§ 3.17 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington) rose to move, That this House take note of Her Majesty's Government's proposals for reform of the House of Lords, as set out in the Labour Party Manifesto.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, and do so with great expectations of the debate that lies ahead. For our part, the Government welcome the opportunity to restate our policies, but we also look forward to listening to the views which will be expressed today and tomorrow from every part of the House. The list of speakers is impressive. Some we hear regularly, others less often, but I am sure that the debate will be authoritative and informed by a variety of personal experience.
§ It has been said that there are as many ideas about the reform of your Lordships' House as there are people prepared to discuss it. Today—and, indeed, tomorrow—we have, at the last count, 114 prepared to discuss it. I cannot predict that every one of those 114 will have a different view, but my enthusiasm for making the opening speech in this debate is outweighed only by my appreciation of the fact that my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn will, with his customary analytic skill and capacity to précis, be drawing the threads together tomorrow evening.
§ Perhaps I may emphasise again that the purpose of this debate is to take stock and to listen to your Lordships. It may not be possible to respond immediately to each and every argument but the Government will listen carefully and with consideration to noble Lords who are, after all, the experts on this House: experts on its role, its customs, its strengths and of course, its weaknesses. It is right that those most affected by proposals for change should have a proper opportunity to contribute.
The Government's position is clear. It has been clear and unequivocal since the 1997 general election when the Labour Party won a large majority on the basis of our manifesto. As today's Motion asks noble Lords to take note of that election manifesto, I think it entirely appropriate to quote from it directly. The relevant passage states:
As an initial self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered. The system of appointment of life peers to the House of Lords will be reviewed. Our objective will be to ensure that over time party appointees as life peers more accurately reflect the proportion of votes cast at the previous general election. We are committed to maintaining an independent cross-bench presence of life peers. No one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords.
A committee of both Houses of Parliament will be appointed to undertake a wide-ranging review of possible further change and then to bring forward proposals for reform.
That is a succinct and accurate summary of our policy. I am tempted to add that I could say at this point, without discourtesy, that that is our case, and sit down.
However, let me try to expand some of the arguments which lie behind the manifesto commitment and respond to some of the points already made in anticipation of today's debate. Perhaps the most easy to answer, and yet very often repeated, is that the removal of the hereditary Peers from Parliament is an act of political spite, a throw-back to the battles of the old class war, a policy based on a bitter mixture of personal malice and envy. My Lords, it is much more straightforward, much more objective than that.
§ The Government believe that modernising the constitution is vital to modernising our country's democracy. Legislating to stop hereditary Peers being Members of Parliament removes a profoundly undemocratic element. It is an element which is so significant that it disturbs the whole nature of the second Chamber. After all, over half the Members of this House have inherited their seats from their forebears. In the revised, and indeed revived, second Chamber that we want to create for the 21st century, the hereditary principle of selection is anomalous and cannot continue.
§ I think it is relevant that although many countries around the world have built their political institutions on the Westminster Mother of Parliaments, none has a membership based on birth. In the past, Britain has led the world in creating much of the modern democratic process, but we must now take note of the success of other second chambers and not allow the unique anachronism of the hereditary peerage to continue.
§ Last week I had an important meeting with hereditary Peers who sit on these Benches. They gracefully acknowledged that their role, in its present form, was over. I am glad that we will hear several speeches from them. I am sure they will explain their position very well. Although small in number, the Labour hereditary Peers have given great service to this House, and some have served with great distinction in government. Indeed many hereditary Peers, from every part of the House, have given impressive public service. No one decries that service, or seeks to re-write history by denigrating individuals. I am glad to take this opportunity to recognise and acknowledge the personal contribution of members of the hereditary peerage.
§ In conversation with my party colleagues, it was clear that they themselves recognised that accident of birth gave them no claim to be Members of Parliament at the end of the 20th century. It is my belief that the most thoughtful among the hereditary Peers, of all political persuasions, know that the time has come to say, "Thank you and goodbye".
§ The enormous, undemocratic problem is that so many hereditary Peers are of one political persuasion. The overwhelming bias in favour of one party—the Conservative Party—means that the House as a whole is unrepresentative and unresponsive to changes in public opinion. Your Lordships should recognise that the whole country could vote one way in a general election and it would make no difference to who formed the largest party in this House, which is one of the Houses of Parliament. Bias on this scale would be unacceptable whichever party it favoured. Of course, in this Parliament, as in 1945 and 1966, the Labour Party finds 923 it particularly unacceptable. There is nothing disreputable about that. After all, today, in the democratically elected House of Commons, the governing Labour Party has 417 Members and the Conservatives have 162. In this House there is almost a mirror image. Labour has 168 Peers; the Tories' 472, of whom 300 are hereditaries. I should emphasise that the removal of the hereditaries will, at the most recent count, still leave a Conservative majority over Labour of 22. Nonetheless, any change which produces a fairer balance—as our proposals will—must make this House more democratic.
§ Some people have suggested that the party political democratic balance may not be particularly important because the hereditary peerage is in itself representative of different strands in our population. The noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition once suggested to your Lordships' House that these Peers were "well on the way to being a cross-section of society." Now, I was not in the House to hear the remark. Therefore, I am not sure if the noble Viscount was speaking with his familiar pleasant irony. However, it is hard to believe it was a serious assessment. After all, we know that 60 per cent. of hereditary Peers claim a background in land owning and farming and 42 per cent. have had careers in the Armed Forces. Only 1.4 per cent. describe themselves as workers—not exactly a cross-section of society that we recognise today. Today's Britain is multicultural and multi-ethnic but, for obvious reasons, that is nowhere reflected in the hereditary peerage.
§ Today, all political parties want to increase equal opportunities by improving equality in education. Some progress is being made but, among hereditary Peers, 45 per cent. were educated at Eton and 37 per cent. at Oxbridge. As an Oxbridge graduate myself, I must be careful not to insist that that alone represents outdated exclusivity. But, as a woman, I feel on extremely strong ground. The male dominance of the hereditary peerage is glaringly unrepresentative and glaringly outdated. This month we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the appointment of women life Peers. I am delighted that I have so many distinguished female colleagues in all parts of the House today. Indeed, there are eight women members of the Government on our Front Bench. But even in 1998 there are only 16 women hereditary Peers out of a total of 750.
§ As recently as 1994 your Lordships were given the opportunity to change the position. But the House voted against a proposal which would have allowed the eldest child of either gender to inherit a peerage. Four years ago the peerage would not reform itself. So today 50 per cent. of the population are represented by just 2 per cent. of the hereditary peerage. These kinds of facts make a mockery of the claim that hereditary Peers are a representative body and therefore can claim legitimate seats in Parliament.
§ I hope that the underlying case for what the Government intend is now apparent. The manifesto makes clear that ending the right of the hereditary Peers to sit and vote is a stand-alone reform. We believe that the reform is an initial self-contained step and that it is 924 sufficiently important and necessary to our policies of modernising our constitution and democracy to be worth doing in its own right. That is what we intend.
§ To those who argue that somehow this major constitutional change is insufficient and that they want more radical reform now, I say, with respect, that they underestimate both the significance of the immediate proposals and our step-by-step approach to the longer term, to which I shall return later. However, I must say something about the political tactics of delay, about what I call a "pick and mix" approach to policies made clear in the Government's election manifesto. I have been disturbed by recent reports of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, of a Conservative Front Bench spokesman in another place, and of Back Benchers in your Lordships' House, suggesting they will deliberately obstruct the Government's legislative programme because they disagree with our manifesto proposals on reform. The noble Viscount has spoken of a "noble fight" and Dr. Liam Fox, MP, of "guerrilla warfare". One noble Earl has told me personally that he will behave like a football hooligan.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, if the noble Baroness would prefer it, I will change from a modern idiom to that of Livy, Book Six:'In the sleeves of my toga I have peace or war', said the Roman Legate to Sarentum".Take quid placet tibi and then look at the result of Fabius Maximus Cunctator, "If you would rather I am intellectual, I will be intellectual; if you would rather I be stroppy, I will be stroppy".
§ Baroness Jay of Paddington
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for my Oxbridge education. But all of this apparently, either in ancient or modern tongues, is in the name of protecting the hereditary Peers until we have created a totally reformed second Chamber.
I do not intend to make aggressive remarks this afternoon. The time for that may come! But I cannot resist simply challenging those who lead the Conservative Party with the two words, Salisbury Convention. It was, after all, the noble Viscount's grandfather who first articulated the doctrine. I quote exactly:It would be constitutionally wrong, when the country has expressed its view, for this House to oppose proposals which have been definitely put before the electorate".I hope no one doubts that our proposals on the ending of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in your Lordships' House fall into this category. I myself do not see how they could be clearer or more explicit.
If that is accepted, how do those who oppose the Government's proposals square the respect for the democratic process, which the Salisbury Convention obviously implies, with demands that the Government should only fulfil their manifesto commitments under conditions of their making? Our proposal could not be more precise: both what it is and its self-contained nature. If our opponents refuse to accept that the convention applies in this case, what manifesto pledges do they think are covered? Do they still subscribe to the convention at all? Do they think they can pick and mix 925 which bits of the winning party's manifesto they thought the electorate understood and voted on, and discard the rest as irrelevant? That seems to me an extremely dangerous course to embark on. And even if those who are opposed to this particular measure can somehow persuade themselves that they are entitled to oppose it, what arguments are they using to justify opposition to other unrelated parts of the Government's programme? Far be it for me to offer advice, but if the Conservative Party hopes to improve its popularity by wrecking the Government's plans about, for example, reform of the health service or law reform so that House of Lords reform is also delayed, I suspect it is once again completely out of touch. The most common injunction to your Lordships I read in the press and indeed hear from voters is to "get on with it".
Of course, the next steps are very important. We must "get on with it" to achieve an improved transitional Chamber of appointed Peers, and then develop an appropriate second Chamber for the next century. We will be bringing forward more detailed proposals in a White Paper, but let me make clear some of the immediate elements of future reform so that it is understood what we have in mind.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, has said this week that he is primarily concerned with mechanics. Following the removal of the hereditary Peers, approximately 510 life Peers will remain. As I said earlier, there will still be fewer Labour Peers than Conservative Peers. We are committed, as the manifesto states, to maintaining an independent Cross-Bench presence, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced in his recent speech to the Labour Party conference that he will no longer have the sole power of patronage in appointing Peers. In spite of all this, Conservative spokesmen persist in asserting that the transitional House will be a new and alarming Chamber of patronage.
Frankly, again the reaction seems out of touch with reality, and indeed, in this case, history. After all, Prime Ministers have always had the power to propose peerages, hereditary or otherwise. Lloyd George notoriously recommended vast numbers for political ends and before him Asquith had persuaded the King that if necessary he should create hundreds of Liberal Party hereditaries to pass the 1911 Parliament Act. More recently, during the 18 years of Conservative government in the 1980s and 1990s, the huge Conservative majority in this House was made even bigger by double the rate of Conservative to Labour creations of life Peers. There has been nothing constitutionally inhibiting Prime Ministers from behaving like this.
However, this Government intend to move in the other direction. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is proposing under the new, transitional arrangements to reduce his patronage, to ensure that no one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords and to maintain an independent Cross Bench element. I have no hesitation in asserting that the transitional Chamber will be more legitimate than that we have today. It will also be a prelude to wider reform.
926 We think it right to consider the next longer term steps in the context of the other constitutional changes which are taking place. Establishing an effective and appropriate second Chamber for the next century needs proper deliberation—deliberation which includes, for example, the impact of devolution within the UK, of changing relations with European legislators, and also perhaps of changed methods of voting in this country. In that context I welcome the approach of the initial report of the commission chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that the objective at this stage should not be to limit the debate but to structure it and that the first need is thorough analysis of the issues. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, the other member of the commission, who is to speak in the debate, will be able to tell us something of the commission's future endeavours.
The Government recognise that the broader constitutional settlement is both relevant and complicated. It will take time to bed down and assess. For those reasons we want to build on our manifesto proposal for a committee of both Houses of Parliament to consider further reform. We intend to appoint, first, a Royal Commission to undertake a wide-ranging review and to bring forward recommendations for further legislation. When the Royal Commission is formally established, we will set a time limit for it—a time limit for it to do its work and a time limit for it to report back to the Government. The Royal Commission is not a delaying tactic but it is right that there should be wider debate and further analysis before the long term is settled. Our detailed proposals on the role and working operations of the Royal Commission will be announced in the forthcoming White Paper.
I hope I have said enough to reassure your Lordships both about the nature of the transitional Chamber and that the Government are serious about a step-by-step approach to longer term reform. We are not inviting noble Lords to step off a precipice into a dark abyss. The next steps have already been considered. Those that we need to be immediately precise about will be announced shortly and the process by which we explore the further steps will also be clear. We will remove the hereditary Peers from Parliament as a self-contained act of reform.
Repeated attempts this century have shown that abolishing their right to sit and vote will simply not happen if it is tied to the search for the perfect long-term solution. The Government are no longer prepared to accept that that is necessary or desirable—to do nothing just because it is not yet possible to do everything. Dealing with the issue of the hereditary Peers will free everyone to concentrate their energies on the future, not the past. I look forward to the properly focused debate on the future being started where it should be, in your Lordships' House this afternoon. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House take note of Her Majesty's Government's proposals for reform of the House of Lords, as set out in the Labour Party Manifesto.—(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)927
§ 3.38 p.m.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the Government Chief Whip for agreeing to hold this debate and indeed for agreeing to hold it over two days. I am glad that in advance of the Bill we have a chance to debate our own future. In view of the number of speakers who expect to address your Lordships this afternoon, I hope that I will set a good example and not speak for too long. I fear that this is a subject that we will come back to many times over the coming months. I hope that your Lordships will feel inclined to adopt the same self-denying ordinance.
I shall therefore not attempt to set out the arguments for having a second Chamber. They are at least nominally accepted, even by the Government, and challenged, I venture to suggest, only by a few dinosaurs in the noble Baroness's own party. Neither shall I set out how in almost every way the present Chamber does its job supremely well. Your Lordships are at least as aware of that fact as I am.
What I would like to do is to try to set out the consideration that will above all be animating my right honourable and honourable friends in another place and my noble friends and I in this place when we consider the Bill for changing the composition of your Lordships' House that the Government have promised us yet again this afternoon. I thank the noble Baroness in particular for her promise of a White Paper. We shall thus be much helped as we consider the Bill. I hope it may be possible to give some indication, when the noble Lord replies to the debate, how far in advance of the publication of the Bill that White Paper will be made available to us. Underlying our approach will be our own appreciation of what seems to us above all others the purpose of the second Chamber in our Parliament. I again venture to suggest to your Lordships that that purpose is to ask the House of Commons from time to time to think again, to say, "That seems a bit silly to us. Do you, the House of Commons, really want to do it?"
I believe that that function has been central to our purposes in this House since the party system developed in another place. As a distinguished predecessor of mine put it over a hundred years ago,A House of Commons enslaved by the caucus and muzzled by the guillotine".If anything, that primary function of ours has become more important in recent years as government after government of both complexions have hurried through vast indigestible puddings of ill-prepared legislation based on ill-thought out policy, which increasingly has in large measure not even been considered at all in another place. Your Lordships may care to ponder on an outstanding example in the current Session, the Welsh Bill. It is the curse of the age, and in my view the single greatest contributor to the contempt in which the public increasingly hold elected politicians.
If this House is to perform its primary function adequately, its membership needs above all two characteristics, independence and authority. There, of course, lies the kernel of the argument for reform of our House. We are certainly independent as at present constituted, as any Chief Whip in this place not only 928 knows to his own cost but to the cost of his refreshment bill, but we do not feel we have the authority to ask the other place to think again except over relatively minor matters, and then, despite what the Government Front Bench frequently tries to assert, only relatively rarely.
Some say that in our weakness lies our strength—that were your Lordships through reform possessed of greater authority and therefore felt able to challenge another place more frequently and over weightier matters, legislative gridlock would ensue. I reject that argument. I believe that perhaps the time has now come for a little more legislative gridlock to obstruct the legislative inadequacies of governments of both parties which arise from their domination of the House of Commons. That is the great argument for reform. Our present composition does not allow us to do that job adequately for we lack the authority to do so.
I had hoped that the Government might share that view. It was in that spirit that I was so pleased when the noble Lord, Lord Richard—whom we much look forward to hearing this afternoon—suggested private talks about reform some months ago. As your Lordships know, I have always thought that the two-stage process the Government are pursuing will guarantee that we shall never get beyond stage one. To me the reasons are clear and obvious. The first of those reasons is that there will be no incentive whatsoever for the government of the day, whatever their political complexion, to implement stage two once stage one has been introduced and passed. An entirely nominated Chamber is no more legitimate than a hereditary one, perhaps less so as its members owe their presence to the living rather than the safely dead. We all know the power that patronage confers—none better than a former Leader of your Lordships' House—whether through the filter of an intermediary committee or not. No prime minister would be in a hurry to give that up.
Secondly, it is difficult to find a stage two on which there is general agreement. I believe that the noble Baroness acknowledged that earlier this afternoon. As she also pointed out, it is a cliché that in a room of 10 people discussing how to reform your Lordships' House there will be at least 11 strongly held opinions about the right way to proceed. If the presence of hereditary Peers in this place offends the Government—which clearly it does—paradoxically I think the best way to ensure that they proceed to stage two at all would be to keep us here until stage two is agreed and introduced.
The third reason is perhaps the strongest of all for this Government. They do not like independent-minded bodies with rights and obligations to question them and hold them to account. For this Government in particular a legitimately independent Chamber would not do at all. The fourth reason—it is perhaps the most powerful reason of all—which my predecessor discovered in 1968, is that another place would hate, beyond anything else, a more powerful and a more authoritative second Chamber.
So I have always known that stage two would never follow stage one unless the two stages were taken together. We can hear the excuses now, for example, 929 "We shall proceed as soon as is conveniently possible" or, "as soon as the legislative programme allows" or, "I must tell honourable and right honourable gentlemen that there are at present more urgent matters requiring the Government's attention" or, that old chestnut, "We shall set up a Royal Commission" or, best of all, as in that admirable little handbook which I seem to remember from my undergraduate days, Microcosmographica Academica, "The time is not yet ripe".
That is why I have always tried to get the Government to agree—the noble Baroness acknowledged this during the course of her remarks—the mechanics for reaching stage two rather than parading my own pet solution. I think that every Member of your Lordships' House has a pet solution and I am no exception to that. If we are to overcome the obstacles to reform—some of which I have enumerated—we shall have to establish machinery which can build a consensus in public strong enough to generate a momentum able to overcome them. I believe these mechanics would be relatively simple: an options paper and hearings conducted in public by an authoritative body—perhaps a Royal Commission—whose conclusions could be reviewed by a joint committee of both Houses, and certainly no change to this House until its conclusions are implemented.
Sadly, the Government have consistently failed to answer that challenge, which is why the Opposition eventually—frustrated in their wish to be constructive—prevailed upon my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern to do the job for them. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for paying tribute to my noble and learned friend in the way that she did. I find that extraordinarily encouraging. Indeed my noble and learned friend produced an options paper in fewer than two months from his appointment with no resources beyond what was necessary; namely, his own qualities. In contrast, after nearly 18 months, what have we heard from the Government? We have heard nothing whatsoever of substance. But we have heard something. We have heard one matter of little substance and two admissions. The matter of little substance is the allegation—which formed the main burden of the noble Baroness's speech—that everything I say on the question of your Lordships' House is designed for one purpose only, to protect the future of the hereditary peerage in this House.
It is clear why the Government cling to that mantra like a shipwrecked man to a spar. They know that attacking the hereditary Peers is the only political issue left that unites the upper classes of the Labour Party with their followers, the gentry of Islington with the helots of Old Labour. They need such an issue particularly badly now, at a time when the Prime Minister can hear the murmur that he dreads most from his own Back Benches, the murmur of dissent.
And, of course, just as important, they know that once they admit that everything I say reflects what I really think rather than what they would like me to think, they have to begin to answer some particularly awkward questions—of which perhaps the most difficult is: why 930 did they not allow the noble Lord, Lord Richard, to fall in with my suggestion and set up a mechanism to build a consensus in public for full reform?
They have shown that they are sensitive to our criticisms. I should hope so too. That is the first of the two admissions. Like pulling teeth, we have forced them to mitigate the effects of our accusations that they want a House of patronage. The Prime Minister has suggested an appointments commission; and now the noble Baroness has forecast a Royal Commission. It is an attempt to try to show that they are serious about full reform. The noble Baroness, with her customary skill, made a balanced attempt to do that today. So let us not be curmudgeonly about this. Let us throw up at least one cheer for that attempt. But is it enough? I have to say that, so far as I can see, there is no guarantee that will prevent the Government kicking stage two into touch whenever they feel it is a matter of political expediency to do so. In fact, to the contrary, there is plenty to suggest that they have no intention of proceeding beyond stage one—or at least, stage one-and-a-half, the so-called rebalancing which in itself poses a threat to much of the life peerage.
The most compelling piece of evidence seems to me to be the fate—and I commiserate with him—of the noble Lord, Lord Richard; or at least until Monday last it did. I have always felt that the noble Lord genuinely wants a more authoritative Chamber. He made the mistake of saying so and the Prime Minister, showing his impatience with honesty, cut an honest man down.
For one moment I feared for the noble Baroness's future too as she advocated full reform in principle. However, I suspect she has saved herself by the second admission which I referred to a moment ago—although in making her admission she has finally let the big cat out of the bag. The second admission, as reported in the Guardian on Monday 12th October and foreshadowed by the noble Baroness today, is that,the Government would move swiftly to abolish the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote, but would hold off further change while other constitutional reforms 'bedded down"'—in other words, in black and white, what we have always suspected: the Government are in no hurry whatsoever to proceed to stage two. They would be happy to see this House become a wholly nominated Chamber for the foreseeable future. The Prime Minister's game has been made plain by the very honesty of the noble Baroness, which has so rightly earned her the respect and affection of this House.
As a hereditary Peer, I assure the Government Front Bench that I will go quietly if a properly independent Chamber takes our place. To be asked to go without that guarantee is to be asked to connive at the final victory of the Executive over Parliament. I hope and believe that in the coming Session we shall, as we always have—I say this particularly to the noble Baroness in the light of some of her remarks earlier—observe the conventions of this House. However, I also hope that we shall use our powers, not least our powers of persuasion, to convince the Government that it is still open to them to build by consensus rather than try to advance by attrition. If they begin to do that, I also assure them that 931 they will find us as co-operative and constructive as we have always promised that we should be in those circumstances.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank
My Lords, this is not an entirely comfortable occasion for any of us. On these Benches we endorse the Government's intention to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and to vote. However, we are acutely aware of the impending sense of loss that will be felt by many noble Lords who have diligently served this House.
There is nothing inconsistent in believing in an unanswerable case for change and regretting that that inevitably involves the departure of colleagues whom we have come to respect and whose company we have often enjoyed. The Government should listen with the greatest care to all that is said today. I am glad that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said as much. There will be a way back for some hereditary Peers, though I am not sure that the Leader of the House repeated that commitment today. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that he would go quietly. But I hope that he will come quietly back when the dispensation allows those who have been hereditary Peers to opt, if that is what they choose and in so far as membership of this House allows, to become "parliamentary" Peers. Notwithstanding that, our next parliamentary Session is likely to be the last for many of our colleagues. We should fully acknowledge and understand that.
Since May last year, the Government have had more immediate priorities for legislation. On the whole, they have chosen the right order of business. However, this debate to take note of the Government's proposals should have taken place six months ago. That would have allowed more time to take account of the views of noble Lords, and for the publication of a White Paper or a Green Paper well in advance of legislation. The noble Baroness gave no indication as to when a White Paper would be published. Our debate today would have had a much better form had it been before the House now. I regret to say that I think the Government have lost some of the initiative they possessed despite the noble Baroness's strong performance this afternoon.
The departure of colleagues will be sad. However, sentiment does not make the case for leaving the House alone. In a representative democracy it is simply unacceptable that more than half the Members of the second Chamber should have arrived here not because of individual merit—even where there has turned out to be individual merit, and often it is great—but by random selection at birth. No learned institution, no body of fighting men, not even a gentlemen's club could be run successfully for long on the basis of taking pot luck on favourable genes.
The argument on political balance is familiar. Noble Lords will be glad that I do not intend to produce any figures, certainly not any new ones. An overwhelming majority of hereditary Peers who declare a party allegiance do so to the Conservative Party, and have done so virtually throughout this century. The country 932 can hardly treat the House of Lords seriously as an integral part of a democratic system of government when the Conservative Party has never commanded even half the votes in a general election since 1935, and won less than a third of the votes 18 months ago.
But that is not the main argument. The hereditary composition of this House would be indefensible even if it did not secure the dominance of the Conservative Party. The issue of principle, of legitimacy, would be the same. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House is quite right about that. We all know it, we admit it to ourselves and we admit it to others, especially when we debate the conventions of the House. Our restraint in the exercise of our existing powers is a measure of our doubt. We do not vote on Second Readings, we do not vote on statutory instruments. We are reluctant to disagree with the Commons when they reject our amendments. Indeed, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said, we know we lack the authority which a second Chamber ought to have.
Therefore I assume that the great majority of noble Lords share a common starting point for today's debate: if the House did not exist no one would seek to create it in its present form. The only argument for the hereditary principle in government is that social position, and its continuity, creates men, but only occasionally women, uniquely fitted to the responsible exercise of political power in the public interest. But the credibility of that view is extinguished by the extension of the franchise and I doubt whether we shall hear much of it in this debate. It would certainly not win many friends or influence many people outside your Lordships' House.
A more plausible contemporary argument might be that hereditary Members of your Lordships' House are freer spirits, more independent of party than the rest of us. William Hague has been bold enough to refer to hereditary Peers as being "the main independent element" in the Lords, completely ignoring the role of the Cross-Bench Peers, whose identity we all agree should stay. But there is no evidence in the Division Lists that hereditary Peers are a particularly rebellious lot, more ready to vote against their party than life Peers.
There is also the occasional claim that our hereditary colleagues, for all their virtues, bring a special knowledge and experience to our debates. Once again, it is hard to find the evidence, except perhaps from our debates on agriculture. The House benefits greatly—we all know it—from the contributions of those who have made distinguished careers in the law, academia, the Civil Service, business and the Armed Forces, to take obvious examples. But with a few notable exceptions—and of course there are exceptions—these contributions come from life Peers who have been appointed on their own, on personal merit. The only collective merit of the hereditary principle is that our hereditary colleagues are sometimes a good deal younger than the rest of us. But that too could be remedied. There is no lower age limit for life Peers, though perhaps there ought to be an upper one. That is something we may discuss in our two-day debate.
Let me turn for a moment to the noble Viscount, who has been pretty free with his comments about Lords reform, especially out of this House, as he is totally 933 entitled to be, filling the vacuum left by the Government's delay. The noble Viscount has frequently said that there should be no change simply for the sake of change. I think we can all say yes to that. But he has also said that Parliament should turn to reform of the Lords only when it has addressed the reform of the House of Commons. He did not make a great deal of fuss about that today, but in his Politeia lecture earlier this year he produced quite an agenda for reform.
If I may say so with respect to the noble Viscount—and perhaps I may resurrect a hereditary phrase—this is too clever by half. I hope he will jog my memory. I do not remember that he was ever a persistent advocate of reform during his eight years in another place; or that the Cabinet of which he was a member showed much interest in—and here I quote from his lecture—"beefing up the role of local government", which he now apparently believes might "lighten the load of Parliament". I hope the noble Viscount will forgive those of us who welcome his passion for parliamentary reform but suggest that it appears to mean almost any reform except the proposals before us today.
My Lords, I have been trying to bite my tongue but the noble Lord provokes me too much. Of course, one of the merits of Opposition is that the gag which collective government responsibility always puts on Ministers can be taken off when one finds oneself on this side of the House.
What I wanted to ask the noble Lord was whether he would also accept that, although I should like to start with the reform of the House of Commons, I also said in the lecture—for which he kindly gave an advertisement—that I have to accept that because the Government were foolish enough to start with the reform of the House of Lords we must accept it, although we would prefer that they should start with the reform of the other place.
§ Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank
My Lords, I hope that the noble Viscount will make his lecture available to all Members of your Lordships' House. Perhaps it is already in the Library. He spent three whole pages of that lecture spelling out a quite interesting agenda for House of Commons reform. However, I remind the noble Viscount that he is no longer in the House of Commons and, although inevitably the House of Commons will be involved in the reform of the constitution embodied in reform of this House, we might leave some of our colleagues in that place to get on with what they think should properly be done.
There is also this point, which has relevance to what the noble Viscount said. I do not disagree with all the reforms he suggests for another place, but they are all minor compared with what is before us today. When they have virtue, which I have conceded, they are not in any way incompatible—the noble Viscount will tell me if I am wrong—with a second Chamber from which hereditary Peers are excluded. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, who nods his head. I ask those who might be tempted to play the "reform the Commons first" card 934 today what specific reforms they would, from experience, support and why such reforms should pre-date and might invalidate the case for reform here.
Perhaps I may explain my points of agreement with the noble Viscount. Those of us who believe in change must not only say why but how and on what terms. While there is support on these Benches for the principle of legislation—and it is strong—support for the Government's proposals is conditional. First, it is conditional upon there being clear signposts from a wholly nominated House to a predominantly elected second Chamber, with a precise timetable for the transition. Secondly, it is conditional on the Prime Minister of the day, whoever he or she may be, not being free to make the nominations to the transitional House of all parliamentary Peers but only those of his own party; or being able, by the arbitrary choice of numbers, to determine the overall political balance of the House.
The first condition which we make from these Benches looks ahead to a predominantly elected second Chamber. Here, despite the fact that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House read the manifesto—and I listened carefully in case I had made an error in reading it—it is guarded or even obscure. What it calls the "initial" reform, stage one, the disappearance of hereditary Peers, is "not dependent on further reform" and the manifesto's "wide-ranging review" appears to promise only "possible further reform". Again, that is a quotation from the manifesto. I see that a 15-year gap is mentioned in today's newspapers as under discussion. So I think we are right to be concerned on all sides of the House about what the Government's intention is.
The Government offer a Royal Commission. There was no reference to that in the manifesto. The noble Baroness says that they are building on the manifesto. It is an odd bit of building, a quite separate building added to what was there before. But, as I believe the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said, a Royal Commission could hardly assemble more proposals for reform than those already available or represent a greater range of views than will be expressed in this debate. Cross-party discussion would still be necessary on its recommendations.
However, if that is the course the Government choose to follow and they appoint a Royal Commission, say, in January next to work alongside the progress of the Bill—I do not think the noble Baroness told us when they intended to appoint the Royal Commission, whether it was sooner or later or a good deal later—if that Royal Commission is appointed, we shall wish it well and play our part. The timetable is crucial. Even if the Royal Commission reported by the summer of 2000—there is no reason why it should not, although dates slip—there would be little time for a Cross-Bench search for consensus—I am glad that the noble Viscount used that word—to enable the stage two proposals for a predominantly elected House to be included in the Government's next manifesto.
The gap between the first and second reform Bills should not be more than five years, but on the basis of what has been said today it may be a great deal longer.
935 If stage two is not clearly in view and is without a timetable, that may unite those who see tactical opposition to stage one as the key to blocking any change with those who want an elected Chamber without unreasonable delay. It could unite diehards and moderates and the Government would be very foolish to risk such a union. I say to the Leader of the House that many would be reassured if the Government announced before the end of this debate their clear intention to introduce stage two legislation early in the next Parliament. Given the enthusiasm of the noble Viscount for a democratic Chamber, perhaps we can hear from the Conservative Party that it would also stick to such a timetable were it to find itself in government.
I turn briefly to my second important condition, that a wholly nominated second Chamber should not become the personal quango of any Prime Minister. Let us not be naïve about the present system. Prime Ministers have always dictated the timing and numbers of new Peers and their party affiliations and vetted their personal suitability. That is as true of Tony Blair as it is of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher; it is as true of the appointment of life Peers over the past 40 years as it is of hereditary Peers for all time. Therefore, a wholly nominated Chamber, if it did not last too long, would at worst carry over more completely only what has long been the habit of No. 10. But that would be wrong. An independent standing commission should be responsible for determining the political composition of your Lordships' House in the transition period between stages one and two within the terms agreed by Parliament, and for that matter within the spirit of the Labour Party manifesto, as the noble Baroness reminded us. One could begin to move towards a balance that reflected the votes cast for each party in the previous election. The commission would also be responsible for the appointment of Cross-Bench Peers during the transition period and beyond and the overall regulation of the process of appointments.
When I made a proposal of this kind in your Lordships' House four years ago it was greeted with the shaking of some heads and the tutting of disapproval from both Front Benches. Judging by what has been said today by the Leader of the House, in confirmation of earlier government statements there has been a movement of opinion on the Labour Benches. I welcome that, but it is still far from clear that the role envisaged for such a commission is wide enough. The Leader of the House was vague today, as was the recent speech of the Prime Minister. Without an adequate safeguard there would be serious concern in this House and among the public outside. The power and patronage of the Prime Minister has increased greatly in recent years and should not be increased further as a result of changes in your Lordships' House and a transitional period of nomination.
