HL Deb 18 May 1999 vol 601 cc190-210

5.50 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 4 [Commencement and transitional provision]:

[Amendment No. 115 not moved.]

Lord Trefgarne moved Amendment No. 116:

Page 1, line 13, after ("shall") insert ("not")

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 116, I shall speak also to Amendments No. 117, 118, 119 and 121. Earlier in the Committee stage, we considered a number of so-called "sunset" amendments suggesting what might happen if the Government's proposed stage two to the reform of your Lordships' House had not come to pass within various times. A number of suggestions were made, none of which found favour with the Committee.

Amendment No. 116 makes a slightly different suggestion and relates to what might happen in any event. We suggest that the words on the Marshalled List, particularly in Amendment No. 117, might well be included in the Bill. It proposes that by 1st September 2001, or earlier on the dissolution of the Parliament in which the Act is passed, the House of Lords Act will come into force.

Amendment No. 118 makes a similar proposition, but is related to the work of the Royal Commission.

I do not wish to speak at length on these matters because they have been touched upon in earlier debates. I hope that the Committee believes that the concept is worth consideration. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington

I did not expect to be able to speak so soon, but I wish to preface my remarks by saying that I was deeply shocked by what I considered to be the intemperate and undignified remarks made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor this afternoon. I believe that he will regret having spoken in that way. He is not supposed to be just another knock-about politician; he holds a very high office. I am a life Peer and I very much resent the idea that hereditary Peers come here to look after their own interests and that no one, apart from hereditary Peers, is interested in the Bill. That is complete nonsense.

I believe that the Bill is a constitutional enormity and I believe as strongly as any hereditary Peer here that it is entirely wrong that we should be required to debate it late at night. We are entitled to have our views considered with care and we should be entitled to be respected for our opposition to a Bill which anyone should recognise is of immense importance. Any Bill which drastically changes the composition of one of the two House of Parliament must be important.

There can be no guarantee that any second stage reform will get through the other place. I have made my views on that known on many occasions. I fear that there may not be a second stage. I remember vividly, as will many former Members of the other place, the experience of 1968. I know what Members on the Front Bench know; that the whole idea of a two-stage process was born of the fear that there might be a repeat of what happened in 1968. No one has made a secret of that. There was the fear that if one bundled together in one Bill both the abolition of hereditary Peers and an involved scheme for a reformed House of Lords the debate might go on interminably. It might become apparent, as was the case in 1968, that there were as many opinions about what should be the shape of the new House as there were Members of the other place. There was the fear that any such comprehensive Bill would run into the sand in exactly the same way as the 1968 Bill. That was the thinking behind the Government's decision to have a two-stage reform.

However, once this Bill is enacted the Government have nothing to fear. The hereditary Peers will be going and nothing will be able to change that. The advantage of at least some of these amendments is that the Bill would not come into effect until a little later. Those who are now Members of this place would be able to have a say in the debates on the Royal Commission's proposals. I believe that that would be highly beneficial because we have a great deal of wisdom and experience in this place. I believe that they should be entitled to express their views on any reform which is proposed by the Royal Commission. But even if I am wrong on that, what do the Government have to lose in delaying implementation? They will know that the Bill has been passed and that hereditary Peers will be going in due course. They will be able to tell the country that they have not been asking people to buy a pig in a poke. That is why I object so much to the measure.

We are told that we should, with dignity, give our approval, or at least be muted in our opposition to the Bill, because in due course there will be a second-stage reform. But we are not told what that second-stage reform will be. I do not believe that that is treating the House with respect. I believe that the least the Government can do in such circumstances is to delay the coming into force of the Bill so that those who are now Members of this place will be able to take part in the debates on the Royal Commission's report. All of us will then know what will take the place of this Chamber.

The Earl of Dundee

I support my noble friend's amendment. The arguments for taking stages one and two together are very sound and well known and I shall not rehearse them. However, today it might be helpful to address two different if related aspects of the question. First, to what extent does the incorporation of the Weatherill amendment within the Bill enable stages one and two to be considered together? Secondly, what is the best way now of redirecting the Bill to that end?

As we have heard, one argument which has been adduced for creating two stages is the difficulty hitherto of succeeding in carrying out reform of the House of Lords at all. The last serious attempt floundered in another place in 1969. For that failure we share no blame whatever. This House strongly backed the Labour government's Lords reform proposals in 1968. During the debate on this Bill, if there is one single point which should be repeated several times a day, perhaps rather loudly, it is that one.

The fact remains that in spite of solid support here, that Bill floundered in the other place and, therefore, not without justification, the architects of this Bill have felt "once bitten, twice shy". To make sure that this time the reform goes ahead, the Government have put in place two stages which, otherwise, would appear to be illogical and unnecessary.

Nevertheless, the Weatherill amendment has altered the position. It addresses the two main issues of Lords reform: approximate voting parity between the main political parties, and restriction of the parliamentary rights of hereditary Peers. However much fine-tuning it may require—and many of us may believe that it requires quite a lot—that is not to under-estimate the achievement of the Weatherill amendment.

Nevertheless, in terms of the proposal of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, the point about the Weatherill amendment is that it can cause to relax those who until now have been anxious that yet again Lords reform would not go through. For there was nothing shy or diffident about the vote in its favour. Nor, as a result, cart the implementation of stage one be delayed for very long.

