§ Debate resumed on the Motion moved yesterday by the Baroness Jay of Paddington—namely, 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.
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ Lord Kingsland
My Lords, noble Lords on the Government Benches will not be surprised to hear that I heard nothing in yesterday's debate which persuaded me to change my view that taking stage one before stage 1053 two of the reform of your Lordships' House is anything other than deeply and irredeemably flawed. By the end of the day and when he comes to sum up, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will have formed the same view. Of course, I do not expect him to admit it, but at least I hope that he will go away and reflect on what has been said in your Lordships' House before the Government take the next step of introducing the Bill.
I can see no rational grounds whatever for justifying the claims that are made for having stage one before stage two. I have heard claims of greater legitimacy; I have heard claims of greater democracy; I have heard claims of greater representativeness; and I have heard claims of greater constitutional logic. None of these claims seems to me to add up to something which would entitle the Government not to bring forward stage two at the same time. But perhaps I should not be surprised that the claims lack rationality because the whole of the Government's approach to constitutional reform seems to me to have been a story of shifting insincerities based on no reason at all.
Before I turn to the basis of the Bill I would like to say something about the Salisbury Convention. That seems to me to be appropriate because we are to face a Bill in the Queen's Speech on the reform of your Lordships' House and it is only right that we consider how the Opposition should react. In talking about the convention I am alert to the fact that my noble friend Lord Cranborne has a certain proprietorial interest in the matter. I shall not be surprised—and perhaps I ought to expect—that at the end of my remarks he might regard me as a trespasser. But despite that, I make the following propositions.
The Salisbury Convention states that if a proposed piece of legislation appears in the Government's manifesto, the Opposition are constrained in the way that they oppose it. That seems to me a proposition which does not apply to every situation. Perhaps I may give your Lordships an absurd example. Let us suppose in the Bill introduced by the Government in November, or perhaps even in December, there is a proposal that all hereditary Peers with blue eyes should be excluded from the House but all those with brown eyes should be allowed to remain.
§ Lord Kingsland
Clearly that proposition has at least some support. However, in those circumstances, a member of the electorate would, in my submission, regard that as an irrational Bill and certainly not something that he had in contemplation when he read the Government's party political manifesto. Therefore, I do not believe that the Opposition would be bound by the Salisbury Convention.
As I understand it, we shall be faced with a Bill which seeks to replace a House based on a mixture of nominated Peers and hereditary Peers by a purely nominated House. That proposal does not go as far as the preamble of the Parliament Act 1911: it is a proposal that looks backwards rather than forwards and one 1054 which reduces the independence of this House without adding to its legitimacy. It is a solution to a problem that I do not recognise. Therefore, in my submission, the Opposition would be entitled to think most carefully about whether or not the Salisbury Convention applied to the Bill.
Perhaps I may put it in another way. We are talking about a constitutional Bill. It is not a Bill which seeks to change the law; it is a Bill which seeks to change the way in which we change the law. It goes to the composition of the sovereign Parliament, of the Queen in Parliament. The Salisbury Convention applies to a settled set of relationships between Commons and Lords, but this Bill seeks to change the nature of one of the two component parts of that relationship. In those circumstances, does the Salisbury Convention apply?
Perhaps I may give your Lordships a third example. In the manifesto of Her Majesty's Government we see proposals for other legislatures. We see proposals for a Scottish parliament, for a Welsh assembly, for another place, for a new London assembly and, indeed, proposals for your Lordships' House. In four out of five of those sets of proposals there is to be, or has been, a referendum before introduction. However, there is no proposal for a referendum in relation to the changes that are sought in your Lordships' House. I am not at all fazed by that because I happen to be deeply opposed to referenda as a means of democratic government. Nevertheless, your Lordships' House is not being treated in the same way as other legislatures and the electorate might take the view that that was unfair discrimination.
For all those reasons, in my submission the Opposition would be right to think very deeply about the application of the Salisbury Convention before this Bill comes before your Lordships' House. I do not say that it will not apply because that will depend upon what is in the Bill. But it is a factor that the Opposition will have to take into account. I give way to the noble Lord.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. It will perhaps help the noble Lord to know that there was an exchange of correspondence between myself and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in the summer of 1996 when the noble Lord confirmed that the Conservative Opposition would regard the Salisbury Convention as applying to a Bill to reform the House of Lords introduced by the Labour Government.
§ Lord Kingsland
My Lords, I know that that is historically true, but we have not seen the Bill. However, I accept that that is the situation at the moment.
I turn now to the four claims that the Government have made for the Bill. The first one is that it is more legitimate. Well, that was much argued yesterday; I can find no rational basis for saying that a nominated House is any more legitimate than an inherited House.
The second claim is that it is more democratic. Many claims have been made in the name of democracy. Some of those claims have been made by frightful people to do frightful things—many of those in 20th century Europe. However, in order to have a true test of democracy, it 1055 is necessary to look at what benefit it brings to the individual constituent. Will the introduction of stage one make this House more representative for the individual constituent? Will it make him more able to control an executive with whose decisions he disagrees? Further, will it make him more able to amend legislation than before? In my submission, none of those things are true. To base stage one purely on the democratic principle would undermine the principle upon which it was based.
It has also been said that this House would be more representative. Yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, talked about the matter in great detail and said much about the origins, the education and upbringing of many of your Lordships who are hereditary Peers. However, with great respect to the noble Baroness, she has missed the point. The great merit of this House is that it is a part-time Chamber. Members go away and do other things, then come back here bringing with them their experience to the legislative process. Sometimes noble Lords are away doing things which are even more useful than those they would be doing if they were sitting here on your Lordships' Benches. That is a quality which your Lordships' House has and one that the other place increasingly does not have. In the other place, we are faced with something which is perhaps inevitable in a modern democratic society, although a sad fact of life from the point of view of representative government—a full-time political society.
Perhaps I may give just one illustration of how your Lordships' House plays a role that another place cannot. It is in the field of agriculture. There is hardly anyone in the other place who is now sufficiently expert in agriculture to take an informed view about the quality of agricultural legislation brought forward by the government of the day. Yet among Members of this House are, for example, my noble friends Lord Middleton and Lord Stanley of Alderley. We have Members of your Lordships' House, Members of Parliament, who are real experts. Indeed, we should not forget the noble Lord, Lord Carter. All of them are absolutely impartial in this. They bring real expertise to bear on the subject. That is something that only a part-time House can provide.
§ Lord Kingsland
I wish you were.
There is the final question of the role that this proposal plays in the constitutional programme of the Government. The one thing that is absent from the constitutional proposals of Her Majesty's Government is reform of the House of Commons; in other words, reform of another place. I would go so far as to say that there is a cancer at the heart of our constitutional system which is increasingly debilitating the ancillary parts of our means of government. That is due to the simple fact that the individuals who keep the government of the day in power are also those who have to keep them under control. They are one and the same set of people. It is the nature of modern party government that the instinct to keep the government of the day in power is stronger than the instinct to control it.
1056 Therefore, I have formed the view that the only way in which that balance can be successfully redressed is by a more powerful second Chamber in the form of your Lordships' House. That is the central issue that the Government have to face in looking at stage one in relation to stage two. It is not a question of how this House should be composed; it is a question of what functions and what powers it should have to redress a constitutional balance which got out of balance many decades ago. It would mean at least looking at the delaying powers of your Lordships' House and strengthening them, possibly for a whole Parliament and perhaps even, in certain circumstances, having the power to take the matter to a referendum where there is a serious conflict with another place. I can find no evidence that the Government have given any thought to this at all, or if they have they have kept it well disguised from the country. But considering questions of composition before considering questions of function and power seems to me to be wholly irrational and perhaps the strongest argument for making sure that stage one and stage two are intimately linked.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, has the onerous but honourable task of winding up the debate. I conclude my remarks by asking him some questions which I hope he will be able to answer. These questions relate to the next steps that I hope the Government will be able to take. Can he tell me first of all what terms of reference the Government intend to give to the Royal Commission? Is it, for example, going to look at questions of powers as well as composition? I see the noble Lord frowns, or rather I thought the noble Lord was frowning. I apologise for suggesting that he was frowning. Apparently he was not frowning. I see the noble Lord is not frowning but actually looking rather sunny.
§ Lord Kingsland
My Lords, I think that is a case of someone who listens but does not want to hear. When the noble Lord replies to the debate tonight, will he deal with the question of what the terms of reference are for the proposed Royal Commission, in particular in relation to those functions and powers of this House that will be necessary to balance the powers of the executive in another place? The noble Lord must have thought about the terms of reference of the Royal Commission—because if he has not, to suggest that one would be useful would be, to say the least, premature.
Will the noble Lord give your Lordships' House, if he can, some undertakings about how the Government will deal with the conclusions of the Royal Commission? What if the Royal Commission comes up with a solution that the Government do not like? What will the Government do about it? Will they simply ignore it and produce an alternative proposal of their own? Will they put it to a referendum? What kind of timetable do the Government envisage from the moment the Royal Commission reports?
How will the Government deal with the uncertainties about how another place will react to the Government once the Government have made up their mind about 1057 stage two? Are the Government aware that there are those who argue that the House of Commons may be reluctant to support any government initiative? This might be the exception to the rule with respect to an overweening executive.
Your Lordships can perhaps imagine certain Cabinet Ministers coming to the end of their career in another place contemplating other opportunities. The fact that a fully elected second Chamber would exclude them from elevation may be a factor which would influence the way in which they react to any proposal; for example, for a fully elected second Chamber. What about the attitude of another place generally to its own powers? It is accustomed to being, in effect, the sovereign Parliament. Will it give up those powers easily?
The House will recall that my noble friend Lord Cranborne in his opening remarks referred to wanting a copper-bottomed guarantee. In my submission nothing less than the clear commitment of another place to stage two will do before Her Majesty's Opposition can contemplate support for the stage one Bill.
§ 3.53 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, my first comment on the speech we have just heard is, "Gosh". I have rarely heard such a quite extraordinary speech. First of all, we had a reference to how unacceptable it would have been—this was in relation to the Salisbury Convention—if the Labour Party or any other party had put forward a proposition that people with either blue or brown eyes should be excluded from Parliament. Any political party that put forward such an entirely daft idea would never have become a government of this country. I find it hard to understand why a serious minded man like the noble Lord can put forward such a strange argument.
