of nominations to go forward from the various parties and the Cross-Benchers. All we have got is the passage in Chapter 2, paragraph 19 of the White Paper which states that,the Government will ensure that no one political party commands a majority in the Lords".Pious declarations—particularly pious declarations which can only reflect the views of the present Government and cannot possibly be an instruction to future governments—are no substitute for statutory safeguards. I want to suggest what I believe is the very minimum safeguard which should be written into a Bill such as this creating a Chamber which is wholly nominated.
In my submission the Bill should put appointments in the hands of a statutory appointments commission charged with the task of recommending appointments from the various parties in numbers which ensure that the government of the clay have a small majority over the other parties but not in the House as a whole. Your Lordships will recognise those words. As such an amendment would reflect more or less precisely what the Government say in their own White Paper, it should not present any problem for them. I hope to get an encouraging response from the Government. I certainly hope that I will not be told that that is merely a Committee point, let alone that it is outside the scope of the Bill, because—I emphasise this point—the question of whether there will be adequate safeguards should be at the very centre of the debate. Without such safeguards, the Bill is a constitutional enormity.
I believe that we should go further than the modest proposal that I have just made. It would be a massive mistake—I am repeating myself now, which I do not often do, but I have an excuse for doing so because I want to support what was said by my noble friend Lord Carrington—if the Government, now that they have embarked on a sweeping change to the composition of this House, did not make another change, which would chime in well with the Government's enthusiasm for referendums. Now that we are embarked on great constitutional change, we should bear in mind that there are few safeguards in this country against a government, supported by a hefty but perhaps very temporary majority, destroying our most precious institutions, including the monarchy. And yet most people recognise that these institutions are not the playthings of politicians, to be tampered with at the whim of a temporary majority, but are held in trust by us for our children and our children's children. Should there not 54 therefore be a special procedure, as was suggested by my noble friend Lord Carrington, whereby Bills which are certified by the Speaker as constitutional. but are rejected by the second Chamber, become law only if endorsed by the electorate in a referendum? Alternatively, in the case of constitutional Bills alone, the delaying powers of the second Chamber should be restored to the 1911 Act position and there should be no further change in the second Chamber's powers without the second Chamber's consent.
It is wrong that we should be required to debate this Bill without the Government revealing their long-term plans. If the Government were determined on the two-stage process they could easily have postponed the introduction of the Bill until they had decided on their reaction to the conclusions of the Royal Commission. Instead the Government have decided to pander to the class warriors in the Labour Party. Now that they have introduced this measure—which they may never be able to replace—we are entitled to insist that it contains provisions which prevent the kind of abuse of power which must be a risk if one of the two Houses of the legislature is composed wholly of the Government's nominees.
I have one last point. In our debate on 17th March the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, said that the House of Commons needs rather more reform than this place. He said:Unhappily, the Chamber of the other place is no longer the forum of the nation".—[Official Report, 17/3/99; col. 750.]He added that the job of holding the executive to account is done rather better in this place than it is down the corridor. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, was coming very close to the same position. It is a sad and grave matter that the Government should be reducing the independence of this place at the very time when the authority of the House of Commons has been so sadly diminished and when it has become almost a part-time House playing little part in checking the executive.
I am prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and assume that they embarked on this exercise without realising how gravely weakened was the other place. But they must know the score now and, given the present position, this Bill, far from being, in the words of the Labour Manifesto,the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative",is an act of constitutional vandalism that could well result in this place becoming as ineffective a check on the executive as the House of Commons has already become. The country may finish up paying a fancy price for a mean and spiteful measure which will not further parliamentary democracy but weaken it. I shall vote for the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, it is with great personal regret that I have not been able to attend the previous two magnificent debates which have been held 55 in your Lordships' House on this subject, but that does not mean that I have not followed them line by line and word by word. Indeed, I have.
It seems to me that the underlying current of feeling of many noble Lords is that nothing should be done or any definitive action taken until the Royal Commission has reported and put forward proposals on what it believes will be an independent body, or a body as independent as possible. Until its report has been carefully considered, it would be wrong to tamper with your Lordships' House.
I take issue with the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby. I do not agree that that is a devious method of trying to scotch the whole Bill. I can speak only personally, obviously, and, like the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, I am in favour of reform. Reform is necessary. We are on the eve of the 21st century. I felt uncomfortable—particularly when I was with the party opposite—that there was perceived to be an in-built majority on that side of the House. It is a privilege for any Member of your Lordships' House to sit here and to speak. I question—and always have questioned—whether that privilege was not perhaps undermined a little when the Conservative Party, on very few occasions, used the big stick and whipped in a great many Peers, who are commonly called backwoodsmen, who were seen very little from one year's end to another. I always thought that that was perhaps taking things too far. If that limited point could be addressed I should have thought that the fundamental principle of objection by the Labour Party would have been removed. Unfortunately, when it says that that objection would not be removed, it leads me to feel that the Bill stems from the politics of envy. The Labour Party does not like privilege. I can understand that.
Other noble Lords who have spoken at length have said that the present system undoubtedly has its merits. I believe sincerely that, by and large, the pros of your Lordships' House outweigh the perceived cons.
I referred to reading the reports of previous debates. In the debate on the White Paper the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said:The Government have taken no steps. carried out no study, to determine the consequences".—[Official Report, 22/2/99; col. 883.]What is more, he made it plain that the Leader of the House had made it clear in writing—not by insinuation—that the Government had no intention of so doing. It strikes me as most peculiar, indeed awful, that anyone running any organisation could possibly screw the whole thing up by not having the faintest idea of what is to take its place. The British people deserve better. The matter should be thought through very carefully.
Furthermore, I question whether Parliament as a whole, and even this House, should be deciding upon the principles of the Bill. We all have parochial interests; we all have our own axes to grind; we all have vested interests. It is better that as independent a body as possible does all the thinking about this issue. It should listen, find out what functions the House has, and recommend a measure for Parliament to ratify. I do not 56 refer merely to rubber-stamping; but in principle the underlying proposals should come from an independent body rather than politicians, including ourselves.
The noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, made an interesting speech in which he put forward a suggestion in broad outline and said that we need to achieve a balance in this House. That is right. His words are worth reading. I hope that the Royal Commission will take that point on board. It is close to the views that I have held for some time.
It will be argued that the removal of the hereditary Peers is part of the Labour Party's manifesto. I read in one newspaper this morning that it had emerged in a poll that only 2 per cent. of those who were asked remembered that this proposal was in the manifesto in the first place. I venture to suggest that if people had realised that such dramatic effects would be visited upon this House without there being the slightest idea as to what would come after it, 2 per cent. of those who supported the Labour Party in the polls might have voted the other way, and possibly more. It is a terrible thing to do.
We must not pre-empt matters before the Royal Commission reports, but it has been said that a few hereditary Peers might remain in the transitional stage. I may be a bear of very little brain, but I really do not understand that. I honestly believe that it is grabbing at the wrong end of the stick. We are here to consider whether or not there should be hereditary Peers in this House; that is a matter for the Royal Commission. I do not believe that the House should be tampered with. I believe that the idea of a suggested number agreed by both sides is an artificial fix, a sop. I do not like it. Something about it "smells a funny colour". Why not 121? Why not 11? I do not follow that argument. I thought it was Conservative Party policy, before that suggestion was mooted by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—for whom I and everyone in this House have the greatest regard—that we should resist most strongly, with all the power at our disposal, any Bill to alter the framework of this House until the Royal Commission had reported. I may be mistaken, but I believe that was the policy. If it was not, it should have been.
This is a bad Bill, produced at the wrong time, in the wrong way. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales, which are all rather jolly. There is a cautionary tale in this:… always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse I suggest that we keep a-hold of this particular nurse until another one can be found with impeccable references and undoubted abilities. We should remember that we act in haste and repent at leisure. I very much hope that, even at this late stage, we shall act at leisure and have no cause for regrets later.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, this is a momentous debate. There are nearly 200 noble Lords who wish to speak and I am sorry that the Government have insisted that the Bill be compressed into two days. I very much 57 share the views expressed by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde last week and I do not understand why the Government decided that the two balloted debates on the Order Paper for Wednesday were apparently more important than this Bill.
A number of us on this side of the House had intended to intervene during the discussion last week. Unfortunately, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor rose so swiftly to put the Question that we were not able to do so. Perhaps we should have stood up more quickly, but I hope that the noble and learned Lord will take great care in the future proceedings on this Bill to allow all of us to express our view.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, has suggested that we should confine our speeches to seven minutes. A number of noble Lords no doubt wish that mine should be confined to even less. Be that as it may, on a Bill of this nature that is not an appropriate suggestion. I confess that I have no intention of being so confined, except in accordance with the Standing Orders of this House.
On numerous occasions during the various discussions on this matter before the Bill came before the House, a number of government spokesmen, including in particular the right honourable lady the Lord President of the Council and the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, chose to make some pretty disobliging remarks about the motivations, qualities and antecedents of hereditary Peers which many of us have not much cared for. Happily, the noble Baroness did not repeat those remarks today and I very much welcome that.
I turn now to the Bill itself. The Government stated in their manifesto, and again in the recent Queen's Speech, their intentions to bring forward this measure. The noble Baroness is right to say that it appeared in the manifesto, and we are right to acknowledge that fact. That said, it is clearly a constitutional measure of momentous importance and has not yet been adequately considered in parliamentary terms, less still in the country. I hope that we can correct that in this House.
As our debate on the White Paper demonstrated, this debate is again showing the depth of interest among your Lordships on reform of this House. I wonder whether the Government have yet realised how tough a battle they now face.
It will come as no surprise that I am opposed to this legislation. I am not opposed to the principle of reforming this House if the outcome leaves us with a second Chamber in a stronger and more independent position in its relationship both to the other place and to the Government. As was stated in today's Daily Telegraph:Like it or not, the Upper House is an integral part of our Constitution. We already suffer from an overmighty executive. Removing the hereditary peers will make that much worse".
Indeed, the Bill quite clearly and somewhat fundamentally ignores any discussion on the powers and independence of Parliament, which surely must be addressed when considering Lords reform. That lack of 58 vision is very worrying for those of us who are genuinely concerned about the independence of Parliament.
In his important speech, my noble friend Lord Carrington referred to his view as to what the future constitution of the House of Lords might look like. I rather share that view. A wholly elected Chamber is perhaps the most intellectually sustainable of all the solutions that have been canvassed. But Ministers often point to their manifesto commitments. Let us take just one of them. The Labour Party manifesto stated:The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered".How interesting—because if we look at the White Paper we see that the Government argue that,a better approach might be to reduce the theoretically available powers recognising that they might as a consequence be used more frequently".This Bill is not driven by what is necessarily right for the future of parliamentary democracy, but by a long-held and well known political disrespect. not to say contempt for this House in its present composition.
I have heard it said that Ministers, especially in the other place, do not understand the workings of this House—for example, the fact that we do not need an umpire to help us get through our business or to keep order. And the very fact, which perhaps rankles most, that the Whips cannot hold patronage over Peers, sends shivers down the backs of the apparatchiks in Downing Street and Millbank. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Government should introduce this Bill that ends the right of hereditary Peers both to sit and to vote in this House without offering any serious alternative.
Of course, Ministers will argue that it will be the job of the Royal Commission to come forward with proposals for future reform. But let us not forget that the decision by the Government to establish such a commission was a belated and reluctant concession. And, as many of your Lordships have said previously, it is wrong to have stage one reform without stage two. That view is also held by the Financial Times, a newspaper which more often than not supports this Government. It states today that the Government are wrong,to pull down this venerable part of Britain's constitutional edifice before it had even the architect's drawing for the new structure".All this raises additional questions. What is to stop the Government making the so-called transitional House a permanent fixture? What will happen if the Government are opposed to the recommendations of the Royal Commission? Again, to quote the Financial Times,finding the right formula will be difficult".Will Ministers be willing to accept recommendations, regardless of whether they agree with them or not? I very much doubt it. I suspect that, in such circumstances, they will opt to do nothing.
What have Ministers told us about the composition of this House in the transitional stage and their reasons for removing hereditary Peers? They have this obsession with the so-called built-in majority of the Conservative Party. They forget the number of defeats inflicted by 59 Peers on the previous administration. Ministers make the claim that in removing the so-called Conservative majority in this place it is not their intention merely to replace it with a Labour one. All they would seek, they say, is broad parity of numbers with the Conservative Party. But what guarantee do we have that the Government will retain that view; and, anyway, what does it mean? Perhaps the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal could point to the relevant clause in the Bill or explain the position more fully.
What is the view of the Labour Party at large on this matter, including, in particular, the more venerable members? Experience confirms that the Labour Party will go to great lengths to ensure that the leadership maintains its steely grip whenever it can. Look at how they ensured that only Blairites were chosen to fight seats in the Scottish Parliament, at how a splendid Blairite candidate has become the leader of the party in Wales and at how the members of the NEC are not allowed to say anything after they have attended meetings.
My suspicion is, therefore, that, once the Bill has cleared its parliamentary process, the Government will do more than seek broad parity of number; they may even ensure that they have an overall majority, and this House will then lose its independence. We shall be left with a wholly nominated House, with all the obvious disadvantages of that arrangement.
Perhaps I may refer to two other matters connected with reform of this House: what we now understand as the Archer amendment and the Weatherill amendment.
I understand that my noble friend Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare intends to propose an amendment restricting the right to vote of Peers who do not attend sufficiently regularly. I do not see my noble friend in his place. This topic has been discussed as a matter of principle by noble Lords who have spoken earlier and believe I am entitled to refer to it. Such an amendment will need careful drafting, but I do not necessarily disagree with it. Peers who are Members of this House are in a special position and we must be certain that in limiting one right we do not inadvertently undermine another. Furthermore, we shall need to have regard to the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has a great deal to say on parliamentary and related freedoms.
In his proposed amendment, my noble friend is no doubt responding to the oft-repeated criticisms—which we have heard again today—of so-called backwoods Peers who choose to come to the House only on selected occasions. But it is a fact that many life Peers, especially, I am sorry to say, some of quite recent creation, also choose to come only infrequently, and I very much hope that any amendments that are proposed will not be confined to hereditary Peers but will also include life Peers—and, for that matter, right reverend Prelates and Most reverend Primates.
I turn now to the so-called Weatherill amendment, by which the noble Lord apparently plans to allow 91 hereditary Peers to be elected by their colleagues and to remain in the House during stage one only. Since 60 many of us doubt the Government's determination to proceed to stage two, this amendment, if agreed, may take on some importance. While I welcome this obvious reversal of the Government's position, I have to say plainly that 91 is nothing like sufficient for the intended purpose. The day-to-day business of this House is largely run by hereditary Peers and there is no evidence that life Peers are willing to take on the numerous detailed duties performed by hereditary Peers in anything like the numbers required. As I indicated earlier, the attendance record of life Peers is in many cases patchy at best. The House simply cannot function on that basis. I therefore hope that, if the Bill is to proceed as the Government wish, the Government will demonstrate some flexibility on this matter and agree to a greater number of hereditary Peers remaining, one way or another.
Perhaps I may add one further point. Among the hereditary Peers to be excluded under the Bill are a small number of very senior Peers, to whom my noble friend Lord Strathclyde referred, who may well not choose to offer themselves for election but whom we should all wish to remain as Members of this House. I hope that the Government will find a way of making that possible.
I turn now to the reasoned amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. That amendment enshrines many of the concerns that I have about the Bill, and I shall therefore support it.
I conclude by confirming my opposition to this measure. As drafted, it undermines the independence and effectiveness of your Lordships' House in a way which one day we shall all regret. I and others shall therefore want to suggest a range of amendments to correct these shortcomings. I anticipate lengthy discussion on these matters, but these are issues of momentous importance and I make no apology to your Lordships for the prospect of a long and difficult progress through this House. It would be so much better if the Government would wait for the views of the Royal Commission and then proceed on an agreed basis, but they have chosen not to do so. So be it. I consider that we have a duty to oppose with all the vigour at our command, and I pledge myself to that process.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition for his very kind association of my name with the names of old friends from the other side of the House. It is certainly an honour to be associated with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe. I felt that there was a name missing, that of Lord St. Aldwyn, but he is dead, of course. I shall always remember him with affection. He was the party opposite's Chief Whip for many years. They were my tutors in my early days in this House, just as, in 1945, when my father came to the House, where he became Chief Whip, the grandfather of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, was equally helpful and solicitous on all occasions. I believe that that has provided the continuity of this House.
61 However, it has to be recognised that it was a dying House. Due to the economic circumstances, the hereditary principle was not throwing up sufficient men of nobility and experience to maintain this House and enable it to perform what were then its duties. When the first life Peers came to the House—whom I remember with great affection and respect—they brought a new life and a new approach within the traditions of the House, and I believe that that led hereditary Peers to feel that this was a place worth coming to. This was not a dying House but a place in which something could be done. To he frank, I believe that friction that once did not exist is beginning to build up between the hereditary Peers and the life Peers. Here we are allowed our personal opinions.
I support the Bill, but do so with some sadness having been in this House for some 44 years. I have had my best times and my best friends here. However, I understand, as do noble Lords opposite, that my son and particularly my grandson will not have the privileges that I have enjoyed in this place. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was less than fair in observing in his remarkable speech that my noble friend the Leader of the House had not been well disposed to hereditary Peers and failed 10 acknowledge what they had done in the past. I believe that taking the speeches that have been made overall that accusation is not sustained. My son and grandson accept that by birth they have no right to legislate in the 21st century in a civilised and democratic state.
There has been criticism of the Bill itself. The Government have done exactly what I said they should do: they have kept the Bill short and dealt with one issue only. They have learned the lessons of 1968 when one of the most complicated Bills was introduced and frustrated on the issue that we are now discussing, because reform of this House made this place more respectable and therefore was a challenge to another place. It is unfair to place the entire blame on Michael Foot. I believe that Enoch Powell was somewhere on the scene. It is also true that the Conservative Party removed the whip at the very moment that they should not when there was agreement to the White Paper and the principles within the Bill. Therefore, the Government are right in what they have done: they have kept the Bill short and precise.
I do not believe that this Bill should deal with anything about the future. I doubt whether the Government are right to expect that the Royal Commission will deliver forth a major paper in such a short space of time. I say to its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that I thoroughly approve of what (I hope) is his order of priorities: role; function; power; procedure; and, finally, composition. Unless one can deal with those earlier issues one cannot appreciate the form of composition of this House. I heard my noble friend the Leader of the House refer to various other modernising Acts. I do not believe that we are part of the wind of change, to use that great phrase coined by Mr. Harold Macmillan. There is a great wind of change in our constitutional structure. It may well be that there will have to be some adjustment—though not a dramatic one—and reform in the other place and here so that the 62 two Houses are more complementary one to the other, although both Houses exercise control over the executive.
I turn to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. Despite his vigour, I do not believe that his heart was really in the amendment. I suspect that he would have preferred to move a Motion that this House do not approve the Bill. The noble Baroness nods her head and I am glad that she endorses my impression. It has been said that we should regret party political interest. I am all for the Labour Party seeking a degree of parity with the party opposite. I do not regard that as party political interest in the way that it was meant to be. I believe that this House would be a healthier place with parity. It is not right that we should have to retain a large number of Peers here night after night, no matter how immaterial the Government legislation may be, just in case the noble Lords opposite decide to call a Division or merely to maintain a quorum. I am all for parity. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, drew attention to the 1968 agreement that the Government of the day should have only a bare majority over the other two political parties. I do not know whether an amendment to that effect can be drafted, but in principle I go along with it. It would apply to the two parties in this House. Therefore, there would have to be some adjustment to the composition.
I turn to the last point made by the noble Lord relating to consultation and consensus. It has been with us for the whole of the century. In 1948 we had an agreement, but it all fell apart because of disagreement on powers. In 1968 we had an agreement. Thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, we had a massive majority in this House to abolish the hereditary principle. It must be remembered that a massive majority of Conservative Peers voted with us for the abolition of the hereditary principle but it was lost in another place. As it is a simple Bill the issue is now before us at the end of March. We have all the time in the world, although the Government Chief Whip may not think so. We have at least three months in which to examine the Bill. Sooner or later we shall recognise whether or not there is a degree of frustration.
I turn quickly to the Weatherill amendment. The Leader of the House has made it clear that the Weatherill amendment depends very much upon the way in which the Conservative opposition react to the Bill. I should like an assurance from the Government that even if that amendment were passed in Committee and later the Opposition sought to frustrate the matter, the Government would take the necessary steps in another place to overturn it. Unless it is clear that that is what we shall do, I do not see how we can accept the Weatherill amendment. I much prefer that it be done in a different way if hereditary Peers are seen to be necessary in a transitional House. I do not know how the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, believes we shall vote for hereditary Peers. Will it be done by the hereditary Peers in the Conservative Party or by all members of the party? I have not heard from my noble friend how it is intended to do it. We have only two. I do not know 63 where we will find volunteers. But it is essential that if this understanding is accepted, the party opposite plays fair and straight in the matter. I support the Bill.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, Richard Cromwell, our second Lord Protector, was a victim of the hereditary principle. He did not share his father's reputation sometimes, but he did make one memorable remark. He said,I will not have one drop of blood shed for the preservation of my greatness, which is a burden to me".
I would not wish to pretend for a moment that the position we enjoy here could be described as greatness, and it would be a gross discourtesy to pretend that membership of this House had been nothing but a burden; but the desire to avoid bloodshed often has something to be commended. When the King returned in 1660, Richard Cromwell was allowed to resume the life of a Hampshire country gentleman. It may please some of your Lordships and alarm others to learn that he continued to ride to hounds until his death, 42 years later. Peace has a price and that price is often worth paying.
I listened with great care to what the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal had to say about the concept of birthright. I was reminded of one of my current pupils who is writing a long essay on the philosophy of liberalism, advised, I hasten to say, by someone a great deal more impartial than myself. She has seized on one quotation to argue that one of the keys to the whole philosophy is a belief in equality of birthright. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, would put it, "Well, there is no arguing with that". Since I intend to insist on that principle on behalf of those disentitled to benefit or on behalf of asylum seekers, I must equally insist on it against myself.
The noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal will remember that when we were undergraduates I could see no reason why, by a mere accident of birth, I was allowed membership of the Oxford Union and she was not. Equally, I can see no reason why, by a mere accident of birth, I should have an automatic right to membership of this House when she did not. She has known me long enough to know that this is no abandonment of competition; but I hope to compete on equal terms without hiding behind a tariff barrier of privilege.
It is often said that we do a good job. I believe that on the whole we do; but it is not a sufficient answer. The question is why we should have the right to do the good job. The only defence is on the ground that our selection was a lottery; but a lottery which has produced about 10 old Etonians to every old Harrovian is one which the noble Viscount, Lord Long, might have some difficulty in defending.
Some resent privilege. It has usually done them no harm. The noble Baroness, after all, is now Lord Privy Seal. If it does harm, it is to those who accept it, who believe therefore that they are lesser people than we are.
64 I recall an occasion on which I had been agreeing exam marks with David Starkey, my fellow examiner. I was driving him home very late one Saturday night and was stopped at the wrong end of Islington by police who clearly suspected that we were drug-running. I told them that my name was Russell and I lived in Kilburn, which did not appear to reassure them—until David Starkey adopted his very highest moral tone, which as some of your Lordships know is positively stratospheric, and said, "This is Professor the Earl Russell". whereat the police all scarpered! The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, knows very well that we have deplored the process of stereotyping in the police force. I must admit that I enjoyed that moment, but I do not think that I should have benefited from it.
At the same time, however, we have the same right to scrutinise proposals for our successors as we have to scrutinise any other government proposal. There are real fears, which the noble Lord, Lord Richard. has addressed in a speech which I heard with great pleasure, about the composition of the future House. Ministers will say that those fears are misplaced. I will be very glad indeed if I find that is true; but I beg Ministers to recognise that those fears are perfectly genuine. Our chances of getting this Bill through peacefully and quietly depend on the Government's success in reassuring those fears.
I agree precisely with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that the purpose of this House is the reduction of executive power. I therefore also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and I do not look with favour on any suggestion that the powers of this House should be reduced. We need to be able to challenge the Government in the Division Lobbies. We need to be able to send legislation back to another place a second time. We need to recognise what this House has described as its unfettered freedom to vote on secondary legislation. However, perhaps most important of all, one of our greatest powers is our freedom to control our own allocation of time.
I hope that those fighting the abolition of the hereditary peerage in the course of this Bill will remember that in defending one thing which is precious to them they would be unwise to threaten something which is even more important, because that freedom, like others, survives only so long as we do not abuse it.
Since legitimacy has been put in issue, election is now the only thing which is widely recognised as conferring legitimacy. We need predominantly an elected and not a nominated House. Were a proposal to appear for election by a closed list, there would be room for dispute in which of those two categories it should be placed. I do not, however, join those who say that it should be all election.
In the defence of the hereditary peerage which we have heard, and which I must admit I heard with some element of pleasure, one also hears a distrust of the party machinery and of its tendency to drift towards oligarchy rather than democracy. That feeling is real in the country at large. I do not believe that we are the right mechanism to carry that feeling, but it is there and the lightning needs a conductor.
65 It is vital to bear in mind that speeches in this House do sometimes change votes. I believe that we need Cross-Benchers. My position therefore remains the position of the Cook-Maclennan talks: a predominantly elected House in which there should be a nominated element. That might be something which we could keep hold of and take forward. If we look in these directions, I hope this Bill may survive, like Richard Cromwell, without undue bloodshed.
§ 6.28 p.m.
My Lords, perhaps I may start by congratulating the Government on this Bill. Congratulations do not come thick and fast to governments, so I thought that they might like that. I congratulate them on the length of the Bill and not on its composition.
The Bill ends a 700 year-old right for some 700 Peers to sit in Parliament. Whatever views one might have about the worthiness of that, it is pretty heady stuff. I can well understand noble Lords opposite thinking that it is wrong for hereditary Peers to have a place in Parliament. That is a perfectly respectable argument and one which is often deployed, even though I do not share it myself. Members of another place have always disliked your Lordships' House and none more than the Labour Members of Parliament. The curious thing is that they all queue up to come here. And they do. We see serried ranks of them—slightly less serried at half past six in the evening than at three o'clock in the afternoon. But we love them and I like to think that they love us too. But once they are here a curious thing happens. They metamorphose into cuckoos and try to hook out of the nest the eggs already there, the very eggs that have given the nest its character and—dare I say it?—possibly a little of its attraction.
Whatever happens as we progress through the Bill, I hope that we shall be able to treat each other with courtesy. I congratulate the noble Baroness the Leader of the House on her opening remarks, in which she showed greater understanding. That was not exactly the case heretofore from Members of the Front Bench when there was a certain amount of spikiness. Whatever happens, the chances are that the hereditary Peers will go, and too much war-whooping for joy or vitriol is rather like kicking spaniels. I hope that we do not have too much of that. Even those accused of the most heinous murder are given the best possible breakfast before they go to the gallows. It does not do them much good, but it is a nice, thoughtful gesture.
Where the Government stand condemned over the Bill is that they are upheaving one of the Houses of Parliament without agreement, discussion or consensus, and no one has the slightest idea what is to follow. It would at least be understandable if the Government said, "We're going to get rid of hereditary Peers and remodel the House of Lords in this way". But to set up a commission of political people who have been appointed by the Prime Minister to say what they think should happen, but after the Bill has been passed and after the constitution has already been altered, seems to me to give scant respect both to the constitution and to Parliament.
66 Stages one and two of the reform should have come together. It is literally beyond comprehension that the Government should have deliberately separated them. After all, what is the hurry? Is 12 months in 700 years that much of a delay? I do not think so. The motivating force seems to be based on no greater intellectual basis than the beat of the tom-toms: "Get rid of hereditary Peers; get rid of hereditary Peers". That is the theme which underlines everything, as though it was the only thing that matters.
But is it? What do the Government want? They do not seem to know. They do not want to get rid of all hereditary Peers. That is what the Bill states. Members of the Government have spent the past 18 months castigating hereditary Peers saying that their presence in Parliament is an offence to democracy. But then the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor says that he is quite prepared to retain 91 hereditary Peers. What do the Government want? Do they want 91 hereditary Peers? If they do, why do they introduce a Bill which says that there are to be none? If they want 91 hereditary Peers, why do they not say so in the Bill? It seems to me illogical.
The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, made an extraordinary remark. He has vanished already, but he is allowed to do that. He said that it depends upon the way your Lordships behave as to whether or not 91 should be allowed. That is a most astonishing way to seek to alter the constitution. We should be a little more grown-up than that.
In my view of this Bill, the Government have a tiger by the tail. It will pull them heaven knows where, and the effect will be felt not just by hereditary Peers but by the House of Lords as a Chamber, by Parliament, the constitution and the people. No one knows where we are going, and no one knows where we shall end up. I hesitate to say this to noble Lords opposite, but the fault lies entirely with the Government for their impetuousness in bringing forward a totally inadequate Bill.
We have heard possibilities discussed by my noble friend Lord Carrington and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, today. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that now is the time to start debate. That should have been done before the Government introduced the Bill. For example, are the Government right to ask Parliament to override the Writ of Summons from the monarch? The Writ of Summons summons a Peer for the lifetime of a Parliament. The Bill states that that will cease in mid-Parliament. Can a government or Parliament usurp the command of the monarch when they or it feel like it? It is the command by which we all justify our presence here. Can the Government say to some Peers, "You may continue to have the authority of your writ", but to others, "You may no longer have the authority of your writ". I well remember the aircraft and shipbuilding industry legislation of 1976. It was a hybrid Bill because some ship repairing firms were being nationalised while others were not. It became hybrid because there was discrimination against people who were doing similar work. Is there not discrimination in this Bill against people who are doing similar work?
67 It does not seem to have occurred to the Government that when the hereditary Peers go and your Lordships' House consists of appointed people it will be no more democratic than it is now. Let us remember that. The life Peers will say, "Thank goodness for that. Now we have got rid of the baggage. Now we can do the job we were sent here to do", and the House of Lords will perpetually amend legislation without the restraint which the presence of hereditary Peers provides. And it will do so on secondary legislation, where until now it has always been a convention that your Lordships' House does not usurp the supremacy of another place. But that will happen; and another place will hate it and the relationship between the two Houses will be one of growing acrimony.
I fear that the smile on the face of the life Peers over the demise of hereditary Peers will soon vanish because life Peers will be the next to go. If there is to be an elected Chamber, or a partially elected Chamber, will many of your Lordships feel motivated to go to the hustings and seek the approval of the voters? Will the voters want to vote for many of your Lordships who are left here? But if there is to be a House in which some have been elected and some have been appointed, is that not a recipe for first and second class citizens in your Lordships' House?
Do people really want to have a second elected Chamber? Most people think that one is quite enough. Will people want to have to vote not just for the House of Commons, the European Parliament, local authorities, national assemblies and possibly the regional assemblies, but also for the House of Lords? Will people want to come to this House with its limited powers and no pay? Of course not. As sure as night follows day, we can see what will happen. They will want to be paid. Then the Peers who are here will want research students. They will want more and better accommodation. The costs of the second Chamber will soar. For all their Early Day Motions, the last thing another place wishes for is an elected second Chamber. They will hate that, too.
Do the Government want a stronger or weaker second Chamber? The Prime Minister has said that he will pack your Lordships' House with his own people so that the elected Chamber can get its way. At the same time, the Government say that they want to have a strong second Chamber in order to act as a check on the Executive. That is what they say, but they rise up in fury if your Lordships exercise even a scintilla of strength. Who will believe that that will change just because there is a change in the composition? If there is to be a stronger Chamber, it will be of necessity at the expense of another place because power is finite and will shift from one place to another.
Your Lordships may say that this is fantasising and nothing to do with the Bill, but I suggest that it has everything to do with the Bill. The Bill lays before your Lordships a Pandora's Box, full of the unknown. The Government refuse to open it because they have not thought it through, but in their obduracy the Government are wholly responsible. Is it not a sign of extraordinary pettiness that if and when the hereditary 68 Peers go they will never be allowed back into the Chamber again, other than as a guest? In another place, when a Member ceases to be a Member, for whatever reason, he is allowed back into the premises for the remainder of his life, and he can have his meals there. But not so in your Lordships' House.
We were glad to listen to my noble friend Lord Carrington this afternoon. He has had a distinguished record in public service. He will not be able to come back. The doors will be barred against him and all other hereditary Peers, too. What an astonishing reward that is for a lifetime of public service! And it will be the hapless doorkeepers who will be given the jolly task of keeping your Lordships out. Whether they have been trying their skills at a half-Nelson or in rugger tackles, I do not know, but it is pretty indecorous stuff at the best.
The Government obviously think that your Lordships' House, or anyhow the hereditary Peers, are either old-fashioned, too traditional or ought to be extinct. I think it is important to remember the difference between "old-fashioned", "traditional" and "extinct". The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich—he is not here today because, if I might respectfully remind the Government Chief Whip, this is Holy Week and he has other things on his mind—put those definitions very well, in circumstances which have nothing to do with this Bill at all. He said:Old-fashioned is flared trousers, Morris Minors, the quickstep, Bing Crosby, stone hot-water bottles and",in relation to his prelatorial peculiarities,gaiters.
Tradition is Trooping the Colour, the State Opening of Parliament, getting married in church and the 10 Commandments.
Extinct is the dodo, the brontosaurus and gramophone records which break when you drop them". The right reverend Prelate went on to say, again in a context which is wholly different from this Bill and which therefore makes it all the more important:Fashion often changes. Tradition contains elements that have shaped our present and have influenced the way we think and act: but those who have the power to change traditions should think very hard about what they are doing as they often have a deeper significance, the loss of which would harm our life as a community or as a people".
This Bill, limited in scope, as the Government would have us believe it is, will have an effect on our country, on our constitution and on our people which will be far, far greater than ever the Government have begun to realise. I regret that and I think that for that reason if for no other—and there are plenty of others—the Government are wrong.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, I probably have the most unenviable speaking position in the whole of this debate in following the noble Earl. He is of course the quintessential hereditary Peer. He is an extremely good example of the service given to this House by hereditary Peers and there is no doubt that he could have made a tremendous career wherever he wished. Nevertheless, the noble Earl, whether he is pulling the tiger by the tail or a cuckoo pushing others out, will be able to roam free in whatever comes naturally for hereditary Peers once this Bill has passed.
69 The noble Earl made much of the rights of hereditary Peers who attend this House once this Bill is passed. It is my understanding—I am sure that my noble friends on the Front Bench will correct me if I am wrong—that that would be a decision for the new House, and the new House will decide whether certain hereditary Peers, or indeed all of them, will be able to come back and use the facilities of this House. I think that the noble Earl was wrong on that point, if I may say so.
I wish to concentrate my comments on one point: that is that the transitional House will be a strengthened House and it will be the better for that. I will quickly rehearse some of the figures which we have heard, but which have been skipped over. There will still be over 500 life Peers. This House will still be the largest second Chamber anywhere in the world and so, for goodness sake! it is still going to be able to operate very much as it does now.
We have heard that no party will be in overall control and that the Prime Minister has said that he seeks to have broad parity between the two main parties. But the Prime Minister of course has done much more than that. He has said that he will give up the right to appoint Cross-Bench Peers and he has also given up the right to veto the nominations of the other parties. No other Prime Minister has done that.
Another point which should be made is that of course life Peers are more legitimate than hereditary Peers. It is a point that a number of your Lordships have made, including my noble friend Lord Shore. The legitimacy of the life Peers will inevitably legitimise the transitional House. Another, perhaps less palatable. fact is worth repeating: some 70 per cent. of the contributions in this House are made by life Peers and not hereditary Peers. Yet another point which has not been made, which probably reflects the composition of this House, is that women and ethnic minorities are a very small minority here. That can never be rectified while the hereditary Peerage remains, arid that is something which can be done during the transitional period.
A final point, more constitutional, is whether the Salisbury-Addison Convention will apply in the transitional House. I would argue that the removal of the hereditary Peers will lift a dead weight from the party opposite who are inhibited from working properly. They will be free to act in a more "free and easy" way.
I notice that a Labour Party press statement came out today which pointed out that Labour's life Peers work far harder than Conservative life Peers. So once the hereditary Peers go, if Conservative life Peers wish to take advantage of their new-found freedoms they will have to start working a lot harder. Although I do not think he is in his place at present, I should like to quote the words of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, at col. 1067 on 15th October last year. He said:The Salisbury-Addison Convention, which was devised to enable a massive Conservative majority in your Lordships' hereditary House to live with a massive Labour majority in the elected House, will have lapsed the moment that the preliminary Bill becomes law. Its Members will no longer be under the same constraints in exercising the considerable powers which we still possess…".—[Official Report, 15/10/98; col.1067.]70 If that is not strengthening the House of Lords I really do not know what is. It seems to me that the transitional House will be strengthened.
I will say just one word about the second stage. Everybody has his or her own model, but it is absolutely unthinkable that hereditary Peers would be part of this House after the second stage and, if I am to put myself in a particular camp, I would be a "mishmash man" of different elements and different methods displayed by people coming into this House. However, I have one criterion above all: that is that the House of Lords should be different from the House of Commons.
In the opening speech of my noble friend the Leader of the House, she paid a very fulsome tribute to hereditary Peers in general and made it clear that this Bill in no way undermines the work of individual hereditary Peers. The Leader of the Opposition the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, also paid tribute to many of the hereditary Peers and he named a number of them. Of course we can all point to individual hereditary Peers who have made a tremendous contribution to this House, but I really think it is incumbent on the Opposition Front Bench to say whether in principle they approve of the hereditary Peerage. Do they approve of the hereditary principle: yes or no?
In my maiden speech some eight years ago. I spoke about the mixed feelings which I had on entering this House. I have to say that I still have mixed feelings about being a Member of this House, even though I readily acknowledge that it is a tremendous privilege. I think I understand better the sense of history, vocation and service which many Peers have who contribute to the business of this House. I have to say that I have discovered many more noble kinsmen than I would care to admit to my Front Bench. However, none of this adds up to a justification. It is simply a reflection of many a late night spent in the Bishops Bar, chewing over old glories of our families. That is not a justification of the hereditary principle.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who unfortunately is not in his place at the moment, spoke about the European Convention on Human Rights. I have to say that I thought this was a bit rich because it is very doubtful whether, if we were to apply to become members of the Council of Europe even now, we would ever be accepted with a wholly nominated House.