That brings me to the paradox of this matter. If the only sensible argument in favour of stage one has been to propel Lords reform once reform has become duly launched and inevitable, then there is no longer any point in stage one. That position, if nothing else, has been brought about by the Weatherill amendment. And once we have acknowledged that fact, it becomes clear that if only for the peace of mind and good health of my noble friend Lord Wakeham, let alone the best solution for Lords reform, stage one and stage two ought to be taken together.

If we agree with that proposition, the question then is: how do we direct the Bill to that effect? There are two constructive ways of so doing. The first opportunity is at the next stage of the Bill when, on recommitment, amendments to the Weatherill amendment are considered. A number of these amendments are useful and, by improving the Weatherill amendment, will also improve the Bill. Thereafter and secondly, if the Bill is withdrawn until the Royal Commission has reported, then, in the light of its advice, stage one and stage two can be considered together within the appropriate legislation.

The Earl of Northesk

I am mindful of the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, yesterday, and I cannot resist quoting it: I think it is fair to say, without discourtesy, that we have rehearsed, re-rehearsed, reviewed and re-examined these arguments on a number of occasions. — [Official Report, 17/5/99; col. 114.]

That said, the amendments in this group are concerned with the distinct issue of commencement of the Bill. My opinion is that, viewed objectively, Amendments Nos. 116 and 118 are reasonable and could even assist the Government in so far as it is wholly credible that, notwithstanding the Labour Party's submission, from which we are advised we should not deduce too much about current government thinking, the report of the Royal Commission will undermine and make redundant most of the intellectual objections that so many noble Lords have to their current strategy.

What all the commencement amendments offer in their varying ways, had the Government thought it through, is the best of all worlds. Acceptance of any one of the alternatives would get their Bill enacted at the same time as maintaining the manifesto commitment intact and unpolluted. The price to pay would be to endure the presence of the hereditary peerage for, at best, a few more months and, at worst, a little over three years. Instead, the Government have set out their stall for the new Clause 2, the duration of which, whatever may be said about it from the Government Front Bench, is a matter for speculation. This situation confuses me. It is a curious case for the Government to argue. However, they have committed themselves to their abandonment of the manifesto commitment. That being so, I do not suppose for a moment that any of our attempts at helpfulness will inspire any sympathy in the mind of the Minister.

Lord Elton

My noble friend Lord Waddington put his finger on the problem when he pointed to the concern of some noble Lords that there should be a voice from the hereditary Benches on the arrangements which are to follow phase one. Both the tone and the content of what the noble and learned Lord said last night from beside the Woolsack and not, thank goodness, from the Woolsack, casts some doubt as to how that is now to be treated. The Weatherill amendment secures a voice for a small proportion of the hereditary Members of your Lordships' House on proceedings into phase two. If that can be withdrawn, then clearly Amendment No. 118 would be of 'very much more interest than at present. It may be useful in eliciting a statement of opinion as to where we stand on the issue.

Lord Gisborough

I would have thought that the Government would welcome the amendment or one of the other sunset amendments. Stage two must either have hereditary Peers or it must have elected Peers who would be competing with the House of Commons and would therefore be totally unacceptable, as in 1968. If Peers are to be appointed, there is the quango problem. I do not see any chance of stage two coming about. The great advantage to the Government would be that they could bring pressure on the other place to accept some form of stage two, whatever that might be. If there is not strong pressure on the other place to accept something, they will not accept anything.

Earl Ferrers

I wish to refer to Amendments Nos. 119 and 121, to which I have put my name and which are part of this group of amendments. The name of the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, is also attached to the amendments. He asks me to tell noble Lords that he is indisposed today and unable to attend.

These are important amendments. Amendment No. 119, proposes that the Act should come into force at the end of the Parliament and not at the end of the Session. That may seem a trivial point, but I recall the peerage renunciation Bill in 1958 when an individual by the name of Anthony Wedgwood Benn did not want to become Lord Stansgate and a Bill was produced allowing him and others who were already Members of your Lordships' House to renounce their peerages. The Conservative government of the day brought forward the Bill which stated that it should operate to the end of the Parliament, and there was then an amendment saying that it should come into effect at the end of the Session. The point was argued backwards and forwards, with all the possibilities and peculiarities that could arise, but it never occurred to anyone that, once the amendment had been accepted and within two months of it having been brought into existence at the end of the session, Prime Minister Macmillan would become ill and would have to give up. That gave the opportunity to my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham and also Lord Home to renounce their titles and go to another place. The whole of history may have been changed as a result of such a small event.

It is therefore important whether the Bill should come into operation at the end of the Session or the end of the Parliament. Despite what has been said to date, I hope that the Government will consider bringing it into operation at the end of the Parliament for the reason contained in Amendment No. 121. The amendment proposes leaving out subsection (2), which states that, any writ of summons issued for the present Parliament in right of a hereditary peerage shall not have effect after that Session.

I turn to the point made earlier which is fundamental to the Bill. As the Committee will remember, in Clause 1 the Bill refers to the fact that no one shall be a Member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage. As was stated very early on, we are all here not by virtue of a hereditary or life peerage but by virtue of a Writ of Summons. That is what brings us all here. Once the Writ of Summons has been obeyed and your Lordships, individually, have appeared, then the Writ ceases to have any effect; it is spent; and it is done.

