§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth rose to call attention to the case for making changes to the parliamentary and democratic systems of the United Kingdom if they are to endure; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the draft of this speech was made more than a fortnight ago and therefore takes no account of what has recently occurred. But these developments emphasise some of the points that I am going to make today. It is the third lime I have initiated a debate on this subject. The first one was on 22nd May 1974. On that occasion I did not get much sympathy from the Leader of the House. He maintained that any necessary changes were simply a matter of allowing the evolutionary process to take its course. That may be partly true, but the evolutionary process is brought about by people asking questions—and, unfortunately, all too often they are members of pressure groups.
§ It is quite clear that in many things Britain after the war sat back on its laurels and our decline is due to failure to make changes in time. Even in the late 1950s, for example, some companies still thought that Britain made the best engineering goods in the world and that it was the customers' misfortune if they did not buy them. It should have been obvious to management that they could no longer wield a big stick over blue-collar workers. But they did nothing to learn the first techniques of, in service terms, leadership. The "them and us" syndrome and the negative attitudes of some unions have been the direct result.
§ I am sure that today most people realise there is a need to prevent our democratic system and its institutions from being undermined. They will not be preserved by saying, "Oh, how beautiful" and sitting in the shade. It must be accepted that any system, however good it was at the start, will be diverted and exploited by people for their own purposes. I quote once again as an example the election of the American President. In essence, the idea was to elect some people who knew the candidates and would make the choice. But what is the situation today?
§ There have been very great changes recently in our society. As we know, the power of television is enormously important in influencing people, whereas their values are no longer greatly influenced by either the Church or the mores of a privileged hereditary class. These changes in social environment should mean that what was right yesterday must always be examined critically tomorrow. Only by doing this and 232 by taking action where necessary can sudden changes, or failure, of existing institutions be avoided.
It must, however, be accepted that in this world, with the imperfections in human nature, no system can be ideal and my later criticisms must be seen in this light. The naive reformer so often seems to ignore this and believes, for example, that if only we were to move from a capitalist to a Marxist system El Dorado would result. I quote what President Kennedy used to say:
Politics is a field where all action is second-best and the choice frequently lies between two blunders".
§ If we are concerned with the preservation of our so-called democratic system, we must be clear what we mean by it. Unfortunately, the word "democratic" has become almost meaningless. At one extreme it implies our existing parliamentary and other institutions without change. At the other end of the scale it means that every member of the public should be able to press a button and record often ill-informed and emotional views on every issue of importance. In fact, the only common ground is that democracy is the opposite of autocracy. In terms of this Motion, I use the word to mean a relatively free society which takes the views of the public as a whole into account.
§ This leads me on to criticise the doctrine of party mandates. The word means "a demand". All parties, rightly, put out their ideas of what they will do if they are elected; but of course those not in office do not have the information which is available to the government. Most of us disagree with some, at least, of each party's proposals and in effect there is only a limited choice of parties. For parties, once elected, to call their proposals a mandate is a travesty of the truth and often completely ignores the views of a very large minority. Surprisingly, the mandate is a fairly recent innovation and is clearly undemocratic in the terms in which I use the word.
§ I turn to local government, because it is an immediate problem. It should reflect the needs and aspirations of the purely local population. However, we all know that in some instances it has been taken over by extremists, party politicians and power seekers, who manipulate affairs solely in their own interest. Moreover, being in possession of a sometimes very small majority, they should not be entitled to ride rough-shod over, or totally ignore, other points of view. I hope that those with experience of local government can give ideas as to what should be done but I believe, and so does my party, that proportional representation is now essential. I would go even further and suggest that the abolition of the GLC by the present Government would, or could, have been avoided if that body had been elected on this basis.
§ The law is an essential safeguard of our freedoms and in this role it must be respected and it must function efficiently and sensibly. The introduction of legal aid was of course right but the side-effects have been most unfortunate. It used to be said that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. Today there is one law for the rich and the poor, but the middle-income group cannot afford the cost of litigation or of obtaining a good defence. A further effect has been that cases which should have been dealt with in lower courts now go to the Crown Court and a log-jam, with excessive delays, is the result.233
§ We are rightly concerned with the danger of convicting innocent people. Nevertheless, history shows us many examples of failing to meet and take effective measures against the challenge of undesirable tendencies in time. Thus it sometimes happens that drastic action is taken at too late a date, such action being a negation of the ideals held by a moderate government in full control. I make no further comment but I would ask your Lordships, please, in this context to think about the problems of our police force in certain circumstances.
§ Human rights are a vital part of our free society and because of the threats against them I believe they should be enshrined in our law. We pride ourselves on having an unwritten constitution, but I believe it is now too dangerous to leave it entirely so.
§ My party is in favour of reform of the House of Lords. In the opinion of most of us it is working very well, but I believe there is a danger of circumstances arising in which it might be abolished, to be followed by a single-chamber Government; and to avert this makes reform wise. However, I would first like to see any necessary reforms made in another place so that the upper chamber can be designed to be complementary and not potentially antagonistic.
§ I hesitate to criticise the working of another place, but to some extent I cannot avoid doing so. The country believes that it is governed by Parliament and their behaviour and speeches are often on a level wholly inappropriate to the importance and gravity of the matters under discussion. Opposition appears to be generated for its own sake, regardless of national interests. This is unacceptable. In a court of law, there is always a judge to sum up and present a balanced point of view; not so in Parliament. The media reporting is, to say the least, imperfect in this context. What worries me even more is that in the Committee stages of some important Bills perhaps as much as 80 per cent. of the time is spent in making party political points and in needlessly interrupting the speakers.
§ The question is: how do you alter what is almost a tradition in behaviour? I suggest a strong Alliance party representation would greatly help.
§ I think we are more badly placed than in the past for recruitment of Members of Parliament to another place. The nation needs men of the highest calibre in politics; at senior ministerial level the politician has to have three attributes which are combined only in persons of exceptional ability. Politicians must be good heads of department; they must be politicians in the broadest and best sense of the word. Yet all this is useless unless there is also the ability to speak convincingly. The catchment area from which such persons can be drawn is narrower than it used to be. It is now more difficult to combine politics and, say, the Bar or education, and part-time directorships are less common.
§ But, most importantly, there is less interchange with industry, commerce and the professions. The reason for this is almost certainly that politics no longer command the respect which they used to. Seldom indeed will a firm or an institution keep a place open for an employee who enters politics, even for a brief 234 period. So it is difficult for any responsible head of family to risk his family's security.
§ I offer no solution, but the problem needs thinking about. So does the excessive financial dependence of the Labour Party on the unions and, to a lesser but still important extent, the Conservatives on the City. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, chaired a committee to look into how parties might be given a reasonable proportion of their financial requirements from government funds. This was some years ago and nothing has been done; it needs looking at again very seriously today.
§ I should like to question whether senior Ministers can possibly represent constituencies and perform their own duties efficiently. They try to do so, but is the result that we are being governed by tired and preoccupied men who have no time to think? The argument that a senior Minister must have grass roots is to me unconvincing because a wider viewpoint than that which can be culled from parochial opinion is needed. The present German constitution allows for such appointments, but it might be reasonable to require that the Minister should have previously represented a constituency.
§ Referenda are a way of involving the public in important decisions and some other countries use this technique. The difficulty is to prevent its misuse for unsuitable subjects and those with a high emotional content where the public cannot be properly informed. Nevertheless, I think we should ask a committee to look into the matter, to see whether suitable safeguards against misuse can be devised. Most certainly I believe that a referendum is necessary before making major changes in our constitution. Otherwise, they could so easily be reversed by another government, to the detriment of any stability in this vital area.
§ Freedom of information is important in a democracy. I do not suggest that the public should be told about all matters discussed within the Civil Service, but a great deal more could be done in this direction. This Government has twice tripped up by concealing information when the full truth would have served them far better. The first instance was the sinking of the "Belgrano" and the second, of course, the Westland affair.
§ Before leaving Parliament and party matters, I would again like to tell the story of the man who was primarily concerned with the national interest. After much thought, he decided that party was the right choice in this respect. Later on, he realised that under our system of government a party should speak with one voice. Consequently, he never again had to consider the national interest. This is cynical, I know, but it perhaps emphasises the importance of the Cross-Benches in this House.
§ Social benefits are a jungle in which even those in the Civil Service who are supposed to advise the public lose their way. Here, as elsewhere, some measure of inter-party agreement is called for, but it need not prevent some differences of view.