But, of course, he was faced with a difficulty of how to justify the serious hints that the Conservative Party is moving away from accepting the Salisbury Convention. He spent a substantial amount of time wriggling around on this issue. He told us how passionately opposed he was to the referendum and then he implied it would have been a great deal better if the Government had suggested there should be a referendum on this issue. However, I understand the embarrassment of the noble Lord all the more so, given the exchange of correspondence to which the noble Lord, Lord Carter, referred. It would, I think, be idle to pretend that after 60 speeches—
§ Lord Kingsland
My Lords, as I think the noble Lord's remarks were at least obliquely directed at me, I think I ought to respond by saying that as regards the Opposition there is no doubt that the Salisbury Convention will be observed in relation to this Bill, and of course the remarks that I made about referenda—as I think I made plain in my intervention—were entirely my own.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, in that case I fail to understand the beginning of the noble Lord's speech, which is entirely inconsistent with what he has just said. I repeat that I think it would be idle to pretend 1058 that after 60 speeches have been made on this issue it is possible to avoid at least touching on some of the issues which have been referred to by those who have already spoken. That being so, I shall endeavour to make my speech as mercifully short as possible.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I am glad to hear that I have a degree of Conservative support at least for that point. There are three issues I wish to touch on this afternoon: first, the central argument concerning hereditary Peers and their future; secondly, the role of a reformed House in the future; and, thirdly, the need to ensure that the membership of such a House should not be determined solely by the Prime Minister of the day.
I come to the abolition of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House. It cannot be seriously maintained that the Government do not have a mandate for this proposed Bill. Their commitment is spelled out helpfully in Appendix 2 to the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and his colleagues on the options for change in a new second Chamber. On this point at least I know I shall carry the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, with me. He may recall that his grandfather, the then Marquess of Salisbury, speaking in 1949 on the Bill to nationalise the iron and steel industry, pointed out that it was right to take into account the votes secured by the major political parties at the previous general election. He argued that if the votes given to the Liberal Party, which opposed the Bill, were added to those given to the Conservative Party in 1945 there was a small majority in the country against iron and steel nationalisation.
Let us therefore apply this argument to the proposal which we are debating today. If one does, it is clear that the Government's proposal enjoys the support of a substantial majority of the people of this country because the Liberal Democrats made their position clear both during the Cook/Maclellan talks and subsequently. Given the fact that if one adds the votes secured by the Liberal Democrats to those secured by the Labour Party, that indicates there was 60 per cent. support for removing hereditary Peers from this House. It is quite clear it was a major political issue which, interestingly, was not joined by the Conservative Party during the general election. I suspect that they took the view that there was no way in which they would receive public support for the stand that they had adopted.
It would have been absurd for my party to have taken up any position when considering the question of constitutional change—for how could we possibly have defended the proposition that a male child born in the right bed should automatically be allowed to be a Member of one of our Houses of Parliament whether or not he was qualified to be a legislator? Also, why should the hereditary majority, overwhelmingly Conservative, be allowed to give the Conservative Party a majority in this House even after the electorate has rejected that party in a general election, as they did so decisively in 1906, 1945 and in May last year?
1059 The power of the Conservative Chief Whip in this House is absolute. If he puts down a three-line Whip to his followers, as we all know perfectly well, he can win any Division. As my noble friend Lord Wigoder pointed out—
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I will give way in a moment, as I always do.
On a number of occasions we have seen tramping into this House a large number of people who have clearly not been here for many years. How did the then government put through that height of absurdity, the poll tax? It was by devices of this kind. A three-line Whip was laid down. The Conservative Party in this House—
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I shall give way to the noble Lord, Lord Elton. The Conservative Party in this House wins a Division—
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Lord is wise to choose me rather than my more formidable noble friend Lord Beloff. I merely wish to ask the noble Lord how on earth he can square what he has just said about the inexorable power of any Conservative Chief Whip in this House with, for instance, the total defeat of Margaret Thatcher's attempt to remove school transport from Roman Catholic children against an enormously hard three-line Whip? That was just the first of a whole succession of defeats of the previous Conservative Government, some of which I suffered myself.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, of course there were defeats. I am glad to say that I was involved in some of them, often late at night when the Conservative Whips were taken by surprise. I am referring to major issues of public policy which the government of the day were quite determined to force through. The poll tax is an overwhelmingly obvious example. Here was a tax which eventually brought down the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
No, my Lords, with great respect, I should be allowed to continue. I have given way twice already and that is an end of the matter.
I now turn to the role of a reformed House in the future. With great respect to the other noble Lord who interrupts, I have two answers. I have given way twice and I have put up with a substantial amount of barracking from noble Lords—which I do not mind in the least—and I am making a Front Bench speech. That is the term used by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I merely adopt it. I also noted the length of some of the speeches made by Conservative Members yesterday, which were rather longer than eight minutes.
1060 Turning to the role of a reformed House in the future, I find myself in fairly strong agreement with some of the proposals in the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. A number of the ideas proposed are extremely sensible. I welcome in particular his proposal that the House should have a special responsibility in the area of human rights and over our relations with our colleagues in the European Community. I certainly support the central argument that our bicameral system should be maintained. Those who suggest that we might as well rely on a single Chamber do not always appreciate the damage that could be involved in pursuing such an approach. Given the frequent use of the guillotine in the House of Commons, a procedure used by all governments, much legislation would go onto the statute book without even being discussed. An effective revising Chamber is thus essential in our democracy. However, it must be a revising Chamber which possesses political credibility, which in our view this House as presently constituted does not.
That brings me to the third element of my case; namely, the way in which new Members should be appointed to this House before the proposed stage two reforms are carried through. It is essential that the stage two proposals should be placed before the electorate before the next general election, following a careful examination, as we now understand it, to be undertaken by a Royal Commission. In the interim, it would be right to change the arrangement for appointing new life Peers. There was a strong hint of that in the speech made by the Leader of the House yesterday.
The most sensible way forward, also referred to by my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, would be to have an appointments commission to make recommendations for new Cross-Bench life Peers. We consider, as do many, that around 20 per cent. of Members of the reformed House should consist of Cross-Bench Peers and that no party should secure a majority in this House.
It might also be desirable for the same commission to be asked to approve the appointment of those recommended by the political parties. Our view is that the 80 per cent. or so of those taking a party Whip should broadly represent in percentage terms the way in which the country has voted at a previous general election.
I think it right to express a mild level of surprise at the remarks made yesterday by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. He said that until stage two was carried through, this House would become Mr. Blair's poodle. I express my surprise because of the noble Viscount's rather delayed discovery of the possible misuse of Prime Ministerial patronage. Where was he during the premierships of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and Mr. Major?
Let us consider their records. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, appointed well over 50 per cent. more Conservative life Peers than Labour and Liberal Democrat Peers put together. Mr Major's record is slightly better. But again, more Conservatives were appointed than Labour and Liberal Democrat Members 1061 put together. By those means, those two Prime Ministers ensured that a House that was already overwhelmingly Conservative became even more Conservative. Given the noble Viscount's newly found concern on this issue, did he or any of his predecessors as Leaders of the House under the former government tell their Prime Ministers that party appointments on such a scale represented a major abuse of power? I suspect that they chose to remain silent.
The debate that we are having over these two days will be the forerunner of a long and arduous series of debates on the Government's proposals. Again already the air is full of Conservative threats about what they propose to do if such a Bill is introduced after the next Queen's Speech. They would be well advised to calm down a little. In the final analysis the Government will, if compelled to do so, put this legislation through on the basis of the Parliament Act. If the Conservatives—or as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has described them, a "grand coalition", which appears to be the Conservative Party plus our old friend, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon—are seen by the general public to be behaving wholly unreasonably, they will pay a very high price for doing so. I suspect that they recognise as much. That is why a number of members of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons are understood to be far less enthusiastic about root and branch opposition to this legislation than are the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and his colleagues.
It would now be sensible for the Conservatives to acknowledge that they lost this battle in May last year. There is overwhelming support for the abolition of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he talked about the lack of qualification as legislators of certain elder sons. I wonder whether he could tell the House what is the appropriate qualification to be a legislator. Indeed, could he say what qualification those of us who come to this place on appointment have as legislators? I suppose there may be something to be said for those who come from the other place, but after 60 years or more on this earth, I have some doubts about even that.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I believe that the people who are appointed as life Peers are seen by the parties who put them forward as people who have a substantial record of public service and who would make a useful contribution to debates on public policy in this House. It seems to me to be an obvious point.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, I too found the arguments about democracy mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, quite extraordinary. We need a democratic second Chamber because more and more we recognise that power remains over-centralised, too remote and too insensitive. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, spoke of "an elective dictatorship", yet we live in an age where at work we empower people so that they can give of their best. I too say that it is time 1062 to change. Even Edmund Burke, so admired by the Conservatives, recognised the need to embrace change. He said:A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation".So how should we bring about reform and modernise your Lordships' House? In a word, in stages. I say that because we are conservative and pragmatic in constitutional matters. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that a bold, all-embracing policy in this case would bring loud complaints from noble Lords opposite. They would be right, because at the moment other major changes are taking place: the assembly in Wales, the parliament in Scotland and elected mayors. These changes will all have an unexpected impact. Change is like that; it has unexpected results. We need to see what unexpected surprises there are in store for us.
I say "in stages" because change in the House of Lords is part of reforming our entire constitution. It is much more than just removing hereditary Peers, we are going back to first principles and asking what the second Chamber is for. What is its role in a modern state? As my noble friend Lady Jay said, it is important to establish its legitimacy and its authority.
Legitimacy is why the removal of hereditary Peers is long overdue. It is because they no longer have legitimacy. It is not because of vindictiveness on our part or low achievement on their part. It is because it is no longer acceptable or rational that someone becomes a legislator in a democracy simply because of the death of a relative. Perhaps life Peers too are undemocratic. They were recently described to me as,a bunch of over-achievers in receipt of patronage".But at least they are a product of the modern age. The removal of hereditary Peers is simply a recognition that we now live in an age different from that in which they were created. Their removal is a start to modernising your Lordships' House.
The debate shows that many hereditary Peers agree with this. But, quite rightly, they are concerned with what will follow. So are many life Peers. The concern we all share is for the legitimacy and acceptability of a House of Lords during the transition and when it is reformed. Without this, a reformed House will be nothing because it will lack respect and authority.