One of the privileges that I have through being a Member of this House is that I go to the Council of Europe. When I explain to members of parliament from the countries of the former Soviet Union how I came to be a Member of Parliament, they laugh out loud and think it is extremely funny. There are light-hearted exchanges about why I am a Member of Parliament.
But there is a more serious side to that because they believe that democracy applies to them as members of the Council of Europe but that we have found some clever way of circumnavigating democracy in the House of Lords. And of course that is true.
It is not only hereditary Peers who have a sense of duty and public service. I am struck constantly by the MPs, the life Peers, councillors and school governors who I know who also have a sense of public duty which 71 they have derived through their families. They do not have preferments and do not ask for them. They continue their family traditions through their own merit and work.
I want my son to grow up in a world where he can continue my family's tradition, and do so where the Parliament is democratic and meritocratic. This Bill offers a decisive step in that direction.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, it is particularly appropriate to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. This will probably be my only contribution on the Bill and to the debate generally about reform of this House. As is usual, I declare an interest both as an hereditary Peer but also as a Peer who has an active dislike of party politics. But, contrary to popular belief, my blood is indeed red and the commonest of all blood groups that can be found. I went to one of the greener of the red-brick universities.
I must make an apology to the House. Unfortunately, I am unable to attend tomorrow's debate and it is with great regret that I say that. I am sorry also that I shall not be present to support my noble kinsman Lord Cobbold. Although I am not sure that his amendment would achieve much, I very much agree with the sentiments it expresses.
Heredity is not an inherently defensible principle, as we have heard; it is a fact of life. I regard accident of birth as being at least as irreversible as colour or race. No one sits here by dint of democracy. We are all nominees, whether for several lives or for one. While the manner of my admission here may be disliked, it was perfectly valid, legal and accepted by your Lordships' House at the time and commonly assumed to be for life. As we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, termination of the hereditary seat sits uncomfortably with continuation of life peerages. So the Bill's effects are asymmetric.
This House clearly helps to hold the executive to account. When faced with a bundle of manifesto commitments and a huge parliamentary majority in another place, that is obviously an extremely necessary safeguard. But in this House we have never been able to hold out indefinitely against the will of another place. So there is no fundamental operational reason for change; merely, I suggest, political ideology.
I do not fear reform but this Bill is not about reform. The Government make their case based only on party mantra. They talk of a more modern and efficient House but do not want to see any shift in the balance of power with another place. They talk of more professionalism. What profession would that be? They support a large Cross-Bench element consistent with present proportions but then they wish to enlarge their own representation to achieve parity with their political opponents. They parade hereditary Peers as an undesirable societal élite—I believe I can quote the noble Lord, Lord Richard, on that—but they are in fact settling an old political score.
72 I support the setting up of the Royal Commission but this Bill seeks to pre-empt its work, as we have heard. That is a political fix and not a candid attempt at an independent assessment of functions and membership and constitutional need. The public may assume that the commission's findings will be taken as read but, as we know, they will not. They will be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses appointed by I know not what method but as a non-party politician I can make a good guess. The Bill sets out to preserve a reduced membership of pure appointees with or without 90-odd hereditaries to be added on. For how long would that be? Would the powers and duties of the job description remain the same or will it just be a caretaker role? We are not told.
Fewer Peers producing the same output means more work per capita. Speaking from experience, I should say that to give up much more than one day per week to come here one needs to be retired, unemployed, wealthy with time on one's hands or in extremely accommodating professional employment, preferably living and working in London or, perhaps, on the payroll vote. To me, a substantial contribution on those terms hardly equals occupational normality. Hence the need for a large pool of Members in what is ultimately a voluntary Chamber.
So what is the future of this House and will it be operationally competent during the transition? None of that seems to have been considered. Politicians do not create power; it is earned by commanding respect. Let us compare National Trust membership with that of the political parties and noble Lords will see what I mean. The precipitate and ill-considered haste with which this Bill is being pursued is typical of the political disrespect for Parliament. Reform is undoubtedly necessary. There are practices which are rightly criticised, although many could be removed by internal rule changes. Packing the Lobbies with people who have no interest in the matter being debated is matched only by threats of reform to ensure co-operation. Both are perpetrated for party political advantage and, I am afraid to say, enormously damage the authority of this House. It leads to accusations of toothlessness followed by complaints that we defy the elected will of the Commons. Now we have the spectre of a party manifesto bypassing the constitution. But the message is that Parliament is there to be bypassed. I disagree with that most profoundly. That must change.
The Cross-Benches are chided for their voting record. What about the attendance and voting record of the Prime Minister? For myself and in all conscience, I feel that it is wrong to vote on an issue that I have not understood or on which I have not heard the arguments. The criticism is dishonest and conceals another practice—that of putting party policy before the free and principled thought with which this House is especially associated.
I made my maiden speech on what became known as the poll tax but there are other examples of incompetent legislation forced through by political force majeure in another place. The system as we have it is neither honest nor trustworthy. Ministers give misleading answers; governments are less than candid about what Bills 73 actually mean; and parties—I use the plural—in power regularly seek to bypass parliamentary scrutiny altogether. All too often, open government means deliberate obfuscation or the dispersal of powers to where they are not so easily noticed but just as readily controlled. All that needs reform too.
I am a technician, not a politician, as now must be apparent. The only amendment I would make would be to defer consideration of this Bill altogether until a referendum has been held on the proposals following the Royal Commission's deliberations. But I very much doubt that that will be an option. This Bill will make the House more partisan. If the Government cannot guarantee pre-eminence of the Commons by effectively making this place its poodle, then it will simply not be worth having a second Chamber at all. The power of the political parties should be reduced, but that is a forlorn hope.
My position here is in the gift of the nation, not, I suggest, of a particular political party. I am a volunteer, a kind of unpaid trustee. I do not regard myself as being here as of right but through an honour with duties attached. Equally, I do not believe that a manifesto commitment alone should form the basis of abolition.
I do not represent the interests of vast landed forebears. It is true that I still have an amount of land but I am primarily a working professional chartered surveyor. Party politics mean little to me. I am certainly in touch with the great and the good but also with the lowly and impecunious. My constituency is the cause of the average middle-class person who simply wants fair play and straight dealings. Such people often write to me here as an independent parliamentarian or consult me as a professional.
I have enjoyed coming here over the past 14 years. I hope I have made a useful contribution during that time but I am not hooked on parliamentary life. Of course, I shall miss the company of your Lordships. I shall probably miss even more the wonderful staff within the Palace of Westminster who look after us and who are absolute gems, as I am sure we all agree. But, like the first 35 years of my life, I can spend the next 35 in the political wilderness and I am sure that there are other ways in which I can usefully serve my country, as was pointed out by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House.
I accept that my time is up in every sense. Most people subjected to a vote of no confidence of the kind implicit in this Bill would conclude, as I have, that they are not indispensable. In recent years, I have felt that my contribution in your Lordships' House has counted for less and less. However, I regret my inability to defend economic sense, common decency and moral principle. My feat is for the future scrutiny of legislation and my dismay is for a so-called reform that starts with destruction but without any tangible vision of what is to be created thereafter. In the meantime, I shall continue to serve this House as best as I can, but, speaking purely personally. I am not unduly dismayed at the prospect of going.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
My Lords, I begin with humble and sincere apologies for missing the first two speeches due to a series of misunderstandings. From what I have heard, I believe I am the loser.
Perhaps I can say, unusually, that I absolutely and entirely agree with almost everything that the noble Earl has said. I do not go quite so far down the road that leads him to dislike political parties, but I go quite a long way with him. However, I cannot echo him on his promise that this will be his last contribution on the subject. This is my first—the ground has been well travelled before me—but it will not be my last.
Perhaps I may begin by reflecting on the virtues of your Lordships' House, which are sometimes ignored by those—who, one feels, ought to know better—who enjoy sneering at almost everything. When I entered the House for the first time in 1983 I was struck, principally, by the fact that here was an assembly of people with a great deal of experience who were not looking for anything for themselves. A second point that struck me was that in the Cross Benches—I do not want to flatter them too much—we had an assembly of people unique in the world. I do not believe that any other country in the world offers facilities to a group such as the Cross-Benchers, who owe absolutely no allegiance to any political party and, as far as I am aware, have very scant respect for them.
Perhaps I can briefly refer to what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, said. I thought he was very kind and honest because he gave me, as a life Peer, the credit for being more legitimate than he was. I have never regarded this House as embodying competition between those whom I shall describe as illegitimate, people who are partly illegitimate and people who are thoroughly illegitimate. It seems to be a totally bogus affair.
Facing this terrible little Bill, this absolutely miserable, pedestrian measure of which the Front Bench ought to be thoroughly ashamed—I know very well that they will not be—I would have thought, being optimistic, that at the moment the Government have more than enough on their plate. I do not want to go into any of the issues, but the Government are involved in Kosovo, the Good Friday Agreement is at a most perilous stage and, to put it politely, European arrangements are in a state of some confusion.
If the Government had said that Parliament, as a whole, could do with some improvement, I would have been noisy in my approval. Had the Government said that we must have a second Chamber, but that they cannot tolerate a second Chamber with a permanent in-built majority for one party, and that they must have a Royal Commission and the guidance to that commission will be to avoid the present situation, I would have found it extremely difficult to oppose them.
As it is, I am very confused. We have a second Chamber which revises and restrains an over-eager House of Commons. The House of Commons, in its eagerness, may be spontaneous, but it is more likely that it is engineered by the Government Whips. Just how far will the second Chamber be permitted to restrain an over-eager House of Commons or to put any holding reign on the executive? We have been told in the White Paper, 75 which bears the Prime Minister's picture, that a new second Chamber must not be allowed to usurp or threaten the supremacy of the first. What does that mean? Does it really mean that the Government are contemplating a second Chamber that will be entirely acceptable to the House of Commons? What a dreadful thought.
I was in the House of Commons at the time when the last effort was made by Harold Wilson's government to reform the House of Lords. I was a very junior, totally unimportant and insignificant member of a coalition of people who disliked the ideas then being put forward. Michael Foot, Nigel Birch and others came together in a rather unusual assembly. My own particularly strong reason, and it is still my reason, was my dislike of giving to any government such wide patronage as to enable it to handle the second Chamber. Immediately, the independence of the second Chamber would disappear. At the moment, I can say with affectionate admiration that the party Whips are of no inconvenience whatever to me. I very much fear the time when the party Whips may become seized—I dare say it will not happen at my age—of new powers which will make younger, more hopeful, more vigorous people much keener and easier to control.
The Government have not done what I hoped. They are seeking to manhandle your Lordships' House, largely because from time to time your Lordships' House is a source of slight inconvenience to them. On the other hand, it is a matter of regret to me that the House of Commons has been a source of nothing but comfort to a government I am not inclined to applaud wholeheartedly.
Incidentally, I am rather inclined to give to my noble friend Lord Wakeham, whom I greatly respect, more credit on this occasion for his courage than for his wisdom, but we shall see. How long do the Government expect the Royal Commission to take? What guidance have they given the Royal Commission or its individual members? Presumably, they have passed down the line the word about what they would like to see—if they know. That is an inquiry which I hope that Ministers will find the time to answer.
I turn to the question of the powers of the new second Chamber. Am I right in thinking that under no circumstances will either the Government or their legions in the House of Commons agree to any increase in powers here irrespective of whether they claim to have produced a more powerful, more enlightened, more tolerable second Chamber? That is a real fear for the Government, to which the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and my noble friend Lord Waddington referred earlier. The Government are sowing a seed of great distress and anguish for themselves if they produce anything like a respectable second Chamber, anything other than a mere kennelful of tame poodles. That is what they will be doing if they produce a second Chamber which is sufficiently virile and robust every now and again to be a source of inconvenience to themselves. Am I right, however, in thinking that the Government have no intention of doing that? If so, the alternative is a collection of tame, docile creatures who will go along with the Government's wishes.
I shall not prolong my remarks, but my main question is: what safeguard will there be against a government in the future, conceited as governments ordinarily are, 76 deciding that they are so good, so deserving and that they stand so high in public opinion that they should, in the national interest, prolong their life? Let us not have any nonsense about the Prime Minister giving undertakings and the rest of it, because that is a genuine and real fear and, in the present circumstances, it is a real possibility. Let us have a clear answer to that question, if to no other.
I sit down on this note. Whereas the Government could have handled this in such a way as to attract sympathy—even if some anxiety on the part of those like myself—as it is, they have simply awakened my very strong hostility to what I regard as a pettifogging and mean measure.
§ 7.13 p.m.
My Lords, it is always difficult to follow my noble friend Lord Peyton, whose spicy, attractive and humorous style of address always hits the nail smartly on the head. But it is preferable to speaking before him in case he were to lash out at me! My noble friend said that it would not be his last speech on the subject—thank God for that! However, I must take issue with his concluding remark. I thought that the one important power we possess under the Parliament Acts is to reject absolutely a proposal from the other place to prolong its life. We should hang on to that power. I hope that both he and my noble friend Lord Wakeham are not considering altering that in any way.
I join others in saying that this is a bad Bill and that the Government's behaviour in failing to try to seek any consensus is wrong. The reasons are well set out in the amendment and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, on his speech in moving it. However, bad and wrong as the Bill is, it would be bad and wrong for this place to fling out what is manifestly a manifesto Bill. It would also be silly to do so because we have an opportunity and, indeed, a duty to try to improve it. That is our duty today and in Committee.
I say that this is a manifesto Bill. What reasons for it did the Government give the people? In so far as anyone read that part of the manifesto or talked about it in pubs or anywhere else, what did people understand about it? They understood that the Government were saying that this House is undemocratic and must be made more democratic. This Bill does not add one jot of a democratic element to the composition or role of this place, so we should get that idea wholly out of the way.
In Chapter 5 of the White Paper, the Government viewed the issue differently. They referred to the fact that this House is dominated by hereditary Peers. Actually, in my recollection of the voting of the past 10 years or so, that is quite untrue. It is also untrue on the face of the White Paper. Chapter 6 is perhaps not as honest as it could be. The graphics indicate that life Peers, and particularly Conservative life Peers, dominate the place. A little later the figures show that that is not true at all.
Like a number of my noble friends, I do not believe that those are the motivating reasons for what is now being done. What motivates those who attack the composition of this House was mentioned earlier. I refer to the political imbalance in this place and the fact that many more Peers, both hereditary and life, take the Conservative Whip than any other. I happen to think that it is wholly respectable 77 for the Government to try to put that right. Indeed, that would be to the advantage of this House and would strengthen democracy. However, I also happen to think that there are several other ways of bringing that about than by destroying the parliamentary rights of hereditary Peers to sit and speak in this House.
I should like to consider at some point, as I think the noble Earl, Lord Longford, suggested in a recent debate, the question which was considered in 1968. I refer to allowing some noble Lords sitting and speaking rights, but not voting rights. If this Government or any future government, or our constitution, are to be adapted so that the composition of this House somehow or other reflects either parity between the main parties or the majority of the government party, consideration will have to be given to the idea in the 1968 settlement of some Peers having the right to sit and to speak but not to vote. After all, we know—the White Paper shows this well—that one of the strengths of this place is the contribution made by individual Peers on the great subjects of the day. Many of the contributions that I remember best in my time here have been made by my hereditary friends and by hereditary Peers on the Cross-Benches and opposite.
One's time is constrained today. It is almost a scandal that on a Second Reading debate, on a subject of this importance, noble Lords cannot put their points for longer than seven or eight minutes. I notice that most of those who spoke before me were not able to keep within that rule. I cannot understand why the Government Chief Whip, who is much liked and respected, decided so to torture your Lordships' procedures as to cram 180 speakers into two days. We can imagine them as two dungeons, worse than the Black Hole of Calcutta. It tortures the procedures, not just noble Lords. We have no chance of putting in front of the Government the reason for the amendments we are likely to propose. In my two remaining minutes I should like to mention those that I have in mind.
I am in favour of the so-called "Weatherill amendment". I happen to link it with my noble friend Lord Cranborne. The proposals set out in the statement of the noble Lord. Lord Weatherill, if followed in the amendment, will prove to be for the better for this House. I believe that the reason the Lord Chancellor accepted it was because the Government were persuaded that it would he for the benefit of the running of this House and the effectiveness of this House if those 91 hereditary Peers were kept on during the transitional phase. For this Bill is about the transitional phase. It is a bad thing that it comes in two stages, but we have got it and we must look to the transitional phase. I hope that we will consider and support that amendment.
I am not minded to take seriously the threats put to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay—or at least I was not minded to take them seriously until I heard to my astonishment today a declaration of the policy of the Liberal Democrat Party. It was said that it would decide whether or not to back the Weatherill amendment solely on the grounds of whether we had taken more than four days in Committee stage. That is a form of Liberal policy I do not understand. The party must want to rid itself of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, very much indeed.
78 I was rather depressed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, follow the same lines. I believe that he had disclosed his discomfort with the Bill and that this was his way of getting back on side with his noble friends on the Government Benches. I am sad about that because I felt it was a good solid reason for supporting the Weatherill-Cranborne-Lord Chancellor agreement. I look forward to seeing it. We should have seen it in draft form already. I do not know what has gone wrong in that regard. I wonder whether there is a hybridity hitch or whether it is just tactical. I feel it is just tactical. However, we will wait and perhaps hear from the noble and learned Lord tomorrow morning.
The other block of amendments I should like to see were touched on by my noble friend Lord Waddington in an excellent speech earlier today. I am minded at the moment to suggest to the House that we should try to incorporate in the Bill a number of points contained in the White Paper chapter on the transitional stage, including the methods of appointment. But in particular we should include in the Bill, with the Government's acceptance, that in the transitional stage the Prime Minister—any Prime Minister—will be limited in his appointments to a parity between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. That is what the White Paper said, and if so it was said for a purpose. Presumably the purpose was that the Government wanted people to understand that that was what they were going to do. They wanted the press and the public to understand what a fair government they are. We should test that and press for it to be included in the Bill. One of the dangers to any reform of this place is that an unscrupulous government—I do not suggest that those opposite are unscrupulous—could simply pack this Chamber, as a number of my noble friends have said.
If both those amendments could be included in the Bill, they would improve it and it would become a much less horrid Bill. However, in my opinion it is still a horrid Bill and the wrong way to go about tackling the important matter of this second Chamber.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Lockwood
My Lords, I want to confine myself to speaking in support of the Bill and therefore by definition against the amendment. I do so not in criticism of any individual Members of the House, to whom my noble friend the Leader of the House rightly paid tribute for their contributions, but against the principle of inheriting a seat in this Chamber.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred to the great service that a number of hereditary Peers have given to the nation, many of them holding high office. No one would want to detract one iota from that. But I suggest that even without the privilege of membership of this House, because of what, not who, they are, they would have found other ways of giving distinguished service to the nation. In those circumstances, they would not have expected an automatic right to a seat in the legislature of the country.
During the final debate on the Access to Justice Bill on 16th March this year, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, expressed gratitude to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor for the explanations he had given to the House, and congratulated him on the open-mindedness 79 with which he accepted amendments in Committee and on Report. That was a cameo of this House at its best. It is not normally a confrontational Chamber, and it is at its best in revising legislation or debating Select Committee reports in an objective and non-partisan way based on the wide experience of its Members. I would expect, when we come to discuss the matter, that a reformed House would retain those characteristics.
I am sorry it has not been possible to approach the Bill before us today in that same spirit. I do not believe that any Member of your Lordships' House can, in an objective way, defend the principle of the automatic right of hereditary Peers to a seat in this Chamber. Even the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, did not say that he supported that principle, nor did the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. Certainly, over the years there have been many written and spoken words from all sides of the House against that principle.
In my years of membership of the House, I have never tried to defend that principle, but in talks to schools and other organisations I have said that while it is an indefensible principle, making a strange legislative Chamber in the 20th century, somehow it works. It did. It worked well under a Conservative government for the simple reason that no matter how many coalitions across the House were brought into play, the government could, if they were really determined, bring in sufficient supporters to carry the day. The community charge or, if you like, the poll tax, is a prime example of that. But that is certainly not the case with the present Government.
I am not saying that there were not defeats in this House for the previous administration. Indeed, all of us know that there were: on average, some 13.5 times per Session, as my noble friend the Leader of the House indicated, compared with 38 defeats in the first Session of the present Labour Government. The truth is that when a Labour Government are in power the situation is exactly reversed, with the official Opposition having an overwhelming majority over the government party.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Shepherd, who said that this situation does not make for a good revising Chamber. It inhibits and makes more difficult to form those ad hoc coalitions that can come together from time to time in opposition to government proposals on individual issues when the Government of the day are in a majority situation. Instead, it fosters a partisan approach on both sides. That is not the best role for this Chamber.
I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, when he reiterated this afternoon his previous views that there were two problems facing the House of Lords; the hereditary system and is its inbuilt Conservative majority. How right he is in that view. However, I did not agree with his accusations against the Labour Party's 1997 manifesto, nor his reference to placemen on the Labour Benches. I would remind the noble Lord, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who referred to Labour packing the House, that when their noble friend Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister she appointed 98 Conservative Peers, compared to 56 Labour Peers. Moreover, their honourable friend Mr. John Major, in his shorter period in office, appointed 75 Conservative Peers 80 compared to 40 Labour Peers—and this at a time when the Conservatives were already in an overwhelming majority in this House.
There are some who criticise the Bill on the grounds that we are rushing it and it is too early. Those who say that forget that this issue has been on the agenda for many years. In a memorandum to Queen Victoria, Lord Rosebery (when he was Prime Minister) referred to the Conservative Members of this House as being a permanent barrier to a Liberal government. I think that they have been a permanent barrier to any government, other than a Conservative government, throughout the century.
As I said, the issue is not a new one. The first Bill to remove the hereditary principle came in 1907 and was promoted by a Conservative Peer. The issue was a live one in the early part of the century and in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, it returned to the agenda in the 1940s after the 1939–45 war and has been with us ever since. I reckon that there have been at least 10 attempts to reform the composition of the House in this century. However, I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, that they have been abortive, like the 1968 White Paper, or that they have merely made the House appear a little more acceptable, as did the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts and the Life Peerages Act 1958. They have not removed the fundamental anachronism of the House; that is, its reliance on the hereditary principle. This Bill deals with that fundamental anachronism and prepares the way for further reform which the Royal Commission is now examining.
§ 7.35 p.m.
§ Lord Crickhowell
My Lords, in a recent newspaper article, a government Minister, Mr. Peter Hain, told us:On constitutional reform, Tony Blair's Labour Government is proving to be the most radical in memory. So much so that the old British state … is being dismantled".It is useful to be reminded that the consequence and perhaps the intention of the Government is the dismantling of the old British state. It is because I fear that we are indeed going down the dangerous road of dismantling institutions and the British state, without knowing into what abyss we may be plunging, that I am so strongly opposed to this Bill.
I have spent nearly 29 years in Parliament—a mere flash in time, I know, compared with some who sit here. However, eleven-and-a-half of them have been in this House. I believe that your Lordships' House does an important job and that it does it rather better, I have to say, than the House of Commons now performs its role. Yet, for understandable reasons, many hereditary Peers find it difficult to defend themselves, although they are frequently traduced and caricatured. I believe that life Peers who have had the opportunity to observe the remarkable contribution of many hereditary Peers over the years, and who share their legitimate concerns about the way in which the Government are handling reform, have a particular obligation to play a vigorous part in the examination and amendment of this Bill. That contribution is made by Peers both young and old. There is no sound case for age limits and we need to find a way 81 of attracting young people of ability to this House. This Bill will chuck out 36 of the 38 Peers who are under the age of 39.
Like many who have spoken in recent debates, I believe that a central purpose of a reform Bill should be to improve the performance of Parliament; and that must include the House of Commons. In recent years the other place has ceased to be an effective forum for national debate, for the proper examination of Bills; or an effective check on the executive. The power of the Government Whips now seems almost absolute and Ministers appear to hold Parliament in contempt.
The lack of a proper respect for Parliament is reflected in a sentence in paragraph 4.5 of the White Paper, which advances an improper and dangerous doctrine. It says:power must reside with those on whom it is conferred by the people for the formation of a government".The explanation that follows—namely, that,this is the party or parties that can command a majority in the primary chamber of parliament"—misses the most fundamental point and misrepresents the constitutional relationship. Arrogant governments say to themselves, power has been given to us and we can do whatever we feel like so long as we can, by whatever means, maintain a majority in the House of Commons. Wise governments recognise that their power and legitimacy derive from a Parliament that is there to limit as well as to give power; and they come to Parliament to seek authority for everything significant that they do.
The claim implicit in that sentence of the White Paper is not one that would have been made by any previous Prime Minister—certainly not by Churchill even when he was at the height of his own personal power and the British state faced its greatest ever threat. His immediate predecessor had learned painfully that power does not reside with those on whom it is conferred by the people for the formation of a government. He was removed from power by the House of Commons. It was an assumption that was never made by the Prime Minister under whom I served, who was punctilious in her attendance and in seeking support in the House at all hours of the day and night.
One virtue of this House is the wide variety of its interests, knowledge and experience; another is that most of us are not beholden to Ministers and Whips for future employment or place. Since I joined the House of Commons in 1970 there has been a decisive shift to a Chamber in which a high proportion of Members have no other profession than politics, and in which too many of its Members are office holders. One of the several drawbacks of the proposal that the second Chamber should be wholly elected is that it is likely to produce a House which mirrors the faults of the present House of Commons.
This Bill is not just about the House of Lords; it also provides for membership of the House of Commons. Perhaps we should pass amendments reintroducing the rule that newly-appointed Ministers must stand for re-election, or that there should be an upper limit to the number of Ministers and PPSs. The number of PPSs has 82 grown as absurdly and unnecessarily as the number of research assistants. Better still, we should incorporate into the Bill virtually the whole of the admirable Parliamentary Government Bill of my noble friend Lord Cranborne.
One difficulty that faces those of us who agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that our object should be to strengthen Parliament as a whole and that reducing the scale of central power is, or ought to be, the main priority for constitutional reforms, is that for all the talk of redistributing power from the centre to the citizen, there are not many indications that Ministers have any real intention of surrendering power if they can avoid it, as recent events in Wales so clearly show. Nor have they given any indication that they have even begun to think about the proper role of the two Houses of Parliament in their new constitutional arrangements.
The Royal Commission has an immensely difficult task, made much more difficult because it is asked to make recommendations about the role and functions of the second Chamber without being able to make proposals about the role and functions of the House of Commons. It is a huge mistake that the Royal Commission, charged with such an important task, is being asked to work to a timetable decided only for the convenience of Ministers.
On 22nd March the Leader of the House defended the timetable on the grounds that the issues had been extensively discussed for a hundred years. However, her own White Paper emphasises the complexity of the task and underlines the point in paragraph 8.17 that we are in a period,of fundamental change in many aspects of the United Kingdom's constitutional arrangements … more so, probably, than at the time of any earlier attempts at reform".The Royal Commission's lengthy list of difficult questions posed in its consultation document alone demolishes the argument advanced by the Leader of the House; and The Times reports my noble friend Lord Wakeham as saying that it may not be able to complete its work this year.
We are having to deal with this Bill when there can be no certainty that the Royal Commission can complete its task within the timetable suggested by the Leader of the House, or that its proposals will be accepted by the Joint Committee speedily and without disagreement and change, and no certainty that the commission's conclusions will be acceptable to the Government. We on these Benches are not alone in doubting that the second stage will come quickly, if at all. Mr. Benn speaking in the other place on 16th February said,I believe that there will never be a second stage".—[Official Report, Commons, 16/2/99; col. 799.]That is one of many reasons why I deplore the two-stage approach and why I believe that an amendment should be passed to delay the implementation of this Bill at least until we have the conclusions of the Royal Commission and the Joint Committee and can he certain that there will be a second stage; and we should include the safeguards referred to by my noble friend Lord Waddington, including referendums for constitutional Bills.
83 Then there is the question of numbers referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. It does not arise only because of the proposed amendment on the retention of some hereditary Peers during the transitional period, which will itself create a requirement for the creation of a substantial tranche of life Peers to balance the numbers. It arises as well from the easily stated, but much less easily implemented objective that over time party appointees as life Peers should more accurately reflect the proportion of votes cast at the previous general election. Let us assume for a moment that such a rebalancing takes place in the transitional House, but that in a subsequent general election the Government's majority is overturned. Are we to have another large-scale creation of life Peers to adjust the balance, followed as the years pass by another, and another, and another? As Mr. Benn, looking back all the way to Adam and Eve, told the other place we would be faced with,creation on a scale for which there is no parallel in religious or constitutional history".—[Official Report, Commons, 15/2/99; col. 684.]As to the Cross-Bench amendment which we have yet to see, the Government refused to accept an amendment with a similar objective moved in the Commons, but will apparently accept it if it comes from this allegedly illegitimate House, but only if we behave ourselves. It is always a mistake to give in to blackmail.
The final subject that I shall refer to is, I believe, of central importance, although its significance seems hardly to have been recognised in the other place. We are to have an appointments committee which will have the function of nominating Cross-Bench Peers. It is supposed to take over that responsibility from the Prime Minister, yet it is to be set up by the Prime Minister. That fact astonishes me. Surely this Bill now before us should provide the authority, and provide for necessary and appropriate safeguards. It is to be a non-departmental public body. I have been the chairman of a non-departmental public body and I have been closely involved with others as a Minister. On the basis of that experience I am concerned and puzzled. Whatever the good intentions at the start, Ministers and civil servants do not much like NDPBs that are genuinely vigorous and independent; and this is an NDPB that has to select those whose role is to be so independent that they may well prove an irritant to Ministers. Government departments have much experience and are skilled in techniques of neutering such bodies. I am far from convinced that it is enough to say that the appointments committee will be appointed in accordance with the rules of the commission for public appointments.
There are to be representatives of the three main political parties and independent "figures" who will comprise a majority, one of whom is to be the chairman. Who will select the "figures"? Who will appoint the chairman? Why include representatives of the three main parties and, if it is only three, what happens if the nationalists have sweeping gains in Wales and Scotland? One of the great virtues of the Cross-Bench Peers is that they are self selected; they are not there to fit a profile 84 or to achieve a quota. In the other place there was a remarkable and wide-ranging debate about the appointments committee and patronage initiated by Mr. Marshall-Andrews. Unfortunately the debate became so wide-ranging that those taking part almost forgot the immediate and important issues that I now raise. The Minister who replied was allowed to get away with one of the most mind-blowingly inadequate answers that can ever have been given even in the modern House of Commons. He said,we have undertaken to set up an independent Appointments Committee to make recommendations for Life Peers. I will not go into the detail of the arrangements now".We must and will go into the arrangements on this and on a whole range of other issues. There is a huge and important task ahead of us during the Committee stage of this Bill.
§ 7.48 p.m.
The Earl of Erroll
My Lords, I rise to make a brief protest because this Bill has no vision. It is basically founded in the politics of envy which should be outdated by now. I do not defend the hereditary peerage; I ask who will govern our grandchildren, because that is what we should be worrying about? If these people over-reach their powers, who will be able to remove them, because that is what a democracy is about?
People have complained about the length of time we have been debating this matter. However, we are not here to debate the pros and cons of a policy; we are deciding how those decisions will be made for the future. Noble Lords should not kid themselves that we are talking only about a brief transitional House. Actions speak louder than words. We are looking at rule by regulation; we have been for many years. We are looking at closed-list party choices at elections. It has been 88 years since the 1911 reform of the House. Why should the next stage of reform go through any quicker? We have to remember that the Executive and the legislature are now totally intermingled in another place and it is a question of who controls whom. I think we know that the balance has shifted. So when people start talking about unicameral systems and whether a strong House of Lords matters, the answer has to be that somehow we must check the Executive. To do otherwise is not an option.
The Labour manifesto stated that this House requires democratic authority. We need a system of governance that will separate the powers properly again. This may be an opportunity for change that would improve the accountability of the Executive. But there was no thought of that. This House was irretrievably weakened in 1911. Efforts to improve it were approved by our collective forebears, but the reforms were not turned down here; they were turned down in the Commons. It is not a party issue—it is not a Labour versus Tory issue—but an issue where the Commons has resisted reform, particularly when it has seen that the moment one starts considering reform it must impinge on the Commons as well. That is the real problem.
I concede that perhaps the hereditary Peers should go, but they should go only if the result is something better. I suspect that there will have to be an elective system. I 85 shall not go into great detail today because to do so would lead to the House sitting late. As a Cross-Bencher, I do not trust the party in power because by the time we reach stage two the party making assurances at the moment may not be in government. Once parties are in power they enjoy the game. That is why I am a Cross—sometimes a very cross—Bencher. I have watched the game from both sides.
As someone who works to earn money—like 80 per cent. of hereditary Peers, the taxman has taken the estates and everything else—I am very aware of the consequences for ordinary people in the street. I would be very worried if Parliament were filled only with professional politicians. As a businessman and a citizen of this country, I am worried about the lack of vision in the Bill. There is no objective. The transitional House will probably go on for another century. Noble Lords should not be deceived; it will be like a rudderless ship. If one does not know where one is going, one will not get there. Noble Lords' grandchildren will probably be living with what the Government and the Bill give us. I find the belief that there will be a stage two rather naïve and touching in many ways, or even the belief that stage two will be acceptable.
At the moment, the Bill does not contain any safeguards. I think any responsible government should insert safeguards I will vote for any proposed safeguards.
§ 7.54 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I can agree with practically everything that the noble Earl has just said. That is strange because, subject to a little matter of illegitimacy, he is a noble kinsman and I do not usually agree with my noble kinsmen.
My main concern about the Bill is that the Government seem to have forgotten the song "We don't know where we're going until we get there". Of course, if the Government do know where they are going, then they can easily prove it by accepting some of the amendments that will be tabled along the lines of no change until the reformed House is agreed", a matter mentioned by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell a moment ago and by my noble friends Lord Waddington and Lord Strathclyde. This must be agreed and passed by the Commons; or should I say "the Government", because, as has already been mentioned, the Commons do not seem to have any influence these days.
I am highly suspicious about the arrangements for any interim House for I see it remaining in situ forever; and why should interim turkeys vote for Christmas? Moreover, when the Royal Commission comes up with recommendations, we must remember that they will be recommendations for the Commons and the Government to approve, recommendations that are sensible, democratic, in line with what my noble friend Lord Carrington said and which spell out the powers of the reformed House—powers that are conspicuously absent from the face of the Bill—to enable the House to be an effective revising Chamber. I cannot believe that the Commons and the Government will agree to those recommendations unless the new Chamber is deprived 86 of some of the limited powers which your Lordships have today. If such a House were born, the public would soon wake up to the fact that it was ineffective and useless. So why not do away with it altogether?
Perhaps the Government do know where they are going and wish to end up with a unicameral Parliament. I am sure that the Government will say that my logic is flawed and that come hell and high water they will press on with their interim Chamber, followed by a guarantee that soon there will be a fully reformed House. As has been mentioned before, the Liberal government said that in 1911. As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was pleased to quote in a debate in your Lordships' House two years ago, my grandfather supported such a reform. I agree with my grandfather, but even to one as aged as I am, 1911 is quite a long time ago and nothing happened. Why oh why should it happen now?
Assuming this botched, if I may use such a word, and ill thought out situation is to be what the Government will force upon your Lordships, not least because the public is not in the slightest way interested in your Lordships' House—only 2 per cent. remembered that the proposal for reform was in the Labour Party Manifesto—I shall be interested in some of the amendments that will examine the Government's good faith as regards the composition and powers of any future House.
The Leader of the House in the Commons kept saying that this is "a simple Bill", but it is simple only because neither the future composition nor the powers are spelt out. As your Lordships know, it is your Lordships's decision as to what can and cannot be discussed in Committee. I know that only too well from nearly 30 years in your Lordships' House. I trust that your Lordships will accept the vital importance of deciding what we may or may not discuss in Committee. I am not objecting to being removed or, perhaps as the Front Bench opposite would like to say, guillotined while the Government Front Bench sit there doing their knitting and giving no effective plans for the future of our House. It is like a dentist taking out all your teeth and giving you no suggestions as to how in future you should eat.
I hope, too, to see amendments to ensure adequate agricultural and rural representation and to ensure that, if any future House is to have similar powers, or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, suggested, fewer powers, its members will receive the same or lesser expenses and, of course, no pay. I hope, too, that the noble Baroness will follow up her suggestion as to what future Members of the House should be called, a matter supported in a recent debate by her noble friend Lord Judd.
Provided that the Government spell out and guarantee what the future House will do, how it will be constituted and what powers it will have, this turkey will happily vote for Christmas, and return to my farm—to be eliminated, no doubt, there, experiencing the lack of foresight that this Government have shown in so many ways recently. I shall need an awful lot of persuading.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Lord Acton
My Lords, in the debate on House of Lords reform on 14th October, the noble Lord, Lord Charteris of Amisfield, said:If we take away the right of all hereditary Peers to sit and vote, I believe that we endanger the monarchy".—[Official Report, 14/10/98; col. 973.]A number of noble Lords have subsequently echoed his fears.
In the European Union, Sweden, Belgium and Spain have kings, while Denmark and the Netherlands have queens. All of those countries have thriving monarchies, yet none has a hereditary aristocracy in its legislature.
Swedish history is especially instructive. In 1865, during the reign of Carl XV, Sweden had four longstanding parliamentary estates—the nobles, the clergy, the burghers and the farmers. A Bill was brought forward to abolish the parliamentary estates and replace them with two chambers elected on limited franchises.
The leader of the opposition to the Bill was a prominent member of the House of the Nobles, Count Henning Hamilton. He urged that the parliamentary estate of the nobles was the bastion of the monarchy, the chief support of the king.
In the event, the farmers' estate and the burghers' estate approved the Bill by massive majorities. The House of the Nobles debated the Bill for four days, finally voting in its favour by 361 to 294. The clergy concurred, and thus the parliamentary estate of the nobles passed into history.
One hundred and thirty-three years and four reigns later, Count Henning Hamilton's forebodings have proved groundless. Carl XV's great, great, great nephew, Carl XVI Gustaf, is the monarch today. Year in and year out, surveys show him to be the most popular man in Sweden. I commend Swedish history to those of your Lordships who—like Count Henning Hamilton—fear that the Bill before us endangers the monarchy.