§ My Lords, I have left to the last unemployment. Let us remember that not long ago many people said that if unemployment reached more than 1½ million it would destroy our society. It is now quite clear that there is a danger of it doing so.235
§ Finally, democracy is a rather tender plant and if we do not actively look after it and prune it and give it the treatments it needs to combat the enemies which attack it, it will not survive. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers on the case for making changes to the parliamentary and democratic system of the United Kingdom if they are to endure.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Lord Auckland
My Lords, the House will be indebted to the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, for having tabled this interesting Motion. It is a very wide-ranging Motion, particularly for a short debate, and the cure for the problem which the Motion sets out is clearly much more difficult for any Government to undertake than the diagnosis, which is often the case in medical science, particularly for what is frequently the simplest of ills.
I think the House will be very pleased that my noble friend the Leader of the House is replying to this debate because there are few people in politics today with a more distinguished or honourable record of service in either the other place or in this House. His knowledge of parliamentary procedure must be almost unrivalled.
I should like to begin by saying a word about the committee system, because I think the noble Viscount is probably right that the general public has a rather cynical outlook towards Parliament because of what goes on on the Floor of the House. Without in any way criticising the other place—and, never having been a Member there, It would be quite wrong for me to criticise it—it is almost simplistic to say that on the Floor of the other House proceedings sometimes get rather out of hand.
But all too little is heard of the standing committees and select committees. Very late on Sunday night on BBC Radio 4, there is an excellent programme called "Committee" where one hears really civilised debate. The Select Committee on Immigration, for example, has visited Bangladesh, Holland and Florida to discuss the terrible and tragic problem of drugs. I heard some of the proceedings on the radio and the amount of all-party assent on this matter was something to be very greatly admired.
One of the problems of not only our parliamentary system but of many parliamentary systems is that perhaps too much of what goes on on the Floor of the House is broadcast—I do not necessarily criticise that, because in a democracy that is right—and there is all too little concentration on the committee system. It was the late Lord Morrison of Lambeth who, in a debate in this House shortly before his lamented death, used the word "committee-itis" and there may be something in that.
It has been suggested, for example, that there are too many select committees. On the other hand, I submit that until recently the general public had hardly heard of select committees. It is only because of a recent incident, which has been referred to by the noble Viscount—to be more precise, the Select Committee on Defence—that select committees have taken on far more meaning. I make no comment, particularly in a short debate, on the workings of select committees, except to say that they have a very responsible part to play and perform an extremely useful service.
236 My nearest experience of a select committee was eight years' service on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments where evidence was taken from civil servants and others. That was an example of an all-party committee concerned not at all with party politics, but with the requirement that orders were laid on time and that they made sense. And we used to see, as far as we could, that they did make sense.
One of the other problems which our parliamentary system faces is the surfeit of legislation. Government after government have suffered from this problem and those who have served in the other place—and there are a number of distinguished speakers in this debate who have served in that place—will know the anger which is caused when the guillotine falls. On the other hand, I submit that if the guillotine was abolished, bearing in mind the inordinate length of some of the Bills and of their clauses and schedules, it is highly doubtful whether legislation would get through at all. Of course it is the timing of the guillotine which counts, but on this one can never win. The managers of the Government in office have to make sure that a Bill gets through on time, so that this House gets the time to do its proper job as a revising Chamber.
That brings me on to the question of change and reform, and I would just say this about reform of your Lordships' House. Reform of this House is an ongoing thing. I have had the honour of being a Member of this House since the end of 1957. Shortly after that, we had the Life Peerages Act, and since I became a Member we have had the admission of women Peers. They were both excellent measures which have done an enormous amount to make this House deeply respected in the country. Of course, this House has its critics. Apart from Canada, I think it is the only nonelected second Chamber in the world. But slightly to misquote "Iolanthe" out of context, weDo nothing in particular, and do it very well".With all the shortcomings there might be, it is done very well.
I should just like to say a word about the City of London, because I have spent all my working life there in the field of insurance. We have this extraordinary idea that all people working in Lloyds, the Stock Exchange and the commodity markets are Tory dominated and that the trade unions are Labour dominated. I submit that there are working in the City of London quite a large number of people who do not vote Tory, and that in the trade unions there are a number of people who do not support the Labour Party, even though legend and tradition have it that the trade unions go with Labour and the City goes with the Tories. This is probably an anomaly which we have to overcome, because at the moment we have to suffer it and it undoubtedly does harm.
I have also had some experience in the field of public relations. When things go wrong in Parliament, whichever party is in office, it is always public relations that are blamed, as if some very glossy PR firm can put everything right. The purpose of public relations is not to try to make very good something which is innately very inefficient. It is to present the image of a company or an organisation in its true and present form to those who wish to avail themselves of its services. There is a very clear distinction here.
237 In conclusion, it is quite clear that the wide terms of the Motion are such that it is very difficult for any Government to implement them. It is wrong to suggest that nothing is being done to change Parliament, that nothing is being done to change the image of Parliament within the party system. What we have to bear in mind is that changes cannot be made as one changes a car—perhaps every two years. A change must be long-term. It is no good changing a political system every two years or every five years, because that is very unsettling, not only for Governments themselves but for our excellent Civil Service which has to administer it.
This Motion has been worthy of discussion, but I am bound to be slightly sceptical as to whether this or any other Government can, within the constraints of our constitution, really make the albeit admirable changes which it advocates.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord Banks
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Hanworth has performed a valuable service this evening by drawing the attention of the House to these important matters. He has, as the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, has pointed out, covered a wide field. If there is one point that we should like to drive home from these Benches this evening it is that there is a need for a comprehensive constitutional review and reform—a look, that is, at the whole of the constitution and an attempt to reform it overall, and not merely by piecemeal methods from time to time. We have to examine how the different pieces of the constitution fit into one another. Such a reform among other things we would hope would aim at achieving reform of the electoral system, reform of the composition of your Lordships' House, decentralisation and devolution of government and the establishment of a Bill of Rights.
We want the reform of the electoral system, to which my noble friend Lord Hanworth has already referred, first and most obviously because it would mean fairer representation. Political parties would have seats in another place in proportion to the support which they had received in the country. That seems a very reasonable proposition, and we find it very difficult to see why we should go to all the trouble and turmoil of holding elections if, in the end, the Parliament which is returned bears little relation to the way in which the electorate have cast their votes.
Secondly, we want to see reform of the electoral system because we believe it would produce less confrontational and adversarial politics. The present system under- represents the point of view which is not committed to policies based on the interests either of capital or of labour. Therefore it encourages politics based on class interest.
Thirdly, we want to see reform of the electoral system because it would result, we believe, in governments based on a majority of the votes. I shall be asked if that means coalition. The answer to that is; not necessarily. If one party has 50 per cent. of the votes then there is no need for any coalition if that is represented by more than 50 per cent. of the seats in another place. But if one party does not have 50 per cent. of the votes, surely a coalition is right and proper.
238 We are sometimes told that coalitions are based on agreements arrived at in smoke-filled rooms—the rooms are always smoke-filled even with the decline in smoking which is going on—and that the public knows little about them. But if the participants in such a discussion can each feel that they can sell the programme which is agreed upon to their supporters in another place and in the country as a whole, what is wrong with that? It means in the long run that a government is established with a programme which is not going to give deep offence to the majority of the population. Then, again, are there no smoke-filled rooms in the Labour and Conservative Parties? We hear a lot about the soft Left, the hard Left, the centre and the right in the Labour Party; we hear a lot about the wets and the drys in the Conservative Party. They argue enough in public. Do they not ever argue in private as well? If so, are there no compromises arrived at there? It is true, of course, that the Conservative and Labour Parties are coalitions, but they are coalitions which are not based on a majority of the electorate. Surely it is much more democratic to have a government which is a coalition based on a majority of the votes cast.
My noble friend Lord Hanworth referred to reform of the House of Lords, and he pointed out that there are those who would like to abolish your Lordships' House. But we on these Benches believe that it performs a most valuable service in our constitution. We think that the powers which it has are appropriate for a Chamber of this kind, but we realise that the present composition of the House sometimes inhibits the House from exercising those powers. So we have advocated reform and have suggested that the House might well be part nominated and part elected on a regional basis by proportional representation.
We would link those regionally elected Members of this House to our aim of decentralisation and devolution. Under that heading we are quite convinced that there is a case established for a Scottish Parliament with revenue raising power, but not the power to run a deficit. We remember that a majority voted in favour of the view which was passed in the 1970s to provide Scotland with an assembly of its own, and we believe that an improved assembly (an improvement over the one which was then devised) would command a larger majority at the present time.
For Wales we should like to see the establishment of a commission which would look at the structure of local government there and would also advise on what the structure of government at national level in Wales should be. We think it very important with regard to England that we should get at the earliest possible moment some standard regions for all the quangos, public bodies and private monopolies which we are now creating, so that they are all working under the same regional boundaries.
We would aim eventually to progress towards regional government with the elimination of one tier of local government. But we would not feel that it would be right to do that unless we were clear that there was strong support both in Wales and in the regions of England to proceed to that next step. In the meantime, we would hope that committees could be formed of the regionally elected Members of your Lordships' House which we propose, who would then 239 be able to exercise oversight over these various bodies working in the regions; and in the regions we would want to see established regional development agencies of a kind similar to the agencies which exist in Scotland and Wales at the present time.