This reform is not a quick and easy matter. That is why I would welcome a Royal Commission. I shall welcome even more the limit on time. Noble Lords are concerned that this commission would be an excuse to delay further reform. I do not think so. First, during the transition, even without the hereditary Peers, Labour will still be in a considerable minority in your Lordships' House. So legislation will still have that big hurdle to overcome. This will encourage the Government not to delay reform.
Some noble Lords are concerned that a large number of Labour life Peers would be appointed. On present performance, I do not think that is likely. This Government have been honourable and generous to the Opposition in appointing life Peers. Look at the figures: 1063 since the general election, the total number of Peers eligible to vote and who do not take the Labour Whip has actually increased.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, made the point that the previous government did not act in that way. When I entered your Lordships' House five years ago, the previous government had allowed the numbers on the Labour Benches to dwindle to a level where we hardly had enough people to carry out our duties, never mind win Divisions. So the Prime Minister has not pressed his advantage and flooded the House with new Labour Peers. Also, we have the Prime Minister's undertaking on this and the idea of an independent appointments commission.
There is another spur to action rather than delay. In our manifesto we spoke of,a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative".I believe that there will be pressure to carry out this manifesto promise sooner rather than later because of the pressure for regional representation.
In Britain, decentralising power to the regions is an idea whose time has come. Not only will we have a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly, but we already have the integrated regional government offices. The regional development associations are on the way.
But all that will not satisfy the desire for regional representation. On the contrary, it will have the effect of making people aware of what they have been missing—one of the unexpected results of change to which I referred earlier. Reform will give us a rare opportunity to reflect this in our new Chamber. I hope that the Royal Commission will consider it.
We are an old institution in need of reform and modernisation, not because of our work but because people are disenchanted with the way politics works. The reform must start now. Without modernisation, we shall be perceived by a disenchanted public as part of "theme park Britain". Theme parks are fine for entertainment, amusement and pageantry, but totally inappropriate for an upper House.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Winchester
My Lords, my colleagues and I noted the variety of comments and questions yesterday by noble Lords to and about those of us who sit on these Benches. I begin by seeking to respond to some of them. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, spoke of the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and I welcomed his doing so.
It has been the position of the Church of England, that, at least since the Chadwick Report on Church and State in 1970, we have encouraged and welcomed the appointment as Peers of distinguished people who would be representatives in your Lordships' House both of the other Christian traditions—the appointment recently much to be welcomed of our ecumenical colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson—and people of the Anglican tradition in other parts of the UK, such as the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Eames—whom I saw coming in a few moments ago—and representatives of the other faiths, active and 1064 present in this country. But it has not understood their purpose as being exchangeable with those who sit as Peers spiritual on these Benches.
We who do so in your Lordships' House are not here as representatives of the Church of England but, rather more broadly, representatives of the Christian religion in every aspect of the Queen's Government. We sit in this House as a sign of and a contribution to the Christian foundation of the public life of this country. It is one element of the responsibilities that we are called to carry out in every other aspect of our public life and ministry. Those are the roots of the intricate relationship between the Church of England and the monarchy, which has a similar function.
A number of speakers yesterday suggested that the character of episcopal appointments to your Lordships' House might be a model for others. I am not sure it is as widely known as perhaps it should be that unless Peers spiritual and Members of your Lordships' House were appointed to their present posts before January 1996 they are bound to retire at 70 at the latest. After that we are allowed to use the facilities of your Lordships' House but not to sit and vote. That has an effect on our presence and ability to participate. Last night there were comments about the number of bishops present. There may be similar comments today. The fact is that we are in London en masse for a meeting of the House of Bishops. The reason for our departure, in time for the last train or its predecessor, is that often we have commitments early the next day in what for the vast majority of the inhabitants of the UK is the real world away from London.
That may be a stopper—as may be the next point to which I shall come—for the proposal put by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, who I do not see in the Chamber today. I have valued him over the years since I was a member of the Cambridge college of which he was provost. As to the noble Lord, the parallel may be the appointment of people who have held other public posts ex officio to membership of your Lordships' House, but the position is significantly different. For very many centuries it has been the understanding of Church of England bishops that at some point they have these responsibilities, as have others, that are all of a piece with the other responsibilities that I have just described. All of that has an effect on our reactions—I cannot speak for my colleagues—to this debate.
We are neither hereditary nor life Peers, although we share the characteristics of each. But all of us corporately and some of us individually are the present holders of posts with the longest possible inheritance and service to the country, its regions, localities, the Crown and this and a number of other matters. It is worth noting that my title was already 200 years old when one of my predecessors was among King Alfred's councillors. I believe that the arms of four or five of my predecessors as Chancellors of England are on the walls of your Lordships' Chamber. On the other hand, crucially all but two or three of us are resident primarily outside London and are closely and constantly engaged in the poorest and most pressured areas of England, both urban and rural. We are professionals in understanding and working with the grain of what may be called the 1065 ecology of historic institutions and their leadership and helping them to develop as necessary so as to be effective today.
In light of yesterday's debate all of us are accustomed to having to win our way and argue our case for whatever powers we judge it right to take to ourselves and to propose to others. Bishops have no power or influence, and certainly no majority, in another place, which saves us the patient business of building alliances or winning assent. It may be that others on these Benches will join me, on the one hand, in frankly not having much of a view on the issue of hereditary Peers or, on the other hand, having a keen eye on both the quality of the arguments and issues and the extent to which participants understand both this institution and a range of institutions of which this is part and with which it is intimately connected. On neither score was I impressed by most speakers on behalf of the Government yesterday. I heard assertion, slogan and even mantra rather than argument. But for nearly 20 years now—20 years of would-be energetic attempts at modernisation by government of institutions of every kind—these have surely left many others all over the country as well as myself needing to see cases argued and the character of specific propositions, as well as the general need for reform, which in this case is crystal clear, carefully established.
Finally, with an eye on the clock I should like to make three specific points. I was struck by the lack of clarity and slithering in speeches on all sides of the House yesterday on the issue of hereditary Peers as such and the issue of an in- built majority for a particular political party. In the light of the belief expressed by so many noble Lords yesterday, particularly those who have served in the other place, that another place may well be unwilling to allow a largely elected second chamber, and therefore the possibility that it will remain largely a chamber of appointees by whatever means, is it not wiser for the Government to concentrate on their second leg—the in-built Conservative majority—and find ways of dealing with it as everyone agrees it must be dealt with?
Secondly, is the pre-emptive strike of the stand-alone reform of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, to be preferred in these day to patient perseverance in order to reach a negotiated agreement? To put down a marker today in relation to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Charteris, and others yesterday, are the Government confident that their root and branch denial of the legitimacy of the hereditary principle here does not undermine their stated support, which I welcome, for the monarchy?
Thirdly, if there is to be a Royal Commission—unlike some, I trust the Government's intention to establish one—the Church of England will be glad to offer every possible assistance to it based on the longest possible experience of these matters through both participation, if required, and the offering of evidence.
§ 4.27 p.m.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, this is no time for false modesty about your Lordships' House. At the time of the first post-war Labour government, when your Lordships voluntarily renounced the last vestiges of equality with another place by adopting the Salisbury-Addison Convention, the House took on two new roles in exchange; that of an informed debating forum for discussion of the questions of the day, great or small, and that of a revising chamber.
From the former sprang at least two great liberalising measures which had their direct origins in debates in your Lordships' House, as have many other changes in law and practice. As a revising chamber the House defeats the Government of the day in the Division Lobby between 15 and 25 times a year. More important, many times that number of amendments—some 50 or even a hundred times—are won by argument on the Floor of the House.
In times of landslide majorities of one party or the other in another place, your Lordships' House provides the only effective opposition. And it has always been at the height of its powers when its views, on a particular matter, are closer to those of public opinion over the whole country than are those of the elected first chamber of the day.
The existing House, with all the advantages, and disadvantages, of its hereditary ingredient, has served the country well; it has served Parliament well; and, not least, it has served the party opposite well. That is not to say that I would fight to the last ditch for the retention of the hereditary peerage; far from it. But it does mean that I would sell it dearly. The price of getting rid of the hereditary Peers must be putting the best possible alternative in their place.
Her Majesty's Government's declared commitment in this respect, together with their enormous majority in another place and the public interest that has now been aroused in reform, could have presented the best chance for years of getting an agreed reform through both Houses of Parliament, if only it were being done in one comprehensive Bill. But to do it in two stages, banning the hereditaries first, then pausing for a year or two's consideration and discussion, is giving the mouse all the cheese to eat first, and only then, when it has almost forgotten about it, setting the trap. Finding a comprehensive package of reform with which a respectably-sized majority of people can agree has never been easy. That is why it has not proved possible to achieve it at any time during the past 87 years.
In the early 1980s there was a strong rumour that the Labour Party was considering putting the total abolition of your Lordships' House in its next election manifesto. The argument ran like this. Nobody has ever been able to agree on a new composition for your Lordships' House. Even those who believe in a second chamber cannot justify the hereditary principle. Therefore, a single chamber parliament is the only answer. The Conservative Constitutional Committee in another place was so appalled by such a prospect that they booked an 1067 immediate interview with my noble friend the late Lord Soames and my noble friend asked me to sit in on the discussion. There were eight of them and they were unanimous. The House of Lords must be reformed, now, without delay, in good time for the next general election, which had to take place by June 1984 but which was in fact held in 1983. But when my noble friend asked them what sort of reform they wanted, they were not quite so united. Four of them said that they did not care what sort of reform it was, provided that it had some form of election in it; and the other four said that they did not care what sort of election it was, provided that it had no form of election in it. Since that time, whenever I have heard the subject discussed, by members of any political party or none, at Westminster or away from it, the proportions have been approximately the same.
Going further back still, the 1968 proposals for reform were supported by all three main political parties and by both Houses of Parliament, and it still proved possible for them to be talked out and the withdrawal of the Bill forced on the then Labour Government, by the combined efforts of two Back-Bench Members of another place, my right honourable friend the late Mr. Enoch Powell and the right honourable gentleman, Mr. Michael Foot, who was subsequently elected leader of the party opposite. And eminent though those two right honourable gentlemen were, they could not have done it without the active support of other honourable Members. The fact had become increasingly clear that any reform of the composition of your Lordships' House would alter the balance of power between the Houses—and in your Lordships' favour.