I come to my second point. One argument raised against the transitional House is that the Prime Minister might seek the creation of a Labour majority in that House. However, the Labour manifesto and the White Paper both pledge that no one political party should seek a majority in the transitional House.
Looking at the record, the Prime Minister has been in office for nearly two years. He has not even sought to increase the Labour life Peers to equal the Conservative life Peers, let alone to establish an overall Labour majority in the House of Lords. My noble friend Lord Callaghan did not seek such a majority, nor did any previous Labour Prime Minister.
While the Liberals in 1911 and the Whigs in 1832 threatened to secure majorities in the House of Lords, a Tory ministry is the only one that has ever actually done so. In December 1711, the Tories lost an important Division in the House of Lords by eight votes—54 to 62. Within weeks, Queen Anne, at the request of her Tory Ministers, created 12 Peers for the express purpose of ensuring a Tory majority to approve the Treaty of Utrecht.
88 Three centuries later, should the Conservatives come to power during the currency of the transitional House, I should not expect them to emulate their ancestors and, contrary to the Government's undertaking, establish a majority in that House. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, or the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, or both, would declare in your Lordships' House whether the Opposition in this House are committed to the principle that no one political party should seek a majority in the transitional House.
This is a solemn occasion and a time to pay tributes. I think of my fellow hereditary Peers, many of whom have worked so hard in this House. I think of those individual hereditary Peers on all sides of the House who would grace any second chamber anywhere—for instance, on these Benches, my noble friend Lord Shepherd; on the Benches opposite, my noble kinsman Lord Cranborne; on the Cross-Benches, my noble kinswoman Lady Darcy de Knayth; and on the Liberal Democrat Benches, the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
Finally, I think of my only child, my son. Some day I should love him to sit in this House. But if he ever does, it is right that he will do so not because of his title, but rather because of his talents.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Lord Glenarthur
My Lords, when I tried to distil my thoughts on what to say about this Bill today, despite all that has been said over many months and all that I have felt about the Government's proposals I was surprised to find it enormously difficult to know how to tackle it. I attempted to analyse why that was. In the end, I put my difficulty down to one simple reason: the constitutional enormity of the Bill based upon the intellectual bankruptcy which is its genesis.
The Government have offered no valid or coherent reason for ejecting hereditary Peers from this House in the way that they propose. They can only claim that it is unfinished business from 1911, but not their business; that their intention was set out in their manifesto: and that there is therefore a popular mandate for this Bill.
Many of us, most perhaps, would accept reasoned consideration of the composition of this House either on its own as part of a review of the constitution as a whole, or of the totality of Parliament. But no, the Government, true only to ideology and pandering to egalitarianism and those who cannot abide any institution which appears élitist, introduced this Bill to change massively one House of Parliament, one immensely important part of our constitution, whose Members owe only a small part of their allegiances to party politics, or none at all.
The Government cannot seriously claim that there is a huge popular demand to reform this House substantially in the way they propose. There may be perceptions, and possibly misconceptions, about what this House does and the role of its Members. But I suspect that there is a broad understanding of what it does and the real role of hereditary Peers within it, and in particular the independence for which they stand. It is revealing to know that recent opinion polls on this issue do not support the Government's proposals—quite the reverse.
89 Practical examination of any complex matter requires a sensible appreciation of the factors surrounding it, a clear understanding of the subject and its strengths and weaknesses, a proper evaluation of alternatives and careful consideration of the courses open to achieve the chosen alternative. But in this case, the Government simply take a stab in the dark without thinking through the consequences of their misconceived ideas.
Even the Government's reluctant agreement to a Royal Commission would carry more conviction if they were to have it report, and even have a joint committee of both Houses meet to consider the recommendations, before considering whether to proceed with reform. That point has been clearly articulated by nearly everyone who has spoken in this debate. The consultation paper which the Royal Commission has just published—thin as it is in so many ways—sets out many of the imponderable issues which any responsible government should consider before emasculating the present House.
I was interested that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, referred to the four elements contained on page four of the consultation paper: role and functions, powers, procedures and composition. The noble Lord said how right it was that composition came last; but nevertheless the Government seem to have tackled it before they have even thought of the Royal Commission, let alone given any advice on the contents of that consultative paper.
If there were ever a case of putting the party political cart before the constitutional horse, this is it. It lends credence to the view that the Government do not want, and may not have, a stage two. They do not even have to accept the recommendations of the Royal Commission; they can thwart its recommendations just as readily as they try to thwart any view which is not theirs. Their blind arrogance will not let them temper their attitude with common sense.
Anyone who has contemplated or studied peerage law and how it relates to the constitution will realise that it is a hugely complex and even arcane subject. I am no expert on it, but it is the stuff of history, part of the fabric of our constitution and as relevant to the role of the hereditary peerage in the House of Lords as it is to the hereditary principle itself.
Let me give one example, relating to Letters Patent, to which the Government will have to give consideration in due course. Letters Patent become effective when they pass the Great Seal. Once the Great Seal is affixed, there is no way in which they can be altered except by an individual Act of Parliament relating to those Letters Patent. Letters Patent are instruments which are individual to each Peer. They contain hallowed, historical phrases which not only grant an hereditary Peer and his or her heirs and successors a seat, place and voice in Parliament, but also bind the heirs and successors of the sovereign under whose sign manual the warrant for the patent is granted to continue to allow the Peer and his heirs and successors that seat, place and voice.
The Bill sweeps away all of that. It therefore diminishes and devalues the finality and validity of the Great Seal. It destroys precedent. The very 90 ill-considered simplicity of the Bill and the Government's enthusiasm to live up to their manifesto by removing the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords may well prove to be the Government's greatest miscalculation.
As has been said so clearly this afternoon, the other place barely touched on the practical, legal and constitutional issues surrounding the Bill and, unsurprisingly, dwelt mainly on the political aspects. Here things will be different. There is a host of exceedingly complex issues to explore, and we shall explore them with all the vigour that we can muster.
This is a vindictive Bill. It rides roughshod over history and part of a constitution which has served this country well for hundreds of years and still serves it with independence to protect the interests of all its citizens against abuse of power by governments. It pre-empts any serious consideration of the working of the constitution or Parliament within it. Its foundations lie in dogma and spite. It is of doubtful constitutional validity and its legal basis will be tested to the full. On these grounds, and on many others, this House must examine thoroughly what is proposed and take whatever action is necessary to maintain or devise the independent legislative safeguard which the people of this country expect of us. I support the amendment.
§ 8.13 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, this is a very sad debate for all of us who have, for however short or however long, enjoyed the privilege and the happiness of serving in your Lordships' House. It is even sadder when the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, makes such lovely jokes. It is being so cheerful that keeps us going. It is also sad because it is unnecessary. All that any government ever needed to do to reform your Lordships' House was to remove voting rights—but not, of course, speaking rights—from all Peers, hereditary and life, who did not attend and contribute on a regular basis. This would, at a stroke, remove all the so-called backwoodsmen, life and hereditary, trundling in to vote, but would not deprive your Lordships of the pleasure of hearing the voices of noble Lords on matters that they really know about. It would also restore to your Lordships the proper name of "Peers" for, whether we are dukes or barons, life Peers or hereditary, men or women, we are all equal, we are all peers.
The House of Lords has its origins in the Saxon witanagemot, and William the Conqueror created something very similar, which was first described as a parliament in 1181. And so the House evolved, with more hereditary Peers being created over the next 900 years, a current renewal and refurbishment like the tide and the seasons. In the 19th century Law Lords were introduced as life Peers and the House of Lords became the highest court of appeal in the land. Nineteen fifty-eight brought life Peers, and some were ladies. By 1961, hereditary ladies had set in, too.
I should like to talk briefly about trees, a subject about which many of your Lordships know a great deal. Trees have long roots going back into the soil. Trees live longer than human beings and are possibly more 91 useful. Our House is like a tree; it has roots going back into history. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, was kind enough to mention some of my own older ancestors, the de Veres. I am, in fact, the senior heir-general of Aubrey de Vere, Lord Great Chamberlain in the reign of Henry I. I am as proud of these distant ancestors of mine as I am of my great-grandmother, Sarah Piercy, who worked in a pub in North Wales.
Because ancestors are part of our heredity—and we are all in this world hereditary—we all have parents and grandparents and remoter ancestors, and we are all proud of our own ancestors. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, moved us all when he spoke of his own ancestors with such love and pride. That is part of our humanity. We are also proud of our children and grandchildren. My eldest son, the future Lord Strange, is today sitting on the steps of the Throne and my youngest daughter is also present in the Chamber. Last week my noble friend Lord Northbourne introduced a debate on marriage and the importance for children of growing up in a family. That is what heredity, and the hereditary principle, is all about. To use it as a smear word is to smear all of humanity.
Our world is daily becoming swifter and more instant. Messages flash backwards and forwards on e-mail. We are as aware of the weather in Auckland as we are of the weather in Aberdeen. But we still need stability and continuity—boiled eggs and grapefruit for Sunday breakfast, turkey and Christmas pudding on Christmas Day. We are all as ephemeral as the flowers of the field. But we need to be aware of yesterday's flowers, for we are as much part of them as tomorrow's flowers will be of us.
I have talked briefly of the continuity of time. I should also like to mention the continuity of space. In this House we have noble Dukes of Argyll and Fife, noble Earls of Glasgow, Perth and Dundee (or, indeed, their Royal Highnesses, Edinburgh, Rothesay and Inverness). I will not venture south of the Border, but the picture is the same. Many noble Lords have lived in the same place for a considerable time. They are "of' the place. My Drummond ancestors have been at Megginch only since Whitsun 1664, but there have been Drummonds living in Perthshire, as my noble kinsman and clan chief, the noble Earl, Lord Perth, can confirm, since the Hungarian sea captain Maurice, who brought Queen Margaret to Scotland, was shipwrecked at Queensferry in 1066.
But I have digressed from trees and their long roots. If you want to improve—perhaps I should say reform—a tree, you cut out the dead wood; you prune it; you may pollard it. You do not pull it up by the roots, for then you will have no tree left.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I know that a number of your Lordships who will speak in this debate, like many who have already done so, will cover the intellectual, philosophical, constitutional and historical arguments. I shall not do any of those things. 92 I want to speak mainly about my personal feelings that I confess are emotional. It grieves me greatly that a Bill like this should ever have come before this House.
I came into this House in October 1993 and was immediately struck by the uniqueness of this Chamber, not simply because I was privileged to join what is regarded worldwide as the finest revising Chamber anywhere but because I was overwhelmed by the one thing that could not be recreated anywhere else. I refer to the blending together of the past and the future with history and tradition on one hand—the many years of public service of families whose descendants sit here—and the careful work that we do today to create new legislation in this House and to revise legislation that comes from the other place, to debate on Wednesdays and on Unstarred Questions matters for which the other place has neither the time nor in many cases the same expertise, and our attempts to hold the executive to account at Question Time.
I make no apology for believing in the hereditary principle. Like most people I believe that husbands and wives who are blessed with children work hard in order to pass on to their descendants not just their names but their values, what they want from life; and some of the worldly goods they may have been fortunate enough to collect. Family businesses have formed the backbone of this country. It is interesting that many families enter medicine and the law. Certainly, farmers have great pleasure in ensuring that their descendants inherit the land so that it passes from generation to generation. I believe that families who have served this country well through decades of public service have brought to this House a stability and continuity that is practically unknown in any other legislature. I only wish that their devotion to duty and service was properly recognised and acknowledged. I was pleased to hear the noble Baroness the Leader of the House refer to that matter earlier today.
However, we are told that this House must change because the manifesto for which the people of this country voted overwhelmingly stated that hereditary Peers had to go. But the manifesto referred to four other things to do with reform of this House. Most people have little or no idea of those other four matters. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell has already referred to the statement that,the system of appointment of life Peers will be reviewed, and our objective over time is to see that life Peers more accurately reflect the proportion of votes cast at previous elections".I find the latter part very worrying. How faithful will the scrutiny of this House be if it is no more than a mirror image of the other place? Another point was referred to by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell. Is this House to grow like Topsy every time there is a change of government? How will the system of appointment change? Will it be an elected second Chamber or a totally appointed one? What about the number of leaks we have read and the number of kites flown about age limits, appointments for five to 10 years and so on? It is important to realise that once the genie is out of the bottle no-one will know where it will end.
93 The third part of the manifesto refers to the commitment to maintain an independent element, but nearly 70 per cent. of Cross-Benchers are hereditary. Therefore, how can we be sure that this will happen in practice? The fourth part refers to a committee of both Houses to undertake a review of possible future change. How wise that is. But in normal circumstances should not consideration be given to that before the destruction of one part? Would not a serious attempt at reform not include consideration of all the issues before destruction of just one part? Would the Royal Commission that the Government announced have come about had there not been so much pressure for it from this House?
We come to the fifth part. I would have been much more confident if it had said, "We will not abolish the monarchy", or, "We are committed to retaining the monarchy". However, it said:We have no plans to replace the monarchy.We all know what "no plans" means to politicians. The Government could make it clear now by saying that this Government and any future Labour Government (should there be one) are committed to retaining the monarchy. I hope that the Minister will unequivocally confirm that in his reply.
I am also concerned by the words of the Deputy Prime Minister who, at the end of the first paragraph of his speech on Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill, said:Later in the Session, we shall at long last start to remove the hereditary principle from our system of governance".—[Official Report, Commons; 14/12/98; col. 623.]My Lords, he said "governance", not "government". Quite apart from the relevance of making that statement in the context of the Greater London Authority Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister should know that the governance of our country includes the Monarch as the essential third part.
This House suffered a grievous loss last week with the death of Lord Beloff. He would have spoken in this debate far more eloquently that I can. He would have drawn to your Lordships' attention the fact that in the last two years power has been gradually slipping away from Parliament. He would have mentioned too the rigid discipline imposed on members of the Labour Party in the other place, with the threat of de-selection for those who go "off message"; the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly; the intended regionalisation of England through the regional development agencies; the ceding of a huge number of powers to the diktat of unelected officials in Brussels; and now the proposal to turn your Lordships' House into a giant quango in which the complementary system of the two Houses working together will be changed. It may be a competitive system, but certainly the balance will be destroyed for all time. I, for one, support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. I believe that the situation is now so dangerous we must do all that we can.
I also support the Weatherill amendment. As my noble friend Lord Cranborne and others have said, that amendment makes a bad Bill better. But we all need to know what the amendment says in much more detail. I 94 am not as concerned as other noble Lords about the number of hereditary Peers who remain. What is of extreme importance to me is that the hereditary principle stays in the frame. I only hope—I go as far as to say I pray—that if and when the second stage comes about, although I am by no means certain that it will, it will be an accepted fact that the hereditary principle can still be so regarded.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, there is an old chestnut about the later stages of very long debates. A younger statesman says to an older statesman, "Surely, everything that can be possibly said on this subject has now been said". The older statesman replies, "Yes, but not everybody has said it". I am not feeling like that at all. I expected to be, after so many hours; by tomorrow night everyone will expect to be. I am finding this a fascinating debate, because noble Lords of all parties and none are bringing out so much of their own experience, their own personal history, their own education and bringing it to bear on what is, for the hereditary Peers, an existential question. There is nothing like an existential question to bring out the best in speakers.
I am one of those hereditary Peers who believe that we ought no longer to sit as such in Parliament. We were once necessary to good government because we owned most of the land and commanded the subordinate feudal allegiance of most of the people who lived where we lived; but by now we are the result of chance among the better-off.
I thus accept this Bill, though its character and timing—out there by itself, way ahead of the general reform either of this House or of the other, and unconnected with other concurrent constitutional changes—seems to betray a lack of self-confidence on the part of the Government; even perhaps a lack of ambition. The ship of state is being re-engined, but there are no designs and the new machinery has not been ordered. We must therefore make up our minds about the Bill in vacuo. We must also remember that the interim House will be no more democratic than this one, despite the importance of the decisions it will have to take about the long term.
If I knew that the composition of the eventual House was to be half or more elected and was to be sufficiently independent of the executive to take the broadest view of the national interest, then I would depart in peace. The possibility remains, however, that we may be succeeded by a bureaucratic body or one representative of partial interests and not those of the people as a whole.
I have been in this place 39 years. When I succeeded to the peerage I wondered whether to renounce it, because I believed that hereditary peerage was unjustified. I was then a member of Harold Wilson's advisory panel on disarmament and international security, he being leader of the Opposition. I asked his advice. He said, "You go in. We are going to need you". I did and, in due course, they did need me. I have spent 17 of those 39 years on various Front Benches and thus 95 gained some experience, the most relevant perhaps during the abortive attempt to make a much lesser reform of this House in 1968.
I regret that the Bill is being put through in advance of the report by the Royal Commission. I know that many hereditaries throughout the House would go with a good grace in the interests of democracy but dislike going into a void, where we could see ourselves replaced by creatures of bureaucracy, faction and global Mammon.
I shall vote for the Bill if a Division is called at this or any other stage, since its principle was in our party manifesto and I have supported the principle for a very long time. By far the greater number of upper houses in the world's democracies are elected or have a large elected element, so there is no lack of models.
A lot rests on those who, if the Bill passes, will then take the responsibility of completing the package of Lords' reform. I wish them success in helping to create, from this stumbling start, a Parliament worthy of the people it is to govern.
§ 8.33 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, when I entered this House I was introduced by a much loved and admired Tory Peer, now dead, Lady Faithfull, and by a Labour Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. The first time I voted was on an educational issue and I voted against the Government. The Labour Peers in the Lobby helpfully said to me that I was in the wrong Lobby. I said no, I wanted to vote that way and that was at once understood. My maiden speech was immediately preceded by the exodus from the Chamber of nearly all my Tory colleagues. They had gone to hear the Prime Minister speak, but I did not know that and was much taken aback. The warm reception I had from all sides of the House as a maiden speaker completely reassured me, however.
Since then I have voted in the same Lobby with Peers of every party and from the Cross-Benches on such issues as student loans and fees, health, the public service, foreign and defence policy, and Northern Ireland. They were all issues of principle and right across party lines.
I hope I have said enough to explain why I value and admire the generous and civilised society that is the House of Lords. Until recently battles have been fought with passion and conviction but without personal rancour. I want to make an urgent plea for the same spirit of mutual respect to inform the passage of this Bill. There will be time in Committee to argue the detail. We are one of the two Houses of Parliament debating the first step in a major constitutional change, even more significant than devolution in Scotland and Wales because we are still the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
This Bill is not, as the media and the other place would have it, simply a measure to remove some irrelevant dinosaurs who, as a Minister in the other place who should know better has said, are trying to continue "Living like a lord at the taxpayers' expense". We all 96 know what a travesty of the truth that is. Incidentally, each of us costs the country only one-tenth of the cost of an MP. Money is not the issue.
The hereditary Peers must, because their forebears are in many cases part of the history, tradition and the very fabric of the House—their coats of arms hang in this Chamber—feel a particular sense of loss. Many have served their country well, both here and in their professional lives. There are plenty of them who are doughty fighters still.
It is worth remembering that, when the House of Lords voted for its own reform in 1968, of the majority of 251 who voted in favour 128 were hereditary Peers. It was the House of Commons under a Labour Government that killed the Bill.
The hereditary Peers are realists. They believe, as we do, that we have a duty to ensure that the work this House does so well—work which requires, for instance in the European Committees and the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee designed to keep the executive in check, considerable experience which many of the new Members of the House have not yet developed—shall continue to be properly done until the Royal Commission and, after that, the Committee of both Houses say what is the future role of this House.
The Cranborne-Weatherill amendment proposes what the Government themselves should have been considering: an interim arrangement to retain a proportion of the hereditary Peers who play so necessary a part in the work of the House, until the future nature of this Chamber has been determined.
It is amazing that the Leader of the House should have indicated that this proposal must be regarded as conditional on good behaviour; namely, an agreement not to do our plain constitutional duty of scrutiny and amendment. That apparently constitutes "Pitched battle which would jeopardise the proposal". Is the House then to be neutered even before the future is defined and decided? It is only too clear from the White Paper that the Government would like to see our powers yet further reduced. It will not be for the good of the country to remove the checks and balances. The battle is about the best way to effect constructive constitutional change and all Peers, hereditary and appointed, care about that equally.
I dislike the Bill and I believe that the Government have failed in their duty of thinking out the consequences. We have a duty, however, to ensure that we do not allow the question to become trivialised. We must fight a clean battle, with mutual respect, without rancour, without personal animosity and what I can only call class bitterness.
I am sure that the late Lord Dean of Beswick, who I was proud to count as a friend and who will be sorely missed, would have fought robustly to remove the hereditary Peers on principle; but he would have done it decently and would not have assumed, as some do now, that all hereditary Peers are effete and useless. He knew better and he would have treated them as opponents worthy of respect but not as enemies.
97 I was glad to hear the noble Baroness the Leader of the House speak in the way that she did today. It was right and reassuring. This House has produced such universally beloved and respected figures as Lucy Faithfull and Nancy Seer, life Peers now dead, and also such equally respected hereditary Peers who are still with us: the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, my noble friend Lord Carrington, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, to name only a few. It is too valuable an institution to be treated as just one more political pawn on the board for the spin doctors to play games with and the media to mock.
Although my noble friend Lord Ferrers said this much better than I can, I still wish to say that we, the servants of this House, owe it to the many other loyal and infinitely valuable and devoted servants of the House—the officers, the Clerks, the doorkeepers, the attendants, those who have helped and guided us all especially in our first years here—to conduct our proceedings throughout the Bill with honour and restraint and to come, if we can, to a wise conclusion. They are as proud as we are of the traditions and work of the House. I think that they must find it as disturbing as I do that lately there has been a miasma of uncertainty and insecurity and a degree of personal rancour and triumphalism which is both alien and unwelcome. An example of that new pettiness and meanness of spirit is the provision in the Explanatory Notes that hereditary Peers may no longer use the Library or the facilities of the House. I hope that that will go by the board, and that we can fight a good fight on issues of principle and not allow the media or the other place to demean a great institution which is ready to change but wants to change for the better.
I just hope that in the immortal words of that great and beloved man Ernest Bevin we do not find that we have opened Pandora's Box only to have a Trojan horse jump out.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Lord Plant of Highfield
My Lords, I support the Bill and wish to dwell for a few moments on the issue of heredity, in particular since it was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Strange and Lady Miller of Hendon. The noble Baroness, Lady Strange, worried that the principle of heredity is being seen as a smear. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, spoke about everyone having pride in his own family. That is entirely right. One is proud of one's own family and background. I usually have to disabuse people: most of my colleagues seem to think that I am the son of Sir Arnold Plant, the economist, and not Stanley Plant, the Grimsby fireman. Nevertheless, having overcome that hurdle I take pride in my own family.
However, the critical difference is surely whether heredity gives a right to political power, however limited in this House. It is not a question of whether we have pride in our families; of course we all do. With due respect to the noble Baroness, it seems wrong to consider bequeathing a business through generations as analogous to bequeathing a kind of property right in the governance and administration of the country. If the 98 nation is "owned"—it is the wrong word to use—it is by the people generally not by a specific group of people who claim some hereditary right.
The usual Burkean justification for heredity cannot now work because it rests on two assumptions which have become fatally eroded. The first is the shared notion of authority, natural hierarchy, natural authority, prescriptive rights and a loyalty and deference to that structure of natural order underpinning natural authority. That has disappeared and cannot be reinvented. Once it has been eroded, one cannot put it back together again, no matter how much one might want to. Let us put it another way. If one asks, "What is the authority of tradition?", then tradition has already lost its authority because it is only authoritative when it is a matter of custom, practice and habit. Once one seeks to rationalise it, it has lost its authority.
Secondly, the hereditary principle has rested on the view that political wisdom and judgment is vested in a hereditary political class. That seems to me incredible these days. It would make a mockery of what all governments have sought to do over the past years; to improve education, civic standards, and so forth. We cannot surely think that those insights, and so on, are available only to a hereditary class. The notion of heredity has to be left behind.
However, as the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said, there remain the considerable qualities of the hereditary Peers as individuals. Most of them are assiduous and conscientious in the performance of their duties. Many of them are independently minded. They have wide experience and discharge many public duties and services. As President of the NCVO, I am always running into hereditary Members of this House who are actively involved in charities, and so on. That is all true. The hereditary peerage brings with it a geographical spread of Members of the House and an age spread. But those qualities of mind and character of hereditary Peers are nothing to do with the principle of heredity. They are the characteristics and qualities for which the individuals themselves should take credit and responsibility. There is no genetic stream that creates a sense of public duty and service. Those are qualities that hereditary Peers have but, as my noble friend Lady Jay said in her speech, they are widely shared across the population. Those qualities of mind and character do not of themselves confer a right to sit in Parliament.
Several noble Lords opposite have said that the case to remove hereditary Peers has not been deployed. There is a strong argument to remove the hereditary principle in the exercise of political power. But the important point is that the qualities that hereditary Peers have—they are shared by many other people—are preserved in a reformed House while enhancing the legitimacy of that House compared with the present Chamber and enabling it to use its revising and deliberative powers more effectively than it is able to do because of the constraints of hereditary membership. In the later stages of reform, I hope that a greater role will be given to this House in relation to constitutional affairs.
If one removes the hereditary element, and considers the main issue of legitimacy, it is strongly arguable that the basic condition of legitimacy in a mature western 99 society with a strong sense of individualism is the individual consent of the governed. That means elections. Prior to the 1992 elections, I was proud to have been involved in the formulation of the then Labour Party's constitutional proposals, including the proposal that the House of Lords should become a wholly elected body. The proposal formulated, and in the manifesto, was that the size of the second Chamber should comprise 250 to 300 people; it should be elected regionally rather than by constituencies, and therefore would differ from the Commons; and it should be elected on a form of proportional representation. That again would make it different from the Commons and unlikely that any party would have an absolute majority in the second Chamber. The view then was that such a House should be made more legitimate than the House that we currently have, but would be constrained in its legitimacy vis-à-vis the Commons because it would have a different electoral base. It would have a different electoral system. Crucially, it would be a great deal smaller.
Expertise—it is a feature I am happy to concede to hereditary Peers—could be introduced by having a more imaginative committee system. There could be pre-legislative debates and debates on White Papers and Green Papers which would bring expert testimony to committees considering those issues. We could have expertise in a different kind of House. Nevertheless, as they say, things have moved on and I do not think it is very likely that we shall end up with a wholly elected House. There are four or five arguments that are now being deployed against it, which obviously have to be taken seriously.
The first is that the House of Commons will not wear it; an elected second Chamber would have too much authority relative to the House of Commons. Secondly, there would be few, if any, independent Members. We could get the expertise in by the means I have suggested, but not independent Members who would vote. Thirdly, there might be "election fatigue". I think the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, listed the number of different elections that we currently have. Finally, there is the worry about possibly having a Chamber of purely professional politicians. Therefore, it Is much more likely that we shall end up with a mixed Chamber, or what was called earlier in the debate a "mish-mash" kind of Chamber; perhaps that is rather a pejorative way of describing it.
I am not against the idea of a mixed Chamber, both to enhance legitimacy and also to constrain it, vis-a-vis the House of Commons, but there are a number of issues which the Royal Commission will have to look at carefully. First, how the elected and unelected Members will cohere together. It has been an argument with regard to electoral reform in the other place that you could never have constituency members and list members in the same House, because they would have a different kind of relationship with their electorates. How much more would that be true of an upper House if one group stood for election and the other did not. There are great dangers there which we shall have to look at.
100 Then there is the question of pay and conditions. This brings me back to one of the issues concerning hereditary Peers. One of the great things about this Chamber is its geographical spread. However, let us suppose that we move to a mixed House of nominated and elected Members, the nominated Members not being paid a salary. The nominated Members would have to be retired, of independent means, or live within such a distance that they could actually make their living somewhere else in London. The issue of how to create a new House with the geographical spread of the current House of Lords is very important.
Finally, if we opted for a mixed Chamber there could be the anomaly of nominated people holding the balance of power in a clash between the two elected groups, or more, in that Chamber. There are some difficulties about that. Nevertheless, the hereditary principle has had its day and there are good reasons for thinking so, as I have tried to indicate. We must make sure that we focus on all that has been good about this Chamber and I think it can be recreated, with imagination, in a new Chamber. I look to the Royal Commission to do that.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Lord Vivian
My Lords, this Bill will have the most profound effects on the history of the Parliament of this nation since the time of Oliver Cromwell, because as it stands, without amendment, it will emasculate and render impotent this House during the transitional period that is being proposed. It is such an important constitutional matter that I find it deplorable that threats should be made against these Benches and that this issue is treated as a party political one, and not as a seriously important constitutional matter.
This is widely illustrated by the refusal to allow your Lordships to debate for more than two days, when there are some 176 speakers. I find it unreasonable that speakers should be restricted to seven minutes for such an important constitutional matter. This Bill, as envisaged, with its proposed transitional stage, does not in any way improve your Lordships' House: in fact the exact opposite will occur. It will be weakened.
There is a further point that I should like to make, which relates to the effects of this Bill and the longer term proposals for the future of this House when the Royal Commission reports and when the joint parliamentary committee deliberates its report. It is a very simple point: that is that if hereditary Peers confine their remarks solely to this Bill, the abolition of hereditary Peers, and if this Bill is passed in its present form without considerable amendment they will never have the opportunity to make their thoughts known about the future of your Lordships' House.
Perhaps that is the very intention of the Government, to muzzle the voices and opinions of the hereditary Peers. There is therefore good reason for us to speak out now in this debate about our ideas on the future reform of what has generally become known as stage two of the reform of the House of Lords.
However, I would like to bring to your Lordships' attention some aspects and attitudes that have prevailed so far. These have amounted to some Members of 101 Parliament on the Labour Benches in another place adopting an irresponsible, naïve and ill-informed commentary, which has merely displayed their intense hatred for hereditary Peers and not identified any intelligent proposals as to what may happen during the transitional stage. This has been particularly unhelpful because it has shown clearly that they have no knowledge and little understanding of your Lordships' House. They seem only to have the desire to abolish the hereditary Peers without taking into account in any way how this House will function during the transitional stage, or in the future. With such an important issue facing the nation, surely a more intelligent and responsible line should have been adopted, with less chastising of hereditary Peers, who for centuries have done and continue to do their duty in your Lordships' House.
This is probably the most important constitutional matter that has come to your Lordships for some 700 years. As such, it is far too important to be dealt with on a petty party political basis. Every one of us on all sides of the House must do our duty and put aside our party political feelings so that we can debate, amend and work on this Bill to improve your Lordships' House in the interests of the nation.
I should like to turn attention to the Bill and I should like to emphasise the fact that the Government stated in the White Paper that they are minded to accept the proposals to allow a small number of hereditary Peers—currently 92—to sit temporarily in the transitional House if an amendment to the legislation is supported. I have also noted that there is to be no change in the role, function and powers of this Chamber during the transitional period. Therefore the burden of work will not decrease.
I should like to draw to your Lordships' attention that the records show that this current workload requires 400 Peers on a daily basis, in order that this Chamber can function effectively. It is therefore logical to assess figures for the transitional stage of the Chamber on a daily attendance of 400 Peers if all the work is to be done. I regret having to worry your Lordships with some statistics, but on this occasion to understand the logic it is necessary to refer to a few figures. Based on a working House of a minimum of 400 Peers, and knowing that a maximum of 228 life Peers attend daily, if you add the prospective 92 Peers to that figure there will be only 320 Peers to run the Chamber, leaving an overall deficiency of 80.
The Leader of the House, during an earlier debate on this matter, informed the House that approximately 500 life Peers will remain. That is true, but this figure is not relevant, as only 228 attend daily. There is very little likelihood that any more will ever attend.
I do not believe that 320 Peers is a sufficient number to run this House during the interim period if the existing roles, functions and powers are retained. Therefore, I suggest that illustrates that there could be a case for increasing the number of hereditary Peers by an additional 80, giving an overall figure of 172 hereditary Peers to cover the shortfall during the transitional period.
102 However, it is not as simple as that if parity between the two major parties is to be created—a factor required by the Government—because there would be a preponderance of Conservative hereditary Peers. It should be possible to adjust the daily attendance figures for Conservative hereditary Peers from 97 to about 75, for the Liberal Democrats from about 14 to 10, the Cross-Benches from about 46 to 35, or some such similar adjustment. That would give a figure of about 135 hereditary Peers to be retained during the transitional stage, which includes the 14 existing hereditary Labour Peers.
There will also be a requirement for parity so that an extra 37 Labour life Peers will have to he created in order to achieve that. If all that is done, it might just provide the knowledge, experience and wisdom for this Chamber to function effectively in the interim period. However, a word of warning should be sounded, as currently the House achieves a daily attendance rate of 400 Peers from a total availability of 1,170 Peers.
How can a figure of 400 Peers be sustained to sit in this House when it is possible to draw from an entitlement of a future total of only 400 Peers? I suggest that it is totally unrealistic and, indeed, impossible. I shall return to that point in Committee. The Government's planning figures for the transitional stage of your Lordships' House are deeply flawed.
I turn briefly to the powers and composition of your Lordships' House in stage two, should that ever come about because, if I do not comment now, I may never have the opportunity to do so again. I have already covered the roles and functions of a stage two reformed House during our previous debates and I shall not say any more about that.
That brings me to the future powers of the House of Lords and to the problem of legitimacy in its composition. If this House is to be made more legitimate, it could become so only by changing to a fully elected Chamber. If that occurs, the upper House will inevitably demand increased and formidable powers which may well bring the two Houses into direct conflict. Furthermore, it will lose its independence. and that can only be to the detriment of Parliament. Alternatively, if the House is wholly appointed, it will retain its lack of legitimacy. I believe it to be far better for the House to retain its independence with a strengthening of its powers as opposed to an elected House with formidable powers which, as I said, may bring it into conflict with another place.
I have commented on the composition of this House in the transitional stage. However, in stage two, if it ever occurs, there may well be additional responsibilities and therefore there may be a requirement for a daily attendance marginally larger than 400 Peers. That new figure could be based on 450, of which there would be about 250 life Peers and up to 200 hereditary Peers, which would then ensure that the additional work would be undertaken effectively and the parliamentary committees and all-party groups properly sustained.
Would it not be possible in the future for this Chamber to appoint a leader and for government Ministers and their teams to present Bills in this 103 Chamber for scrutiny, debate and, where necessary, Division to ensure that decisions are taken in the interests of the nation and not on a party political basis?
I remind your Lordships that only 31 per cent. of the electorate voted for the Labour Party in the last election; that an opinion poll revealed that only 2 per cent. of the electorate recalled the promise to reform the House of Lords; that in a recent opinion poll only 25 per cent. stated that they would like to abolish hereditary Peers now whereas 75 per cent., which included 7 per cent. with no opinion, said they wished to keep the status quo or at least wait until the proposals for long-term reform are known. I have not met anyone, nor do I believe that there is any sensible person, who supports the Government's proposals for a transitional stage. People are completely unable to understand why the reforms are not being undertaken as a complete package.
In conclusion, I believe that the proposed reforms in this thoroughly bad Bill will weaken the authority of your Lordships' House during this transitional stage. This Bill does not change the role, functions and powers but changes only the composition of the Chamber during that interim period by removing all the hereditary Peers, except perhaps 92 of them. That will leave the House with fewer Peers. Without the 92 hereditary Peers, there would be only 228 life Peers to do the same amount of work.
Irreplaceable knowledge and expert advice will be lost to the nation, and the reduction of Peers will leave a Chamber with about 320 Peers to undertake the same amount of business. As many of your Lordships have said before, it makes no sense whatever to decide on the composition of this House before determining its roles, functions and powers. It is totally illogical and an act of madness to proceed in that way. It is an act of vandalism.
I remind your Lordships that this is not a party political matter but an issue of grave constitutional consequence. The checks and balances on the executive so well imposed by this Chamber may disappear with the weakening of this House. A citizen of the United Kingdom is in danger of losing his liberty and protection and guardianship from an over-demanding Government. Parliament will be damaged for ever and the status of the nation will be degraded. The government of this country will not be better but infinitely worse and the country must be protected from any elected dictatorship now or in the future, whichever political party is in power.
I ask your Lordships to cast aside any thoughts of party politics and personal preferences. This is far too grave a constitutional matter and must be given the greatest consideration and thought to ensure that the constitution of our nation is improved. With that in mind, I ask the Government to think again about this Bill and its very many shortcomings.
§ 9.8 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Vivian as I wish to reinforce a central point of his argument. The noble 104 Baroness the Leader of the House sought to distinguish the principle from the details of the Bill. One has only to look at previous measures—constitutional or otherwise—to recognise the dangers of rushing to legislate for a particular principle without adequately contemplating the consequences of change.
As we have heard, the justification for the Bill is a manifesto commitment. The Government appear to believe that that commitment is necessary and sufficient for the purposes of enacting the Bill. The manifesto commitment may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. It is not sufficient because it embodies a false premise. The Bill is put before us as a,self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future".The Bill, as drafted, does not and cannot deliver a "self-contained" reform. To remove hereditary Peers from membership has consequences for the work, indeed the very nature and role, of the House of Lords and for the constitution of the United Kingdom.
The House of Lords has several functions and, by general consent, fulfils them well. Let me single out one in particular. The House scrutinises and revises public Bills. In so doing, the House plays to its strengths and adds value to the political system. It is qualitatively distinguishable from the first Chamber. By fulfilling that function it does not challenge the democratic accountability of the House of Commons. It is complementary, although not subservient, to the elected Chamber.
Scrutiny in this House is frequently informed scrutiny. The knowledge and status of those engaged in debate induces Ministers to engage in a real discourse with Members. Ministers not only respond to, and engage in, debate; they also variously concede the points made and agree to amendments or agree to introduce amendments of their own. As Ministers concede, the result is better legislation. There are some good recent examples.
The essential point is that the hereditary Peers help to make that possible. They comprise over 40 per cent. of the active—the very active—membership of this House. The organisation, Common Sense for Lords Reform—I declare an interest as a patron of that organisation—has produced figures showing the extent of the involvement of hereditary Peers in the running of your Lordships' House. My noble friend Lord Vivian produced detailed figures. I do not propose to repeat them. The point is that hereditary Peers help to keep the House going and enable those who are engaged in outside work to contribute to debate.