Three months ago William Hague said that the Government wanted "to rush through far-reaching changes" to the House of Lords. I do not know where the Leader of the Conservative Party has been or what he has read. Far-reaching changes have been discussed in both Houses of Parliament for almost the whole of this century and widely agreed. That is hardly a rush. In 936 so far as any manifesto gives government a mandate, this Government have a mandate to proceed with the first stage of the reform of your Lordships' House. Subject to the safeguards that I have mentioned, I suggest that they get on with it.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, when I was Speaker of the other place I had to add a fourth absolute lie to the well-known absolute lies, which was, "If you call me in this debate, Mr. Speaker, I shall be only 10 minutes". I shall try to keep to the time limit suggested yesterday by the Government Chief Whip. In the past I may have disclosed that my father led the last and perhaps most successful strike of tailors in 1912 and was strongly in favour of abolishing not only the hereditary principle but also the House of Lords. I confess that I am a convert. Nevertheless, I accept that the Government have a mandate to carry out their manifesto commitment and that they will bring forward a Bill to reform your Lordships' House. But surely "reform" means "better". It is that which should cause us to pause and consider with great care the changes that are to be made.
I am pleased to hear the noble Baroness the Leader of the House say that there is to be a White Paper on this subject. All of us await it with great interest. I am also glad that this is a genuine "take note" debate, not simply a matter to be visited by our old friend "solemn and binding" who was regularly in attendance at debates a few years ago in the other place.
I hope that the Government will consider the views expressed today and tomorrow about the future membership and role of this parliamentary institution which is older than the House of Commons, has served our country well and, incidentally, is generally held in high regard and esteem by the electorate as doing a good job and very cheaply.
As Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers I cannot speak for them all; nor do I presume to do so. Nevertheless, if there is a consensus it is that we have a very high regard and affection for the 203 hereditary Peers who sit on our Benches. Many of them have played, and continue to play, an active and valuable part in the work of the committees of this House. Others sit on the Woolsack as Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chairmen. Others regularly participate in debates and amendments to legislation and bring to bear their personal experience and expertise. No fewer than 141 Cross-Bench hereditary Peers serve on the main committees of this House at the moment.
It is sometimes alleged that our voting record is not good, but we do not issue a Whip and do not plod through Lobbies to vote for or against arguments that we have not heard. I believe that the House will sorely miss the wisdom and experience of the hereditary Peers. We have a legitimate concern as to who will do the work that they currently carry out and how they will be replaced. It will take time for the Royal Commission to make its recommendations. I believe that most Back Benchers are in favour of evolutionary change rather than sudden death. Would it not be wise to phase out the hereditary element in this House rather than 937 guillotine it? While accepting that the hereditary Peers will have to go eventually, is it not wise and sensible to delay their departure once the Government's Bill in the new Session has been passed—not until the Royal Commission has finally reported but at least until the end of this Parliament? What is two to three years in the scheme of things in a matter as important as this?
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Thorndon, a former Chief Justice of New Zealand and a much-respected Cross-Bench Peer, has put his name down to speak tomorrow and I have his permission to trail the speech which he will give. I believe that he will explain what happened when the New Zealand parliament set out some years ago to reform the Senate. Because they found it so difficult to decide what to put in its place, it became the repository of party politicians and supporters, frequently past their prime. In the process they lost the respect of the New Zealand electorate and the Senate has been abolished. Today New Zealand has a single-chamber parliamentary system.
What the Government are doing, despite their manifesto commitment, is not just a matter for us in this House; it is a matter for the nation as a whole. Because of the constraints of time and in deference to those who are due to speak, I will not today give my undoubted views as a former Member of Parliament for some 28 years, 12 of them spent in the Whips' Office both in Government and in Opposition, then in the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and as Speaker. I will only say that I believe that the other place is in much more need of reform than this House but, my Lords, that is for another time.
I will conclude by repeating that before we bulldoze this House we should see the plans. We on the Back Benches await with great interest the White Paper that has today been promised to us.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, the Government have set out their proposals for the first stage only of a reform of the House of Lords, but I believe it is important to be clear from the outset about certain criteria which should guide the whole process of reform.
The first, and in some ways the most fundamental, question of all concerns the purpose and powers of a second Chamber: what we want it to do and how we want it done. As at present constituted, the House can stop a government extending their life beyond the term of office for which they were elected. It acts as an ultimate check on potential tyranny. The fact that this power has not been used in living memory should be regarded as an indication of its effectiveness, rather than an argument that such power is not necessary. It acts as a revising Chamber, with the power to slow down legislation for further consideration but not block it for ever. It also provides an opportunity for serious reflection and debate on some of the key issues of the day as they bear on Government policy.
It is perhaps appropriate for me to say, speaking from these Benches, outside the thrust and counter-thrust of party political debate, that the power of the House as it 938 at present exists and is operated seems to me to be just about right. I would not like to see it either weakened or strengthened, as some of your Lordships seem to be arguing. If it were significantly weakened, the House would have no point at all and might as well be abolished. If it were strengthened even by a little, it could detract from the proper power and authority of the other place which, as a fully elected Chamber, represents the democratic will of the people.
As an academic observer has put it, "The present House exemplifies a rather fine sense—perhaps an overdeveloped sense?—of just how awkward it can be without causing serious and significant problems to either Conservative or Labour Governments". I am therefore very concerned about the possibility of even a partially elected element in the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has emphasised. The purpose of this action would be to give it an extra legitimacy; therefore an extra authority. Such extra authority, however, could lead to a desire to flex political muscles and this in turn could lead, at the very least, to confusion about where ultimate power resides.
The alternative to an elected or partially elected House is a wholly appointed one. In recent months this has been the subject of much criticism, not to say derision, particularly in the proposed transitional phase, as the biggest quango on earth. The option of a wholly appointed House is, I believe, a serious proposition, right through a transitional phase to a totally reformed one, and one which does require careful analysis and consideration.
Again speaking from the particular perspective of these Benches if I may, the backbone of the House is provided by people with political experience and skills, either from the other House or from local government. This is absolutely as it should be. I believe that this element is quite properly appointed by the Prime Minister, with the advice of party political leaders or by some new political process, about which I say nothing. The fact that the backbone of the House is provided by people with political expertise who are appointed by a political process of appointment rather than an election can, I believe, be defended on rational and democratic criteria when this is part of a wider political process which does involve a real element of election.
What makes the House distinctive, however, is that in addition to the political element there are people with different experience and skills who provide a significant independent element: the Cross Benchers, the Law Lords and the Bench of Bishops. I am not qualified to say anything about the Law Lords and the question of bishops raises the wider question of the establishment of the Church of England—too large a subject to raise at this point. I would like, however, to offer suggestions about the appointment of independent-minded people who do not wish to be aligned with any political party, the Cross Benchers, which the Government have said they are committed to maintaining and which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has again emphasised this afternoon.
It has always seemed a pity that if someone is appointed to the House because they are a distinguished architect or academic, doctor or scientist, they are 939 sometimes reported in the newspapers as having a particularly strong connection with one political party or another. If a person is appointed to the House because of their distinction in a particular field and the wisdom it is thought that they would bring to the House, that surely is enough. Any political connections they have are not germane. It would therefore seem important that the process whereby the independent element is appointed should itself be independent of political patronage.
Here we already have a good model in existence: the Crown Appointments Commission, responsible for nominating names to the Prime Minister for the appointments of bishops in the Church of England. I must emphasise that I am not saying anything at all about how bishops should or should not be appointed. I am simply using that system as a model of a truly independent commission: for that is what it is. The Commission considers all manner of names submitted from many quarters and, after due deliberation, puts two names to the Prime Minister.
Under an arrangement agreed between the Government and the Church of England, under the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, when he was Prime Minister, the Prime Minister retains the power, in relation to the appointment of diocesan bishops, either to choose the second name instead of the first or to ask for two new names; but the names still come from the Church through the Crown Appointments Commission. What is less well known is that in the case of the appointment of suffragan bishops there is a convention which has always been observed: that the Prime Minister does not either reverse the order of the two names or ask for two new ones. The first name is forwarded straight through on a fast track to Her Majesty the Queen.
I see no reason why there should not be a similar appointments commission to recommend names of distinguished independent-minded people whom it is thought could contribute to the work of the House. This independent commission could consider names sent to it from all over the British Isles, particularly by professional associations and regional bodies, from sport and the arts. It would he allocated a certain number of nominations a year, say 20, and its responsibility would be to put those names forward to the Prime Minister. If the system of appointing suffragan bishops were adopted, these would be nodded through without further ado. I believe such an independent commission could and should be set up even in the transitional period. That would help to preserve the independence of the House, as a number of your Lordships have strongly emphasised today.
I believe that right from the outset of the process of reform of the House we must bear in mind what we believe its purpose and power should be. My view is that it is just about right and that it should not be weakened or unduly strengthened. I believe that we should distinguish clearly those who are appointed by a political process and those who are to be regarded as truly independent. I believe that that independent element should be safeguarded by the setting up of a truly independent commission responsible for appointments. A model of that is already in operation.
940 I have deliberately not considered the other independent element—the Law Lords and the Bench of Bishops—both of which raise large and complex questions. But, in addition to those two bodies, it is important to have a truly independent element drawn from as wide a cross-section of occupations as possible, for the creative element in this House is in part due to the interaction of people with political expertise on the one hand and expertise of other kinds on the other.
§ The Earl of Lauderdale
My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate sits down, could he answer one question. In listing the powers of this House, did he not accidentally omit one, which is the power of this House absolutely to veto any endeavour by the House of Commons to prolong its life in the quinquennial Act?
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, I mentioned that. I said that this House served as a valuable check against any potential tyranny. That is precisely the point the noble Earl makes.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, I have been a Member of your Lordships' House for some 44 years. I spent more than 20 years on one or other of the Front Benches and was perhaps at my happiest when I was Opposition and Government Chief Whip and later Leader of the House. With that experience, I say that I have always received the kindest understanding from my political opponents and from every quarter of the House.
I thoroughly endorse the tribute which the Leader of the House paid to the hereditary Peers. I hope that in the course of our debate we will not start comparing virtues, saying that the hereditary Peers are more independent minded than the life Peers or that the life Peers happen to have a greater degree of intellect and experience than the hereditary Peers. We are what we are and as a whole we have made a great contribution to this House in the way we have worked together. But the salient point remains. If, in the 21st century, this House is to play a major and increased role in regard to the House of Commons and the executive we must deal with our reputation and characteristics. You can speak with authority only when the people respect you.
I do not believe that ordinary people, other than affectionately, can respect this House while one party has a permanent position in the second Chamber. That is nothing new; the matter has been discussed in varying degrees of intensity for most of this century. The Liberals proposed to appoint a swath of Peers in order to create a majority for the Budget. We tried in 1968 and went a long way towards reaching agreement. But time has passed. I sympathise with the noble Viscount in saying that we ought to be searching for agreement, but I believe that, regrettably, the time has now passed.
We must deal with the imbalance which arises solely as a consequence of the hereditary principle. There are two choices: either we remove the hereditary right to membership of this House or we swamp it. We could bring in 300 or 400 new Members in which case we would perhaps need to hire the Albert Hall for our 941 regular Thursday meetings. I see no other choice. I believe that most noble Lords, quietly at home, would not disagree with me.
How does one justify the situation? I know how I justify it. As an hereditary Peer, I went down to see Clem Attlee when the disclaimer Bill was passed. I said, "Mr. Attlee, what do I do? Do I renounce my title?" He puffed his pipe and said, "You're more bloody use there than you will be down here." So I stayed. I cannot justify the situation by saying that because I am the eldest son I have a right to attend this House. If I want to come here I make myself popular; if I were younger I might do so and become a life Peer. But at my age I have no intention of so doing. We must deal with the issue. If we are to improve the status of this House and increase its standing within the political scene in our country the Government's proposals are the only ones open.
Much has been said about a second stage and the Government have come under criticism for setting up a Royal Commission. I am a little worried about the appointment of a Royal Commission. I am not sure what a lot of theorists will contribute to a parliamentary assembly. I say to the right reverend Prelate that, yes, we may need a broad cross-section of people in this House. But this is a political centre, where political men and political women must be willing to scrutinise legislation and challenge the executive; it is not a debating society in that sense. I believe that we should be doing much more outside the Chamber in committee rooms examining Ministers and civil servants. I would opt for parliamentary scrutiny prior to the First Reading of major legislation.
I have another anxiety. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, referred to the Chamber being a quango and there being patronage. This place has always known patronage. In the old days, one was given a dukedom or an earldom. One would be created a Baron if one were low down in the batting order. But patronage has always existed. There is one way to eliminate the fear of patronage. One could say that from a certain date no one shall become a Member of this House through the honours system. If people are deserving of honours for what they have done in public life let us give them something that is appropriate. But what is the point of increasing the number of Peers through the hereditary and honours systems when such people have no intention whatever of attending? If we found a way in which the honours system could be removed, much of the fear of patronage would be removed. In fact, the first life peerages did not come forward in the honours list; they came in special lists so that one could identify them as Peers of Parliament.
The parties must now decide what they will do to fill the spaces which will clearly come about when the hereditary Peers leave this House. We shall need experienced men and women at the Table and in committees. They may not be easy to find. It may be that we do not have life Peers who are willing to take on those duties. We shall have to look at that. We must identify the problem to see what plans we can make.
942 In view of the move towards devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and inevitably in England, it is not possible to justify either the House of Commons or the House of Lords as at present structured. If such change takes place how is it possible to justify 650 Members of another place? It seems far too large a number. But there are 1,166 potential Members of this House. The mind boggles at the idea.
We have reform. We hereditaries have done our job. I hope that when we go, we shall go, as the noble Viscount said, with a degree of dignity. I hope that we shall not feel that we have been badly treated because we have not. We have done our duty and our duty is now concluded.
§ 4.41 p.m.
My Lords, this is a very important debate but in many respects a sad occasion. We listened with great care to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the Leader of the House, and will read equally carefully in Hansard what she said. The noble Baroness made quite clear, and is quite unequivocal about, the proposals for stage one. We must expect a Bill in the next Session to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.
The noble Baroness was much less clear about the future stage two. She talked of a White Paper and a Royal Commission. When the noble Lord, Lord Williams, replies to the debate—and I wish him well in the task—I hope that he will address those points. The anxiety and seriousness of the situation relates to having stage one without stage two and no clear indication of what happens in the transitional period. I hope that the noble Lord will take to heart the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, on that subject.
The Motion before the House today is to take note of the Government's proposals on stage one. It is a commitment which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, obligingly read out for us in case we had not read it ourselves in the Labour Party manifesto. That was good of her because I am sure she will agree with me that nobody, except a few professional politicians, a few journalists and a few academics, reads party manifestos. The idea that the great British public read the Labour Party manifesto, identified those three paragraphs, and said, "Of course I shall vote Labour because those paragraphs are there" is ludicrous. When one reads the three paragraphs, they are worthy perhaps of a sixth form debating society on one of its better days.
The proposal is to make a major constitutional change to one of the Houses of Parliament that has existed for hundreds of years. No one has said that that House is not doing its job properly, effectively or, indeed, cost-effectively. Indeed, I read an article by the noble Baroness in the Daily Telegraph today making those very points.
Every serious commentator has said that the House of Lords is doing a good job. But, of course, we have the party manifesto. There has been no Green Paper, no White Paper, no Speaker's conference, no committee of both Houses and no Royal Commission to consider any of the intricacies or problems identified already by the first five speakers today.
943 I believe—and I feel that many people will come to think—that it is a constitutional outrage to use a manifesto to make a major constitutional change. I believe that I am right—although I stand to be corrected on the matter—that nobody has put in a manifesto a major constitutional change and taken it as the way to proceed on a serious issue. I do not believe that there is a single democratic country in the world which would seek to amend its constitution in such a facile fashion.
We now have the spectacle of a government sated with power, seeking to reinforce their will everywhere. They are silencing their own MPs in the Commons and, if the press is to be believed—of course I do not believe everything I read in the newspapers—they are controlling the remarks of Ministers making sure that they are always "on message". They are now attempting to silence the House of Lords, largely for their own political ends.
The proposal to abolish the hereditary Peers in cavalier fashion is a case of gerrymandering the institutions of Parliament to suit the Government who happen to be in office at present. They are concerned neither with the past nor with the future. It is a short-term political expedient. It is indefensible. Party slogans suitable for haranguing the party faithful are not a substitute for thought.
We have been told on many occasions already today that hereditary Peers are undemocratic. What, I may ask, do the Government think that life Peers are? We are all here, except the Bishops and the Law Lords, either by accident of birth or by political patronage. There is much that can be said about the latter subject which I shall save for another occasion.
I said that this is a sad occasion. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, spoke movingly of the work of the House of Lords and I agree with him. I have been in the House now for nearly 28 years. I agree very much with what my noble friend Lord Cranborne said and with what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said. It is a tragedy that what is now being offered as a possible stage two was not offered at the beginning. I do not know anyone who is seriously interested in either the work of this House or the Commons or the constitution who is not prepared to consider seriously reform of the House of Lords.
In 1968, the agreement was not defeated by the House of Lords. The Conservative Peers supported it all the way through.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, the noble Baroness applauds it but did it not, in effect, abolish the right of hereditary Peers to vote?
My Lords, I entirely accept what the 1968 proposals did. I was not in the House at that time. But my colleagues who were here supported the agreement and supported it consistently. However, it was preceded by general discussion and agreement, which is what my noble friend Lord Cranborne has been proposing all along. It was lost not by the House of Lords but by the House of Commons. That is the danger of any stage two reform.
944 Perhaps I may make my own credentials clear. During the 1970s, when we were in opposition, I served on a working party under the chairmanship of the late Lord Home to look at reform of the House of Lords. We produced a report which proposed not only a total reform of the House of Lords but also a number of subsidiary smaller reforms. I stand by those today.
There is an extremely genuine willingness to look at reform. I do not normally talk about this, but I was the first woman Leader of the House. At that time, I made a number of proposals. I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that if she compares the lot of women in this House with that of women in the House of Commons, she will see how much better women do here. Whatever one may say about the multitude of masculine hereditary Peers, they have never prevented women taking top jobs. Women have held all the top jobs in the House of Lords under both Conservative and Labour governments—something of which we should be proud. So there is a lot to be said for the opportunities that women have in this House as opposed to the House of Commons.
There have been three reforms of your Lordships' House since 1945 which have worked and which have carried all-party support. In 1949 it was action to reduce the delaying power and in 1958 the introduction of life Peers, a Conservative Party reform under the late Lord Stockton when he was Prime Minister. There followed the reforms of 1963. All were seen at the time as relatively small reforms but they have had large and, to a certain extent, unexpected success.
The difficulty of any major reform, the difficulty of stage two, is that any increase in the powers of the House of Lords—and unless it has increased powers there is, it seems to me, no point in reforming it—will mean a lessening of the powers of the House of Commons. That follows as night follows day. It was on this issue that the 1968 reform fell. I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Commons would be willing to give up its powers to the House of Lords, or that any government with a majority in the Commons would willingly choose to have an Upper House which made difficulties for it. But that is a problem for the Royal Commission. It is a constitutional problem.
However, there is a political problem as regards stage two. Whatever may be said today, whatever promises may be given about stage two, no government can commit their successors. The truth is that we are unlikely to see any conclusion to any commission, let alone its implementation which would clearly require legislation, in this Parliament. We have started therefore down a dangerous route. We have chosen what I think is a bad reform, stage one, of the House of Lords. We do not know how it will work out. There are no clear plans for a transitional arrangement. There are unclear plans for stage two. And we are asked to accept it. I, for one, do not consider it a very good package.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I share the view of the noble Baroness that this is an important debate. It is.
945 But I do not share her opinions as to the sadness or otherwise of this occasion for reasons that I hope will become clear.
I listened to the noble Viscount with great interest. I am bound to say that in my dealings with him on this matter over the past year I never thought of him as a closet reformer who had nursed an unrequited passion for parliamentary reform all the time he had found himself collectively gagged when he was in another place and a member of the government in this House. I received a different impression. No doubt it was erroneous, and the noble Viscount succeeded in concealing this great reforming zeal from me. If he did, I am delighted to see it revealed this afternoon.
I believe that it is time the House had the opportunity of making its views known. The chance of legislating successfully on a matter of this importance and gravity is rare. As various speakers have pointed out, in the past the subject has been thought to be too difficult, the ramifications too intense and the political disturbance too great, and successive governments have balked at it. Indeed, the opportunity to regularise relations between the two Houses of Parliament comes perhaps only one or twice a century. In my view, this is the best opportunity that we have had to produce a sensible constitutional settlement between the two Houses since 1910. If we can produce a sensible constitutional settlement which will last, that seems to me to be an enormous prize for which we should strive. If we fail, I suppose we shall continue with what is in essence a unicameral legislature in which the upper House has considerable nuisance value but little else. So the stakes are high.
The Government are right to approach this in two stages. This was spelt out clearly in our manifesto at the last election when it received the massive endorsement of the British people. I am bound to say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I thought her description of that as a constitutional outrage was way over the top. If we had not put it in the manifesto, that would have been a constitutional outrage. If it had not been in the manifesto and we were now proposing it, I can imagine the speeches that would be made from the Benches opposite. This policy has been Labour Party policy for many years. Since 1910 the issue of whether one permits hereditary Peers to sit and vote in your Lordships' House has been a live one. I feel no shame whatsoever in proceedings to bring this matter before Parliament on the basis of the result of the last general election.
The Government are quite right, therefore, to move forward on the first stage. In a modern legislature there can be no reserved seats for a privileged few. The continued presence of hereditary Peers in the second Chamber is objectionable in principle, whatever their political leanings are. The fact that the great majority of those who attend take the Conservative Whip only underlines the grotesque unfairness of the present system in which one party has a permanent advantage in one of our two Houses of Parliament.
Much is said of the independence of the hereditary peerage as a group. I accept that large numbers of them sit independently; they listen independently; they weigh 946 the arguments independently; and then they independently vote Conservative. But what they cannot expect me to do is to accept that that position should continue. The fact that people call themselves independent, with great respect, does not make them so.
I support in general the approach of the Government in this matter. I was proud to serve as a lead Minister on the issue. I believed then and I believe now that it is important for the Government to indicate the general direction in which they wish to go. I listened carefully to my noble friend Lady Jay. Clearly on the basis of what we have heard this afternoon there are many issues yet to be dealt with.
It is right also to establish a Royal Commission between the two stages. However, listening to the arguments advanced by the Opposition, one thing strikes me. It seems to me inconceivable that a Royal Commission would recommend a continuation of the rights of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House. It may recommend many other things, but I should have thought that most people would agree that that is not likely to be the result of its deliberations. Indeed, the point most often made by the Opposition on this issue is that of course it is indefensible. We heard from the noble Viscount today: "It is indefensible. We accept that, but we shall not go until we know and approve all the details of any alternatives that might be proposed". In reality this is an argument only about timing.
It is important that the mechanism for moving to the second stage is clearly and unmistakably spelt out. I think that the Government are well on the way to doing precisely that, although I would wish them to go somewhat further in spelling out their overall intentions. I believe that the Royal Commission should be set up earlier rather than later. I am pleased that the Government have moved away from the idea of a joint committee of both Houses to consider the matter. It always struck me as too cosy a meeting of parliamentarians. The Royal Commission should have a tightly drawn mandate. It should be given a timetable of, say, 18 months. Its work should therefore be concluded, its report published, in the lifetime of this Parliament, although towards its end. All parties, including of course the Government, will have to give evidence; and all parties, including of course the Government, will have to consider and react to the report.
Membership of the commission will be crucial. It should contain people who are not overtly attached to any political party. There is clearly a case for having some academics in the field. Industry, the trade unions and the regions should also have a voice. The chairman has to be someone of undoubted and recognised stature and integrity. It will have to take evidence widely. It will have to take evidence from anyone who wishes to give it. Indeed, it will have to be a massive exercise in public consultation if it is to do its job properly.
I hope that the Government will make clear the timetable they propose for subsequent legislation. By doing so they will definitely answer one of the main questions at the core of this debate. I read in the press 947 today, as somebody referred to already, a possible timescale of 15 years. I hope that the Government will refute that in the course of this debate.
I do not envisage legislation on the report of the Royal Commission until the first or second year of the next Parliament, so that the whole process would take around four years. As I said earlier, in many ways the issue of the hereditary peerage and its right to sit and vote in this House in some ways resolves itself into a question of timing. Should that step be taken at the beginning or at the end of the process? In all candour, I have heard no convincing arguments for postponing it. Indeed, when pressed, the opponents to the Government's proposition seem to condense the point to one of not being able to trust the Government to do what they say. The House will not be surprised that that is not a view which I share.
In any event, most of the arguments come from a mistaken view of the nature of the interim house. I believe it has been referred to as the "transitional House" but I can assure noble Lords that it is the same beast that we are describing. It will be one composed of life Peers. If hereditary Peers are extracted, there will be approximately 500 life Peers. It is said that the Government will pack it with their own supporters. We heard that argument yet again this afternoon, and I have no doubt that it will be repeated during the course of the next two days.
There are two answers to that. First, if the Government were to accept and to initiate a cap on the size of the interim House—say, around 600—and to accept as we have, and as repeated this afternoon by my noble friend the Leader of the House, that no party should have an absolute majority in this Chamber, then most of the arguments disappear. The scope for massive packing would not exist.
Clearly some life Peers would have to be created. In my view the Labour Party is entitled to seek at least parity plus one with the number of Conservative life Peers—even the noble Viscount might concede the rough justice of that proposal. There are as yet an unspecified number of hereditary Peers who may be converted into life Peers, so there must be scope for new creations within the cap. It seems to me that Cross-Benchers could remain at about the same proportion of life Peers as at present. Furthermore, the Government have already said that they favour an independent appointments commission to remove new creations from being the sole prerogative of the Prime Minister—something no other government have ever said before. I am sure that the House will await with interest the details as to how that commission will function.
The position at which we would arrive is this: a two-stage process in which, as our manifesto said, the first stage stands alone. There would be an interim House in which the number of life Peers is capped and in which the unfettered right of the Prime Minister to create as many peerages as he would wish is diminished. There would be a Royal Commission and a clear understanding that the Government would proceed to early legislation in the next Parliament so that the 948 interim House is clearly seen to have only a limited life. That seems to me to be a thoroughly reasonable and sensible package which the House ought to be prepared to accept.
The one issue on which I and the Government differ is whether or not they should say now, or in the forthcoming White Paper, the type of second Chamber they would eventually wish to see. My preference—there is no secret about it—is one in which two-thirds are elected and one-third is nominated. I am anxious to preserve the role of the Cross-Benchers. They genuinely add independence and expertise to this House and it would be sad if the British legislature could not continue to provide them with a voice. The political element would be the elected two-thirds and the independent element would be the nominated one-third. No one party therefore would ever be able to command an absolute majority in the second Chamber.
It is said, and I heard it recently, that a chamber thus constituted could conflict over much with the Commons—we heard that from the noble Baroness this afternoon. But let us be clear about this. Whatever one does to reform this House, it will be more troublesome to the other place. At the moment our constitution works partly because of the relative reluctance of this House to use the powers that it actually possesses. We must expect that a newly constituted House may use those powers differently.
Should we find that prospect unappealing? I do not believe so. Most other bicameral legislatures in this world exist and flourish with a degree of creative tension between the two Houses. Inevitably, institutions of government react with and to each other. It happens in Australia, the United States, France and in Germany, to name but a few. It would happen here. Relations are not static; they can and do change. We must face the fact that one cannot reform and expect things to remain the same; they will not.
The Government therefore have a major opportunity to move this matter forward. I would wish it to go one step further. With respect to my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington—I see he is in his place—they could sensibly and legitimately adopt the diplomatic device much used in the affairs of the European Union known as avis favourable. They could say now that, in principle, they believe that the eventual second Chamber should be composed of an elected and nominated element. They could go further if they wished and say that the two-thirds/one-third division, advanced among others by the late Lord Home, is a proposition which they could well favour. That is not to pre-empt the views of the Royal Commission. It is to indicate firmly that, as a government, they are in favour of a democratically elected majority in the second Chamber of the British legislature.
I am heartened by the words of the Prime Minister in a Radio 4 interview on 30th July when he declared,There are two stages to reform: one is getting rid of the position of the hereditary peers, and secondly, there is the longer-term reform for a more democratically elected second Chamber. I think it is important that we do both things".949 The important words, of course, are "democratically elected". My noble friend Lady Jay did not mention those words in her speech. I was disappointed about that because they set the context for a large part of the argument. However, perhaps my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn could remedy the omission when he winds up.
If the Government can, in the course of this debate or in the White Paper, go as far as I have indicated, then we will be well set on the road towards a reform of this House that will last. I believe too that this Government will rightly take their place among the great reforming governments, certainly of this century and perhaps also of the 19th century. I hope that we have the collective courage to grasp this opportunity, for such reforming governments rarely come.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he will be so good as to bear in mind that every government in the past 50 years modified their manifesto commitments; sometimes because of a change of circumstances, sometimes because of expressions of opinion in the House. That then enabled the government to keep an open mind.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I am asked the question and shall try to answer it. I am not saying that the Government are bound by the details of the manifesto; that is not the argument. The argument is that by putting something in a manifesto and receiving massive endorsement for it from the British people, then continuing to do what one said one would do amounts to an endorsement by the British people of the policy one is trying to pursue.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, I rise with great diffidence and misgiving, given that I have only been in this House 10 days and am seeking to participate in this debate of all debates by way of my maiden speech. Nonetheless, I hope that the House will think that my newness and lifelong preoccupations before reaching this place are relevant to the contribution I wish to make, which I propose to confine strictly to the issue touched upon by the noble Lords, Lord Weatherill and Lord Richard.
The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, referred to the fact that this matter of reform is for the nation as a whole. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, went as far as to say that he felt there should be massive public consultation with regard to it.
One of my preoccupations, conceived from my earliest days as a young lawyer in rural Suffolk, is the extraordinary ignorance in which the vast majority of our fellow citizens seemed to exist and still exist in terms of both the law and our constitutional arrangements. Twenty-three years as the so-called "Legal Eagle" on the "Jimmy Young Show" has merely given me a wonderful vantage point from which to see just how extensive public disaffection and confusion is with law and constitutional affairs.
950 Ten years ago I, with others, set up a charity called the Citizenship Foundation, of which I am still chairman, devoted to trying to make a reality of citizenship for so-called "ordinary" young people by enabling them to acquire the knowledge, skill and the will to take an active and contributive part in their own society.
Our experience, gained by working with over half the state primary and secondary schools, is that there is an avid potential interest in becoming informed and engaged citizens. It is about the means of Parliament engaging them that I wish to speak today.
One of the most noticeable things in the debates which I have attended, with admiration, in this House in these few days has been the repeated reference to what is sometimes called the "democratic deficit". A much more vivid description of the attitude underlying effective democracy was coined by John Pym. In 1643, on the eve of the civil war in a debate in the other place, he talked of thatvigour and cheerfulness of allegiancewithout which the great institutions of the state cannot work well or even at all.
Evidence of the lack of that quality in our own day is not hard to find. If it is voting turnout you are interested in, it is catastrophic for Europe and on a declining trend for Westminster with only a modest upturn, even with the excitement of the last election. If it is crime statistics, take little consolation from the marginal improvements recently announced. How many in this Chamber realise that of male adults between the ages of 18 and 30, over 30 per cent. have convictions—I repeat, convictions—for offences of violence or probity? If it is volunteering and giving to charity that concerns you, the trend is bad and downhill. If it is civic engagement or public discourse, the research done by Professor Ivor Crewe of Essex University and the University of North Carolina involving over 3,000 in-depth interviews over several years came up with very discouraging results indeed. In too many directions the faultlines of our society are widening.
I would venture to suggest, therefore, that whatever reforms of the House of Lords are now contemplated, included in the White Paper and then considered by the Royal Commission, the public—the whole public—should not merely be effectively informed, but effectively consulted.
Some may think that that is stating the obvious. I can only say that Parliament's record has been remarkably worrying in recent times. Just look at the European Union. Apart from the referendum of 1975, the fundamental constitutional shifts, particularly around Maastricht, have taken place with little or no public information and no public consultation. I say nothing of the Single European Act although we now know that even the Prime Minister of the day did not really understand the consequences.
The consequence of this near contempt for ordinary people, as they feel it to be, by Parliament and Whitehall, has been a highly significant factor in the sceptical and sour attitude on the part of perhaps the 951 bulk of the British public towards the European Union and all its work today. Not a little of that attitude rubs off on this House and Westminster as a whole.
It is notable that in the Cook-Maclennan report the first two priorities laid down for modernisation of the House of Commons emphasise "fuller" and "better consultation". It does not say "with the public" but that is what I hope is meant. I also hope it means "with the wider public". It is no longer sufficient—if it ever was—to consult through the usual channels the usual opinion formers in the usual ways.