And that, undoubtedly, is still the case now. The Salisbury-Addison Convention, which was devised to enable a massive Conservative majority in your Lordships' hereditary House to live with a massive Labour majority in the elected House, will have lapsed the moment that the preliminary Bill becomes law. Its Members will no longer be under the same constraints in exercising the considerable powers which we still possess as we are now. I very much doubt that they will sit still and see amendment after amendment returned to them, as seems to be the policy of Her Majesty's Government at the present time.
When the time comes for the second stage to implemented, Members of another place will already have seen some of their power transferred in this way and would be reluctant to see still more go, as it inevitably would once the definitive reform had been enacted. And what of the partly reformed second chamber? It will already have had time to settle down into its new format and those of your Lordships who had escaped the axe during the next Session would scarcely be eager to put your necks on the blocks next time round.
I do of course accept that Her Majesty's Government are sincere in their undertaking, once the first phase is in place, to seek agreement on a comprehensive reform Bill. But I really do not believe that it will in the event prove possible for them to get the definitive Bill through both Houses of Parliament. Furthermore, I think that 1068 they have doubts about this themselves. Why else did they preface their manifesto commitment about the hereditary Peers with the words:As an initial self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future".Yesterday morning's newspapers carried the fifth report of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, on Standards in Public Life, in which it ruled that the Government should remain neutral on referendums—another constitutional matter—and not spend money to promote one side of the argument. That must, to a greater or lesser extent, be taken as an indictment of Her Majesty's Government's handling of the Scotland and Wales referendums, in which they even ensured that they be held a week apart in order to influence the Welsh result, overturning an amendment of your Lordships to the contrary by use of their majority in another place.
Am I going too far if I draw a parallel between this and their present proposal to set up a Royal Commission on the future of your Lordships' House, only after they have deliberately taken one element out of the equation? I am not naïve enough to suggest that any Royal Commission would advise no change in the composition of your Lordships' House, but they might, for example, suggest an elected second chamber, or one appointed on a regional basis, but adding the rider that if another place were not prepared to accept that, it would he better to retain the status quo rather than have change for change's sake.
The main tenor of the rest of the debate so far has been on the promised White Paper. But, as the overwhelming opinion in the debate so far is that it will never be enacted, I am far more concerned with the conditions that will govern the interim House. If there were a virtual certainty of getting the definitive reform through, it could probably muddle along for the four or five years that are generally believed to be the timescale envisaged by the party opposite. But we must be prepared for it to last for a considerable number of years, possibly a very considerable number of years. There must be cast-iron safeguards to ensure that it is properly equipped to do the job that we do now for an indefinite period of time.
I am far from happy, for example, about the way in which candidates are at present chosen to be submitted to Her Majesty for inclusion in the lists of working Peers. As the working Peers lists are intended to improve this House, you would have thought that the Chief Whip of a particular party here would at least be consulted. But I was informed only after the choice had been made. I did once manage to get myself included in the final discussions but, whenever I had the temerity to suggest a particular name, I was given a metaphorical pat on the head and told, "You don't want him, you want him". However, I did not want him, I wanted him, and when I eventually got him I did not think very much of him anyway. After that, I found it far less frustrating to stay out of the discussions altogether.
The Chief Whip in another place is "Patronage Secretary" and I gained the very strong impression that the names were chosen more to suit that House than this, and little that I have heard since has shaken me in 1069 this belief. And, my Lords, as a member of the Chief Whips' mafia over the years, I have learnt that the position in other parties is much the same.
In parenthesis, it is a matter of some wonder that such a system has managed, on occasion, to throw up life Peers of the quality of those who happen to be present this afternoon.
The manifesto commitment states that no one party should have an absolute majority in the interim House. But exactly what will the comparative figures between the various sections of the House be? In this part-time, amateur House, even the present large disparities of numbers manage to sort themselves out. But the closer you get to equality, the harder the battles will be fought, and the more vital it becomes that the relative numbers, between the parties and those of no party, are scrupulously fair.
The more professional the House becomes, the harder it will be to find Peers prepared to do a full-time job for out of pocket expenses alone. The House would become a plutocracy, only the very rich being able to carry out those duties whereas, if it is decided to pay them, it would give a wholly unacceptable amount of patronage, not only to the Prime Minister but to the leaders of the other parties as well. And who is to select the names to be put forward for new Cross-Bench Peers?
We are told that there is to be some form of commission which would take over the job of recommending candidates for this House in the near future and it may be that this will provide the answer to some of these problems. But who is to appoint the members of that commission? Exactly what would their terms of reference be? Would they be able to put forward names themselves, or only to consider those names submitted to them by others?
Your Lordships' House is a major part of the constitution of the country and it would be wholly irresponsible to gamble with it. The removal of the hereditary Peers will create a vacuum and it is essential that exactly how that vacuum should be filled should be written in precise detail on the face of the forthcoming Bill.
§ 4.38 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, yesterday we were treated to a story from my noble friend Lord Shepherd. He said that he went to see Mr. Attlee when the disclaimer Bill was passed and asked, "What do I do? Do I renounce my peerage?" Mr. Attlee puffed on his pipe and said, "You're more bloody use there than you will be down here". I have a similar story. Seven years ago I went to see Mr. Kinnock—he too was smoking a pipe—and expressed my reservations about coming to this House. He said to me, "You'll never become an MP. Don't mess about. Go to the Lords".
I wish to concentrate on two particular issues which bear repeating. In her opening speech, the Leader of the House said that even after the removal of the hereditary Peers, which is a manifesto commitment, there will still be 510 life Peers. I think I am right in saying that the 1070 Lords is now the largest second Chamber in the world; and it will still be the largest second Chamber in the world once the hereditary Peers have left.
I have researched the speaking habits of Peers. Since our new Government came into power some 75 per cent. of all Second Reading speeches in this House have been made by life Peers. In addition, about 70 per cent. of all the committee positions are held by life Peers. It is obviously invidious to compare the quality of the contributions of Peers. But it is clear that life Peers drive the work of this House; and while some will be missed, once the hereditary Peers have gone, there is no doubt that the House will work perfectly satisfactorily.
I have always regarded the noble Lord, Lord Denham, as the chief shop steward of hereditary Peers. The noble Lord seemed to admit the point I make. He said that the Chamber will possibly muddle along. From a former Chief Whip, I think that that means the House will work satisfactorily. The only Peer who picked up the point in yesterday's debate was the noble Lord, Lord Shore. The burden of his argument was that if wholly appointed the House of Lords would not be more democratic but more legitimate, and that that would change the nature of the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, and for the better.
On top of that, the Government have said that no party should seek a majority in the House and that there would be an independent body for appointing Cross-Bench Peers. No other government have had that self-denying ordinance. I think that there can be some comfort during the transition period.
Another fact bears repetition: that of women in this House. At present there are only 16 women hereditary Peers out of a total of 750. There will never be many more than that. That is because the rules were set at a time when women's place in society was very different from that of today. Many of the peerages were created when it was beyond the imagination that women would play such a prominent role as they do today. There are already 121 women in the House of Commons and I hope that there will be even more in the future. Yet however many women life Peers are created, there can never be equality in this House while the hereditary peerage keeps its seat.
The position of Britain's ethnic minorities is far more extreme. Only two hereditary Peers are from ethnic minorities and it is unlikely in the extreme that that situation will ever change. Surely it is unsustainable that this House should have such an unrepresentative make-up into the next century.
I have spent much time reading yesterday's debate. Few Peers attempted to defend the hereditary peerage on principle. I wish to address some of the points raised. The first relates to a sense of public service and history. I agree with those arguments. I think that I have a sense of public service and of history. I also think that certain families have a sense of public service, and that often runs through many generations. There are many examples of such families here today. But that is no argument for preferment. Many life Peers have a sense of public service and of history. Many MPs, local councillors, and school governors have managed to 1071 continue their family tradition through their own merits. I believe that hereditary Peers will also continue their family traditions outside this House.
An argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, was particularly novel; I have never heard it before. He asked, "What's wrong with inheritance? Why does virtually everyone in the world have children if not to let them inherit?". That is a daft argument. I find the idea that people have children so that those children inherit something tenuous in the extreme.
Another argument was advanced by the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington. He spoke about his independence. He said that he took the Tory Whip entirely voluntarily. I should hope so too. I take the Labour Whip entirely voluntarily. The trouble is that there are 18 of us and 300 of them.
Another point made was that hereditary Peers train themselves from the cradle to the point where they take a seat in this House. It is a joke but with a germ of truth in the argument. But my experience is the reverse of that. When I was attending a selection meeting to become a councillor in London, I did not want the selection committee to know that my father was an hereditary Peer. At each job interview I never made any reference to this House. It would have been the kiss of death to the chance of a decent job.
I have spoken of duty, inheritance, independence and training. I say this to my own Front Bench. Release us from these shackles. I want my son to grow up in a world where he can continue a tradition of public service if he wishes, but where he is governed by a Parliament that is both democratic and meritocratic. I believe that the Government's proposals offer a decisive step in that direction.
§ 4.45 p.m.
Earl Baldwin of Bewdley
My Lords, we have heard many arguments from all sides of the House. In the interests of brevity, I merely intend to reinforce two of them.
Speaking as a hereditary Peer who has attended regularly for the past 10 years, I do not defend the hereditary principle in your Lordships' House. Nor do I oppose reform. It seems to me there are two basic and interrelated unfairnesses in the composition of this House: the presence of people who sit here because of what their ancestors did; and the huge imbalance between the two major parties. With the former it seems to me that the House can do a respectable job; with the latter—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester alluded to it and I agree with him—it is more difficult. If I were in the Government's shoes I would feel as they do if the votes were always stacked against them.
It surprises me that their manifesto is so much more relaxed about this practical problem—aiming to bring party appointees into line "over time"—than it is about the philosophical objection which it seeks to put right at once regardless of all other considerations. I believe, with the Government, that this whole reform is overdue, but I am not convinced of the wisdom of doing one part of it very quickly in isolation. One can be in too much 1072 of a hurry even in getting rid of an injustice. The Government's premise must be that there is no conceivable scenario in which a hereditary element of any significance will have a future role to play; and herein lies the danger.