I cannot see how a government can then say that for some people, the Writ will last for a Session and for others, it will last for a Parliament. If we are to follow that line, we shall be entering the deep, muddy waters of hybridity. The Government would be extremely vulnerable if that issue were to be taken to a court with the Bill as it is drafted at present.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor says that everyone knows perfectly well what is meant. But the great legal issues are never decided on the major scheme; they are decided on the minutiae and the detail. I suspect that the Bill is likely to prove hybrid and the Government would find themselves in jeopardy in relation to that.

If the Government will agree that the provision of the Bill should be brought into force at the end of the Parliament as opposed to the end of the Session, there would be no difficulty. There would be no doubt and everyone would be in the clear. It would also resolve the problem which we discussed yesterday to which the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, referred, in relation to disenfranchisement. If hereditary Peers can no longer be Members of the House of Lords and cannot vote for Members of another place, then they are disenfranchised. But if these provisions are brought into force, in the common jargon—which I hate—there would be a seamless transition. That is what would happen. I hope that the Government will consider the amendments.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said, the minutiae are extremely important. They are more important to some Members of your Lordships' House than they are to others. I do not object at all to those who are affected deeply by the loss of their hereditary title using every opportunity which can be devised to try to ameliorate what the Government intend to do. There is no objection to that and no personal animosity at all. In other circumstances and on other Bills, I have been involved in attempting to thwart the will of the Government in one way or another.

But there persists the argument that the Government started off on the wrong foot by having a two-stage scheme and that all matters should be dealt with in one stage. My experience is that if one stage had been proposed, those very same people would have argued that there should be two stages. That is the politics of the matter.

I understand that people speak with sincerity about why they are here; what drives them; what reward they receive. All of us who sit here share one bond; that is, that we are politicians. At the end of the day, we are motivated by decisions as to how we believe our political choices are best served.

The Government went to the country on 1st May and said that as a first, self-contained stage, they intended to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House. Some Members of the Committee opposite seem to believe that somehow, that is negotiable. It is not. It was thought out very carefully. Members of the Committee may have heard my noble friend Lord Callaghan refer to his experience in 1968. He had a powerful position then. He explained why he had reached the conclusion that the stages had to be separated. There can be no doubt that from a practical political point of view, we are going about this reform in the right way.

Members of the Committee opposite persist in trying to devise delaying tactics. They are entitled to do that. But Members of the Committee on this side remember that for two or three years before the last election, the Labour Party made it quite plain what its intentions were. Members of the Committee opposite—for example, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—made notable contributions by addressing conferences before the last election. We are now being invited to consider devices which will help to delay the implementation of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that the hereditary Peers would be denied a voice after the passage of the Bill. He corrected himself later, but he started by saying that the whole basis of the Weatherill amendment is to take account of the fact that in order to make progress with the Bill, it would be helpful to have the hereditary Peers here when those matters were being resolved.

I do not speak at all for the Government but it is in our interests, as a Government, to proceed as quickly as possible to demonstrate to the doubters not only that we mean business in relation to the first stage but also in relation to the second stage.

Lord Trefgarne

The noble Lord explained the importance of the measure; how rapidly it needs to be taken into law; and how important it is that the overwhelmiong Conservative majority in this House should be removed. Why then was this Bill not included in the Government's first Session?

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I cannot speak for the Government but there are priorities and matters which need to he dealt with. If this matter had been dealt with in the first Session, the Government would have been criticised for doing so. Whatever the Government do, there is a counter-argument. I accept that. But as a business manager, I can well understand the priorities. Members of the Committee opposite who have served in Cabinet and on committees will realise the impossible job faced by business managers when priorities are being decided. I have no objection whatever to my Government deciding that there were priorities more important than the passage of this Bill in the first or second Session. But we have now reached it. We have now reached the third Session.

I am puzzled by the lack of confidence which Members of the Committee opposite have in a two-stage process. The first stage is the Royal Commission which is to be headed by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and peopled by men and women of some experience. We do not know what they will propose and we may or may not like what they propose. But that has been built into the procedure. The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has pointed out the difficulties, which I accept, of sticking to a 31st December timetable. But eventually, we shall have the product of their considerations. The members of the Royal Commission are not untutored and unaided. They are experienced people. Everyone in this House has had the opportunity to explain to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, how they see matters for the future.

When the Royal Commission makes its recommendations, it has been agreed that there should be established a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider those recommendations. I have more faith than Members opposite in the sagacity of their colleagues who sit in the House of Commons. The Joint Committee—comprising Members from both sides of this Chamber and the other place—will have the benefit of the Royal Commission's findings when it meets. Without interference from the Government, the committee will make proposals to the Government. After the proposals have been made, the Government will react by making their proposals, which will comprise the next stage.

At every stage Members of the Committee are trying to avoid, at all costs, the implementation of the first stage. I believe that the Minister who replies will be well advised to stick to his or her brief and to recognise that people in the country voted for a manifesto which the Government are trying to carry out. As far as I am concerned, the people of this country deserve the best.