What is needed, I respectfully suggest, is an in-depth, properly resourced, open-minded and popular information and consultation campaign. It is not impossible. In South Africa recently there has been a remarkably imaginative and effective consultation with the whole public—and an extremely under-educated one—vis-à-vis their massive constitutional format. It has been a phenomenal success. On a lesser scale, but worth remembering, was the work of our own Local Government Commission under Sir John Banham who put through the letter-box of every home in Britain a plain English guide about the options for local government reform, and a questionnaire, the results of which profoundly influenced the Commission's recommendations.
The White Paper, which we are shortly to see, could and I believe should be paralleled by a shorter, popular, tabloid version, illustrated and in a format which will be acceptable to, understandable by and attractive to the vast majority of so-called ordinary citizens.
I should like to think that this Government will be receptive to that idea and give it serious thought. Through devolution, the Freedom of Information Bill, the Human Rights Bill and now the Crick Report on citizenship education in schools, they have shown real commitment to civic engagement and public discourse. I am optimistic, therefore, of what might be their attitude to the suggestion I make.
When he spoke in forceful terms on a Citizenship Foundation platform at the Law Society earlier this year, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor had this to say:A healthy society is made up of people who care about the future. People who willingly contribute to its development for the common good".He ended by saying:Our goal is to create a nation of able, informed and empowered citizens".I say amen to that.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Lord Hurd of Westwell
My Lords, the House listened with great attention and pleasure to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. He struck out on a new and thoroughly refreshing line of argument. I am sure that we will hear it again from him and others in the future. The noble Lord's reputation precedes him into this House. I remember several practical and helpful dealings with him over the years. I was impressed, as I think we all were—but not 952 surprised—by the clear and confident way in which he set out his views. I hope we shall hear from him many times again.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, was also thoroughly pleasant and reasonable in the way she set out her case. However, the fact is, as the Prime Minister would say, that she has invited us to start out on a journey with a hidden destination. All we know is the first stop at which the train will halt. It is customary, in an advanced society, to inform passengers of the ultimate destination before they board the train. That is not what the Government are doing. And that, I believe, is the weakness of the position in which Ministers find themselves.
The Government have been under mounting pressure—not just from these Benches but from many quarters—over recent months to break their silence about stage two and the ultimate destination. The noble Baroness responded to that pressure today in some measure by saying that there will be a White Paper and a Royal Commission. But, of course, the Royal Commission will be deliberating after the train has left the station, rather than before. That raises the question of how constitutional change in this country is best carried out. As all noble Lords who have spoken accept, it should not be simply a matter of sparring between party leaderships or party faithful.
Under our system of basically adversarial politics, a party which is in temporary possession of most votes can use its majority in the other place to knock the Opposition into the ditch and leave them lying there. That is a robust and, I suppose, an efficient way of dealing with a good many matters. It is certainly customary, but it is not a satisfactory way of achieving constitutional change because constitutional change needs to be durable. That means that it needs, if at all possible, to be acceptable. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who treated this whole matter as if it were something on which, because of the phrasing of their manifesto, the Government were entitled—indeed, obliged—to use their temporary possession of the majority of votes to leave the Opposition in the ditch.
As the Government were until today, and to some extent still remain, silent on the question of their final objective, their real set of ideas, the Leader of the Opposition, rightly and justifiably, stirred up the debate by appointing the constitutional commission, under the chairmanship of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and to my noble friend Lord Cranborne for the courteous and helpful way in which they referred to our work so far. Perhaps I should make it clear that although the Leader of the Opposition launched the commission, he did not put a pilot on board. We are encouraged to operate in an independent spirit. Indeed, we are operating in that way. I believe that our initial report, of which favourable mention has already been made, reflects that spirit.
We are free to make what proposals we want. We have been encouraged by the reception given to our initial report which went well beyond party circles and embraced quite a wide body of opinion, as implied by 953 the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, in what he said about a possible union between die-hards and reformers. The reception given to the report was all the warmer because of the Government's silence on the subject.
All noble Lords who have spoken and, I think, the great majority of opinion, accept the need for a second Chamber. I do not think that that case needs strongly to be argued. Having served for some years in the other place and in government, I am sure that both government and the other place need a confident second Chamber—not as a rival to the Commons, but as a means of raising the quality of policy-making and legislation in this country.
Many see no compelling need to alter the existing situation nor sense any urgent public pressure to do so. However, the Government seem determined. The plea of many of us—not just on these Benches, but among all those who have given thought to it—is that if the Government are going to do it, let them do the job properly. That means beginning with the question of why we need a second Chamber. Once that has been established, one can logically establish that Chamber's powers and its constitution for those purposes.
The range of a second Chamber need not be confined to what we do here at present; namely, revising, scrutinising and occasionally delaying legislation. There are gaps and imbalances in other parts of our constitution which have not been remedied and which to some extent have been created by this Government's constitutional proposals. It happens that the three gaps which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, chanced to mention were identical to those we identified in our initial report.
There is a gap in the plans for devolution. It is not so much the West Lothian question as the English question, which will cease to be a theoretical question if we ever get, as is conceivable, a government who rely in the other place on a majority of Scottish and Welsh votes. There would then be something of a constitutional crisis because clearly it would not be acceptable that English legislation and English policy on matters devolved in Scotland and in Wales should be carried through and enforced in England by Scottish and Welsh votes. I am not sure whether that point is being taken sufficiently seriously. Could the House of Lords, could the revising Chamber, help to deal with that problem?
The second gap concerns the proposed changes—the thought-of changes—to the electoral system. Here is another train, driven on this occasion by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. If the noble Lord's report contains what is widely reported, there will be a huge controversy on another matter which, if possible, should be established by agreement. Could the House of Lords, could the revising Chamber, be organised in some way to help to deal with that problem? That might not be too far from the solution which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, stated as his personal opinion. Could the House of Lords help to fill that gap?
There is also a gap in terms of the scrutiny of European proposals and legislation. There has been discontent on that matter for as long as I can remember. It is widespread, long-standing and not confined to those 954 who are normally opposed to our membership of the European Union. Already the House of Lords, through its Select Committee on the European Communities, has a high reputation throughout Europe. Can we help? Could a revised House of Lords help to deal more effectively with that problem than is currently the case?
Those are some questions, some gaps, some lacks of balance in our present constitution. No doubt noble Lords will want to raise others. In response to the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, I believe that a revised House of Lords could begin to deal with some of those matters without presenting the kind of challenge to the other place which he fears.
Against that background, I am not sure that we can be wholly confident about what the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said or give her more than the one cheer which my noble friend recommended. It is right that there should be a White Paper. I hope that it will contain a clear indication of the Government's ideas. It is right that there should be a Royal Commission. We need to know—I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate will give more information—when the Royal Commission will be set up and how long the Government will give it for its work. A wide range of timings has been suggested, but the quicker, the better. We need to know about its composition and its terms of reference. Perhaps then we, and many others outside the House, will be able to judge whether establishing a Royal Commission is, as some of my noble friends fear, a device for delay during which the only change will be the abolition of the hereditary peerage, which cannot be described as an advance in democracy, or whether we are present, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, hopes, at one of those rare opportunities for a serious rebalancing and reform of our constitution.
I urge the Government, if they are determined to take action—and there are powerful reasons for letting things be—to do the job properly and, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, emphasised, to bring before the public and Parliament a full and properly considered plan for an effective second Chamber when such a plan is ready. If the Government proceed in that way rather than following the course on which they seem at present to have embarked they will find that there is a better chance of making a change which will allow us to prosper.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, I rise first to congratulate our maiden speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and secondly to emphasise that I speak as a Cross-Bencher. As a Cross-Bencher, I was so glad to hear our Convenor say that the Cross-Bench Peers are by no means all of one mind. We have many opinions. It is wrong to suggest that there is within us any kind of caucus which believes in a particular solution to the problem that we are discussing. I say that because, despite my affection for my Convenor, I disagreed with almost everything that he said.
I rise to support the intention of the Government, as expressed in their manifesto, and to confound, if I can, the central argument of opposition to the reform—that 955 is, that the rights of hereditary Peers should not be altered. If that were accepted, hereditary Peers would remain here until the Greek Kalends. The opportunities for delay and obstruction would be legion—even if a Royal Commission were given a finite time in which to report. If the decision about hereditary Peers is not taken now, a whole new range of options looms before us, as was evidenced this afternoon when the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, moved the First Reading of his Bill.
I do not intend to argue the case for the abolition of the right of hereditary Peers to sit in the House and vote. The arguments of the retentionists continue to astonish me. I even heard the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, denounce the Government's proposal as interference with private property. Just a century and a half ago, when Oxford and Cambridge were being reformed, it was argued that a fellowship was a piece of private property and could be held by someone who lived in London, drew a stipend and never took any part whatsoever in the affairs of his college.
Of course hereditary Peers should be entitled in future to stand for election to Parliament. Of course they should retain their titles. I am certainly not one of those who wants to see the present Leader of the Opposition referred to as Citoyen Cecil.
I do not deny that there may be exceptions to this. No doubt the Government will want to consult Buckingham Palace about the position of the Royal Dukes and other members of the Royal Family who have rights to sit here. I believe that the Earl Marshal, who is responsible for ceremonial, and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who, after all, is responsible for the Palace of Westminster, should hold ex officio membership of this House. As should the Archbishops and Bishops, as long as we have an established Church.
Nor do those end the list of exceptions—or, rather, accommodations. In any reform, a limited number of hereditary Peers of all parties and from the Cross Benches should be entitled to disclaim their peerages and, should they so wish, be nominated to serve as life Peers. It would be monstrous if the weighty counsel of the Leader of the Opposition were denied us—and, indeed, if the even weightier counsel of his Chief Whip was not available to Members of this House. As an historian, I should be sad indeed to lose the expertise of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who can recall precedents dating back to the Middle Ages to support whatever case he is arguing.
It would be for each political party and for the independent Peers to decide how the new life Peers should be chosen. The numbers to be granted this privilege should be strictly limited. No injustice would be done if the Labour Party were permitted to nominate more than the Conservative Party in view of the disparity of the numbers of life Peers in each party.
I am not impressed by the argument that the committee system of the House and its very debates will collapse if the hereditary Peers, who at present do so much to make them work, are disenfranchised. Many life Peers have been created in the past decade and I cannot believe that they will be unable to fill the role which hereditary Peers now fill.
956 I am also not in favour of making Peers for life. There should be a retiring age. I tremble when I say this because I know that one of my favourite and most ancient hereditary Peers will speak after me. I have listened many times with pleasure to the informal way in which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, speaks, and I admire him for the compassion with which he addresses social problems. Nevertheless, there should be a retiring age in the sense that there is one for every profession. Mercy, however, is always part of my second nature. I would therefore suggest that the retiring age should be 75—that is 10 years after the normal retiring age in any public profession. After 10 years, I think one begins to get out of touch.
I do not agree with the proposal of my old friend the former Lord Altringham—known to us as Mr. John Grigg since he disclaimed his peerage—that the ex officio heads of public institutions should be nominated automatically. People in that position are often too busy to attend and too pressed by their official duties to speak as often as we would wish. It would be reasonable for many public institutions to have the right to nominate life Peers. I do not think such people should hold office only for 10 years. Ten years in such cases seems to me too short.
Should the House of Lords be totally nominated? No, that would rob it of its authority. Should it be totally elected? No, that would challenge the Commons and eliminate independent Members, which the Government have said they want to keep.
I have spoken nearly past my time. I will leave it to others to suggest how the elected Members should be elected and, indeed, whether there should be elected Members. There is opposition, I know, to the notion that the rest of the House should be the nominees of the Prime Minister. I think that is a bit overdone. Prime Ministers change. A Prime Minister should not be totally deprived of this piece of patronage.
Some advocate, with reason—and I approve of this—that there should be a scrutiny committee which could choose and endorse candidates for the contributions that they have made to public life—or, let me add, are likely to make to public life, so that young men and women can be appointed to this House. But the Prime Minister should still approve. Let us not forget that a scrutiny committee of this kind will almost inevitably be a caucus of the Establishment. It is very important that other people should be able to be nominated.
Let me conclude by saying that I hope—although I know it is a forlorn hope—that all Members of this House would not take any title other than that of Lord of Parliament and add the initials "LP" after their name. We Cross-Benchers are not naturally armigerous, apart from one or two noble and gallant Lords who sit on our Benches. I hope that that would become, in due course, the custom, and that the House would, in that way, save itself the obloquy which is heaped upon us by the press that we represent old-fashioned and obsolete government.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, the noble Lord who has just spoken and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, are by common consent two of the most attractive speakers in the House. We have had evidence of that in the case of one noble Lord and no doubt we will have it in the case of the other.
The noble Lord says that he feels that I should be eliminated from the House on the grounds of age and being out of touch. I spent this morning in Wandsworth prison. I am not sure that a young man like the noble Lord would have lasted the course there. Youth will be served—at any rate in his own opinion—but he undoubtedly had a point, which may be reiterated. I think that if he stuck to eliminating those over 90 he would be safer. If he eliminates everyone over 75 he will cause real carnage. I do not think that that would be popular with your Lordships.
My mind goes back to an occasion in 1946 when I was taken by the late Field Marshal Lord Montgomery to the staff college at Camberley. He was CIGS and I was Under-Secretary for War, nominally his superior, but of course that was not the reality at all. He concluded an eloquent address with the words, "Gentlemen, never forget the politicians"—pointing at my shrinking form on the platform. "They are our masters. It is up to us to lead them up the garden path. Gentlemen, dismiss." We are, as the poet would say, still the captains of our soul but we have to face the fact that we are not masters of our fate. The most we can do is make a vital contribution, as is being made in these two days, to the discussions about our future.
Having been a Member of your Lordships' House for 53 years, I am one of those who is conscious of the immense good the House of Lords has done and the great service it has rendered to the nation. If anyone can tell me of any harm the House of Lords has done in the past 53 years, perhaps he will say so now. That is how I see this place, which so many of us have come to love. One cannot speak dispassionately after all these years. But there it is. We are not the masters. We must see how we can assist a better future to emerge.
There are two main overlapping functions of the House. The one most often referred to is work on the revision of Bills. The other concerns the influence provided in so many different ways over the life, the culture and beliefs of the nation. Every noble Lord will have his specialised interest. Some will think of the great debate on charities which could not have taken place anywhere else. Others—myself included, I suppose—will think of the debate on penal reform in which a whole string of former Home Secretaries, including the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, who has just spoken, former Ministers at the Home Office, bishops and Law Lords took part. It was a marvellous debate. We have these wonderful debates, the best, I believe in my heart, in the world.
That may be so, but the question that must be asked is: what influence do we exert? I shall pick out one example of influence. It is the one that means the most to me and to quite a few noble Lords. I refer to the Christian influence. No one can say that the House of 958 Commons is not a Christian place in many respects but Christianity is much more articulated in your Lordships' House. My mind goes back to 1961 and to the great debate on Christian unity initiated by the father of the noble Earl, Lord Arran. I can still hear Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, the Leader of the Opposition, interrogating the Archbishop of Canterbury. "Tell me, Archbishop, is the Church of England Protestant or Catholic?" Archbishop Fisher smiled sweetly and said, "Both." I am afraid that that did not appease my noble leader. That is one memory.
I think also of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I do not know whether she is present today. She is probably endangering her life in the Sudan. I think of the noble Baroness taking the initiative which led to the inclusion of Christianity in a major piece of legislation. Even more recently, on the debate about lowering the age of consent for homosexuals, no one who was present can doubt the effect of the spiritual presence of the bishops. Whatever happens, and whatever future awaits this House, I only hope that the influence of the Bishops' Bench will in no way be weakened. I cannot refrain from mentioning also, although it may not be considered altogether appropriate, the work of various prayer groups in this House which exercise a wonderful influence behind the scenes.
What about the crucial issue of the hereditary Peers? I am one of those—I speak fairly dispassionately, as no one is quite dispassionate—who knows well the enormous value of the hereditary Peers, taking them collectively, over the past half century. When I say that, I am thinking partly of the individuals. I shall not mention names, although one or two have been mentioned today and some have already spoken in the debate. Nevertheless, certain individuals have played an unforgettable part in this House, some of them in headlines and some of them more quietly. But that is for individuals.
There is another deeper influence. The visitors who come to the House from all over the world are struck by the quality of the debates—as I said, in many ways the best debates in the world. There is the intellectual quality, the knowledge and the expertise. Perhaps one would expect that with a composition of 26 bishops, 28 Law Lords or former Law Lords, leading soldiers, businessmen, trade unionists and former Cabinet Ministers, including two former Prime Ministers. In view of all that, one would expect the intellectual quality of the debates to be high. However, people notice something else when they come here. The good manners, the civilisation and the inherent decency of this place strike people from all over the world. I would be horrified if in any new House that influence were to disappear.
When I was Leader of the House 30 years ago I brought forward a proposal. It was not my idea. It was created by an old friend, the Clerk Assistant at the Table, the late Henry Burrows. He called it the two-writ plan under which hereditary Peers would come and speak but not vote. That was agreed to by the leaders of all the parties, in this House and elsewhere, but it was sabotaged by a strange Back-Bench combination in the other place. I still think that that was the best solution.
959 Hereditary Peers could come and speak but not vote. It may well be that that is not going to be adopted and that something more acceptable will be found. But this I do say with heartfelt conviction. It would be a tragedy if the new Chamber—we know that reform must come—lost the essential values of the old one.
§ 5.46 p.m.
My Lords, it is always fun to follow the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who has the capacity to ingratiate himself with the whole House. I always enjoy it when I can actually agree with him, which has not always been the case in the past but I did today.
This is an important debate on the future of your Lordships' House and indeed on the future of the hereditary Peers. It is a curious sentiment to stand, as many of your Lordships will do, in front of your Lordships, rather like Marie Antoinette at the guillotine. Although the stature may not be recognisable, the sentiment may be. Naturally one feels that it would be desirable if the guillotine were not lowered. I feel that, and feel it quite strongly for very good reasons—at least I think they are very good reasons—but I do not propose to adumbrate the virtues of the hereditary Peers because that might be a little self-congratulatory. However, I think that it stands up to fairly careful scrutiny, as the noble Earl has just said, that hereditary Peers have contributed a great deal.
The one thing that worries me about the Government's proposals is the idea of reforming the House in two stages. I think that is crazy. First, you get rid of the hereditary Peers, and then you say, "What are we going to do?" That is rather like getting on a ship, going out into the middle of the ocean and then saying, "Where shall we go?" Not many people would think that that was a wise way of navigating. The danger is that, between the two, the second stage will not come to pass. I think that is a great pity. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, who said that we should stop to think what they are going to bulldoze down and see what is going to take its place. That we do not know. But the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, congratulates herself on calling it a step-by-step approach. I think this is a fundamentally bad approach.
Whatever one's views about hereditary Peers continuing in your Lordships' House, the one thing I cannot understand is why the Government fail to see that, if they get rid of the hereditary Peers, the House of Lords will have more power. It will not have more powers but it will exert those powers in ways which it did not when hereditary Peers were present. How often have we heard it said, "We cannot vote against it because, remember, it is the House of Lords voting against the House of Commons, which has supreme authority"?
Let us consider secondary legislation. One has to think only of the beef on the bones matter or the Berkshire order that I had experience of. Your Lordships will know that secondary regulations have to be accepted by both Chambers. If they are accepted by another place but not accepted here, they fall. In the case of the Berkshire order, I remember saying to your 960 Lordships, "You cannot vote against this order because it has been through another place". Unfortunately your Lordships did not take that step and we did not therefore overturn the will of the Commons. Get rid of the hereditary Peers and that situation will arise time and time again, and the House of Commons will hate it. I believe that to be a great mistake.
A Bill—after all, there will be a Bill—to give more power to the second Chamber has never yet got through the House of Commons. I know that conditions are different now and all kinds of different techniques were used in the House of Commons, and no doubt the Government will get their way, but there is a good reason why the other place does not wish your Lordships' House to have more power and that is because they consider themselves, quite rightly, the supreme and elected body. I find it extraordinary that there should be a proposal that your Lordships' House should be elected. How on earth will that get through another place? They do not want a second Chamber that is elected; they want the supreme authority which they have. The idea of a fainting House of Commons accepting a proposal for a second elected Chamber is almost itself unthinkable. I think that would be a great mistake. If you go down that particular track, both of getting rid of hereditary Peers and of having an elected second Chamber, there will be far more confrontation between the two Chambers of Parliament than has ever happened before.
I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said on "Breakfast with Frost" that what we need is a professional House and that the hereditary Peers would no longer be included. I wonder what the definition of a "profession" is. Is the noble Baroness a professional politician? She was appointed, but I do not know whether she is a professional. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is an eminent and professional Queen's Counsel, but is he a professional politician? He says no. In that case he should not be here.
What about my noble friend Lord Carrington, an ex-Cabinet Minister, an ex-Secretary of State for Defence and an ex-Foreign Secretary? Is he a professional, or is he not a professional because he is no longer in post? He will not be allowed in the place anyway because they will put the bars up against him. What about my noble friend Lord Cranborne? Is he a professional, or is he an amateur? Which would he prefer to be? However, that does not matter because he will be excluded too. I wonder whether we really want two professional Houses. I wonder whether another place wants two professional Houses. I wonder whether the people want two professional Houses.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, made an excellent maiden speech. He said that people were disenchanted with politics and parliamentarians and that perhaps the people do not want two professional Houses. Whatever we do, there is one real danger that I see. At the moment the Government are allowing an assembly for Scotland and an assembly for Wales. They are talking about regional government and they are now talking about introducing proportional representation and changing Westminster. I just wonder whether it is right to move 961 all the constitutional sands at any one time because no one will know how this will work out for about five years, and then it will be too late.
I shall relate to your Lordships a personal anecdote. I got into a bus. Your Lordships may think that is surprising, but I did. Someone said to me, "Robin"—for that happens to be my name—"Do tell me what you are doing". The person used to be my commanding officer when I did my national service. At that time he was a colonel and I was terrified of him. He had since become a general and I was even more terrified of him. I said, "I am moving my house in the country and I am moving my flat in London within six weeks of each other". He made a penetrating observation, "My dear man, have you forgotten the elementary principle, always keep one foot on the ground at any one time?" I recommend that to the Government.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Lord Wigoder
My Lords, these issues have been debated in one form or another not simply for many months but for many years. I have no doubt at all that they will continue to be debated for at least as long in future. Other noble Lords may feel as I do; namely, that sooner or later, the time comes when one has to stand up and be counted.
If, and when, the Government bring forward a Bill to disfranchise the hereditary Peers, I shall be counted in the Content Lobby. But I am bound to say that I shall go into that Lobby with less enthusiasm than I have ever felt when I have voted in the hundreds of Divisions in which I have participated during my time in your Lordships' House. I say that because I find in a curious way that although the case which is put forward by the Government is unanswerable—indeed, no one has sought to answer it so far in the debate—it is, in an odd way, not overwhelming. It is a case that depends partly on principle and partly on practice. The principle is a simple one and it has been stated over and over again. In a modern democratic society you cannot have people who can and do become legislators simply because of the death of an ancestor who was himself a legislator. That is not a rational way to run a democracy.
However, that is not the only irrational part of our democracy, and it is by no means the most important irrational part. It is becoming increasingly recognised that it is not rational, for example, that a party can obtain more votes and yet win fewer seats than another party, or can, with a minority of the votes, become a majority government. It is not rational, at least in my view, that we should believe that everyone who voted for that government obtained a copy of the manifesto, read it through from beginning to end, decided they were fully in favour of every single pledge set out in it and were in favour of everyone proceeding on that basis. I think the noble Baroness has already said that in some ways that was an odd basis on which to found the Salisbury Convention.
As the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, mentioned, it is not rational that the power of the Whips has now developed to such an extent that our legislators 962 repeatedly vote on issues without understanding them or without reading or listening to any arguments about them. As the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, mentioned, it is not rational that we receive legislation for consideration in this Chamber which has not been considered at all in the other Chamber because of the operation of the guillotine. It is not rational indeed that those of us who believe in the doctrine of the separation of powers find such an extraordinary combination of them in the office of Lord Chancellor. I say that without any disrespect to the distinguished lawyers who have held that office.
All of these matters are irrational and all of them need to be dealt with if we are really to have a modern, up-to-date democracy. I suspect that the real reason the Government have selected the hereditary Peers issue—as I say, I do not believe anyone has answered this issue—and given it the priority they have is quite simply because, apart from the principle involved, in practice it is a nuisance to a Labour government. As we all know, hereditary Peers provide a pool of votes which can be used by a Conservative Party either to bolster an unpopular Conservative government against the otherwise unanimous wishes of this House, or can be used—and is being used frequently—to defeat in this House the measures brought forward by a Labour government.
I have seen all that at first hand. I was what is quaintly described as a "usual channel" during the whole of the previous Labour government and the succeeding Conservative government. On many occasions I saw the Conservative backwoodsmen, as they are called—I do not say that in any derisory tone—arriving downstairs and asking politely if they could please be directed towards the Chamber. Over and over again there have been occasions, under the previous Labour government and this one, when the Government have found themselves defeated primarily as a result of the activities of hereditary Peers. That is a nuisance, an irritation; it is a blow to the pride and prestige of the Labour Government. However, it ought not to be exaggerated beyond that. I find it difficult to recall, during my time in this House, any really important matter brought forward by a Labour government which has been permanently lost as a result of the actions of the hereditary Peers. If there has been embarrassment from time to time, it is because Labour governments, just like Conservative governments, always overcrowd their timetable. There is never sufficient time towards the end of a Session for them to sort out difficulties which may have arisen in that way. Therefore, although I will in due course support a Bill dealing in this way with the hereditary Peers, I do not believe it is a cause for enormous excitement, or that in itself it will be a great step forward towards a more democratic society.
I wish to make an observation about what will happen after stage one has been completed. I am extremely perturbed as to what the future holds. When people propose schemes for reforming the composition of this House, they talk in terms of not affecting its powers, only changing its composition. I believe very strongly that that is a fallacy. The composition of this House may in due course, and in totally unintended ways, affect its 963 powers. We shall have to go slowly if we are not materially to damage the rather delicate balance between the two Houses.
To give a simple, obvious, practical example, a situation might arise whereby, after three or four years of a party being in power, the government are stale and possibly losing by-elections on a substantial scale. That has been known to happen. There could be a situation in which just at that moment there are elections on some basis or other to this House and new people of considerable calibre come in having recently been voted for by the electorate, whatever the nature of the constituencies. Is it not inevitable in those circumstances—and they are not fanciful—that this Chamber would be regarded by the general public and the media as representing the country far more than the House of Commons? Inevitably in that situation more powers would be sought by this Chamber, and might well be obtained. A delicate balance might, quite unintentionally, be impaired.
For that reason I very much welcome the noble Baroness's statement about a Royal Commission. Contrary to the views of many noble Lords, I believe that the matter may take years to sort out. It will require the greatest research into our constitutional history and the constitutional history of other democratic countries. It will require extensive consultation and debate. Much as I should like to see stage two follow stage one as soon as possible, there are dangers in pressing for that.
In the interim, I am sure that this House will survive with its present life Peers and with the creation of new life Peers—I hope with an increased independent element. I hope that it will thrive, too, because after stage one we shall welcome back a number of the hereditary Peers in a new guise as life Peers. Many of them have been a great asset to this Chamber in recent years.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Lord Gordon of Strathblane
My Lords, reference was made in an intervention by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, during the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, to the Roman general whose reputation for masterly inactivity earned him the nickname of Fabius Cunctator, the delayer. I confess that he would be a mere tyro against some of the delaying tactics that one sees in evidence from time to time. The Government have taken the advice not so much of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, but of his former commanding officer whom he met on the bus. They have kept one foot on the ground by delaying stage two. If they had gone for everything at once, they might have fallen guilty of the charge that he made.
It will be difficult to reach agreement on stage two. However, I assure every hereditary Peer that I hope that anything that is done to change this House will strengthen it. Although it will be without hereditary Peers, I bear no animus towards hereditary Peers. Indeed, I have the greatest admiration for their achievements. My admiration is sufficiently high to make me believe they are entitled to be here on their own merits, not on the merits or demerits of a long-forgotten ancestor.
964 The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, imagined the reasons that the Government would give for delaying stage two. I can imagine the remarks that would have come from the Opposition had the Government proceeded with stage two. There would have been a great deal of wringing of hands: "Of course we are against hereditary Peers, but are the Government wise to proceed with such a prescriptive plan for a new House at this time of great change and flux in our society? There is devolution in Scotland and Wales, a new relationship with Europe; we are even reforming the electoral system. Therefore, much as we should like to abolish the right of hereditary Peers to vote, now is not the appropriate time".
Surely the central concern is to do what the Government have done and take the matter one stage at a time. The truth is that we are not rushing headlong into a change that has been debated for most of this century if we try to enact it in the final year of the century. It would be interesting if, during the course of 114 speeches, anyone made the case in logic for the right of someone, purely by birth, to participate in the legislation of this country. That is to say nothing by way of demerit as regards the independence of thought, the wisdom, and the contribution of hereditary Peers. It is not their heredity—the accident of birth—which makes hereditary Peers independent, but the fact that they are not elected. That is the important point.
I disagree with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and my former Leader, the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I do not believe that a new Chamber should be elected. It would lead to increased tension with the Commons and would produce first- and second-class citizens in this place. In addition—and, as a non-hereditary Peer, I am better able to say this—we should recognise that there would also be a democratic deficit. Elected politicians are naturally at least as much concerned with a social work role on behalf of their constituents as they are about legislation. They are also, not unnaturally, very much preoccupied with the results of the next election. The independence of thought that has been so cherished by every speaker in this House will be maintained precisely because its Members are not elected. That will survive the abolition of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote. Reference was made to the anguish of Chief Whips trying to keep their troops in order. It is recognised that Members of this House do behave independently, and that is its main strength.
I wish to conclude my remarks fairly quickly. I am conscious that the average time taken by speakers is well in excess of the eight minutes mentioned yesterday by the Chief Whip. Perhaps I may leave noble Lords with one thought. I echo the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, at the unearthly hour of 7.20 this morning on breakfast television. The noble Viscount argued that what was important was what we left behind. I suggest that if hereditary Peers were to attempt to defeat the Government's move to abolish their right to sit and vote, for a start it would be unseemly. It would not be true to the traditions of public service of which they have been such shining examples. It would also lead to this House being held in less respect by the community.
965 If, on the contrary, hereditary Peers were to embrace the Government's reform, there would be a swing of sympathy for this House. At the moment there is a mood which was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, in his maiden speech. The public are fed up with ding-dong, hammer and tongs; they want consensus politics. This House is a good example of that. If the hereditary Peers were to show themselves in tune with what most people in their heart of hearts regard as long overdue reform, there would be a swing of sympathy and increased status for the House. That, surely, would be the finest act of a group of Peers who have done great service in the past.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, in so long a debate as this, it is customary for people to become worried lest they repeat what has been said before. I can assure such of your Lordships as remain in the Chamber that as I have disagreed with every single speech so far made from every corner of the House, that risk is not one that I run.
For one thing, I regard this Motion as ill-phrased. It talks about,reform of the House of Lords".But the proposal that we are asked to discuss is not the reform of the House of Lords, but the abolition of the House of Lords. If the hereditary Peers are excluded, that is a break with the centuries that have gone to the making up of the British Parliament, from the time when the barons faced King John at Runnymede. There might and possibly will be some other form of second Chamber proposed or even enacted, but it clearly would not be the historic House of Lords.
My second reason for disagreeing is that, although other people have mentioned the various constitutional proposals that have been before the House or are likely to come before it, in relation to devolution, electoral methods, what we do about London and so on, they have not been brought together in the way I see them coming together. What I see is a series of proposals by the present Government for constitutional change, ill thought-out, with no relation to each other, rushed through Parliament with impossible speed. They are therefore likely, unless somehow they are checked, to throw away this country's historic constitution and the affection which its constitution—and I agree with the noble Lord—if not its present legislators, largely enjoys.
It is, to my mind, surprising because, as some noble Lords will be aware, I once had for many years the honour of holding a professorship named after Mr. Gladstone. He was a great statesman. In the latter part of his long career, he tried, as others have tried since, alas, with equal lack of success, to solve the Irish question. The determination that Mr. Gladstone put into getting his measures through earned him the nickname of "an old man in a hurry". I have a feeling that the present Prime Minister may come to be regarded as "a young man in a hurry". There he is, 18 months into office, with already a whole series of these constitutional proposals on the statute book, or about to be. Somehow or other, he takes this as though it were a 966 matter of changing the regulations for an import duty, the kind of thing that was rushed through in past parliaments. But this was never done on the constitution.
People, or those who support the Prime Minister in these antics, do not seem to realise that the British constitution developed over the centuries out of a feudal monarchy, by the association with a growing enfranchised commonalty and a surviving aristocracy, into a tripartite system—monarch, two Houses of Parliament—which was and, I think, if people travel, they will find is still highly admired and regarded. Most of the constitutions or what we call our fellow democratic constitutions which have been developed in the past 200 years, have failed because they have not had this element of continuity. They have had to start from scratch. As a result, one has seen revolutions, coups d'état, breakdowns and so on.