Without the active hereditary Peers, it would be difficult to maintain a full-time House based on part-time membership. A substantial burden will fall on those who have outside jobs. They will either have to curtail or give up their jobs, in which case their expertise will no longer be current, or the House will not be able to fulfil its present functions. In other words, this House will suffer if the hereditary Peers are taken out. The House simply cannot carry on as before. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has claimed in a Written Answer, 105that the House will continue to function perfectly well after the hereditary Peers have left".For the reasons I have given and on the basis of the figures given by my noble friend Lord Vivian, I do not believe that that is a sustainable claim. If the Government wish to continue to advance it, they have to demonstrate, clearly and unequivocally, how my thesis is flawed. They can no longer simply assert that. They have to prove their case.
To assert that new life Peers will be created for the purpose of political balance, or that the Government are minded to accept the Weatherill amendment, does not challenge my thesis but, if anything, reinforces it.
The measure cannot be seen as "self-contained" in terms of its effect on the workings of the House. Nor can it be seen as "self-contained" in terms of the constitution. The Government have embarked on a number of changes to the constitution They treat them as being disparate and discrete. Each is seen, in effect, as self-contained. That is a false and dangerous perception. Each impacts on the other and on the constitutional framework of this country. The constitution is being changed, and changed fundamentally, but without a clear view of what will be the end result.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has sought to justify the Government's approach on grounds of pragmatism. Pragmatism can be used to justify a singular change within the existing constitutional framework—that is quite a good conservative approach—but it cannot be employed for a raft of changes that will replace the existing framework with something else. In constitutional terms, we have left the port, but we have no idea which destination we are heading for. Those on the bridge do not appear to have a chart. The likelihood is constitutional drift.
The Government should have identified the constitutional framework that they favour before embarking on change. The Bill should come as a result of considered debate, as a consequence of a clear approach to constitutional change. At the very least, we should begin by looking at Parliament as a whole. That point was well made 30 years ago during debate on the 1969 Parliament (No. 2) Bill. On that occasion, one Member of the other place declared:
We should have considered not what we should do with the House of Lords, but what we wanted the Houses of Parliament to do. Having considered that, we should have decided what was required, and then fitted in the House of Lords. What we did was to arrive at a solution, and then find that the problem was still with us".—[Official Report, Commons, 3/2/69; col. 112.]Those words were spoken by Mr. Robert Sheldon, a distinguished Labour Member who still sits in the other place. I look forward to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, explaining why he believes that his right honourable friend got it wrong.
The case for looking again at this Bill, and for waiting until the Royal Commission has reported, has been made by no less a body than the Royal Commission itself. In its consultation document, published last week, it recognises that consideration of powers and functions should precede discussion of composition. The document also lists 11 characteristics that membership of a second Chamber may collectively fulfil. In my 106 estimation, nine of those 11 functions are fulfilled by the present Chamber. I very much doubt whether anyone can devise an alternative Chamber that can fulfil anything approaching nine of those functions. That should give cause for reflection. It should certainly give pause for thought to those who now rush around advocating an elected second Chamber.
My short analysis leads me to conclude with three questions for the Government. First, what serious study have the Government undertaken as to the effect on the functions of this House of the removal of hereditary Peers? As I said, assertion is no longer adequate.
Secondly, why bring forward the Bill at this time, ahead of the report of the Royal Commission? The manifesto commitment may justify the introduction of the Bill, but not its timing. The Government are committed to a step-by-step approach to reform. A step-by-step approach implies caution, but usually some awareness of where one wishes to step. Waiting for the report of the Royal Commission is thus completely compatible with a step-by-step approach.
Thirdly, what is the approach—the intellectual approach—to constitutional change which the Government have adopted and within which this measure can be located? The noble Lord the Government Chief Whip studiously avoided answering that question during the two-day debate on the White Paper. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House sought to answer it today but failed adequately to do so. The time has come when we are entitled to an adequate and substantive answer.
§ 9.16 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, it is very difficult to defend the hereditary principle. Indeed, the tide of history is probably against it. Having said that, I believe that hereditary Peers, in their individual capacity, have contributed much not only to our history, but to the present House. Furthermore, I do not believe that an appointed system would be any better because it would lead to all kinds of problems, cronyism being one. I think that we have too much cronyism these days; we do not want to make it worse. If we leave this by abolishing the hereditaries, all that we shall have, as my noble friend Lord Desai pointed out in his brilliant paper, is the biggest quango in the country. I am sure that none of us wants that. What is more, if we have an appointed House, we shall lose the benefit of randomness which the hereditary principle gives us.
I want something more than is in this very short Bill. In fact, the Bill is far too short. I regret its piecemeal approach. At present there is a great opportunity to reform the whole institution of Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has just said. I refer not only to this House, but also to the House of Commons. The House of Commons is going down the drain and it needs a great deal of reform. This opportunity for reform may not come along again for a very long time.
It would have been far better to have had one all-encompassing reform of the parliamentary institutions through, if possible, all-party agreement. That is the way reform sticks. That would have been far 107 better than tinkering around the edges of the problem as we are doing today. A Speaker's Conference or a Royal Commission should have been set up in 1997—we have wasted two years—to consider the reforms needed and with adequate time to do it without being rushed. However, we now have this Bill to abolish the hereditary element, and there is no consensus; there is no all-party agreement. So in fact there is going to be one hell of a fight about it. That is a great shame when we are reforming a great institution such as this House.
But we are not getting rid of the hereditary principle. We are going to retain 91 hereditary Peers, for what period we do not know. They will be allowed to remain for an interim period—whatever that period will be—provided the House votes for what I consider to have been a disreputable deal cooked up by some noble Lords and the Government without proper consultation with the hereditary Peers and other Members of this House; and if this House behaves itself, as one of my noble friends said.
But this is only an interim stage. A Royal Commission will report on the next stage apparently by December, whether or not it has done a good job. That is most unfortunate and I hope members of the commission will protest and not be put under such a constraint. Otherwise it will be another rush job. But we already know the Government's intention, through their White Paper and Statements. They do not want a more effective second Chamber; they want a less effective Chamber, preferably one with some existing powers removed, such as secondary legislation, and the length of delaying powers reduced. In other words, the House of Lords will simply be an advisory Chamber in what will effectively be a unicameral system without proper checks and balances on the House of Commons itself. Indeed, that is taking place at a time when the Government are treating the House of Commons as their poodle, and the House of Commons is behaving like a poodle, even to the extent that British Armed Forces are sent into battle without parliamentary approval or proper debate beforehand. That is a great shame.
I do not necessarily disagree with unicameral legislatures, but they must be under the proper control of the people, probably through a written constitution, the courts and by means of shorter parliaments and referendums on great issues and constitutional changes, with a 60 per cent. vote necessary to make any constitutional changes. But I do not believe that there is any great support for a unicameral system. Therefore we ought to create a bicameral system which has authority and strikes a proper balance of powers and duties between both Houses, and which ensures a real parliamentary democracy to hold government to account and to prevent arrogant administrations riding roughshod over the sovereignty and the rights and powers of Parliament.
In my view that calls for a second Chamber with stronger, not weaker powers. If it is to have reasonable and adequate powers, and parity of esteem with the first Chamber, then it must have the same legitimacy; and that can only come about if the second Chamber is elected. There is no getting away from that. If the 108 hereditaries are undemocratic, then so, too, are the appointed people. If you want accountability, there is only one way to do it and that is to elect such a Chamber. We ought to understand that fact.
In the past, the greatest opposition to an elected second Chamber has come not from this House but from the House of Commons, which has been unwilling to have its sovereignty constrained by a second Chamber with electoral authority. However, that might be changing. We have heard about the EDM, which now apparently has nearly 150 names with, no doubt, more to be added. So perhaps this is the time to be really radical. We should consider supporting a fully-elected Chamber—one, incidentally, that cannot be abolished at the whim of the first Chamber. That is most important. I say that because, apparently, what we will see here if this House disagrees with the House of Commons is an Act of one House being able to abolish part of the other House. We should think about that most seriously.
I hope that this Bill proceeds to its Committee stage; indeed, I am sure that it will. I look forward to taking part in further debates on the issue.
§ 9.26 p.m.
My Lords, so we are on our way at last. One knows that one is a lost cause when one is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. It is not so much that we are riding off into the sunset, but rather that the rest of you are riding off into the night. Indeed, you do not know what the next day will bring and you do not even know how long the night will last. This seems an extraordinary way to conduct constitutional reform—to pitch one into such chaos and uncertainty when everything could have been resolved by taking time. Surely this Government believe that they have plenty of time to do this properly. However, that is the way it is to be.
As someone who will be departing, I cannot see that I have a role to play other than perhaps corresponding with the Royal Commission in saying what the stage two process should be. We have an absolute and overriding duty as guardians of the powers and privileges and place in the constitution of this House to ensure that we pass that guardianship on to a House—the transitional House—which is capable of performing that role at least as well as we can.
If we were to introduce a Bill into this House to remove the wheels from a car, everyone would know that the important question was, "What use will the car be afterwards?". Even though the rest of the car was not mentioned in the legislation, we would still know what the question was. If we had a Bill to remove all light from a library in which books were not mentioned, we would still know that the important question was, "What use would the library be afterwards?" So it is with this Bill. It talks about the removal of hereditary Peers, but the legislation is really about what the transitional House will be like afterwards. In other words, it is what is not in the Bill that is important. It is our duty to concentrate on putting into the Bill provisions that will ensure that what we are looking at as guardians of the powers that 109 we pass on is a House that the life Peers who remain here will be proud to he Members of and one in which they will feel inclined to be active and useful.
It is our duty to judge the proposals for the transitional House. We have to form a view of what we want to see in that House. I believe we all know that we want to see an independent and useful House, with quality Members, who are independent of the whims of government and of another place, that can continue to play the role in the constitution that we have played with reasonable effect. I am sure that we can be improved on. Doubtless my noble friend Lord Wakeham will find ways to improve us. However, in the transitional House we are merely looking at something that will serve as well as we have done.
To my mind there are two key propositions which need to be inserted in the Bill. The first is to set out what proportions the various parties and elements of this House should bear one to the other. The Government have said that they have no present intention of seeking a majority and will merely try to look at coming up to parity with the principal opposition party. That just will not do for an important constitutional edifice like the House of Lords. It leaves it totally open for the Government to change their mind at any time. It cannot matter to a government who are really determined on seeing the end of the transitional House within a couple of years if we have some safeguards in the Bill that would bite on the only if we found the transitional House running for much longer than that. Therefore I hope that the Government will look favourably on enshrining what they have already said in the substance of this Bill.
The other aspect that needs to be in this Bill is something on the way in which Cross-Benchers will be selected in future. It is crucial that the Cross-Benchers should be truly independent, that they should have a great breadth of experience and that they should be people who will contribute time to this House. There is nothing in this Bill about how the committee, or commission, which will appoint Cross-Benchers will be appointed, about what its mandate will be and about how its performance will be reviewed. All these matters need consideration. We perhaps do not need to go into every detail in the Bill, but we need an anchor for it. We need to know that as regards that crucial part of the transitional House—the transitional House which will play a part in deciding what stage two will be like—the anchors for the make-up of the Cross-Benches should be in the Bill. Again, the Government have been equivocal but, again, they have pointed in the right direction.
I view with optimism the discussions we shall have in Committee. The Government have shown in their acceptance of the Weatherill proposals a willingness to look at compromise and improvement. That, to my mind, is wholly laudatory. But those who are departing must look at these proposals that the Government make with fairness and with individual independence, not swayed by some party political games being played by our parties down the other end. It is an individual decision for us. Beyond anything else, we must not be bought. The Weatherill proposals will be worth nothing 110 if the transitional House is not worth being a Member of. But even if it was a half-way good House, to sell our duty for a small possibility of remaining in this House would be a disgrace and not in any way worthy of us.
We shall have to work hard in the course of the Committee stage and we shall have to work with a will to make this a Bill which is worth passing. I am sure that we will all do it. But if we cannot do that, we must face up to our duty and to the consequences of that duty and not shirk taking this Government to the wire if they make us do so.
§ 9.32 p.m.
§ Lord Birkett
My Lords, like so many of your Lordships I much regret that the Government have not seen fit to announce their full, long-term intentions for the composition and constitution of this House. Of course that places an additional burden on the Government. It means that they are obliged to listen to advice on the subject from doomed hereditary Peers like me.
I notice that a number of your Lordships are keen on the notion of an elected second Chamber. I rather wish that I could think so too, but in my heart of hearts I cannot because I fear that if this House was subject only to election, those selected would not be the ideal Members of your Lordships' House; they would he selected according to the party they most faithfully served. Like a good Cross-Bencher, I believe that party politics play far too big a part in the life of the nation as it is and an elected second Chamber could only make that worse. If anyone wants to see the effect of two really powerful Houses in a legislature where politics and party politics rule, one has only to look at the dismaying events in the United States over recent months to see where that can lead one.
But there has been a great deal of debate today about the danger of an elected second Chamber in relation to another place. There are fears that it could lead to rivalry and, indeed, to open hostility. That is quite possibly true, but I think there is something more to it than just the dangers of political warfare. I believe that a reformed House will need, as it has at the moment, an extraordinary width of experience, knowledge and expertise. If all the hereditary Peers are to leave in a body, that expertise will be sadly lacking. That is what appointment can do. It can seek out people of real wisdom and expertise.
I am not as frightened of the dreaded word "patronage" as some of your Lordships seem to be. Sooner or later people have to choose the best man and, with a degree of good will in the world, which I believe exists on all sides of the House, I do not see why they should not do so. There have been several notable additions to your Lordships' House in recent months and many of them have already contributed enormously to our debates. I am not too frightened of that principle.
Some noble Lords have a particular corner to fight. I have spent almost 40 years in your Lordships' House defending the arts from all the dangers that continually beset them and I would hate to think that this House did not have a good number of Peers ready, able and willing 111 to do that. But there are so many more kinds of expertise from every known walk of life. Every industry, every profession, every conceivable activity in the country seems, miraculously, to be well represented in your Lordships' House. It might be quite an exercise to look at the curriculum vitae of all hereditary Peers to see what will disappear and what might need to be replaced. If that expertise, that good will and that (dare I say it?) wisdom—at least of my fellow hereditary Peers if not of myself—disappears without being replaced it will reveal an enormous hole in the activities of Parliament and will be a dreadful loss for the nation at large.
§ 9.37 p.m.
§ Viscount Chandos
My Lords, I warmly welcome the Bill and its lucid introduction by my noble friend the Leader of the House. It is not spiteful, petty or small minded, as some noble Lords opposite and their colleagues in another place have claimed. Nor is it, perhaps, as momentous as the most extravagant of the contrasting claims would have it. The Bill proposes a simple change in the composition of your Lordships' House, one that was envisaged at the time of the Parliament Act in 1911, discussed regularly thereafter and clearly and specifically foreshadowed in the Labour Party manifesto in 1997. The abolition of the right of hereditary Peers to speak, sit and vote will certainly change the membership of the House, although I think proportionately among active Members, it will not be significantly more acute than what has occurred in the House of Commons following a single landslide general election such as those in 1906, 1945 or 1997.
To those of us in your Lordships' House—particularly those of us who are hereditary Peers—it will represent a great change, but we should not deceive ourselves that, to the world outside, this limited reform of a revising Chamber with generally modest powers will seem all that earth shaking. As my noble friend the Leader of the House has already argued, the underlying principle nonetheless attracts widespread popular support and, whatever the attempts by the Opposition and their allies to make people's flesh crawl, there are no great constitutional threats arising from the Bill.
The Bill is not spiteful or vindictive, as I can bear witness to the strong appreciation among its supporters on all sides of both Houses for the work done by hereditary Peers and a recognition of the personal impact the changes will have on the most active Members who may leave your Lordships' House. The Government's motivation for introducing the Bill is based first and foremost on democratic principle, the inappropriateness of hereditary as a qualification for membership of the legislature. Of course there is also a sense that the innate unfairness of the party balance in this House should be addressed. But as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, argued last October from the Benches opposite, that would surely be felt by all noble Lords opposite if the situation were reversed.
Let us be clear, therefore, that the Bill sets out to introduce a long-awaited, limited, but worthwhile reform, with no malice or spitefulness towards the 112 hereditary Members of this House, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, confirmed with the authority of his past involvement in the process.
I make no claims to be able to reflect the feelings of the most active of the hereditary Peers, since, as a Baker Street irregular, I have always combined my participation in this House with a full-time business career. Nonetheless, the pride and satisfaction that I have gained from my time in this House and the loss that I shall feel when I leave, only partly mitigated by relief from chastisement by my noble friend the Government Chief Whip and his cohorts, give me a clear idea as to how much the proposed change will take away from those of my hereditary colleagues who, unlike me, have chosen to make this House the main focus of their energy and attention.
I believe that that is felt no less acutely by my noble friends on the Front Bench and their colleagues in another place. But rightly, it has not diverted them from introducing this Bill in order to address what is now widely acknowledged to be an indefensible anachronism, a shadow over our parliamentary system. The Government have, moreover, always made clear their openness to facilitate the return of the most active hereditary Members, as their willingness to consider the Weatherill amendment as one means of achieving that demonstrates.
Of course, with any change, large or small, we move into the unknown, and there is a risk that not all will go as we expect. In winding up the debate last October, my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn spoke strikingly about the desirability of change generally and its beneficial effect on our lives and the society in which we live. I suppose that, just as in 1984, George Orwell suggests that everybody has their secret fear, there are particular changes to which I am resistant. But, in general, as my noble friend expressed more articulately than I can, I find that the prospect of change excites and invigorates me, adding a dynamic to our democracy, as much as it does to our economy.
I believe that the appetite and enthusiasm for carefully considered change expressed in the Labour Party's manifesto and by the Government's subsequent actions have struck a chord with the country at large, explaining the unprecedented level of the Government's continuing popularity. That, in turn, reinforces the argument that the manifesto commitment to this specific measure of constitutional reform justifies the applications of the Salisbury-Addison Rules to allow the fair passage of this Bill through your Lordships' House.
Noble Lords opposite, such as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont of Lerwick, in last month's debate, have attempted to argue that the length of modern manifestos makes the electorate unable to absorb specific commitments such as this. Even if that was the case, which like my noble friend the Leader of the House I doubt, the Bill is so representative of the broad reforming thrust of this Government that I believe there can be no question of the mandate in that regard bestowed on the Government by the electorate.
What, then, is this change, which I vigorously welcome yet so many noble Lords opposite deplore? And what lies behind our difference? The Bill will leave 113 for the time being a House comprising wholly or predominantly nominated Members representing the major parties and including, with substantial representation, Cross-Benchers. With or without the Weatherill amendment, it is likely that a proportion of the most active hereditary Peers may return. As I argued last October, if the process of reform went no further—which I hope and expect will not be the case, again with or without the Weatherill amendment—I believe that there would still be a better and fairer House.
The relentless chant of "patronage" from the Benches opposite can only be described as rich since the exploitation of patronage to a point close to abuse was polished to a fine art during the long period of the last government. Unabused patronage, as the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, said a moment ago, seems to be an essential part of the political process, whether in nominating life Peers, members of public bodies or any number of men and women to arduous and usually unremunerated positions.
While I believe that there are many challenges to be faced in determining the right balance of power, and the means of enforcing it, between the executive and Parliament, as my noble friend Lord Richard said, this should not lead us to denigrate the political process and the position of political parties within it. It is easy—as I believe the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, is wont to do—to elevate independence to a fetish, but the flip-side of independence is accountability to nobody but oneself.
I have felt that my membership of a political party and the taking of a party whip, which has been the case for most of my time in your Lordships' House, has conferred a small degree of democratic legitimacy on my participation in the House. A willingness to be guided by the work and thought of fellow members of a party, colleagues in this House or another, informed and moderated by reasonable independence of judgment, seems to me to lie at the heart of healthy and productive political activity. I see many noble Lords on these Benches and elsewhere who achieve that amalgam to an extent that I can only aspire to—and they are in overwhelming numbers life Peers who have, in many cases, been nominated by the leaders of their particular political party.
I do not believe that the consequences of this Bill will be to diminish the independence of the continuing life Peers—I shall not embarrass my noble friend Lord Desai by again singling him out as an example—nor to lead to the arrival of a kennel of poodles, as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, offensively suggested. I therefore believe that the central role of the political parties in the transitional House, and indeed in the fully refonned House, should be enthusiastically confirmed.
This should not be taken as in any way a denigration of the role of the Cross-Benchers, who I fervently hope will be as vigorously active in a fully reformed House as in the transitional one. One of my most memorable experiences was working with the then Italian Minister of Finance. Guido Carli, a nominated independent senator, whose courageous pioneering of privatisation in 114 Italy was based on the need to free major companies not just from the shackles of the state but even more from the control of the political parties.
On the other hand, I was struck while reading the journals of Woodrow Wyatt, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford, by the following entry shortly after his nomination for a life Peerage by the then Prime Minister and his decision to sit on the Cross-Benches:
Bertie Denham says that he will let me know if my help is urgently required to defeat the Opposition in a vote. It would not be proper for him to send me actual copies of the Government whips because that would compromise my independence. He takes my telephone number instead which will amount to much the same thing".
While I do not believe that that account of Cross-Bench co-operation is in any way representative of noble Lords generally on those Benches, it is a fair warning that aspirations held by some for an ostensible purity—a politics-free House—are probably illusory, and certainly impossible to police.
I shall end, therefore, by reiterating my passionate belief that the hereditary principle for the legislature is fundamentally wrong—and I remain unclear as to whether the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, unconditionally shares this view—that the two-stage reform as started by this Bill is the best way to proceed, and that the proposed transitional House will be no less effective than the present one and indisputably more fairly balanced. I strongly support the Bill and reject the reasoned amendment.
§ 9.50 p.m.
§ Lord Chesham
My Lords, I was slightly surprised by the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, to whom I believe I may refer as my noble kinsman. He said that in his view everyone on his side of the Chamber was totally behind the Government. Just before his contribution, an interesting speech was made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, which did not reflect what his Front Bench had said. It is a pity that the noble Viscount is not now listening to my comments.
Undoubtedly, during this debate with some 200 speakers there will be a degree of repetition which I believe is perfectly legitimate. The whole attitude of the Government to this Bill and to this House, let alone another place, is nothing short of outrageous. To allow against all entreaties only two days for this debate on Second Reading, even if one day is extended, is discourteous in the extreme, to say nothing of the unnecessary impingement on our loyal and supportive staff in this House. At this early stage of the debate, I should like to thank them for their unfailing good humour, courteous manners and devotion to duty. I wish that I could say the same for the Government but nobody could. I believe that the last straw was the suggestion by the noble Lord the Chief Whip that speeches should be restricted to seven minutes. The Government have been reminded that this House is responsible for running itself and does not need self-seeking political intervention in the way that it conducts its business. I am sure that many other noble Lords will take the time that they need to make their 115 points on what is undoubtedly one of the most major constitutional issues to be considered in this country for many years.
When, if ever, have a government embarked on major constitutional reform without giving the electorate any indication of what may replace it? The politicisation of constitutional reform, notwithstanding the protestations of the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, can only be the politics of envy. Have we perhaps reached the stage where there are five types of Peers; hereditary Peers, Lords spiritual, Law Lords, life Peers and now, it appears, dynastic Peers? Why one type should be singled out for exclusion over any other holds no water on a constitutional argument, ergo it must be political. Why should a hereditary Peer be less legitimate, or "hardly legitimate" (in the words of the noble Baroness), than a dynastic or life Peer?
I turn to the specifics of the Bill to which a number of speeches have made no reference. I am amazed that the Bill makes no reference to Letters Patent. As I understand it, my forebear was rewarded for services rendered to this country with a peerage. Such Letters Patent appear to be a personal contract between the Monarch and his or her heirs and successors and my forebear and his heirs and successors to have a voice and seat in the Parliament of the country. The Government now wish to intervene in this personal contract. In the same breath they say that that does not impinge on the Monarchy. There is no logic in this argument.
A hereditary Peer is an unusual animal and I do not believe that the Government have understood that. A hereditary Peer is solely a life tenant of his title and cannot bind his heirs and successors. In evidence of this, a hereditary Peer may disclaim his title within a period of time after that inheritance. However, he may not, and cannot, disclaim it on behalf of his heirs and successors. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, I repeat, has described hereditary Peers as "hardly legitimate". Surely it would be totally illegitimate for any hereditary Peer to do anything other than vote against this Bill; otherwise they would be binding their heirs and successors in a way that they have absolutely no power to do under their Letters Patent and which is not covered by this Bill.
Do the Government believe that their wheeze of withdrawing writs of summons answers the question of personal contracts into which the Government appear to want to intervene? I believe your Lordships are entitled to know whether this is to be effective and whether indeed it is legitimate.
The next issue on which I wish to address the House is the Statute of Westminster 1931 and its relationship to the House of Lords. Any hereditary Peer who is a Commonwealth citizen is entitled to claim his right to sit in the House of Lords. In contrast to MPs, their citizenship does not disbar them from being members of the UK legislature. In effect, and at least in theory, this supports a mechanism whereby Commonwealth representation is delivered to the Westminster Parliament. Indeed, there are a number of hereditary Peers who currently attend the House as passport-holders of Commonwealth countries. I myself am one, 116 in that as well as being a British citizen I am an Australian citizen. Is it possible that I could be thrown out from this House as a British citizen but not as an Australian citizen? If people are talking about anachronisms, that would have to be one of the greatest.
By extension, the Commonwealth has a vested interest in the provisions of the House of Lords Bill in that it will, at a stroke, remove the mechanism for this representation. The preamble to the Statute of Westminster states:
it is in accord with the established constitutional position that no law hereafter made by the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall extend to any of the said Dominions as part of the law of that Dominion otherwise than at the request and with the consent of that Dominion".This is given statutory force in Clause 4:No Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom passed after commencement of this Act shall extend, or be deemed to extend, to a Dominion, unless it is expressly declared in that Act that the Dominion has requested, and consented to, the enactment thereof".This is unequivocal in maintaining that the UK Parliament cannot legislate for the Commonwealth unless it specifically requests and consents that it should do so.
As drafted, the House of Lords Bill manifestly contravenes this. Within the terms of the clause cited, it extends to a number of the dominions referred to but nowhere on the face of the Bill is it expressly declared that those dominions have either requested or consented to its future enactment. I would like to know whether the Government have such consent from Commonwealth countries to this Bill. If they have not, I believe that the Bill is flawed and this must obviously lead to a number of amendments at later stages.
The current Government set great store by the Statute of Westminster. During the Second Reading of the Succession to the Crown Bill, introduced by my noble friend Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare on 27th February 1998, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, stated that:
before any alteration in the law touching the succession to the Throne can take effect the assent of all those countries of which Her Majesty is Queen is required. The United Kingdom cannot act unilaterally".—[Official Report, 27/2/98; col. 917.]The noble Lord, Lord Williams, was of course dealing with the specific point of the succession to the Throne, but the sense of his comments must apply equally to the provisions in Clause 4 which I have cited. In effect, given the Commonwealth's vested interest in its provisions, the Government "cannot act unilaterally" on the House of Lords Bill without breaching the terms of the Statute of Westminster.
§ 9.59 p.m.
§ Lord Bragg
My Lords, I feel diffident about speaking in this debate, being new alike to this House and to the expert and opaque art of politics. Therefore, if I may, I shall take a rather personal tack.
At school I had a history teacher, Mr. James, who said that everything that ever happened came from three causes. I have observed this often enough in today's debate. Perhaps we all had the same history teacher. However, I am grateful to him today because I am 117 offering three causes for this diffidence. The first is history itself. No one taught as I was the history of this country, of Europe and the European world, could fail in the 1950s to be proud of much of what we the British had done. Although other stories, other versions, other truths have since seen well aired, there still remains in me a pride and even a wonder that these small, damp, unpromising islands exerted so much influence, had so much imagination, bred and provoked so much knowledge, and irradiated so much that was positive around the globe.
There is of course a negative side, a darker seam—and how we have been made aware of it over the past 50 years, when our history has not only, rightly, been scrutinised from the outside but, less acceptably, often turned inside out in a mistaken zeal to revisit the past using only the lamp of a current fashionable correctness.
But the history I was taught, and was lucky enough to go on to study at that historic university, Oxford, though not blinding me to the sewers under the roads to greatness, left me in some awe that fallible individuals ever came together with such force to do what they did here in this country and over centuries. One of the great creations of the British was a constitution which, despite expert battering and acidulous attacks, most fiercely from critics in our own country, has in a relative world served better than most, even any—though sometimes most reluctantly and late—to represent and express the people in whose name it exists. Two cheers for democracy, said E. M. Forster, and our least worst of systems has weathered well.
Such a constitution is not likely to be subjected to radical surgery. The fact that it is at this time—and that the electorate agreed that it should be done, which gives it all the legitimacy it needs—does not dent or lessen the momentous and solemn nature of the debate now before your Lordships' House. It gives us all pause.
The second cause of diffidence was well expressed, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Stafford, in his maiden speech last November, on the day when I, too, made my maiden speech. In the final paragraph of the speech, which he called a digression, he said:I hope that this maiden speech is not the first and last speech that I shall make to this House, possibly closing a chapter in our family's history as I do so. It was in 1299 that the first member of my family was called to Parliament, 700 years ago next year, while just over 600 years ago we were elevated to the peerage. In the succeeding six centuries three members of the family had their head chopped off—not entirely careless to lose one ancestor every 200 years, particularly as we kept choosing the wrong side".—[Official Report, 30/11/98: col. 267.]As I listened to that, and more, I was moved by the tradition, the length and strength of the service, the sheer virtue of continuity, and the quality of long persistence which informed that modestly described digression, as indeed I am moved by other hereditary noble Lords.
Perhaps I may mention just one out of many: my fellow Cumbrian, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, whose care of his family's past and his country's best interests has been exemplary. Of all the silent choirs which haunt even this comparatively modern building, surely the most resonant are those ancient voices, the chorus of past noble Lords. Their names and deeds, at 118 their best, stand high in our history. Moreover, I would guess that the guile of centuries will not have slackened over the past few months and a number of your noble hereditary Lordships will find a way to change into a suit which fits the modern cut, and we shall see some resurrected in this place—the place which bears so much witness to their ancestral histories.
But I have ancestors too. I did not find their names in the books of history I read at Oxford. But they too had fought in wars: my grandfather, Herbert, and several of his brothers served in the Army in World War I:, my father, Stanley, and his brothers were in the Air Force in World War II and doubtless before then they made up the numbers in battles which raged in the Borders between England and Scotland for several centuries and in bloody battles various around the world and in other battles here at home.
Just as they added to the wealth of the country by ploughing its fields and digging its coal, the women, too, strained to bring up decently its often inadequately provided for children: foot soldiers, housewives, manual workers, men and women, and as far as I can discover any records, decent people whose patience and tolerance helped this country, and so this House, to be what it was and what it is.
As your Lordships would expect, I am proud of my ancestors—as proud, I may say, as any hereditary Peer. They wanted betterment for themselves and their families; they wanted what was fair; they knew that the world must change and, perhaps of all people anywhere, they stalked change with caution and forbearance. But one well defended castle after another finally fell: in the franchise, in education, in health, in housing, and in a multiplicity of areas and in the sense that opportunity is equally possible. Now, perhaps the last citadel is reached: the constitution. Perhaps I feel a little less diffidence here.
But my third cause of diffidence is that I am no constitutional historian. Nevertheless, even as a new Member of your Lordships' House. I believe that to function with the power which will be of the greatest benefit to this country your Lordships' House can no longer be so spectacularly tilted and biased to one form of entry—thus by a chain reaction causing disproportion in gender and background and, to an overmarked extent, in political allegiance. To legislate for the country, even to amend legislation; to debate for the country, even though such debates can be lonely vigils—this demands that the House represent far more truly the vivid, changed and varied groups in this country now taking us beyond the year 2000.
Will the new House be elected or will it be representative—or to some extent both, to the advantage, I hope, for the former? Whatever it is, I am sure that the very newness will release new energies and new vigour. Will it be as independent as before? Will it be as eccentric as before? Will it have the style it had before? I hope so and I believe so. Style is not the monopoly of one section or class in our society; neither is eccentricity, and neither is independence of mind. All these qualities are liberally dispersed across all sections of the British people.
119 What most of us want, I am sure, is a stronger House, a more grounded House, a House able to look another millennium straight in the eye because the tradition it calls upon and the new ancestors it serves come from a far wider, more diverse, less-the-icing, more-the-cake, an unconfined range, able to give Parliament and our democracy the best energies of the British people and so be in safe hands. For that reason, I support the Bill.
§ 10.8 p.m.
§ Baroness Perry of Southwark
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to follow the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. He is right. To anyone with a sense of history this Bill does indeed arouse very strong feelings in all of us. For me, it arouses feelings rather akin to watching the close of Empire in Hong Kong. While one knows that what is happening is right and timely, at the same time one is allowed a moment of sadness at the closing of an important chapter.
It is quite right that we in this House should take the matter very seriously. It affects all of us personally as part of our lives and our work, but I think that we delude ourselves if we imagine that for the woman on the Clapham Tube it is quite such a vitally important matter of debate. Indeed, my concern is that to the general public the House of Lords has been so lampooned and caricatured that if you ask the average person, the woman on the Clapham Tube, or even your London taxi driver, the image of the House of Lords has become one of elderly gentlemen eating cream buns in the Tea Room or nodding asleep on the red Benches. That is a much more common view of what happens than the day-to-day work which those of us who are privileged to be here know takes place.
Before any further reforms of the House take effect, I hope that there will be a real attempt to inform the general public and to bring them into the debate. I hope that that is done much more realistically to help them to understand what the House is really like. In particular—and I speak with personal interest—it would be good if the general public understood the role of the life Peers. We have heard a lot today about the contribution of the hereditary Peers and the importance of all that they have done. We have heard less about what life Peers have brought to this House. The Life Peerages Act 1958 was a major breach of the hereditary principle and I believe that on every Bench we have distinguished life Peers, many of whom are able, although some of us are not, to give a full-time commitment to the work of the House.
As has already been said, even in recent months some extremely distinguished Members on the Benches opposite as well as on the Cross-Benches have entered this House, much to its benefit and to the benefit of the country and the passage of legislation.
I rather resent the assumption that life Peers are all mere "placemen", as though we had all been brought in from some kind of political secret list. Many of us do not see ourselves as recipients of patronage. The letter which I received from the Prime Minister over eight years ago did not mention on which Bench I should sit, how often I should attend or how I should vote. I regard myself as independent in the best sense of the word.
120 I do not subscribe to the idea that an elected second Chamber would be as independent and free as those of us who are life Peers have been able to be. An elected upper House would create a political and whipped upper House which would be extremely detrimental to the work of the House of Commons and also to the passage of legislation. I see no reason why nominations, if widely and wisely distributed, could not provide the same breadth and independence. Why not disperse the power of patronage from the Prime Minister, as the current Prime Minister has said he will willingly do, and give such power of patronage, for example, to professional bodies, the trade unions, the CBI, the financial sector, various faiths and so on?
The House has proved itself as regards three important traditions over the years. First, and many noble Lords have referred to it, Members of this House bring a sense of duty which is enshrined in the restriction of our powers. We cannot be power-mad in a House which has those restrictions. Moreover, there is the absence of any remuneration or pay for the work that we are doing. An elected House would not bring those two principles into play.
Secondly, there is a tradition of independence which is greatly valued. Life Peers are made permanent Members of this House and therefore they neither suffer fear nor seek favour.
Thirdly, there is the expertise to which many noble Lords have referred. A wide distribution of patronage should be designed in such a way as to reflect that wide expertise. I have often had a sense of privilege in this House merely through sitting and listening to the expertise which those who know and understand a subject bring to bear. Although most of us try to speak only on subjects about which we know well, we are privileged to sit and listen to that expertise. That is possible with a nominated House.
I hope that we can move towards such a House in the future. That will bring with it all the traditions which we rightly cherish but which will make a House of Lords a second Chamber fit for the next millennium.
§ 10.14 p.m.
§ Baroness Crawley
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the distinguished life Peeress, the noble Baroness, Lady Perry of Southwark. I agree with noble Lords who have called for good humour and tolerance in debate on the Bill. We can all agree about the great amount of humour and tolerance that has been displayed and the very moving moments that have occurred throughout the debate. My noble friend Lord Bragg's intervention was extremely moving.
This Bill represents a great deal more than its two pages and its 29 lines. It represents the first stage of Labour's clear election manifesto pledge, a manifesto responded to with record-breaking enthusiasm and gusto by the British people on 1st May 1997.
In my time as an elected MP I have known many attitudes to manifestos, many of them quite eclectic. I have known the manifesto skimmers, the manifesto devourers and those who use manifestos as suitable material for the art of origami. However, I worry about a 121 certain tendency among some noble Lords who dismiss democratic manifesto pledges on the grounds that noble Lords do not have actual clinical evidence that the entire British population has read and retained every single sentence and paragraph of the last Labour manifesto. This Bill will implement a clear manifesto pledge.
The Bill alto represents the Government's unwavering determination to bring an end to the hereditary principle as a part of British government on the grounds that we do not believe any longer that government influenced by the hereditary principle is the best democratic model that should be on offer to the British people today.
We begin the next millennium in the sure knowledge that the world's most developed and successful countries are also its most successful democracies. Better government is our goal and this Bill assists us hugely in the realisation of that goal. The British people know that nine months before the 21st century we cannot run a modern, dynamic, devolved democracy on ancestor worship.
For most families in Britain today it is only their talents and hard work, their effort and energy that give them rank and reward. In a modern democracy the values and structures of the government are expected to reflect the best of your own. As my noble friend Lord Ponsonby said in his excellent contribution, duty and public service are not, and never have been, the sole domain of only certain British historic families.
This Bill also represents a recognition that the Britain of 1999 is changing, that it is gloriously multi-racial and multi-cultural and that the majority of its private and public institutions take for granted the principle of gender and race equality, even if the practice still has a long way to go.
As an elected representative, I have spent much of my time dealing with issues of gender equality. I can report from the front line that modern Britain is packed with women who have rightful ambitions at local, regional and nation al level to influence and change our institutions for the better.
It is a fact that many private and public organisations in my present constituency of Birmingham, East have women as their chief executive officers and leaders. That rapidly evolving race and gender profile of a vibrant British society is not, and never can be, reflected in the profile of the hereditary peerage.