While that may be the case, there are, as we have heard, some more fundamental questions to be decided. Until everyone is clear about what the second Chamber is for in a changed United Kingdom and Europe, what it is supposed to do, and what powers it should have, it is surely, as many speakers have said, neither logical nor sensible to start on questions of membership. If, for example, the suggestion is that a selected few hereditary Peers will stay on under the new regime, how, until those larger questions are answered, can one determine how many should be involved or indeed what kind of people they should be? Powers and functions will determine to some extent the nature of individual membership.
So I agree with those speakers who have argued that a reform of the deepest constitutional importance is being tackled the wrong way round, and I have so far heard nothing to persuade me of the opposite.
I also have fears about an interim Chamber. Whatever the Government may say, experience suggests that the interim could be a very long one indeed. It would be absurd if we were left with a Chamber which worked less well than what we have at present; and that is quite conceivable. The undesirability of a wholly appointed Chamber has already been noted.
I would add one more thing. In a remarkable article in The Times after your Lordships had rejected the lowering of the homosexual age of consent in July, Matthew Parris, a former MP, praised this House even while disagreeing with its conclusions. He praised it for its capacity to think unfashionable thoughts, to disregard in contrast to another place what he described as the way the wind was blowing. I find it is something which outsiders tend to comment upon, as indeed, have some of your Lordships—the quality of independence of thought which characterises the House as presently constituted. This is such a valuable quality that every effort should be made to preserve it, both in the long term and, if needs be, under any interim arrangement. That is not quite the same thing as just preserving the Cross-Bench contribution.
I hope that, however, there will not be an interim, and that the needless haste to eject one element of the House will be tempered by the wisdom of doing a proper job of looking at first things first. In the long run, as Simon Jenkins wrote yesterday:Who cares whether 800 Peers enjoy an extra few months of political life?The noble Baroness the Leader of the House, who is unfortunately not in her place at the moment, reminds me of a certain Shakespearean character who said to the guests at her table:Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once".This is, I emphasise, the only respect in which I would compare the noble Baroness with Lady Macbeth. But I would also point out that that story ended in tragedy.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Linklater of Butterstone
My Lords, there is a specific issue to which I would like to draw your Lordships' attention. It concerns the balance and, in particular, the Scottish element in the reformed House of the future—in whatever final form that might take. Whether elected or nominated, whether for a fixed term or for life, whether ex-officio or otherwise, it will be of crucial importance that some care and attention is paid to geographical balance, and in particular that there should be an adequate and proportionate number of Peers living in Scotland who are members of the reformed body.
There will of course still be Bills coming before this Chamber concerning Scotland after devolution relating to all those matters which are reserved to Westminster and which are part of our common concerns as part of the United Kingdom.
Coming from Scotland, I know just how crucial it is to have the perspective and perceptions of Scots who actually live there. Today, according to the information and statistical office in this building, there are some 117 Peers who are actually resident in Scotland, although there will be some who also have homes in Scotland which are not for the time being their principal base. However, there appear to be only 42 life Peers, of all parties based in Scotland. They are therefore the only ones likely to be in the House immediately after stage one—unless some of the remaining 75 hereditaries are created life Peers. Furthermore, not all of the 42 I have identified are active or "working Peers", whatever that means. The Liberal Democrats have five Scottish life Peers and our deputy leader, my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, is going to the new Scottish parliament to distinguish that assembly and will be leaving our ranks sorely depleted for much of the time. I have no idea what plans any of the Scottish members of other parties may have in relation to becoming members of the Scottish parliament. There may be a few, I believe.
This is a real cause for concern and an example of why clear signposts and timescales for stage two are essential as stage one is implemented and the current structure dismantled. Scotland and the UK are at a crucial stage of constitutional transition and must not be left without proper representation in this House and the resources to do the job properly. I urge the Government to keep this issue in mind when planning stage two.
The parallel issue—and here I wholeheartedly endorse what was said yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and the matter has been mentioned again today—concerns the number of women in your Lordships' House, and relates particularly to the representation of Scottish women life Peers resident in Scotland. I am in a minority of one in this respect on these Liberal Democrat Benches; there are only two on the Government Benches and two on the Conservative Benches. In other words there is a grand total of five life Peers who live in Scotland and who are women. If balance is indeed to be a consideration, then some thought must also be given to that of gender.
I am not in favour of token women. I have always believed that it is vital in any job that the prime considerations must, above all, be ability, experience 1074 and effectiveness. But one only has to look at the present Leader of this House, and indeed a significant proportion of the Government Front Bench, to realise just what formidably able and effective women we have in this Chamber. Scotland is not short of able women, and it behoves the Government to bear that in mind.
One is tempted to ask whether in the past the representation of Scots in general and women in particular has been regarded as being of any importance at all. If we are to move on to a new revising Chamber which will have a serious chance of being an improvement on that in which we currently have the privilege to serve, then these are two aspects of future representation which we cannot ignore.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord Stewartby
My Lords, like many Members of this House, over the years I have often had occasion to consider some of the great issues which we are now discussing. In 1911 my great-grandfather was on Asquith's list of potential Liberal Peers. When I was in another place and a colleague was faced with the question of whether he should renounce a peerage in order to stay there, I asked myself what decision I would make under those circumstances. One of the reasons I found it a difficult question was that I insufficiently appreciated the role which your Lordships' House plays in our parliamentary process and our constitution.
The second occasion was more recently. A few years ago in this House the question was raised as to whether older sisters should take precedence over their younger brothers. As my wife is the daughter of a Peer by inheritance and is older than her brothers, it did strike me for one awful moment that she might have the opportunity of coming here and checking up on me.
More recently and more seriously, since I have been a Member of your Lordships' House I have shared an office not only with my noble friend Lord Marlesford but with two Peers by inheritance, each of whom has made an active and valuable contribution to the proceedings of this House. Under the proposals before us, in the relatively near future they would no longer be able to do that.
I ask myself what would be gained by such a change. I do not want to go over all the arguments adduced over the last day-and-a-half on this subject, but I agree with pretty well everything that has been said about the anomaly of trying to deal with stage one without dealing with stage two, and without even knowing what stage two might consist of. I particularly agree with other noble Lords who have been Members of another place and who have expressed the view that because of the interests of another place it is extremely unlikely that stage two will ever take place. It is particularly unlikely that a stage two containing an elected element to this House would ever happen.
My only reservation about agreeing with them wholeheartedly is that it seems to me that there are now fundamental constitutional changes—some of which are already in train; others of which are in contemplation—which may raise the whole structure of the balance of our constitution again in a few years' time. I refer not 1075 only to the relationship of this country with the European Union—although the European Union is changing and our relationship with it is changing, and that may bring the need for other constitutional changes in due course—but more particularly to Scottish devolution. That seems to contain within it the seeds of serious tensions between Edinburgh and Westminster. It is not improbable that when the passion of the Government for constitutional reform cools—as all passions do eventually cool—they might find that some of the consequences of what they have set in train are not entirely acceptable to English voters. Therefore, I foresee the possibility of another phase of constitutional activity a few years down the line in order to deal with some of the problems created by the present reforms. However, with that reservation, stage two is difficult to foresee.
An issue rarely raised in the debate relates to composition and function. One cannot change the composition of any body of people—whether it be a House of Parliament, the trustees of a charity, the board of directors of a company, the board of Admiralty and so forth—without changing the policies which it follows and the way in which it conducts its business. The Government have not paid sufficient attention—and perhaps your Lordships have not sufficiently focused upon the matter—to the change of function if suddenly half the active Members of your Lordships' House are removed.
When I was a Minister in the other place almost 10 years ago I had to handle some long and complicated legislation. I had no hesitation in saying that it was more greatly and necessarily improved by the process of going through your Lordships' House than through the House of Commons. Of course, that was not only because of the superior quality of the membership of your Lordships' House; it was also because it was necessary for the Government to stop and think about the impact of the debates in the Commons and their implications for further amendment. As a revising Chamber, your Lordships' House plays and should continue to play a very important role. It is not a prominent role in the public's perception, but it is an exceedingly important role in the good governance of the country. I am worried that a sudden change in composition will unbalance that process and at best will be only nearly as good as what we have now.
The vacuum cannot suddenly be filled. I agree with my noble friend Lord Denham that the other place has lost its breadth of experience and is becoming more professional. It is most important that this House continues to have as Members people with wide experience who are not professional or full-time politicians. Until we have a formula which achieves that we should tread most carefully. The last thing we all want is to see this House filled with superannuated party hacks like me. We want the breadth of experience and contribution which we have had for so many years.
I do not know what transitional arrangements might best be made. A number of suggestions have been mooted; for instance, to retain some hereditary element of those who have been active for a limited period. I entirely accept the belief of the Government Front 1076 Bench that the imbalance of voting power between the two sides of the House is unacceptable. Almost all of us would agree that something must be done about it. A less satisfactory proposal, but better than the Government's, is that until stage two is set out hereditary Peers who have played an active part in our affairs should remain able to sit, if not to vote, and so contribute their experience and wisdom.
I have no magic solutions for stage two. I remain profoundly worried that we are taking the first step without having thought the matter through. The Government do not appear to have a clear idea of stage two, but it would be reassuring to know that their mind is open and not vacant.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Lord Winston
My Lords, this issue is one of the most difficult I have had to address during the three years that I have been sitting in your Lordships' House. I arrived in what I believe an undeserved capacity as a life Peer. The issue is complex and is made doubly so because we are looking in on ourselves and trying to do so in a disinterested fashion. Many aspects trouble me. The first was addressed briefly yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Charteris, and today by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. They pointed out that we may well believe that the hereditary principle is indefensible. It is difficult to defend, except perhaps on the grounds of genetics. For various reasons, I doubt whether we can defend it. However, if we regard the principle as indefensible it plays some part in how we see the role of the Monarch and the Crown, which has been part of the stability of our society and the centre of our democracy. That is a serious issue for the future.
When I look at hereditary Peers opposite, I immediately see the hereditary principle working. On the whole, they are taller than the life Peers and when I look at the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I see that they are certainly more handsome. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, might be slightly taller, but in the 1590s the first Viscount Cranborne was fairly short.
There is not a genetic argument which is anything other than flawed for the clear reason mentioned by my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal. As she said, women have been denied the hereditary right to sit in the Chamber. There can be no argument that women are genetically less able, qualified and ready to serve in that capacity. I hope that the Government recognise that the hereditary Peers have played a great part in public service. We all have flawed reasons for being here; in the main, we have been altruistic and have done important things for the Government—
§ Lord Winston
My Lords, sadly, there are few female hereditary Peers and I wish that there were more. That is one of the aspects of the problems which the Government must consider in the context of reform.
