HL Deb 26 October 1999 vol 606 cc179-84

(" .—(1) Notwithstanding subsection (2) of section 2, section 1 shall not apply in relation to 90 people who are holders by succession of a hereditary peerage and who satisfy the condition set out in subsection (2), who shall be entitled to receive a writ of summons to attend the House of Lords in accordance with this section and by or in accordance with Standing Orders of the House, which may be made in anticipation of the enactment or commencement of this section. (2) The condition referred to in subsection (1) is that such person had received a writ of summons at any time before the day on which this Act is passed. (3) Any question whether a person is entitled to receive a writ of summons in accordance with this section shall be decided by the Clerk of the Parliaments., whose certificate shall be conclusive. (4) A person entitled to receive a writ of summons in accordance with this section shall not be qualified to vote—

  1. (a) on any question to be determined by the House or by any Committee of the whole House; or
  2. (b) subject to subsection (5), as a member of any other committee of the House appointed to consider any Bill, Measure or instrument.

(5) Standing Orders of the House may provide that a peer entitled to receive a writ in accordance with this section shall be qualified to vote in any such committee as is referred to in subsection (4)(b) in such circumstances as Standing Orders may prescribe. (6) In this section "vote" means to give voice upon question put or take part in a division. (7) A peer entitled to receive a writ of summons by virtue of this section shall continue to be so entitled throughout his life (until an Act of Parliament provides to the contrary); and in the event of the death or disqualification of such a peer no vacancy shall arise. (8) Nothing in this section affects the validity of proceedings of the House of Lords or of any committee of that House conducted before this section is commenced or before provision is made by virtue of it for the exception of peers from section 1.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment would permit 90 hereditary Peers to remain in or, perhaps I should say, return to this House as speaking Peers. We have discussed the merits and demerits of speaking Peers on many previous occasions. I do not propose to go over that old ground; nor do I propose to dwell at length on Amendment No. 58 which I moved on Report on 30th June (col. 378) and for which this amendment largely stands. On that occasion I moved a similar amendment. However, I provided in the amendment that the 90 Peers should be divided between political groups. Because that amendment would make the Bill hybrid, I did not press it. It therefore does not fall to me to make any strong suggestions to the House as to how the 90 should be divided or elected. That would have to be left to the House itself on the advice of the Procedure Committee.

Having considered the debate in June, I have looked again at my amendment and made certain adjustments to it. The first is that the right to come in as one of the speaking Peers would be limited to those who, as stated in subsection (2), had received a writ of summons at any time before the day on which this Act is passed", whenever that may be.

In subsection (4) I have provided that hereditary Peers who had speaking rights could also, Standing Orders provided, vote in Select Committees and the like (off the Floor of the House) to which they happen to be appointed.

Finally, in subsection (7), I have made it clear that this is intended to be a one-off arrangement and that the death of any Peer who remains in or comes back to this House will not generate further returns or by-elections.

When the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, replied to the debate, it was quite clear that the Government could not accept the amendment because they did not, under any circumstances, want any further representatives of the ancien régime in this House. He said: It is right to say that after all this time we have decided very few things. We have decided two at least: first, that this House does not wish to see a two-Writ system".

That question has not been decided. A two-Writ amendment allowing all hereditary Peers to remain was, I believe, rejected or withdrawn at an earlier stage. This amendment bears no resemblance to that amendment. The noble and learned Lord went on, secondly, that the House does not wish to alter the numbers in Clause 2" [Official Report, 30/6/99; col. 382.] This clause stands entirely apart from Clause. 2 and would have no possible relationship to the Weatherill amendment. I suggest that it should be considered on its merits. I beg to move.

Lord Richard

My Lords, as I understand the amendment, it has two elements, as has been underlined by the noble Lord who has just spoken. The first is that there should be an extra 90 hereditary Peers as part of the transitional House. The second is that those extra 90 hereditary Peers should have the right to speak but not the right to vote. Both of those elements have been considered almost ad nauseam in the course of the passage of the Bill.

As far as concerns the first element, I had thought that the House had made it perfectly clear that while it was prepared to accept an extra 90 hereditary Peers in the transition, it was not prepared to go beyond 90. That is certainly my position, and I suspect that it is the position of many of those who sit on these Benches.

As regards the issue of speaking but non-voting Peers, my recollection is that this was first raised at the very first Committee sitting on this Bill. The question that this would be a desirable importation into the Bill has been raised on every single occasion since then, and on each of those occasions it has been defeated. At this stage in the Bill's passage, I firmly believe that we should not revert to two fundamental issues which have been discussed a great deal and upon which the House has already made a decision.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I very much admire the careful thought that my noble friend Lord Coleraine has given to this amendment. I deprecate the Government's habit of saying that this or that amendment has come too late. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, has again suggested that we have debated this in full in the past. Perhaps we have. However, it is never too late for your Lordships to improve a Bill. Therefore, I will not follow the line that has been taken by the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

My difficulty with this amendment is rather more fundamental. Although the concept of non-voting Peers is one that found favour with your Lordships in 1968, it is not one which is, rightly or wrongly, on the table today. I understand that it would need quite a shift in government thinking for it to be taken on board, and I have difficulties with it in any case.