Lord Waddington

I take it that the noble Lord is not arguing that a delay in implementation until a fixed date would be a breach of the manifesto undertaking, particularly when one has to bear in mind that there is the new factor of the Royal Commission, which was not in the manifesto and the setting up of which, in theory, was a breach of the manifesto commitment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I am not arguing that at all. I understand the amendment and I said that as far as I am concerned this is part of the delaying tactics of the Opposition to avoid the implementation of the first stage.

Lord Waddington

Surely the noble Lord realises that at least one of the amendments proposes the postponement to a fixed date. Therefore, there cart be no question, if that amendment is accepted, of indefinite postponement of the operation of the Bill.

Lord Harding of Petherton

I recognise the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, but I do not believe it is a valid argument. He says that the Bill was forecast in the manifesto and, therefore, it should be implemented. However, in the country people do not recognise that that is the correct way to proceed. Whatever was in the manifesto, as other noble Lords have said, people do not read the minutiae of a manifesto and they believe that the opinion polls have been held. The public believe that a second stage should be outlined before the first stage is implemented. These amendments go some way towards that.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

The argument is put that people who vote in general elections not only do not always agree with what they have voted for, but they also have ideas of how such matters should be implemented.

Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord of the situation in 1983, when he no doubt supported his party at the polls. The Conservative Party manifesto deals with local government saving ratepayers' money. His colleagues used that argument in the House when they abolished the GLC. The manifesto states: The Metropolitan Councils and the Greater London Council have been shown to be a wasteful and unnecessary tier of government. We shall abolish them". It could also be argued that the people of this country did not understand what they were doing, yet that was the mandate upon which, in my view, the greatest example of municipal vandalism was perpetrated on the people of London.

Lord Harding of Petherton

I understand that argument, but I am not a politician. I do not look at such matters in the same way perhaps as noble Lords who were previously Members of the other place. I look at them as a member of the public. I do not accept the issue of the manifesto. I am interested only in the fact that a second stage should be a proper second Chamber. I am not here to speak or to vote just so that myself and other hereditary Peers will continue to have the right to sit and vote in the House.

I do not speak for other hereditary Peers on these Benches; I speak purely for myself. I accept that hereditary Peers should not be legislators, as do other Members of my party and some other Members on these Benches. Therefore, I do not accept the argument that we are just trying to delay matters to save our own skins. Some noble Lords may be doing that. I do not know.

Lord Newby

Our approach to the Bill has two principal strands. First, we believe that the time has long passed when hereditary Peers should have a legislative role. Secondly, we believe that the House of Lords should be reconstituted on a more democratic basis. Noble Lords will recall that those are the two principal strands in the Preamble to the Parliament Act 1911. Therefore, we believe that the time has long passed for both strands to be implemented.

As my noble colleague Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank explained several days ago, we are concerned that events may mean that stage two is delayed. In our view, that is absolutely no reason to suggest that the implementation of stage one should be delayed for a minute longer than necessary.

We have waited 88 years for the implementation of the Preamble to the Parliament Act 1911. There can be no argument, in our view, for delaying—

Lord Waddington

Surely, the noble Lord is not suggesting that by passing this Bill we shall be implementing the Preamble to the Parliament Act. We are doing precisely the opposite.

Lord Newby

My understanding of the Preamble of the Parliament Act 1911 is that this Chamber should be reconstituted as soon as practicable on a more democratic basis. In the 110 times that I have heard it quoted and the number of times that I have read it myself, I may have mistaken what the words say and mean. However, my understanding of the Preamble and the intention of those who passed the Parliament Act was that within a reasonable amount of time this Chamber would be reconstituted on a more democratic basis.

That Act was passed 88 years ago and I believe that this series of amendments would have the effect of delaying further the implementation of part of what lies behind the Preamble to the Parliament Act 1911. Therefore, I believe that we should get on with it, and that any amendment that delays further the implementation of what lies behind that piece of legislation passed 88 years ago should be rejected.

Lord Waddington

The noble Lord is getting himself into a terrible tangle. A few moments ago the noble Lord was saying that by passing this Bill we would implement the Preamble to the Parliament Act 1911. He went on to put his gloss on the wording of the Preamble and he got it more or less right. The words refer to the House being reconstituted on a more popular basis. Surely, he is not suggesting that the passage of this Bill will have the effect of reconstituting this House on a more popular basis.

Lord Newby

I am afraid that that is what I am suggesting, in part at least. To reconstitute this House on a more popular basis requires two stages: first, that the hereditary Peers should no longer be Members of the House and, secondly, that there would be a more popular basis for selecting Members. We would prefer to move more quickly. In my mind at least, there is no doubt that this Bill goes some way to implementing what was in the minds of those who passed the Parliament Act 1911.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord said that this Bill would reconstitute the House on a more democratic basis. How can an appointed House be more democratic?

Lord Strathclyde

As we must wait for the noble Lord, Lord Newby, to think up a reply to that question—

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My noble friend Lord Newby does not want to waste any more time.

Earl Ferrers

One wonders why he started wasting time with a red herring—first, using the word "democratic" and then reverting to "popular".

6.30 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My noble friend Lord Ferrers rests his case. But it was an interesting example of the development of Liberal Democrat policy that the hopes encompassed in the 1911 Act will be breached by the passage of this Bill. That was the impression that I and many of my noble friends gained from what the noble Lord said.