For all its clarity, its brevity and its simplicity, this Bill has endured more name calling by noble Lords on the Benches opposite than the worst England manager at the most unpopular phase of his footballing career. It has been described by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the Opposition as "narrow", "offensive", "evasive" and "betraying the spitefulness of small minds". The noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, today told us that it is "miserable and pedestrian" and a "pettifogging. mean measure".
I have to say that such accusations are more appropriately laid at the door of those noble Lords who, during the many hours of debate on this subject so far, have quite outrageously questioned the legitimate 122 authority of our democratically elected Government, with their undeniable mandate, to bring forward this Bill in the first place.
The reason given by many noble Lords who oppose the Bill is that they are genuinely concerned that the Government's reform plans will not bring forward a new second Chamber fast enough or effectively enough. Despite the fact that I am not by nature a cynical person, I do believe that such supposed "concern" for the process of reform is a tactic hidden behind a red herring which in turn is lurking behind a smokescreen—a smoked red herring in fact!
It is an old trick, deployed for nearly 100 years by noble Lords and, in the belief that it might still just work, noble Lords are mercilessly trying it on. hoping that once again reform will be derailed, as it has been so many times in the past. How much better it would be for the dignity of this House and the proper functioning of the legislative programme arising from the Queen's Speech if noble Lords opposite would accept that the Bill represents the will of the people and if they used their considerable skill and energy to find ways of working together across the Chamber to find the most appropriate way forward within the terms of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, talked earlier of guillotines and front-row knitting persons. In that context, I was reminded of a recent visit to the bleak old prison known as the gendarmerie in Paris. Indeed, as we all know, in the 1790s in France, aristocrats had their heads—how shall I put this delicately?—chopped off, for their pains. How differently we approach these things from our European partners! In the 1990:3 in Britain, we are asking our aristocrats to leave government with all our thanks, with dignity and with their heads held high. This time, however, despite the occasional appearance of the excellent red socks of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, I do not see the Scarlet Pimpernel swinging down from the rafters to save the day for the hereditary peerage. It is time for a dignified exit—and this Bill is that dignified exit.
§ 10.22 p.m.
§ Lord Montagu of Beaulieu
My Lords, perhaps I may bring the House back for a moment from the subject of the French Revolution. Over the past year, I have followed with great interest the debates on the future of this House, but did not speak as the arguments from all sides were effectively rehearsed in a rather predictable fashion. Now comes the crunch: the Bill is before us. I shall not repeat the many points that have been made so far, but I should like to cover one particular point which, happily, I see is one which has been chosen to be discussed by the Royal Commission. I refer to the desirability and importance of young persons being Members of this House. It has been the tradition for Peers who are minors to join the House soon after their 21st birthday and subsequently to serve an apprenticeship, which stood them in good stead for future contributions to the work of the House.
My own experience is perhaps worth recalling, as I took my seat aged 21 and made my maiden speech within a few weeks. Indeed, I spoke several times while 123 I was still a post-war Oxford undergraduate. In fact, I had to ask the Warden of New College whether I was allowed to come here to speak in your Lordships' House. It may sound old-fashioned, but I joined the House then as I felt that it was my duty as well as my privilege. There were no expenses in those days and, under the post-war Labour government, we were housed in the rather cramped quarters of the Robing Room while the new House of Commons was being built. I was personally congratulated by the grandfather of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, on my speech and saw the beginnings of the famous Salisbury-Addison agreement.
Recently it came as rather a shock when I realised I was one of the few Peers who have sat in the House for more than 50 years. Now I am sad, but resigned to the fact that probably my time is up. But looking back on the subjects in which I specialised, I see no reason to feel ashamed of what I have contributed since those early days.
So it would appear that young Peers under 30 will almost certainly disappear, in spite of exemplary efforts of such hereditary Peers as the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, who, in his early twenties, won pension rights for war widows. If ever there was a case for retaining and encouraging such young Peers, this is it. Otherwise, who will represent the young? To appoint them from the outside world would be very difficult, as they would have to live and work in London. Most of today's young Peers, have jobs, but many of them still attend because they have a special commitment born out of a deep-seated sense of family duty. However, I am sure that the committee of my noble friend Lord Wakeham will discuss this matter seriously.
One is always hearing criticisms of the House as being unchanging and unrepresentative, right-wing dominated and hostile to any radical decisions; and when we do defeat governments, we are blamed or praised depending on who is in power. But I should like to point out, as one who has served for over 50 years, that unchanging the House of Lords is certainly not. Since 1947 I have witnessed that small traditional House of the 1940s welcome life Peers, women Peers, trade union Peers, Peers of Commonwealth origin, showbiz Peers and celebrity Peers. I submit that when its history is written it will conclude that the House has never been better composed or offered more comprehensive expertise or conducted better informed debates than it does today. I doubt it will ever be better, regardless of the Royal Commission—that is, if the Government accept its recommendations.
The media and parties opposite love to scoff at the claim that many hereditary Peers do in fact pursue an independent viewpoint. But such independence is very much reflected in the Lobby, as Chief Whips know to their cost. I have never hesitated to vote contrary to the Whip if I was convinced I should, and once even led a revolt in alliance with opposition parties to defeat a government amendment to a Bill. But to build such independence into any new House will be very difficult, given the overtly political selection procedures that are now in operation. However, it would be a triumph for 124 all concerned if party politics could be removed from appointments of new Peers and merit regarded as more important than political leanings.
Finally, I find it sad that previous statements about the present House and future plans with regard to hereditary Peers, however hardworking they may be, were tinged with a certain amount of malice and meanness. But that was certainly corrected today and I thank the Leader of the House for her remarks about hereditary Peers which were supported by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. For we have sat up all night; we have done a lot of Committee work. Now, apparently, it is the intention to deny past Members all access to the House, which is sad. I suspect the biggest sufferers will be the bars and the catering department.
Throughout its history, particularly in the 18th century, Members of the House of Lords have never shirked from raising taxes in time of national crisis, even if the burden fell most heavily on them. So the final chapters are being written, sadly, without any formal recognition of past work—just good old class hatred. How sad, how undignified, and how typical. Naturally I am confident that my fellow Peers will work to the end, when I suppose we will be expected to fold our tents and silently steal away. Perhaps some of us may be a greater nuisance outside the House than we are today. Only time will tell.
I firmly hope that the new House of Lords will emerge stronger and more credible in order to act as a much needed bastion against the dictatorship of the ruling party. After all, second Chambers must be "conservative", with a small "c", as a radical second Chamber is a nonsense and would be unable to play its proper part in the constitution. Let us hope that a reconstituted House of Lords will at least sometimes be in a position to point out that the government of the day might occasionally be wrong. But it will need adequate powers; indeed, powers are the whole point.
I may be rather suspicious and cynical, and perhaps it was a red herring on someone's part, but I believe that attacking the hereditary principle all the time was a smoke screen to divert public discussion from powers. That is what really matters to the country in the future. So the country wants to know what the Labour Party's plans are with regard to powers. Do they really want lots of yes-men who will not have the courage to take objective and independent decisions? I believe that we ought to do everything that we can to prevent that happening.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, my father was a very competent Greek scholar and, therefore, when I went to school I thought that it would be a very good idea if I also took Greek. Unfortunately, Greek and I never got on one little bit and I achieved 9 per cent. in my Greek O-level. However, I am left with one phrase—namely, [...] I have probably got that wrong, but, roughly speaking, it means, "rosy-fingered dawn". I do not know why I should be sitting here in the Chamber at this time of night thinking of rosy-fingered dawn, but I do hope we will get through the list of speakers before that time.
125 When I put down my name to speak in this debate, it was my original intention to give the Bill a brief but warm welcome and to suggest one possible small area of improvement. However, as the debate has gone on and I have listened to it, I have felt that I might perhaps like to expand a little on my welcome and explain why I believe that the Bill is both a good and necessary one.
When I came into your Lordships' House some four years ago, I had never actually expected to be here. There were two reasons. The first was that I did not expect my father to die quite so young and, secondly, I thought that your Lordships would have got around to reforming the place before I ever got here. As it had never been my expectation that I would be a Member of this Chamber, I have rather viewed the past four years as an unexpected boon and one which I hope I have been able to make some little use of. I came here with the very typical view of the outsider who perhaps has not given it a great deal of thought. I clearly understood that the hereditary principle was intellectually indefensible; in other words, there is no defence of it. However, it rather seemed that your Lordships were mucking along rather nicely and that it sort of practically worked. So why not leave it alone?
My experience over four years has radically changed my view to one of understanding that this House is actually fundamentally flawed. It seems to me that the fundamental flaw is not quite so much the hereditary principle itself, although that is quite clearly fundamentally flawed: it is the fact that every time your Lordships take an important decision and every time your Lordships have a very valid argument with another place, this House is held up to ridicule because of the heredity element. That is why the time has now come without any question to change the composition of your Lordships' House.
It seems to me that the role that this House must play in the future is that of strengthening the checks and balances on the executive. I have heard that from all parts of the House; indeed, I have heard it from the Government Front Bench, from the Opposition Benches and from the Cross Benches. I believe we all agree that the role of your Lordships' House is to produce a strong, effective and proper check and balance on another place. We can only do that if the composition of this House is such that the people generally, and those who occupy another place, feel that we have some legitimacy. Ultimately it may well be that that means election. However, what is quite certain is the fact that the hereditary element detracts from that ability. Therefore, I have come to the view that I am very happy to accept this first stage of reform on its own as it will make this House a more valid Chamber. Even if the second stage is not reached, at least the House will be a better place for that first stage of reform.
Having expanded slightly more than I meant to on my welcome to the Bill, I should like to turn to one small specific point which the Government may like to bear in mind. While this is a stand alone measure, and while it is very much hoped that it will be a transitional measure—I do not doubt the Government's integrity and I do not doubt they have every intention of producing 126 full reform in as short a time as possible—I believe we should at least consider the possibility, even if it i s not a probability, that this Bill may last for some time.
If that were to be the case, I wonder whether we would not be wise to look at one or two possible additions to the Bill which might make that transitional period more sensible over a longer period. I stress that I do not necessarily believe that to be the case, but I think it is wise to plan for the unexpected. I have one particular suggestion to make to the Government; namely, to allow Peers to resign their place in this House after this first transitional period is over. I believe there are two reasons which make this a good idea. The first is that there are a number of Members of your Lordships' House who have successfully reached a great age and who have expressed their desire to give up. But for so long as the law obliges them to attend your Lordships' House they have no means by which they can honourably give up membership of your Lordships' House. For those who want to—there should be no compulsion—it might be worth creating a mechanism which allows Peers who wish to do so to retire.
The second reason is that I have noticed. particularly on the Government Benches, the arrival over the past few years of a number of extremely able and quite young new life Peers. That is admirable. Those younger life Peers may find over the next few years that they develop a taste for politics and they may wish to stand for election to the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament, or whatever. I believe fundamentally it is wrong that anyone should be able to be a Member of two Houses of Parliament. My proposal would allow a mechanism whereby someone who was a Member of the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament would be able to resign his or her writ in this House.
I make that suggestion as one of the possible improvements which might be made, bearing in mind that this transitional Bill may be with us for much longer. However, I return to my early theme which is warmly to welcome the Bill as a much needed improvement in the workings bf your Lordships' House and to say that perhaps we have looked at it very much through the spectacles of history in today's debate whereas I would rather look forward. I believe this to be a Bill about the future. Perhaps, after all, I come back to where I started: perhaps it is a rosey-fingered dawn.
§ 10.37 p.m.
§ Lord Grenfell
My Lords, I refrained from taking part in the two earlier debates on this great issue. I told myself at the time that it was because I preferred to await the Second Reading of the Bill on the first stage, but I think that if I am honest with myself it was probably because as an hereditary Peer taking the Labour Whip I found the whole exercise extraordinarily intimidating.
Having said that, I do not suppose that Socrates would have been all that keen on making a commercial endorsing the efficacy of hemlock! I find, as a much lesser mortal than he, that it is rather difficult to support a Bill looking to one's own demise from this House. But there are good reasons for doing so and in a few short 127 words I shall share that feeling with your Lordships. I begin by placing on record my profound respect and affection for your Lordships' House. I had the privilege of entering it some 22 years ago. However, 17 of those 22 years I spent as an international civil servant, always abroad. Therefore, during those 17 years, my visits to your Lordships' House were few and far between and, following the traditions, they were normally silent visits.
My father, on the other hand, had the good fortune to sit in your Lordships' House for 49 years. I like to think that in many ways he was the very model Back-Bench hereditary Peer. He was assiduous in his attendance; I am told he was a very good committee chairman; and he confined his speeches to subjects of which he had knowledge and experience. Outside the House he was active on his local hospital board and pursued with great energy and devotion, right up until the day before he died, his charitable activities, notably and for a very long period, for the mentally handicapped and for invalid children. He was very fond of quoting the words of a famous kinsman of his, Sir Wilfred Grenfell, the missionary doctor and explorer of Labrador, who said that,service to others was the rent we pay for our room here on earth".My father, in a sense, regarded your Lordships' House as his room on earth, and I feel that he paid his rent in full. I very much honour the memory of a man who lived very modestly—he had no estates, no wealth—who was an exemplary servant of the people and a very loving father.
We hereditaries can, and we certainly should, honour the memory of our hereditary predecessors in the House, but we can no longer claim the rights through which so many came to be deserving of our admiration. The time has simply come for us to go and for your Lordships' House to be reconstituted on lines that better reflect the imperatives of the end of this millennium and to become the kind of House which in its composition my noble friend Lord Bragg so brilliantly depicted just a few minutes ago.
I therefore warmly support the Bill as a means of ending the anachronism of a second Chamber based on the hereditary principle. Whatever the merits of the presently constituted Chamber—they are very many—a right to legislate based solely on the accident of birth has long been unsustainable and can be sustained no longer.
But I would be less than honest with your Lordships today if I did not tell you that I would have preferred the reform of the House to have been elaborated as part of a reform of Parliament as a whole. I do not often have the pleasure of agreeing with my noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon, but on this matter, happily, I find myself in agreement with him. I believe he is gaining new friends in the House today. While the removal of the hereditary Peers should undoubtedly be a central pillar of an overall reform, and would probably and properly have been the first stage within an overall broad reform of Parliament, a piecemeal approach seems to me to make a wider reform rather more hazardous and uncertain. I fear we may be building to incomplete specifications on inadequately surveyed terrain, with the risks that that entails.
128 But the Government, for their own very good reasons. have decided otherwise. I have to say that I feel a little uncomfortable about that but I will vigorously support the Bill because to refrain from doing so would be totally inconsistent with my fundamental belief that the hereditary element in our composition no longer has a place here and that a House condemned to an eternal lack of parity in a modern democracy is, frankly, intolerable. Above all, to be a more effective check on the Executive, the House must have unquestionable legitimacy. No one has better made that point than the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, a few moments ago.
I believe that we are moving inexorably towards a predominantly elected second Chamber, if not a totally elected second Chamber, somewhere in the future. I do not believe that it is beyond the genius of the British body politic to devise and agree upon a proper balance of power between two elected Houses. So for many reasons I would welcome an elected Chamber. But that is not precisely what we are debating today. I raise the matter because regrets have been expressed about the inevitable reduction in your Lordships' House of that vital element of youth. The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, spoke eloquently about it a few moments ago. It is bound to happen with the departure of the hereditary Peers. However, election to a second Chamber could. and I am certain would, ensure a proper age balance in a way that membership by appointment is less likely to do. So the greater the elected element the better, and I hope that one day, within the framework of a broad constitutional settlement, election will be the primary method of filling these hallowed Benches. That said, I believe that an appointed element would also be highly desirable to ensure that a revising and scrutinising Chamber, which this must continue to be, is free to add as it sees fit to the sum of its expertise and to the diversity and independence of its views.
Let me close with this final thought. I am a strong believer in a constitutional monarchy. I believe also in the peerage as a keystone supporting the edifice of monarchy. That keystone risks being progressively weakened if doubts and resentments over the rights of the peerage to exercise legislative powers and privileges are left unresolved. They can be resolved in only one way. I therefore take the view that the peerage as an institution will be better safeguarded and less contested by its withdrawal as an institution from the strictly legislative arena. With that prospect in mind, I shall leave your Lordships' House with the all the regrets of one departing from a well-loved place. but I shall be sustained at the same time by my belief that the hereditary peerage, if true to its spirit of public duty and service, can remain a force for good within a constitutional monarchy. I pray that, by example, we may prove that to be so. In the meantime, I wish the Bill safe passage through your Lordships' House, followed soon, I hope, by a broad reform of the whole of Parliament.
§ 10.48 p.m.
§ Lord Monro of Langholm
My Lords, I am sure all noble Lords appreciate the sincerity of the words of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and perhaps the dilemma he 129 has been placed in by the past history of the matter. If the Bill before the House were a race card, the horse in it would be called Vindictive, by Jealousy, out of Ignorance, because this House works very well. The Government are occasionally inconvenienced by losing a vote but that is due entirely to a lack of attendance by Labour working Peers.
I know that earlier today the Leader of the House gave statistics showing that that was not necessarily so and indicating that it was the attendance of the hereditary Peers that made the difference. But when the balance is around 100 to 120 on either side, she knows quite well that if all noble Lords in her party had turned up to vote, the Government would have won most of the Divisions that they have lost in the current Session. The noble Baroness knows, too, that if there is severe opposition to any measure in this House, there is always the fallback position of the Parliament Act.
But if this House has no right to delay or amend legislation, one begins to ask oneself: why do we have this Chamber at all? It must be here to deal with the duties that we have had for generations. We are certainly not in favour of a unicameral Parliament. But, given the way in which the Government view our achievements in this place, it makes one begin to wonder.
Our duty is the scrutiny, revision and improvement of legislation, and there is opportunity for the Government to introduce amendments to improve the legislation, either in another place or as a result of what happens in Committee, Report and Third Reading debates in this Chamber. But it seems that the present Government object to that. It confirms our view that the Labour Government are not interested in democracy but are just forcing their policies through Parliament. Parliament is sidelined. Everyone agrees with that, from the Speaker to the Doorkeepers. But now, at last, I believe that the media are beginning to see through the spin doctors who have worked so assiduously for the past two years.
I have spent 35 years in Parliament, half of that time as a Front Bench Member. Two things stand out. The first is the skill and experience in legislation of the hereditary Peers in government or opposition. It has been a tremendous asset to this Chamber. As a life Peer, I am proud to serve with them now on the Back-Benches. Both as Ministers and Opposition Members, they take on highly complicated Bills from the Commons and progress them through this House. Continuity of membership is a great asset. All governments, including this Labour Government, should be loud in praise of what this Chamber has accomplished since the war and for generations in the past.
The second is the matter of youth, touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Montagu. The Government are always shouting about youth, and rightly so. This Chamber gives youth a chance through the hereditary system. Frequently, younger Members are able to operate as Ministers on the Front Bench or in opposition. It is an opportunity that they would not have so early in another place. Noble Lords in their twenties or thirties with no constituency to serve and no axe to grind, free to express sometimes radical opinions, are 130 just what we need in a debating Chamber. They provide a wide geographical spread of opinion throughout this country.
That variable and unique contribution is to he scuppered by this Bill. One begins to ask how the Prime Minister or any committee could appoint Members of this House in their early twenties with no track record or experience of life to entitle them to a life peerage; and with the Peach Nolan arrangements for appointments to quangos and other bodies it will be even harder in the future.
For those reasons our hereditary system has been an outstanding success. It is comparatively rare for Members of Parliament to be elected in their twenties. Constituencies just will not select people without experience, and rightly so. But that is not a problem when it comes to this Chamber, with the number of hereditary Peers who can come here in their early twenties. Yet that system seems to be attacked continually by Labour and is not supported by Liberal Members either.
The questionnaire provided to us last week by the Royal Commission was fascinating. Over 120 questions were posed. One begins to wonder how many tens of thousands of responses the Royal Commission will receive. Any government with an element of fairness, not merely a throw-away line in a manifesto, would have postponed this legislation until after the Royal Commission had reported and we could have seen what stage two was going to be.
We should be discussing the role of the House, not its composition, at this stage. We want to see what is best for Britain, not what is best for the Labour Party. Everything this Government do is for political expediency or advantage: the referenda; the constitutional changes; the failure to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster by the next election; the West Lothian question, still unanswered; and the voting systems. whether for Scotland, for Wales or for Europe. Everything is done for the advantage of the present Government, with their vast majority. We are worried that the Bill is not in the best interests of the country but merely in the best interests of the Government.
Whatever the Government do, the new House is bound to be more powerful relative to the House of Commons than before. I do not think that the Commons will like that at all.
As the noble Lords, Lord Vivian and Lord Norton, showed in their fascinating statistics, the new House would have of the order of 200 to 300 new Members, however appointed or elected. The difficulties with regard to an election cause me great concern. Those 200 or 300 new Members will be professional politicians. They will want to be paid. They will want accommodation and facilities on a par with those of the other place. They will note that the other place is spending £250 million or so on a new building. They will want individual rooms and accommodation for secretaries and computers. I wonder where that could happen in this building. It could certainly not be down 131 the road in Millbank. If the structure of this House is changed, the Government will need to think about the physical difficulties that we face in this building.
In conclusion, I am very depressed about this Bill. It is a shocking Bill, the worst I have ever known in all my time in Parliament. It deserves to be defeated, or at least drastically modified.
§ 10.57 p.m.
§ Lady Kinloss
My Lords, with so many speakers on the list, I intend to be as brief as I can. It is almost impossible to avoid mentioning matters on which others have already spoken.
Much has been said about the present composition of the House. I quote the noble Lord, Lord Carter, the Government Chief Whip:In our view its present composition means that it lacks the legitimacy to do properly, and with confidence, the tasks entrusted to it".—[Official Report, 23/2/99; col. 1086.]How much more will that be true if this Bill is passed in its present state, when Members of the hereditary peerage have been dismissed and all that is left are those Peers who have been nominated at different times by nine different Prime Ministers? In no way is their position to be considered as having more credibility than that of the hereditary Peers.
As I have said before, I am in no way opposed to a reform of your Lordships' House, but I can see no argument for leaving its reform to what in the 17th century was called a rump Parliament. It is true that there has been debate on several occasions in this Chamber, but that is not the same thing as consultation, which can only be done systematically. It is surely for this reason that no consensus as to the future role of the House has been achieved.
I can see nothing particularly democratic about the temporary survival of 91 Peers. The present Bill leaves the floodgates wide open to any of the options proposed in the White Paper, or even to the options not contained therein. This is an empty Bill which is not constructive and which does not even enforce what has been promised—a stage two reform. It puts an unnecessary burden on the Royal Commission, whose report should properly be discussed by the whole House, not simply a surviving part of the House. These are flaws which will need detailed discussion when we reach Committee stage.
I call particular attention to Clause 2 which provides for the removal of disqualification of hereditary Peers from membership of the other place. On the face of it, it looks very handsome. Hereditary Peers can vote in elections to the other place and stand as candidates for or serve as Members of it. The first part puts all hereditary Peers into a kind of limbo, for we shall have no voice or vote in those constituencies in which we happen to reside until there is a general election. Clause 4 states that the Bill will come into force at the end of the Session in which it is passed. Can the noble and learned Lord who is to reply say whether it would be more democratic to await the dissolution of Parliament?
132 There has been a great deal of talk about the Government's election manifesto. I believe I am correct in saying that no government have ever fulfilled all of their manifesto commitments, so what is the hurry now? I detect no general feeling in the country for the abolition of the rights of hereditary Peers. One can subscribe to a manifesto and vote for any party who proposes it without committing oneself to any particular detail in it.
A poll released on 18th November last suggested that no less than 68 per cent. of voters would prefer to leave matters as they are until every detail of Lords reform has been decided. In such a case it seems to be entirely appropriate to have a fairly conducted referendum on the main issue. If the projected reform of your Lordships' House is to stand the test of time, there should be a firm disclosure of the Government's intentions in regard to stage two; otherwise, we shall be left to wonder what the final result is intended to be. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that the Government should proceed with the second stage as fast as possible.
Would not one solution be to allow only those Peers who attend and listen to a debate to speak, and, in the case of a Division, to vote? Those who do not attend would lose those rights. I believe that the Bill requires much scrutiny and attention to detail as it appears to raise more questions than it answers.
§ 11.2 p.m.
§ Lord Eden of Winton
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss. I very much agree with what she said. I hope that I shall not be misunderstood when I say that I feel a sense of guilt at taking part in this debate. Great events are taking place outside this House, some outside this country, that affect us and the future of our nation: the fact that our forces are currently engaged in warfare in Kosovo; the deep uncertainty hanging over the developments in Northern Ireland in relation to the Good Friday agreement; the extraordinary situation that has overtaken the European Commission; and the rather unsatisfactory outcome of the deliberations in Berlin. Yet here we are in the second Chamber of the British Parliament spending two days debating a Bill which will change the composition of this House. That is why I feel a sense of guilt. I believe that it is wholly irrelevant to the needs of this country.
The Government propose to affect the composition of this Chamber without giving any indication of what they regard as the future powers of this House. It is a most extraordinary time for the Government actively to take steps to weaken the House of Lords, which is what they are proposing to do. The noble Lord is frowning at me. He will have an opportunity to explain his frown later this evening.
By removing the right of so many distinguished Members of this House to continue to take part in our proceedings and to be Members of this place, the Government are weakening Parliament. They are doing so at a time when they should be concentrating on other, greater, more significant matters and when we should be debating those issues, not debating this particular Bill.
133 The Bill is before us, however. It has been described as short and simple. As the debates continue and we move on from Second Reading into Committee and then into Third Reading, Government Ministers may well find that it is anything but simple. They have set their hands to something which is immensely profound in altering the composition and nature of this House.
I was grateful, as I am sure were other noble Lords, for the kind remarks of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House concerning hereditary Peers. That is a change—a considerably important one—from her observations when the subject was first raised. It is certainly a change from the observations of the Leader of the other place, who seemed to take great delight in making her views on hereditary Peers abundantly clear.
I should add here that we are not considering the ending of the hereditary principle. Many say we are. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, most eloquently stated, the hereditary principle will continue. I believe that that is the view of Government Ministers. In fact, I ask them: is it their view that the hereditary principle will be supported by Her Majesty's Government in the future? It is not the hereditary principle which is under examination in this Bill; it is the right of anyone to be a member of this House by virtue of heredity. The hereditary principle as such will continue, even after hereditary Peers have ceased to have the right to sit in this place. It is very important to underline that and I hope that Government Ministers will support it because, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, again said, it supports and gives strength to the position of the monarchy in this country.
The question which has to be asked over and over again is what function or what role do the Government see for this House The Royal Commission has asked a large number of questions. One of my noble friends indicated the number. The questions begin by referring to the powers, functions and role of the second Chamber. They do not begin by asking questions about its composition. That indicates to me that the Royal Commission believes that priority should be given in its consideration to the examination of the role, function and powers of this House. Yet we are invited to support the Government in taking a step which will alter fundamentally the composition of this House before we know what they intend shall be the powers and functions of this House. I hope that we shall hear more about the functions that the government foresee for this revised second Chamber before the Bill progresses much further through Parliament.
Some noble Lords—one or two of my noble friends among them—suggest that it would be appropriate to replace the hereditary Peers with a fully elected Chamber. I do not support that view. If this were to be a fully elected House a constituency basis would have to be established for elections; there would have to be some form of electoral procedures; there would have to be some means of paying the Members so elected; and there would be enormous complications resulting in the variations in the election of Members to this House and to another place. There would be a conflict in the mind of the electorate.
134 I believe that it would be wrong to have a fully elected Chamber. But I can see that there might be the opportunity for some element of election to this House. If that were so, then elected Members would find themselves alongside nominated or life appointed Members. I see no difficulty with that. I believe that all Members of this House are first and foremost Members of this House. One of the worst things that could happen would be for Members to come to this House believing that they represent a specific narrow interest, section or faction and speak only to that. That would gravely weaken this House. Therefore, every emphasis should be given during whatever may lie ahead to ensure that those who have the privilege of ultimately serving Parliament through membership of this House recognise that their commitment is to Parliament and not to a narrow sectional interest.
Like other noble Lords who were formerly Members of another place, I have seen changes take place in that House because of the development of a large number of committees and standing committees resulting in much of the interest and debate being taken away from the Floor of the other place. If that were to occur in this House, it would weaken Parliament.
Much needs to be discussed and considered. I find it extraordinary that we have no indication, no hint, of what is in the Government's mind. They must have some vision of the future. They must be able to give some indication of what is going on. They must have discussed it at some stage. Why do they not share that knowledge with this House during the course of the debate?
I said that there might be some elected element to membership of this House in the future. The Bill will give an opportunity for Members who are barred from sitting here by virtue of their being hereditary Peers to be able to stand as candidates for the lower House. It might be a worthwhile proposition, if this House has really effective powers and functions and if it had been the intention of the Government that this should be a strong second Chamber, that Members debarred from entering the House because they are hereditary Peers should be free to seek election to this House as well. There is no reason why that should not happen. If they are going to be debarred from attending this House by right of heredity then that is one bar against their membership. But it should be the only reason why they are excluded for all time. This matter could, I believe. be considered at a later stage.
Most important of all is that this Chamber, whatever happens to it in future, does not become an enfeebled echo of the other place. We now have colour and diversity: do not let us follow a course of action which would introduce drabness and uniformity.
§ 11.15 p.m.
§ Lord Desai
My Lords, let me speak to the amendment first, because we are technically discussing that. The noble Lord. Lord Cobbold, stated in his amendment that:…this House regrets that the Bill radically alters the historic composition of the House of Lords for party political advantage …".135 I would say that needs a little bit of rewriting. I would say: "this House rejoices that the Bill moderately alters the historic composition of the House of Lords for party political balance". That is what the Bill does.
The noble Lord then went on to say that this had been done without consultation. I would argue that we not only put this matter in our election manifesto but, if that is not regarded as sufficient, we have put it in every other election manifesto that we have ever had. In addition, there has been widespread consultation in the country for the last 88 years. No one has suggested anything other than that the hereditary Peers' right to sit and vote in this Parliament should be removed.
Therefore, I would have been much happier if the noble Lord had, as it were, rejigged this amendment and said that, "After consultation with the electorate and consensus, thanks to 80 years of debate on the reform of the House of Lords", and so on. It is obviously a moderate, modest Bill. I will give it two cheers, but let me say this. Many speeches from noble Lords opposite have suggested, first, that the Bill is small, modest, mean and despicable, and, secondly, that it will do a lot of harm, is enormously important and is very dangerous. I would say: make up your minds!
Obviously what happens—and it happens in a variety of majority cultures—happens between men and women in a patriarchy. What men do is natural, good, honest and truthful by definition and men are always superior to women. Women can never do anything better than men—until of course women challenge and then things happen. We suddenly find that men are not always superior. The same thing happened in the colonies. The British were the best when I was a child because the Indians did not know how to do anything for themselves. Of course, it was the assumption of the system.
Noble Lords opposite assume that what they do is always in the national interest and what we do is in the party political interest. When they have a majority, they look after the nation's interests. When we have a majority, it is an elective dictatorship. That is an interesting contrast. Therefore, whatever this Government did, even if they had incorporated all the various suggestions made by noble Lords opposite, it would not have been right because it is this Government who are doing it.
I have been surprised by the rather tepid response by noble Lords opposite. Not one of them has defended the right of hereditary Peers to sit. What has happened to English romanticism? I could have done a better job, but I have other things to do right now.
The best that noble Lords opposite can do is to say, "We do not defend the hereditary principle but we do not like this Bill. It does not go far enough. It does not do everything holistically in one stage. We are only reforming the House of Lords and not the House of Commons, local government and everything else as well.".
I had a post-colonial education in England, as I have often said. I was always taught that the great genius of the British was that they never made changes by using 136 jumbo-big, architectural schemes but rather, they always do things bit by bit. That is a good pragmatic philosophy.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said that pragmatism is all right if used in a small way as the Conservatives do, but pragmatism is bad when adopted by the Labour Party because, obviously, 'too much harm is done by being pragmatic. This Bill is extremely pragmatic for the simple reason that it has been shown, since 1911, that anybody who tries to introduce a two-stage Bill will not succeed. If noble Lords have read the history carefully and reflected on it, they will know that there is a better approach. It is like railway privatisation in that the problem must be "unbundled" and dealt with in two stages.
Noble Lords opposite do not like the fact that it is going to work this time. That is the beauty of doing it in two stages. That is precisely the point of not discussing the second stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Eden, asked: what are the Government's intentions; what are they hiding? The Government intend to have a Royal Commission and for that Royal Commission to consult the people. The Royal Commission will decide what the shape of the second stage will be. As regards the first stage, there has been a consensus for 88 years. Nobody from the party opposite has ever said that the hereditary Peers should stay for ever.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I do not believe that the noble Lord could have been in the Chamber when I spoke because I certainly defended the principle that hereditary Peers should stay and I suggest that tomorrow, he should read what I said in Hansard.
§ Lord Desai
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. I have not been here throughout all the speeches. I shall look forward to reading that speech tomorrow in Hansard. With that one exception from a life Peer, which I welcome, we have not had a good defence of the hereditary principle.
There has been a string of proposals from the party opposite—from the noble Lords, Lord Carrington, Lord Home and so on. It has been agreed that hereditary peerages should not survive. Therefore, the first stage is beyond controversy. We are all agreed on that. There is a national consensus and agreement on that. So let us get the first stage out of the way.
However, we are not agreed on the second stage, so let us consult. As regards the second stage, I do not agree with what is said in the White Paper and I have said so. That is partly why I give the Bill only two cheers. The Bill is short, but not short enough. I would remove the word "hereditary" everywhere that it appears as an adjective for "peerage" and then the Bill would be perfectly satisfactory for me.
I want all peerages to go. Ideally, I want a directly elected Chamber. I said that many years ago and I say it again today. I say to my noble friend Lord Plant, who made an excellent speech, that in order to show independence of party political influence perhaps a 137 directly elected Chamber should be modified by a Cross-Bench element. As I said in my speech on the White Paper, the Cross-Bench life Peers are the only people who should be allowed to stay. The rest should compete for Parliament, or do whatever else they wish in their spare time. I believe that there should be 120 Cross-Bench Peers and 240 elected Peers, making a total of 360. Whether or not the Bishops should stay is a matter of taste, and my taste is low in that respect, so I will go no further on that.
Therefore, there would be a moderate House with 360 to 385 Members and it would work perfectly well. There has been talk of 700 years of history, and so on, but in 1788, when Pitt the Younger entered the House of Commons, the membership of this House was only 290. The expansion has occurred due to the number of Peers created in the 19th and 20th centuries. Let us get rid of all that and return to a smaller House which will be efficient and a good thing. This Bill is the beginning of that reform.
§ 11.26 p.m.
§ Lord Luke
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I am sure he will forgive me if I do not agree with everything that he has said.
First, I want to say how pleased I was to hear the gracious words about hereditary Peers from the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal. That was quite a tonic.
I believe in the concept of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As a result, I regard with deep suspicion and doubt anything that seems to diminish that and break the unwritten contract which is our constitution. Devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in progress. Reform of the House of Lords is another link in the chain which is being broken without, it seems, any real concern for the consequences. Viable reform, as so many have said, requires a comprehensive reassessment of the parliamentary functions, powers, composition and procedures of both Houses.
I believe in the force and power of tradition. The mood in the country today—one might almost call it a mania—is all for modernisation. Tradition is misunderstood everywhere and, therefore, misrepresented as something stuffy, sterile and primitive, a useless relic from a bygone era. It is also regarded as hidebound and inflexible.
That misrepresentation is perverse and probably deliberate. However, it is contemporary decrees, diktats, and the many invented ideologies of our time which are stultifying and exclusive. Tradition, on the other hand, is flexible, adaptable and living, for it is not the dead letter of ideology, from wherever it comes, but the spirit that gives life. Therefore, it is the traditionalist alone who has the scope to be truly inventive, precisely because he understands what has gone before.
Tradition and freedom are parts of the same whole and they must, like friendship, be kept constantly in good repair. The way in which we do things says a great deal about who we are and what we want. I am an hereditary Peer. What does that mean? To some people, particularly within this Palace, it means nothing at all. 138 To me it means that I am lucky enough to have been born to succeed to a title. That makes me proud and most definitely not in any way apologetic. I have privileges, but also duties—and for me, as for a great many other noble Lords, it brings with it a certain desire to serve, and that I have tried to do to the best of my ability for most of my life.
Working and, one might legitimately say, particularly tonight, almost residing in this wonderful building with its overwhelming feel of living tradition has been for me an enormous privilege. Lucky me! Quite clearly, too lucky me in the eyes of a Labour Government bent on changing everything in their power, particularly if it is old and especially if it works well.
It is strange—is it not?—that in Britain today, when every citizen is almost desperately concerned for his or her rights to be upheld and jumps headfirst into litigation if those rights are in any way challenged or impugned, we are having our rights taken away from us and our descendants, not because it is part of a reform package, but because of what seems to be part of a deep-down and no doubt deeply felt desire for revenge. Revenge for what?
The contempt shown for Members of this House and for all its works, particularly its reviewing and revising activities, by members of this Government betrays, it seems to me, a simple envy regarding something and some people who dare to be different. But, stay, is this primitive urge to change and destroy really a true reflection of the motives driving this Bill, I ask myself. What if there is a different scenario? Suppose this contemptuous attitude, so unnecessary if this was a genuine desire for reform, is actually directed at the House of Lords itself and not at us poor hereditaries whose powers are really not that great. Some Socialist manifestos in the recent past have been much more forthright—in 1983, one stated:to take action to abolish the un-democratic House of Lords as quickly as possible, and as an interim measure to introduce a bill in the first session of Parliament to remove its legislative powers".I believe that this Government, with their manifest desire to control everything and everybody, would really like to rule by decree and media leak, to have a completely subservient House of Commons and no House of Lords at all. Even an emasculated House of Lords would put a brake on the Government, and this they claim they do not want at all.
I find a certain parallel with the activities of the Parliament in the 1640s and 1650s. Trouble with the House of Lords? Abolish it. Trouble with the House of Commons? Suspend it. Trouble with the King? Chop off his head. What is the end result? A Lord Protector? A President? Or a Lord Destroyer? Fanciful I may be, but I am talking about power and an old apposite cliché—power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.