It would seem that for a successful constitution there ought to be two elements in the legislative body. One would be composed of people who see change as not only necessary but even desirable and who are frantic to be ahead of the most fashionable nostrum of the day. The other would provide an element of ballast, people who would bring to the consideration of so-called reforms or perhaps even in some cases real reforms, the wisdom that comes of experience and of not being subject to the whims of polling organisations or even focus groups.
It is possible to imagine a legislature of a single House in which both what one might call the advanced and the ballast groups would take part. Fifty years or perhaps a little longer ago, one could have said that the British House of Commons could fulfil that role. It could have done without the House of Lords. There were people who represented important elements in society, in industry, in the workforce, who represented the landed and other interests. They were men of weight and experience. The present House of Commons merely exaggerates a trend which has been continuous for some years; we know that the modern House of Commons is not like that at all. It has been said by previous speakers that it consists of people propelled there by party and managed there as well by party. One has a only to read their autobiographical interviews in The House magazine: their claims have little to say about the general problems of the country, let alone the world. They leave much to be desired.
Therefore, since the House of Commons cannot fulfil its proper function, it is not a question of how it is organised nor of its membership—I do not see how we shall change that—it means that the House of Lords has a responsibility for putting a degree of weight into the consideration of important issues, whether domestic or foreign—something which could not so easily have been argued a generation or two ago.
The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, said he did not think anyone would defend the hereditary principle. I find the hereditary principle a common factor in most advanced societies in many branches of life. In my religion the priesthood is hereditary; in many other countries there are hereditary occupations; and there are hereditary links between families and people. The whole idea that 967 everyone starts anew at birth may be the result of modern technology but it is not in line with human experience.
I do not say that in an ideal world a parliamentary chamber should consist only of persons who are there for hereditary reasons. Obviously there are other assets that I should like them to bring to bear apart from their families' experience in ruling. But simply to toss the concept out of the window as though it was out of date and was last year's fashion does not strike me as worthy of debate in your Lordships' House.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ The Earl of Kintore
My Lords, the House of Lords must be reformed. I have no problems with this statement, provided reform leads to increased commitment—by which I mean attendance in general in the Chamber on a normal day (not a day like today) and in particular in the evenings and after dinner. This would create a more democratic and effective House. In the short period that I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House, on a number of occasions Ministers have advised that the House should not speak or vote on certain issues, either because it is unconstitutional or the other place would not like it. I do not believe that your Lordships have ever paid much attention to Ministers' advice, but surely there is something astray in a system that leads to the advice being given in the first place.
Each House of this Parliament should debate legislation independently with a view to arriving, after genuine debate, at the best solution. If the Houses cannot agree then, as at present, there must be a mechanism for legislation to proceed. I hope that in the 21st century in a mature democracy there is still room for a part-time House where Back-Benchers are not paid and the ethos is much more public service than financial gain. But if it is decided that the House should be paid it should be modest and there should be a compulsory retirement age, probably 75, as has already been mentioned.
There is a proposal to end by statute the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords. I declare an interest as the current holder of an hereditary Scottish earldom. That honour was bestowed on my family in 1677 for its part in saving the Scottish regalia from falling into the hands of Oliver Cromwell at its castle at Dunnottar. I am pleased to read that Her Majesty the Queen will use the Scottish regalia when she opens the parliament in Edinburgh next year. I caution any noble Lord who carries the Sword of State to hold it very still as for the purposes of concealment the blade of the sword had to be broken. Although it has been rivetted together again it is pretty fragile. The appropriation of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote is a matter of considerable constitutional importance and effect and is not to be undertaken lightly.
Finally, I hope that if nothing much else survives the reform the tradition of conducting our proceedings with courtesy, dignity and good humour will, as has already been said by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, survive for ever.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws
My Lords, I was greatly amused to hear the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, come to the defence of the hereditary principle. He is the only non-hereditary Peer to have done so. He was cheered on by many on the other side. It may be that there is greater support for the noble Lord's position than we realise. I do not believe that I would employ an hereditary plumber and I suspect that a good many people up and down the country share that view.
§ Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws
My Lords, the notion that a person should be able to participate in our legislature simply as a birthright is a shameful anachronism. The inherent discrimination against women in the hereditary principle is one that shocks women up and down the country. It adds insult to the nonsense of the hereditary principle and is unacceptable in the modern world.
The present composition of this House is indefensible. I share the view of my noble friend Lord Gordon that it is much more fitting for hereditary Peers to contribute to debates in this House, rather than dig in their heels and resist change, and join in the very challenging process that will confront us in modernising this Chamber. To do otherwise only strengthens public perception that this is the last bastion of a dying species incapable of reinventing itself or adjusting to the modern world. I urge all noble Lords to take part in the process rather than resist it.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House when the opportunity will arise for hereditary Peers to take part in the process since the Government have said that it will not begin until they have left?
§ Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws
My Lords, it is open to all noble Lords in this Chamber to give their views as to how a second Chamber should be composed after they have gone. We would value your views and it would be helpful to hear them. No doubt noble Lords could offer to the Royal Commission their views by way of evidence which would be listened to with great interest and value would be attached to it, but I believe that the majority of people in this country consider that prompt action should be taken now.
I welcome the establishment of the Royal Commission which has been promised by my noble friend Baroness Jay, but I hope that it is given a finite period in which to report. Reform is not only about the composition of this House. As the Leader of the House has said, other constitutional issues are linked to it. There are also important questions about the role of the second Chamber and what its relationship should be to the House of Commons.
It is useful to hear suggestions from those on the Benches opposite about how a modern second Chamber can operate. The Institute for Public Policy Research, the Constitutional Unit that is now based at the University of London and other groups have been 969 involved in an interesting consideration of these issues. In the report of the IPPR published in 1993 a number of very sensible suggestions were made. I place before the House some of the proposals which I believe make perfect sense. One suggestion is that this House is much too large. I believe that it should be reduced in size to about 300 Members. That second Chamber should be composed mainly of elected Members but there would be a cohort of appointees. Therefore it would be a hybrid House. Two hundred and forty would be elected in regional constituencies by proportional representation and some 60 would be appointed, but all Members would serve a term of nine years; that one-third of the elected members should be re-elected every third year, and that one-third of the appointed members should retire every three years, allowing space for the appointment of others. Those who would come in as appointees would be churchmen, scientists, eminent doctors, figures from the world of literature, philosophers.
The existing relationship between the two Houses should be maintained, except that the reformed House of Lords would have equal standing with the Commons in constitutional matters. It might even have a special concern for human rights. The role of committees should be expanded to provide comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny. Other areas of responsibility would include scrutinising delegated and European legislation. The House could be involved in the monitoring of public appointments. The transition to the reformed second Chamber would be phased in over a period of seven to 10 years, allowing for the concerns that some of the noble Lords have expressed about alacrity perhaps being dangerous.
Proposals of that sort have a number of obvious advantages. They define the relationship between the two Chambers in a way which retains the supremacy of the House of Commons. They allow a reformed House of Lords to make a significant contribution to the legislative process, reducing the pressure from the House of Commons and so encouraging better governance and more detailed scrutiny of legislation.
Such proposals reflect the emerging regional level of representation in the United Kingdom. Devolved levels of regional government and the regional structure of representation in Europe could provide a basis from which regional elections might take place.
Although most of the reformed House of Lords would be elected, the Chamber would lack the legitimacy of a wholly elected House by having that appointed component. This appointed element could bring expertise to the House of Lords and could incorporate individuals who would not normally stand for elections.
If we are to have sensible debate in this House we need not fear the chasm of the unknown. There are many interesting proposals for us to look at. We could look at other ways in which representation could come forward on a regional basis. Appointments could be made on a regional basis by regionally based appointments committees. My preference would be that this should be done on the basis of democratic election.
970 The arguments are well rehearsed and it is time to act. When we come to reform this House we should be prepared, for those who act in this House as members of a legislature, to abandon front-loaded titles which go with membership of this House. It would no longer be necessary once the hereditary Peers have gone. One might have after one's name the word "Peer" or the letters "MUH"—though perhaps "ML" might be better.
I think that we can sensibly create a House which would have the respect of our nation. I consider this an exciting time and I applaud the Government for their commitment to change.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Lord Rees
My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of the Shaws, will forgive me if I do not follow her into the intricacies of her argument, either on heredity and hereditary positions in the 20th century or on the details of a reformed House of Lords. That can await the White Paper which we have at last been promised.
The proposal that we are debating today can only seriously be justified on the basis that it would be a major step to improving the constitution. The context is understandable. Last year, the Labour Party won a signal election victory. It was remarkable for the number of seats won; less remarkable for the actual number of votes cast for the Labour Party. It seems to be common ground that we have and should retain a bicameral Parliament, to judge from many of the interventions and from the preview of the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, which we read in today's Telegraph.
The need for a second Chamber becomes more acute as we move to a more presidential system and as governments resort more to referenda on issues that have not been properly explored and debated in Parliament. Although in this House we must respect the wishes of the public, however defined and however expressed, and we do—and the Salisbury Convention is evidence of that—a second Chamber has a right to interpret those wishes in a way that may not necessarily conform with the aspirations of the government of the day and it has a duty on occasions to provide an opportunity for further reflection on important issues. Against that background, and against the background of the Labour manifesto, we are now told that the most pressing measure of constitutional reform in the next Session—initial, self-contained, not dependent on further reform in the future, as it says in the manifesto—is a measure designed to end the right of hereditary Peers to sit and to vote here.
It is fair to point out that the Labour Party has never enjoyed a majority in this House. Whether, with the increasing creation of life Peers and with the inevitable and gradual extinction of hereditary peerages, this would always be the case we need not debate here. It is also right to point out, however, that we have had a number of Labour administrations since the war, sometimes with considerable majorities in the Commons. All have lived with the disadvantage of not having a majority in this House. All have managed to enact their most important measures. All have accepted, 971 more or less gracefully, the revisions and amendments carried in this House, which on any fair view in most cases improved their measures. So one asks, why now?
One of the difficulties of this Government is that, having accepted the economic and fiscal framework they inherited after 18 years of Conservative government, they must feel the need—and I sympathise with the feeling on this—to establish their credentials as a radical government of the Left. Indeed, the tenor of their speeches, with nostalgic echoes of class war, on the need to bring order to a body of arrogant and reactionary hereditary Peers who are bent on frustrating the Government's modernising measures, might have been appropriate in 1910 but bear little relationship to the circumstances of today. The noble Baroness might at least have explained to the world the basis of the 30 defeats the Government have suffered in the past year, might also have explained which they have managed to swallow and why, and generally put that problem in perspective.
If the Government wish to perceive of measures of constitutional reform, they might eschew the rather petulant demagoguery and search for a measure of bipartisan agreement. They might explain more effectively than they have done today why the proposals we are debating should be self-contained and taken in advance of their longer-term measures to reform the House when, according to the noble Baroness, "They have worked"—the long-term issues—"in detail in sub-committee". Why are we limited to one question, and one question only, on the composition, but no questions on the powers of a reformed House? We have read in the manifesto that the powers of the House are to be retained on their present limited basis. Is it because the Government do not propose to alter the balance of power between this House and the Commons that we have heard no more on that today from the Labour Front Bench?
In the absence of a written constitution—that may have to be debated at some time—institutions are legitimised by history, the passage of time and their effective contribution to the life of the country. Few whom I have heard inside or outside this Chamber have argued that this House does not adequately perform its duties. The only criticism might be that its powers are so limited that it cannot adequately revise or improve great measures. Indeed, the noble Baroness hinted as much in her article.
In the light of this debate, I hope that the Government will reflect, and approach the question of constitutional reform in the next Session with a little more modesty, a little more candour and a little more realism.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I shall repeat an argument I have made previously in this House about the hereditary principle. I am all for it in cattle where one selects the sires and dams with great care, and the matter is not subject to the vagaries of human emotions. I can tell the noble Baroness that I am also in favour of hereditary plumbers. They receive the conventional upbringing. In the case of the younger Pitt, it was his 972 upbringing which enabled him to be Prime Minister at 24. The hereditary plumber whom I employ at present was thoroughly trained by his father and that was a good thing.
I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that the hereditary Peers must go. And they must go before anything else is done. How will hereditary Peers be objective about any future plans? Turkeys are seldom objective about Christmas; and I am afraid that that is the case with hereditary Peers in this House.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, why does the noble Lord believe that life Peers will be any more objective about planning their demise in a stage two reform than hereditary Peers?
My Lords, will the noble Lord tell us whether high quality turkeys vote for Christmas?
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, happily, I did not hear that question.
The noble Baroness made several remarks of which I thoroughly approve. She stated that a new committee would supervise the appointment of Peers. It was no longer simply to be the political prerogative of the Prime Minister. Sometimes a Prime Minister makes a good choice. In 1974 Harold Wilson made me a working Peer and I have been very glad of that. But in the future the committee which will be set up must be respected, It must appoint people on the strength of the parties, but on an impartial basis.
The question of the Bishops has also to be decided. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford did not mention whether he approved of the principle of 26 Bishops in the House. However, perhaps we need the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and one or two others present. I believe that the committee can handle such issues and do a tremendous amount of good.
The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, made a good point when he said that the House of Commons is now very professional. People go into the House at a young age and remain in politics. While not wholly committed to a party, they are professional politicians. One needs people in government who have extensive and influential experience of other areas of life rather than only of government circles.
I believe that stage one is good. I would not go much beyond the second stage. I do not believe that an elected chamber, or an elected section, would do anything other than make this place a rival of the House of Commons. Those who cite the example of the United States do not do so favourably because it is almost impossible to get legislation through in the United States. An elected House of Lords would be a rival to the House of Commons and would make things extremely difficult.
On the question of age, perhaps I may say that I am in my 80th year; and I think that I should be a turkey talking about Christmas. There should be an age limit of 75. One would then have people at the height of their 973 powers in this House, and people would not be tottering into the House in order not so much to speak as to collect their lunch money or whatever it may be. It does the House no good to have people in it who are too aged. Of course there are exceptions such as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and one or two others who are great men at a great age. But one swallow does not make a summer; and people like me should be put out at 75.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord Charteris of Amisfield
My Lords, I wish to raise one point which may not be mentioned by anyone else. I hope that it is proper to do so.
Every organisation needs reform. That is well understood. This House has undergone a great deal of reform already. It is a very different place now from 40 years ago. I do not say that we do not need more reform. I merely say that this is not the first time the House has been reformed.
If we take away the right of all hereditary Peers to sit and vote, I believe that we endanger the monarchy. After all, the monarchy is dependent on heredity. It will be rather difficult if our Sovereign is the only person in the country who sits on the throne because of heredity.
What is wrong with hereditary Peers? What is wrong with the hereditary principle? The noble Lord, Lord Beloff—he is no longer present—made the point beautifully. Members of this House originally were all hereditary Peers. Hereditary Peers ran the country. They were the property owners. It is no good noble Lords laughing at that; they did so. Everything has now changed. I believe that some hereditary Peers should still have representation in this House. It would be better if the composition of the House were dealt with by the commission along with all the other matters.
There has been some reference to age limits. Having heard the noble Earl, Lord Longford, there is only one age limit that I would accept, and that is 100.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Shore of Stepney
My Lords, I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Charteris, about age, but I disagree with him about hereditary Peers. We should bear in mind what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, about the word "hereditary" being more appropriate to cattle than to legislators.
Surely, all of us are united in the desire to make the second Chamber effective and to enable it to make the maximum contribution to the good government of the United Kingdom. That being so, we should ask ourselves what detracts from the House of Lords. I believe that the Leader of the Opposition identified it straightaway. There is a serious lack of legitimacy in the legislative actions taken by a Chamber which is believed to be overwhelmingly manned by people who are there through inheritance. There is no legitimacy in its decisions so far as the rest of the population are concerned.
974 Frankly, because the Chamber lacks legitimacy, it lacks the power and authority which I believe is necessary in the two-Chamber system in which I strongly believe. Surely, everyone believes that a two-Chamber government is right and that we genuinely need a revising Chamber. Therefore, we want to be able, not frivolously, to stop the House of Commons when it makes erroneous judgments and puts forward bad legislation.
We ought to be able to table amendments, but they should not be knocked back at us by the House of Commons within 48 hours, as though it were a game of table tennis. We ought to be able to convince the House of Commons that what we have decided is much more serious. I have looked carefully at the kind of issues on which we have disagreed with the House of Commons. On a number of occasions, they were genuine party matters and I had no difficulty in voting against that opposition in this Chamber. But I recall a particular occasion relating to the extraordinary decision governing the fourth year of students at Scottish universities. In all conscience, it was a nonsense and the House of Commons should never have sent the proposal back to us.
In my view, when such situations arise, we should have the confidence to say "no" and to mean it. We should mean it beyond and up to the limit of the powers which we properly have; the inferior powers as compared with those of the House of Commons, but, nevertheless, legitimate powers which enable us to say not merely, "Please look at that again", but, "If you will not look at it again you shall not have it for at least a year". That is a powerful antidote or corrective for any dangers of arrogance which might appear in the House of Commons.
If the House of Lords is to make its best contribution to good government in this country it must be able not to take on a lot of new powers but to use its existing powers effectively. So long as the critics of the House of Lords can say, "Ah, well, if it were not for all those hereditary Peers that legislation would not have been passed", it will never seriously be able to outgun or match in argument the House of Commons. The moment its Members can say, "Look, our Chamber is a more legitimate Chamber", the game changes and changes for the better.
Perhaps I may follow on from what was said by my noble friend Lord Richard, our former Leader, and look at what will be left of the House of Lords after the sad departure of the hereditary Peers. There are 750 of them and I am sure that a minority will properly be given life peerages because they genuinely contribute to the affairs of our Chamber. The rest will not be here, so what will be left? Are we horrified by the 550 life Peers who will remain. Has anyone thought about them and looked seriously at who they are? From some of the comments that we have heard one would think that they were all Prime Minister Blair's cronies, here as a result of his appalling use of patronage since 1st May 1997. I will tell your Lordships who they are. They are the nominees for life peerages of eight Prime Ministers beginning with that great radical innovator, Harold Macmillan, continuing through a range of Conservative Prime 975 Ministers and Prime Ministers Wilson and Callaghan. Approximately 800 life Peers have been created and about 550 still survive. I can assure your Lordships that at least 450 are the creations of Prime Ministers other than my right honourable friend who presently occupies No. 10. So the residual House of Lords is not quite so appalling, is it, as some would suggest?
Perhaps I may add a word of encouragement. Who are the life Peers? Did all eight Prime Ministers immediately appoint clones? They appointed some of their party supporters, of course, but, just looking at the distinguished Cross-Benches, I see a number of excellent appointments which have added to the authority of this House. I see former Permanent Secretaries, Cabinet Secretaries and so forth, to take only one category. We are well blessed with judges. Of course, 25 of them are elected and are part of the appointed side of the House. In addition, we have industrialists and people of distinction in all walks of life.
Anyone who knows about government will know that most life Peers come up through the Civil Service and have nothing to do with the patronage and preference of Cabinet Ministers. Rather, they come here having passed through many committees of civil servants and others, concluding with the Permanent Secretary, saying, "We believe that these people deserve to be enobled or to receive an honour". We know that. They have not been appointed simply because they are straw men and women who will do what the Prime Minister wants.
A further word of encouragement. Of that residual House of Lords after the hereditary Peers have left, approximately 200 Members will be former Cabinet Ministers, Privy Counsellors and former senior Members of Parliament. At least they know something about government, about holding Ministers to account and about legislation.
I am happy with the procedures outlined by my noble friend the Leader of the House. It is an excellent two-stage approach. The second stage is bound to be difficult and complex. There is a whole range of possibilities. We need a Royal Commission and we need to think very hard about the matter.
But in the first stage, I am prepared willingly to vote for farewell to the hereditary Peers provided that, along with that decision, there is a satisfactory arrangement, whether it is an agreement between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister or even better, part of an Act of Parliament, which denies the Prime Minister of the day the right to create Peers ad lib. He must be limited in that power so that he cannot arbitrarily destroy the balance which exists already between the parties, so that no one party dominates and has a majority and so that we have a substantial party of Cross-Benchers. There must be a self-denying ordinance so that no one party has a majority. That must be built into the structure of the new House.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Baker of Dorking
My Lords, when it comes to constitutional change, I am a minimalist. I would do as little as possible for as long as possible. If Members opposite believe that to be an incurable Conservative attitude, I should tell them that my tutor was a Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. He came one night in 1957 to the Oxford Union, having been Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister. He defended the House of Lords. He stood at the dispatch box in the Oxford Union in that very diffident way he had—a diffidence that concealed pure steel—and said, "You cannot defend the composition of the House of Lords. It is absolutely absurd. It is aristocratic, indefensible, quaint and historic. But I have been in politics for 50 years and it works rather well. Leave it alone".
New Labour has decided to reject the views of the most socialist Prime Minister we have had in our country. Therefore, unfortunately, I must abandon the minimalist position.
The next position I take up is the gradualist position. I was a member of the committee set up by my noble friend Lady Thatcher, under the chairmanship of Lord Home, which reported in the 1970s. We put forward a proposal, which I thought very sensible, for a membership, 50 per cent. elected, a quarter comprising the great and the good and a quarter hereditary Peers elected from among themselves. Alec was particularly keen on the last proposal because he had attended the ceremony in Scotland—I believe it took place in the House of Assembly—where the Scottish Peers were elected from among themselves. He said that what happened was that the senior Peer—I think on that occasion it was Lord Stair—had a list of all the Peers and would call them out alphabetically. The Peers would then shout yes or no. Occasionally, Lord Stair would look at a name and say, "We cannot have him; he could not spell at Eton", and struck his name out.
Of course, that is an absurd way in which to elect people to this House. But we cannot say whether such a system would produce a better result because we do not know what the Government are going to say. I listened carefully to the Leader of the House because I thought she might open her mind to us. I am sure she has personal views but she is shaking her head. At the conclusion of her speech we had no idea what was in her mind and I daresay that the opacity will not be lifted tomorrow evening by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. However, I believe that the Government owe it to the country to explain what are their views. You cannot live in an intellectual and political vacuum for ever. The Government are starting an avalanche of constitutional change—and an avalanche is not too strong a word to describe it. They have thrown down the boulder of a Scottish parliament along with a Welsh assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, a London mayor and a London assembly. They are using three different types of PR. For good measure, they are now proposing reform of the House of Lords. Where in all of that is the grand vision? Where is the strategy? Where is the overarching plan for constitutional change?
977 I am a gradualist because in our country constitutional change has taken place slowly over a period, apart from 1688 and 1832, which were climactic revolutionary years. The extension of the franchise in the 19th century took nearly 100 years. As a result, the people who were dispossessed and threatened by the changes in the franchise made the necessary adjustments. As a result, we avoided riots and revolution.
I am a gradualist. I agree with King Magnus and the applecart. I prefer the evolutionary appetite to the day's gluttony. Therefore, I believe that the Government should set out very clearly what is the alternative. If we agree to stage one, I do not believe that there will be a stage two. I say that because I was once a Member of the House of Commons. Once stage one has taken place, the Government will have drawn the tooth in relation to the House of Commons and the country as regards the unrespectability of this House. We shall have done away with the aspect which no one can defend—the hereditary Peers. We shall then have an interim House of 600 Members. It will work rather well for about five or six years. It will carry out revisions and amendments of Bills. There will be one or two rather good debates of a general nature drawing in people from outside.
In 2003 or 2004, the House of Commons will ask why it should bother to change the House of Lords and why it should go to stage two. It will ask why it should give to those people sitting in this red-seated Chamber at the other end of the Houses of Parliament power, which my noble friend Lord Hurd has suggested in the constitutional commission, to vet public appointments. Why should MPs give us that? Why should they give us powers to amend European legislation? Why should MPs give us powers to redress the imbalance in our constitution of a Scottish parliament, virtually a Welsh parliament and a Northern Ireland assembly? English MPs will not give us in this House powers to redress that on a regional basis. They will say, "We want to redress that imbalance ourselves in our House. We will do that either by way of a Grand Committee or an English parliament". We shall not have a look in.
We are in the business of power-broking between two Houses of Parliament. We are in a long negotiating process. There is a danger in undertaking stage one while not knowing what stage two is to be; that is, that we shall not be listened to in relation to stage two. That is the position. When you are going into negotiations, you do not give away anything until you know what you are going to get. I want an effective second Chamber and I favour a composition of mixed and elected members. But I am not so sure that that will result from how we are now setting about it.
This Government cannot bind their successors. It does not matter what the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, says tomorrow night or what the noble Baroness says. They may say that they will pledge to bring in stage two but they cannot bind the next government and they cannot bind the House of Commons. In this matter the House of Commons will have a view of its own. It will probably operate unwhipped. If this House is to receive a greater 978 legitimacy, as argued by my noble friend and which I support, the House of Commons will not give it unless we have a negotiating position.
I say to your Lordships that we must be very realistic about this matter. We must realise that that is what the issue is. We need to have a copper-bottomed guarantee. I shall explain what I mean by that. The Government should publish a Bill or, after a Royal Commission, the following government should publish a Bill setting out clearly what stage two is to do. When that Bill is published, the hereditary Peers should fall away at that stage. We should then know what stage two is to be. No one in this House can possibly know that at present. Everybody has different views. But when it comes to a struggle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, it is the House of Commons which will decide unless we negotiate strongly as a separate, independent Chamber. This is an extremely important constitutional change we are embarking upon. We should take it very slowly, gradually and carefully.
§ 7.9 p.m.
The Earl of Erroll
My Lords, I have just had most of my thunder stolen. A comment of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House made me think suddenly about the Oxbridge issue. When I went to Cambridge, it was pointed out that there was positive discrimination against people with titles. I had to achieve a higher standard than the normal entry for an undergraduate in order to get to Cambridge. That was the policy. Given that 33 per cent. of hereditary Peers have apparently been to Oxbridge, that makes one think, does it not?
The real issue in relation to this House concerns proper reform; it is not about the removal of hereditary Peers, which it tends to be hijacked into. That was a point being made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and I want to reinforce it. It is obvious that there are basically two diametrically opposed but deeply and emotionally held views on this matter. The first is that hereditary Peers are an anomaly which must be got rid of, regardless of the consequences. The opposite view is that hereditary Peers are the only incentive that will ensure that proper reform is carried through and must therefore be kept on until then—the "copper-bottomed guarantee".
I do not trust any party on either side of the House—I am a Cross-Bencher—to carry out the second stage unless it has an incentive to do so. I am certain therefore that the second stage will take place once the hereditary element has been disenfranchised. The so-called interim House will become permanent and that is even less defensible because its members will owe their advancement to favours—to quote the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, "make myself popular". It will therefore be either less effective and not do its job or, alternatively, it may flex its muscles, of which I would approve.
One could compare the stage one reform to taking an angle grinder and chopping away half the engine of one's car saying that it will halve the pollution it produces. Of course it will help on pollution, but one then does not have a car which will do its job; that is, transporting one around. That is the trouble with just chopping things away.
979 This Government were elected because of issues that directly impinged on the man in the street; they were not elected because of some obscure bit buried in the manifesto which most people had not thought about and which had not been properly debated. On top of that, only around one-third of the electorate voted for New Labour and I do not call that an overwhelming mandate. When it came to major constitutional change, Scotland and Wales got referendums. If we are to go down that route then the Government should propose that this is a major constitutional reform and the UK therefore deserves no less.
I shall not give up until there is an effective body with an entrenched sense of duty which will act as a check on the combined legislature and Executive that exists in the other place. It is imperative that power over both Houses is not concentrated in the hands of one party. Who will appoint the appointments commission? From the Latin, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? We must be governed by institutions that can survive potential abuse in the future; that is vitally important.
It has been said from time to time that without hereditary Peers many votes would have been different in this House. That is quite right. If it had been within the power of the Prime Minister to appoint Peers, there would not have been competition or opposition. He would have ensured a majority in this Chamber and won every vote.
It is the lack of plan that is dangerous in this reform. Who wants to get into an aeroplane not knowing where the pilot is going? He may have five hours of fuel on board and fly towards the dazzling sun in the morning; but then it gets too bright and may he turn off to the right. And only when he runs out of fuel will one see where he lands. I would not do that, and anyone who would is a madman.
The bottom line therefore is that I would be prepared to leave this House. But before I leave I must do my best to ensure that all our children have an accountable and responsible second Chamber which can ameliorate the impetuousness of the primary and elected Chamber. I would vote for that. This Government's proposal is like a child who takes an object apart for the first time to see how it works. It can never be put back together again. The moral of that life experience, as every sensible and caring parent knows, is, "Until you know how to make it better, don't muck it about".
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Baroness Trumpington
My Lords, speaking today as a temporary gent—in other words, as a life Peer (if the noble Lord, Lord Annan, was in the Chamber I would stress to him the word "life")—I find the words in the Labour Party manifesto impertinent. It says,The House of Lords must be reformed".I find myself asking, why? Who is talking of arrogance? Mr. Blair. When I go through all the important measures that this Government have promised to pass in this Parliament, it is extraordinary that they picked on the reform of the one place which, in the words of my noble friend Lady Young, is economically efficient, works very well and holds the respect not only of this country, 980 but indeed of the world. Perhaps the Labour Party believes that the abolition of hereditary Peers will draw the attention of the public away from troubles with the Government's big promises and will please the left wing of what is, after all, a socialist party.
Of course there are some jokers in the hereditary pack, but, alas, so there are among the life Peers. It would be invidious to name names. On the other hand, it would be a tragedy to deprive this House of the wisdom of people like the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell; of the persistence of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Earl, Lord Longford; of the humanity of the noble Baroness, Lady D'Arcy de Knayth, and indeed the brilliance of noble Lords from the Conservative Bench such as my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Strathclyde.
Why should we be deprived—this is important—of the benefits we receive for free from noble Lords such as the noble Lords, Lord Gowrie, Lord Rothschild, Lord Shepherd and Lord Kilbracken, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Selborne, a Fellow of the Royal Society?
When I became a life Peer 18 years ago I found myself surrounded by my betters. That feeling has not changed today. But what of the future? Speaking personally, I can see no reason to differ between being the son of one's father as opposed to being a Prime Minister's favourite or a failed Minister.
§ 7.16 p.m.
§ Baroness Platt of Writtle
My Lords, increasingly I feel we live in "virtual reality" rather than the real world. In my 17 years in this House as a life Peer I do not remember ever before debating a party manifesto proposal as government policy. However, I suppose one must be grateful for small mercies. And having the opportunity to state opinions before a Bill appears in tablets of stone is better than nothing when abolishing the long-standing right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House.
As an engineer, as I have said on many occasions before, one of my tenets is, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Fixing something unnecessarily when it does not need it and works well often leads to other unexpected and greater problems as a result. Reform of the House of Lords will be no exception, especially if done in the piecemeal fashion proposed. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway withdrew his amendment as I would have voted for it.
If we were setting up a second Chamber today from scratch, its composition would be extremely different. Such a major constitutional change, as so many Peers have said tonight, would demand a great deal of thought and consultation as it would inevitably affect fundamentally not only the powers and operations of this House, but those of the House of Commons also. I wonder whether the House of Commons, or indeed the public as a whole, want that. The amendment of my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway covered those necessary considerations and should be adopted.
The important work of this House is that of detailed amendment to Bills, and parliamentary draftsmanship is not what it was in our over-regulated society. At present 981 the Commons has the last word on amendments and takes most on board, though not all. The work of the Select Committees of this House and the Wednesday afternoon debates affect our society to its benefit. As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said, it is where we exercise our influence and that is to the benefit of our society.
That work of the House is not very well reported, but it is patient, time-consuming, not highly political and also, I might say, unpaid. I believe it is all the better for that. Many experts from outside the House are willing to come and give evidence to the committees knowing they will be listened to attentively and courteously, so that it is worth their while coming. The work of those committees leads to important and knowledge-based changes in government policy.
This House, since 1958, has been composed of hereditary and life Peers who are treated absolutely equally in the work of this House if they have taken the oath of allegiance. Life Peers have had to make some contribution to the life of our country in a tremendous variety of fields before they are chosen to come here. That gives the House the enormous advantage of their widely based expertise, of such value whatever subject we are considering.
It also means that Members of this House, whether hereditary or life Peers, have to do their homework carefully, without the benefit of researchers or secretaries, and think the subject out in depth before speaking. It is a daunting place in which to state an opinion. Life Peers, in order to have gathered the necessary experience, will at least be past middle life on creation, and after that, as has been said by many people, anno domini takes over. The only way young people enter this House is when an hereditary Peer dies young. It would be a great loss if their rights were abolished.
I also believe that their knowledge of eventual inheritance before they come here is of value in preparing them for this responsibility rather like plumbers—although your Lordships would expect me to say that I believe the situation would be even better if women could inherit equally with men as oldest children. If the Leader of the House agrees with me, there is no doubt that that could be brought into effect.
Hereditary Peers may also be experts and, indeed, often are. Managing great estates brings knowledge of farming, the natural environment and the needs of people living in the countryside. Many hereditary Peers are not so fortunate financially and will have worked in many different fields. Their contribution to this House will include their expertise but also that of the uncommitted, amateur generalist, very like, I would submit, the vast majority of people in this country who do not want extremist political views in the consideration of legislation passing through Parliament. That has been emphasised by many noble Lords this afternoon.