As an appointed Peer, I recognise that my position is deeply flawed. I am one of many hundreds of doctors who could sit in this Chamber. Their expertise in medicine 1077 would be greater, as would their administrative and political experience. It is a pure fluke, an accident, that someone noticed me. As a scientist, that also applies. If life Peers examined their position most would feel the same.
Life Peers experience another tension which must be considered seriously if we are to have appointed Peers. Our main use to Government is the fact that we are working outside the Chamber. What little use I am to Parliament is based on my ability to run a medical unit and to look at science in the best possible way. Probably the most useful thing I do is to sit on the Select Committee for Science and Technology. That requires long absences from work which, when one is not retired, creates a major problem. It is always extremely difficult to attend your Lordships' House, which also creates tension. Therefore, before imposing a swingeing age limit on future Peers we must examine the issue carefully. We must recognise that as society becomes healthier and older we must not be ageist in the composition of this Chamber. There is a carefully considered argument and the imposition of an arbitrary limit may not be the best possible reform. I believe that that must be considered by the Royal Commission.
I am equally concerned about the possibility of an elected Chamber. I remember the debate on the Scott Report which took place when the Conservatives were in power, but it could have been a Labour government. I was dodging between the Peers' Gallery in the other place and coming into this House. There is no question as to where the arguments were best placed and where the careful examination of government took place. It was in this House. It was in this House that arguments were put forward so sensibly. I am afraid to say that in the other place I heard ill-considered and largely political arguments. Fortunately, that is something in which we do not indulge too much in this House. We are at our weakest when we indulge in politics in this House.
One of the problems about the electoral college, which has also been suggested, is that it is a flawed possibility although it may be a major solution to part of the constitutional problem of your Lordships' Chamber. There are obvious advantages. It will be possible to have representations from different echelons of society. But the problem about an electoral college is that people who seek office will tend to be promoted rather than those people who may be most useful. Certainly the maverick element, which is so valuable in your Lordships' House, and which is so feared by government, will be missing from an electoral college because such people do not tend to float to the front of such a system.
Finally, one of the crucial problems that we face, whatever we do with the House of Lords, the second Chamber, is that there is an extraordinarily poor public understanding of what this Chamber is about. There is a very poor understanding in the other place. Some time ago, I was having tea with a Member of Parliament. He was not one of the recent Blair intake. He has been sitting in the House of Commons for a long time. He was obviously thinking about the time of his retirement when he might go up to the Upper Chamber. He said to me in all seriousness, "Tell me, when you speak in debates in 1078 the House of Lords, do you have to wear your robes?" That was said in all seriousness and is a perception of this Chamber.
Although there is a manifesto commitment, I am concerned as to whether or not that manifesto commitment is really understood by the electorate. When you talk to people in the street, they think we are discussing not reform but abolition of the second Chamber. I have not heard that to be part of this Government's commitment, nor do I believe that it is an appropriate matter to be discussing at this time. We need a second Chamber. It is a very positive part of our life. The Government's recommendation of a Royal Commission is an excellent way forward. I hope that we may reach some sensible but very difficult decisions about the composition of the second Chamber in the future.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, one of the main tasks of a political journalist is to try to understand why politicians take their decisions. Before coming here in 1991, I spent some 15 years at the other end of the building as a lobby correspondent for the Economist. What a different style the two Houses have. In the House of Commons, it is jungle warfare. Coming here is like being parachuted into the desert. It can still be warfare but it is at arm's length. It is altogether more considered, restrained and courteous. I believe that that atmosphere contributes hugely to the value of the House of Lords as a source of quiet, informed and objective consideration of both legislation and political problems, whether national or international.
In my seven years here, I have been really struck by the tremendous contribution made by my hereditary colleagues. Therefore, I ask why this Government, who are doing so well in many ways, are risking fouling up their political programme with highly provocative legislation which by any standards cannot justify a high national priority.
The answer is that when, quite unexpectedly, Mr. Tony Blair became Leader of the Labour Party he felt that, given that he wanted to retain the main economic changes introduced under my noble friend Lady Thatcher, he needed to sound radical. The expulsion of hereditary Peers from the House of Lords was an easy tabloid headline.
As an observer of politics, I have studied Mr. Blair carefully. I have discussed him with a number of my friends in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Many of them are not really of his persuasion. However, I like and admire what I have observed. I see Mr. Blair as something of a Kipling figure—a benevolent empire builder in the 19th century tradition of muscular Christianity. A century ago, he and my noble friend Lord Cranborne might have worked very well in harness together. To continue the Kipling simile, my noble friend might have been the Viceroy of India and Mr. Blair, the Governor of Bengal.
My noble friend Lord Hurd pointed out that there is no great public pressure for the removal of hereditary Peers. As Bernard Ingham used to tell the lobby, "It is not what they are talking about in the Three Ferrets at Hebden Bridge". The prejudice against any hereditary basis can be 1079 dealt with quite easily. I very much agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said. For example, I am here every bit as much by chance as any hereditary Peer who is here by accident of birth. That does, I suppose, apply particularly to those of us who are so-called working Peers, who have been put here not for what we have done but for what we might do once in Parliament. This contrasts with the great and the good who are put here as a reward for services given to the country, or perhaps to the party, but who sometimes seem to feel no obligation to take part.
I am reminded also that when Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister in 1963, he was sneered at by Harold Wilson as being the 14th Earl of Home. That was repeated endlessly by the media until at length, Sir Alec, with characteristic mildness, commented, "Come to think of it, I suppose that Harold Wilson is the 14th Mr. Wilson". That was the end of that particular jibe.
Yes, there is a problem but it is a problem of perception, primarily because of tabloid misrepresentation. I feel that it has been fed disgracefully in recent days by smear tactics from the Labour Party. If I were Mr. Blair, I should be ashamed that my party was trying in this way to undermine the public reputation of Parliament. I hope that my old sparring partner, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will dissociate himself and the Government from that.
However, there is a public perception that Lords Bristol, Brocket and Blandford are in some way ruling in Parliament and they should not be. Perception is reality in politics so it must be addressed. This does mean some reform is necessary. By making a virtue out of necessity, we should first decide on the size of a second chamber. That itself needs proper discussion. One possible starting point is that it might be the same size as the Commons; that is, 650 members. That would mean halving the present size of the House of Lords. The best way to make the necessary reduction in membership would be, as has been suggested by others in the debate, to reduce the number of hereditary Peers to perhaps about 150, or one in five. We have been told that the Scottish self-selection system works quite well. In addition, I suggest that those hereditary Peers who have become Privy Counsellors should be allowed to stay here by right.
With that modest proposal for change, which is in the spirit of what the Government want, we should enable the great majority of those hereditary Peers, who serve this place so well, to remain.
I am most strongly opposed to the creation of an elected second Chamber. There is probably no time when the House of Commons has been held in lower public regard. That is partly because of the sleaze publicity, much of it generated by the tabloids for their own circulation advantages. Partly it is because in the 25 years that I have been watching the House of Commons there has been a deterioration in the quality of Members in terms of their breadth or depth of outside experience or interest.
If your Lordships want evidence of that, it can be seen by comparing the Register of Members' Interests in the House of Commons with that of the House of Lords. It is not enough for a young person to leave university, become a research assistant to an MP and then move straight into the House of Commons. There is now a 1080 whole swathe of important national life—for example, the military—where there is virtually no first-hand experience remaining in the Commons. Indeed, MPs are now positively discouraged from having outside interests. It has almost become a dirty word. There is even a growing parliamentary lobby for full-time MPs. Is it surprising that membership of the House of Commons is no longer as attractive as it once was for some of the best of our young people? Is there any reason to think that those who would seek membership of an elected second Chamber would be any better?
Nor would I wish to see a hybrid House of Lords with an elected element. Reference has already been made to the easy equality between all Members here. That would not survive. Inevitably, elected members would feel that they had greater democratic legitimacy than the rest of us; and rightly so. After all, it is what the House of Commons already feels. It is in fact the most effective way of drawing sensible lines between the roles of the two Houses.
I have one other suggestion, one that I first made 25 years ago when I was in Whitehall. It is that Commonwealth Prime Ministers should be entitled to attend and speak, but not vote, in the House of Lords. I believe that they could make an excellent contribution to many of our debates. It could help strengthen the Commonwealth; it could help counter the move of power and influence from Westminster to Brussels. At the time I was told that this was unthinkable. Is that still the case?
Finally, I ask the Government to think again about their present proposals. If the public were to realise what they are getting from the House of Lords for under £40 million a year, compared to the £240 million a year they pay for the House of Commons, I believe that they would regard the Government as quite mad to upset this particular apple cart. I shall do my best in the coming months to see that the British people realise this.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, this speech is not concerned with the merits of any of the respective options for reform. The practical issue of contention is as to when the proposals for stage two substantive reform should be introduced. Is it to be before or after the enactment of a stage one Bill to dismember the extant hereditary entitlement, abolish the House of Lords and set up a second Chamber?
That question raises an issue of immense and crucial constitutional consequence. It could afford a ground on which an amendment could be tabled to delay the Bill, which would reflect in substance the amendment to this Motion withdrawn on 8th October. It would be an amendment on which confrontation could arise, but should be avoided if at all possible—but never at all costs—by your Lordships' House; assuredly not on such an occasion. It is a matter which affects the fundamentals of the constitution on which, as yet, the opinion of the nation is much divided and has not been adequately expressed. It is a matter on which it is the obligation of your Lordships' House,to provide some measure of constitutional protection and safeguard",as acknowledged by the review committee of Lord Home.
1081 The ground is now well trodden; the essence of the argument has been deployed. Repetition is idle and otiose, but certain principles and aspects of such principles have emerged which could warrant further consideration. It is contended that the overriding principle is that constitutional reform affecting the workings of Parliament should not be enacted without the authority of broad electoral consent at the time of enactment to which authority—the pretended authority—to govern by manifesto shall ever remain subservient.
It is contended that the powers of the new second Chamber, all those subject to elements of revision in context with secondary legislation, should in substance remain as now exercised by your Lordships' House; that the broad concept of the order of reform should envisage a new constitutional settlement to improve the workings of both Houses, in particular in context with the control of the Executive; to afford stable, effective bicameral government under the Queen in Parliament, acceptable to the people, to be built by consensus not by attrition.