It is also a pleasure to join in a debate where we heard the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, make an important intervention, as he normally does when he intervenes in these debates. There is no doubt on these Benches what the Labour Party manifesto said or what the Labour Party is now trying to achieve. However, where I part company from him is in the idea that we simply have to accept that without any debate or scrutiny at all. I understand that the noble Lord was not intending to say that.

When the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was Opposition Chief Whip he ran an extremely effective operation of scrutiny, harrying and occasionally of delaying. He was most successful in doing so. It was not a waste of time; it was not needless delay. He achieved some notable changes to the effects of government policy at that time and it was almost certainly right that he did so. Anything that we are doing is no more and no less than he achieved during his time in opposition.

As has already been said, the purpose of this group of amendments is to delay implementation of the legislation. I remind the Committee of where we stand. We wish to seek to amend this Bill, but the amendments we seek should be practical improvements to the Bill on matters of principle; changes that the country can understand as being within our rights and on which we would be prudent to insist. However, simply to delay the Bill—desirable though that might be—when the Government are not minded to do so, would bring this House into an open and direct conflict with the Government; it would not prevent the passage of the Bill. That is why, while I understand the principle behind the amendment and in an ideal world would sympathise with it, it is not the best place in which to expend our power. There are more fruitful areas for us so to do.

Of the choices that are practically available surrounding the birth, life and eventual death of the transitional House, I prefer the concept of a sunset clause. In that regard I add that I am not seeking to open the debate on the sunset clause; the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, dealt comprehensively with that yesterday afternoon. But as the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, said in his wise words yesterday, a sunset clause would give us time to search for the kind of consensus which is necessary if we are to reach long-term reform of this House.

I know that my noble friend Lord Ferrers was seeking to be helpful in his Amendment No. 121. There is a logic in delaying the removal of hereditary Peers until the end of this Parliament. It is another example of the Weatherill principle working; that is. if the hereditary peerage is so abhorrent to the Government, it makes stage two more likely. Of course, that does not obstruct the Government; it urges them on constructively. Given the choice between the two, I prefer the sunset route or the pressure of the Weatherill amendment to the blocking route of commencement. I am therefore in the unhappy position of not being able to support my noble friend Lord Trefgarne in his amendments.

Amendment No. 121 also raised the effectiveness of the ability to override the Writ in the light of the opinion which has already been mentioned, that of Mr. Lofthouse. I do not wish to go down this route again, but perhaps I might add this point. In the past few weeks the High Court offered a judgment in the case of Miss Jones, the Member of Parliament for Newark, which determined that she could return to another place because no successor had been elected and no Writ returned. It was remarked that, had another Member been elected for Newark and that Member had presented a Writ and the Writ had been returned, then that successor could not have been unseated in that Parliament.

I have drawn that to the attention of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor who says that he remains unpersuaded. But is that not at least prima facie evidence that a Writ returned may not be overridden? It would be helpful if the Government could explain why, in the light of all the evidence, they are ready to risk reference to the courts or the Committee for Privileges rather than amend this Bill. At least the Government cannot say that they have not been repeatedly warned as to the risk they may be running of passing ineffective law, and they may well find it challenged in a suitable place.

I look forward to listening to the response of the Government on the principles behind the amendments of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was kind enough to say that I dealt with the principles behind these amendments comprehensively yesterday. This was the group which was spoken to fully by, among others, the noble Lords, Lord Peyton of Yeovil and Lord Elton. The amendments were Amendments Nos. 110F, 110G, 110H, 115, 120, 135A and 135B. It is fair to say therefore that these issues have been ventilated.

In response to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, if there is a court challenge, I am satisfied that we can overcome it.

This group consists of Amendments Nos. 116 to 119 and 121. Amendments Nos. 116 and 118 provide for the Bill to come into force after the House has accepted the report of the Royal Commission. Of course, it does not follow that the report will be accepted, and if so the Bi11 would never come into force.

Amendment No. 117 asks that we wait until 2001 or the dissolution of this Parliament whichever is the earlier. I dealt with that I hope—to use the noble Lord's phrase—comprehensively yesterday. It perhaps bears repetition, I cannot say for the last time. Our objective and our commitment are clear: we have already delayed too long.

Amendments Nos. 119 and 121 are also in this group. If accepted, it would mean that all hereditary Peers could remain in the second Chamber as of right until after the end of the Parliament in which the Bill was passed. They would be able to sit and vote in the Chamber during the discussion on the second stage of reform and any other government legislation. They are not acceptable and I invite the Committee, if any of the amendments are pressed, not to accept them.

Earl Ferrers

I wonder whether the Minister could expand a little more; he was marginally peremptory. In response to the suggestion that there may be a challenge in the courts, the noble Lord said that he is satisfied that the Government will win. That is not much of an argument when one hopes that we put forward substantial arguments as to the difficulties. Can the noble Lord say why he believes there are no such difficulties?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Yes. It is the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament. I am convinced that if there were a challenge by the holder of a Writ in contradistinction to the sovereignty of Parliament. the sovereignty of Parliament would inevitably be upheld.

Lord Trefgarne

I must confess that I am a little disappointed with the reply of the noble Lord which was rather short, even peremptory as my noble friend Lord Ferrers suggested. But the Minister is right; we have discussed this matter before. I will not detain the Committee further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 117 to 120 not moved.]

Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 120A:

Page 1, line 14, at end insert— ("( ) Notwithstanding anything in subsection (1), this Act shall come into force only to the extent that it is in full compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the precedents established by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.")

The noble Lord said: The human rights problems with this Bill loom larger by the day. This amendment ensures the Bill's full compliance with the human rights clause, both European and British. I understand that the Government are advised that it would be impractical to implement fully the Human Rights Act 1998 before mid-2001 due to many practices and policies deep in our legal and administrative systems which are regarded as discriminatory and contrary to European human rights. Even the honours system is so affected.

Minorities such as hereditary Peers are classified by this Government as an "embedded Conservative majority". I refer to that phrase, as used by the Prime Minister in another place. I also refer to the labelling of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, of hereditary Peers in this House on 27th April as, an enormous in-built Conservative majority".—[Official Report, 27/4/99; col. 212.]

With this political labelling, hereditary Peers must be removed completely from this House. It seems so easily forgotten that, for many generations, hereditary Peers have been excluded; first, from the democratic process in being disenfranchised from election to the House of Commons; also, from voting in general elections, at least so long as they do not renounce their titles and rights.

Now we are offered compensation with a granting of those rights. Human rights cannot be granted. They exist because we are human, and not because those rights are a gift of government or a state. But hereditary Peers do not have to wait until 2001 to enforce their human rights. The removal of a political group—the hereditary Peers, as an embedded Conservative majority—is a violation of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no doubt, according to the Court in Strasbourg, that political groups are within the scope of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, an "association" of Conservative Peers is a political group, and, therefore, would not be denied the protection of the human rights convention, merely because its activities are regarded by national authorities as undermining the democratic structures of the state.

Indeed, other areas of vulnerability include the very process of awarding Honours. These may fail under this ruling because they are discriminatory. The Court's ruling embraces a non-competitive process whereby all Peers are appointed. I hope that that may help my noble friend Lord Montgomery with his question in the debate on 27th April at col. 262 of Hansard.

However, for the present, we may be willing to trust, but not blindly, that the Government know what they are doing with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights, and its effect on the Weatherill amendment. That, too, appears to rely on a non-competitive process of selection and that would render it open to reversal under European human rights laws. Can the Minister say whether that has been considered and whether that amendment would render the Bill contrary to European human rights laws? I believe that it would and that the Government have not considered such a scenario in their haste to get this Bill through quickly.

I referred to the case of the Turkish Communist Party in the European Court of Human Rights in 1996 in my previous speeches to this Bill. It proposes the abolition of the hereditary rights of a defined political group, simply because it is regarded by the Government as undermining, or contrary to, the democratic structures of this country.

It is clear that the Government will consider no amendments to the Bill, even to avoid human rights violations and even to comply with European laws. That posture does not sit credibly with the endorsement of this Bill as being compliant with human rights laws, as provided by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House.

Any British government that endorses a Bill as being compliant with the Human Rights Act must have been well aware of rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. This House has the right to know the detailed basis and reasoning for this endorsement, in light of the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, stated in the debate on 27th April 1999 (at col. 252 of Hansard) that the Government were not, by this Bill, excluding a group from participating in the legislative process. He explained this by saying the Government were giving the hereditary Peers, who have been deprived politically and legally, their full entitlement to participate in parliamentary elections. This was the benign face of motherhood socialism talking.

Voting in general elections is not normally regarded as a legislative process. With the greatest respect, I believe that the noble Lord has confused the making of governments with the making of laws. He then admits to taking with one hand and giving with another. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, is a truly generous soul, but I think that he is playing at magician. How can one give what one does not have the right to give?

My right to vote as a citizen has always existed since I came of age. It is my human right in a modern democracy. My right to vote is not for a government or any party to give. It is for a Parliament to enact. Hereditary Peers have always had the right to vote. It is a human right. Governments have refused to enact that right in our domestic laws.

This Government are giving nothing that is not already possessed by human rights. If that is not well understood and accepted, then we all have a much deeper political and constitutional problem than just this Bill. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Monson

No doubt whoever is to reply for the Government will be reminding the noble Lord. Lord Norrie, that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has stated on the face of the Bill that, in her opinion, the provisions of this Bill are indeed compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Obviously the Government will have sought the very best and most expensive legal opinion on this question. Therefore, they can at least be 99 per cent. certain that they are correct in their assumption. The trouble is that where the law is concerned, no one, whatever their degree of expertise, can ever be 100 per cent. certain. So it would surely be prudent to accept this amendment by way of a safeguard. Indeed, one might describe it as a belt-and-braces safeguard. There could be no harm in so doing.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Perhaps I may intervene briefly. I believe that my noble friend Lord Norrie has raised interesting points about the European convention. What I find particularly interesting is that an Act in this respect, which was passed with much trumpeting and one about which I know the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, feels proud, will not actually come into effect, as I understand it, for some time to come—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Perhaps I may assist the noble Lord. I signed a parliamentary Answer today indicating that the Bill will not be delayed until 2001 and that it will come into effect on 2nd October in the year 2000.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

That is still a year and a few months ahead. So it is a little ahead of right now. I suppose that making sure legislation comes into effect quite quickly is a good thing, but a delay of well over a year before this one comes into effect is quite interesting.