I am glad that the manifesto statement refers particularly to the importance of maintaining the independent Cross-Benchers in our House in the future. We are all, to a certain extent, independent as we are 982 here for life, but they can speak and vote exactly as they believe, and their opinions can affect fundamentally the decisions of this House. I believe that is greatly worth while, whichever party is in power in the Commons. Thinking again on a controversial subject must be of value and that power of the Lords is not used irresponsibly. As a fervent admirer of our Queen, I am glad that there are no proposals to affect the monarchy.
Finally, in the manifesto the Government suggest that a committee of both Houses of Parliament will be appointed to undertake a wide-ranging review of possible further change after the abolition of the rights of hereditary Peers and then to bring forward proposals for reform. I believe that the two suggested alterations to the composition and work of this House, with such long-term effects, should be considered together before any action takes place—in fact, as my noble friend Lord Hurd said, "to do the job properly".
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, I speak in this debate as an hereditary Peer with some 13 years' experience of this House. I hope that I have learnt some things in my time here. I should like to make an apology, to say a few words about the process and to talk a little of the future. Before I do that I have to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, for the eloquent way in which she introduced this debate. I agreed with virtually everything she said and I am totally supportive of the Government's policy.
Before my noble friends and colleagues think I am becoming too sycophantic, I should point out that I have one reservation. I fear that the Government may be pushed into action that is too precipitate in terms of the second stage. I shall return to that later.
First, I sincerely apologise to my fellow hereditary Peers because, in my 13 years in the House, I have been unable to persuade many of them to join the Labour ranks, with the result that there are currently 18 Labour hereditary Peers out of a total of 750 Peers by succession. That is 2.4 per cent. If one looks at society at large, we can see that the Labour Party has an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons; Labour councillors are the largest single group in local authorities and the Labour Party's standing in the opinion polls is currently over 50 per cent. Given that scenario, even the massed ranks of hereditary Peers must agree that they are totally out of touch with modern British society. I honestly feel that that is partly my responsibility because I have not managed to do the job of persuading them to come across to our party. I am sorry about that. There is nothing I can do about it now.
One of the things I have learnt in my years here in the House of Lords is the way that it differs from the other place. There are two particular strengths that I would highlight. First, virtually all the main business of the House is taken on the Floor of the House. That means that almost every Member of this House has the opportunity to contribute to debates. Secondly, we have the opportunity to debate every amendment that is tabled to government legislation. That is rather different from what happens at the other end of the building. There, 983 much of the business is done off the Floor of the House in either Standing or Select Committees. The individual amendments that are debated are selected by Madam Speaker from a long list of amendments, most of which are not debated.
Those two elements of the way we do business are a tremendous strength of the House of Lords. I fear that, in the process of the Government achieving their business of getting rid of the hereditary peerage from the House of Lords, we might lose that.
We have heard that some opponents of the Government's policy might engage in guerrilla tactics and disrupt government business by tabling lots of amendments and debating through the night. What worries me is that in the process of doing that, the pressure to adopt the same sort of Standing Orders, procedures and restrictions on debate that apply in the House of Commons will end up applying in the House of Lords.
I hope that opponents of change will take a lesson from a group of British workers that I had the experience of encountering. In the early 1980s, the company for which I worked decided in its wisdom to close our Merseyside factory—550 workers were to be made redundant. The workers occupied the factory. There was some concern that the factory and its stock might be damaged by the occupying workers. However, when the occupation ended, the factory was found to be in a better condition than it had been at the start of the occupation. The workers had looked after their factory. I hope that the opponents of change will, once the change has been completed, leave this place in a condition as good as, if not better than, at the start of the process.
Several noble Lords have referred to stage two and the future. I hope that we shall adopt an evolutionary approach. I hope also that we can follow the precedent of the Bishops' Benches. The right reverend Prelates are Members of this House by virtue of their office. They are ex officio Members of this House. It is entirely reasonable that in these days of a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, other faiths should be represented in the House of Lords. Senior members of those faiths could be ex officio Members of this House. Those faiths could be represented here in the same way as the Church of England is currently represented.
One could extend that principle to the professions and to the major walks of life. The membership of the House of Lords could contain as ex officio Members senior people in our society whom everyone can respect. In that way, this House could evolve into a different and, I hope, a stronger and possibly less political Chamber. It could offer advice. I hope that in the future the House of Lords will be seen to be advising the Government and the House of Commons rather than revising that which the House of Commons puts before it. I have always been instinctively antagonistic to the concept that the House of Commons can determine something and can pass a Bill, and we then have the temerity to amend it. We should be subsidiary to the democratically elected House of Commons.
984 I hope that some of the ideas that I have suggested may find favour with the Government. I recognise that they may not, but I hope that I have contributed to our further debates on the future of this illustrious House.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I have been pro-reform of this House for an extraordinarily long time. I shall utter three sentences at the beginning of my speech, all of which will be exactly the same. I am not fighting for the hereditary peerage. I am not fighting for the hereditary peerage. I am not fighting for the hereditary peerage. I hope that everybody now understands that. What I am fighting for is a proper Whig constitution.
How did this House arise? This House came into existence because it was a Chamber of the powerful. The 1911 Act was passed because the then hereditary peerage was not powerful enough to stop it. That 1911 Act would never have been passed in 1811. Your Lordships must remember that it was in 1688 that the peerage invited William of Orange to this country—the consequence was the Glorious Revolution—because the House of Commons was not sitting.
The power of individual Members of the House of Lords is nothing to what it was. Perhaps I may give a small illustration of that. My forebear built a house. It cost him 70,000 quid between 1720 and 1730. That was about 5 per cent. of the annual running cost of the Royal Navy. That shows that he was a powerful chap. His brother was Speaker of the House of Commons for 33 years. He was a very great Speaker—this is his signet ring. I hope that we can ensure that we have a properly balanced Whig constitution.
I was fascinated by the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. She spoke at considerable length about democracy. With respect to her, I do not think that she arose, anointed, in an ermine gown, straight from the voting booths of a democratic society. She came here by appointment—on merit, I am sure, but she is no more democratic than I am just because my bribe was paid to Pitt. I make no allegations and I am sure that there is no question of any bribe with regard to the noble Baroness. I am sure that she is completely free of that. But my bribe to Pitt is gone. It was finished years ago.
What do I propose that we should do? I propose exactly to re-form the House of Lords. By "re-form", I mean "remake" in the 17th century use of that word. I mean that the powerful should become Members of this House. But how can we choose the powerful? I suggest that we expand enormously the principle of the Bishops—in other words, people should be invited to become Peers as a result of the position that they hold.
I also suggest that we should expand the principle of self-election. I refer to the old principle of the Scottish Peers, not of the Irish Peers because they did it differently. Groups of people should be able to send up to this House those of influence and ability.
I also suggest that the Prime Minister should continue to appoint people to this House. We would then start to have a properly balanced House of Lords. The House could then use the powers that it has. I agreed totally 985 with the noble Lord, Lord Shore, on that. We must be able to use our powers. At the moment, we duck because our composition lacks legitimacy. I agree that I have no reason to be here just because my forebear got the title from Pitt the Younger or was bribed by Walpole—or however we got here. I concede that I do not represent the power that my forebears did. I do not command a regiment of parliamentary cavalry which went and nicked a Royalist estate. I am here as a small Surrey landowner by accident of history. I have done my bit, but my bit will end.
When I entered your Lordships' House today, the light at the top of the staircases, which normally shines on the shield of the first Baron Onslow, was out. I think that that was because the electrician may have been hereditary; I do not know.
However, before I go, I regard it as my duty to do my level best to ensure that whatever comes after me is much, much better. If that means that I behave either, for the benefit of the intellectuals, like Fabius Maximus Cunctator, or, for the benefit of the tabloid press, like a football hooligan, so be it. I regard that as my duty.
There is one infinitely depressing thing about the present Government. There are many excellent things about them, but the one infinitely depressing thing is that they seem to have no feeling for the parliamentary Union—that parliamentary Union which, since 1707, has seen off tyranny on the Continent and enabled the United States to develop in peace. That is not a bad record for a small, offshore island. The Government seem to have no concept of the grandeur and the greatness of the United Kingdom. They just want to fiddle about with the constitution and ruin it. That is what I am going to fight—and I shall do it to my level best. Therefore, I beg the Government to think and to put in place a properly reformed House of Lords, not just the mish-mash of proposals that they are now suggesting.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, there is a wider prospective to this debate. In considering the future of this House, we are, in fact, considering the future of Parliament because Parliament is an organic whole and if you play with any part of it, you play with it all.
I am not a historian; still less am I a parliamentarian. I sometimes wonder whether I am a Lord, but I have the enormous privilege of being a Member of this House. During the Recess, I took the trouble to read a history of this House. It would be superfluous to bore the House with it. There was a consistent theme that ran through that book—and the consistent theme was the role of this Chamber. It has, it seems to me, three essential characteristics. It was at times an interface between authority and the people. It was at other times a balance between authority and the people. On yet other occasions it was a lubricant between authority and the people. Those roles are still relevant today.
It is diminished—and in the modern euphemism we talk about this being "a revising Chamber"—but if you look at Parliament as a whole and consider how 986 democratic the House of Commons is, I wonder how much more important that role is in this place. To me, it is very deep and vital.
The House of Commons is a wonderful place. It is, traditionally, a source of government power in this modern era. The only thing that I can see that is truly democratic about it is the process of election to that House. Party machines dominate candidate selection and party business in the other place. How far that is a democratic process I would not like to say. Looked at objectively, I think the ancient Greeks would have some difficulty in allying it with a true concept of democracy.
This debate, in part, is about how the House is to fulfil its role, bearing in mind that in the other place the MPs' popularity is in inverse proportion to the volume of legislation that they pass and, indeed, to their professionalism.
Let us look now at what is happening to the whole of Parliament and, if you like, to use a shorthand phrase, the British constitutional settlement. Consider the Bill that we have passed through for the Welsh National Assembly. Very good and very worthy. But one effect that it has—and for the purposes of this debate it is the only one that is relevant—is that it creates a separate class of MPs for Wales. We need not go into the question of the marginal over-representation which Wales might enjoy in the other place, but it does create a separate class of MP.
We are about to consider a Bill for a Northern Ireland Assembly. Here the precedents are different. Traditionally, Northern Ireland parliamentary representation has been on a reduced level because of the existence formerly of Stormont.
When you come to consider the Scottish Bill, where we are creating an even more devastatingly separate class of MP, we have a more problematic situation for the future of Parliament. I recall a quite esoteric debate last week at the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill when the matter of Scotland's over-representation in Westminster was under discussion as a matter which should be taken care of after the Scotland Bill had passed. Scotland has at present 79 MPs. There was a question of whether that should go down to 59. There was then a further question, upon which I think there was general agreement, that this should not affect the number of members of the Scottish parliament. Scottish MPs are losing half their functions. Should we not rather be following the Ulster precedent? Maybe 30 Scottish MPs would be a more appropriate number. Or, if they are only doing half a job, we should pay them half a salary. I do not know the answer to that question.
What I do know is that it is a destabilising influence on the other place and, therefore, it is a destabilising influence on Parliament as a whole. I therefore find myself increasingly in favour of some stability in this place at the present time.
There is of course a separate issue behind all this. What about England? I am not an English nationalist. Still more, I am passionately committed to keeping the United Kingdom together. There is a problem already 987 arising—the seeds are sown—over the funding for Scotland. English MPs of all parties are starting to ask difficult questions.
There is the worse problem of the West Lothian question, which has already been touched upon. What will happen the first time English business is determined by whipped Scottish MPs? That is not a party point. It happens to be a party point at the moment but that is an accident of political fortune. It is a point that could arise at any time.
Is the answer, perhaps, an English grand committee? Well, that did not satisfy the Scots. What will the Scottish MPs do if we create an English grand committee sitting in the House of Commons? That might not be an unreasonable solution.
The cracks in the United Kingdom constitutional settlement which this Government have created will take some solving. Constitutional change, like devolution, is not an event but a process. This Government have, so to speak, stepped on the escalator, but the escalator will not stop—although they might wish it would—until we arrive at a new situation of stability. I do not know where that new situation of stability will be. What I do know is that compared to the problems that we face as a result of changes already initiated by this Government, the removal of hereditary Peers from this place, if they will forgive me, is completely trivial. It would be better not done.
That said, I have some sympathy with the Government. They have a manifesto pledge and, of course, within our customs and procedures in this place, we would normally give that a fair wind. Stage two is much more difficult. Stage two goes outwith their election manifesto. They are committed to a process but they are not committed to any conclusion. At that point the Government might find that they will have to begin to act in the interests of the United Kingdom instead of the interests of the Labour Party.
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Lord Clifford of Chudleigh
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for introducing this Motion and for assuring us that there will be a White Paper which will give us an opportunity to go into the matter in greater detail.
Since the beginning of the century another place has pointed the finger for reform of the Lords on about five occasions. On certain issues this may have been arguably correct. But on each occasion, as one finger has pointed at this House, three have pointed back at the accuser, another place.
The first finger could be called petulance or impatience—impatience with this unelected group interfering with the wishes of those elected to rule, those with the powers of change, those elected to govern. Is it government for the people by the people, or is it more often prone to be government by people interested in their party power which causes this mood? It is understandable that those who "cannot get their way" show indignation and react illogically. See how we are being asked to consider everything before the Royal Commission report is presented to us.
988 The second finger wears the magnanimous ring, sparkling with the word "mandate", the order from the electorate to pursue a purpose. Noble Lords have already been reminded that 31 per cent. of the total electorate voted for the present Government. We should not forget that 29 per cent.—almost the same amount—did not bother to vote at all. It is the mandate to pursue a purpose, a line, a principle, often inadequately explained and very often geared towards subjects emotionally attractive to the electorate; not necessarily practical or policeable, but sure to interest the media. That portent of information is politically biased, sometimes socially in conflict with a sizeable portion of the electorate who gave the Government their mandate.
The third finger may be the smallest but it is certainly the most self-effacing and the most self-destructive. It is self-importance. That proud digit may be the shortest finger but it is certainly the most short-sighted. On the subject of constitutional change, this finger refuses to encompass all the bodies relating to government, be they civil servants, be they the House of Lords—we must remember that about 35 per cent. of hereditary Peers and about 25 per cent. of the life Peers do not attend—or be they the elected House of Commons. This little finger, proud of its power position to deal with other people's problems, at home and abroad, refuses to consider that introspection might reveal where changes should occur, not where the first digit should be pointing but rather at the body singled out by this last digit: the accuser.
The position of the House of Lords is clearly that of a revisory body, a group of sage men and women—some old and some not so old—who have learnt the technique of "smoothing the edges", making legally feasible Bills presented by the elected body in the House of Commons, the executive body. In an age when we are encouraged to think quickly and to act quickly—after all, you do have a computer at hand—this revising Chamber permits the executive body to "think again" and so prevents that body losing face and credibility and helps the ruling party, whichever it may be, to gain the confidence of the people, the electorate who must abide by legislation passed in both Houses.
The debate about constitutional change must include both Houses of Parliament. The Government cannot and must not even consider pressing forward with the first stage of constitutional change without putting into place what is to replace it. I am not the first Peer to have said this. That must be the case, however long it may take. I welcome the Royal Commission, an idea that was dismissed by Her Majesty's Government. I must remind the Leader of the House that the idea was put forward by many Members of this House, the majority of whom are hereditary Peers.
I look forward to reading the White Paper. Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, I believe that this House should never be subject to public election. It should be self-selected, as with the Scottish Peers. I feel absolute confidence that most of us examine every issue and vote on it according to our consciences and not the consciences of the Whips. The ideal House of Lords is one without a Whip where we are relied on by the public to vote as our consciences dictate.
§ 7.55 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton
My Lords, it is right that we should be focusing in this debate on stage one—what is right about it and what is wrong about it and how it should be related to stage two. We should not at this time devote too much attention to the composition and powers of a reformed House of Lords in stage two. So I shall try to avoid that except to make two points.
First, however anomalous the present composition, pending full reform it might well be better—here I echo my noble friend Lord Cranborne—to proceed on a no change basis than to hand over to a nominated body for an indefinite period. Writing in the Daily Telegraph today, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said that the present system is wrong in principle and wrong in practice. Wrong in principle, it may be, but wrong in practice?
The composition of the House has radically altered since the introduction of life Peers in 1958. No fewer than 91 were introduced in the last Session. The Conservative overall majority exists no longer. Such powers as remain to the present House are limited by convention. The Salisbury rules are scrupulously observed and the House's function as a revising Chamber is carried out assiduously and effectively. That has been said often today. My noble friend Lady Platt, who is not present at the moment, quoted the American saying, "If it ain't broke, don't aim to fix it." I think we should try to fix it, but not the Government's way.
I turn to my second point. If ever stage two is reached, I hope that the option of retaining an agreed number of hereditary Peers will be considered. It should be looked at, not as the last gasp of a dying hereditary system but as a practical way of retaining in a reformed House wide knowledge and expertise that would otherwise be lost. More importantly, the freedom and ability of hereditary Peers to exercise independent judgment would be lost too, greatly to the disadvantage of Parliament. In that context I disagree totally with what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said.
The noble Earl, Lord Longford, with his enormous charm, referred to the knowledge and experience of so many hereditary Peers. In the 1970s, during the passage of an environment Bill, I remember a noble hereditary friend being of enormous assistance at the Committee stage on the strength of his experience as a corporation dustman. A way must be found to keep some of that expertise.
I turn now to the Government's proposals, as stated in the Labour Party's 1997 election manifesto. I very seldom disagree with my noble friend Lady Young. I have enormous respect for her. We made our maiden speeches on the same day. She said that this proposal is one that might have emanated from a sixth-form debating society on one of its better days. No, my Lords, it might have emanated from a poorly instructed sixth-form debating society on a bad day.
The idea of a first stage of reform not dependent on further reform, which would leave a second Chamber composed overwhelmingly of tame government 990 appointees, must be repugnant to anyone with a sense of the need to retain a place in the legislature that can effectively curb the power of the executive.
In the article I referred to, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, wrote:This radical reform will at a stroke fundamentally improve and enhance the standing and legitimacy of the Lords".I think it will do precisely the opposite. There can be no democratic legitimacy in a transitional Chamber of 510 appointed Peers.
I can understand the frustration felt by the party opposite when it was out of office which animated this drive for reform. Shortly after taking my seat in the House I remember moving an amendment to the 1972 Local Government Bill. It would have made sense out of an ill-judged Conservative plan for redrawing local government boundaries in Yorkshire. Despite support in the Chamber I was roundly defeated by a flood of Peers from my own party, none of whom had listened to the debate. However, that experience of the Labour Party cannot excuse the wholly unacceptable action the Government have in mind. They intend to put a shabby cart before a perfectly respectable horse. I make this point with some hesitation. My family has been immensely honoured—since the original command by Queen Anne—to continue to be summoned to this House by the monarch. We do, however, understand the case against our unfettered right to sit in the future.
Groucho Marx made the well-known quip, "If this club is one that would have me as a member, then I don't want to join." Perhaps I can turn that round and say that if this club is to be one that would not have me as an unelected member, I should ask, for myself and my successors, to be eligible in the future to join either this House or the other one as an elected member.
Whatever options for reform are adopted—if they ever are—this stage one option is such a bad one standing on its own that I gladly join my noble friend Lord Cranborne and so many others of my noble friends in condemning it.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, this debate has contained much that people expected. In my opinion it is overdue. I first attended this House over 12 years ago. I found this House fascinating but terrifying. I was a 22 year-old student. I was terrified of everything that went on here. In fact if I had not been quite such a coward, I would probably have admitted my terror, turned tail and run away.
There is a conception of this Chamber as somewhere where people are chosen on an arbitrary basis. This is considered to be a great advantage. People are drawn from a group which is nowhere near as homogeneous as people seem to think. I lose count of the number of times I have disappointed people at dinner parties when I have told them I do not have a castle. A number of Americans have been disappointed when I have told them that I cannot disembowel peasants who disagree with me. I could do that, but it would not get me very far in the courts. As I said, people are chosen on an arbitrary basis. It is like saying, "Three per cent. of you 991 stand a chance of winning such and such a prize". It is a little like a prize draw that has gone wrong. The hereditary Peers are here because their parents were here before them. This group cannot expect to maintain its position of power for much longer. It is due to party politics that this group arrived here in the first place.
When I joined the Liberal Party, as it then was, I paid my subscription and the cheque was pocketed by my local councillor, Philip More, who then said to me, "You realise that we are in favour of banning hereditary Peers, don't you?" The fact that the cheque was already in his pocket said something about the organisation and the efficiency of our local party. As I said, we cannot expect to carry on as we are. When Peers are given a Whip they know what is going on. They can be cajoled into turning up to vote.
I believe that future behaviour is always judged best by a consideration of past behaviour. The political system encourages the appointment of Peers who agree with the views of those who appoint them. When I first came to the House the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, advised me not to join the Liberals. When I asked him why he said that, he replied that there were not enough of them and inside three weeks I would be on the Front Bench doing everything. He was wrong. That took six months of regular attendance. I have been told that this party has not had any working Peers appointed between 1981 and 1990. I do not know whether that figure is correct as we can argue all day about the definition of "working peer". However, we must bear in mind the appointment system. The reform that is proposed will be a sham unless the promise of balance is seen to be in the legislation and the appointment system becomes transparent. There can be no more of this system of nods and winks. I do not care if that has been the position in the past. If we always followed precedents we would still be riding round on horses, bashing people over the head. We must take on something new. I favour a predominantly elected Chamber for the simple reason that we would become self-renewing.
We must try to address the matters that are before us at the moment. If we do not, we shall continue to argue about nothing and continue to chase the perfect state of affairs. That never works. I think anyone who has spent any time in this Chamber would agree that it is a great place for taking small victories as opposed to big defeats. If we insist on trying to achieve a perfect state of affairs in the future, we shall be totally ignored as regards any reform. I think everyone knows that. I believe that the usual channels are probably already busy with the real negotiations. If we join in that process, we shall have an input. If we adopt guerrilla tactics or act like football hooligans, we shall become isolated and will be treated with contempt. We must join the debate on this matter, accept the political realities and realise what we are trying to correct.
§ 8.9 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, in discussing the composition of this Chamber we are talking about matters that are at the very heart of this House, which is in turn at the heart of Parliament, which is at the core of our constitution. History shows how changes in the 992 nature of the composition of the component bits of Parliament send shockwaves through the formal and informal relationships at the heart of the system by which this country is governed.
If one looks at the way in which the 18th century Whig-dominated oligarchy evolved into a 19th century male-dominated deferential democracy, which in turn moved on to a 20th century universal individual democracy, we see a process which shows a continuous weakening of the second Chamber. Its capacity to act as a check or balance on the first Chamber has been eroded. We have been moving towards what my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham has called the tyranny of the majority of the House of Commons.
How has this happened? It is very simple. In cases of conflict the political and moral power of democracy has, quite rightly, engulfed the undemocratically constituted second Chamber. Almost every time, when given the choice between changing its composition and changing its powers, your Lordships' House has decided to change its powers. I believe the cumulative effect of that has been a mistake. It has left Parliament unbalanced.
I remember, when I was small, being told fairy stories, some of which I tell to my children. One was the story of the Emperor's Clothes. In that story it was the small boy who told the emperor that he was naked. Perhaps I as a Conservative, pro-European hereditary Peer, no doubt shortly to leave this stage permanently, am allowed to say that while election confers the right to legislate, it does not necessarily confer the ability to do it well. There are those in the other place who are very able and effective, but equally, there are those who are less so.
A characteristic of our age, and one which many people deprecate, is an increase in the amount of litigation in respect of professional negligence. The lawyer, the doctor and the accountant all owe a duty of care to their clients. Equally, Parliament owes a duty of care to the public.
I am among those—I am not sure how many there are on this side of the House—who support the concept of the extension of the courts' control of the executive. But I do not believe that that kind of legal control is suitable for Parliament as a means for trying to enforce that duty of care. Rather, the second Chamber should do that. It cannot do so unless it has greater democratic legitimacy than it has now.
It is often said that this place is a model of an effective revising and amending Chamber. I do not think there is any disagreement that a very great deal of good work is done here. But the reality, viewed dispassionately in the cold light of day, is that we do that on the sufferance of the government of the day. That is not a satisfactory constitutional arrangement. The distance between this Chamber and the Chamber of another place is about 100 yards down the corridor. But in many ways the gulf that divides us is wider than that which divided Dives from Lazarus.
Some say that we must not have gridlock in our system; the Government must get their business through. That seems to be the justification for the strong-arm tactics of Whips and party managers, those hard men 993 and women who seem to view the whole world through the haze of a smoke-filled room. Anyone who has been in government knows the need for solidarity. But no one on any Front Bench in their heart of hearts is unaware that from time to time he or she has gone through the Lobbies in support of a measure that is wrong or foolish. I have; and I am not proud of it. But the present system encourages that. I do not believe that we should try to endorse arrangements that encourage that kind of approach.
There is an alternative. It is for the government of the day to find sensible policies and to draft legislation that commands support. I accept that that may make legislation and policy-making more difficult. But the effect will be that the subsequent administration will be better.
There needs to be an internal rebalancing within Parliament to increase the power of the second Chamber in respect of that of the first. The House of Commons is not coterminous with Parliament. If our institutions are debased in this way, we debase Parliament as a whole. We can only rebalance Parliament if we increase the democratic legitimacy of the second Chamber. It is not necessary for it to be completely elected; nor do we necessarily need to have a fully bicameral Parliament with powers of co-decision. However, I believe that we should move significantly in that direction.
As has been said by a number of speakers, all Peers lack certain characteristics of democratic legitimacy. I, as an hereditary Peer, accept that we shall see change. In my case I wish to place it on record that I have been very fortunate to have had a second political career in government here when my first, as a Member of the European Parliament, came to an end at the hands of the electorate in 1994. I am proud of my family, which has been represented here in various guises since the 17th century, and of my kinsmen and families like them, who have made a material and beneficial contribution to the country. In Yeats's words, "They are no petty people".
On a purely personal level I should like my son to be able to follow me here if he so wishes. What father would not? But there is a more important issue at stake; that is, the good governance of this country. It matters to my son and to my daughters, and not only to my son and daughters but to every family in the country. To achieve that, change is not merely desirable, it is essential. When change is necessary, it is necessary to change.
But that does not mean that I support all change, only change which I judge will bring about improvements. I wish to see in proposals for that change a clear description of that vital and seamless relationship that has to exist between the composition of this House, its powers, and its position within Parliament as a whole, without which a proper internal rebalancing cannot be achieved.
I do not, I fear, see that in the proposals so eloquently and seductively elaborated by the noble Baroness in her opening remarks. Rather, she seems to advocate throwing a few deckchairs off the deck of the "Titanic", leaving it to sail onwards into the western sunset.
§ 8.17 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, most civilised countries have bicameral parliaments; however, the role and composition of the second chamber varies from country to country according to their traditions and needs. What are the attributes required of a second chamber in the traditional British context; that is to say, where for a century or so it has been deemed unlikely that either the executive or the primary legislature—in other words, the elected lower House—will abuse its powers, and that therefore the powers of the second chamber to challenge the first chamber (as distinct from merely tidying up and improving its work) should be relatively weak—in total contrast, for example, to the powers possessed by the United States Senate?
I suggest that the attributes required of such a hopefully influential, but undoubtedly subordinate, second chamber include the following (in no particular order of merit). First, it should contain a large number of independent-minded people, whether or not they take the party Whip, who are prepared to challenge the accepted wisdom of the moment without having constantly to look over their shoulders at constituency selection committees or the tabloid press. I have had the privilege of sitting in the same Chamber as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for more than 30 years. I disagree with the noble Earl on at least 75 per cent. of the occasions when he speaks. However, is it not an excellent thing that there is one Member (to use the word loosely) of Parliament who is prepared to stand up and champion sometimes very unpopular prisoners serving life sentences, whether or not one happens to agree with him? No elected Member would dare to do so for fear of instant deselection.
Secondly, it should be comprised mainly of people who have the time and inclination to go through Bills line by line, comma by comma. It is an enormous privilege to be able to contribute, but it is inevitably often arduous and time-consuming and sometimes tedious. The large number of well-meaning individuals who maintain that a second chamber should be packed full of captains of industry, eminent heart surgeons and trade union leaders are frankly naïve. Such people, as my noble friend Lord Annan reminded us, never have the time and rarely the inclination for such work.
Thirdly, it should include a reasonable, though not preponderant, number of people with experience of the lower House.
Fourthly, it should contain a preponderance of people without political ambition. The politically ambitious tend to believe that all ills can be cured by more and more legislation. Those without political ambition are more inclined to be sceptical and suspicious of ever-growing regulation and general bossiness.
Fifthly, although the second Chamber should be essentially senatorial, in the Roman sense, with a preponderance of mature people, it should also include a good sprinkling of younger people, including a handful of the very young, which, in this context, means people in their early 20s.
995 Sixthly, it should not of course be populist, but nor should it be élitist. A House composed exclusively of ivory tower dwellers who maintain, for example, that the public are making far too much fuss about crime, would be a big mistake.
Seventhly, it should naturally contain people from a wide variety of backgrounds with a very wide range of opinions. However, all of them should be prepared to observe the civilities and respect the customs of the House. They should avoid excessive partisanship, and above all be prepared to learn from one another. I was most interested to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford making the same point in a most interesting speech.
My eighth and last desirable attribute is this. Writing in today's Daily Telegraph, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, claimed that some people can decide—that was the word—on the laws that govern our country by an accident of birth. But that is not true. The elected Chamber ultimately decides, as is right and proper. All we can do is to insert amendments, some of which the Government accept and some of which they reject. Normally, that is the end of the story. There are occasional exceptions. In 1976, the House threw out the dangerous proposal to extend the scope of the dock labour scheme. But the people who ultimately scuppered that were not Members of this House, hereditary or otherwise, but two rebel Labour MPs, Mr. Brian Walden and Mr. John Mackintosh. That is the only exception I can think of.
However, one must accept that whenever the House of Commons and the Government reject Lords' amendments in their entirety, the consequent delay, albeit slight, is a mild irritant and one must expect a Labour Government to try to minimise the number of times they experience that irritation. Therefore, it is desirable that any gross political imbalance should be redressed.
Add all those desirable attributes together, plus a few others, and what do you get? You get a House composed very much as it is at present, but with some infrequent participants deprived of the right to vote on government Bills. There is no reason why they should not vote on private Bills or Private Member's Bills, table Questions and so on, but they should be deprived of the right to vote on government Bills.
Who would be excluded? First, naturally, the backwoodsmen who did so much harm to the reputation of this House at the time of the poll tax debate, although it was not entirely their fault, it was more the fault, I suspect, of the over-zealous Conservative Whips. The backwoodsmen would still be allowed to come down from the Outer Hebrides or wherever once a year to speak on the plight of hill farmers or whatever. But they would not be allowed to vote. If that move still leaves too much of a political imbalance, we would have to turn to some of those who dwell in forests much nearer the Palace of Westminster. By virtue of their proximity, they can emerge from their thickets more regularly, to attend on an almost daily basis. But delightful though they may be as individuals, they contribute little to the 996 work of the House, either in the Chamber or behind the scenes. So their right to vote on government Bills should also be rescinded.
These relatively modest changes would remove virtually all the Labour Party's legitimate grievances, with the accent on the word "legitimate". But what if I am over-optimistic? What if the delicate constitutional balance which has served us so well for decades and which has so far permitted our second Chamber to exist with relatively weak powers is upset? Suppose that the sinister skills of the spin doctors, soundbite merchants and other propagandists, bolstered by support from influential mass-circulation tabloid newspapers—which have no parallel in continental Europe or North America—turn out to give the Executive ever more effective power which a heavily whipped lower House containing a high proportion of office-holders is unable to curb?
If that is the sad prognosis, then we are in wholly new territory. The upper House will clearly have to flex its muscles much more. This muscle flexing can only be legitimised by having 60 per cent. plus of its membership elected: to that extent and that extent alone I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. Pending the election, if it happens, of the new elected Peers, why could not the more active hereditary Peers keep their seats warm for them?
§ 8.25 p.m.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for initiating the debate. She appeared to suggest that almost all hereditary Peers are out of touch. I think she said that only 2 per cent. of hereditary Peers claim to be working class. I do not claim to be working class. How can I, as I am public school educated? I do not like blowing my own trumpet, even quietly, but what I can claim is that I can operate a variety of machine tools. I am able to weld by gas, electric arc or metal inert gas. Also, not only do I hold a class one HGV licence but I am qualified to train people to drive such vehicles and have done so commercially. I can also operate heavy commercial recovery vehicles. As a result, I am well able to communicate and relate to people in the black hand industries.