It is contended that the stand-alone stage one concept as advanced by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House is fundamentally misconceived and is not acceptable to the majority of noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. But, as reflecting the manifesto, it should be no cause for surprise for, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, stated, it had been Labour policy since 1910—the policy of old Labour—to set up a unicameral government. That last manifested itself during the administration of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, albeit in a form with which the noble Lord ought not to be associated.
It is contended that on stage one, without stage two—which might never be implemented—a wholly nominated Chamber could well afford what in effect would be a form of unicameral government with an overwhelming majority having all but absolute power in another place. The broad sense of the House was that, as the intention of government as to reform was not known and the gap between the White Paper and stage two substantive reform was far too wide, there should be no stage one abolition Bill before stage two. I say with respect to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip who afforded this opportunity for a re-statement of policy, that they should take stock and listen. They can rest assured that it is not the purpose of this speech to entrench the hereditary entitlement or to delay abolition in its extant form beyond the enactment of substantive reform or, indeed, to rattle the sabre of confrontation; the purpose of this speech is to seek to persuade your Lordships and the Government that the stage one abolition Bill should be withdrawn or delayed until the substance of proposed reform is known and can be considered in Parliament.
The sense of your Lordships' House in this epic debate shall reach out into the public domain. The argument as to the untoward consequences of the abolition Bill shall be known to the people. Public opinion could well favour delaying the Bill. Indeed, when this package with a wholly nominated second Chamber was included on the mid-July MORI poll, it 1082 was only supported by 11 per cent.—50 per cent. supporting some form of elected Chamber. The broad thrust of public opinion can never fail to influence and at times persuade any government. The mass of the middle ground electorate will be all too aware that the abolition Bill would be carried in another place by an overwhelming disciplined majority—as a sop perhaps to hard-core unicameralist old Labour—and would then come to your Lordships' House, which could delay the Bill. If public opinion were to favour such a course, such an amendment would be tabled. It is germane to this debate to consider the exercise of such function which remains, as given by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, the interposition of so much delay and no more in the passing of a Bill into law as may be needed to enable the opinion of the nation to be adequately expressed upon it. That would be especially needed as regards Bills which affect the fundamentals of the constitution, introduce new principles of legislation or raise issues whereon the opinion of the country may appear to be almost equally divided.
Perhaps your Lordships will give me a moment because there is one aspect upon which I should like to comment. I shall then conclude, although there were various points that I wanted to make, but I shall not mention them due to the timescale. I refer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Charteris of Amisfield, that what might be done could endanger the monarchy. The suggestion was made that there could well be perhaps some form of representative element which would in fact suffice. That was mentioned, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, and by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy. The hope is that some consideration may be given to that anxiety. The hope is that the Government may, as has been said to be the purpose of this debate, listen to what has been said.
§ 5.32 p.m.
The Earl of Buchan
My Lords, I rise to address your Lordships, briefly I hope, as a Scottish hereditary Cross-Bench Peer who has from time to time played a small part in the running of this noble and irreplaceable House.
I start by paying a compliment and offering thanks to the Whips' Office for so helpfully arranging the list of speakers at very short notice. I am grateful to the Whips for their politeness and helpfulness—although in the Scottish devolution debate they managed to slip me in at number four without telling me. There is nothing like that to concentrate the mind!
I am following, for the second time in my life in this House, that most distinguished speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. When I spoke in the Roskill Fraud Trial Report debate, a terrifying experience, he preceded me. Let us hope that as far as speaking is concerned it is not a question of first time and last time.
Like many noble Lords and noble Baronesses, I disapprove of this proposal root and branch, both the deed and the doing of it. As I am speaking more than 1083 half-way through the debate, I shall be able to take advantage of previous speakers and, jackdaw-like, pick out the best parts of their speeches. Looking carefully at yesterday's speeches, I was delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who is not in his place, said:[ am not saying that the Government are bound by the details of the manifesto".—[Official Report, 14/10/98; col. 949.]Good; excellent; but manifesto, shamifesto! But what does a manifesto mean to the general public? Very little, I expect. Events—deaths, wars or other unforeseen incidents—make nonsense of all parties' manifestos. Perhaps this particular commitment, with which many rational noble Lords disagree, should be looked at again. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, really said it all in his speech, stealing a lot of people's thunder, talking about ships and the relative positions of the new Chamber and the old Chamber. I strongly support what he said, which was, in effect, "Leave well alone".
As far as the fanciful threat of this in-built Conservative backwoods Peers' majority is concerned, I believe that that is waved unnecessarily like a red flag. The growing strength, confidence, knowledge and experience of the Cross-Bench Peers has changed the make-up of this House over the years, so that argument should no longer be produced.
I am in some difficulty over the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, as she is not in her place. As she dwelt on the hereditary principle, I think that she should be taken to task for what she said—
The Earl of Buchan
My Lords, I shall come to the plumbers later. There is always something old and stale out of Glasgow, I am afraid. Pliny the Younger said, "Semper ex Glasgow aliquid 'old and stale'". As a noble Earl quoted Livy, I see no reason why I should not quote Pliny on that.
I was incensed by the remark about plumbers. For many years we dealt with an excellent firm of plumbers, comprising a grandfather, a son and—wait for it—a daughter. All were excellent plumbers and they described themselves as "family plumbers". The word "family" is, of course, a euphemism for "hereditary"—and hereditary plumbers they were, and proud of it.
I turn now to the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, about cattle. I fail to see the difference between whipping cattle through a gate and Whipping Members of another place through a Lobby. There are many similarities in the way in which cattle and human beings are treated, so I think that that is a false differentiation. I regret that the noble Lord is not in his place—
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I do not see the strength of the noble Earl's argument about whipping cattle through a gate and Whipping humans, except that cattle are probably more difficult.
The Earl of Buchan
My Lords, the noble Lord is undoubtedly right, but I have experience only of sheep!
1084 Searching through political biographies and political writings for somebody who might describe more concisely than I ever could what the Government are trying to do, I was absolutely delighted to see that our old friend Marx stated the case perfectly. He said democratic parties are,looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it and then misapplying the wrong remedy".I could not have put that better myself. The Government are looking for trouble; looking to pick a quarrel with hereditary Peers; obviously finding it; misdiagnosing it—that point has been covered by many noble Lords and noble Baronesses—and then applying the wrong remedy. We have heard enough about wrong remedies today for me not to want to go into that further. Marx is not often quoted from the Cross Benches—and never from the Government Front Bench. The mere knowledge of Marx might produce some thunderbolts from the spin doctors. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords who read The Times that that quotation from Marx was, of course, Groucho Marx.
Perhaps I may say a brief word about Royal Commissions. They have an undeservedly bad reputation. A.P. Herbert had a go at them. Gladstone, a man beloved of the Liberal Party, said of them:Commissions are well fitted for overloading any question with 10 or 15 times the matter necessary for its consideration".I could have hardly put it better myself, bearing in mind the complications involved in setting up a second Chamber which does not conflict with the powers of the first Chamber. That is more or less it.
Perhaps I may finish this small speech on a jarring note. I do not consider that as an hereditary Peer I am any less worthy to legislate on behalf of the country than some of the people who have appeared in this House recently. I am thinking particularly of Lord Luvvie of Hampstead or Baroness Cashpile of Islington. In my opinion I have as good a right to legislate as they have.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Lord Astor of Hever
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity that the Government have given us to debate this issue. I would like to pick up three points which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, made in her speech. First, she said that the Government will legislate to remove the profoundly undemocratic hereditary Peers. What, may I ask, is more democratic about an appointed Peer, particularly a working Peer such as herself? Secondly, she said that the Government do not seek to rewrite history by denigrating individuals. How does she square that with reports that officials in the Labour Party have, since the last election, been circulating briefs specifically denigrating individual hereditary Peers? Thirdly, she appears unhappy that 42 per cent. of us, apparently, have had careers in the Armed Forces. What is wrong with that?
§ Lord Astor of Hever
I was proud to hold the Queen's Commission. Surely, many of the 42 per cent. 1085 have had other lives since leaving the Armed Forces. It is important that the Government's proposals are considered within the context of their overall package of constitutional reform. We have not been presented with a well thought out and balanced package of reforms designed to enhance our parliamentary democracy, but a series of piecemeal measures. Every change to one part of the constitution affects other parts. The Government seem to have no idea where they are heading. On constitutional change, the Prime Minister is like a small boy playing with matches and unaware that he might burn down the whole building.
The Government are in danger of appearing to have one overriding priority—the pursuit of a second term in office. If the Prime Minister really does intend to use his huge Commons' majority to help entrench himself in Downing Street, that would be a serious abuse of prime ministerial power. Post-war Prime Ministers have been acutely conscious of the fragility of the unwritten conventions of our constitution and have been scrupulous about not attempting anything for party advantage. I point this out to emphasise how vital it is that any reform of your Lordships' House is sensibly crafted and carefully scrutinised rather than a partisan rigging of the system to provide what is best for the Labour Party.
Almost all the mature parliamentary democracies have an upper chamber with an advisory and a revising role. It is not the role of the upper chamber to change the settled will of the primary, elected chamber and nor would we wish it to be, but it is its role to encourage careful scrutiny and reconsideration of legislation. This is a fundamental check on the power of the Executive and a role that this House has fulfilled well with governments of all political persuasions over the years.
As far as we are able to tell, the Government are content with this role but object to the composition of your Lordships' House. Behind the politically correct language lurks that old Labour dream, so honestly declared by Michael Foot in 1963—that is to say,Let's cut its throat. Let's make up our mind to have no further bother from the House of Lords".Certainly, there is no precedent in a modern democracy for the arbitrary disenfranchisement of two-thirds of a legislative chamber and without cross-party support. I believe that it would be premature to proceed with the first stage of reform without any concrete proposals for the wider reform of this House. There is no guarantee that the second stage would ever happen. I was pleased to hear the noble Baroness the Leader of the House announce the setting up of a Royal Commission and that the Government will set a time limit for it to report back. But they are under no obligation to concur with whatever is eventually recommended. Furthermore, as my noble friend Lady Young said, no government can commit their successors. So for years the House of Lords could be the Prime Minister's poodle just as Lloyd George called it Mr. Balfour's poodle. The only reason for not carrying out the whole reform in one go is to give the Prime Minister this poodle period.