It is true, as my noble friend said, that the European Convention on Human Rights impinges on people's electoral rights. Indeed, I was reminded of a Gibraltar case, which one of its citizens—I believe it was a woman—brought, and won, against the British Government stating that it was against the convention to deny her the right to vote in European parliamentary elections. The Government are persisting with that denial of human rights, despite the efforts of my noble friend Lord Bethell to help them get within the law.

When Mr. Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party was threatened with non-registration by the registrar, the very threat of taking that case to the European Court of Human Rights appears to have persuaded the registrar that he should register Mr. Sheridan. The latter eventually proved that he had political support by winning one of the seats in the City of Glasgow for the Scottish Parliament. I do not actually think that he will win for the European Parliament, because I believe that is rather too big a hurdle for him to negotiate.

There are some points here that are worth the Government's attention. My noble friend has already raised them, but perhaps I may restate them. First, is it the Government's view that an hereditary peerage creates a right or an interest in property? If that is not so, can the Minister tell us what is the Government's view in that respect? Secondly, can the Minister set out the arguments against the latter? After all, it is the desire of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to remove all dubiety from this Bill and to make it beyond doubt that all hereditary Peers will be removed in totality from the House. Therefore, it would be quite useful if the Government were to explain, even briefly, why they are confident—I am sure they must be—that their Bill is safe from the European Convention.

Lord Northbrook

Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may make two points to add to my noble friend's recent comments. First, if indeed hereditary Peers do have property rights in this House, is there scope to claim compensation if their human rights are breached? Secondly, there may be a gap between hereditary Peers losing their voting rights here and being able to vote in a parliamentary election. That gap, however small it may be, seems to me to be a loss of human rights.

The Earl of Northesk

To endorse the comments of my noble friend Lord Mackay I refer to the response of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne last night. In addressing the concern that Clause 4(3) in the Bill may offend against the ECHR, the noble and learned Lord gave a seven word reply. He said, The answer is no, it does not". I gently suggest that your Lordships deserve a fuller answer than that. I have every respect for the legal expertise and acumen of the noble and learned Lord and I respect his opinion. However, in this matter do we not deserve a fuller explanation of why the noble and learned Lord's and the Government's opinion is as it is? Perhaps the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal will also elaborate on that point.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, who introduced the amendment we are discussing has neither apologised nor withdrawn the extremely unfortunate remarks that he made about me yesterday. I have now of course had the opportunity to read his remarks in Hansard. As regards Amendment No. 120A, I simply say to the noble Lord and to those who have spoken to the amendment that I was not—to use the unfortunate language of yesterday of the noble Lord, Lord Norrie—dissembling, deliberately or otherwise when I signed the declaration stating that this Bill is fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. As regards the other points raised about elections and property, my noble friends have replied fully to the relevant amendments on the third day of the Committee stage. This amendment is irrelevant.

Lord Norrie

I am grateful for the noble Baroness's reply. I mention in passing the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights and the case of Mr. Demicoli and the Parliament of Malta. Further to the advice provided to the Joint Committee on privileges stated in its report dated 30th March 1999, page 76, paragraph 284, the several witnesses before the committee included the Lord Chief Justice who drew the committee's attention to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights concerning proceedings of the British Parliament.

These developments clearly indicate that parliamentary sovereignty in this country is reduced in its scope and power. Specific actions by parliaments are appealable to the human rights court. The abolition of hereditary and property rights, especially those of a minority group, are rights protected by the European Court. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 121 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 121A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 122 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to Amendment No. 123 and also to Nos. 124, 125, 126 and 127 which have already been debated.

The Earl of Northesk moved Amendment No. 127: Page 1, line 19, leave out ("or the European Parliament")

The noble Earl said: I indicated last night that I would return to Amendment No. 127 and I shall do so briefly. It is a modest affair but it is no less important for that.

Earl Ferrers

I hope I may interrupt. Amendment No. 123 may have been debated but I do not think that it has been called. My noble friend is discussing Amendment No. 127.

Lord Trefgarne

I hope I may assist the noble Lord in the Chair. I do not intend to move Amendments Nos. 123 and 124. The other amendments in the group stand in the names of other noble Lords who will decide for themselves what to do. As I understand it, my noble friend Lord Northesk intends to speak to Amendment No. 127.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

I understand that Amendment No. 123 is not moved.

[Amendments Nos. 123 to 126 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now return to Amendment No. 127.

The Earl of Northesk

I apologise for that little hiccup. As I said, Amendment No. 127 is a modest affair but it is no less important for that. The fact of the matter is that hereditary Peers are not disqualified from voting in elections to the European Parliament. Our debate last night on Amendment No. 114 demonstrated that quite palpably. I know that I have not inadvertently broken an electoral rule by voting in European elections. What, then, is the purpose of making provision for this existing right to be transferred, however temporarily, into the hands of the Secretary of State? As my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish inquired last night, "Are those words unnecessary?" The answer is, yes. I invite the Minister to accept the amendment and to remove them. I beg to move.