I said that we wanted to see a Bill of Rights established. The easiest way to do that is through making the European Convention on Human Rights enforceable in the United Kingdom courts, and that could be done by the passage into law of the Bill introduced into this House by the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne.
I have given a very brief summary of some of the most important features of the constitutional settlement which we seek. I repeat again that we would want to see it comprehensive and linked together. My noble friend Lord Hanworth has dealt with some of these features and with others, but we believe that such a settlement would provide the continuity and the development of our political institutions to meet current conditions, thus obviating any threat of their overthrow or decay.
§ 6.19 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Viscount for giving us the opportunity of going over the ground of an important catalogue of institutional questions which I believe should receive more attention. I am sure that the noble Viscount will be gratified that remaining to hear his opening speech were two former prime ministers. We also have the honour of the presence of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House to listen to the debate. I am sure that he will be interested in some of the comments made in this debate and I look forward to whatever remarks he may make at the end of it.
Under a heading of this kind, one can do little more than just compile an agenda for a much wider debate later. The noble Viscount who introduced this debate had 15 headings and undoubtedly he could have suggested a number more had he covered all the ground that could be covered by this copious umbrella. I shall refer to three—Parliament, local government and education—because they are the three formalised systems in our institutional life that dominate many of our affairs and matter most. All are under criticism—some would say attack—and all are becoming less able to fulfil that which is expected of them. All are showing signs of strain and may crack early in the next century.
For some years now we have been groping our way through a period of economic and industrial change. In relative terms it has been a period of decline. I hope that I am not overcome with the pessimism of old age but I believe that we are not yet through it by any means and I also believe that there is worse to come. I do not believe that we have grasped fully the depth of the problems that will beset this country in the world of tomorrow. Also, I think that our attitudes do not equip us to face the future with any great confidence.
Our institutions are too slow to adjust to what is happening. That is a criticism to make of our people because in this country we appear to rely more upon our institutions than upon ourselves. We expect more from our institutions than we put into our own efforts. 240 We do not make our institutions work for us as we should; we tend to work for them.
What is wrong with the control of the three institutions on my short agenda—that is, Parliament, local government, and education—is that although they are supposed to be under democratic control, that control is mostly unrepresentative. Central government are having so much trouble with the excesses of a number of local authorities that frequent legislation is being brought forward to curb what the Government feel cannot be accepted. Some of the curbs on the powers of local authorities are not attacks upon local democracy so much as attempts to correct the actions of unrepresentative local government.
If we turn to Parliament, I would say that we have a strange phenomenon in this country in that the political campaign to destroy the government of the day begins soon after they are elected, and it intensifies a little later in what is called the run-up to the general election.
The explanation is simple. Most of our governments are unrepresentative from the very start. I ask this question: what is the strength of the mandate of the present government in democratic terms and in electoral terms? One could ask precisely the same question of the last Labour Government. In fact, under our present system nearly all governments are minority governments in terms of electoral representation. Small wonder that one can begin to attack a government as soon as they take office—or after giving them a decent two or three weeks to get used to where they are—and then go for them because they are unrepresentative of the majority of the electors.
That is why, boring as it may be to some noble Lords on both sides of the Chamber, I put a change in our electoral system at the top of my list of imperative changes. That goes not only for the local authorities but for central government and Parliament as well. However, it is pretty clear that local authorities are probably more in need of such change at present than central government. I remind your Lordships that a Bill has passed through your Lordships' House calling upon Parliament to give the opportunity to local authorities at all events to change to a different system if they wish.
I do not believe that under our existing political system the concept of one nation is attainable in Britain. One can stick it at the back of any platform one likes, but it will not be realised because our whole system is divisive and is based upon the divisions in society, in education and in industry that we have fostered for the past 100 years or more. We are doing little to remove the acuteness of those divisions in our governmental system.
I know that the other day, in connection with the Local Government Bill, one noble Lord raised the question of proportional representation and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, playfully said, "PR? Ha, ha!". All right, my Lords, laugh it off; but until proportional representation is seriously considered and something is done about it, I do not believe that we shall be within sight of dealing with the problems that confront our institutional life.
I link with electoral reform a drastic change in the method of financing political parties. I ask the 241 question: what have we to show to our partners in Europe that would persuade them to return to the corruption—yes, my Lords, the corruption—of the existing system here? I will not enlarge upon that point but shall draw on my very close study of the subject as chairman of a government-appoined committee on the financing of political parties. That experience was enough to convince me, especially after visits to all our European partners, that we are relying upon a bogus voluntary system, in regard to both the political levy on the one side and to political donations from citizens and companies on the other hand. They are not voluntary donations in the true sense of the word but are made under pressure. All those who subscribe to the political parties are put under some form of persuasion to do so.
I would include upon my agenda, in relation to Parliament—and I mention it in passing—the need for a Bill for human rights. I may mention also the need for the retention of a second Chamber. I believe that we are more exposed than most Western democracies to the tyranny of an elected dictatorship. We have no entrenched rights and no constitutional rights other than those it may please Parliament to bestow upon us in the statute law. We know also, because we are constantly reminded of it, that no Parliament can commit its successors.
It is a curious thing that no Member of either House of Parliament is required to promise to uphold the British constitution, whatever they like to think it is, or to protect our liberties. Is it not extraordinary that in the British Parliament all that we do is swear or affirm loyalty to the Queen and her successors—nothing else; nothing about the people, just allegiance to the Queen, and nothing else. We have to do it at each Parliament, as though we cannot be trusted to make that oath or affirmation for life. It must be renewed every time there is a new Parliament.
This House, not the monarch, is the last bastion of freedom for the citizen. We alone, crippled as we are from the results of a stroke 75 years ago, stand guard against the abuse of power of an elected Chamber, where a majority of one is enough to make the law of the land. So on my second point I say that this House, in some form and with no fewer powers than it possesses at present, is an essential part of our system of government. Let no party think that this House can be abolished on a mandate which it presumes to have received at a general election. It will take a good deal more than that to abolish the Second Chamber of our parliamentary system.
In the light of recent events, I think I must now mention the Civil Service in its relationship to Parliament. I think we shall be getting into very deep water if we go on much longer as we have been recently in relation to our civil servants. I see no way of making civil servants answerable to Parliament for what they do in the performance of their duties. They must remain accountable to Ministers and not to Select Committees. I need not dwell on this topic at any length. There is not the time, and perhaps this is not the moment to do so, especially as there is an excellent article on this subject by David Watt in the Times newspaper of Friday last, 7th February. All I need say is that if civil servants are to appear defenceless before parliamentary committees, accountable for Ministers 242 as well as to them, then there will be some reaction in the Civil Service itself against such an unfair and intolerable position. Make no mistake about it: it will be a very strong reaction indeed which will go to the very roots of our traditional method of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary government supported by a neutral Civil Service.
Finally, I want to say just a word about education. I know little or nothing about education. I was presumed to know a great deal about teachers' pay. I have been reminded of late of the work I undertook on this subject in 1974. Recently I had a spell in hospital, and I was watching what was going on in the teachers' pay dispute. From the 10th floor of St. Thomas's I wondered what was meant by a slogan, "Houghton must be resurrected". Was it something to do with an experience that I had still to have after they had said, "Houghton must be nailed to the negotiating table"? But some teachers banded together and sent a wonderfully clever illuminated card to the surgeons of the hospital, which, when it was opened up, turned out to be the top of a poster which said, "Houghton must be restored". That suited me fine, and I am glad to say their hope was realised.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I think the weakness of the eternal triangle in our education system is becoming ever more apparent. The system is breaking apart because it is really based upon the concept of a local service provided and run by a local and elected authority, when of course in fact it is controlled by the central government. This system of dual financial control has proved unsatisfactory for many years. It is an odd situation when teachers refer to their employer, yet the employers to whom they go for their negotiations are not in control of the finances of the pay structure which they are seeking to obtain.
I think that an entirely fresh approach is needed to our education system. I hesitate to do more than make a tentative suggestion that we might look around for something else which might suit the education service rather better than the system which we have, but I would suggest that the National Health Service might be worth looking at in this connection. I believe that we have to come pretty close to a national education service, and until we have it I do not think we shall achieve the standards of recruitment to provide the quality of service that we require, and we shall not be free of the many political pressures that one finds in the education service at the local level. Here, I speak as a member of the Salmon Royal Commission on the standards of conduct in public life, when we saw much that we did not like in local administration, particularly among the elected representatives in local authorities.
I think that is an agenda for institutional change which might be looked at. If I am asked whether I think it will be tackled, my answer is, "No, I do not think it will be tackled"; and if I am asked why, then I must be forgiven my disenchantment with affairs as I see them when I say that I do not think that will happen because in British politics there seems now to be one slogan that does for all and it is, "The past is safe with us".