But clearly being purely hands on is not good enough. To be of any use to Parliament you need to have suitable education and management experience. Part of the skill I offer is being able quickly to understand technical matters using my practical experience. I know that I will not be alone among hereditary Peers with that kind of hands-on experience. It so happens that today I was discussing the Authorisation of Special Types (General) Order, the Authorisation of Special Types, Special Order, the Vehicle Excise Act and the law as it applies to engineering plant. In particular, I was discussing whether it was correct for vehicle excise duty on roadsweepers to be on the basis of their design weight or actual weight—all highly technical matters.
When we look at the practical experience of the elected Members of another place, the story is rather different. Nowadays Members' careers tend to be 997 school, university, local government or research assistant and then Parliament. Obviously there are exceptions. That is not a standard unique course. But it tends to be the case and applies for most political parties. However, when we look at the hereditary Peers we see that most have had to earn their living in the "real world". For myself, I never expected to take my seat but, sadly, my father died at least 10 years early and we had no Labour government to reform the House.
The noble Baroness, her predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and her right honourable friend the Prime Minister make much of the fact that there are rather a lot of Conservative hereditary Peers but only 18 Labour ones. It is interesting to note, however, that on the Labour Back-Benches 25 per cent. are hereditary Peers at the moment. They conveniently choose to forget that there are just over 200 Cross Bench hereditary Peers who have not joined the Conservative Party or the Labour Party.
One has to ask: how has the House been put into this undesirable situation? Indeed, why am I sitting on the Conservative Benches and why are Labour hereditary Peers such a rare breed? When I took the Conservative Whip, I knew that I would have to answer some interesting questions, particularly as to how my grandfather would have felt. He was above all a realist. I was not surprised by the comment of my noble friend Lord Baker that at the Oxford Union it had been said that although the House of Lords was in theory indefensible—it is—it should be left alone because it worked rather well. I believe that it does but that it requires evolution.
I have no difficulty in taking the Conservative Whip because both the Labour and Conservative parties are very different from when my grandfather was active in front-line politics. Furthermore, the challenges faced by government and society today are completely different even from those of the early 1950s. We have come a long way since then thanks to the efforts of successive post-war governments. Sadly, the challenges that a new Labour hereditary Peer would face are much steeper. One can imagine the question being asked, "How do you feel about parliamentary euthanasia?" As soon as the Labour Party dispensed with clause 4 and the loony left it became electable. The Government are still very popular and their position on the political spectrum is not wildly different from that of the Conservative party. Apart from the future of your Lordships' House, there are stark differences on constitutional matters. I cannot for the life of me understand the attraction to devolution and I do not believe in their economic policy. I may be horribly wrong. Devolution may work very well and in the next few years we may enjoy a period of unprecedented stability. Only time will tell. I am sure that there are many hereditary Peers who support devolution and other government policies but who are not on the Labour Benches. But why not? Why are there so few hereditary Peers on the Labour Benches? Could 998 it be that the Labour Party's very policy regarding hereditary Peers creates the problem rather than provides the solution to it?
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. He has said a good deal about the Labour and Conservative parties. The reason why there are hereditary Peers in favour of devolution is that they sit on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for that comment. It has been said that hereditary or life Peers are no more independent than would be members of an upper House appointed by any other means. I owe my position in Parliament to no one who is alive. I cannot be de-selected, although I may be disenfranchised. I do not have to obtain a good position on any party list. Under the current arrangements my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Strathclyde have no power over me. They may influence me but they have no clout. If they decided that they had no further need of my services it is probable that my income would go up and not down. That is not unusual in your Lordships' House. I have already planned for my disenfranchisement at the end of the Parliament—possibly earlier—so I have no fear of that either.
I support the view of my party that if there is to be reform and we are to destroy what we have at the moment it must be done in one stage and not two. I do not believe that on its own stage one will solve the problem. What will happen if following stage one legislation continues to be amended and revised in a way that the Government do not like and they continue to be defeated? Some form of stage two will have to be implemented quickly. I am therefore certain that the Government should produce a comprehensive plan for reform and then expose it to intellectual and public examination.
§ 8.33 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Coity
My Lords, it will come as no surprise to your Lordships that I have absolutely no difficulty in coming to terms with the removal of hereditary Peers. Their only claim to be here is the privilege and fortune of birth. It is indefensible by any measurement to seek to justify the participation in our legislative process of those whose only claim is based on an accident of birth—an event or chance happening—which in many cases stretches back over hundreds of years. This phenomenal privilege has for more than a century defied the standards of democratic society.
The Parliament Act 1911 first expressed the notion of removing hereditary Peers. Nearly 90 years later the manifesto of the Labour Party following the general election last May—which was won by an unparalleled landslide—spelt out this intention. The manifesto also clearly stated that the removal of hereditary Peers from the House of Lords would not—I stress that—be dependent on further reform. I believe that this removal should be implemented as a stand-alone provision without qualification as soon as possible.
999 Some months ago I recall a Question along the following lines being posed from the Benches opposite: what is the difference between an hereditary Peer being here and an appointed Peer being here? My noble friend Lord Richard who was then Leader of the House replied that the difference was that appointed Peers were here because of what they had done whereas hereditary Peers were here because of what someone else had done. That difference is crucial. Every citizen of this country can understand the appointment of an individual because of what he has done but cannot accept that someone can sit in this House simply because of birth. That is not to say that I do not have sympathy with the hereditary Peers who actively participate in the work of this House. In that regard I support the provision of some accommodation as long as such Peers sit in their own right and not because of their birth.
Having unequivocally expressed my view about the first stage of reform, I turn to my suggestions for the second stage. Essentially, I am opposed to any form of elections to this House. Here I part company with my noble friend Lord Richard. I regard the role of the House of Lords as a Chamber that is intended to complement the work of the democratically elected House of Commons. I do not envisage this House fundamentally challenging the will of the other place. This is a revising Chamber to dot i's and cross t's and deal with the details of legislative proposals coming from the elected Chamber. It is work with limitations but it is nevertheless work of value to our democratic system and hence to this country's democratic way of life. I wish to see that role and function continued by the House of Lords.
Against that background, I do not believe that elections would be appropriate for this House. Since the introduction of the Life Peerages Act in particular, this Chamber has benefited from the views of people with a very wide range of experience. It contains men and women from all walks of life who bring with them a lifetime of experience, skill, knowledge and expertise. They come from the judiciary, the Armed Forces, the police, the Civil Service, local government, business, the arts, academia, charities, politics and trade unions, to mention but some. They all bring with them a wealth of specialisation to enhance the calibre and value of our work. That is a great benefit which would be lost for ever if elections to this place were ever introduced. Why do I say this? I believe that most of us who are appointed to this House have in one way or another succeeded in the fields to which I have referred. We come here having spent a large part of our lives elsewhere. We are honoured by this privilege and wish to use our knowledge and experience for the benefit of our nation. Our only motive is to serve. I believe that, if elections to this House were introduced, very few of us, if any, would wish to stand in such elections and that the benefits of the characteristics to which I have drawn attention could be lost never to be retrieved.
What would be the other disadvantages if this House became an elected Chamber? First, I cannot see an elected chamber accepting for very long the limited powers that it now has. As greater authority is demanded, I see two elected chambers on a collision 1000 course, perhaps leading to a constitutional conflict. Such a challenge would destroy for ever the role of this House as a chamber to complement the work of the democratically elected House of Commons. Indeed such a situation would undoubtedly be a spur for those who already believe that the House of Lords should play no part whatsoever in the legislative process of this country.
Secondly, should there be elections to this House, I fear that the candidates will not have reached an age to give them the lifetime's experience to which I have drawn attention. Instead, they will be young, ambitious politicians, many of whom will see this House as a stepping stone to the House of Commons, much like those who have seen elections to the European Parliament as a stepping stone to Westminster.
Thirdly, we must ask ourselves, do we really believe that our society, our nation, our democracy will be any better served by having two elected Chambers? I strongly suggest not. I would go further and say that, with two elected Chambers, fundamental conflict is inevitable sooner or later. In my view, the consequence of that would be fatal for the House of Lords. A part-elected, part-appointed House of Lords would be an even greater disaster.
Although I have made my case against elections, change does need to be considered, whether by means of a White Paper, by a Royal Commission or by an Appointments Commission. It has to be change that is well thought-out and not hasty; change that is based on a rational assessment of what this House is for, and not change brought about by an emotional reaction to the removal of hereditary Peers.
I should like to see the changes kept simple and the basic work of this House largely unaltered. I therefore advocate change to assist and enhance this objective, not to challenge and undermine it. I believe it is sufficient to give consideration to, first, establishing an acceptable system of appointments, maintaining a reasonable balance and with an influential Cross-Bench presence; secondly, making an accommodation for active, participating hereditary Peers to sit in their own right, not based on birth; and thirdly, seriously considering a reduction of the existing 12-month delaying power.
In conclusion, I offer a word of caution to those opposite who argue that further change should be spelt out before the removal of hereditary Peers. Such an argument will be closely scrutinised. This stance may well be thought to be only a ploy to preserve the hereditary element by stealth, by never being prepared to accept the terms for further change, whatever they happen to be. If the British people see this as the view being put forward by the Conservative Party, then the consequences for them at the next general election will indeed be grave.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Lord Blackwell
My Lords, in the first speech I made to your Lordships' House I argued that one of the lessons from history was that the fashionable consensus of the day was often wrong and that it was the duty of this House to stand up against the fashionable consensus and to argue for what was right.
1001 One such fashionable consensus of the day is the view that an unelected second Chamber is in some way necessarily undemocratic and illegitimate. It is no doubt for that reason that the Labour Party manifesto is a mirror of all that is fashionable consensus, suggesting that the House should be made "more democratic and representative". That view reflects the false notion that democracy means that a government elected with a temporary majority has a mandate to impose on the country whatever legislation it chooses. The reality is that free democracy depends on checks and balances on an elected government, otherwise what we have is an elective dictatorship.
The crucial role of the House of Lords in the UK constitution is to provide that ultimate check on the elected government, because the other House, dominated as it is by the party Whips and by the re-selection process, is in reality unable to call the Government to check when that Government have a large majority. The House of Lords is able to do that precisely because it is independent. That is a crucial point that we must not lose in this debate. As many have said, it may not be easy to defend the current composition of the House of Lords in logic, but it works.
Like many relatively new Members, I cannot help but be impressed by the quality of debate and by the independence of Members of both sides of the House in what they say and in the way they vote. It is because the House of Lords avoids the lobby fodder mentality that, as we have seen in many debates over the past year, it is the House of Lords which has in effect been the House of common sense, standing up for ordinary people's views against a Government trying to push through legislation regardless. I am sure that was also the case in previous years with other governments.
In many ways it is a strength and not a weakness that, rather than having a House of professional politicians, the House of Lords draws on a large group of Peers who do not all attend daily for every part of the business, but can and do attend if there are major constitutional issues. It is exactly that large pool of commonsense Peers who are able to come in when the issues demand it which gives it that strength and independence. Even though it has been argued that it is undemocratic, the reality is that most of the votes that this and other governments have lost on the more day-to-day issues have been lost when they cannot get the support of their own Back-Benchers and Cross-Benchers, not because of the turn-out of Tory backwoodsmen.
I am therefore in the camp of my noble friend Lord Baker. I would not change it unless there was a clear alternative which would work very much better than the House of Lords does at present. As a realist, however, I accept that that is an argument which may not win in the current debate. Unlike some of my colleagues, I am not so much fearful of stage one—although I prefer not to get there—I am more fearful of what stage one may lead on to in stage two. In particular, I fear that this fashionable consensus which drives us will lead to pressure for what, before the summer, the Leader of the Opposition described as a democratically elected second Chamber. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that 1002 that would be a great mistake. It would be a mistake because Members of a second Chamber, dependent on the party for re-selection, would no longer retain the independence they have at the moment. The points that my noble friend Lord Attlee made in that respect are very pertinent.
An elected membership would simply replicate in this House the party political debates and patterns of voting that occur in the other place. It would reinforce the elective dictatorship of a government with a large majority, rather than standing as a bastion against it. It would mean that this House could no longer stand firm as the House of common sense. Whatever happens, therefore, I want to declare my opposition to any solution which moves to an elected second Chamber. I prefer to keep it as it is, but moving to an elected second Chamber would be the worst of all worlds. This House must be prepared to stand out again against fashionable consensus on this issue and must argue as hard as it can for what is right.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Lord Walton of Detchant
My Lords, in my youth I was taught by my schoolteacher parents and by my own teachers to have a high regard and great respect for the hereditary aristocracy of the United Kingdom. Indeed, I learned much about the outstanding contributions to the life and work of this country and in the international arena which many noble families made in the service of Crown and country over the centuries. Members of many such families continue to sit in this House, among them the noble Viscount the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition whose proud ancestry stretches back over many generations.
When I had the privilege of joining your Lordships' House in 1989, I was immediately impressed by the persuasive speeches and other contributions to the work of the House made by many hereditary Peers. Being heavily embroiled, as I soon was, in debates on human fertilisation and embryology and on reform of the National Health Service, I quickly recognised that the standard of debate in your Lordships' House was exceptional. Often, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said in his recent letter to The Times, it seemed better than in another place. Clearly, too, among the life Peers there were many with expertise in the professions, politics, business and academe who possessed specific expertise which added cogency and illumination to many of our debates.
Despite my personal previous political affiliation, I decided to be a Cross-Bencher, as I believed then and do now that the ability to express an independent view, not coloured by party loyalty, allows one to contribute effectively to debates on many issues. I am therefore delighted, as one of about 320 Cross-Bench Peers, to learn that all parties and commentators are agreed that any reformed House must have a strong independent element. I also resolved in those early days that my contributions to debates would normally be limited to speaking on issues relating to medicine, science and education, but with an occasional sideswipe relating to 1003 topics of interest to my native north-east of England such as the dualling of the A.1 trunk road north of Newcastle.
I have breached that self-imposed ordinance today with some temerity by speaking in this debate, as I firmly believe that the future of this House is so important that we must get it right for the sake of this still proud nation. The question of reform has engendered a mass of comment and speculation from Members of this House, journalists, political commentators and many others. I have particularly enjoyed reading the diverse views expressed in an issue of the House Magazine published on 3rd August, the House of Commons Research Paper 98/85 published on 19th August, and the initial report of the constitutional commission chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, published last month. The wide range of views expressed in those and many other documents, both public and private, have clarified some points but to others have added confusion, doubt and even occasionally bewilderment. A few proposals which I shall refrain from specifying have been breathtakingly naïve.
I listened carefully to the clear and forceful introductory remarks of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. I welcome the Government's decision to publish a White Paper which I am sure we all await avidly. But while my experience of this House, now of some nine years, is relatively brief, I believe that several important principles are self-evident. The first is that the House, as now constituted, serves as an effective revising Chamber in amending, where appropriate, some comparatively ill digested legislation emanating from another place.
Secondly, the range of expertise and wisdom in this Chamber is so exceptional that it would be difficult to conceive of a national forum of greater competence and skill. Thirdly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, stressed, the reports of its Select Committees have plainly had a major influence on policy decisions of governments of all political persuasions. However, I must add that while I am totally in favour of an hereditary constitutional monarchy (and long may it continue) I have become reluctantly but increasingly convinced that despite my admiration for the contributions made by many hereditary Peers, and not least by many of my noble friends on these Benches, the principle of conferring a right to sit and to legislate solely through accident of birth is one that can no longer be sustained in the 21st century.
For that reason I could not in all conscience oppose a Bill designed to remove the right to sit and vote of present and future hereditary Peers. If, however, Her Majesty's Government were simply to introduce a one clause Bill with that sole objective, it would leave behind a House which I believe, contrary to the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, would be almost unworkable. Before the recent influx of new working Peers, of the 450 or so life Peers 52 per cent. were over the age of 70. Having myself had experience of the work of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and having chaired two of its sub-committee inquiries, as well as your Lordships' 1004 Select Committee on Medical Ethics, I am conscious of the volume of work which service on those committees alone involves. Some older Peers might no longer be willing or capable of accepting that load. I believe that it would be difficult to cope in such a truncated House with the wide range of responsibilities which at present fall upon the House in general and its Select Committees in particular. Hence, like many other noble Lords, would much prefer that a comprehensive Bill be introduced which would not only remove the right to sit of the hereditary Peers (stage 1) but which would define in the same legislation stage 2 relating to the long-term constitution of the House.
Nevertheless, I appreciate that so many views have been expressed about such a final solution that a lengthy period of detailed consultation and consideration will be needed before agreement can be reached. Some would prefer an all-appointed House; some, one which is part-appointed and part-elected. Only a few seek a wholly elected senate. In my view, even a partly elected chamber could not properly function without acquiring some of the responsibilities of another place, functions which that Chamber might be reluctant to relinquish. I add a second point. I and I am sure many other professional men and women would never have considered standing for election. Nor would I have been prepared to do so when very much younger.
My personal wish, like that of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, would be to see in the longer term an appointed House. But I wholly agree with the proposed removal of exclusive prime ministerial patronage in order that an independent commission could be established to nominate future life Peers, while the Prime Minister would retain some limited authority, along with other political leaders, to nominate a few.
Many suggestions have emerged about the future authority and powers of the House. I believe that its present powers are about right and need only minor amendment, perhaps by filling in the gaps identified by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell. As for the long term future, despite my wish and that of many others to see a comprehensive Bill dealing with phases 1 and 2, there are now so many imponderables to be considered that I must reluctantly accept that this is unlikely to be achieved immediately. The chance of fulfilling this ideal objective seems almost as impossible as the prospect of a Eurosceptic Conservative Party winning the next general election. Provided, therefore, that Her Majesty's Government are prepared to give a firm commitment that there will be a phase 2, and will define a reasonably precise timetable, I would be prepared to support phase 1, modified as I will suggest in a moment, while fully supporting the appointment of a Royal Commission empowered to advise upon the longer term.
In the meantime, I would wish to see an interim House strengthened by the addition of up to 100 of the present hereditary Peers who have been regular attenders and effective contributors to the work of the House selected as life Peers on a quota basis from the individual parties and the Cross-Benches in order to sustain a satisfactory balance between the parties and the independents. I do not believe that it would be beyond the wit of man, and certainly not of your 1005 Lordships, to design quickly a mechanism by which that objective could be achieved. Such a mechanism must also allow the ancient titles which many hereditary Peers, then becoming life Peers, at present hold to be passed on to the next generation, but with no automatic right of access to this House.
I add a final note of what I hope may be regarded as enlightened self interest, being now myself nearer 80 than 70 years of age. I again disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. I trust that Her Majesty's Government, despite my earlier comments on the age structure of existing life Peers, will not impose an upper age limit. On listening attentively to debates in your Lordships' House, I have been impressed by the cogency, power and quality of many of the contributions made by noble Lords in their eighth and ninth decades.
I agree that reform of this House is long overdue, but let us take the time and make the effort to get it right.
§ 9 p.m.
§ Viscount Bridgeman
My Lords, in today's debate there has been a polarisation of the timing of any proposed changes. Either they are to be immediate or the status quo prevails. I suggest that there is a middle way. I also believe that the Members on the Benches opposite do not appreciate the significance of the announcement about the formation of the committee headed by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay.
It should be accepted that we on these Benches believe that a change is inevitable. That could form the basis of an all-party consensus. I, too, am concerned that the interim Chamber will not be so effective a revising Chamber, according to the principles of my noble friend Lord Cranborne. I should like its existence to be as short as possible—it is only an interim measure.
I am attracted by the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and my noble friend Lord Ferrers and by the more radical proposals of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, that the phasing out of hereditary Peers should be delayed. The Leader of the House suggested that a Royal Commission to be set up promptly should look at stage two. If the present character of this House were maintained for two or three years, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Cranborne, that would enable the Royal Commission to sit and perhaps issue an interim report. The transition would then be much more seamless.
The Government would have the assurance of a finite end to the hereditary principle. I suggest that the condition of all-party agreement would be that stage two is brought forward to a definite date and therefore the fear would be removed from those on these Benches that stage two would be delayed for another 80 years. I suggest that that would eliminate the confrontation which looks dangerously apparent. The consensus, which is the glory of this House, would be reasserted. If any subject needs consensus it is this one.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, we have already heard that the duties of this House are to amend legislation, occasionally to delay it and, importantly, to prevent a government extending their own life. That has not happened in my memory, but I believe that it happened with the consent of all parties in both Houses at the beginning of the First and Second World Wars. And rightly so on those occasions.
However, this House has another duty which may have been mentioned when I was not in the Chamber. It is the duty to protect the independence of the judiciary. We read in the papers and hear on the news that the judiciary in other countries is used to force through a government's policy and to get rid of unwanted opposition. The duty to protect the judiciary is enshrined in Section 11(3) of the Supreme Court Act 1981. An Address from both Houses of Parliament to Her Majesty the Queen is required before a Supreme Court judge can be removed.
We have an extremely unbalanced House of Commons with a very large government majority. In no way am I suggesting that the present Government would seek to interfere with the independence of the judiciary. But at some time in the future there may be a government which might wish to do that. If the House of Lords as then constituted were unbalanced and not independent there would be a danger that our judiciary could be removed if it were not prepared to do what the government of the day wanted and force through government policy. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we keep a large independent membership in this House. That need not necessarily be those who do not take a Whip. Many Members of this House of all parties although they take a Whip act independently. I know from experience that one can be very unpopular with one's Whips for doing so—as I see from my noble friends on the Front Bench!
I, too, would like to see the reform of Parliament completed in one stage, otherwise we shall be in danger of achieving an unbalanced Parliament which will have difficulties in the future. However, if the Government do not believe—and they appear not to believe—that they can deal with the whole reform at once, any Act to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote must contain a fixed timetable setting out the future reforms that are to be put in place. There might be the possibility of a Royal Commission, as suggested by the Leader of the House, with a fixed timetable. There must be not only a timetable for the commission's consideration but a timetable for its reporting and any reforms to be enacted. That must be enshrined in the legislation to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, is not in his place at the moment. He suggested that the power of this House to delay legislation should be reduced from the existing period of one year. I disagree strongly with that because I was in this House when the War Crimes Bill was thrown out on Third Reading on two occasions. It was brought back to the House of Commons, having been introduced by the Conservative government of the day, immediately after the Queen's 1007 Speech and came to this House in the following January. It was finally thrown out for the second time in March, whereupon the government of the day invoked the Parliament Act and passed it into law without our agreement.
I believe that history has shown that we were right to throw it out. It has cost the country countless millions of pounds and, as far as I can see, so far it has been totally ineffective. But for all practical purposes, the delay was some five or six months and no more.
The noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, suggested that there should be no upper age limit in this House, and with that I entirely agree. There is a built-in wisdom and experience with age—experience more than anything else and a knowledge of what has happened in the past. I can remember listening to Lord Shinwell shortly before his 100th birthday making an extremely fine speech. He showed that age is no bar in this House to performing extremely well.
§ 9.9 p.m.
§ Viscount Chandos
My Lords, I rise to speak not with the sadness of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, but with the excitement that comes from the first sight of land after a great voyage. After nearly 90 years of political tacking, there is at last the imminent prospect of a second chamber in Parliament which is not disfigured by its own composition, a composition which, despite the distinguished contribution of many hereditary Peers, as my noble friend Lady Jay acknowledged, is patently unjustifiable through its hereditary element and is offensive to a large proportion of the electorate.
I speak as an hereditary Peer, the beneficiary of a peerage awarded to my grandfather as a Conservative politician. I suppose that that is the mirror image of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. I take great pride in the career of my grandfather through an extraordinary and crucial period in British history, but I have not for one moment believed that his achievements in any way justified my right to have a seat close to the centre of the country's political and legislative heart.
Unlike my noble friend Lord Shepherd, I did not have the benefit of advice from a former Prime Minister as to whether to take up my inheritance, but I reached a similar conclusion; that until the cavalry arrived, I should do what I could to mitigate the huge imbalance between Conservative Members of this House and those who take the Whip of other parties.
It has been my privilege to play a small part in your Lordships' House for 16 years, but I have played that part also as a result of privilege and not through my own merit nor through the choice of the electorate. Therefore, I unequivocally and unconditionally welcome the confirmation of my noble friend Lady Jay that our manifesto commitment will be implemented through a Bill to be introduced in the next Session. I urge your Lordships, hereditary and life Peers alike, to support this first step of reform to end the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House. Unusually, I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I hope that our right, in the unforgettable words of P.G. Wodehouse to "browse and sluice" will likewise be ended.
1008 I hope and expect that the ending of the rights of hereditary Peers will be without favour or exception—no quotas, no horse-trades, no promises. As the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, requested, let former hereditary Peers be eligible only for whatever election or nomination is open to other citizens.
I, too, believe that the ultimate composition of this House should be substantially through direct elections but I am sympathetic to the Government's caution about committing to a precise timetable for agreeing and introducing the next stage of reform in a period when other hugely important and worthwhile constitutional reforms are being implemented and bedded down.
I have absolutely no doubt about the sincerity of the Government's commitment to a democratic and accountable second chamber. I am confident that the second stage of reform, whatever the self-declared knowledge of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, will take place and will take place in a form and within a timescale that satisfies all those of your Lordships with a genuine commitment to reform.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, alleges, with the cynicism of his party, which was recognised by the electorate last year, that no government will have the incentive to move beyond the transitional position. I say that this Government have that incentive, through a deep-seated commitment to constitutional and democratic reform as a central part of our country's modernisation. Even if, through mishap, the reform stalled at the transitional stage—which I do not expect—it would be unequivocally better and closer to the electorate's wishes than the present position.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and other speakers from the Benches opposite, try to make the country's flesh crawl with cries of "patronage", "government lackeys" and "ermine-clad quangos"—charges which I can only describe as rich with dramatic irony. In doing so, moreover, they seem to me to insult the performance and integrity of life Peers of every party whose record of critical independence—as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, pointed out—is at least as good as those of hereditary Peers. Indeed, I was witness in a smoke-filled bar before the Recess to my party's Whips formulating plans to recommend hereditary peerages for my noble friend Lord Desai and other particularly independent life Peers in the hope—forlorn, I am afraid—that they would thereby be rid of their own particular turbulent priests.
The most striking omission in the opening remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, was his failure to answer—or even to attempt to answer—the question of my noble friend Lady Jay as to whether he and his colleagues will adhere to the rules formulated in part by his grandfather; that is, the Salisbury-Addison rules. Even if the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is right that no ordinary voter ever reads a party manifesto, I am sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—deep in the engine room of the Conservative Party's last election campaign—did, and will acknowledge that the Government plan—as indicated by my noble friend Lady Jay—is exactly and precisely in line with the Labour Party manifesto.
1009 A year ago, in an exchange of letters on Lords reform published in Prospect magazine, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, wrote to me in the following terms:I made it clear at the end of last year that the Salisbury-Addison rules now seem to enjoy the force of a constitutional convention. The rules were originally only an agreement between two party leaders in our House that the Lords would not vote against the principle of legislation which embodied policies foreshadowed in the Labour Party's 1945 manifesto. I have made it clear that I regard my party as being bound by a similar undertaking".In the light of that, I am sure that it was an oversight on the part of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that he did not confirm today his adherence to the Salisbury-Addison rules.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, if the noble Viscount will give way, I can perhaps shorten his speech. My noble friend gave a very clear undertaking in his opening speech, so the noble Viscount need not go further into that.
§ Viscount Chandos
My Lords, I am sorry if I missed that. If that is the case, then we can look forward to the swift passage of the short Bill necessary to implement the policy contained in the Labour Party manifesto and, at the same time, to the normal and proper passage of all other Bills put before the House in the next Session.
§ 9.18 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, I shall be brief, as I always am. I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for giving us this opportunity for debate and for her charming note to me. Laying aside the chilling tone of the Labour manifesto's reference to a final solution for hereditary Peers and the obvious pleasure in our departure which some life Peers whom we thought were our friends exhibited, and before I am thrown off the precipice into the abyss, it raises the question: what is the House of Lords for? Do we in Britain need a second Chamber?
Having had the great good fortune, through no merit of my own, I hasten to add, unlike life Peers who all arrived on merit, of having been here for 12 years, of having been welcomed in such a warm and friendly way by your Lordships and of having had the opportunity to work with so many of your Lordships—both life and hereditary—and indeed being aware of the volume of work they undertake, I am very sure that we do need a second Chamber.
My second son, a scientist, worked in Australia and perfected a complicated system of producing clear drinkable water from sewage through a series of filters. It seems to me that one of the chief functions of the House of Lords is very similar. It is filtering out the untreated legislation from the other place and making it into workable laws. It is also going through EU directives with a fine toothcomb which the Members of the other place, having constituencies to attend to as well as their parliamentary functions, do not have time to do. It has also the power of delay, like the letter you write overnight and think better of sending in the morning. And, having had the good fortune to listen to 1010 many splendid debates in this House and to hear many far-seeing, funny, moving and magnificent speeches from so many of your Lordships, both life and hereditary, I feel that they also are part of our real contribution to the nation.
The House of Lords, as it is at present, works extremely well. The only difficulties I can see are that the two major parties are still not quite evenly balanced, which they ought to be, and that there are in theory 1,300 Peers who can vote. In practice around 400 attend and contribute regularly. And talking of the much-quoted taunt of the Back-Bench body of hereditary Peers got in by their Whips to win any important vote, there is a vital point I should like to make.
Speaking from these Benches, when I have voted against my own party on a matter of principle, which I have done from time to time, and we have been defeated, I have gone through the list of not usually attending Peers who have come in to swing the vote. I have discovered that at least 50 per cent. of them are in fact life Peers who are not regular attenders. The hereditary element is only half. That supports my suggestion. The Peers, life and hereditary, who attend this House on a regular basis and who also contribute, should retain their speaking and voting powers. Those who only attend intermittently should have the power to speak but not to vote. That would eliminate any accusation of bussed-in backwoodsmen and any element of anti-hereditary spite.
There has been much talk about dying in the ditches for the hereditary principle, which was so well defined by my noble friend Lord Beloff who is no longer in his place. Heredity has been used as a dirty word, but it is not. Every single person born into this world is hereditary; it is in their genes. Heredity is about the family, and the family is what civilisation, as we know it, is based on. I am very proud of my parents and my grandparents, just as I am of my children and grandchildren. I have only to look across this House at the noble and splendid Baroness the Leader of the House—sadly, her noble, dear and much loved father has not been in his place today—to see heredity alive and well and at its best.
This is what it all boils down to. We are not here as depicted so often in cartoons in the media—a collection of outmoded old buffers in red robes leaping aimlessly. We are here from a sense of duty—a dedicated body of Peers, both life and hereditary, and all trying, each in our own way, to serve our Queen, our country and our people.
§ 9.23 p.m.
§ Lord Moran
My Lords, for 14 years I have had the good fortune to be a Member of your Lordships' House as an independent Cross-Bencher and as one of the hereditary Peers whom the Government so deeply deplore. During those years I have been struck by the gulf between what is said and done in this House when, as is often the case, party politics are laid aside, and what happens when party politics are uppermost and the Whips are on.
1011 Since I became a Member of this House I have served on a number of its committees. I spent most of this morning hearing evidence on genetically modified crops. On these committees I have been struck by the way in which all participants leave their political prejudices at the door. They deliberate as individuals. The work of those committees seems to me to represent the House at its most constructive.
In this Chamber, I have found that those Peers to whom I have found it most worthwhile to listen are those who are, if not independent, at least independent in spirit. I refer, for example, to someone like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, or the noble Baroness, Lady Young. They have clearly seldom been much influenced by the Whips.
By contrast, when the House takes on its party political aspect, it becomes in my view far less admirable. We all know those occasions when, say, an amendment has been discussed by a few knowledgable Peers, the matter is put to a vote, and other Peers troop in from the Library and the bars, knowing nothing of the issue at stake, and inquiring, "Which way are we voting?"
In his stimulating maiden speech, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, mentioned the failure to consult the people about Maastricht. I vividly remember the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Blake, in July 1993, which called for a referendum on Maastricht and the deplorable way in which the Conservative Government bussed in supporters to achieve a vote against it of 445 to 176. That was a black day for the House of Lords, a great opportunity lost, and showed the House at its party political worst.
We know that outside this House impatience with party politics is widespread and, I think, growing. The bewilderment of farmers, fishermen, nurses, industrialists, public servants and many others is turning to anger. The Government and Parliament seem cocooned in a world of their own. I was struck the other day when my wife and I visited a farmer and his wife in west Wales. Over tea they said to us, "The Prime Minister speaks to us like God out of a cloud. He talks about the big picture, but we are never in it". That applies to many of us.
The Government's present proposals, however they may be tinkered with and improved cosmetically, seem bound to reduce the independence of this House and to increase the party political element by the creation of more of those whom I have heard described as "place mats". The preservation of a token Cross-Bench element will be wholly inadequate to maintain the independent, non-party strength of this House. I was sorry that we did not have much earlier a debate on the very sensible Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who will be speaking tomorrow. It is a Motion which has sat for so long near the top of the No Day Named list. I also agree with much that the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, said this afternoon.
Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said earlier, I think that merely abolishing the hereditary Peers will inevitably leave the House to become more and more political and subordinate to the Executive. It 1012 will enjoy little credit in the country. Clearly, it will be a long, long time, if ever, before stage two emerges. Il n'y a rien qui dure comme le provisoir. I therefore think that what the Government are planning to do is wrong and deserves a very critical reception.