With the hereditaries gone, where is the underlying stability for this country? What is left to provide the essential backbone? The monarchy? The Labour manifesto said there are no "plans" to change the monarchy. That might be thought in the present atmosphere of vandalism to be a touch equivocal. I call 139 on the noble Lord the Minister to say whether that means that there is no threat, and never will be a threat, to the monarchy by any Labour administration.
Too many of our fellow citizens were beguiled by the phrase "Education, education, education". May I suggest that for all our sakes "Stability, stability, stability" would be a most welcome watchword? This formerly united and stable kingdom is rapidly and disastrously being demolished. We hereditaries are a small but significant part of that process. When we go, it is vital to the House and hence our constitution that the right answers are found. Therefore, I welcome the appointment of the Royal Commission. Function first, then composition. Do the Government care? I believe that at least some still believe in the eventual abolition of the second Chamber and I am very worried indeed for the future of this sceptred isle.
§ 11.35 p.m.
§ Lord Saatchi
My Lords, the Benches opposite believe that they can view the massed ranks of protests from this side of your Lordships' House with complete indifference. They believe we will object in principle but do nothing in practice. That is because they believe they have read our minds about this Bill, and that we have concluded that it is either wrong to oppose it because of the Salisbury convention; or futile because of the Parliament Act.
But suppose that by some chance they were mistaken in that judgment. Then they could become embroiled in what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House memorably called a "pitched battle". Can that be prevented?
The deep problem is mutual suspicion. The Government believe that our Benches are insincere when we say we welcome reform. They believe we only want to delay because then, as the saying goes, "the horse might sing". The Government Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said as much in relation to the timing of this debate today, about which he suggested we complained for no reason other than,the simple desire to hold up progress on the Bill".—[Official Report, 17/3/99; col. 733.]For our part, we believe it is the Government Benches that are insincere when they say they welcome reform. We suspect that they only want stage one and there will never be a stage two. As Dr. Fox, our constitutional spokesman, said in another place, the idea is,to scrap the hereditary peers"—the Tory majority—and then,kick the whole process into the long grass".—[Official Report, Commons. 1/2/99; col. 619.]
Would it be completely naïve to suspend disbelief just for a moment and consider the remote possibility that both sides of the House may be sincere in wanting reform? If that were true—that is, that each accepted the sincerity of the other—then perhaps we could come to an agreement. Was that not the insight of my noble friend Lord Cranborne and the Prime Minister? Did not those two exceptional men, from wholly different political backgrounds, briefly conclude that there is 140 more that brings us together than separates us? Can we go further? Can we build on what they did? We should try because, as the Leader of the House of Commons said, the Government would prefer to proceed by consensus. As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said, this House usually tries to proceed by agreement.
But why should the Benches opposite agree? They have the power; they can proceed by force. They do not need agreement. I suggest that there are two motives for seeking agreement, and as is often the case, one is emotional and the other practical. The first, the emotional reason, is in fact guilt, because they want to do the right thing and deep down they know it is wrong to create a House of Lords, even for a few weeks—even for a day—over which the Prime Minister of the day has total power. The Prime Minister's office already has enough power. They must know in their heart of hearts that it does not make it right to do the wrong thing simply because their intention to do so was included in the small print of their manifesto and noticed by 2 per cent. of the population.
The second reason, the practical political reason, is that the Benches opposite do not wish to repeat the mistake they made in Scotland. Them the Labour Party raised the flag for democracy as a modernising stick with which to beat the Conservative Party, and very effective it was too. But then they found that a supposedly reasonable, small, democratic step, giving more local democracy to the Scots, led to powerful pressure to go the whole way and grant full independence to Scotland. I am sure they must feel the same process starting here in this House. They heard, for example, the Liberal Democrats' constitutional spokesman in another place stating categorically that,legitimacy requires a predominantly elected Chamberand that 113 MPs of all parties concurred.
They might perceive therefore that they need an agreement to stop something happening that they do not want—an all-elected second Chamber. They will surely then begin to see that if they do not do this job properly and if they leave a half-baked House of prime ministerial patronage, the pressure for a directly democratically elected House of Lords will grow and become irresistible.
So, if for those two reasons, the Government need an agreement, what prevents them seeking one? As I said, it is mutual suspicion. The Government believe that any concession made to this side of the House would only be taken as a device to delay. If it would help to relieve them of that concern, I, for one, would offer my commitment to vote in favour of the Royal Commission's recommendations for this House and to give my metaphorical proxy to my noble friend, Lord Wakeham. I would hope that others might follow. If others did do so, that would truly put the Government's own sincerity to the test. We would all see if they were willing to return the compliment to make a commitment to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission, or at least to enter into a serious dialogue between the parties about the future of this House. If they did that, then history would surely judge all of us more kindly.
141 I am told that in the normal course this Bill will receive Royal Assent and become law in October. Within 60 days of that date the Royal Commission will report. Is it really necessary to throw away 600 years for 60 days?
§ 11.41 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, it is claimed that your Lordships' House is the oldest legislative assembly in the world and one of which we should be rightly proud, but it is also one of the most undemocratic. As my noble friend Lord Chandos indicated, the Bill before us is based on the need to make this House more democratic. It is not, as has been suggested, being introduced for political expediency. We are the only civilised country in the world (no Commonwealth country, no new democracy, has adopted the practice) where a part of the legislature comprises Members who are there for one reason only—by virtue of birth—and have been born to rule. No one today would dare to invent such a concept.
No one would deny the useful work and role played by your Lordships' House. No one would deny that the House of Commons is far from being a perfect legislature. There is plenty of work for a second Chamber to do, not least in containing the executive. But whatever the usefulness of the present House, this should not be used as an excuse for avoiding, delaying or, as my noble friend Lady Crawley said, derailing the question of reform. The present composition of the House, the imbalance in party strengths, means that the House lacks the legitimacy to resist government effectively.
I recently re-read a fascinating article by Donald Shell, lecturer in politics at Bristol University, in which he imagines the challenge of explaining to a group of East Europeans how the hereditary principle equates with democracy. That is a path I should like to follow having been actively involved in helping a number of the new democracies of east Europe to write their constitutions and establish their parliaments. I felt an empathy with his dilemma. Sometimes it also helps us to try to see our Chamber as other people see us.
How does one explain to a group of young people from, say, the Czech Republic that Britain, which pioneered the development of democracy in other countries, still retains such an archaic and unrepresentative structure? How does one explain logically the case for someone who, by birth—not ability or experience—has the right to participate in our legislative process? I do not believe that that would be found to be an easy task.
As my noble friend the Leader of the House said some hours ago, being a Member of your Lordships' House is a privilege not a right. I am proud to be a Member. It is an amazing atmosphere to work in, and I have always found it: friendly and welcoming. I am sure that I shall miss many friends I have made, but we cannot continue to defend the indefensible.
I return to my young friends from the Czech Republic. I think they would find it strange that not only do we have parliamentarians in this House because of 142 reward given to their forebears, but also that we have continued to accept how little they reflect the cultural diversity of our society being, as they are in the main and by definition, white, upper class and male and possessing little experience of universal education, public healthcare and the housing available to, and used by, most of the population.
The passing of this Bill will, at a stroke, produce a legislative Chamber which goes some way honestly to represent society, not only in terms of background, education and employment but also in respect of gender and ethnicity. Among the hereditary Peers only two come from the ethnic minority communities and only 16 are women.
When there were opportunities to provide a better gender balance they were rejected. I wish to spend a moment illustrating the resistance to achieving that gender balance, which has not yet been referred to except in passing. In 1953 Lord Simon introduced a Bill to create a limited number of life Peers and providing for women to be eligible to be created Lords of Parliament on the same terms as men. During the Second Reading debate one noble Lord, who I think should remain nameless, opposed the Bill because he did not want,bossy political women disturbing the peace".
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
Too late, my Lords. He went on to say,a lot of these ladies have bees under their bonnet".I can only say that I am glad that we have bees under our bonnets and that because of that we have passed such worthwhile legislation as the sex discrimination and equal pay Acts.
We heard similar sentiments being reiterated during the passage of the Life Peerages Act in 1958, a long time ago, but we heard them again many years later during debate on the Bill of my noble friend Lord Diamond designed to give women a greater chance of inheriting peerages. I wonder how the young Czechs I mentioned would have reacted had they been able to listen to a debate in which more concern was expressed about the expectations of male heirs rather than any thought of equality except for the rather patronising offer that consideration might be given to a female having the right to succeed if the peerage was in danger of becoming extinct. The rejection of that Bill was to me a classic example of a defence of the rights and privileges of the very few.
Having fought for the introduction of parliamentary democracy in their own country, I am sure that the young Czechs would be bewildered at the concept that for half of Parliament the presence of hereditary Peers creates a built-in majority for one political party irrespective of the popular vote. That is not a democracy they would understand.
Noble Lords have illustrated the effects on voting patterns created by the so-called independent Conservatives, so I shall not repeat the figures. I make the point that I have always believed that taking the 143 Whip of a political party aligns one to that party and one ceases to have the right to be considered independent. As the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said earlier, all Peers, life or hereditary. can withdraw from the Whip at any time they wish.
I came into your Lordships' House in 1993. John Major was the Prime Minister. I believe the intake that year was three Labour, one Liberal Democrat and 10 Conservatives, adding to the Conservatives' already huge majority. Surely that was an example of party political advantage. By contrast, the current Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that rather than packing the House with placemen and women, no one party should have a majority in the future. That will make the House of Lords more independent of any government of any party than it is at the moment. That is one of the reasons why the transitional House will be better. I believe it will also be better because it will be smaller, more representative and will better reflect the society of which it is part. It will also be better, stronger and more legitimate because its Members will have earned their place to participate in this country's legislative process.
In the past 50 years your Lordships' House has seen many changes: the conservation of a sagging House by the introduction of life Peers; women Peers being important Members of our Front Benches; our deliberations being watched by television cameras; procedures being adapted to take account of the increased volume of legislation; and the average working day doubled from four hours in the 1950s to our current average of eight hours. Now we take another step, albeit the first step, to remove its deficit in terms of balance. representativeness and legitimacy—actions that I am sure my friends from the Czech Republic would understand, and actions which are fully supported by 60 per cent. of the public according to a recent MORI poll. In 1908 Lord Rosebery said that the dignity of a Peer and of a Lord of Parliament should be separated. After many attempts, 91 years later, that is to happen.
§ 11.50 p.m.
My Lords, the Bill represents a massive constitutional change. It takes something like a massive constitutional change to bring me to inflict myself upon your Lordships, especially at this time of night and especially when the 49 speakers before me have said most of what there is to say. However, it is worth repeating one or two points.
I am astonished that such a massive constitutional change could be brought forward under the protection, as it were, of a manifesto commitment and with the threat of the use of the Parliament Act by a party which, after 18 or so years in the wilderness, comes to power with a large majority which practically ensures the passing of the Bill. I am disturbed by one or two of the comments that have been made in the debate.
I refer specifically to the importance attached by the Government Benches to the bringing to an end of the hereditary principle, which is not I hope what the Bill is about. It is about bringing to an end the right of 144 hereditary Peers to sit in the House, but surely, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, said, it is important that the hereditary principle is retained. I am also conscious of the fact that we are not allowed to wait for the recommendations of the Royal Commission. As my noble friend Lord Saatchi rightly asked, what is 60 days after 700 years? For us not to be allowed to take part in the debate on the future constitution of the House after such a time will be regretted by the country as a whole.
In the transitional period, some of the hereditary Peers will be allowed to stay. I do not count myself among the top 200, let alone the 91. My father was one of the last four hereditary Peers to be created, apart from former Speakers and so on. I did not have long to think that one day I would be a Member of this House. In fact, my father died within nine years of becoming an hereditary Peer, and because of illness he hardly attended the House. I did not have behind me centuries of anticipation by my ancestors of becoming a Member of the House. So it was with a certain incredulity that I came to your Lordships' House. That was probably when I realised what an anachronism was. Until then I probably did not know what an anachronism was. It has been a most instructive and valuable experience from my point of view and also, I hope, from the point of view of your Lordships' House.
It is 25 years since my noble friend Lord Radnor and I made our maiden speeches from these Benches. I am one of your Lordships' Back-Benchers. I attend meetings outside the House and upstairs in the House more than I attend debates on the Floor of the House. Nonetheless, if the Bill passes into law, I hope I shall take away some very happy memories.
The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, who is no longer in his place, referred to change. In my book there is one inevitability in life, and that is change. However, when change is imposed without proper management, it can be extremely damaging and destructive. If the Bill goes through, as seems inevitable, the House will go through a period of very destructive change. I believe that it is only the unexpected that happens in politics, so perhaps there will be a rosy-fingered dawn. You never know.
§ 11.56 p.m.
§ Lord Craig of Radley
My Lords, we have heard some excellent thought-provoking speeches from all sides of the Chamber, very many of them from hereditary Peers. I feel quite diffident as one of only a very few independent life Peers to be speaking at all in this Second Reading debate.
I have been thinking about how things might appear to a future independent Member. The Prime Minister has stressed that the new second Chamber should have a strong independent element. I was very fortunate to become a life Peer. It was awarded as an honour for my part in the Gulf conflict. I feel very privileged to have been given this mark of esteem. But there is no obligation, even if the wording of Her Majesty's summons strikes a chord of obligation, to attend at all, let alone regularly. It is the interest of this place and all it involves which keeps me here. And when one brings a guest, it is a great experience for them.
145 The place is redolent with our history. It captures the imagination. There are wonders to behold, wherever you look. The Library is fantastic. And, seriously, the House is a working part of Parliament. It does its job as the second Chamber in an effective and widely acceptable way.
I enjoy the subject of politics. I have always taken an interest in it even though I have never had any desire to fight for a seat in Parliament. I have served the government of the day over many years in my profession, so much so that my loyalty to the government of the day was more important than casting my vote at a general election. I never voted while I was in the services. Now I cannot! My five years on the Science and Technology Select Committee has been a great experience. I have relished the work. It is stimulating. It often has some impact for good. But now we peer into the unknown.
We face change in two stages. This Bill addresses only the first. That is wrong, as so many other noble Lords have stated. What is not clear is how the new independent element, a responsible and respected cohort, is to be found. If we continue the present life Peer arrangements will their like be attracted to serve as independents in the second Chamber? What is here today will no longer be. Its living history, its sense of continuity, its mix of individuals, the unique way that we do our business, will all change. Even the dropping of the title "the Lords" to describe the Second Chamber is significant.
Some assert that the best of what is the Lords will remain. I doubt it, apart from the red carpets and the leather seatings and these marvellous surroundings, and, it is to be hoped. the great Doorkeepers and Attendants. With a sizeable body of elected Members, with their commitment to their particular party, the second Chamber will come to mirror the other place, not this place as it today. We may start without a Mr. Speaker, but will that last?
Even today we have to be reminded, and not all seem able to remember, what our self-regulation requires to keep not only the Lord Chairman of Committees happy, but the Chamber itself able to deal with its work. So I muse, were it possible (I am not of course suggesting that it should be, I am fantasising to make a point) to be offered an appointed, independent seat in the other place, how attractive would that be, without the gravitas, without the special atmosphere which is the Lords? In The Times on 1st June 1988, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford wrote,Many industrialists, businessmen, vice-chancellors, heads of colleges and others distinguished in their fields would not accept peerages in a House of Lords bereft of the romance of dukes, marquesses, earls and other hereditary peers.The glamour of the Lords is a factor in the enterprise culture in which one notable achievement is to become a Lord. This is now enhanced because for long it's been impossible to buy a peerage and its bestowal must seem to be recognition of merit. If the Lords was composed of the meritocracy without the aristocracy, many meritocrats would think the place not worthwhile. It is impossible to start a meaningful House of Lords with a clean slate, because it has evolved as a changing part of British life, like the Monarchy".146 In his journal, Lord Wyatt says that this article was praised and endorsed by a number of your Lordships. Noble Lords, particularly independent life Peers, may like to ponder how they would have reacted if the second Chamber to which they were offered appointment were more like that down the corridor.
It would be nice to know whether the Prime Minister's concept of a strong independent element is a continuation of what we have today without the hereditaries, or whether it is to be a quite different beastie. I fear that it will not be the former. The appointments commission can choose only from those who are keen and willing to serve.
Finally, I wish to record my undying admiration for the role that the hereditaries have discharged for centuries right up to the present day. Their contribution to the good governance of the country has been remarkable, as the history books will surely record. It has all been done out of a strong sense of duty to the Monarch and their country. They should be thanked mightily by all. It saddens me when some of those who cannot wait a moment for their departure seem to take a vicarious pleasure in demeaning the hereditaries' contribution. It is not right. Their contribution has flowed from what in the catch-word of the moment, but none the less deserved for that, might be termed institutionalised duty.
Let the knockers desist. Let them show the appreciation which is called for, or at least keep their mouths shut. I salute the hereditaries. The country has been well served by them. With no clear path to a new Second Chamber, it is premature to ditch that which we have. As my remarks have indicated, I favour the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold.
§ 12.4 a.m.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, I support the Bi11. However, I should have been happier if, instead, the Government had merely taken out the 1968 Bill, dusted it down, updated it, brought it in and pushed it through. I say that because that Bill was based on cross-party agreement and not on a sentence in a party manifesto, which I confess I did not read. In fact, I would not think of reading such a piece of literature.
I have no problem with the hereditary Peers. In my 20 years in this House, I have worked with them perfectly happily and made if not close friendships at least acquaintanceships. One of my noble friends spoke earlier about ancestor worship. While she was speaking, I was looking at the Liberal Democrat Benches opposite, where the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, was sitting. I remember his grandfather, who was a beacon of the socialist movement when I was young, in the days of what was then known as "red Clydeside". Every time I see the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, which I often do as we are colleagues on the Science and Technology Committee, I am reminded of his grandfather, David Kirkwood, and of my own roots and past. That is not ancestor worship; it is ancestor admiration, and it is not all that bad.
147 The problem is not one of hereditary Peers but one of arithmetic. In a formative part of my political life, I was a government Whip in another place and was therefore schooled in a somewhat brutal view of politics. I believe the arithmetic of this House is the key, not the heredity element. We have been very philosophical until now, but let us fantasise for a moment. Suppose it had come about that the vast majority of hereditary Peers, several hundred of them, had been not Conservatives but Labour. I imagine that when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, then Mrs Thatcher, came to power in 1979 she would have dealt with that situation pretty promptly. She would have looked at it arithmetically, as I would have done, and we should not be having this debate now. That thought puts the matter into perspective.
Looking ahead, I do not fancy working towards an elected Chamber. That is because I have seen elections in operation, in this country and elsewhere. We have confused "democracy" with "election", as though an election naturally leads to democracy. It does not. You will recall the doctrine of elective dictatorship put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham. It can be a real thing. It is certainly electoral, but it is not democratic. It is too easy. Our present electoral system has resulted in not one Conservative MP in Scotland or Wales. Some of us might rejoice in that. It is electoral, but it is not democratic. The Scots and the Welsh are entitled to two or three Conservatives MPs, if only to abuse them!
The system of elections is to be reformed by having closed lists and things of that nature. Closed lists may well be electoral, but they are not very democratic. I am what one might call an unenthusiastic admirer of elections, though I do like democracy.
Let me turn to the Bill and mention two matters. The first is what might be called the Weatherill amendment—or perhaps the Cranborne accord. I do not believe that we have seen it yet, but there has been a good deal of talk about it over a substantial period. It allows 91 hereditary Peers to survive in the following proportions: 42 Conservative; two Labour; three Liberal Democrat; and 28 Cross-Bench. I have in my hand a chart from tonight's Evening Standard which many noble Lords may well have seen. It is said that my noble friend Lord Berkeley, who is the hardest worker, will probably go. That would be a great pity. As a fellow civil engineer, he is an ornament to this House and should remain. But what I find interesting about the table is that part which describes the most active 91 hereditary Peers. That is the figure which is booted about. It turns out that of those 91 hereditary Peers, 12 are Labour, 49 Conservative, 12 Liberal Democrat and 18 Cross-Bench. That does not really fit with the figures that have been put before us.
I do not object to the Conservatives having 42 because that is reasonably close to their 49. I do not object to the Cross-Benches having 28, although that is substantially more than 18. But the Labour and Liberal Democrat hereditary Peers are due more than two and three and probably should have a dozen apiece. I sincerely hope that when the Weatherill amendment 148 appears it will be amended along those lines, if not by anybody else certainly by me. We will have an interesting debate upon it.
I turn next to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. I believe that it would be acceptable were it changed slightly. It suggests that,the Bill radically alters the historic composition of the House of Lords for party political advantage".I believe that instead of "for party political advantage" it should read "to redress improper party political disadvantage". That would make his amendment quite acceptable.
I conclude by referring to a matter alluded to by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in his extremely elegant speech, as we have come to expect of him during the four years that we have known him. Although he did not want it, he hinted that phase one might last. I sincerely hope that it does, for the very simple reason that the 1911 solution was supposed to be phase one but lasted for quite a time. Incidentally, it did not ever suggest what phase two would be. Therefore, a good deal of the current dispute about having phase one without phase two being put before us is fantasy. I believe that phase one should remain. Whatever the commission comes up with—and I believe that it will produce something pretty ingenious—it will be no better than phase one; possibly it will be worse. I do not go as far as to commend the Bill to the House, but I support it and hope that it proceeds relatively quickly with the Cranborne-Weatherill accord amended along the lines as I have hinted.
§ 12.14 a.m.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Waddington and others on these Benches and the Cross-Benches, I cannot help feeling that this is a somewhat mean-minded little Bill, the introduction of which owes more to a kind of messianic fervour cloaked in democratic sheep's clothing than to sound common sense. Along with Scottish devolution and other matters, it aims to cause a further quantum leap in the unpicking and destabilisation of the British constitution. Further, we are led to believe that provided we, the hereditary Peers, go quietly a small rump will be permitted to remain, albeit for a year or so, although many of us suspect that it will probably be for rather longer than that. I certainly do not believe that we should go quietly.
I shall reserve my judgment on the Cranborne-Weatherill amendment, but I believe that we should preserve the conventions of this House, at least for the present, and give the Bill a Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold has given us the opportunity to do this with dignity and I have no difficulty, indeed I have pleasure, in supporting his amendment.
Like many noble Lords, I am astounded by the Government's arrogance in treating a major constitutional matter in much the same way as any other Bill. This could be a Bill on dog licensing or on newt-fishing rights, for all the difference it seems to make.
149 I am sure that the Government are aware that there may be some technical challenges to this Bill as it progresses. I want to pick on just one or two of these and consider the consequences of any such challenge. I want to fantasise, as the noble Lord, Lord Howie said.
I cannot say that all the technical arguments which are likely to be advanced are legally watertight; but if any of them are—and certainly some of them are—the Government have problems. My noble friends Lord Glenarthur and Lord Chesham both touched on the matter of Letters Patent. My noble friend Lord Norrie first raised this in the debate on the White Paper. He said:I have a right to a seat, a place and a voice in the parliaments and assemblies in the United Kingdom, according to Letters Patent, which are not revocable by Parliament or any other authority in this state".—[Official Report, 22/2/99; col. 911.]In other words, he sits, as do all hereditary Peers, by reason and virtue of a personal undertaking, in the form of Letters Patent, given to his forebear by the Sovereign of the time and such—I shall call it a compact—is irrevocably binding and inures to the benefit of the heirs of both parties.
The Bill now before the House commences with the words:No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage".I find that rather strange. It seems to be simply a statement and doe' not require an Act of Parliament to make it so. I cannot help but agreed with it. No one is a Member of this House simply by virtue of a hereditary peerage. For example, no holder of an Irish peerage is allowed to sit in this House by virtue of his hereditary peerage. That is not what permits the hereditary Peers here present to enjoy their position. What entitles a hereditary Peer to sit in this House is the possession of Letters Patent.
I repeat my noble friend Lord Norrie's assertion that he and I, and those like me, sit in this House as a result of a personal compact with the Sovereign, which is not revocable by a Bill such as that before the House. In fact it may not be revocable by any Bill at all. It is even questionable whether it is revocable by mutual consent between the Peer and the Sovereign, since both are only life tenants, as my noble friend Lord Chesham said, of rights and obligations which are unassignable.
The Bill before us, however, seems to recognise its own flaws because it makes the assumption, quite correctly in my view, that even when the Bill is passed hereditary Peers will all continue to sit in the House after the passing of the Bill. Therefore, to sweep them out it employs the mechanism of terminating their Writs. That is fine. The Bill possibly can make it legal to terminate an existing Writ. The Peer whose Writ is withdrawn would seem to me to be within his rights to demand a new one. By custom and usage, a Peer who is the beneficiary of Letters Patent has the right to a Writ, unless he is either bankrupted, convicted of treason or mad. The Bill does not address that point, largely. I suspect, because it cannot.
The Government. in their usual arrogant way, will bulldoze this Bill through, with or without the Cranborne-Weatherill amendment. They may, come the 150 opening of the next Session of Parliament, give orders to the doorkeepers to deny access to hereditary Peers, or at any rate those who are not members of the "rump". The problem if they do so, however, is that there must arise the question as to whether the House, and therefore Parliament itself, is properly constituted, since the Government would be excluding the beneficiaries of binding Letters Patent. If this contention is correct, then it is questionable whether any subsequent legislation can be validly enacted. Constitutional legitimacy rests in the trinity of Parliament as a whole: the Commons, the Lords and the Sovereign. If any part thereof is improperly constituted, then the whole is bereft of its authority and any legislation passed henceforth could be subject to challenge in the courts. This would in turn produce the extraordinary anomaly that the highest court in the land could also be bereft of its authority since it could be a committee of an improperly constituted House of Lords.
If my contention—I am far from alone in contending it—is valid, then the Bill should fall.
There is also the question as to whether the Government can reasonably ask the Sovereign to sign into law a Bill which breaches some 750 contracts to which she herself is a party by succession. Recent governments of both persuasions have already mucked about with the contract law in the housing field. So far as I know, however, no Bill has heretofore put the monarch in the position of being required to change the law to allow unilateral changes to contracts to which she herself is directly a party.
The conclusion which follows these arguments—the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, touched on it—is that, contrary to popular belief, there may actually be an immovable and immutable brake on constitutional change in this country. That brake may be the hereditary peerage; and if, as I suspect, it is possible that no legislative process could remove them, then it is, de facto, the ultimate guardian of both the constitution and of the residual powers and privileges of the Sovereign. That is an awesome responsibility, which hereditary Peers would have a duty both to discharge and to protect against an overbearing executive.
I do not wish, and I know that most of my hereditary colleagues do not wish, in any way to impede genuine constitutional progress, improvement and modernisation. But a less arrogant government would have approached the entire matter from a different perspective. Instead of regarding the hereditary Peers, notwithstanding a few modest pats on the back from noble Lords opposite, as a gang of reactionary eccentrics and leisure park operators, they should have come directly to the hereditary Peers and ascertained whether they were voluntarily prepared to restrict their rights. It might well be that they would have been prepared to do so as they were in 1968, and still would be if the Government withdrew this deeply flawed and offensive Bill.
I suggest that hereditary Peers might well be prepared to undertake the role of a standing committee on the constitution and to use their votes only on a restricted basis on other matters according to, perhaps, a new 151 constitutional convention which could be drawn up by—who better?—my noble friend Lord Cranborne, the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and an appointee of the Government Front Bench. In the meantime, my noble friend Lord Wakeham and his Royal Commission should perhaps have a contingency plan to decide who should sit in this House alongside the hereditary Peers rather than instead of them.
This is, of course, all idle speculation. Her Majesty's Government will dismiss it as wishful and reactionary thinking. When they finally bar the doors to the hereditary Peers, they could well find that their authority and the legitimacy of subsequent legislation is called into question in the courts. My Lords, they have been warned.
§ 12.22 a.m.
§ Lord Forbes
My Lords, this little Bill with the deadly sting of a scorpion concerns the composition of this House. What is the point of altering the composition when the future role of the House has not been decided? The role of the House will probably be influenced by devolution, and certainly by the Royal Commission which as yet has not even sat.
Government thinking regarding this Bill is completely back to front. In fact the situation is so bizarre that anyone must wonder whether it is a case of muddled thinking by the Government or part of a sinister ploy. My suspicions are that the Government's immediate priority is to weaken the second Chamber by altering its composition so that they can then steamroller their ideas for the reform of this House through Parliament; or, if it suits them, come to the conclusion (as has happened in the past) that the matter is so complex that it must be shelved. Either way, having altered the composition of the House by virtue of this Bill, Ministers will become more powerful, and Parliament will become sidelined. Indeed, a situation such as this would have the great danger of leading to abuse of power. Abuse of power, as history tells us, often brings disaster in its wake.
Before supporting this Bill, one has to be convinced that it will lead to a more efficient second Chamber. In fact until the Government can state categorically the reasons why the workings of this House will be improved, this Bill will continue to lack all credibility. So far we have heard very little from the Government on this matter.
The people of this country feel that this House is doing a good job. Why, therefore, do the Government bring this Bill before us? Let us be honest: the reason is that there are too many Conservative hereditary Peers today who can pass through the Division Lobbies. So let us be constructive. There is a way to overcome this problem without taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, as the Bill does. It can be done by limiting the number of Conservative hereditary Peers who can sit and vote. A certain number of those Peers could be elected to sit and vote. they would be elected by all Conservative hereditary Peers as representatives, rather like the Scottish representative Peers used to be elected. Election of Scottish representative Peers came in under the Act of Union and continued right up until 1963.
152 Those Conservative hereditary Peers not elected would be denied voting rights. However, there is no reason why any of them who so wish should not sit and speak in your Lordships' House. Indeed this would be desirable, because any Conservative hereditary Peer could stand for election at the next election. After the initial election there would be a further election each time there was a new Parliament.
One of the great merits of adopting this course of action would be to cause the minimum constitutional upheaval and would leave the whole matter of the reform of this House wide open until at least after the Royal Commission had reported. If the Government were to amend this Bill to accommodate this idea I would have little objection to the Bill. The noble Earl, Lord Perth, who follows me, has even more experience of the election of Scottish representative Peers than I do, and I hope he will say something on this subject.
I have tried to suggest that a very fair way of limiting the voting rights of Conservative hereditary Peers could be achieved by amending this Bill and would still leave the House as an effective second Chamber until such time as full reform of the House could be considered. If the Government would do this I would support them. If the Government are unwilling to amend the Bill to bring about this change, one has to conclude that this Bill as it stands will do absolutely nothing to improve the working of Parliament. If that is the case, the Government should think again before proceeding further with the Bill. They simply have not thought through the reform of this House, and it is another instance of the Government having ideas but being unable to think things through.
Absolutely no government have the right, even under the guise of modernisation, casually to cast away any of our great institutions which have served our nation so well. My ancestor first sat in Parliament in 1445. I support the amendment.
§ 12.29 a.m.
§ The Earl of Perth
My Lords, I am happy to be following a fellow Scot and I shall try later to touch on the points he raised.
The Bill we are considering today and tomorrow has only one great merit; namely, its brevity. I shall follow its example by making only two points.
Constitutional change is in the air. We face the possibility of the break-up of Great Britain and, at best, its division into four parts—and the central Westminster Parliament is to be divided into two Houses. I believe that the year 2005 is rather optimistic for that. Even that may be changed if Scotland opts for independence, which I much hope will not be the case.
Again, there is also our role in Europe. That is an important constitutional issue. I hope that we shall contribute to Europe in an appropriate way.
But today we are considering change in the composition and powers of our House. Anyone who studied the debate last week on democracy initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington—and I recommend its study by all noble Lords—will know that things in the Commons are also changing; for example, its ways, 153 its procedure and its powers. It is a very different House of Commons from that which existed 40 years ago. I suppose that is due partly to the advent of television, spin doctors and so on.
I repeat that constitutional change is in the air, wherever we look. That takes me to my first point. Whatever may be the respective powers of the two Houses, the Lords must—I underline the word "must"—retain the power of veto over any Bill which seeks to extend the life of the Commons. Page 24 of Modernising Parliament Reforming the House of Lords is intended to mean that, and the Cabinet Office agrees with that. But we must remember that we are legislating for many, many years to come. Therefore, I ask the Government to confirm that the power of veto will remain in the hands of this House; and the best way to achieve that is by statutory amendment to that effect.
My second point concerns Scotland's position in the modernisation process. There is an all-party association of Scottish Peers, generally known as the Scottish Peers Association. Its origin lies in the Act of Union of 1707. Because there were too many Scottish Peers relative to the number of English Peers, it was agreed that we should elect only 16 of our number to watch out for and take care of all matters affecting Scotland. In 1963, as your Lordships have already heard, a change was made by which all Scottish Peers became UK Peers. Some of us protested, foreseeing what possibly lay ahead. However, it went ahead, and the 16 Peers have vanished as representative Peers. Indeed, I suspect that I am the only Member of your Lordships' House who was part of that regime.
With the experience of the Scottish Peers Association, I am very much afraid that Scottish affairs may suffer neglect in this House because most members of the Scottish Peers Association are hereditary Peers.
We are minded to submit a paper on this point to the Wakeham Royal Commission. I shall say no more, except to stress to the Leader of the House that this is a matter of real importance and to express the hope that a way around it may be found in any reform.
I have one last, unplanned point. I refer to the very interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. Not only was it very good, but it was potentially very important. I read it as a potential olive branch, giving the House a chance to achieve what we all want: the proper and fair role and composition of the two Houses. He suggested a date by which that could be achieved, the year 2005. I beg the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Cross-Benchers to study that speech and to follow it up in the hope that the Government will recognise that it could be a basis for the olive branch blossoming into what we all want, to the great benefit of our country.
§ 12.37 a.m.
§ Lord Winston
My Lords, I rise with a great sense of humility and of sadness because, with the passing of the Bill, we shall be losing both friends and colleagues. I have made my views clear in previous speeches, and I do not intend to go over old ground. Above all, I do not intend to reiterate what various noble Lords have 154 said about the hereditary peerage. To do so would simply be patronising, and I do not think that that would be appropriate.
I was deeply impressed by many speeches from hereditary Peers, particularly the speeches of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. They advocated the abolition of the hereditary peerage. I am a life Peer, and as a life Peer it is not easy for me to be objective about the abolition of a different category of Peer. It is a strange situation to be in. It is not easy to be objective about things that do not directly concern me. I can put myself in the position of the hereditary Peers only by thinking how I would feel if I were called upon to support the abolition of the life Peers. In many ways I would feel easier about voting in that direction because I would be taking responsibility for myself and not for others. In fact, I believe that we may well be in that position in due course and that we may well have to vote for our own abolition. I recognise that we have to face that, and possibly quite soon.
My key problem in voting for the Bill is not just that we would be voting for reform, which I believe is undoubtedly and clearly needed—reform is good—but that, effectively, we may be voting for revolution. There is a risk that any such constitutional reform, even that which is most carefully controlled, well thought out and orchestrated, could lead to totally unpredictable consequences for which our democracy and government did not wish or even envisage. Inevitably, one must also be concerned about, and must think through carefully, how the law, the Church and, indeed, the monarchy would be placed with the passing of the Bill.
We do not seem to have an absolutely clear idea of what we want from our bicameral system. We do not fully understand what we need our second Chamber to do. That is a serious issue. It would be best to have a strategy, a mission statement for the House, and, indeed, a job description for the occupants of the House.
The basic problem for me is the very random nature of the life peerage. Let us make no bones about it: we talk glibly, and we hear glib talk, about hereditary Peers not contributing. Many life Peers do not contribute either. Many seem to use this House as a resting place. There has been a tradition on all sides of the House that this is a good place to lodge people who have perhaps extended their usefulness in a different place.
However, I am also conscious that I feel genuinely unfit in many ways to be a life Peer. I have said before in this House that I know very many doctors and scientists who are undoubtedly more qualified than I for membership of this House. I recognise that there is a random nature about my appointment. That very much concerns me because I believe that if we are eventually to end up with a predominantly unelected House, we must consider how to get the best expertise into this House because it then becomes an expert revising Chamber. It has been a real privilege for me to be part of one of your Lordships' expert Select Committees, the Select Committee on Science and Technology. When I sit in that committee I do not know who is a hereditary Peer, who is a life Peer, who is Labour and who is Conservative. It does not matter. I see a group of people 155 who are using their expertise to arrive at decisions which benefit and affect the Government. That seems a fine tradition.
The problem about being a life Peer like myself in one's 50s—I believe that to be a very good age to be a life Peer because one is in one's prime—is that one is constantly compromising. It is a constant juggle. It is extremely difficult to get here, to vote, to contribute and to be effective. I recognise that I am even more diluted and even less effective as a life Peer than I was before becoming a member of this House. However, I also feel that if I am useful at all, it is because I have training, expertise and a background in science which may contribute in some way to the working of Parliament. Generally, we cannot get that from an elected Chamber. That is a difficult consideration.
As I have said, many successful scientists and doctors are much better placed than I for membership of this House, but they would not be encouraged to become Members, even if asked, because of the requirement to take sides—to take the Whip. I wonder whether, if we were to have a largely unelected Chamber, we should consider the possible removal of the Whip because that would demonstrate the independence of the House.
Let us have no more talk of class war, rancour or arrogance. Those words do not sit well. They diminish Parliament. We are not here for personal reasons or to vote because we have certain feelings about class. We are here surely because we want to promote good government for the benefit of our nation.
In the second century there was a great rabbi, Rabbi Hillel, who, it is said in the Mishna, a book of the Talmud, saw a skull floating on the water. He said to the skull, "Because you have drowned others, they have drowned thee. And at last they that have drowned you will in turn themselves be drowned".
Let us recognise that we cannot continue our discussions with rancour. We have to do what is best for the nation. We are not drowning; we are reforming. We are not committing a crime; we are trying to do something which is best for our democracy and for the health of the nation. In a modern democracy, however we look at it, it is now absolutely clear that we cannot defend the principle of a hereditary peerage. I shall support the Bill.
§ 12.45 a.m.
§ Lord Denman
My Lords, at this late hour, I shall not detain the House for long. I am deeply grateful to my noble friend Lord Eden who described so graphically how Britain faces the world tonight. I do not believe that sufficient emphasis has been given to the cataclysmic events. The events inside Europe, starting with the Strasbourg-Brussels problems, which are deeply acute, are a national disaster.
I have never been through a hurricane, but I am told that when they build up it is customary, when the damage is assessed, for countries to declare a national emergency in order to deal with all the aftermath and the problems. I suggest that this is very much the 156 situation in which we now find ourselves and I am astonished that this House is discussing the reform of the House against this appalling background.