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord Grimond
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Viscount for introducing this Motion on a matter which I think is too little discussed. I should also like to congratulate him on his excellent speech, with practically all of which I agree, so I need not go over those points again.
My only reservation about raising the point at all is that at present the British are not very good at reforming institutions, and I fear that if they set about reforming Parliament they might leave it in a worse state than it is in now. However, it may have to be done. I have chosen to speak in this debate because I have an experience which is, if not unique then unusual in that I sat for 32 years on the Back-Benches of the Commons. Many of your Lordships have had more distinguished careers and many have become Ministers, but there are few people who have sat in the Commons for 32 years without becoming a Minister. I do not regret one single day of it. My only regret is that I did not get into the House of Commons in 1945.
To my mind, the business of Parliament, and particularly of Back-Benchers, whether in the Lords or the Commons, is not to govern but to stop the government—to criticise, to thwart them and to suggest that they might do better: but essentially, to my mind, they must keep at arm's length from them for most purposes. I do not say that is their only function, but I think it is an important function. At any rate, in the Commons MPs are sent up to express the grievances of the public and to tell the Government where they are going wrong. It is not their only job, but it is an important job.
Above all, Back Benchers are there to stop the Government spending too much money. That, indeed, was the origin of parliamentary government in the House of Commons. Today, of course everything is topsy-turvy and Members of Parliament long to introduce legislation themselves. They press upon the Government the need to legislate further. They beg the Government to spend more money. Oddly enough, it is the Government that very often stand out against the demands for more taxation. I do not say that this development is wholly to be deplored. I say only that it is a curious development given the origins of Parliament. It is one that we should look at to make sure that the other object of Parliament—to control the Government—is not lost.
To my mind, there is far too much legislation. It pours out. It pours out worse, in fact, under the Conservative Government than it did under a Labour Government. As a result, Members of Parliament who take part in discussing this legislation are tied to the Benches in the House of Commons or the House of Lords by day and by night. To my mind, this deprives them of contact with the outer world. Secondly, it prevents the Government from concentrating upon and discharging their most important jobs.
My next point is that Parliament is too big. The House of Commons now has I do not know how many Members. Is it 660? No doubt, I shall be corrected. However, there are, I think I am right in saying, more than 640. It is by far the biggest legislative assembly in the world. This means that a great many of its Members are frustrated. The reason why Back— 244 Benchers in the Commons get so angry is that they turn up at 3.30 p.m. day after day with marvellous speeches and go away at 9 o'clock with those speeches undelivered. That makes them very angry.
I was, of course, a Liberal Member. One of the few advantages was that one Liberal was called. At one time there were only five, so your chances were quite good. Furthermore, I was the only Privy Counsellor. But it is the frustration of Back-Benchers in the Commons that leads to bad behaviour. The only Prime Minister, at least in modern times, to be howled down and prevented from speaking was Mr. Asquith, and the leaders of the riot in the House of Commons were the Cecil family. So it is not a new phenomenon exactly. But it is perhaps getting a little out of hand.
On top of the House of Commons, we have the House of Lords. It is to my mind getting more professional. I suspect, too, that it is sitting for longer and longer. I suppose that if all your Lordships turned up there would be 800, 900, or goodness knows what. On top of that, again, we have the European Parliament. It does not seem to me that any effort has been made to rationalise this, to streamline it a little, and, possibly, to cut down the numbers.
One of the prime concerns of Parliament should be to control government expenditure. It is necessary, first, that the national accounts should be produced in a form that enables the ordinary person and the ordinary Back-Bencher to relate taxation to expenditure. It is getting better. We now have more information. But it is still, to my mind, not nearly good enough. I know that your Lordships are forbidden to interfere in matters of taxation. I wonder, however, whether this is still sensible today. If you want the national accounts examined by experts, there are far more experts in the House of Lords capable of doing it than in the House of Commons. Possibly the reasons preventing your Lordshops from touching finance are a little out of date.
I am, to some extent, an upholder of open government. There is need for the known facts on disputes, particularly disputes involving the government, to be presented in a form that can be understood. Take any great matter such as the miners' strike. It was extremely difficult to find out what exactly were the figures, what were the wages paid, what pits were being closed. I wonder whether we do not need some body that can present us with reliable statistics.
I come now to a matter that I open with some delicacy. It could become a personal matter. I do not wish to press it too far. It is, of course, apparent that modern governments inevitably are engaged with business. This opens rather difficult questions. There is, I believe, a rule by which retired civil servants cannot go into business for a limited time after they retire. As to whether that time is long enough, I am not sure. But there is no limitation, so far as I know, upon Ministers. I feel sometimes that we may be getting to a time when politics is regarded as a step towards directorships in the City.
I am wholly in favour of people in business coming into politics. There are far too few of them. By business, I mean not only managers and directors but also representatives of trade unions and so forth. But 245 for members of a government to go straight into directorships in big business is a slightly different matter. I leave the matter there, but I am not altogether happy about the position in regard to them or indeed senior civil servants.
One obvious failing of our system is lack of representation of minorities. If you are told today that someone is a Socialist, a Conservative or a Liberal, you cannot deduce from that what his views will be on Europe, on nuclear disarmament or on many other subjects. There are strongly held minority, single issue opinions. On the whole, they do not get much representation in Parliament. One way out of that would be proportional representation, which I support. Another might be the holding of a referendum—about which, I must say, I am rather doubtful—on certain issues. One step, it seems to me, that could be taken now is for those opinions to be better represented in the second Chamber. I find it rather disappointing that there are so few representatives of ethnic minorities in this Chamber. And so comparatively few women, This requires no legislation. It would be very valuable, until we get the matter settled by a reform of the voting system, if we used the second Chamber as a means of representing minorities.
Lastly, I come to the vexed question of committees. I was in favour of the setting up of these committees in the House of Commons. I still am. But there are certain dangers. I sat on one of these committees myself for some years. One danger is that the committee begins to sympathise with the Minister. I reckon that I was not paid to sympathise with Ministers, not paid to produce a shoulder for Ministers to weep on in committee. I am not sure that this is altogether a healthy development.
It is also the case that Members of the House of Commons, at any rate, and possibly also Members of the House of Lords, become identified with the committee. It becomes their main work. They are no longer primarily the representatives of their constituency. They are known as men who have become experts on defence, on agriculture, or whatever it may be, and it is there that they hope to make their careers. That detracts, in my view, from proceedings on the Floor of the House. As a paid up supporter of BackBenchers on the Floor of the House, I rather deplore that.
It is apparent that committees, unless thay are very carefully guided, can become a form of Star Chamber. There is no doubt that Sir Humphrey Atkins was correct in saying that the committee determines its own terms of reference. I would not detract from that. But Mr. Brittan was, I believe, entitled to raise the question whether the Defence Committee was not straying rather far outside defence. There is need for some examination of how far committees should go.
As to civil servants, it seems to me that one of the beauties of the British system was its simplicity and direct line of responsibility. It is this, incidentally, that gives me a slight qualm about proportional representation. The Minister is responsible for his department. When the present Leader of the House was Home Secretary, I knew as a Back-Bencher that I could write to him and put down questions to him and that I would get an answer from him and from no one else, 246 except his Under-Secretary. He could not say, "Go and talk to my officials or to my committee" or, "I'm only one of three". There was a clear responsibility.
I do not say that this is the whole of politics. But it is valuable. It is valuable that the responsibility should be pinned on an elected Minister. One should not, except in very drastic cases, be entitled to go behind the Minister and ask what advice he gave, or received from his civil servants. Once one does that it seems to me one brings the civil servant into the arena. One cannot stop it. The Minister could then say, "Go and talk to my civil servant, he will answer it"; or he might say, "I am not responsible for this. This is what I was advised, and here are the papers advising me".
We may have to move in that direction to some extent but I do not know that I altogether welcome it. If we are moving in that direction we are moving in the American direction. We shall require to know how the Civil Service is recruited and promoted. We may even have political appointments. Again, I am not saying that this is out of the question. It happens in Europe. The senior civil servants in Europea are political. But if it is going to happen it requires proper checks and balances and a properly thought out system, and not simply one that is drifted into. To my mind that is the danger at present.
As some noble Lords have said, all we can do is to set out a few items for an agenda. I do not pretend that these are the most important items, but I think that they are some of the items which are relevant to our present situation. I hope that they, and many other useful suggestions, will get some consideration from the Government.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, the theme of the speech made by my noble friend Lord Hanworth, who raised this matter in the first place, was not—and it has been repeated by all other speakers—to suggest the destruction of any of our democratic systems, but their improvement through change, and in particular to suggest that that change was due now if these systems were to endure.