§ 9.27 p.m.
§ The Earl of Iveagh
My Lords, it is a great honour to speak in this debate tonight. There is nothing like the issue of survival to focus the mind.
What lies behind the hereditary principle? In the first instance, it is pure chance. The odds of being an hereditary Peer are not unlike those for winning the National Lottery jackpot, although the outcome is far less financially rewarding. In fact, the lack of monetary reward in most cases means that financial sacrifices are made to serve in this House. The work is done completely voluntarily and in most cases selflessly. I believe that that squares fittingly with Labour's vision of Britain as,a society where we do not simply pursue our individual aims but where we hold many aims in common and work together to achieve them".On a question of finance, I must ask the Government to consider seriously whether there will be better value for taxpayers' money in the reformed House. We have the longest-standing liberal democracy in the world. Yes, the hereditary principle is anachronistic, but it successfully contributes to the wellbeing of the nation. As the saying goes, "If it ain't bust, don't fix it".
I inherited my seat aged 22 when I was a university student. I have to ask the reformers, if hereditary Peers are abolished, what plans will they put in place for the representation of the young? If this House becomes populated solely by successful people from the professional classes, I believe that it may become even more élitist and non-representative than it is at present; the élite corps merely changing, and with it, the real danger of this House losing independence through relying solely on political appointees. May I remind the Government of Lord Hailsham's powerful description of the potential for an "elective dictatorship".
As to representation, many of us are aware that the Labour Party came into office with 43.2 per cent. of the vote. Substantially under half of those who voted have the Government they expressed a preference for—and, yes, it was the same under the Tories. Added to that, only 77 per cent. of the electorate voted. All this, and Labour commands 64 per cent. of the seats in the Commons.
This reform Bill is faulty because it fails to address a fundamental weakness in our democracy, that the democratic part of our democracy is not very democratic. Political reform of the Lords should take place only after we have fine-tuned the much more fundamental weaknesses of the present constitutional system.
Let me end by putting forward the suggestion that if we are to have a reformed House, there should be representation from Europe, from MEPs.
§ 9.31 p.m.
§ Lord Chesham
My Lords, I am really pleased to see the number of bishops who are listening to the debate. At this hour of night we do not normally have so many bishops. I know that two have just left, but I commend to the House the fact that they are as interested in this debate as other noble Lords. The speech of my noble friend Lord Cranborne was the best I have heard in this House. I support totally the views he expressed.
I found a headline above the name of the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal in today's Daily Telegraph most offensive. The headline stated that hereditary Peers are illegitimate—a slight contradiction in terms because a hereditary Peer cannot be illegitimate. Immediately underneath the headline was the name of the noble Baroness.
§ Baroness Jay of Paddington
My Lords, may I suggest to the noble Lord that he complains to the editor of the Daily Telegraph. That was certainly not anything suggested by me.
§ Lord Chesham
My Lords, the noble Baroness said in the article that hereditary Peers were lacking in legitimacy. It is unnecessary at this time of night to argue about the difference between "lacking in legitimacy" and "illegitimate".
We are supposed to be focusing our minds on the Labour Party manifesto. In that manifesto there was a heading, "We will clean up politics", in large letters. There followed the tag:End the hereditary principle in the House of Lords"."We will clean up politics" and "End the hereditary principle in the House of Lords". What does that suggest? What is the innuendo? What we have had in the Daily Telegraph today is monstrous. The headline was above what the noble Baroness wrote. She did say that the House of Lords lacks legitimacy, so she is toying with words. The manifesto states "We will clean up politics" and "End the hereditary principle in the House of Lords." The Government should apologise for that innuendo.
If we are talking about illegitimacy, I believe that for hereditary Peers to vote any way other than in opposition to the proposed Bill would be totally illegitimate. Our Letters Patent bind us to our heirs and successors. We are only life tenants of our titles. We do not have a right to take any steps which would affect such heirs and successors. Indeed, if we wish to renounce our titles, we can do so only for ourselves, not for our heirs and successors. But suddenly we are being asked to vote to get rid of ourselves. We do not have that right in respect of our children or our heirs and successors.
We are advised today that the Government's proposals are legitimate because they appeared in the manifesto. Indeed, we appear to be being told that we have government by manifesto and that everyone who voted Labour at the last election must have been happy with every element of the manifesto. That is rubbish. 1014 I can find no reference in that manifesto to the 17 tax increases which have been introduced by this Government. I find this reference:We believe that all pensioners should share fairly in the increasing prosperity of the nation. Instead of privatisation, we propose a partnership between public and private provision, and a balance between income sourced from tax and invested savings".I cannot find in the manifesto any reference to taxing private pension funds to the tune of £5 billion or reference to the potential removal of widows' pensions. That was not in the manifesto. But suddenly the manifesto is set in stone so far as concerns this House? Of course it is not.
As an aside, this is the first time that the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, and I have spoken in the same debate. I have known him for a long time. He was at Eton with my brother, which of course is condemned by the Leader of the House. I appreciated what he said but I do not agree.
A manifesto is not set in stone. I urge the Government to think again, and if and when reforms are to be made, let us do it properly in a well thought-out manner and taken in context. Mr. Blair—I suppose I should say "Tony"—wrote in the manifesto:I have no time for the politics of envy".He did not add, "But I do have time for the politics of spite".
The Labour manifesto also states:Our MPs are all now selected by ordinary party members, not small committees or pressure groups".Can the Government make the same assertions about MEPs or members of the proposed Scottish parliament? I was always taught that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. It now appears that government taketh and may giveth if they so wisheth.
§ 9.38 p.m.
§ The Marquess of Bath
My Lords, while regarding with pride the role that our hereditary Peers have played historically within the government of this country, I do see it as important at this final juncture that we who hitherto have held a role in government through right of birth should be seen to accept that this should change. This implies that the majority of us should go down on record as supporting the Government in their intention to remove our voting powers. There is no social justice within a situation where we might expect to retain such privilege, and I trust that we shall be seen to assist in this constitutional change.
Before we depart, however, there is still the opportunity for us to let our feelings be known on the nature your Lordships' House should take on once we have gone, my hope being that it will become something even more different to that other place, so that new aspects of the national identity may come to the fore within the continuing debate on the form which our governmental institutions should take.
If in another place party politics should continue to drive in representation by constituency, I am hopeful that in your Lordships' House there might be special emphasis upon our regional identity and upon our European identity. We should be regarding this as the 1015 opportunity to introduce these new alignments within our national identity in order to be readying ourselves for a political future much in contrast with what exists today.
There are different means by which these new alignments could probably be emphasised so that this House becomes no mere reflection of that other place. I envisage that this House might broadly consist of two distinct categories of life Peer. The first might be nominated by a special committee appointed by the party leaders, not so much because of their party service as because of their national pre-eminence within one field or another. These Peers would furnish the essential background of professional knowledge which would continue to characterise the debates within your Lordships' House.
The second element should be concerned to emphasise regional and European perspectives, with a list of life Peers put forward by each of the nine English regions, as well as a list from Scotland, one from Wales and one from Northern Ireland selected by the county councils within each of the regions, or nations, concerned. It would be the task of these same Peers to investigate the full potential of co-operation between our own regions, and those of Europe, and then to promote this concept of a United Regions of Europe even prior to its actual inception.
If the concept of a Council of the Isles is to be developed further, with its particular concern for any Irish problems that might remain, I envisage that your Lordships' House, thus evolved, and sitting in concert no doubt with an Irish delegation, could become the arena where they might most judiciously be resolved.
A reformation of your Lordships' House on these lines would place it at the forefront of constitutional reform as we move into the next century. Our task would no longer be a mere source of review for legislation that had been decided in another place. What I am suggesting would establish your Lordships' House as the centrepiece in our national transformation towards an emergent identity which I anticipate will be based upon Europe and its regions. Far from suggesting that this House will stand in rivalry, opposition or antagonism to another place, I envisage that it will be opening up a whole new area for our identity in full fellowship with all that went before, and with all who remain in control of these matters.
I welcome the fact that the Government should now be clearing the decks, so that those who determine the precise form of your Lordships' new House should not include those who have taken their seats on a hereditary basis. But I sincerely hope that the Government will not confine their reforming zeal to this measure alone: I look forward to the day when this House will furnish the inspirational blueprint for the upper chambers of all other such European assemblies. And I wish those who take their seats in the new House all the influence and success that they deserve.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for providing the opportunity for this debate, I have to say that I share with many other noble Lords who have spoken the suspicion that the Government have a less than wholehearted commitment to stage two. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, gave us some vision as to where this whole process might end. However, it was fairly obvious that that was not shared by the Government Front Bench.
As a hereditary Peer I have enjoyed some 18 years making a small, largely non-political and I hope useful contribution to the affairs of this House both in its committees and on the Floor of the House. I accept that my right to do so is an accident and that my continued tenure, in common with all hereditary Peers, is difficult to defend. Sadly, I missed the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. I am told that he managed to defend even that principle quite well.
In practical terms, however, I believe that we, the hereditary Peers, have earned the right to have some say in what comes afterwards. One would like it to be said that nothing so became the hereditary Peers in this House as the manner of their leaving it. It would appear that the noble Baroness would deprive us of that right, and that leads to further suspicion that stage two may never happen.
Much scorn has been poured on the idea that the hereditary Peers are independent. I am here by an accident of birth. I do not owe my position to anybody. I take the Tory Whip entirely voluntarily. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde, for all his bulk, will know that entreaty rather than flagellation has been the way to get us through the Division Lobbies. To abolish the rights of this independent element in your Lordships' House as a precursor to a vague, distant, theoretical and ill-defined reformed second chamber is simply to sweep away the well matured vestiges of old patronage in favour of a brash new variety.
Arguably, one of the fundamental purposes of this House is to act as a political running average, or a kind of sea anchor, against too rapid or ill thought-out political change. There may be a theoretical Tory bias in this House at present, but it does no harm for the Government to be reminded, even when the electorate have forgotten, that the latter until quite recently and for some considerable time, favoured Tory policies, even if they became a little bored with the Tory executive. In any case, the allegedly Tory hereditary Peers never gave the Tory administration an easy run for its money and would, if left alone, give a Labour Government no harder a ride.
Nevertheless, the present Government clearly believe themselves to be confined or restricted by the gentle disciplines imposed by this House as presently constituted—that subtle mix of past and present patronage and historical continuity—and clearly believe that by abolishing the hereditary element they will be able to appoint a House, however they protest to the contrary, which will mirror the Commons majority and 1017 vote with Pavlovian predictability at their command. Perhaps a little gentle revising will also be left, just for form's sake.
As my noble friend Lord Cranborne pointed out, there is also the convenience that throwing what the Labour spin doctors are increasingly going to paint as a gang of reactionary fox-hunting dukes to the lions will ease the discomfort now felt by the "sans-culotte"—to use that French revolutionary metaphor again—of the old Labour left, which they feel is the result of New Labour's lack of left-wing policies.
As my noble friend Lord Ferrers said, many of us, not just Members of your Lordships' House but people from all walks of life, feel that this Government have already unleashed a flood of ill-controlled constitutional changes the consequences of which may have immense and possibly disastrous effects on this nation and its fabric. In such an event, it would seem wise to leave at least one institution intact while the other changes take place. The captain, whatever his political colour, may yet be grateful for the sea anchor. A purely nominated second chamber, whose allegedly temporary existence may last for 15 rather permanent years, will command no more respect than the present House and probably a lot less.
I find myself drawn to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, that simply making all present Members of this House into life Peers would mean that the hereditary principle simply came to an end as a result of anno domini. This seems a sensibly British compromise but I suspect it will not appeal.
In the meantime, to borrow the metaphor given by the noble Lord. Lord Mackie, it cannot reasonably be expected of turkeys, especially those who have a lot more to contribute than mere gobbling, to vote for an early Christmas, even if the Labour Party manifesto calls for that festival to be advanced. The turkeys need a clear vision of what the afterlife is about, to expect them to go through the Division Lobbies in support of a Motion for their demise.
§ 9.51 p.m.
§ Lord Ellenborough
My Lords, it was a Labour Minister in the 1930s, Mr. Clynes, who said that the House of Lords cannot be mended; it must be ended. Yet some 70 years later the House of Lords has not ended and it has not been mended. It was never broken. It has successfully evolved and worked remarkably well. If it had not, it would have been scrapped decades ago.
During the long time I have been privileged to be a Member of your Lordships' House, I have never detected any mood for change among the public at large. It has been a non-issue, never a matter of much discussion or great interest, because most people are aware, or are vaguely aware, that it works. Of course, the abolition of hereditary Peers may still raise a rousing cheer at a Labour Party Conference, a sort of symbolic ritual rather akin to singing "The Red Flag".
What has happened is that this House has successfully evolved, not least because of the Life Peerages Act 1958, carried through by a Conservative government, 1018 which revitalised the House. People just do not worry about it, there are more pressing matters for the Government.
I am not by any means against change or reform in principle. Indeed, I spoke in favour of life Peers in 1953, before they arrived a few years later. But it would be disastrous to scrap hereditary Peers in one fell swoop, with no proper plan for further reform. Any such reform will be all the more difficult because of serious doubts as to the future shape, and even existence of the United Kingdom as we know it today and what voting system there will be for the House of Commons. All this must be relevant to any real reform of the Upper House.
I am not particularly impressed by all the talk of White Papers and a Royal Commission because I am afraid history suggests that there will be no stage two or real reform in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the loss of hereditary Peers would mean the independent element in the House would be lost. This is very much underestimated. I speak as a Conservative hereditary Peer who has always taken the party whip. However, that has not inhibited me from taking an opposite line and voting accordingly on a good many occasions, as I am sure my noble friend and former Chief Whip will agree. I believe that the same goes for many of my noble friends. Further, continuity would be lost in the event of the sudden demise of the entire hereditary peerage. It would result in considerable disruption in the work of the House.
In the absence of full reform there is a lot to be said for proposals similar to the Labour Government's scheme of 1968 which was mentioned in the moving speech by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. At that time it was agreed by all parties that hereditary Peers would become non-voting but would be able to speak, ask Questions, serve on Select Committees and so on. There is also the suggestion made on several occasions by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, a former Labour Deputy Chief Whip with a long and distinguished career in this House, that the right to a seat should cease on the death of the present holder although the title would continue. Such proposals would cause little disruption and preserve the much-needed continuity during what might be a long interim period.
I regret that it is the Government's firm intention to proceed with stage one and eliminate the hereditary peerage, which will inevitably create, whatever may be said, the largest quango of all time. Further, if it is also the intention of the Government to proceed to stage two, it is difficult to see what urgency there is to implement stage one separately with all the resulting confusion and difficulties in manning the House that would be caused thereby.
As one who has taken some part in the ongoing devolution debates, it is obvious that the difficulty of the Government is their obsession and mania for incoherent, half-baked and piecemeal constitutional reform, thereby endangering so much of what has served us so well in the past. As other noble Lords have pointed out, there must be a strong case for reform of the Lords to follow other constitutional stages and not precede them. Thus, the Government have the perfect excuse indefinitely to delay stage two.
1019 We are in a state of flux and unknown territory. What is the point of trying to reform the second Chamber when we do not even know for sure what kind of nation it should serve? Will it be the United Kingdom—or will there be a United Kingdom? Will it be England or regions submerged within Europe? What is the point of trying to reform the Upper House in advance of settling the right electoral system for the Commons? That will be the reason for delay. But it is becoming obvious that in the meantime we shall be left with the largest quango of all time. That message should be rammed home, and it will not be one that the people want.
§ 9.58 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, I am entirely in favour of appointing a Royal Commission for the reform of this House, but it should be appointed now and consideration of the future of hereditary Peers should be part of its remit. It must be wrong for any part of a reform of such grave and far-reaching consequence as the reform of this House, which will affect so many other areas of government in this country, to be pushed through on its own by the Government with the object of eliminating a source of opposition to their policies and, given their enormous majority in another place, perhaps the only source of opposition.
A Royal Commission would, I believe, give impartial consideration to all aspects of the purpose and composition of this House, as well as to wider constitutional issues which would need parallel consideration. Many of us do not believe for one moment that, having got rid of the hereditary Peers, the Government would implement the recommendations of a Royal Commission when it reported.
We heard the Prime Minister deny any intention of flooding this House with his supporters. No doubt he meant what he said, but that is no guarantee that later he would not succumb to the temptation to do just that. He might not be able to resist pressure put on him to do so, particularly when his majority dwindled and the going got tough, and what he says cannot hind his successors. I think that it would be much more honest if the Government were to propose to abolish this Chamber altogether and be done with it. Then the people of this country would realise that they were being offered single-chamber government, with all the danger of dictatorship that that implies, and would not be deceived into believing that the very limited checks and balances that this House at present provides still existed.
A Royal Commission would be able to consider all kinds of ideas for the reconstitution of this House, untrammelled by the envy and jealousy of the hereditary Peers which has always motivated some Members of the Labour party. Untrammelled too perhaps by the mindless parroting of the fashionable and politically correct shibboleth, that the hereditary principle is indefensible. I really enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. I should like to hear reasoned and intellectual as opposed to emotional argument for it being worse than any other form of selection.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House, in an article she wrote in this morning's Telegraph, said that because of hereditary element in this House it lacked 1020 legitimacy. With respect, I am afraid I do not entirely agree with her understanding of the word legitimacy. Then it is undemocratic; but is democracy the best form of selection for every purpose? I would question that. I doubt whether election always produces the best people for a job.
It has been suggested that the Government might give life baronies to any hereditary Peers they wished to retain, to help them to run the House for the first few years. It does not seem to have dawned upon them that some of the hereditary Peers, on whom they might might wish to confer the inestimable honour of a life barony in order to retain their unpaid services, might not be prepared to accept it, having immense pride in their hereditary peerage and in their predecessors' record of service to their country: service which many of them continue to give, often at some personal sacrifice. By some, the acceptance of a life barony might be regarded as a betrayal of their predecessors and of their successors.
What they would not regard as a betrayal is the kind of suggestion which a Royal Commission would be able to consider; that is the idea of a hereditary Peers' election, on the lines along which the Scots Peers themselves elected 16 of their number to represent them between 1707 and 1964. It was an excellent system, because it very successfully weeded out anyone unsuitable. If the Scots Peers did not all know one another, they certainly knew all about one another, and someone unsuitable would not get elected. It has been suggested to me that the UK Peers do not all know one another and would not be sufficiently well informed about their fellows, but I think that, even if that were true, there are ways round the difficulty. Of course in the first instance it would not arise because most who are regular attenders know their colleagues.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking—he is not in his place now—touched upon this, but, with great respect, I do not think he got it quite right. The Scots Peers elections took place every time there was a general election. They met in Edinburgh. Each Peer in turn read out his list of 16 names, the last one being "and myself'. The convention was that you voted for all those who had been elected before (for all your sitting colleagues) unless there was some reason not to do so, such as that he no longer wished to stand, or that he had disgraced himself in some way, such as he had found himself in clink. If you did not, no one would vote for you next time. In that way you got continuity.
Another convention was that when someone died, his successor was not elected in his vacant place. That way you got change, and you got young Peers in. Of course they were elected on the understanding that they would attend regularly and really represent the interests of Scotland. It worked very well.
Finally, lest the noble Baroness the Leader of the House should think that she can do nothing right in my eyes, I was delighted to read some weeks ago in the paper that she had suggested that members of a wholly elected or appointed House should not be called Lord anybody nor should their children be entitled to call themselves "honourable", but that they should simply be 1021 "John Smith, ML". The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, also mentioned this in her speech—the only part of her speech with which I agreed. I think that that is an excellent idea and I hope that if the noble Baroness achieves the reforms she wishes, she will not allow herself to be persuaded out of such a sensible idea by those of her colleagues, or aspiring colleagues, who enjoy being Lords. After all, if they are to be paid the fat salaries which various little birds have told me that they propose to demand, surely that should be enough. And anyway, it would look more democratic and more politically correct.
§ 10.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Flather
My Lords, I am conscious of the fact that I am the 50th speaker and that all arguments may have been put forward by everyone but possibly not in exactly the same order. However, we all wish to say our twopenny worth, not necessarily in the hope that it will find favour but because we want to get it off our chests.
I have always believed strongly that reforms are needed. Anyone who was prepared to listen to me about three or four years ago would know that I went around saying, "Doom, doom, doom", like Cassandra. However, I received no joy from anyone. I thought that the writing was on the wall, but when I said to my noble friend Lady Strange that the chickens had come to roost she pointed out that the two did not go together too well.
When the Conservative Party was in government, it should have grasped the nettle. I shall seek to be even handed. One significant factor we did not face up to was the built-in Tory majority. I remind noble Lords that when my noble friend Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister, with a large majority in the House of Commons, it was this House, of which I was not privileged to be a Member at the time, which kept her in check. This House voted against her on a number of occasions. It has not always been the case that the Tory majority follows sheeplike into Tory Lobbies. However, we would not have accepted the built-in majority of another party. When we last debated reform of the House I was the only Conservative Member to make that point and I repeat it today. When a party has a built-in majority it is extremely difficult for other parties not to take action.
My noble friend Lord Cranborne spoke about the authority of this House. I do not believe that it will be enhanced or reduced simply by removing hereditary Peers, although if anything it will be reduced. There is a great deal of quality among the hereditary Peers. We will lose that. But ordinary people believe only that we come here to sleep. They do not know what this House does. I am afraid that there has been a conspiracy against informing the public of what we do. All noble Lords who do not actively participate on the Front Benches support an enormous number of voluntary bodies all over the country, and in that respect hereditary Peers are at least as active as we are. No one has mentioned that.
1022 Many things will be skewed if hereditary Peers are removed. The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, mentioned the work of the committees and other activities undertaken by Cross-Bench Peers. I am sure that a great deal of hidden work is done by many Peers. No one will be ready to take their place.
One or two mistakes were made in the past. I believe that bringing in Members to vote on certain issues was one of the greatest mistakes we made in government. Peers who do not come to Parliament to speak or participate should never have the right to vote. For that reason, I support the view of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and have always done so. My noble friend Lord Skidelsky will confirm that we did our best to initiate a groundswell of opinion in that respect.
Bagehot said that a second Chamber should be complementary to the first Chamber. He also said that a second Chamber should provide for the deficiencies perceived in the first Chamber. If we do not look at the main Chamber first, how can we say that this Chamber must be changed? It seems so illogical that it defies belief. We have to start with the main Chamber, which is the ruling Chamber of this country, and move on to this Chamber, deciding how best it will support the first Chamber, provide for its deficiencies and produce the best legislation which the nation deserves.
We are independent. I feel very independent. I believe that we have been effective, but, most interestingly, we are Members of the cheapest second Chamber in the world. While all privilege and so forth will be removed, will we have office space and something to live on? I hope that the Government will give thought to that.
The hereditary principle is being decried so why is this country to remain a monarchy? That is the foundation of all hereditary principles, so why are we not moving towards becoming a republic? If the monarchy is hereditary, then the principle is enshrined in the constitution of this country.
The legitimacy of the hereditary Peers has been questioned. It is their House. We should be questioned as to whether or not we are here legitimately. It is very strange to say to people whose title dates back for a thousand years that their legitimacy must be questioned while those who are appointed by the party machine become more legitimate. It is quality and not quantity in the end which will give this House authority. It will not be a question of hereditary or non-hereditary. We need the best people possible to do the job most needed.
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, on her remarkable speech. I do not believe that I have ever heard from the Benches opposite such understanding of our position on this side of the House. Without agreeing with it in any way, she showed that she fully knew what it is like to live year in, year out and decade in, decade out, with a hostile majority opposite, whether or not one happens to be in power. That is a great insight.
The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, took us back to Runnymede and I, too, should like to start there. It had become a social fact that there was such a thing as a 1023 hereditary territorial nobility in England and that it was impossible for any king to govern without it and it would be undesirable for it, without any institutional leadership, to become the sole ruler of the people. Therefore, a deal was struck between the monarch and the nobility which has lasted for eight and a half centuries and has served fairly well.
That deal was struck because it was needed. It reflected the social reality of the time and avoided trouble. We have as good a right as had those noble men and that monarch to change it after all this time because change is needed in order to effect better and smoother government and to achieve better social justice.
My noble friend the Leader of the House started her speech by saying that no other parliament has a membership based on birth. That is obviously true. If one thinks about it, it is astonishing that there should be such a thing in the world—a parliament in the 20th century based on birth. Its theoretical absurdity would be enough to cause one to wish to change it, quite apart from any practical difficulties.
However, we must admit and I think it is right to say—that no other parliament has membership wholly based on appointment. There are appointed members here and there but no parliament has a whole chamber which is entirely appointed.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, I believe that the Republic of Ireland's Upper House and the Canadian Upper House are based solely on appointment.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, in that case I beg the pardon of the noble Lord, my noble friend Lady Jay and that of history and geography. It therefore behoves us to study those places very carefully to see whether a 100 per cent. appointed chamber is a good idea and whether it works well.
What worries me is not the Government's commitment against the hereditary principle; it is their commitment to appointments. That is another way of saying that I wonder whether their commitment to democracy is sufficient. It may be or it may not be. I cannot work it out.
I have been arguing for a democratic, directly-elected House of Lords for more than 40 years. I came here 38 years ago on the death of my father. At first, I was minded to disclaim the peerage and do nothing about it. However, at that time I was advising Harold Wilson on disarmament, arms control and foreign affairs in general. Therefore, I went to him and asked him whether I should disclaim or whether I should go into the House. He said, "You go in. We are going to need you". My experience was paralleled by that of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, when he went to Attlee, who was Prime Minister—of course, Wilson was Leader of the Opposition in 1960. I did that and, the system being what it is, I fetched up with housing and local government; but that happens to us all.
We all hold convictions that are shaped by our experience. I had an experience while I was in that government which has shaped my convictions ever since; it was the attempt to reform this House in 1968. 1024 I was Richard Crossman's bottle-washer in ordinary ministerial affairs and a close friend of Eddie Shackleton, then Leader of the House. I took part in the planning of that attempt and saw a great deal of the devolvement of the exercise.
It was a small thing that we attempted and has been described today several times. It was not one-tenth as difficult as the total reform of the constitution of this House will be, and yet it failed. Why? We all know the history of the Foot-Powell alliance in the House of Commons. But tactically, organisationally and politically it failed because it was not taken at full tilt; it was left lying about for too long. There was bickering; the bickering led to filibustering among strange bedfellows and so to failure.
After another 30 years it seems to me that it would be extremely risky to allow a programme with any delay in it. I am afraid that we may repeat the earlier failure on a larger scale—we are trying to do something much bigger—especially if we take it in leisurely laps with long pauses between for coffee and discussion.
There are therefore two courses open to the Government. One is to set up the necessary machinery now and push the necessary Bill through during this Parliament. The slogan would be, "Let us reason together now". I believe that would stand a good chance of success. The second way would be to sit down now; think out and write down the various stages in leisurely detail, all the bodies that would have to be involved and all the Bills which would be necessary with a precise timetable over two Parliaments. The whole programme would be put to the vote now in both Houses. The slogan would be, "Think some now; then vote; then think lots more; then vote lots more too".
The first alternative in my view is better than the second, but the second is certainly better than nothing. The second alternative, which would be to eliminate the hereditary Peers now and then sit back and think, would be almost courting failure. All my experience and instincts incline me to take the tide at its flood, not to dawdle and risk it turning.
The relationship between the beginning and the rest of the process appears on the 19th page of the manifesto. It says nothing about the bedding down of the other constitutional changes which are now being called in evidence beside the main proposal.
§ 10.23 p.m.
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lords, we are here today to discuss the future of the House of Lords, the second Chamber and Upper House of Great Britain's democracy. This Government committed themselves, by means of their election manifesto—I wonder how many of their electors actually voted Labour to get rid of us from the Lords and how many for other issues—to divest themselves of a so-called in-built Conservative majority. The fact is that those Peers taking the Conservative Whip cannot defeat this Government alone with the numbers who regularly attend. They need the help of the Cross-Benchers and/or the Liberals. The maximum figure the so-called Conservative majority 1025 has mustered in the last year is 140 Peers. As there are 166 Peers who take the Labour Whip, it strikes me that that is not a very good majority of Conservative Peers.
Are we not putting the cart before the horse? With the devolution that this Government are committed to—a devolution which I must say I enjoy and approve of—is it really sensible when we are providing parliaments and assemblies for Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and further assemblies possibly for the English regions and city authorities, as well as the erosion of power to Europe from Westminster? Is there a role for a second Chamber at all in the 21st century? The primary issue is therefore surely the powers and role of a second Chamber and its place in the broader programme of constitutional reform which this Government have set their heart on.
If we get rid of the hereditaries, four things will happen immediately. First, the power of patronage increases. Secondly, two-thirds of the independent Cross-Benchers are wiped out at a stroke. Thirdly, the independents of the House will be eroded because even those Peers who take a party Whip often regularly ignore their Whip. The so-called Conservative majority managed to defeat its own government 242 times while it was in power. Some majority, some independence, I say. Fourthly, the powers of the Lords could quickly increase as new life Peers would not be under the constraints of the Salisbury Convention, for instance, that the hereditaries allow.
No one ever seems to complain about what we do or, indeed, about the diligence with which we do our job. Why, then, change? It is not reform that this Prime Minister wants; it is control. He wants control of everything. I venture to say that this so-called reform would not be taking place at all if there was a Labour majority in this House. We have not had a Labour Government for a long time and who is to say that very shortly many of the new hereditaries who will take over as their fathers die would not become Labour supporters in the near future? Politics is very fickle these days and people are no longer voting as their parents or grandparents did. Take note of how many Peers around this Chamber now sit on opposite sides to their parents or grandparents.
Is it bigotry that is the prime cause of this? I know the fine words we hear are about the political incorrectness of hereditary Peers being able to attend and vote because of their birthright, but is that really the reason? Is it not truly the Conservative so-called in-built majority and bigotry that we are really talking about? Have we really thought through the consequences of ridding a democratised parliament of its hereditary element? We in your Lordships' House are not paid, and we cost the taxpayer one-tenth of the other place—that so-called bastion of democracy—where in fact the vast majority of MPs are elected by just a few citizens in each constituency—their selection committee.
Every hereditary who is ousted increases the power of the Lords and in tandem decreases the power of the Commons. Is that what they want? We are uniquely independent of government because we are not beholden to anyone. Only those hereditaries who want to, turn up 1026 and take part, and then they only speak on subjects on which their expertise is unquestionable. Roughly half of those attending regularly are hereditary. Why are so many of the recently ennobled working life Peers not present all the time? Are they not looking after their business interests first and foremost as are the hereditaries who are not here? Is there anything wrong with that? Are we not all working Peers who attend your Lordships' House? I have been away today to the AGM of a company of which I am a director. Is packing the House with life Peers an improvement? Is it the way to go forward for more democracy? Is being chosen as a life Peer not a bit like the hereditaries' forebears—just a matter of being in the right place at the right time to attract the attention of those in power at the moment?
So the problem is inheritance, is it? What is wrong with inheritance? Why does virtually everybody in the world try to have children if not to let them inherit? Even the Bible said the meek were to inherit the earth. Inheritance is the very pillar of family life that this Government say they stand for. Inheritance is the true reason that we have fought for years to bring peace and prosperity for all. It is not about inheriting money and property only; it is about inheriting our future. It has been a central plank in all societies in our country for ever. It was good working practice for our forebears to hand on jobs in every trade to their sons. That was true of the miners, the dockers, the shipbuilders and the car workers. All ensured that their jobs were founded on the principle of inheritance.
Labour should have no objection to inheritance but it hates the independence of the hereditary Peer who will not be told what to do by his own party Whip, let alone by that of any other party, or by spin doctors. Labour hates the fact that we inherited the right to vote in the Lords from our forebears. But we do not misuse it. The contrary is true, as we are brought up to look after and protect our moral responsibility to the country. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. There are always some bad apples in any orchard, but they are very few in number and are controlled by your Lordships yourselves. We do not need a Speaker like the sheep and rabble at the other end. We do it ourselves—and woe betide you if you fall foul of that discipline.
Why does this Labour Government want to change so drastically that which has served us well for centuries? Why change for change's sake? Our European neighbours have suffered from tyrants, despots, dictators and the secret police. We, on the other hand, have enjoyed rules, institutions, customs and standards which have given us the society of today, where everyone can look forward to a future without deprivation or starvation and have the security of a home and our envied social service programme to help those who unfortunately fall by the wayside.
Let us look at the alternatives to second Chambers around the world. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will pay close attention here. The Canadian Senate is a pure quango. It votes on strict party lines. It has become stronger than the lower House, as it can amend or block any Bill. Deadlock is frequent and the membership does not change until Members die or reach 75. It has no young members and is moribund.
1027 The German Bundesrat is a hybrid composed of representatives of the 16 Länder. They vote as they are told by the state governments. It is a permanent body with only a few Members changing at state elections, and most Germans think it does not work.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, the state governments have, of course, been elected by the people - the state governments who instruct their representatives in the Bundesrat.
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lords, in the German Bundesrat, some Members are elected; some are not.