I have always been opposed to the idea of two categories of Peer. As I said only last week, this is a poison that the Government have injected into this House by this Bill. But in creating a class of non-voting Peers, we would be including in our number a class of second-class Peers. I suggest that that would be demeaning to them and unhelpful to the House. Are we to listen to protracted debates while those who have no vote feel compelled to express their opinion in voice? I do not believe that that is a way forward.

It may be argued that this is a way to keep available to us the advice of some people who this House would always want to hear but who we might otherwise lose because they are hereditary Peers. If we want to keep the wisdom of hereditary Peers among us, let us keep them as full Members of our House, as the Bill now provides—albeit, not enough—and not propose the kind of half life which will over time prove unsatisfactory to all.

Although I admire my noble friend for bringing the amendment to us one more time, I am sorry that on this occasion I cannot support it or commend it to the House.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the purpose of the new clause is to provide for a further 90 non-voting hereditary Peers to be retained. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, for going to some lengths to correct the technical faults in his previous approach during earlier stages of the Bill.

I am afraid we have to disappoint him by saying that we still do not accept either the underlying principle or the arguments which he has adduced. I shall deal first with the principle. Our manifesto commitment was to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit as well as to vote. We have agreed to a modest transitional measure in respect of the Weatherill Peers. That, however, is as far as we are prepared to go. Our commitment to the principle of ending the right to a privileged access to this House by reason of birth is not dimmed, and it applies to those who may not vote as much as to those who may.

As has been pointed out in our earlier debates, on most normal Bills votes are taken comparatively rarely. Indeed, even on this Bill, despite the many days we have spent discussing it, we have had comparatively few Divisions. If that is not a Chief Whip tempting providence, I do not know what is! They happen to have included the issue of whether a two-Writ system would be desirable and the number of hereditary Peers who should be excepted from the effect of the Bill. But this proposal would give a further 90 hereditary Peers a privileged right to have a voice heard; a privileged right to hold Ministers to account; and a privileged right to examine witnesses before a Select Committee.

The noble Lord says that he wants a bank of expertise to be available to the House from those who could contribute, but do not have the time or the stamina to make a full-time commitment. Is he proposing any way of ensuring that the Peers he desires to fulfil his proposals are actually the ones who do so? What is to prevent Peers turning up to speak on subjects on which they are not experts? There is ample experience, both inside and outside the House, among the life Peers.

The noble Lord's proposal cannot be entirely to do with numbers. I recall at an earlier stage that he did not think the House could function properly without the help of the hereditary Peers, because something over 500 life Peers would not be enough. How would 90 who are only intended to be part-time and experts, and non-voting, help with that?

Moreover, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, pointed out at an earlier stage, would such a proposal not spoil the free and frank way in which all Members of this House are given equal attention? There were also doubts expressed in our earlier debates, which I think are justified, about the wisdom in a parliamentary Chamber of giving anyone the right to speak without also giving him the responsibility to decide.

To summarise, two-Writ systems are not acceptable to the Government. Changes to the number of excepted hereditary Peers are not acceptable to the Government. If the noble Lord is, after all, minded to put his amendment to the vote, I hope that the House will join us in voting against it.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am going to vote straight; in other words, vote obsequiously. But I cannot sit here and have it assumed that there is something in Labour principles which is against the idea of some Peers coming here and speaking but not voting.

I was meaning to go back to Keir Hardie or to 1960 when the Labour Party—

Lord Carter

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will give way. We are at Third Reading and the only person who should speak after the Minister is the person who moved the amendment, unless there is a particular question of fact which the noble Earl wishes to put to me.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I do not know about the relevance of that, but I am sure that it was! I thought I was docile but I am not servile. The noble Lord needs a lot of refreshing to cope with me! Thirty years ago this House—Labour leaders, leaders of all parties and everyone—accepted the principle of some hereditary Peers coming here and speaking and not voting. No question of principle was involved; it was accepted by the Labour leaders long before some of the younger fellows here were born.

Now I am docile so I shall put it straight because I am instructed to: I cannot accept the idea that there is something wrong in principle with the notion of two kinds of Peer.

Lord Coleraine

My Lords, I am more than grateful for the entirely factual intervention of the noble Earl. I shall not spend much time replying to the Government Front Bench. However, I want to say to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde that I am sorry that the wind has changed as far as he is concerned. I detect that perhaps he has been speaking with my noble friend Lord Cranborne or reading earlier debates in which he spoke. The noble Viscount first suggested that a nonvoting Peer was a second-class Peer. If that were the case, I should be happy to be a second-class Peer, but I am not given that opportunity. For one reason or another, I do not think that this is an opportune moment to test the feeling of the House on such an amendment. I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Kingsland moved Amendment No. 8: After Clause 2, insert the following new clause—