It is that aspect on which I want to concentrate at the outset. That is not a view which is peculiar to this side of the Chamber or these Benches. I want to remind noble Lords opposite that fairly recently there was a report from the Bow Group on the reform of the House of Lords. They said,Reform of the House of Lords is urgent if the second Chamber of Parliament is to be preserved".This is very much the same sentiment as that put forward by my noble friend.
The noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel, himself chaired a committee of Conservative Members on the reform of the House of Lords some time earlier. What they had to say on this topic was—and again I am quoting:We do not believe that leaving things just as they are should be considered a viable option".We therefore have it on all sides that there is need for change and that it has to be considered and not left endlessly.
247 Whenever this matter is raised the Government either specifically state or indicate that the way to deal with all these problems is by the gentle process of evolution. That process is far too gentle, and far too slow. It is now nearly 100 years since the first Earl Russell, shortly after he ceased to be Prime Minister, brought forward his Bill on life peerage and got that as far as Third Reading. It did not succeed at that point. It is therefore nearly 100 years ago since this House was considering life peerage.
What is the present position? I am not sure that I know what the present position is. I should be grateful if the noble Viscount, if he feels it proper to answer this, would let us know. For a very longtime it seemed that all governments had taken the view that there were to be no more hereditary Peers created. For a very long time—more or less ever since the Life Peerages Bill came in—we had only life Peers created. Of course, as everyone knows, we now enjoy the pleasure of the company of two newly created Viscounts, the noble Viscount the Leader of the House being one of them. I do not know whether he is able to tell us about this process of gentle evolution. By that process life Peers only were to be created, and therefore the problem—which everybody recognises—of the objectionable hereditary principle did not exist. I say "objectionable" because that is the one thing everybody outside this House picks on first and foremost in criticism of your Lordships' House. They do not criticise its powers or the way it goes about its business. They criticise its constitution, the fact that individual citizens' liberty should, to a certain extent, be determined by an accident of birth—something which is quite indefensible.
I refer again to the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel. I share the view, so expressed, that this principle was "virtually impossible to defend". I am asking the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, whether he is able to throw any light on the Government's view, and the view of the Prime Minister, as to whether we should now turn away from this very slow method of altering the composition of your Lordships' House by once more creating hereditary Peers.
We then have to look at ourselves—and it is a very sanguine thing to do—to see to what extent we can justify being called democratic. In this House it is very difficult to call ourselves democratic at all. I have referred to the question of composition. Of course, one of the elements of democracy is the separation of the judiciary from the legislature. I do not assert that this principle is broken every day but it is very difficult—if I might invite your Lordships to consider the position in which I used frequently to find myself—to explain the workings of the House of Lords to a group drawn from the Commonwealth of black, brown, white, interested officials, members of their various parliaments and so on, and to explain to them that a first principle in democracy is the clear division between the legislature and the judiciary. The next question one gets asked is, "Could you please throw a bit more light on the number of Law Lords sitting in your Lordships' House and the extent to which they participate and vote in debates?" 248 Another pillar of democracy is the freedom of worship. We had the great pleasure very recently of the attendance of 15 bishops—I counted them—when, on the Shops Bill, we were dealing with an amendment which was close to the hearts of the bishops. There were 15—what somebody has called a beatitude of bishops. I think I prefer the phrase, a preferment of prelates. They were here and we were delighted to see them. But I looked in vain for a Catholic priest or a Jewish rabbi or representatives of any other Church. I respond immediately to what the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, said. I have looked in vain among the faces opposite ever since I have been here for a black face or a brown face, and I have never seen one. I am sure that our discussions will be greatly improved if a little more democracy was brought into our proceedings.
Another pillar of democracy is that of no discrimination, not only in terms of colour or religion, but in terms of sex. No discrimination against women? That is practised in your Lordships' House every day—or at least every day there is, unfortunately, a death in the family of a hereditary Peer. If it is a daughter followed by a younger son, the daughter, so far as the English peerage is concerned—I am no expert on this, but I understand this to be the position—is simply brushed aside. On what grounds? That she is a woman.
We have the 1975 Act against discrimination against women. We have a Bill going through this Chamber at present to strengthen that Act. I believe we have signed the convention of the United Nations which prohibits discrimination against women; and yet, as everybody in this House knows, we accept the grossest form of discrimination against women every day. I do not want to embarrass the noble Viscount the Leader of the House once more by referring to his personal position, but I understand he has three charming daughters.
§ Lord Diamond
Four, I am delighted to say that that adds to the argument. So far as I understand, he has no manly sons. He is a hereditary Peer, and his Government choose to continue this vicious policy of excluding from the right of inheriting his hereditary peerage any female issue. Therefore, none of his daughters will succeed to the noble Viscount's viscountcy. On what grounds? That each and every one of his daughters is female, and on no other ground whatsoever. We cannot really pretend that we are very democratic in this House.
When we look at the other House, there is not much there to commend us to use the word "democratic": not if you are a member of either of the Alliance parties. We know that representation of the people means this: if you are a Labour voter then it is one man, one vote; if you are a Tory voter, then again it is roughly one man, one vote; but if you are a citizen who wants to vote for one or other of the Alliance parties, then it is ten men, one vote. Or one man, one-tenth of a vote. Or one woman, one-tenth of a vote.
We sitting on these Benches are all part of a large number of citizens who are tenth-class citizens so far as representation is concerned. I do not mind being a second-class citizen, or even a third-class citizen, but it riles that one should have to walk around all the time 249 recognising that all your symapathisers, all those who share your views, know that in our parliamentary democracy ten of them have to get together to produce what one Labour voter, or one Tory voter, can produce in our present system.
Neither House justifies us in claiming that we are an active democracy; a parliamentary democracy. We claim to be, and it is true to say that this Parliament is rightly called the mother of Parliaments. The only extraordinary thing about that fertile mother to which I would draw your Lordships' attention, although you will have noticed it by now, is that not a single one of her offspring bears any likeness to her. Of course there are two Chambers on occasion. In Canada the second chamber is not an elected chamber, but there is no parliament where you have a second chamber composed as this Chamber is composed.
So much for the reality of parliamentary democracy as we practise it. I shall not waste your Lordships' time. We have already referred to the situation in the local authorities. That is another question I want to ask the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. What has happened to the Bill which gave local authorities the option to decide whether they would have proportional representation or not in their elections? What has happened to that Bill which passed through this House without a single vote, a single hand, going against it?—neminene dissentiente, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has frequently said.
It went through this House on the second occasion. On the first occasion it was introduced by my noble friend Lord Harris, and the second time it was introduced from that side of the House. It went through the House, and we have heard nothing more about it. Is that what the noble Viscount the Leader of the House feels is the appropriate attention to be paid to the neminene dissentiente opinion of your Lordships' House?
A great deal needs to be done before we can attempt to aspire to the title of a parliamentary democracy in practice. It needs to be done urgently by all of us, including myself, and I put myself second to none in my respect, affection, and regard for this Chamber. It needs to be done urgently.
§ Lord Soames
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, could he direct his mind to this? He has spent a lifetime really in the two Houses. I am sure he has given thought before to the question he raised today at some length about the future of this House. He was talking about the reform of this House. Many of us have looked at this. My noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel, as he said, went into it in great detail. But generally speaking—certainly I found this when I had the honour to lead this House—there are any number of people who want to see this House reformed, but those who want to see it reformed can never agree on what sort of reform should be brought about.
Secondly, if this were to become what the noble Lord called a democratic House in the full sense of the word, then this House would require, were it an elected House, far more power than it has today. I found this to be thought by the other place not to be all that good news, with a capital G and a capital N. I think that what we have is the best second Chamber, and the best second Chamber that we are likely to have.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Soames, has asked me these questions, and if I may be forgiven because I had in fact sat down promptly on the 15 minutes which I thought was appropriate in these circumstances, may I say a word or two more. Certainly these thoughts have gone through my mind, and certainly they have gone through the minds of every single member of the Alliance Joint Commission which considered this matter with great care and has published its report, and has dealt with every one of these problems. There is not that difference in view that the noble Lord suggests.
If he will be good enough to re-read the report of the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel, and his colleagues and this commission report, he will find a great deal of common ground there. There is certainly total common ground so far as the two parties constituting the Alliance are concerned. This is the policy which we would endeavour, with the goodwill of both Chambers, to put into effect.
I cannot deal with all the arguments across the Floor in this way. I can assure the noble Lord that these are matters which deserve the most careful attention; of course, they have been given it. There are solutions to all of them, and the general themes running through most of these well-thought-out solutions are very much like one another.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, for giving us the opportunity to ventilate views on a number of subjects connected with our democratic institutions. We are grateful to the noble Viscount for letting us know in advance of the 15 items with which he proposed to deal. I do not propose to deal with all the 15 items, but shall pick out three or four. However, in having such a wide-ranging debate we are in danger of making sweeping generalities on a number of the points. As the noble Viscount said, democracy means different things to different people. Many things we all agree on.