Lord Trefgarne

Before the noble and learned Lord replies I hope I may say that I share the mystification of my noble friend Lord Northesk as to why these words are included in the Bill. Noble Lords already have the right to vote in European parliamentary elections. I myself have exercised that right in the past. I hope therefore that the Government will accept the amendment.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

The power in Clause 4(3) of the Bill, as the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, rightly points out, allows the Secretary of State to make transitional provision in respect of the entitlement of holders of hereditary peerages in relation to European parliamentary elections. As he rightly says, Peers are currently able to vote in European parliamentary elections. Neither the Bill nor any order made under it will affect that position. Why is the provision there? It is intended to use the power so as to allow a holder of a hereditary peerage who is resident overseas and who benefits from the transitional provisions in relation to UK parliamentary elections to be able to vote in European parliamentary elections on the basis of his or her entitlement to vote in UK parliamentary elections, without the need to show entitlement under Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 which makes provision in relation to Peers resident overseas and European parliamentary elections. The power has been taken merely to relieve hereditary Peers of the burden of going through two administrative processes. Those immortal words I uttered in identical form yesterday.

The Earl of Northesk

I apologise to the noble and learned Lord for my inattention last night; it was an interesting night. Nonetheless I am perfectly happy with his explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 127A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 128: Page 1, line 19, leave out ("as he considers appropriate")

The noble Earl said: This is a modest little probing amendment. I fear the noble and learned Lord may say that he will utter the identical words that he uttered last night. The only trouble was that I was so excited by the fact that he was replying to an amendment of mine that I had not put down that I did not hear what he said.

Clause 4(3) of the Bill states that, The Secretary of State may by order make such transitional provision about the entitlement of holders of hereditary peerages to vote at elections to the House of Commons…as he considers appropriate".

Therefore the Secretary of State may make such orders as he considers appropriate. What kind of things might the Secretary of State consider appropriate in the making of these orders? I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Yesterday in relation to other amendments I set out the circumstances in which the Secretary of State would be minded to exercise the power under Clause 4(3). I made the point—I think moderately clearly—that the purpose of doing this through orders rather than on the face of the Bill was to obtain the maximum flexibility to ensure that hereditary Peers obtained the right to vote as quickly as is reasonably possible. I believe that the views of Members of the Committee and the intentions of the Government are identical; namely, to ensure as soon as is reasonably practicable that hereditary Peers obtain the right to vote.

Why are the words "as he considers appropriate" included in Clause 4(3)? The reason is that it may not be necessary to make any order under Clause 4(3). The example I gave yesterday was as follows. Let us suppose that this Bill becomes an Act and then becomes law before 10th October 1999, which is the date by which you have to put your name on the electoral register. The effect would be that hereditary Peers could get their names on the electoral register which would come into effect in February 2000. Let us suppose as well that no general election took place between 10th October 1999 and February 2000. which I regard as a not unreasonable assumption. There would be no need to make any special order in that respect. In those circumstances, hereditary Peers would be on the register for the purposes of parliamentary elections as soon as reasonably practicable and they would not at any stage have been deprived of a vote.

I recognise that an unlikely situation may arise where a hereditary Peer finds himself in a constituency where there is a by-election. But we are proposing the most sensible and practical way of dealing with the matter. We recognise that there might be one or two hereditary Peers who, in the circumstances envisaged, would be unable to vote for that short period. We think that that is not an unreasonable price to pay for ensuring that there is a reasonable means of getting people on the register.

Perhaps I should deal with a point raised yesterday. Some noble Lords asked why, as they were already on the electoral register for the purposes of local elections, we do not deem those on the register as available to vote in parliamentary elections. There are three reasons why we cannot do that. First, it might not be necessary for the reasons I have just indicated. Secondly, it would not be possible to do it that way. I am told that what you have against your name is not "P", as the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, said, but "L". "L" stands not for "Life Peer" but for "Local". The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, prompted me in relation to that. If one simply deemed everyone with an "L" against their name as able to vote in parliamentary elections, that would enfranchise noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, which would be not at all what we had in mind. It would also not deal with the position of those who are hereditary Peers but disqualified for other reasons from voting in parliamentary elections.

Thirdly, we would still need to make provision in relation to the entitlement of Peers resident overseas at parliamentary elections, which could not be done by the same deeming provision. Equally, we would need to make separate provision in relation to European parliamentary elections. For all those reasons, to take the course suggested by noble Lords yesterday would not be an appropriate or indeed the most effective method of ensuring quickly the ability to vote in general elections.

7 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

That is all very well. The noble and learned Lord says that one or two Peers might be inconvenienced if there were to be a by-election in their constituency. However, I am told that at least a dozen noble Lords live in the London constituency of Fulham. Is the Minister happy that as many as a dozen hereditary Peers should be disenfranchised?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

We have put forward a sensible proposal. We have to balance proportionality against common sense. It is possible there will be a by-election in Fulham. I have no idea how many hereditary Peers live in Fulham but, in my view, the balance we seek is sensible.

Earl Ferrers

I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for explaining so carefully the answer to my amendment. I am particularly grateful for the last part of his explanation about hereditary Peers who thought they were already on the electoral roll and how it was merely a question of removing the "L" or the "P". Listening to the debate yesterday, I thought that the noble and learned Lord was in error. Mostly, the noble and learned Lord is not in error over legal details, although he sometimes may be over political details. I am very grateful to the Minister for explaining the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 129 and 129A not moved.]

[Amendment No. 130 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 131 to 134 not moved.]

Lord Strathclyde moved Amendment No. 135: After Clause 4, insert the following new clause—