The French Senate is jobs for the boys. Every three years one-third of its Members are elected by an electoral college for nine years. Thus it is filled with ex-MPs. The American Senate is now more powerful than the House of Representatives and the same is true in Australia, where both Houses are elected and both are vying for power. Are those better than the upper House that we have today? An upper House should exist to stop the extremities of politics. It should give sober and considered responses to revising and perfecting legislation. It should act as a brake on knee-jerk reactions to temporary outbreaks of passion or stupidity in the community.
This House does that. Yes, it can be argued that it is undemocratic but the fact is, whether this Government like it or not, whether the country likes it or not, it works and it works well for this country. The key to the balance of our constitution is your Lordships' House as presently constituted, because it has a separate method of appointment; it rewards public figures of our day; it has a detached approach to its functions; it has no pretensions and, most importantly, it does not seek to overrule the lower House. Why? Because of the hereditary principle.
We are seeing Old Labour rear its ugly head in this reform. Michael Foot said in 1963 about the House of Lords:Let's cut its throat—let's make up our minds to have no more bother from the House of Lords".The challenge, though, is to square the circle of democracy and still preserve the independence of the upper House and to stop it from being "a bother" in the future. That is what we are debating today and tomorrow. Let us leave it alone for now. I will go quietly when it is proved that that is what is best for democracy, best for good governance and best for this great country of which I am proud to be a citizen.
§ 10.33 p.m.
§ Lord Skidelsky
My Lords, I shall not seek to emulate the pyrotechnics of my noble friend Lord Rowallan. Indeed, I have not the capacity to do so.
I should like to pick up one strand that has emerged in this debate, which concentrates not so much on the merits of reforms to this House or indeed on the question of whether it ought to be reformed at all, but on the procedure which the Government have set in train. The Lord Privy Seal said that to remove hereditary Peers from this House is a manifesto commitment, as 1028 though that ends the argument, yet most civilised countries—and I hope that I can count my own in that group—make a distinction between changing governments and changing constitutions. They rightly consider that changing the constitution is a far graver matter than changing the government or, indeed, changing the government policy. It requires a correspondingly heavier mandate to do so. I could give examples of entrenched constitutions all around the world, but it is late and noble Lords will be sufficiently familiar with them.
The logic behind this distinction between changing the constitution and changing a government is very clear and easily understood. A constitution sets the rules of the game within which governments and political parties operate. Winning an election gives a government a mandate to change policies but not to change the rules of the game. Winning a football game does not give the winning side the right to change the rules of the next game. That is very well understood and is the practice in most civilised societies.
Herbert Morrison once said that socialism is whatever a Labour government does. We are now being told that the constitution is whatever a Labour government does. I do not think that we can or should accept that doctrine.
The noble Baroness may say that we do not have a written constitution and therefore the rules governing constitutional changes in other countries do not apply here. The fact that we do not have a written constitution does not mean that we do not have a constitution. We have an evolved constitution. Its authority lies in a long history of battles and compromises going back to the Magna Carta, as my noble friend Lord Beloff pointed out.
The noble Baroness talked about the lack of legitimacy of our House. That is not the issue. The issue is the legitimacy and the authority of the constitution as a whole that is at stake, not one element in it, as my noble friend Lord Cranborne has repeatedly pointed out. The Government has set out in one fell swoop to demolish what it has taken hundreds of years to build up.
The Government may say that removing 750 Peers from this House is a matter of detail which is of no constitutional significance at all. It is myopic to believe that reform will end there, and no one does. It is bound to trigger off profound changes in the balance between the two Houses and have knock-on effects not only on our voting system but on many other things.
The noble Baroness has announced a Royal Commission for what is known as stage 2. That is welcome. But the options for stage 2 will be largely pre-empted by stage 1, and the Government know that. They apparently seek to force through stage 1 without the agreement of our party and without any further appeal to the voters of this country. The Government are saying: "First we cut off your legs, then we shall consult you on the colour and shape of the artificial limbs with which we propose to replace them." In short, we are invited not to debate a serious proposal for constitutional reform but to chop off part of the constitution on the strength of a frivolous 1029 commitment—frivolous because it is not linked to any convincing chain of argument and it points to no successful outcome.
As my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell pointed out earlier, we are asked to get on a train with no idea of where it is going. Surely we are entitled to ask for a map, a timetable and a destination before we embark on this particular journey. Then we can make up our minds whether we want to go on the trip at all.
So what should the Government do? They should come before us with a serious proposition for reform which we can discuss, debate and on which we can try to reach a conclusion. Alternatively, if they do not wish to do that, they should give the people of this country the right to decide on a larger package of constitutional measures. We have already had one referendum on the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly and we are promised another on the voting system. Why is stage 1 alone to be exempt from this wider process of consultation? There is still time for the Government to change their mind, and I urge them to do so.
§ 10.39 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, we are engaged today in a debate about the proposal to make a fundamental change to the composition of this House, an institution which, it can be legitimately claimed, has a history of 1,000 years. Even historians who dispute that claim will agree that the House of Lords first sat as a separate Chamber five centuries ago. So what the Government are now proposing is no trivial matter.
The first and perhaps the most important point that I should like to make has to do with the unwritten constitution, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. The powers and authority of this House have simply evolved over the long period of its existence. They have done so by a process which the great parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, referred to as "prescription"; that is to say, that in the passage of time your Lordships' House has gradually acquired and accumulated the powers and authority which it now enjoys. And, my Lords, the powers and authority have emerged largely from its composition; and it is because of that composition that those powers have some strictly defined limits. It can therefore be argued that it is not possible to make radical changes affecting the composition of this House without, as other noble Lords have said, also changing the functions and powers which it has acquired over the years.
What we are being asked to take note of today is a proposal so radical as to bring about an irreversible and fundamental change in our constitution. It is as important as that. I submit that the removal at a stroke of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House has constitutional implications which, in my view, have not yet been fully considered.
Of course, it is difficult to argue against this modern demand for change. It has been said that if we were starting to establish a second legislative Chamber, it is extremely unlikely that we would emerge with the kind of institution we have today. We are not starting today.
1030 That is not to say, as some have suggested, that a second Chamber, of which many members are here by virtue of heredity or succession, is "indefensible". That word has been used on several occasions today.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that your Lordships' House works very well as it is. Many hereditary Peers make an indispensable contribution to its deliberations. It was an hereditary Peer—it was the ancestor of a Peer who sits in this House today—who said, "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change". But, of course, that was in the 17th century, and I suppose it would be difficult to advance in the social and cultural context of the end of the 20th century any really convincing arguments for the survival, strictly in the legislative sense, of the hereditary principle.
On the other hand, it seems to me wrong to begin what is evidently regarded as a necessary process of change by the Government by simply and crudely abolishing the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House. In the first place, it would surely be more civilised and more orderly to follow the path which has already been suggested of allowing existing hereditary Peers to continue to sit and vote but to remove the right of their future generations to do so. But, much more important than that, is a matter of the greatest moment: that we should know, at least in outline—other noble Lords have said this, but I think it is worth saying again—the plans for the composition of the second Chamber which is to take the place of the one in which we all sit today.
It seems to me equally important that, before we can decide upon that composition, we need to consider carefully and at length what the powers and functions of the second Chamber are to be in the 21st century; and in order to arrive at any conclusions about that we shall have to take a great number of factors into account—most of them have already been mentioned today. I refer to the relationship of Parliament with the assemblies of Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland and the accelerating political integration of the European Union. If the new Chamber is to be, to any substantial extent, an elected Chamber—which has been suggested—how will this affect the relative powers of the House of Commons, and so on?
It seems to me therefore that, while taking note of the Government's undoubted right to introduce legislation which was foreshadowed in their manifesto, we should consider much more carefully than has been the case how best that can be implemented. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has said that it is intended to set up a Royal Commission to consider and make recommendations on the future composition and functions of the second Chamber. This is, of course, in some ways a welcome development. But I think it can be argued—and I would certainly argue this—that it would be wiser to await the outcome of the commission's deliberations before implementing the first stage of the Government's reforms as set out in the manifesto.
Incidentally, as other speakers have said, I believe we should not accept too readily, especially in this case, the proposition that every manifesto commitment is 1031 necessarily something which has to be discharged as a matter of high priority. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has said—I echo her words—no one, I imagine, would argue that the governing party achieved its massive majority in the House of Commons because of its commitment to remove hereditary Peers from this House, nor, I suspect, would the results of the election have been very different if that commitment had not been included in the manifesto.
I suggest that this proposed constitutional change is so radical and fundamental that its significance far outweighs the apparent need to rush ahead with this legislation. Ideally, in my view, the whole question of the powers, functions and composition of the second Chamber should be dealt with together and brought before Parliament in a single comprehensive piece of legislation. However, if the Government are resolutely set against that course of action, it is at least arguable—I think many noble Lords have already argued it today—that the implementation of stage one, as it is called (that is to say the entry into force of the legislation to abolish the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote) should be delayed until the Royal Commission has made some recommendations and those recommendations have been considered by both Houses of Parliament. I hope that the Government will take these considerations into account when framing the necessary legislation. If they do not, I believe there is a strong possibility that there will be moves to amend that legislation when it comes before your Lordships' House.
In deference to my noble friend the Convener I must say that as a Cross-Bencher I speak entirely for myself in these matters. Indeed as a Cross-Bencher I have no right or remit to speak for anyone else. But I think I can say quite safely and legitimately that I know a substantial number of my Cross Bench colleagues are in sympathy with the feeling that stage one should not be implemented until we at least have some idea about the long-term nature, functions, powers and composition of the second Chamber. Of course my colleagues must speak for themselves, and some of them already have. Speaking for myself, I have no wish simply to stand in the way of change and reform if it is necessary. If it is necessary, I ask only that it should be done in an orderly and properly considered way and not in the precipitate way in which it is being done at this moment.
I end on a personal note. When I came into your Lordships' House over 30 years ago one of the things which impressed me most—I might almost say overawed me—was a sense of history, a sense of being part of a great seamless fabric of constitutional and legislative tradition stretching back through the centuries. In those 30-odd years I have never lost that sense of history. I shall be very sorry if those links are now to be severed. We may have to change, but we do not have to change 1,000 years of history in the course of a single parliamentary Session.
§ 10.50 p.m.
Lord Belhaven and Stenton
My Lords, as an hereditary Peer I suppose after what has passed in the last couple of years I ought to declare an interest. It is difficult to be wholly objective when one is under threat 1032 of expulsion, whether from this House, from school or from any other organisation. I have been here for 34 years. If I am expelled I shall miss the place and, more so, miss my friends, because we are unlikely to be able to gather together as happens here.
We are under fire not for what we have done but for who we are. That is because the composition of this House has been decided over many centuries. Some of us are here because we hold titles that go back to the time when heredity constituted the main form of legitimacy. Whether we now like it or not, that was the case for many centuries. Now, popular election by one means or another—and we are still arguing about it—constitutes legitimacy in respect of those who govern us.
The last attempt at radical reform of this House was made by the then Labour Government in 1968. I spoke in the debate then, and my views have not changed greatly over the past 30 years. There are ways in which this House could be reformed which have not been considered by Her Majesty's Government. I shall not go into them now because of the lateness of the hour, and also because the proposal we have from the Government is not a reform, as my noble friend Lord Beloff said. Reform should leave the main structure of the body to be reformed in place, and this approach does not do that. It is half-baked in the truest sense of the word.
I do not like the distinction between life and hereditary Peers. We are all equally Members of this House, obliged by its traditions to speak only for ourselves and upon our honour, no matter which party Whip we take, or indeed if we take no Whip. None of us meets the modern criterion that Parliament should be popularly elected. Life or hereditary, we are not democratic, from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to the newest young hereditary Peer.
I read in the Daily Telegraph that the Labour Party considers that the House which the Government will produce will be more professional. How could it he more professional? All the professions arc represented here. I cannot see how this place could be more professional than it already is. An elected House would be by its nature not more professional. But it is the only alternative that we have, and we have heard many objections to it.
As presently constituted the House derives legitimacy from age and tradition. There is no substitute for that. If it is to be changed—I say changed not reformed—the British people are entitled to know why and to be given a chance to vote for and select the Members of a new upper House which will have to be given powers that this House no longer possesses. That will not please the Commons, but they will just have to put up with it.
That said, I question the need to get rid of this House. It works well and has done for many centuries. Let us face it: we have put Lenin firmly in the dustbin of history. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that the Government's proposals were unfinished business from 1911. I could point out to him, were he in his place, and to the Labour Party that socialism is finished business and has been since 1989.
1033 We have a constitution which has weathered the centuries. That legitimate claim cannot be made by any of our European partners. I do not see that there is a case to go to the length that Her Majesty's Government propose to go to destroy something which has so evidently stood the test of time.
I ask those who wish to go ahead with the Government's proposal: whom will it benefit? The Government may be able to get their measures through more easily. But that will not benefit anyone except them. Will one single pensioner, nurse, member of the Armed Forces or anyone else be one penny better off? The answer must be no. But the converse is not the case because a newly constituted House is certain to cost more and add to the tax burden, however much it may be.
We have a range of talent in this House unequalled in any other parliamentary assembly in the world. That is not only provided by life Peers. Are we about to throw all this away for the sake of dogma, while not one single person in the country will be better off because of the change? I do not believe that whatever succeeds this House as an upper Chamber will attain the standard of debate we have had here today. That also will not benefit the people of this country.
We are now embarked upon a course of what my noble friend Lord Beloff described as constitutional vandalism. European federalism, devolution, destruction of your Lordships' House are all part of the same pattern. I can only fear for what will emerge for this country and for the world. For Britain's traditions are still greatly admired and respected by foreigners—often more so than by our own people.
I conclude by quoting from that great and wise statesman, Talleyrand. He said 200 years ago, and I believe his words are still valid:Get this into your head—if the English Constitution is destroyed the civilisation of the world will be shaken to its foundations".
§ 10.55 p.m.
§ Lord Ashburton
My Lords, to find oneself scheduled to speak as late as this does not make the heart leap for joy. However, I resisted the instinct to go home after dinner because I particularly want, nevertheless, to speak as a Cross-Bench hereditary Peer. I hope to be brief. I have torn up almost everything I was going to say because it was designed against the eventuality that I might come on rather earlier. All I wanted to say has been said at least once, if not half a dozen times.
A major constitutional change such as this deserves a full airing and it is certainly getting it here. I would welcome far wider discussion publicly, as has been advocated by more than one of your Lordships earlier. I feel that the topic is not getting the exposure that it deserves nor the explanation that I believe the electorate deserve.
It was observed earlier by more than one noble Lord that turkeys do not vote for Christmas. I am one of those turkeys who accepts that in any comprehensive reform of the House the role of the hereditary Peers will 1034 disappear. Incidentally, I do not think turkeys vote on anything. Of course, I shall be personally sorry that I shall no longer have access to the Chamber, to speak or to enjoy the company of noble Lords, or to listen to their wisdom. I doubt whether I am any different from any other Member, be he a life or hereditary Peer, in that it would be a sorrow to have to leave. But I hope that I shall go with the good grace suggested by a number of speakers—not, I note, themselves under sentence.
But I cannot say that I am totally convinced—despite the confidence of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, in the quality of life Peers which he so cogently proclaimed earlier—that your Lordships' House will on balance be much, if at all, improved in its functioning. This seems to me to be at least as important as the point of principle which, as I said, I accept.
My second point, and I am sorry if I sound cynical, is that I have no confidence at all that stage two will come about, other than in a miserably compromised and watered down form. Most people outside this House—and I am afraid to say some within it—seem not to have much, if any, knowledge of or to have studied what has happened in the past when reform proposals reach the Commons. Given my acceptance, and I believe that of a majority of other hereditary Peers, of the idea of our removal given proper reform, I cannot believe that it would not be reasonable that we should have the opportunity of further assurance that a proper reform will really occur and that it will do so quickly.
A proper reform will tend to spill over into a much wider consideration of the constitutional position not only of this House but the other place. That will be awkward and will have consequences that are not easily foreseeable. But, ideally, we should have the opportunity to consider a proper programme that we and the electorate can evaluate soberly, according to a reasonable timetable, rather than being railroaded on the basis of a manifesto commitment that cannot have been fundamental to the outcome of the election. If that were done in good faith I would be content to quit your Lordships' House.
§ 11 p.m.
The Earl of Haddington
My Lords, I join the voices who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Cranborne on his excellent speech. I agreed with every word he uttered. I have always regarded this House, which I have had the privilege to attend for about 12 years, as having a modifying influence over Bills that come from the House of Commons. On the whole, those Bills have been sent back with amendments to which the other place has paid attention.
If the executive in the other place had a monopoly over who to send here it would be a form of patronage that I do not believe the majority of the electorate would find acceptable. The idea that hereditary Peers should first be dismissed from his House and then an alternative discussed by a Royal Commission is not a fudge. However, that dismissal should be part of the task undertaken by the Royal Commission. The two must not be dealt with separately but taken together.
1035 The noble Baroness Lady Kennedy said that she would not employ an hereditary plumber. In my part of the world it is probable that every baker, butcher and candlestickmaker has taken on the job from his father. That is a fact of life. The hereditary principle runs through trades and the workplace generally.
Some of my noble friends have spoken about the imposition of an age limit on Members of this House. Some of the most eloquent speeches I have heard have been made by the more elderly Members. It would be a great shame if octogenarians and nonagenarians were banned from speaking in this Chamber. Some of the noble voices on the other side of the House seem to regard the hereditary peerage as a bunch of daisies, coining down here and walking through the Lobbies. Our "feets too big", as the song goes.
We live out in the sticks and we have agricultural pursuits. We also look after this nation's heritage. Many of us have stately homes and our lives are devoted to looking after them. Whether they belong to us or to trusts, we have a part to play in their existence and we try to keep them going as best we can.
There seems to be a general disdain for agriculture, which I find most unwelcome. Agriculture is in a bit of a pickle at the moment. People are shooting sheep in Shetland because they cannot get them to market; there is no money for them. The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, spoke of seeing the promised land ahead as he sailed his ship. When you actually see land from a ship, that is the time to look out for rocks.
An interesting incident occurred today as we came into the Chamber. There was a fire alarm. A voice from without said, "Warning, there is fire in your area." There was then a gap and the Mace was carried in. The voice then said, "The fire alarm has been attended to. No further action is necessary." I think those were the wisest words of the day.
§ 11.7 p.m.
§ Viscount Simon
My Lords, I can be exceptionally brief, having had second thoughts about my contribution following mention by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, of the word "duty". All I will address is my duty and obligation to support the plans for the reform of your Lordship's House.
Why? Following the elections of 1910, my grandfather, then Sir John Simon, was appointed Solicitor-General and, in that office, played a not insignificant part in the Liberal plans for the reform of your Lordships' House and in the legislation of that period, with which we are all familiar.
Somewhat later, in this House, towards the end of 1952 he introduced a Private Member's Bill to create life peerages for men and women. It was hoped that agreement could be reached with all parties on the whole question of reform of the House, but this was not achieved and the Bill was not proceeded with in 1953—some five years before the Conservative Government succeeded in getting the Life Peerages Act on to the statute book. We have now gone almost full circle.
1036 It has been mentioned that some hereditary Peers, following their self-immolation, may rise phoenix-like from the fire in a reconstituted House. That may or may not happen. But what will happen is that the automatic right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote will be withdrawn. It is the conclusion of old business, which I cannot oppose. I could almost call it old family business because my father also disapproved of the hereditary principle.
§ 11.8 p.m.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, we have had a debate of considerable length, and the quantity of speakers has been surpassed only by the quality of the contributions. However, it leaves me with a couple of problems. I believe that every metaphor on the subject has been used and not a cliché has been left unturned. I have said everything that I ever wanted to say on the subject in the three debates which, in the short time I have been in your Lordships' House, we have already had on constitutional reform in general and your Lordships' House in particular. The Whips Office rang me this morning to say that I was to be almost at the end of the list of speakers in a semi-winding up position. I am well aware that the official winding up will take place tomorrow. I regard myself as a comma in the debate rather than a full stop. I can therefore wander gently through the themes that have been expressed.
I wish to restate briefly my position. I go back to the debate on cross-party co-operation introduced on 19th November 1997 by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. It is not a bad thing to remember cross-party co-operation when we speak about reform. At col. 617 of the Official Report, I stated why I feel that there is such a strong case for reform. That theme has perhaps not come through in the debate today. I reminded your Lordships that when I was campaigning before the last election it surprised me greatly how many people on the doorstep were completely apathetic and distrustful of the political process and politicians. I referred to an article that day in The Times in Riddell on Politics, on British social attitudes. It stated:The survey confirms earlier findings about a decline in public confidence in democracy. Fewer than one in four people trust government to put the interests of the nation above party".I said that I found that rather shocking. What I seek from reform is to put the people of the country back in touch with Parliament.
My noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury made an excellent maiden speech. On that theme, I had stated at col. 617:That combination of distrust, apathy and frustration is a terrible cancer which has eaten away the trust that the people once placed in the political process and in their politicians. It is therefore essential that we embrace constitutional reform at all levels and as a matter of urgency".1037 As regards the reform of this House, perhaps I may cite one other quotation. I stated:Here comes the turkey that wants to vote for Christmas—so, on the turkey metaphor, I got in before anyone else.It is unthinkable that we should enter the 21st century with a legislative chamber composed of accidents of birth, on the one hand, and perhaps accidents of patronage, on the other. We should all go. Emotionally, I am extremely fond of your Lordships' House; indeed, I am extremely fond of most of your Lordships. In many ways my heart might like us to remain the happy band that we are, but my head tells me that it is utterly illogical".That remains my position.
In today's debate certain themes have come through clearly. One—I am happy to say that it has come down on one side—is what I might describe as the abolitionists versus the reformers. The abolitionists are those who would like to see the hereditary element of your Lordships' House abolished. They see that as an end in its own right. A noble Lord referred to it as the last act of the class war. I was grateful that in the opening speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, she clearly made the point that that is not the way the Government view it. They are in what I describe as the reformers' camp. I view myself as being in the reformers' camp. The reformers are those who see this as the first step, the way forward to a greater reform which will impact not only on your Lordships' House but also on another place and perhaps other parts of the constitution.
On that theme, I was delighted that there is a broad consensus in your Lordships' House that we are more reformers than abolitionists. The second theme I detected was the principle versus the practical. With one or two notable exceptions, no defence was made of the hereditary principle. If my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie had not already done so, I would have made a remark about it being fine for cows and so forth, but no way to run a parliament.
I do not believe that any Member of your Lordships' House really believes that as we go into the twenty-first century one can defend heredity. However, a number of your Lordships seek to defend it on grounds of practical application. It is the argument which goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". That is the most terrible argument to use about your Lordships' House. If one sets out to define what one wants a properly constituted second Chamber to do, one cannot genuinely claim that this House works.
We are, as one of my noble friends described to me privately, essentially a House of gestures. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, made a telling point when he said that we are virtually unicameral. We make our gesture, our point, it goes back to another place, they say, "Don't insist", and we say, "All right", and go home. I do not believe that that is the proper way for a second Chamber to be run. The reason is that we lack legitimacy; and we lack legitimacy because I am here as a result of the hereditary principle.
That is where I derive a certain degree of comfort in relation to stage one and the question of whether we go to stage two. I believe that in the physics of power it is 1038 as inevitable as night follows day that if we grow more legitimate we will take more power. I do not regard that as bad; I believe that it is excellent. This House should feel free to use its powers and then it will start to become the check and balance on another place which it is not but ought to be.
A clear consensus has emerged for a desire that this Chamber be effective. The difference lies in the definition of "effective". The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, was clear that he does not want election under any circumstances. He wants to allow the Commons to get on with it, taking away our delaying powers almost completely and leaving us as a large debating shop. I sit on the opposite side of the fence in a fairly major way.
At the other end, there are people such as me who believe that for this House to be truly effective it must be democratically composed, if not in whole, in majority. I believe that there is a consensus for the proposals put forward by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to limit the power of the Prime Minister. That is an important point and I thank the Government for having made it.
I wish to refer to a couple of small points that were made. There is the Longford question; that is, what do you do with someone of distinguished and great age whom you would like to keep in the House while cutting off the general right of Peers to sit after a certain age? I suggest that it is not appropriate to have a mandatory retirement age. However, I also suggest that it would be appropriate to allow Peers to resign their peerage so that they can go voluntarily. I believe that many Members of your Lordships' House would avail themselves of that possibility. The suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that honours should be separated from the right to sit in your Lordships' House is extremely sensible.
Perhaps in winding up the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will clarify that those Peers who remain will be Peers of first creation. The point is that a number of hereditary Peers sit in your Lordships' House as a result of being created Peers. One of those is the noble Earl, Lord Longford, because he sits in his own right as Lord Packenham. That might take care of the age issue, too. We might also like to think about Writs of Acceleration. It would be very nice to see the noble Viscount here for the foreseeable future.
Will the noble Lord, Lord Williams, also please confirm—it has not been stated but it has been referred to—that all of us who are going will have a right to vote and to be elected to the House of Commons?
In conclusion, I refer again to the outstanding contribution that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, the former Leader of the House. We on these Benches have always been in favour of reform of this House. We certainly wish to support the Government fairly wholeheartedly in what they propose. We accept that stage one comes first and that every journey begins with the first step. For those who have used the journey metaphor, I know fine where we are going; I know exactly what the destination is. It is a democratic second Chamber. But I do not know how long it will take to get there. For that reason, we on these Benches would 1039 like to see as clear a signpost as is possible. If that signpost were anything like as visible and illuminating as that put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, we shall be marching into the Lobbies in support of these proposals much more willingly.
I conclude with one last quotation from what I said on 19th November last:I believe there are moments in the development of our constitution when the system can no longer simply be tinkered with. Like the pressure of great tectonic plates, an earthquake is required. I believe that we have reached one of those seminal moments when we must go for complete change. Now is such a time. Let us get to the task before people lose faith entirely".—[Official Report, 19/11/97: col. 618].If that requires two stages, so be it. Provided it is clearly signposted. I shall sing "hallelujah" to the half-way house.
§ 11.21 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I shall differ from the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in two ways. First, I shall not avoid being the person who winds up this day of the debate. I may even be something of a "winder-upper", as well as somebody who winds up. The second difference is that I do not intend to quote any of my previous speeches. That is perhaps just as well because I have made rather a lot of them.
We have had a long day and some very interesting speeches. First, perhaps I may say how much we appreciated the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. Any man who appears in the "Jimmy Young Show", (as I have done twice), cannot be all bad. Certainly, the House of Lords cannot hold too many terrors after that. His speech was most interesting. I was not entirely sure where he was driving when he talked about the lack of public acceptance of Maastricht and the EU. I wondered whether he was a little "off message" from the usual line that the Liberal Democrat party puts out. He did not tell us that he was the lawyer on the "Jimmy Young Show", and I hope he will not mind me saying that it occurred to me that one of the things the Government might do, when they think about the second stage, is to put a cap on the number of lawyers in your Lordships' House. I speak with some feeling as the other two Mackays are lawyers and I am constantly confused for them but never sent their cheques.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House started us off this afternoon. It is quite interesting that the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Cranborne have one thing in common: they and their fathers both sit here. I am not entirely sure whether that does not make the noble Baroness at least an honorary member of the hereditary peerage, as my noble friend Lady Strange suggested.
The noble Baroness said that she looked forward to listening to the debate. I noticed that she did not say that she looked forward to learning from the debate, but I hope that there is a listening and a learning.
We have had one small change in the Government's position today; that is a bit of a bridge between stage one and stage two. I say "a bit of a bridge" because I 1040 would rather like to see a lot more of the construction of the bridge, that bridge being a Royal Commission. I should say to the noble Baroness that it is rather late in the day. If the Government had come forward a year past in May or June with a Royal Commission, it could be half way to reporting and we could be seeing some final proposals as regards what this House would look like. It really would not take long. My noble and learned clansman Lord Mackay of Clashfern and his group produced an interim report in two or three months, which has been of great value to all your Lordships. Indeed, the noble Baroness paid tribute to it. I do not believe therefore that a Royal Commission set up after the last election would still be at the beginning of its work. It would be well on its way to producing a report which would have given us what we all want; that is, a picture of where the Government believe we should end up.
We are to have a White Paper, and that is also welcome. I wonder whether the White Paper will come before the Bill, as the Bill reaches the House of Commons, or whether it will be like some other pieces of legislation and come just as the Bill is about to leave the Houses of Parliament. It would be nice to know the timetable, both for the setting up of the Royal Commission and for the White Paper.
Why do we say from these Benches that we do not wish to see stage one without seeing stage two? It was my noble friend Lord Baker who made perfectly clear what the answer to that is—an answer known to every one of your Lordships who, like myself, are former Members of the other place. The answer lies down the corridor. There will not be a stage two. If there is, it will be, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashburton, said, a pretty small mouse of a stage two. It was the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, who said that composition will affect the powers. The other place is not, has not been, and will not be, interested in the composition of this House; above all it will be interested in the powers of this House. It will do nothing with the composition that will affect the powers of the House.
My noble friend Lord Baker, like every other former Member of the House of Commons, knows that the House of Commons prefers the inhibitions placed on this Chamber, both by the fact that we have hereditaries and by the fact that everybody other than hereditaries is appointed. The moment one elected person walks through the doors of this Chamber, the balance of power between this place and the other place changes irrevocably against the House of Commons.
The trade union of former Members of the House of Commons is pretty strong, I suspect, and deep down most of us who form that trade union do not really approve of that, even though we are no longer there. My noble friend Lord Ferrers, in his usual light-hearted yet penetrating way, made the same points; that is, that the second stage will not come to pass; that the House of Commons likes the inhibition of the hereditary peerage. If it removes that inhibition as the Government propose to do, then it will be even keener to keep the inhibition that every one of your Lordships is appointed.
1041 That point was underlined perfectly from the Government Benches by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, who underlined this composition to power relationship. He showed us, and my noble friend Lord Blackwell agreed, as I suspect do all the other former Members of the House of Commons and a lot more of your Lordships besides, that an elected Chamber on these red Benches is the last thing that the people on the green Benches at the other end want to happen.
That is why we think, very firmly, that we should know what the Government propose finally. We should know what the end point is of the street. We should know at least whether the Government think the Chamber should be elected or non-elected. We might leave the detail until later discussion. Election could be done in different ways and non-election could be done in different ways. But at least we should know which of those two objectives is the Government's final goal. I believe that the non-elected is their private aim; if it is not, it will be once the House of Commons gets at it.
The noble Earl, Lord Longford, with his 53 years' experience, reminded us that his plans many years ago were sabotaged by the other place—a point also made by my noble friend Lady Young, the first lady Leader of this House as she reminded us. The reforms of 1968 were scuppered by an unlikely combination of Foot and Powell in the other place. Indeed, the last big reform of your Lordships' House was brought forward by the Conservative Party in the introduction of life Peers. The point I am making, and I make again, is that the real underlying issue here is not the composition of this House; it is the relative powers that this House will have in relation to the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that we have only "nuisance value", and he wants stronger powers. I suspect I may know another of the reasons why the noble Lord no longer sits on the Front Bench opposite. I do not believe that Governments really want stronger powers here. I say that with some feeling.
My noble friend Lady Flather, in an interesting and noteworthy speech, talked about the in-built Conservative majority. Occasionally when I was a government Minister I did not think there was anything like an in-built Conservative majority. My noble friends Lord Henley and Lady Blatch participated with me in the competition for the maximum number of defeats inflicted by your Lordships' House on the last government. I make no great complaint, although I made it then, I must say. Your Lordships had every right to do it. Although I never used the argument that the other 1042 place was elected, we all know—and I knew too when I was leading the revolt on the issue of students' fourth-year fees—that essentially the other place has the mandate. It may be that we have nuisance value and create the maximum nuisance, but we know that there is a line we should not cross.
That was all underlined by my noble friend Lord Hurd. He asked the Government to do their job properly, to give us a full and properly-considered plan for a second chamber. He also reminded us that constitutional change needs to be durable.
I think it was the noble Baroness the Leader of the House who accused us of "picking and mixing". But that is what the Government are doing with constitutional changes: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the voting systems, referendums. In all of those proposals there is no logic, no symmetry and no coherence. Their policy for the reform of this House falls into exactly the same category: composition and powers, powers and composition. They go together, they must be answered together and addressed together.
The hereditary Peers in your Lordships' House are not a great threat to the Government. I do not believe that government Ministers wake up screaming in the middle of the night worried about what hereditary Peers will do. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House seems to think that she does. My goodness, she does not have much else to dream about, if I may say so!
I am sure that the Government could easily live with the hereditary Peers until they had a fully thought out reform, properly worked out and presented to us. They have already wasted 18 months. I do not think they need to be in quite such a rush. They should start now with the Royal Commission and proceed from there.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, reminded us about Richard Crossman, with whom he worked. At the end of one of the particular little battles about the House of Lords reform in which the then Labour Government had to face defeat, Richard Crossman said, of House of Lords reform, "A simple aim, an impossible end". I think that sums it up.
§ Moved, That this debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.—(Lord Kingsland.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to and debate adjourned accordingly.
§ House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes before midnight.