I should add one additional point. I want to see maximum opportunity for the individual to help shape his own destiny. That is something that has not been mentioned in the debate. How can our parliamentary institutions lead us to greater industrial democracy so that the ordinary man in the street, the man at the bench, can feel that he is helping to play a part in determining his future, and that other factors will not determine what he will be for 40 or 50 years of his life?
The noble Lord, Lord Banks, thought we ought to have some kind of commission which could consider the overall workings of our parliamentary system. It may seem strange for me, who for all my life since I was a youngster of 15 have wanted to see change, to say that I believe we shall achieve a change in our parliamentary system only by gradualism, by dealing with the important issues as they arise. We shall not achieve change by sitting down and deciding on a wholesale sweeping change of all our institutions. I do not think it will happen that way.
I do not believe it is the job of this House to comment on the structure and functioning of the other 251 place. An advantage of our Chamber is the fact that we can deal with amendments in Committee, at Report and on Third Reading on the Floor of the House instead of sending them to be considered by another committee. That is a great attraction and benefit to the functioning of this House. As is well known, my party seeks the abolition of the House of Lords. But I am certain that my noble friends, wherever they are, will permit me to give my own personal view and to say that I have always supported a second Chamber. It would be wrong for me to declare otherwise. From what I have seen and from my experience, the work of our own Select Committees—I sat on the Docklands Select Committee for three and a half to four months—and the work of our EC Committees plays an important part in our democratic institutions.
I want to say a word about abolition, or perhaps I should say change or reform. The last thing I want this Chamber to be (I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soames) is an elected Chamber. I am certain that every noble Lord will take the same view as myself, that if I were elected I should want far more power than I have in this House. Secondly, I do not want to see this Chamber compete with the elected other place down the corridor. That would be wrong.
The noble Viscount referred to tired Ministers. I do not know whether the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, accepts that his own Government are tired Ministers, but it would be a fatal step if we moved to having Ministers as executives not as elected representatives of the people. The fact that our Ministers have to come before the elected representatives to justify what they are doing is a vital part of our parliamentary institution. That is why there is criticism in the other place that one of the most senior Ministers in the Cabinet, the Secretary of State for Employment, is a Member of this House and not in another place, where he can be answerable to the elected representatives of the people.
By and large, we all recognise that one of the great achievements of this country is the soundness of our system of electoral law. I am glad that reference has been made, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to his own committee, the Houghton Committee on state aid for political parties, on which I was privileged to sit. We must seriously consider this point at some time. All parties except the Conservatives are in favour of some form of financial assistance for political parties. It is not just the question of helping to maintain the organisation of the political parties, but to assist them in greater communication with the electorate. It is important that financial aid to political parties should be considered, and as the political position of trade unions has been referred to, I should remind your Lordships that every single trade union which has held a secret ballot to decide whether it wants a political fund has overwhelmingly declared that it wants a political fund because it believes it is essential for its members to play a part—not in affiliation to the Labour Party, that is a separate issue. Members voted on whether they should have a political fund so that their union could participte in political activities on behalf of the membership.
In his opening speech the noble Viscount referred to what is called adversarial politics. Frankly, I do not 252 understand what "adversarial politics" really means. I have been in politics in other spheres for 56 years of my life. I believe in certain things. If the Government of the day or another political party stand for different things to those for which I stand, I shall oppose and criticise. That is not adversarial politics; that is what we are here for. What we must not have is opposition for opposition's sake. Every time we consider the allocation of finance and how it should be used, that involves a principle. Often I disagree with the views of the Government, therefore I and my colleagues wish to criticise and oppose them. That is not adversarial politics. It would be nice if the Conservative Party could come my way on public ownership and public expenditure, but they do not choose to do so.
I have often asked in debates, where are the parameters of the Government's limits on privatisation? Do they envisage stopping anywhere? I have never had an answer. If I disagree with what the Government are doing, such as privatisation of the water supply, and oppose it, that is not adversarial politics. That is a disagreement on a vital principle on how we should handle our vital public utilities. I cannot understand these new words which have come into our political life, "adversarial politics".
As I have said, we must not have opposition just for opposition's sake. One of the problems in public life is how best to improve the accountability of our various executive institutions. Under privatisation we are gradually developing more and more quangos which the Government were pledged at the outset to demolish or get rid of. We are getting more and more inspectorates. One of our problems is how Parliament can exercise accountability over these institutions. That is why some of us are so critical of the demolition of public undertakings and their transference to private monopolies. That is why I should like to see the National Health Service and water undertakings under some form of elected regional organisation, so that there can be accountability. Again I say this is not adversarial politics. This is putting forward a principle which I believe is essential for the national well-being.
One of the grave dangers which I believe face our country and our democratic institutions is one which has been repeatedly voiced from various parts of your Lordships' House over the last two or three years. That is the tendency towards centralism in regard to its attitude to local government. Local government is as much a part of a democratic institution as Parliament itself. This is where I say there is need for care. There needs to be very careful attention to and consideration of what should be our local government structure. This is where I should like to see a consensus of opinion as to what it should be.
We have seen what happens when hasty decisions are taken, as on the reorganisation of local government by the abolition proposals—hasty decisions. I hope I am not being party political in saying that. One has to look at the relationship between central government and local government. That must involve also the whole question of financing local government. Local government is where we have our closest touch with the people and we have to work out the best possible way of achieving that.
Incidentally, I am one of those who have never favoured the whole of a local authority being changed 253 at one time. Personally, I believe in annual elections. This avoids wholesale swings. This endeavours to achieve balance inside an authority. One does not, because of a political situation at one time, have a complete sweep of the authority. I have always supported, often to the consternation of fellow organisers, annual elections. I believe that that could be a very important part of our local government structure.
Reference has been made by a number of noble Lords to proportional representation. Certain Members will not be surprised if I myself pay some attention to it. Emphasis is made that the first-past-the-post system leads to candidates being elected on a minority of votes, and even governments being elected on a minority of votes. However, there are other considerations that just cannot be set on one side, because arguments for electoral change mean that one also has to look at political change because that really is what any electoral change means.
I kept a cutting from The Times, in which Ronald Butt was writing just after the general election. He said:Under our system, the election of a party to government not only betokens a real shift of opinion but usually also registers the only way in which that opinion could be coherently expressed in all the given circumstances".I was surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Banks, say that if a party has the majority of the votes then it should have the majority of the seats. I did not think that was the Alliance view, because the only strict proportional representation system one can have is the type of system which Sweden has, where in the whole of Stockholm there are, say, 18 seats and if one receives 51 per cent. of the votes one has 51 per cent. of the seats. Inevitably, that leads to a list system. One no longer votes for individuals; one just drops a party list in the box. I was in Sweden in 1976 studying their elections and saw that done. It did not matter who was on the list: it was merely dropped into the box.
As I have previously said in your Lordships' House, I was national agent for the Labour Party. What lovely power it would give bureaucracy in the political parties if we should have a list system. It would require political parties to be written into the constitution. Do we want that? As I have said, with a list system people vote for a party list; the calibre of individual candidates counts for nought. PR can also blur issues. Despite all the issues fiercely contested at elections, if there is no clear majority then one can have bargaining afterwards in which the electors play very little part. There can be blurring of programmes presented to the electors. Some of the proposals for PR really have no proportional basis at all.
The system put forward and favoured by the Alliance has been the single transferable vote. I have studied all the elections that have taken place in Ireland. It is very interesting because the Irish Times always gives the figures of all the counts and one can see exactly what has happened. It was very noticeable that in the last European elections, although eight political groups contested the three seats in Northern Ireland, each one of the groups put up only one candidate. Thus there was a situation in which the three candidates declared elected, after four counts, were the same as those who topped the poll in the first preferential vote.
254 As I say, I have looked at the various elections in Eire. STV tends to encourage campaigning to receive the second preferences. That obviously must fudge issues, not put clear issues before the electors. One can have the situation—and in fact this has happened as is shown by some figures here in my folder—where a candidate who was one of the first four, there being four seats to be elected, is not elected and, after 11 or 12 counts, someone who in fact received very few votes is elected. Is that democratic? Is it justifiable?
I question whether the larger electorate required for the single transferable vote is desirable. Certain noble Lords will have knowledge of the position of European constituencies. The task of a European constituency member keeping in touch with his electorate must be impossible. What is even more impossible is the task of an elector to get in touch with a European elected member.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, is this the reason why, until the last two members joined, every other single country in the European Community chose to vote on a preferential system, while we were in a minority of one?