It is necessary for this House to join with the other place in order to work out a unified policy for dealing with these crises. That would be an extension of the work done by the Prime Minister last week, which must have been superficial. What one can acquire and do in only one day must be trivial.
To achieve what I have in mind would mean our adopting exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, suggested; that is, to have dissent across the Floor of the House removed. That can be done in the case of a national emergency. The Conservative Peers would be willing to retract from their present position; to take leave of absence or relinquish their voting powers, in order to achieve a settlement of the dreadful situation which is in front of us.
§ 12.47 a.m.
§ Lord Sudeley
My Lords, if axed as an hereditary Peer, I shall not be moving out of politics altogether. Rather, I shall continue with my present work on usury and bankruptcy arising out of the unfortunate experience of my own family, in the hope of moving towards a conference at the QEII Conference Centre. It could all be very timely bearing in mind that in a recent Mansion House speech the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that at last the Government will be taking a fresh look at bankruptcy.
I cannot be accused, as an hereditary peer, of being out of contact with the bread and butter concerns of ordinary people; far from it. Most of the electorate live in houses on which they take out a mortgage and so have to be worried about the unfair balance of creditor over debtor and the tricky problems of foreclosure. If axed from this House, I shall persevere with those questions and express the confident hope that in this House, especially on usury, to which the Koran objects, one of the Prime Minister's most recent creations, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will follow in pursuit.
Scepticism has to be expressed about the Cranborne deal, conceded by the Government not as a matter of principle, but with alarm because the House has to obstruct what the Government regard as more significant legislation. The House of Lords holds many of the weapons, and if my noble friend Lord Cranborne had been a businessman and not a politician, he would have negotiated for far more.
With the deal as it stands, it appears to be a trap set by the Government. Stage two is likely to mean the removal of the remaining 91 Peers; indeed, any other form of stage two is unlikely due to the inherent intractability of the problem. The other place would hardly tolerate another elected Chamber in competition with itself. So we will be left by default with a quango of the Prime Minister's nominees which will put at risk the exercise of the quinquennial Act whereby we have to have an election every five years. Therefore, we will be easing the Government's road towards totalitarianism and dictatorship.
157 We would all like to see useful reforms to provide a better and stronger House. There are only nine Ministers on the Government Front Bench and that could be usefully expanded. The excellent work that the Government do to scrutinise the legislation of the European Union and the work of the committee on science and technology could be expanded into further areas. But such practical reforms to strengthen the House do not seem to be in the mind of the Government at all; instead, they are moving in the opposite direction to weaken the House. They are going down the path not of construction but of destruction.
It has emerged from debates in the other place that half of the work is still done by the hereditary Peers. There is no depth in the White Paper. Modernisation is assumed to be a good thing and anachronism a bad thing, without any argument about why. The Government's position is founded not on argument but on prejudice. There may be nothing wrong with prejudice, but the Tory political philosopher Edmund Burke said that it was the bank of capital of ages and of nations. It is odd to see this particular mantle assumed by the Labour Party. Having won the election by stealing the Tory clothes over the economy, no doubt the Prime Minister became alarmed about the danger of members of the Labour Party becoming divided against one another and so has sought soft targets—hereditary Peers and the kidnapping of General Pinochet—to hold his own side together. He has done so even in defiance of public opinion, which we know from a Gallup poll resists stage one without enactment of something more satisfactory to take its place.
Part of this prejudice in the Labour mind arises from the objection that hereditary Peers are not accountable to anyone. But is it really like that? No hereditary Peer 158 can successfully raise an issue in a vacuum without the confident knowledge that there is a significant body of public opinion to support him. When I cleared my prayer book protection Bill in 1981, it was in response to a Gallup poll which showed that most of the laity preferred the old book. If, as an hereditary Peer, I had not taken that initiative, it is not clear to me at all that any elected parliamentarian would have done so and the laity of the Church of England would have gone unrepresented.
As the debate develops I hope that the argument will shift away from the red herring of the hereditary peerage to the real issue; namely, the proper control by Parliament of the executive. For that, we have to go back to the barons' insistence on Magna Carta, and how many of our liberties flow from that. Here we cannot be encouraged by a report in the Observer on 7th March stating that the credibility of the Select Committee system of the other place suffered a serious blow when a committee chairman admitted that his clerk sent advance notices of questions that Ministers would have to answer to Whitehall departments.
In their assumption that they can force through stage one of House of Lords reform, are the Government riding roughshod over the constitution? We do not yet know the answer to that question. The reply from the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, to my Question for Written Answer before Christmas, about whether it was legal or constitutional for one House of Parliament to dismantle the other without its consent, was evasive. Her reply was restricted to what I already knew—namely, that financial legislation in the other place can be delayed for only a month and that there is also the reserve power of the House of Lords to insist on the quinquennial Act. Here we have an important legal question for which the full answer may yet have to be decided in the courts.
§ 12.53 a.m.
The Earl of Clanwilliam
My Lords, this debate is about the powers of your Lordships' House being emasculated by the Bill, as well as the future of the hereditary Peers. That has been the essence of today's debate so far and no doubt it will continue to be so tomorrow. The removal of the rights of hereditary Peers raises the question whether it is the intention to secure the long-term future of the House without weakening its power. Unless that position is secured, the Government's contribution to the revision of the constitution will remain in question.
The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, in his usual eloquent speech, spoke of the wind of change running through the country. Indeed that is so, but we have not yet reaped the whirlwind of devolution which may have unforeseen consequences for the unity of the United Kingdom. This is no time to be fiddling with the constitution in the face of all the other enormous events that are happening around the world.
It is the privilege and duty of the hereditaries to ensure that a viable alternative is secured in place of them. To have a situation where Parliament is dominated by the Executive while the Parliament consists of an elected first Chamber with a large majority and an Upper House appointed by it is unacceptable. Indeed the words, "a strong and effective House of Lords" have been accepted ever since they were incorporated into the 1911 Act.
Such a House, if it evolves, by definition, would have more authority from a credibly elected and appointed membership. It might consist of Members representative of professions, academia, industry and particularly agriculture which incidentally will lose a large degree of expertise with the removal of the hereditary Peers. They should be chosen on a proportional basis, either elected or nominated, preserving a level of independence while retaining that remarkable element unique to this House, the Cross Benches.
There is nothing on the face of the Bill to provide for the arrangements necessary to set up the committee that the Prime Minister has spoken of. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has said, there is no mission statement. That is an enormous failure of the Bill. For that reason it is right that this House should insist that the Bill does not take effect until the nature and structure of the reformed House have been debated and referred to the electorate through a referendum. This is particularly important in the light of the feelings in another place about the powers of this House and the importance of retaining the right of this House to vote down a Bill extending the life of a Parliament. As my noble friend Lord Carrington has suggested, it should have the right to call a referendum on matters of constitutional importance.
The present ethos of this House is one of duty and responsibility to the Government and the people, and it is in those names that the hereditaries have served for 160 many centuries. Heriditary Peers are not unique in this respect, but that fact as expressed by the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal turns the argument on its head. Such a sense of service should be preserved in any new arrangement.
The undemocratic nature of the present House as described in the much vaunted manifesto was a clarion call to the republican element in the Labour Party which hid the main thrust of the leadership to replace us with a unicameral system. This has been borne out by the statements of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. Our removal, she has said, is a stand alone clause which is not dependent on further reform. That is an uncompromising threat—your Lordships may agree—to cross-party consensus.
However, hereditary Peers—and life Peers no less—can be, and may have been elected to public office and have thereby proven their status as elected representatives of the people, a qualification which is much in the thoughts of the present Administration and has been referred to as its legitimacy. I therefore propose an amendment that will allow those hereditaries who have been elected to and held public office, and have thereby proven their worth at the ballot box for a period of seven years, to claim their Writ of Summons to sit and vote in the revised House of Lords. Such Peers will not only have to establish their legitimacy on one side of the blanket but also at the ballot box. I intend to speak in greater detail to that amendment at the Committee stage.
While I personally do not claim any residual right, nevertheless there is a strong feeling among many people who approach me on the matter and demonstrate that there is a great deal of support for the new Chamber to include the ancient right of hereditaries to sit and vote because of the service they are seen to have given to the country and to Parliament. As I have said, the claim in the manifesto was a clarion call for the republicans which misled the public to think that that was all there was to it. Not so. As we have seen with the separation of the act of removal of the hereditaries from the resulting need to reform the House, there has arisen the possibility of a reduction of the powers of this Chamber. That is what I am here to obstruct.
§ 1 a.m.
The Viscount of Oxfuird
My Lords, this very important debate has begun to reveal some extremely complex constitutional issues. In seeking to remove the sitting and voting rights of hereditary Peers from the House the Government are relying on the mandate given to them by, I understand, some 43 per cent. of the electorate, arising from a pledge that appeared in the Labour Party manifesto. It is becoming clear, however, that this move has far wider constitutional implications that will gravely weaken this House and will, in effect, remove the only true brake on the growing and over-bearing powers of our government executive.
161 Already a number of noble Lords have indicated that a real problem arises over the definition of a hereditary Peer. Any definition must be subject to the analysis of the origin of the creation of each peerage, and it is clear that the method by which some of our peerages were created were by no means uniform. Here I refer to my own peerage and a e debate ensuing, following my late noble kinsman's succession to this peerage, in June 1977 in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keith of Kinkel, said:It would be possible perhaps to introduce by Act of Parliament some form of prescription of peerages, a species of limitation, but that would be an exception to the basic principle of Scots law that heritable rights never prescribe. There is this consideration too, my Lords: that having in view that every peerage not extinct or attainted is vested in someone, even though he does not at present receive a Writ to attend, to introduce this prescription would involve taking away vested rights, and I do not think that this is a principle which is readily accepted in any Act of Parliament, at least not without some compensation being provided for".It is interesting to read further in that debate and to find the contribution of the late Lord Henley, the kinsman of the noble Lord, Lord Henley. He said:The claim that we are debating today is not an hereditary one. There is not one drop of the original Peer's blood in the present claimant, so it is not in any sense hereditary".—[0fficial Report, 27/6/77; cols. 902–5.]The real right of most hereditary Peers to sit in your Lordships' House, I would contend, arises not by virtue of the Writ of Summons but by virtue of our Letters Patent, granted to us by the Sovereign. Our constitution has evolved over time and has served us well. First we had an absolute monarchy. Those powers were diluted at Runnymede by Magna Carta, leading to the power of the sovereign being shared with the barons. This situation was institutionalised into the embryo of our present House, with the sovereign acting on the advice of his Council of barons, whose number was extended from time to time by the creation of new barons by Letters Patent. Later, as the concept of representative democracy grew, the power of the barons was shared with the Commons and, as we all know, the Commons appropriated more and more powers, leaving your Lordships' House only with such powers as it retains today.
The House of Lords remains, however, essentially that same body of barons, sitting by virtue of their Letters Patent, to give counsel to the sovereign. In that sense, our House has become an enduring guardian of the constitution and of the residual privileges of the sovereign. I would contend, therefore, that the only way that the rights of hereditary Peers can be removed is by the removal of the sovereign herself.
None of this means that we should oppose sensible reform. As I have outlined already, reform has been an endemic part of the evolution of our constitution. A very real problem arises, however, in that interim period of intermediate length after hereditary Peers have been removed from the House but before the new arrangement, which yet has to be proposed and agreed by the Royal Commission and the joint committee, 162 comes into force. One interim solution is that outlined in the proposed Weatherill amendment. We can by no means be sure that that will be accepted.
It seems clear that, as we dig deeper into the manifest and genuine concerns that have already been raised by so many noble Lords in this debate, issues will be raised at the Committee stage which will be almost impossible to resolve in the timescale proposed. We have in your Lordships' House a working institution that is acknowledged to perform an extremely important constitutional role, and perform it well. No case has been made for proceeding with the unseemly haste that has been forced upon us by the Government in their rush to make ill-considered change before we know the recommendations of the Royal Commission. The Government have an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons and are using that to force through a plethora of constitutional changes, many of them ill-considered. We have a duty to use those residual powers that we still retain to urge more considered reflection.
I have already taken up some time with a history lesson about the origins of the House. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the words of William Blackstone in his commentaries on the Laws of England in 1765. He stated:All Bills likewise, that may in their consequences in any way affect the rights of the peerage are by custom of Parliament to have their first rise and beginning in the House of Peers, and to suffer no changes or amendments in the House of Commons".The other evening, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, gave me a ride to the railway station, for which I said "thank you", but I should like to say "thank you" again. During the journey he used the term "scriptured aggression", which fascinated me. He was referring to some Members of your Lordships' House who spoke in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington.
The Viscount of Oxfuird
My Lords, I apologise. That sounds much better than my translation. I tried to find an example of "scripted abuse" and I did so. I was reminded of the words of Kipling in 1914 when he was describing the Liberal government of that time. He said:They're behaving like a firm of fraudulent solicitors who have got unlimited power of attorney by false pretences and can dispose of their client's estate how they please".I am sure that no such "scripted abuse" could append itself to the Government.
In conclusion, I urge caution and restraint. I would counsel that we delay this unnecessary measure for as long as possible, at least until the Royal Commission and the Joint Committee have reported.
§ 1.10 a.m.
§ The Earl of Liverpool
My Lords, this point has already been made by a number of my noble friends, but it bears repeating. The Bill is not a reform Bill; it is 163 constitutional vandalism. The Government are intent on dismantling one House of Parliament without having any coherent ideas as to what should replace it. If proof of that were needed, one has only to read the White Paper, which was the subject of a debate in this House five weeks ago, and couple that with debates which have taken place in another place on this Bill. Proposals have drifted between sweeping away the House of Lords altogether and moving towards a unicameral system of government, on the one hand, and a growing movement towards a wholly elected upper House, on the other.
At a time of unparalleled parliamentary reform, which the Government are intent on taking at a gallop, one has to ask oneself: why are they in such a tremendous hurry? I do not believe it is because they want to throw a bone to the Labour Left. Nor do I believe that it is because they cannot abide the perceived, and to some extent illusory, political imbalance of your Lordships' House. Might it not have more to do with the fact that we are soon to be asked to make one of the most important decisions that this country will ever have to make; namely, whether or not to join the euro, with all the constitutional issues that will follow?
We have recently been told that Mr. Blair and his colleagues have changed gear in their approach to this vital issue. During the next two years, many millions of pounds will be spent on a programme to prepare us for the possibility of joining. I recognise that this is not the moment to debate the rights or wrongs of that policy. But it is absolutely vital that no one should be under any illusion that if this Bill were to be passed, the Government would have succeeded in getting rid of the only parliamentary brake which currently exists. Mr. Blair will not then only be able to change into top gear; he will also be able to place his foot firmly on the accelerator.
It is no good the Government repeating that there will be a referendum. What form will it take, and when will it be offered? Probably not before the next general election. And is it not within the bounds of possibility that the Labour Government, if re-elected, might say that there was a paragraph somewhere in their manifesto giving them the mandate for joining, thus rendering a referendum unnecessary? Alice in Wonderland stuff? I think not. Only time will tell. We should not forget that the present Labour Government, with their massive majority in the other place of 178, got there with just over 30 per cent. of the nation's votes.
In moving on to my next point, I pray in aid another statistic that has been referred to in previous debates and again today. In a recently conducted poll, under 3 per cent. of those questioned remembered that the Labour Party manifesto contained something about getting rid of hereditary Peers.
There may be an argument for reform of this House, although there are many both within and outside who subscribe to the view, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". We shall have to wait and see what is contained in the Royal Commission report, chaired by my noble friend 164 Lord Wakeham. However, this is a massive constitutional adventure into the unknown. It is unreasonable to expect that in a mere seven and a half months, allowing for holidays, the commission will be able fully to address all the implications and weigh up all the knock-on effects. And the knock-on effects worry me. As I said during the debate on the White Paper, we have a largely unwritten constitution which is in times of stability its greatest strength, but in times of upheaval its greatest weakness.
I now turn to what has become known as the Weatherill amendment. The argument runs that keeping 91 hereditary Peers in this House is our best chance of making sure that the Government see through the reform of this House, whatever that reform may be. I say, with respect and deference, that that is nonsense. I believe that it may have exactly the opposite effect. Having effectively neutered this House in its traditional role of being the conscience of the people and viewing the political landscape conservatively—with a small "c"—they will, by judicious appointment, achieve a House which is Labour, with a big "L", and the most diligent efforts of the Royal Commission, and even of the all-party Select Committee which will follow, will be kicked summarily into the long grass, which is where many a past Royal Commission report now languishes. That was a point well made by my noble friend Lord Waddington.
Even if some form of Weatherill amendment is passed in this House, there is no guarantee that it can be delivered in another place, and I shall therefore take a great deal of persuading that this is the right way to proceed. I agree with my noble friend Lord Sudeley; it has the hallmark of a gigantic Pooh trap, set by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister. We should beware, particularly as the clear and present danger exists, that, having neutered this House, there will be nothing to stop an overbearing and mighty Government, led by a Prime Minister with presidential tendencies, deciding to bypass the electorate and vote themselves another term in office.
The right way to proceed is comprehensively, by which I mean "no stage one without stage two". This is not some mindless mantra spoken in an attempt to retain the status quo. Many of my noble friends accept that times move on and that some kind of reform may be desirable, but it should be carefully thought out in the round and should not take place in this piecemeal way. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, agree with that point. The Government proudly proclaim that they have invented what they call joined-up government. This, of all times, is the moment when we need to see evidence of its existence.
While preparing for the debate, I recalled that my great-great-great-uncle had lived in some fairly interesting times and so I thought I should seek some illumination by reading a biographical account of my ancestor's administration, written by Dr. J. E. Cookson. I did not have far to look. On the jacket cover I found an 165 illustration in the form of a political cartoon by George Cruikshank, which is exhibited to this day in the British Museum. I should be trying the patience of your Lordships if I attempted to describe the fairly complicated picture in detail, but I should like to quote the caption under it. It reads:Death of Liberty! or Britannia & the Virtues of the Constitution in danger of Violation from the [great] Political Libertine, Radical Reform!The date of that cartoon was 1819. I venture to suggest that if Mr. Cruikshank were alive today he might have felt compelled to use those self-same words.
Some interesting questions have been asked on Letters Patent and on the Commonwealth. Those questions must be addressed by the Government.
The Bellman in Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark says,What I tell you three times is true".I expect that by the end of this debate the Government will have heard 100 times and possibly more remarks similar to those that I have had the temerity to make to your Lordships. I hope that they will not only accept them as true, but also reflect on them.
Finally, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, on his excellent speech and on arguing so convincingly and concisely for his reasoned amendment. I assure him that I shall certainly support him in the Division Lobby should he choose to press it.
§ 1.19 a.m.
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak to your Lordships at twenty-past one in the morning, having risen at half-past five in order to attend your Lordships' House. I do not say that the Bill before us is the worst Bill I have ever seen, but it is certainly a bad Bill. I shall come to my reasons for saying that in due course.
The sole purpose of this Bill is to end hereditary membership of your Lordships' House. I am a hereditary Member of your Lordships' House and feel none the worse for that; it has been a duty of my family for many years. It has been alleged that one of my ancestors was bribed to agree to the Act of Union, but that is still undecided. I speak in this debate because I believe that it is my duty to do so. I do not do so because of whim, self-seeking or anything else, but as a duty to ensure the stability of the government of this great country of which we are all citizens. I consider that to be important.
The Bill seeks to remove hereditary Peers from your Lordships' House, which is a perfectly reasonable thought to which I have no objection. My reservation is about whether the plans put forward by the party opposite—I hope that the Front Bench is paying attention—will make things better, leave matters as they are or, as is possible. make things worse. That may be thought a rather severe stricture, but we are dealing with an important matter, as my noble friend Lord Waddington said today and on an earlier occasion. I fully support his remarks about the necessity to get things right. There is no point in change if it is not for 166 the better. I am perhaps a shade older than I have the good fortune to look. In over 70 years of life one has learnt that sometimes change looks attractive and at other times unattractive. Even when it looks attractive it is not all that good; it usually goes sideways and so one is no better off after all the messing about. Let us be cautious.
This Bill proposes to abolish people like me. I have no complaint to make about that. My family has clone its duty as we understand it for hundreds of years to keep the government of our great country on an even, steady and progressive course. Now the party opposite proposes that by abolishing a large proportion of the membership of your Lordships' House everything will become much better. I venture to disagree for the following reason. I understand that the Bill, which has been drafted by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor quite deliberately to minimise the chance of being amended in a helpful way, proposes a vacuum. As everybody knows, nature abhors a vacuum. If one has a vacuum with nothing to look forward to and no further stage, how can one be sure that it is worth while to vote for such a state of affairs? That would be folly.
I venture to repeat the very unpopular remarks of my very good friend the late Lord Beloff, whose intellect, industry, knowledge and many other virtues were mentioned by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, Lord Strathclyde. I have had the happy occasion to share a room with Max Beloff, if I may refer to him in those terms, for quite a number of years. I have never known anybody whose knowledge, experience or wisdom were greater. I draw attention again to the remarks which he made towards the end of his life on the subject of the dangers facing a post-imperial nation such as ours, brought about through apathy, and to the nasty analogies he drew with the progress of the National Socialists in swallowing up the political machinery of Germany. I hope that he is not right. He was a distinguished member of your Lordships' House and a man of the greatest intellect, and his words should be thought about. I fear that the party opposite has not considered these possibilities. It is a gloomy prospect that I offer. I hope that I am wrong and that the late Lord Beloff too was wrong, but the omens are not good.
I got up yesterday; it is now tomorrow, and it will not be long until it is the morning. Some noble Lords may recall that Winston Churchill gave a stinging rebuke to Bessie Braddock on the subject of what happened in the morning.
Unhappily, everything that I have thought about on this subject points to a single set of targets by the party opposite to neuter this House, to fill it with place-men, ruled because they are paid by whipping. That would not be a good state of affairs.
As to the preparatory work for this Bill, I acknowledge the great intellectual input of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who I am happy to see in his place. It nonetheless puts me in mind of the problem faced by Mr. Attlee's Government when they wanted to draft a Bill. I have drafted a Bill, of extreme obscurity but it nonetheless became an Act. Mr. Attlee's Government wanted a Bill to nationalise the coal-mines. The mine 167 owners were portrayed as wicked, idle, grasping and all of those other descriptions which have been bandied about since then. When parliamentary counsel asked, "Where is your plan, Mr. Attlee?", there was a bit of a hoo-ha and everybody hunted high and low. It had been in the Labour manifesto for many years: "Nationalise the mines. Do down the mineowners". My grandfather, who for 18 years was a Member for a mining constituency, had the slogan, "Eight hours work, eight hours play, for eight bob a day".
They hunted high and low but could not find the plan. Eventually it was found in the possession of the South Wales Federation of Miners, written in Welsh. From that proceeded much disaster.
I shall support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. I pray that the Royal Commission's report will precede rather than follow enactment of this spiteful Bill.
§ The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he accept that the Bill which he has castigated accords precisely with the commitment in the Government's manifesto which won a popular majority of 179? Will he also accept my personal assurance that the Bill as drafted was exclusively the product of the First Parliamentary Counsel?
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
My Lords, it is indeed an honour to have clarification from the noble and learned Lord. On the first point, I disagree with him. On the second point, I am most happy to accept his assurance.
§ 1.31 a.m.
§ Baroness Berners
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Cochrane of Cults, and many other interesting and constructive speakers. The noble Viscount, Lord Oxfuird, and other noble Lords have ably described the history of this House on many occasions, a history with which my own family has been involved on and off since 1455. Although I appreciate the principle behind the decision to end the role of the hereditary peerage, I find it extraordinary that this narrow Bill seems to ignore the contributions made by those hereditary Peers who are active in this House.
In the three years I have been a Member of the House I have seen the work of many noble Lords who, as hereditary Peers, derive little income from their position yet dedicate themselves entirely to the issues which concern them. The contributions made by those noble Lords and many other hereditary Peers over the years have been significant in political life in our country. Indeed, for many centuries the hereditary system was the only system of government.
Bearing that in mind, I find it extremely offensive that the Government propose to abolish the position of hereditary Peers without reasoned argument or a satisfactory proposal for our replacement. This is not 168 reform; it is abolition. The motive is unclear; the outcome undefined. Contrary to popular belief, many hereditary Members are concerned for the future of this Chamber as a revising watchdog of the executive. But in such an atmosphere of uncertainty what motivation is there to offer considered advice and opinion on the future of this House if indeed the Government are at all interested in hearing any?
On behalf of all the members of my family privileged to have been involved in the political and, in some cases, the cultural history of this country over the past 500 years, I should like to express my sadness that an era of our participation in political administration may now be over. By accident of birth, we have been given an opportunity to serve our country in government. Some of us have been better at it than others, but I am sure that many noble Lords will agree that this system has not always been a bad thing. In fact it has served us rather well in the absence of any alternative.
Let us hope that the Government will in the fullness of time find a better alternative than that which has served us well for almost 700 years. I support the amendment to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold.
§ 1.35 a.m.
§ Lord Ellenborough
My Lords, the monumental length of the list of speakers on this Bill certainly indicates that the House will not just tamely acquiesce in such a fundamental and sweeping measure. I suppose it must be rather galling to the Government that in pursuing this vendetta—because that is really what it is—against hereditary Peers there is absolutely no public outcry about the House of Lords as it is at present constituted: in fact, far from it. Opinion polls indicate no enthusiasm for the removal of hereditary Peers before full reform, and indeed most people realise that something which has lasted for so long must have something going for it.
It cannot be stressed too often that everything is being done in the wrong order. As with other constitutional measures of this Government, this Bill is incoherent in that it does not take us clearly from one stage to another. Functions and powers should be decided before composition, and it is most regrettable that we will not know for some years what form of electoral system may be decided upon for the House of Commons, or indeed its size, and above all, whether we continue as a nation state or become regions of a Euro federation. Thus we do not know for what purpose the reformed House is needed, but this Bill, unless it is very substantially amended, will undermine one of the main pillars of the constitution which has given us such stability over three centuries.
Already another main pillar, the House of Commons, is treated with undisguised contempt and has been greatly diminished by this Government. As an illustration, one can take this House of Lords Bill, which was rushed through another place and in the middle of the Committee stage there, what happened?—the other place simply went on holiday for half a week. Prime Minister's Question Time was just abolished for that week and so there were no parliamentary Questions for the Prime Minister for a full fortnight.
169 This is all part of the insidious way in which this so-called New Labour Government are proceeding by stealth under the guise of modernisation to change this country from a unitary kingdom and submerge it into regions of a Euro federal state. Noble Lords may laugh, but the general public are not fully aware of how these constitutional charges will affect them—certainly not least the English, over the West Lothian issue, which is still ignored. I hate to say this, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister is in danger of going down in history as the Prime Minister who presided over the disintegration of the Union and the constitution, and he may well bear the ignominy of being the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as we know it today.
In the circumstances, this Bill removing hereditary Peers should not be enacted prior to a post-legislative referendum when people can see what form the transitional House replacing that of hereditary Peers will take, which may last for many years. There is no mention of the word "interim" in the Bill. There is absolutely no guarantee that any full reform will take place. It would be outrageous if this, the most important of all the constitutional measures, were to be the only one not subject to a referendum—I hasten to say a post-legislative referendum in this case, not a pre-legislative referendum, involving such a fundamental and radical change in the composition of this House.
I refer briefly to the Weatherill amendment, wrongly put about by the media as a "Cross-Bench proposal"—as if there is such a thing as a Cross-Bench party, which of course there is not. When I hear that the Government are in favour of something, I become worried and suspicious. Despite their cynical manoeuvring and voting against an identical Opposition amendment in another place, of course the Government are minded to accept the amendment. "Minded" is an extraordinary word which, in Blair-speak, means endorse enthusiastically. By doing so the Government expect to have a much easier ride and, from all accounts, look upon it as just about the best thing since sliced bread. A derisory number of 91 hereditary Peers may have a reprieve. But I implore my own Front Bench to be extremely wary and not to become too enmeshed or enthusiastic about it.
Already the media are speculating on who will be elected, or is it chosen or selected? We do not know. I shall not repeat in detail what I said in the recent debate. However, I feel that if the Conservatives and Cross-Benchers salvage a little on one side and the Government achieve most of their goal on the other, both will he disinclined to hasten in implementing any conclusions reached by the Royal Commission and the Select Committee. Thus, what is supposed to be temporary, as is often the case, becomes permanent.
I am one of the considerable number of noble Lords who feels that the Government should consider, at least as an interim measure for the transitional House, the much better two-tier system of a House consisting of 170 voting and non-voting Peers. That was dismissed rather inadequately by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. in his summing-up speech on the White Paper.
After all, the proposal that hereditary Peers, who, for the most part at any rate, would lose their voting rights should still be able to attend and speak during their life-time was the brain child of such senior figures in the Labour Party as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who I believe is to speak tomorrow, and the late Richard Crossman and others and was adopted by the Labour Government in 1968.
The whole emphasis was on the need for the participation of a considerable number of part-time Members with wide interests and experience who could make a useful contribution. Both the Opposition amendments to that effect and the Weatherill amendment were discussed and defeated in another place. But if the Government can be so flexible as to change their minds on the one, so they should be able to do so on the other.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, who I see is now in his place, made the criticism that hereditary Peers would still retain considerable power if their speaking rights were maintained. That is rather ridiculous. If a number of hereditary Peers—100 or whatever the figure turns out to be—can be allowed to retain their full voting rights, that would represent some power. But the notion that hereditary Peers who speak, but not vote hardly, represents power. Quite often, such Peers would impart some much-needed common sense and advice. A proposal on those lines should be far more amenable and acceptable to most noble Lords on all sides of the House than the Weatherill plan. The main advantage is that it would deal successfully with the problems of the in-built Conservative majority, and the hereditary principle and provide continuity. It certainly deserves further scrutiny and attention. In the meantime, I strongly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold.
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is he willing to answer two straight and simple questions? First, does he accept that the Labour Party manifesto had a clear and unequivocal commitment to remove the hereditary peerage? That is the first question.
The second question to which we invite a clear and unequivocal answer is whether the noble Lord accepts—yes or no—that that gives this Bill a total democratic validity.
§ Lord Ellenborough
My Lords, the answer to both questions is yes. It was in the Labour Party Manifesto, but I do not accept that millions of people turned out to vote for the Labour Party because this measure was proposed in the manifesto.
§ 1.45 a.m.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, when I spoke in the debate on the White Paper on reform of this House on 22nd February I proposed a resolution of the 171 constitutional issues produced by this Bill. My suggestion was a compromise: a constitutional convention by which hereditary Peers would not have their votes counted in the passage of Bills and approval of procedures in this House.
The hereditary Peers' rights to attend, sit and speak would remain intact, as granted by letters patent. My proposal was an attempt to resolve the perceived problems of an embedded Conservative majority in this House, thus avoiding a constitutional conflict.
My desire was, and remains, to encourage your Lordships to remove the arguments about reform of this House from parliamentary conflict and even litigation in the courts. Further, it was intended to take our debate and decisions about reform out of the heated realms of partisan politics, bound up with dogmas and opinions about class and so-called privilege.
I hoped to draw your Lordships' attention to aspects of the constitutional issues involved. I did that, not as a lawyer—which I am not—but as a citizen with an abiding respect for the laws and precedents of our constitution. I asked your Lordships to address reform dispassionately and to look away from conflict.
However, as I indicated, I do not wish to protect and preserve what is indefensible in a modern democracy—that hereditary voting should determine the passing of Bills and rules of procedures in this House. My assertion was, and is, that Peers by inheritance have rights just like any citizen. To deny me, an hereditary Peer, access to sit and speak in this House is unlawful. To accept this Bill would be a denial of my personal and property rights granted by the sovereign.
Thus, I ask in signing this Bill into law, would the sovereign annul my rights? If so, by what power? Even Peers, beheaded as traitors on fields of battle, were permitted by law to pass on their rights to their successors. Those in this House and Parliament who seek reform by statute do so by rescinding property rights granted by the sovereign. That would be expropriation without compensation, even in law.
Is that to be the power and example of this new state? Have this Government a mandate to abolish personal property rights? I do not believe so. If the Government prevail with this Bill, would that not be the finest argument yet for a Bill of Rights such as the Canadian statute which specifically protects the enjoyment of property rights from the attempts of a parliament to remove them? Do we now meekly accept that our new Labour democracy should abolish any personal rights, or do we have to resort to the European Court to assert them?
Various politically motivated proposals have emerged involving a selection of hereditary Peers remaining in a so-called reformed House. Such proposals ignore the rights of those not selected to continue to sit and speak in this House. By letters patent I inherited a specific 172 right to sit in this House. That did not include a right to vote and, therefore, I cannot claim it. So I propose that hereditary Peers allow their voting to fall into abeyance, by consent of the Government and their parties.
In our new Labour state, must we now fear for those with personal rights but without the sovereign's guarantee? I believe that everyone should be apprehensive about this Bill. Many citizens who have freeholds or leases are better protected than are my property rights which were granted by the sovereign. Citizens have the freedom to enter, sit and speak in their own houses. I am a citizen too. How is it that my rights will be denied so easily? Because of my perceived political allegiance? Because I am part of that embedded Conservative majority? Is it because I am not politically acceptable at present?
I oppose the Bill not because it seeks to enact greater democracy, but because it denies it. I shall support a Bill which achieves greater democracy, but it must also protect personal rights. I see on both sides of this House a resolve to proceed with interim compromises or, as journalists have said, "political fixes", which no party has the moral right to do. I wonder how deeply politicians see into the mind of British people who, throughout the history of our culture and our country, have opposed sovereigns and governments who revoked personal and property rights.
It seems clear that reform of this House will be decided only by politically expedient compromises to end the hereditary Peers' rights no matter what. Some magnify and theorise about the real politics involved, unconcerned about the cancellation of personal and property rights. Even the media debase the issue and denigrate personal rights as mere privilege. I wonder whether this is true for every citizen or is true only for hereditary Peers.
May I now draw attention to a matter of more profound concern? Your Lordships may wish to note that the Government have not, during the parliamentary course of the Bill, mentioned their statutory obligation to consult and agree with all the 54 sovereign Commonwealth states concerning the abolition of the rights of hereditary Peers. I realise that the remark may surprise your Lordships. But by this Bill, the Government have made a daring attack on the hereditary rights of our sovereign Queen.
Since the accession of Henry IV in 1399 a reigning sovereign is an hereditary Peer. The Queen is the Duke of Lancaster. That is Her Majesty's hereditary title and peerage. The fact could not have escaped the Government's notice since the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a member of the Cabinet. I do not see the Queen's hereditary rights as Duke of Lancaster excluded by the Bill. Abolishing the rights in this House of all hereditary Peers must therefore include the rights of the Duke of Lancaster, our Queen. It is clear that the way in which the Bill has been drafted proposes also to remove the Queen's rights as an hereditary Peer. This 173 being so, the Bill changes and "touches upon" the Queen's title. For that reason alone, the Bill is flawed.
Perhaps I may refer your Lordships to the preamble to the Statute of Westminster which declares that each Commonwealth parliament must consent to any alteration in the succession or the royal style and titles. Has this consent been sought? If so, what are the responses of the Commonwealth states? Why has this requirement not been mentioned in the Government's presentation of the Bill?
Would not your Lordships agree that the Bill's conformity to our human rights laws is as important as its conformity to the Statute of Westminster and agreements from the Commonwealth states? If so, why have the Government stated the Bill complies with our human rights laws, but been silent about the Commonwealth's consent? Now we have a Royal Commission, I hope that my noble friend Lord Wakeham will consult most closely with leaders of all the Commonwealth states on this statutory requirement.
I believe the Government could well consider that they have more important matters on which to legislate than to run any further headlong into a morass of laws which block the path of this Bill. It is better for us to find ways to clear that obstructed path. In doing so, I mention the observation of perhaps the greatest and most acerbic of all Political journalists, Walter Bagehot. He said of our constitution:Our danger is not in assassination, but atrophy … not in abolition, but decline".That statement is so apt to the Bill. Should it be passed, it will not present a renewal or strengthening of our constitution, but signal a death-throe of our modern democracy and a profound loss of trust. That is compounded by a transparent and infamous indifference to the protection of personal and human rights. I ask: what stronger justification is there for any state to exist than its protection of individual personal rights and liberties? This is a principal achievement of our history.
I respectfully recommend that the Government accept the benefits of a constitutional compromise, devoid of partisan politics and of class attitudes. Could we not for a moment in our parliamentary history imagine ourselves as statesmen and adopt a compromise—a convention of the constitution—which, although ending the hereditary Peers' power through votes, preserves personal rights to sit and express their views?
As I proposed to the House on 22nd February, the votes of hereditary Peers would no longer be counted in determining the passing of laws and rules in this House. If that were to be our practice by convention, this Bill would be superfluous, and for that reason should be withdrawn quickly.
In the interests of legislative progress and of supporting good government, could we not all agree that such a constitutional arrangement, if proposed by this Government, could replace this ill-drafted Bill? Would 174 that not satisfy the Commonwealth states too anti conform with our customary and common laws?
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, sits down, will he confirm that his proposition is that all hereditary Peers have a right of property to remain as hereditary Peers with a right to sit and vote in Parliament? Is he challenging the sovereignty of Parliament to remove them?
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, I said that by Letters Patent hereditary Peers inherited a specific right to sit and speak in this House but that did not include a right to vote. What I proposed was that the votes of hereditary Peers would not be counted.
§ 1.56 a.m.
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lords, your Lordships' House is an important institution and however undemocratic we are told it is, it works. I do not believe that anybody anywhere has ever suggested that it does not. And it must surely work better than any of the suggestions that we find either in this Bill or in the White Paper that accompanies it.
It works so well because we are not paid. So we are here because we want to be. Will any other body do it dispassionately? I am an hereditary and proud of it. I am fighting for my future here because it has always been impressed upon me by my father, my grandfather and my great grandfather who was in the other place as well, that this is what I should do.
I have been accused, because I take the Tory Whip, of being not independent of mind. But I believe that I am independent of mind and hope that I have proved it. I have voted many times against my party Whip. even when there have been two lines. I have voted with my party on many occasions when I am sure other people would prefer I did not. I feel that after the Easter Recess there is definitely another subject coming up which will lead me into controversy again with my party. It is therefore unfair to label everybody, carte blanche, with the fact that they are not independent of mind.