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, I sat on one of your Lordships' EC committees which went into this whole question and the views were quite clear on that and on the reason why Britain stood out. If the noble Lord wishes to quote other continental countries, most of them do not adopt the single transferable vote; they adopt the list system. That is the system of merely dropping a list in a box and if one receives 52 per cent. of the votes one has 52 per cent. of the seats. That is a system which I do not believe many Members of your Lordships' House would support.
Time is passing. This has been a useful debate. There are so many facets that require detailed consideration of changes to come as and when it is desirable to make a change, in the interests not only of Parliament itself but of the people of this country.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I should like to start by thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, for introducing this subject, for the way in which he introduced it, and, perhaps more than anything else, for giving me some idea of what he was going to say beforehand. For that I was extremely grateful. I had to decide how I could best help your Lordships' House in replying to this debate. It seemed to me that there were various options open to me. The first was to take some of the subjects which the noble Viscount had said that he wished to raise, to hawk them all round Whitehall and get very carefully prepared answers from many different departments on the different subjects concerned, and to come to your Lordships' House with a very carefully prepared brief which may or may not have represented my own personal views but which were very safe as far as my colleagues in government were concerned. I rejected that view.
255 Secondly, I could try to reply in great detail to all the various points that were raised and point out why it was at this moment that the Government had not happened to act upon them. I rejected that option as well. What I thought would be best for me to do was to seek to reply as far as I could not only to the points made by the various noble Lords who had spoken but also individually to them, because they would have expressed their points in rather different ways. So that if I go over the same ground because two noble Lords may have spoken about it, then I think that that is better than not replying to some of the very special points that they have put forward themselves. That I should like to do.
I should like to emphasise that I am in the main expressing my own reactions from what might be described as some limited experience now in both Houses of Parliament and also some considerable time spent as a Minister of various kinds in Whitehall. In fact, when the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, said that he had been, I think, 33 years a Back-Bencher. I have to confess—I think to my shame, maybe—that I spent 24 of my 28 years in another place on one Front Bench or the other; and, indeed, since I have added to that three years (is it?) on the Front Bench in your Lordship's House, I have spent a very considerable time on a Front Bench. As many of my colleagues have often said to me, "You have been there so long that you haven't any idea at all what happens on the Back-Benches". That is not quite true, but that is what they choose to say of me.
My reactions will be personal. I will refer from my own personal angle to some of the points which have been put forward. I shall not promise action from the Government, and I cannot always be pinned down as to my reactions being exactly those uniformly taken by the whole Government. And if, on occasion, in response to some of the subjects, I decide that discretion is the better part of valour and say nothing at all, then I am sure that your Lordships will understand that, as well.
So, first of all, the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, was somewhat scathing about party manifestos and party mandates. I must say that I myself have some considerable reservations about the rigid adherence to the manifesto, because I have taken part in the preparation of a good many in my time. Therefore, having taken part in compiling them, I cannot say that I really think that they ought to be documents which are rigidly kept to ever afterwards. They certainly are not. I was interested, however—and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, might be amused to hear this—that the last manifesto of the Conservative Party really did rather well as far as the British constitution is concerned, because it said something which was abundantly true. How long it will be true, I do not know; but what it said was:The British constitution has outlasted most of the alternatives which have been offered as replacements. It is because we stand firm for the supremacy of Parliament that we are determined to keep its rules and procedures in good repair".That is a quite unexceptional statement. But at the same time I think that one has to say that a process of change, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has said, is important.
256 I would claim that there have been steady changes over the years. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, thinks that they have not been nearly quick enough, and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, feels the same. Yet I think that change just for change's sake, and changing in a hurry, can lead to mistakes. In fact, I would say that some of the changes that I have seen in my time have, on the whole, not always been wise. After all—if I did not say it myself somebody else would—I was in the Cabinet which set up the metropolitan counties and I was a Government Whip when the GLC was set up, and I have lived long enough in your Lordships' House to see legislation for the abolition of both. One can argue which of the changes were the right ones, but they were changes which were made, and sometimes, perhaps, they have not turned out for the best. I think, therefore, that we should change where we think it is right to do so.
On that basis I want to turn to one point which the noble Viscount mentioned, and that was the question of local government. I will say just a word afterwards about what the noble Lord. Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said about it from a rather different point of view. The noble Viscount said that he wanted local government to reflect the needs and aspirations of the local population. I would suggest to him that there is a change proposed at this moment in the Government's Green Paper on rates which would, I think, whatever may be the other arguments about it, make a significant contribution to that end by promoting local accountability.
At present, many of those who vote in local government elections are not required, in fact, to contribute directly towards local government finance through the rates at all. The new proposals would certainly mean that those people would have to pay a charge, and I believe that this might well remind them of their responsibility for the policies followed by their own local authorities. I think that that is a step in the direction that the noble Viscount was considering.
He also referred to the position of the courts. I think, in fairness to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, that I ought to point out that his efforts, and I believe those of his predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, to secure improvements in the administration of justice in this country, have in both their particular cases been considerable. I realise that they have been overtaken by the very large increase in crime, and if, after four years as Home Secretary, I did not know that, I would be a very strange person.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the Crown Courts are now getting through more cases each year than ever before, and the Lord Chancellor has appointed more judges than we have ever had. It is also the case that the number of courtrooms is now at a record level, and my right honourable friend is doing everything he can to make a more efficient use of court resources. I think it would be wrong not to recognise that those are some of the things which have been done in the field of the courts.
I turn now to the question raised by the noble Viscount about House of Lords reform. I will mention it, too, in the context of what some other noble Lords have said. I would reinforce what my noble friend Lord Soames said in his intervention in the speech of 257 the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. There are so many ways in which this House could be reformed, so many views put forward as to how it might be reformed; but the problem is that agreement on these measures is seldom reached. I should like to utter a word of warning to all those who see an easy prospect to go forward by these means.
I had the privilege (and sometimes it was not quite that) of being the Opposition Chief Whip in the other place during the 1966–70 Parliament. The Government and Opposition leaders agreed on a scheme for the reform of your Lordships' House. When it came to the other place, the Government—and it was a Labour Government at the time—found it totally impossible to get it through. In another place it was confronted by a very powerful coalition of the right honourable gentleman Mr. Michael Foot and the right honourable gentleman Mr. Enoch Powell. A more powerful coalition, when it comes to speaking and making sure that they can spin out speeches for very long periods of time, than those two right honourable gentlemen could not be found in British politics today. They are masters of the art—and so they were!
The end of it was that one day my noble friend Lord Carrington turned to me and said, "I always thought you were hopeless, and now I know that you are. You are totally incapable of getting this thoroughly sensible reform through that ridiculous House of Commons", which he referred to as "another place", "and you must take all the blame for having failed to achieve what everyone who knows anything about it believes would be a proper reform". I may say I replied suitably to my noble friend, as I have replied suitably to him on many occasions since.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Viscount for giving way. He will recall that it was when the House of Lords rejected the Rhodesian sanctions order that the then Prime Minister took a very truculent view of the behaviour of the Conservative Opposition and brushed aside the co-operation of the Opposition in the House of Commons to secure the passage of the reforms of the House of Lords. He said that the Labour Government could do it off their own bat and, having lost the cooperation of the Opposition, failed to get it through his own supporters. That really is the story, and it is a very complicated one indeed. But it was not just failure to get it through. After all, the Labour Prime Minister dismissed the Official Opposition from the scene and said he could do it from his own strength, but he failed in the end to do so.
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, memories of history tend to be selective but of course I accept entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, says. My memory was that the then Prime Minister, now the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, actually dismissed the Official Opposition. I have to tell him that my noble friend Lord Carrington did not dismiss me. He simply said that I should have been continuing to co-operate and had failed, despite everything else. But my point is still the same and I should like to put this to the noble Viscount: why were those great Parliamentarians, Mr. Foot and Mr. Powell, so much against this proposal?—for a very simple reason, 258 which stemmed from their very great adherence to another place. They believed—and I do not think I could claim they were wrong—that if changes were made in the composition of your Lordships' House which would make it perhaps more elected, the result would be that before very long that House, made more elected than it is at present, would demand more powers. And, my Lords, that is what those Members of another place were determined not to have.
I suspect there will be those coming after them who will take almost exactly the same position and, if one is to say that they are wrong, all I can say is: let us take the example of the European Parliament. It became an elected Parliament—and what happened? It immediately started to demand ever-increasing powers and some of the member states are not so sure that they want to see it get more powers. But of course that is what it demands, and I believe that if you change the composition that is what tends to happen.
I now turn to the noble Viscount's point about Ministers without constituencies, to which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, also referred. I have to say that I do not agree with the noble Viscount and I want to tell him why. I did represent a constituency in the North of England, very far from London. Indeed, it was one of the biggest country constituencies in acreage, even if more populated by sheep than by people. Perhaps that is the reason why I represented it for so long!