However, the right for one is not necessarily the right for all. This Bill has been the most thoughtless measure brought forward by this Government for one very good reason only. It has not been followed through to a total conclusion; it is only a half-measure as it has been presented to us. As a result, it will take up an enormous amount of valuable government time when other matters could be dealt with, probably of more benefit to this Government.
The case for the removal of hereditaries under this Bill has not been made. I accept totally what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has been asking in the last few moments of about the last six speakers; that is, whether it was in the Government's manifesto. Without any question of doubt it was. But I am led to 175 believe that only 2 per cent. of the people remember that it was in fact a commitment. Nevertheless, the Government are determined to carry on and do this and that is their prerogative. That is why they are in government.
However, the upper House is an integral part of our constitution. This Bill does not set up a new one—a finished variety—it just destroys the old. We are told that the new House will be more democratic. That is nonsense. Democracy is an absolute and final thing; it is either democratic or it is not. The only way for full democracy in this House is to have it fully elected. Personally, I like that idea. I do not like the Cranborne/Weatherill amendment at all. I believe that all Peers are equal and that that has been a great institution of this House. It would be very sad to differentiate now as we seem to be doing. My feeling is: all in or all out. That is the way it should be. I hope that that suggestion will be considered.
The new House would draw its authority from neither the people nor the establishment. Therefore, it would have to be a poodle to whatever Prime Minister is in power at that time. He would have to make up the relevant number with life Peers to ensure that his government had control in this House. You cannot effect changes in one House without it affecting the other. With Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Europe all coming up in the near future, we should wait and see what happens in that respect before we start to tinker with the constitution in a small way. This is a much bigger picture. With the report of the Royal Commission coming up, I venture to suggest that we should also wait and see. This is a vital Bill which deals with the constitution as a whole. It is a great shame that we seem to be dealing with just a very small part of that constitution.
I turn now to my final point because this has been a very long night. As I have said before—and I am not ashamed to say it again—I really think that to remove the club rights from the hereditary Peers as proposed in the Bill is, at worst, spiteful and, at the least, churlish. Members of Parliament in the other place have those club rights regardless of what they have done. I believe that we should also continue to have such rights. I hope that the Government will reconsider that decision.
§ 2.2 a.m.
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, so here we are today at the start of this momentous and ill-conceived Bill which sets out to deprive so many of your Lordships of the right ever to set foot in this Chamber again. I have in mind those families, so much older and greater than mine, who have given continuous service to this House and who have asked for nothing in return other than that their offspring should be allowed to serve in the same selfless way. All this is because the party opposite 176 believes that it has an undisputed mandate to rid the country of this so-called "unfairness", this alien species of parliamentary membership.
These are devilish deeds of the party opposite, devilish deeds packaged and parcelled in the name of democracy. Reform is obviously needed, they claim; it is the will of the people, they cry. The clear and shining alternative of which they talked—a more effective and improved second House—was there for all to see. But there was nothing to see—indeed, the space was blank—until, pushed and pulled, they scrambled for safety. They kicked for touch and out of the hat was pulled a Royal Commission.
As your Lordships know, for many years there have been very different views on how to reform this House. Why has it not been done before? Very simply because, somehow, it worked. There was no obvious solution for making it work better nor was there huge clamour for it to be changed. If only I could be convinced that the Labour Party wished this in the name of democracy. I genuinely long to be convinced, but I am not. Instead, my conviction lies elsewhere. All political parties have characteristics of which they are not proud. but those of the Labour Party, those of vindictiveness and envy, still abide. And profoundly unattractive they are, really dreadful to behold. After this, whither the monarchy, whither primogeniture?
While the Government over the next few months pilot this nasty and ill-thought-out Bill through your Lordships' House they might do well to consider just how utterly distasteful this side of the House finds the whole affair. In these circumstances I suggest to the Government that they try to understand the sense of despair and frustration that exists among so many on these Benches. After all, suppose it were they to whom this was happening. Perhaps, therefore, when the going gets rough and tough, as it surely will, they might show a little grace, a little niceness, perhaps a gesture of generosity, even perhaps a grain of gratitude for what so many of your Lordships, through so many generations, have done. Perhaps in so doing they might help a little to soften the increasing resentment between we on this side and those on the Benches opposite.
§ 2.5 a.m.
§ Lord Birdwood
My Lords, in these last offerings of a long day, I want to enshrine one word, one idea. The idea is guardianship. Because we were the inheritors of a continuum, an inheritance not of our making, the privilege strangely is doubly precious. My own inheritance is as nothing in time terms to the names in this House which have rung like bells across the centuries, defining so much of what we understand by country. I am only the third bearer to sit, and my grandfather, the first, seemed to care little for the business. But I feel the press of years, I feel the continuum, as deeply as if I had the perspective of generations. I feel the obligation of guardianship stretched out into the future.
177 My noble friend Lord Ferrers said, "Power is finite". We are onlookers today of power on the move everywhere in the machinery of state. Power is being leached away from the elected Chamber and ferried noiselessly into the mysteries of European integration. Power is packaged as information, and manipulated to where it is indistinguishable from propaganda.
The voice of government has never been clearer, and perversely it has never been more obscure. "At last", we are told, "there is a people's government". "Everything to be done", we are told, "is being done for the best". "At last", we are told, "power is in the hands of those who really care". How guilty we are made to feel if we, the people, harbour a scintilla of mistrust. A tiny chip off some ancient freedom, what of it, it will never be missed. One thing this bland, smiling assurance cannot tolerate is dissent.
So I said that the voice of government was obscure. A consequence of soothing reassurances that it is all for the best, you are in safe hands, do not worry, is that the challenge, "What is your policy?", is answered by, "what do you want it to be?". Dear heaven, we now have the world's first post-modern Parliament.
In the context of this Bill, the continuity of any hereditary presence was an offence. Presumably, here was a point of principle. But now we have the signals that 90-plus of these democratic offences might continue for a while. So the vaunted principle is not of rigid iron but plasticine.
How tiresome it must be to have argument when one's motives are so elegant, so obviously right. How intolerable to have opposition to cloud the prompt execution of such well-intentioned ideology. Yet I have the impertinence, without the democratic mandate, to claim that I and my ilk are guardians of certain bedrock freedoms and, above all, one absolute duty: to prevent a parliament perpetuating itself beyond five years. But the guardianship is greater than the man. I am just, for a time, a curator. Reassure me that this role is sacred in other hands and I am content.
One of the characteristics of regimes such as this is that the dissenter is regarded not as mistaken but as mad. The grit in the New Labour Utopia has to be eliminated. I fear, I really do, that this bitter little Bill, framed to erase the mild dissent offered by the hereditary elements in this House, is the blueprint for future executive actions of a deeper, more sombre purpose.
§ 2.11 a.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, I am in total agreement with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, and shall support him in the Lobbies tomorrow if he chooses to press it. However, there are one or two other things to be said.
The Government have sought to justify the Bill, over and over again, on the grounds that it was a manifesto commitment and that therefore the electorate wished for it. It is worth pointing out yet again that a manifesto is 178 like the varied selection of goods available in a department store. One customer will enter the store to buy certain things, another to buy other things, but hardly anyone will buy everything on sale in the shop. Many, of course, having had a look, will shop elsewhere. The premise that the majority of people in this country elected this Government because their manifesto said that they were going to get rid of the hereditary Peers from this House is absolute nonsense. Furthermore—I am not very good on specifics—I do not think that the majority of people in this country voted for the Government anyway, which makes their claims doubly false.
In any case, it is not widely understood in this country that the hereditary Peers are to be removed lock, stock and barrel from the House. The press, and the BBC in particular, have repeatedly put about misinformation on this subject by referring to the hereditary Peers losing their voting rights. Whether this has been a genuine mistake or whether they have been under pressure to do so in order to prevent the public knowing what was really afoot is open to speculation. If that cap should happen to fit anyone—such as the Government, for example—let them wear it.
For those reasons I consider it essential that a referendum is held before this Bill, incorporating one of the most important constitutional reforms of this century, becomes law. After all, referendums were held on the questions of Scotland and Wales having their own parliaments and on Britain joining the European Union, so why not on this fundamental constitutional change?
The more I reflect on the proposed so-called Weatherill amendment, the less I like it. To start with, to try to trade our present rights for 91 hereditary Peers is quite unacceptable. The number is totally inadequate. If the proposed number were more realistic, it might be a different matter. That curious number of 91 was cooked up between the parties in a sort of Mandarins' stitch-up. I suspect that the Government had worked out that that was the largest number which would not pose a threat to their nefarious plans, so that it was a small price to pay for not having their legislative programme disrupted. Had the number been 200 or 250, it might have been acceptable to the House, although not to the Government.
After the Cranborne/Blair deal was stitched up, the press, even those elements of it which should have known better, took the line that the noble Viscount had done it in order to save his and his noble friends' skins. Of course we in this House know better. We know much better. We know that it was done for totally honourable reasons, certainly on the part of the noble Viscount, in order to maintain a modicum of independent-minded Peers in the House until stage two, which many of us believe we shall never see. But the general public, having been misled by the media as usual, do not. Their opinion of hereditary Peers has been damaged. That is one very strong reason why I dislike the proposition intensely. Anyway, the price is too high. Acceptance of 179 this amendment is accompanied by threats from the Government. If the Bill does not get a smooth passage, if too many amendments are moved and divided upon, if we talk too much, in short, if we do not do exactly as Nanny Government say, the Government will not accept the famous Weatherill amendment and we shall be back to square one; that is to say, the Bill as is stands.
My Lords, the Government have resorted to blackmail, for that is what it is. I, for one, and I am not alone, am not prepared to be blackmailed. My Lords, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and do not be browbeaten!
If a referendum is held, the Weatherill amendment becomes irrelevant. Should the Government refuse to accept an amendment providing for a referendum, it can only possibly be because they know that the public are likely to reject this Bill.
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, before the noble Lady sits down, does she accept, yes or no, that a democratically elected government are entitled to carry into legislation their manifesto commitments?
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, can the noble Lady help me on this point? Does she understand why the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor wants to filibuster on his own Bill?
§ 2.16 a.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, when my friends ask me what it is like in your Lordships' House, I confess that I say that it is really like being in the best daycare centre in London. I have to say that it is rather less attractive as a place for full-time residential care such as it has become during the course of this debate and will no doubt become again at later stages of the progress of the Bill as a number of your Lordships have made it clear that we will be spending a great deal of time on the Bill's Committee and Report stages.
I do not begrudge the length of the debate. It is an historic occasion, and I mean that not just because it seems like getting on for a century since we started today. Natural justice requires that all those who are threatened with the loss of their parliamentary rights should be heard by your Lordships' House if they wish to speak. It is right and proper that many have done so today and that more will do so tomorrow. I say that even though the standard Conservative speech becomes just a little boring after one has heard it for the forty-fifth time. It is, of course, from time to time pleasantly varied by the Mark II Conservative speech, which raises the interesting though not entirely convincing argument based on the legal effect of Letters Patent and, in the case of the noble Lords, Lord Chesham and Lord Norrie, 180 the Statute of Westminster as well. I am sure that they should take that important point up with the Commonwealth High Commissioners, who will surely take up the cudgels on their behalf.
I am sorry that so much of this debate has to take place in the middle of the night. But at the personal level, I cannot avoid sympathy with those hereditary Peers who have served here for years, and in some cases for decades—in the case of the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, as they have told us, for more than five decades.
The hereditary Peers have attended your Lordships' House; they have spoken here; they have voted here; they have taken part in the work of Select Committees; they have sat on the Woolsack. They have performed their duties honourably and in many cases assiduously. But none of that in itself justifies the presence of hereditary Peers in Parliament simply by the right of descent.
The House of Lords goes back to the days when the great nobles of this country exercised economic, political, and even, in the early days, military power. The composition of this House reflected that power. But that power has gone with the snows of yesteryear. Economic power has gone to the City, to the industrial boardrooms, to the insurance companies and to the pension funds. Political power went with universal suffrage, the secret ballot and the end of the rotten boroughs. In this more democratic age the hereditary Peers cannot justify their claims to remain here.
By way of example, perhaps I may talk about the particular hereditary peerage with which I am personally most closely connected. My wife's grandfather was Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and, on his retirement in 1943, was created a baron and became the first Lord Hemingford. That barony was created for distinguished public service. That is the typical background for hereditary peerages. It is far more typical than the absurd description of Peers as descendants of royal liaisons. But there is no possible reason why the first Lord Hemingford's services to the state should have entitled his son or grandson to sit for life as Members of this House. It is a view that is entirely shared by my brother-in-law, the present Lord Hemingford, as he made clear in the debate that was held in this House a few weeks ago. At the end of the 20th century the parliamentary rights of the hereditary peerage are a complete anomaly and have gone on for far too long.
Perhaps I may point out one curious historical fact. It is now 88 years since the Parliament Act restricted the powers of this House and promised that the House should be reconstituted on a popular, not a hereditary basis. That is nearly a decade longer than the period that separated the Parliament Act from the Great Reform Bill of 1832. While the whole process of democratic reform of our political system which started with the Great Reform Bill was in all other respects completed with the full enfranchisement of women in 1928, only this last 181 piece of reform, the composition and role of your Lordships' House, was left outstanding and has remained so for decades.
It is clear that, whatever form a new second Chamber takes, it should not, and will not, include a hereditary element. The suggestion put forward first in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, followed by others, that hereditary Peers might have a right to sit and speak but not to vote is simply unrealistic, if only because, I suspect, those Peers to take advantage of such rights would be those whom your Lordships' House would least wish to hear.
It is difficult to see in principle why the rights of the hereditary Peers should not be removed now, while stage two remains undecided. The only rational argument for retention, made many times, is that it presents a compromise that makes it more likely that an acceptable long-term solution will be achieved. If I believed that argument, I should argue against the Bill; but I do not believe it.
It may be that the Weatherill amendment makes it more likely that the Government will proceed to stage two. But that is not the problem. Unlike my noble friend Lord Thurso, I have no doubt that the Government will go ahead with stage two. What I am increasingly worried about, particularly since the publication of the White Paper, is that they will go ahead with the wrong stage two. The Government appear to be steering the Royal Commission towards a second Chamber which will look too much like the transitional House, with at best only a minority of elected Members. That, I believe, is profoundly wrong. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, made a. powerful and convincing speech in favour of a second Chamber which will be predominantly elected. I agree with him, and I hope that the Government are listening.
There has been a certain unreality about this debate. Most speakers from the Conservative Benches and the Cross-Benches have in effect argued that the Bill should never have been introduced. That is indeed an arguable question, but it is irrelevant because the Bill is here and clearly the Government will not withdraw it. There are therefore only two alternatives to passing the Bill as it stands. One is to pass it with the Weatherill amendment; the other is to defeat it, either by a direct vote or by a wrecking amendment.
As I have indicated, it is doubtful whether the passing of the Weatherill amendment will make a better outcome at stage two more likely. We shall reserve our position on that until we see exactly what is proposed. But it is, in my belief, certain that the defeat of the Bill will make a better outcome less likely. What will happen? The Government will push the Bill through under the Parliament Act next year. They will then proceed to stage two on whatever basis they think fit.
What matters for stage two is not the views of your Lordships' House bat public opinion. If public opinion insists on a democratic second Chamber, the 182 Government will listen. They will not listen to your Lordships' House on its own. Rejection of the Bill will not help to shift public opinion. It will not be seen as a defence of the rights of the people, any more than the Opposition's crocodile tears over the European Parliamentary Elections Bill were seen as motivated by a genuine wish to defend the rights of the people to vote on open lists. Rejection will be seen, rightly or wrongly, as the last-gasp effort of some hereditary Peers and their allies among the Conservative life Peers to prolong their right to remain Members of your Lordships' House for a few more years. The Government will then be able once again to raise the old battle cry of "the Peers against the people", and the serious arguments about the role and composition of the second Chamber will be lost in the noise of that battle. I believe that, with or without the Weatherill amendment, the Bill should be passed by your Lordships' House.
§ 2.28 a.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Drumadoon
My Lords, over the past 11 hours or more of this Second Reading debate your Lordships have listened with great interest and attention to speeches that have ranged widely over a large number of issues which are thrown up by the Bill before us. Issues will also be raised tomorrow during the continuation of the debate on Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, suggested that some of the speeches from these Benches were of a somewhat repetitive nature. Perhaps I may respond to that mild criticism by saying that it is for me a matter of great regret that we have not heard more speeches from the Liberal Democrat Benches on this occasion. If I may say so, all four that we heard were of outstanding quality. It is surprising, to put it no higher, that we have not heard the usual divergence of opinion from the Liberal Democrat Benches.
I am tempted to observe that, after so many hours of debate and so many fine speeches, it is doubtful whether the combined ingenuity and efforts of those members of the Mackay clan who are Members of your Lordships' House could come up with anything more to say. I am conscious, however, that I speak tonight after approximately 70 speeches and that tomorrow my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish will be required to speak after some 170. Accordingly, daunting though my task may be, I accept that it is nothing to that which faces my noble friend and other Front Bench speakers who will conclude this historic debate some time during the course of tomorrow night.
In seeking to comment on some of the themes that have arisen and recurred during the first day's debate perhaps one starting point is to acknowledge that on this side of the House many recognise that the Government feel confident about their electoral mandate to bring forward this Bill, however misconceived many Members of this House may consider it to be. For my part, I fully understand the Government's position on this matter as explained by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. That point was reinforced more 183 than once by recent interventions of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. To save him rising again, I accept the point that he makes. I do not consider the fact that this is a manifesto commitment to be the Government's most powerful argument. The more they repeat it and seek to rely upon it the more of a fig leaf it appears to be. But I accept that it exists and they are right to stress it. However, I am informed that the government of which I subsequently became a member sought to justify the poll tax legislation on the basis that that, too, was a manifesto commitment. It did not dissuade the then opposition from criticising the legislation up hill and down dale.
I hope, however, that for their part the Government will recognise that many noble Lords consider it to be not only their right but their duty to express their concerns about the limited scope and timing of this particular piece of legislation. Equally, they consider it to be their duty to do everything possible to ensure that the changes in the composition of this House, which the Government seek to implement by means of this Bill, should do nothing, whether by design or inadvertence, to weaken the scope or practical potential of the important constitutional role that this House is currently able to perform. Whether that approach is taken by hereditary Peers or life Peers who may have concerns about the Bill, I hope that those concerns will be listened to and that those who advance them will not be accused of lacking dignity or common sense.
I am very heartened by the tone and tenor of the debate that we have enjoyed over the past 11 hours. By and large, it has been conducted in a constructive manner. That was well illustrated by the approach of my noble friend Lord Saatchi who referred to the need for us all to show mutual respect for one another's position. I very much hope that the conciliatory approach that he advocated will permeate not only tomorrow's debate but the rest of our deliberations on this important Bill. Equally, this may be the appropriate time for me to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, whose speech was a typically independent and courageous contribution to your Lordships's deliberations. The speech confirmed what many of us have recognised for some time; namely, that the noble Lord was lucky to stand for elected office before the days of closed lists.
No doubt the time may come when hereditary Peers are required to leave this House. I believe that when that time comes they will do so with dignity. But in the interim there is no need for them to maintain a dignified silence. I, for my part, hope that they will not do so. That point was made very elegantly by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in his highly persuasive speech and by my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth in her quietly delivered but very telling contribution. The value of such contributions has been well illustrated by the speeches of my noble friend Lord Ferrers, the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. I know not whether any of those speakers 184 intends to stand for office or election if the Weatherill amendment comes forward. If they do, one must observe that their speeches tonight have been excellent audition performances.
One problem we all face in considering this Bill is that it has been put forward by the Government on the basis that it is a self-contained reform, designed to do no more than take away the rights of hereditary Peers to speak and to vote in your Lordships' House. The fundamental flaw in that description was ably exposed and dissected by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who drew attention to the unavoidable consequences that will follow when the Bill becomes law. That is one of a number of reasons why we object to the terms in which the Bill is currently framed.
While the British constitution over the centuries may have prided itself in its flexibility, in its ability to move on, as opposed to the more rigid terms of written constitutions of other modern democracies, I doubt whether Parliament has ever been asked to enact major constitutional legislation of this nature on the explicit representation of the Government of the day that the legislation in question, while it will bring about some permanent and fundamental change, will also bring into effect what at best could be described as a temporary constitutional settlement. The Government may be over-optimistic as to how soon they are able to bring forward the second stage of their reform. Certainly it might take much longer than is currently planned because, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, indicated, no one can be sure for how long the proposed transitional House will last.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, referred to it as being a paving Bill. It has been disputed as to whether he was correct to do so, and it will be interesting to hear tomorrow whether the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor accepts such a description. I think I understand what the noble Lord had in mind in giving the Bill such a description, and he may well have been correct to do so. Where the noble Lord was clearly correct was in his assertion that the debates on this Bill require to be forward-thinking and should have the objective of starting to build, albeit rather late in the day, a cross-party consensus as to the future composition and role of your Lordships' House. In another place a very strict view was taken as to the range of amendments that it was competent to debate and, when the final stage of the Bill came to be heard, the Government imposed a guillotine Motion.
I hope that a more liberal and constructive view will be taken of the issues which it is appropriate to discuss. In that regard I suspect that the estimate of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, as to the probable length of the Committee and Report stages was put forward more in hope than in earnest. Indeed, I have the distinct impression that that part of the noble Lord's speech had been drafted for him by the noble Lord, Lord Carter.
This debate has demonstrated that one major issue which has arisen is the problems faced by the House in the Government's attitude to the mooted Weatherill amendment. The very possibility of such amendment being brought forward and being agreed to by the 185 Government casts, if I may say so, doubt on the validity of the approach of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to the effect that the issues relating to this Bill can he focused in two simple questions. The first of these, as she posed it, was, "Do you accept that hereditary Peers have a role in Parliament?"; to which, it was suggested, there are only two answers: yes or no. The fault may be mine, but I have some difficulty in fitting the Weatherill amendment into such an analysis.
The problems associated with the Weatherill amendment were well illustrated by the penetrating questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, to which we look forward to hearing the answers tomorrow. No doubt, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said, such an amendment could improve the Bill in a number of material respects. When we come to prepare for the Committee stage of the Bill, however, we are undoubtedly hampered by the fact that we have not yet seen the terms of the amendment. I very much hope, therefore, that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will find it possible to respond positively to the suggestion made by my noble friend that a draft of such an amendment might be made available as soon as possible, presumably by depositing it as an informal paper in the Printed Paper Office.
It would also be helpful if the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would indicate whether the Government have it in mind to accept the amendment at Committee stage; or whether they intend to reserve their position on that issue until Report stage or even Third Reading. Unless the amendment is tabled for Committee stage, and accepted at that stage, I believe that this House will he deprived of adequate opportunity to give proper scrutiny to the detail of the amendment.
I pose one further question. It was foreshadowed in the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. If the amendment were accepted by the Government in this House, whether at Committee stage or later, do they guarantee that the amendment will remain part of the Bill: or is it suggested that it might be removed when the Bill returns to another place forcing this House to remain on some form of parliamentary probation until Royal Assent has been given?
These are serious and fundamental questions about the amendment to which it would be extremely helpful to have an answer tomorrow.
I touch on one further issue in a little detail before I close. It is the fact that in the event that the Bill becomes law, the number of Peers who will remain Members of the House, and remain available to be active in the House, will be reduced in number. All the work of the House is carried out by Members of the House who, with very few exceptions, receive no remuneration and comparatively modest expenses. While travelling expenses are met in full, only a minimum of other expenses is available and then only to Members who physically attend in the Chamber. It is essential that in the transitional House there be sufficient number of Peers available and prepared to carry out the work of the House efficiently and to good effect.
186 It is my submission that as a matter of urgency, in proposing a Bill which will bring about a transitional House, the Government must bring forward some proposals for making more funds available for those who will remain actively involved in the work of the House. It is not a new issue or a new concern. When yesterday's papers carried articles about possible increases in the remuneration of Lords Ministers, tonight seems as good a time as any to raise the subject once more. Before I go further, I should make it clear to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who will reply, and his ministerial colleagues, that I wish them every success in the discussions in which they may be involved. For my part, I consider it essential that Lords Ministers should be properly remunerated for the work that they have to undertake.
However, I raise the equally important consideration that Peers actively involved in the work should have sufficient funds made available to enable them to undertake that work without unacceptable financial sacrifice. What I suggest requires to be looked at is, first, that arrangements are put in place which provide adequate funding for support and research for Front Bench spokesmen; secondly that Short money (as such funding is currently called) should be made available to Cross-Bencher and Back-Bencher Members throughout the House who wish to take a detailed involvement in a particular Bill; and, thirdly, and importantly for those Peers who live some distance from London, arrangements should make it possible for such Peers to be compensated when they are working on behalf of the House at some distance from the House and therefore deprived of qualifying for any expenses.
There was unfortunately some dispute as to whether or not this debate should take place this week. One advantage of it having done so is that it will leave much more time to draft amendments over the Easter Recess than might otherwise have been available. I assure all my noble friends who have spoken that every effort will be made to table amendments which focus the concerns raised: concerns about arrangements for the transitional House; the writ of summons; Letters Patent; the sunset clause; the position of Scottish Peers under the Act of Union; and many others.
The need for such detailed amendments was well illustrated by the question asked of me by the noble Lord, Lord Acton. For those of your Lordships who were not present at the time, the question I was asked was whether the Conservative Party is committed to the principle of no political party having a majority in the transitional House. I have no hesitation in giving that question an unequivocal answer, and that answer is yes. But the very fact that the noble Lord thought it appropriate to ask that question illustrates the practical problems associated with legislating for the transitional House.
If one looks at the table on page 18 of the White Paper, it is quite clear that, contrary to popular myth, the Conservative Party does not currently enjoy a majority in your Lordships' House. Furthermore, what is meant by the question? Is it membership of a particular political party? Is it the taking of the Whip of a particular party? How often and how finely does the 187 political balance require to be adjusted? These are examples of the details we will require to examine at Committee stage—over many days, I suspect.
Tonight's debate has got the Bill's passage off to a good start. I look forward to tomorrow's debate with eager anticipation—not least because I shall not be required to speak at the end of many hours of listening. In the meantime, I can confirm that, like my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, I shall support the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, if he presses his amendment to a vote.
§ 2.46 a.m.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I believe this has been a very stimulating debate. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, said, over 70 Peers have spoken today, and their speeches have been in many respects exhilarating.
A number of complaints have been made, inter alia, by the noble Lords, Lord Chesham, Lord Monro and Lord Trefgarne, that not enough time has been set aside for the debate. We have had almost 11 marvellous hours of debate and we may have 11 hours tomorrow. Before this debate, in this Session we had spent 40 hours or more on this topic. We had two days of debate in October, a two-day debate on the White Paper, and a one-day debate on the subject following the Queen's speech. I believe that a very considerable amount of time has been set aside, more than adequate time in relation to the stages so far concerning this great issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, said that we should not be talking about this at all but should be discussing important issues like Kosovo and the European Council. There should be all the time that is appropriate for a debate on this issue, but your Lordships will become more aware than anyone, I suspect, when people outside this House think that too much time is being spent discussing our own future and too little time discussing issues that the great majority of the people out in the country are more concerned about.
I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, who said that one of the most impressive aspects of this House is the mutual respect in which we hold each other? I very much hope that the debate conducted today will be reflected in the debates that go on about this issue: namely, that whatever issues may divide us that mutual respect will continue to be shown.
There are a number of things that this debate is not about. It is not about depriving hereditary Peers of the opportunity to serve. True, they will not have the opportunity to be legislators by birthright. But they will not lose the opportunity that they and the generations who have gone before them have had to serve the community, just as so many other people have served the community in functions and places other than in the legislature. Nor is it about the politics of envy, vindictiveness, bitterness or class warfare, as has been suggested by a number of your Lordships. This Bill is about one simple proposition. The time has come—and it is long overdue—to abolish the right of people to legislate as a result of who their kinsmen are. We 188 believe that that is an idea which has had its time. It is time for us, as legislators, to come to grips with that issue, to face it and to deal with it appropriately.
Those on the Front Bench opposite did not indicate whether they support the hereditary principle. Neither the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, nor the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, indicated what was their view one way or the other in relation to it. They made speeches of commanding brilliance but with, to a large extent, intense vacuity when it came to the detail of their party's position.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, speaking, whether significantly or not, from the Back Benches, indicated that she was defending the hereditary principle. As I have no idea what goes on in relation to the councils of the Conservative Party, I have no idea whether it was significant that she was speaking from the Back Benches or whether it was merely because there was not room on the Front Bench. Do I take it that the Front Bench view is that the hereditary principle should be defended or not? Therefore, we have no idea where the Conservative Party in this House stands on that issue.
A number of noble Lords sought to defend the hereditary principle. Two main points and a barrage of subsidiary points were advanced in relation to defending the hereditary principle.
The first is that the hereditary Peers constitute a group of very able people and it would be wrong to get rid of them. The second and most sustained argument in that respect was expressed very ably and forcibly by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. That was that the House has worked well with hereditary Peers; those who propose that it should be changed should make a case for changing it. It was asked how the House will be able to conduct its business if the membership is reduced, depending on whether or not the Weatherill amendment is passed, by approximately 659 or 750. I deal head on with both of those arguments of principle.
The first is that the hereditary Peers represent an able group of people. So indeed they do, but that is not the issue. There are great groups of able people out in the community who do not have the right to legislate because they are the children of people who had hereditary peerages. The fact that they are individually able does not of itself even begin to justify why they should have that right by birth.
I turn then to the propositions of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He said that the House has worked well. Indeed, it has done in a large number of respects; but at no stage did he address the argument as to whether it is right that people should be entitled to legislate by birth. He never addressed that. Secondly, he failed to point out to your Lordships' House that even with the removal of hereditary Peers, this Chamber, as a second Chamber, would be the largest second Chamber in the world. Please do not suggest to this House that with 500 life Peers it is not able to conduct its business as well as other second Chambers.
The present position is that in relation to people on this side of the House, not all of them are deployed on, 189 for example, committees which sit in this House. A number of people are keen and able to serve on committees, but there are not sufficient places for them to do so. I do not believe that this House is not able to cope with the demands that would be put upon it as a revising, debating, Chamber, even when hereditary Peers go.
There was nothing in the arguments put by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, even though they were put forcibly and well. As a House, I believe that we shall cope extremely well under the new conditions.
The next main argument advanced was as to how the Government could move to abolish the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House without knowing where they are going: that is the issue of whether or not we are right to adopt a step-by-step approach. I have no doubt that that is the right course to adopt. I have absolutely no doubt that that is the right way to do it. History throughout this century tells us, as every noble Lord knows, that on each occasion that attempts have been made to reform the House of Lords by both abolishing the right of the hereditary Peers to vote and putting together an alternative against that, everybody seeks to resist the abolition of the hereditary Peers and resist the particular proposal that is put. As a result, nothing is done to move the agenda forward.
I believe, without doubt, that this is the right way to do it, as a matter of history and as a matter of pragmatic common sense. There is a consensus behind that view and so there is a majority in both Houses for the removal of the hereditary Peers. Having done that, a consensus is sought about what should happen next, first, through the medium of the Royal Commission, and, secondly, through the Joint Committee of both Houses. That is a typically British way of going about things.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, it is my impression that the noble and learned Lord is wrong about the history. It is because it has always been done in two stages that a proper reform has not taken place. One has only to look at the precedent of 1911, where the Preamble said that the House should be elected on a more popular basis. That did not happen because it was a two-stage process. That is why the noble Lord is wrong about the history. Does he not accept the point that we have made, that if he is so serious about long-term reform, and if he is so serious about getting rid of the hereditary peerage, it is far more likely to happen if it is done in one go.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, in 1911 neither stage happened. He will recall, as he sits there proudly as an hereditary Peer, that no hereditary Peers were expelled at that stage. In 1968, again it was tried in two stages and again it failed. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I believe it is he who is wrong about the 190 history. We have learned from history, whereas he has not even learned his history, let alone learned from it. I believe that we are doing it in the right way; I believe—
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, if the noble and learned Lord is so certain that he is right and that we will go to a stage two, why will he not provide any guarantees on the face of the Bill that that is what will happen?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I believe it is neither appropriate nor necessary to give such guarantees or to tie our hands in any way because the appropriate course is a move, first, to abolish the rights of the hereditary Peers to sit and vote, secondly, to get the views of the Royal Commission and the Joint Committee, and, thirdly, to move to the next stage. With the greatest respect, that seems to us, and I believe it would seem to objective observers, to be a sensible way of moving and a sensible way of building a consensus in relation to it.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble and learned Lord. There was a bit of a roar from this side when he said that it was neither appropriate nor necessary. Could the noble and learned Lord take on board that if, on the one hand, he is saying, "Oh, but we will operate by consensus"—the noble and learned Lord has been saying that—how on earth can he also say that it is not appropriate and necessary to deal with the matter as suggested?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I was asked about matters on the face of the Bill, as the noble Lord probably heard. The consensus that we seek to obtain is one in the country. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, ultimately it is a matter for a consensus that embraces the whole of the nation in relation to what happens next, not just a consensus in this place.
I move from that point. The next point made, which was a theme throughout the debate, concerned the transitional House. Many noble Lords have complained about the terms of the interim House. Some—although not many—have said that it will be worse than the existing House. As I understand it, the argument goes that the random nature of the selection of the hereditary Peers provides a particular sort of protection against abuse that would not be present with only 500 life Peers. As I understand it, that is the argument advanced in this respect.
Perhaps I may identify the characteristics of this House before the passage of any Bill. The Prime Minister of whatever party has at the moment an unfettered right to appoint life Peers or hereditary Peers to the House. The Tories have an inbuilt majority in this House which could not be got rid of without the most massive creation of new Peers. There is an identifiable 191 independent element in this House which includes the Bishops, the Law Lords and the former Law Lords. After the Bill has passed, the absolute majority of the Conservative Party will have gone. The Prime Minister has said that he will not appoint to this House except to create broad parity. The appointment of Cross Benchers will be in the hands of an appointments commission. The Bishops and the Law Lords will continue as before. The Prime Minister has indicated that he will accept and pass straight to the Queen all of the appointments recommended by the appointments commission.
Which of the two arrangements gives rise to a more independent House? With the greatest respect, I suggest that it would be the House after the Bill is passed rather than the one before—
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord explain to the House how enough of the 500 life Peers will attend to execute the business of the House? Many have a living to make and therefore cannot be here on a daily basis. A good many are not well enough to attend on a daily basis. And there is no requirement on any Peer, either life or hereditary, to attend this place. In what way would the noble and learned Lord ensure that there are enough life Peers to keep the business of the House going, given that I have looked at all the statistics over the past five years and the average daily attendance of life Peers would not be enough for the Government to be able to conduct all the business of the House?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that intervention. I speak having been a Member of your Lordships' House for only two years, so I lack her great experience in relation to these matters. However, on this side of the House we have 175 life Peers and 18 hereditary Peers, and we have been able convincingly and happily for the two years during which we have been in government to conduct a reasonable government side of the House—
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I see the noble Baroness saying, "You have not". Speaking from my perspective, we have been able perfectly adequately to conduct the business of the House on this side of the House. I have no idea whether the noble Baroness thinks that the life Peers on her side of the House would not give that degree of devotion and duty to the conduct of the business of the House—I suspect that they would—even though they have livings to earn and are not compelled to be here. Looking around, I see a large number of life Peers on the Conservative side of the House, and on the Liberal Democrat side—
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, at this time of the night, I am compelled to agree with that remark about there not being many on the Liberal Democrat 192 side. Those life Peers give selflessly to the House and I have absolutely no doubt that they will continue to do so in the future.
§ Lord Vivian
My Lords, before the Minister continues, may I develop that argument for a moment? According to the records based on a daily attendance figure of 400 Peers, only 228 life Peers attend daily. If one then adds perhaps 92 hereditary Peers, one still reaches a figure of only 320 Peers. This means that if we wish to run this Chamber with around 400 Peers, with the present business, functions, roles and powers, there will be a shortfall of 80 Peers. My question is, therefore, that on the basis of the facts, can the Minister confirm that 228 life Peers attend this House daily?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I have not had an opportunity independently to check the figures. But even on the figures the noble Lord has given, I cannot see much difficulty in relation to the business of the House being carried on. The business of the House involves Committee sittings, Questions, debates; sometimes there are votes and sometimes there are not. There would be little difficulty in the main business of the House being carried on the basis suggested by the noble Lord. I have no doubt that our side of the House would be able to do it. I have no doubt that circumstances would be adapted even on the noble Lord's side of the House to ensure that, when necessary, Peers would turn up to do what was required of them. I am not as pessimistic as he. nor do the figures indicate that the business of the House would not be carried on.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. Does he not agree that what he is saying demonstrates that the discussion should be in terms of the active Members of this House? Also, does he not agree that the more he speaks, the more he reinforces the point I was making earlier in the debate? All he is doing is building assertion on assertion. No study has been undertaken to bear out his claim. Can he say what he has looked at to bear out his statements?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, active membership is the vital point. The noble Lord constantly comes back to the point that a House with 500 life Peers would not be able to carry on the business of a second Chamber. He may recall that in the United States of America the second chamber has 100 members. So we have five times that number. I ask your Lordships to look around the House at five past three in the morning.
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
My Lords, will the Minister confirm my belief that each senator in the Senate of the United States is assisted by at least five research assistants, inquirers or other nosy parkers in the pursuit of their duty?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I cannot confirm the exact staffing arrangements in the Senate. 193 I do not know how the noble Lord is so accurately informed. But how is that relevant? The noble Lord does not need to answer that question.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I do not intend to give way any more. It is now five minutes past three in the morning. My point was simply this. I believe that the effects of the changes made by the Act will make this House much more independent; that is, less dependent on the patronage of others. I note that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, confirmed that a Conservative government would not seek to move from parity. In those circumstances we have 194 a House that is not dominated by one party, preserves the independent element, and has a means of appointing to that independent element that does not depend on the patronage of the Prime Minister.
I believe that the way we are going about things is correct. It will achieve two purposes. First, it will actually achieve movement on this issue, which has not been achieved for over 100 years. Secondly, it will build in the country a consensus for change through the Royal Commission and the Joint Committee. This House would be wrong to seek to thwart the wishes and the need for change.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House adjourned at ten minutes past three o'clock.