§ Viscount Whitelaw
Nevertheless, my Lords, I represented it while I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for two years and Secretary of State at the Home Office for four years. I do not think one could have two jobs which demanded more time away from a constituency than those two did, or two jobs that gave you more sudden preoccupations so that you had to cancel going to your constituency at the last minute. Yet throughout all that time I felt it was right to do the job and I made certain—not least because I know that in the political world the difference between, "You are so busy now that you really mustn't come", and, "The devil never turns up: he is too grand now", is a very narrow one indeed and one must take great care to keep on the right side.
Nevertheless, I do miss having a constituency as a senior Minister since I have come to your Lordships' House. I have to say in all honesty that it is the only thing I miss on having come to your Lordships' House. But I do miss that, and I miss it because I do not have the direct knowledge of what is going on in a particular part of the country. It is true that I keep out of the way in my old constituency, obviously, for my successor to have the tasks; so I do not have the same contacts there although I am there a great deal, and of course I do not have the same correspondence. That may be a great blessing in many ways but it is a fact of life that you do not quite know what is the feeling on the ground.
I think that, in a large measure, Ministers without constituencies would not be a good thing for that very special reason. I know it means they have a great deal more to do but if they get tired—and there are many reasons why Ministers get tired but not all of them are 259 outside the control of the Ministers themselves—I believe there are some standing rules so that it is perfectly possible not to be tied down reading papers all the time. A Minister has to make quite clear how much he is prepared to read. Once he makes it clear to his Private Office how much he is prepared to read, it is remarkable that he does not get more than he is prepared to read; and I believe that is a very good rule indeed. I made it very clear that I was not prepared to read more than was possible, because I like sleep and I did not want to read when I ought to have been sleeping.
I turn now to my noble friend Lord Auckland. He referred to the question of Committees and Select Committees in another place. I think it would be wrong for me to spend time discussing the affairs of another place, particularly since I am not there any longer, but I would simply say that I believe that in any House the balance between what happens on the Floor of the House and what happens in various committees is very important. I would make just one observation about the other place. I did see over the years that balance going the wrong way, in my judgment. Too much time was spent in committees of various kinds by too many Members. That detracted from the work on the Floor of the House, which became that much less effective. I do not think that was a good thing for Parliament. I am for the committees but I think they should be kept in balance with the work on the Floor of the House itself.
The noble Lord, Lord Banks, referred to the need for a comprehensive review of the constitution. I am not sure how far that would get; but he referred in particular to various special features. First, on the question of proportional representation, I myself cannot and do not claim to be in any way emotionally against it—and after all I could not be, because I did introduce it in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and I would maintain that, in those particular circumstances, it was the right thing to have introduced there. It did have some effect, although, alas! of a very limited nature.
I therefore can see the argument in certain circumstances but I must say that having listened to the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who after all has had very considerable experience—far more than I have—of party politics at the grass-roots level in the country, I thought he gave a very powerful exposition against PR at the national level, and one with which I actually agree. I think the noble Lord, Lord Banks, did not seem to mind if there were coalition governments, but I personally fear coalitions for one simple reason. It is that all parties are to a certain extent coalitions and of course all governments argue among themselves—that is part of the business of politics—but if those coalitions are hamstrung by very detailed agreements set out beforehand under which the members of that government came into office, and if they cannot stay in unless they subscribe to some particular doctrine or particular proposition, I think there is a danger that that will lead to weak governments. I believe that there are examples all over the world where that is so.
I would comment on regional government which the noble Lord, Lord Banks, referred to, and I would 260 simply say that I fear it would be extremely difficult to get regional government agreed when it came to the boundaries. I am prejudiced because I happen to live in a part of the country which has absolutely no intention of being in any other region except itself, and it is much too small to form a region by itself. On the whole, Cumbria could not be a region but if you tell Cumbria that it will become part of the North West region it bitterly resents it. If you tell Cumbria that it will become part of the Northern region and therefore an adjunct to Newcastle and the North East, it also resents it. I think it is not far wrong because in either event Cumbria would be a very distant and to some extent poor relation to either of the other two big conurbations in the North West and the North East.
There are other difficulties, in the Midlands particularly. Anyone who saw the problems concerned with television stations in the Midlands will know very well how difficult it is to differentiate between, for example, the East and the West Midlands when it comes to finding a boundary, and I think these are very great difficulties.
I turn now to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. He said some things with which I greatly agreed and some with which I did not agree so much. First, he made some remarks about the Civil Service with which I entirely agreed. I know, having been served over many years by different civil servants, that I could never have done the work or even survived at all in the various jobs that I have had without an amazing amount of assistance from them. I believe it is part of that assistance that it is given on a confidential basis to Ministers and, if it were not, I do not believe it would work. I am very jealous of that and very nervous—I agree with the noble Lord—about some of the trends which have looked as if they might go in the opposite direction, because I do not believe that that would be in the interests of good government.
Now I turn to the question of education. I shall not go further than to say that for obvious reasons, I think there is a weakness in the present triangle of responsibilities, a very obvious weakness which has been shown in recent times. Whatever may be the reasons for that, whatever may be the faults, the fact is that the system is creaking, as the noble Lord said, and I think it should certainly be considered on that basis.
The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, suggested that there was too much legislation. That is true, but I have to say that one of the reasons that is so is because members of both Houses of Parliament are constantly urging action on governments, all of which demands legislation. Let no one be under any illusion: if noble Lords just reflect for a moment on some of the things they are pressing on the Government they will find that all require legislation and substantial time for that purpose. I do not think that is any excuse for governments; perhaps they ought to resist the pressure more than they do. But there is a responsibility on all members of both Houses of Parliament to remember that they have a part in pressing for legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, says that the House of Commons is much too big. I do not think I shall comment on that because if anyone including the noble Lord thinks that it can suddenly be substantially reduced, he has another think coming.
261 The question of government and business directorships in the City is one where I think he makes a point to which I do not wish to refer, except to say that nobody ever offered me a directorship so I am not likely to follow it up. I shall very shortly be 70 and that will be the end of that, even were I removed from the Government, which many people would consider appropriate.
The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, raised the question particularly of hereditary Peers and asked if this was going to be continued. This is a somewhat touchy subject for me personally and I shall read out part of what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said at col. 883 of Hansard on 26th November 1979. In answer to a Question, "Will the right honourable Lady consider reintroducing hereditary peerages?", she said, "I do not wholly exclude the possibility." There is another phrase, but I do not think I shall read it; the noble Lord can read it for himself. I think it would be more appropriate.
Perhaps I should mention that in his recital he of course forgot my noble friend the Earl of Stockton, who has, after all, by his voice and recently this week by his vote made a substantial contribution to your Lordships' House.
The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to PR, and I have mentioned that. He referred to the importance of all the stages in this House on the Floor of the House. Sometimes I may find that tricky and difficult, as indeed may my noble friend the Chief Whip. But I accept what the noble Lord says: I think it is a powerfully important part, certainly, for this House and I believe it to be right.
I hear what he says about the financial assistance to political parties. It has to be remembered that after the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, there has been some very minute movement in financial help to the political parties in Parliament. I think we should remember that. I realise, of course, that the proposals go much further.
As for adversarial politics, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I believe it is the stuff of being in political life. I think that one can perfectly well argue with people, that one should argue and that, providing one is seeking to do so—and I come back to the point made earlier—in the national interest, as I profoundly believe I have been seeking to do, however imperfectly, for a long time, that is the proper way to conduct our political system.
My Lords, I have spoken for too long but I hope I have given both the noble Viscount and your Lordships some feeling that their views have been most carefully considered and commented upon.
§ 7.57 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, first of all I should like to thank all the noble Lords who have spoken, and in particular of course the Leader of the House, who, I think, has understood what I was trying to do and has given a very sympathetic consideration to my approach.
I believe an implied criticism was that I raised 15 subjects, but I could, of course, if I had tried a little 262 harder, have raised 25. I thought that the advantage was first of all that I could get the experts to speak on any of the 15 subjects they chose, but had I confined it more I do not think that what I was trying to get across—the need to look at these things—would really have been as effective.
I would say that my object has been to stimulate those who can influence affairs to think about what changes may be necessary, not only on the matters I have mentioned but in other areas. We know, for example—although I did not mention this nor did anybody else—the changes which have occurred, let us say, in the Stock Exchange where so much has been taken over by foreigners and therefore there is a need for change. That is my message and I hope it has got across.
In speaking at the end of a debate, I do not believe that if one can possibly avoid it one should take up individual points and then refute them. I would only say to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that if he reads my speech he will see that there is nothing really between us on adversarial politics. He said exactly what I would have said about it, that it must not be opposition for opposition's sake. But I think possibly I would go just a little further and say that in this very critical time for the nation I believe we have still not stopped its decline. There must be a positive effort to see whether one can get common ground in the national interest. Sometimes one might make the criticism that it is fiddling in party politics while Rome burns.
My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.