1086 The Government have a duty, on matters of such constitutional importance, to place an entire proposal before Parliament and the British people and not to proceed in isolation. To do the latter would be no more than to place evermore unchallenged power in their hands.
Our present system has served the British people well. But if the Government bring forward a coherent package I am sure that your Lordships will consider it in a characteristically fair-minded manner. If, however, the Government merely propose to alter the composition of this House and so strengthen their own legislative power, then your Lordships must fulfil your historic role and urge the Government to think again.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Fawsley
My Lords, if your Lordships think of me at all, I do not imagine that you regard me as a naturally diffident person. Yet I approach this debate with a certain hesitation because I have had hung around my neck by the media the phrase "a constitutional expert". Nobody likes being called an expert and no sensible person would want to be a constitutional expert. In any case, what on earth is it? If there is an unwritten constitution and nobody knows quite what it is, it is rather difficult to be an expert on it. It is a contradiction in terms, rather like "Conservative intellectual" or, if my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever, is not roused into shooting me, "military intelligence". It is a label more easily acquired than lost. However, by speaking in this debate, perhaps that will be achieved.
I have this to say right at the outset. I hope that your Lordships will leave the monarchy entirely out of this discussion.
§ Lord St. John of Fawsley
It has nothing to do with it. It is stated quite clearly in the Labour Party manifesto. It will not aid the argument about this House and it will certainly not aid the monarchy if the two issues are confused.
My other starting point is rather more sceptical. I think of Lord Melbourne, one of our great Prime Ministers, who said,Why cannot you leave it alone?While change is needed—and the need for change is, of course, essential if institutions are not to fossilise—it was the great John Henry Newman who said that,to change is human and to be perfect is to have changed often".It was Tennyson who said:The old order changeth, yielding place to new,And God fulfils himself in many ways,Lest one good custom should corrupt the world".The solution of thought in Tennyson's poetry is very dense and not generally recognised.
I accept that one has to have change. However, when changing an old, important and complicated institution such as this House, one should only do so in response 1087 to a clear need or an urgent crisis, like the one which occurred when this House unwisely rejected the Finance Bill in 1909. So let it alone. I shall not go into fancy arguments about hereditary genes and abstract intelligence. One can defend this House on the oddly Benthamite grounds of utility: it actually works. That is its justification. Democracy needs a bicameral legislature. Without it one gets an elected dictatorship. The difficulty is to get a bicameral legislature that does not lead to some kind of paralysis, or endless conflict.
The United States is continually in this dilemma with its expertly written constitution. Italy is in yet another and even deeper political crisis because of faulty relationships between the two houses of parliament. Let us be grateful for what we have and realise that we have a unique natural advantage in a House that works and which is widely respected throughout the country.
I do not want to go into the argument which has dominated so much of this debate as regards whether we should go step by step or whether it should all be done at once. The tumbrels are on the way; the wheels have been heard. The life Peers may be on the tumbrels next. We have no satisfaction in seeing others going to the guillotine when we may follow in their place. However, unless there is a Pauline conversion on the Government Front Bench, which seems unlikely when looking at them—in any case, the capacity for conversion has been entirely monopolised by the Prime Minister—we shall see the Bill pressed forward.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House, who is normally a reasonable, rational and persuasive being, has rather been lumbered, I think, with the Bill. She made one mistake; she wrote an article which appeared in the Daily Telegraph. That was an extremely dangerous thing to do. For her pains, she was given a sub-editor's heading which read, "Hereditary Peers are Illegitimate". Perhaps I can add that to my list of contradictions. Nevertheless, the noble Baroness did tell your Lordships that she would listen. That is an invitation to which we should all respond.
I make the following general point to the noble Baroness. If you have an important constitutional change, every effort should be made to bring that forward on an all-party basis and not on a one-party basis. If it is done on a one-party basis, it will not be right and it will not last. By all means, let us look at the Labour manifesto, but the doctrine of the mandate has been absurdly exaggerated. Do noble Lords really think that one of the biggest upturns in history in the political world was brought about by the threat to take away the rights of hereditary Peers? It would be flattering to think so; but, alas, it is not so. The manifesto is not Holy Writ. It should not be subject to that kind of exegesis. Indeed, the argument has already moved on. We have seen the proposal for a joint Select Committee abandoned and replaced by a Royal Commission. That is the proposal. It is a change and one of a very fundamental nature, but it is not the law of the Medes and the Persians.
I ask the noble Baroness to consider in particular the position of hereditary Peers. First, could not something be done to moderate that commitment? I would strongly favour a representative election from the hereditary 1088 peerage on the basis of the Irish and Scottish models. We have had it for years; indeed, it occurred quite recently. The last Irish hereditary elected Peer died in 1961. Can we not look at that? Will the noble Baroness consider doing so? As she is not present in the Chamber today, and, alas, is not able to speak again, will the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who has been credited by her with Socratic powers of analysis, deal with that proposal when he responds?
Secondly, why should hereditary Peers not have a right of audience in this House, even if they cannot vote? After all, we are governed by discussion. Carlyle described our constitution, and Parliament in particular as, "the national palaver". However, it is much more than that. If the hereditary Peers were able to speak, they would bring their own expertise to our debates.
My third point was brought to mind by the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will make clear that hereditary Peers are to be allowed to continue to use these premises as they have in the past. I hope that they will be able to enjoy the superb cooking and use the guest rooms. I hope that they will not be denied the modest delights of the Bishops' Bar.
What we need for a constitutional change to succeed is goodwill. The measures I have outlined would turn what is revolutionary into an evolutionary process, creating an atmosphere of goodwill and magnanimity which is what this House is noted for. It would benefit not only this House but also the cause of constitutional reform.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, in the immortal words of Monty Python:And now for something completely different".We have had a solid block of five Conservative speeches—or, in the case of the noble Earl, Lord Buchan, a virtual Conservative speech. Therefore, I think that it is time for a different viewpoint to be expressed. I shall start by confessing to a guilty secret: I am—dare I admit it?—an old-Etonian. In that I am by no means unique among the speakers in this debate. Indeed, 114 Members of the House put their names down to speak. A little homework in Dod revealed that 38 of us, exactly one-third of the total number, are in fact old-Etonians. Of those 38, 32 are hereditary Peers; that is, if one includes among them the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who sits in this Chamber both by descent and by creation, being exceptional in that respect as in so many others. But this merely confirms what we all know perfectly well already; namely, that the House in its present form is not representative, or, it might be more accurate to say, that it is all too representative of a small and privileged section of society. That, frankly, cannot be right.
I have been in your Lordships' House long enough to be well aware of the outstanding contributions made to the work of the House by hereditary Peers in all parties and on the Cross-Benches. But that cannot justify hereditary membership of one of the two Houses of Parliament, as is indeed recognised by all but a 1089 relatively few of those who have spoken in this lengthy debate. The termination of hereditary membership is long overdue.
I remind your Lordships of the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911, which included the words,whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation".That was a sentence of death with a stay of execution. The stay has lasted for 87 years. Is there any reason why it should continue beyond the next Session of Parliament? Should not the hereditary peerage now, metaphorically speaking, disappear through the trapdoor at the end of the silken rope by which Members of your Lordships' House in days past were entitled to be hanged when sentenced to death?
I have heard a number of arguments why this should not happen. Some, such as the threat to the monarchy, do not seem worthy of serious consideration, with all respect to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and the other noble Lords who have put forward that argument. On that aspect I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley. But there is one argument—it is a formidable one—which has been raised by speaker after speaker in the debate; namely, that once the hereditary Peers have gone, the Government may find their powers of patronage altogether too comfortable and will not move on to establish the popular basis for a second Chamber promised in 1911.
I make one comment on that argument. If it should happen to be the Conservatives who win the next election and hereditary Members were then still Members of your Lordships' House, I wonder whether the Conservatives might find it all too tempting to defer reform of this House yet again. A Conservative victory at the next election is, of course, not a likely outcome, but unfancied teams sometimes win. Some of your Lordships may remember that a few years ago Wimbledon won the FA cup, as indeed, for the historical record, did the Old Etonians back in 1879 and 1882.
Nevertheless, I recognise the strength of the argument for delay. If the Government are to persuade me and my party to reject that argument, they must do three things. First, they must set a firm timetable for the Royal Commission and the Joint Committee of the two Houses which were promised by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House in her speech yesterday. That process must be concluded in time for the Government to formulate proposals for stage two of the reform of this House before the next election, let us say by early 2001. That gives some two-and-a-half years for the process to be completed. Secondly, the Government must commit themselves to including definite proposals for stage two in their manifesto for the next election and, if re-elected, they must commit themselves to implementing those proposals early in the next Parliament. Thirdly, the Government must lay down clear and fair rules about the method of appointment of new Members of the House during the interim period which must, as between the parties, move towards a membership that is broadly 1090 proportional to their respective share of the vote at the previous general election. Given those commitments, we shall support the Government when the Bill for the removal of hereditary membership comes before the House next year. In the absence of those commitments, we may have to take a different view.
§ 6.4 p.m.
§ The Earl of Lindsey and Abingdon
My Lords, being this far down the list of speakers it is difficult not to repeat what has already been said, but on this occasion that may not be a bad thing. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that this Conservative Peer will take a different line. I am among about a dozen or so of your Lordships speaking in this debate who spoke in the three-day debate on House of Lords' reform almost 30 years ago. At that time, together with many other hereditary Peers, I supported the government Motion. However, on that occasion we had a White Paper to which we could refer.
I wish I could give the Government my support today but I have to say that I am deeply disappointed in what is now being proposed. I am beginning to think that stage two of the reform might not take place for many years, if at all. It is hard to believe after this length of time that more precise details of the future composition of your Lordships' House have not emerged from the party opposite.
I have rather lost the desire to see an elected upper House because I think that idea could well be sunk by the other place. For what it is worth I should like a reformed House to consist of no more than 300 to 400 Members made up of life Peers and possibly a small element of hereditary Peers, if they so wished to be considered by an independent selection committee. They would sit for a period of four or five years, after which they would be subject to re-selection—if they so wished—or to be replaced by other noble Lords. They should be paid a proper salary and expenses, with adequate secretarial back-up. I rather hope that any hereditary Peer who might be offered a life peerage would have the self-respect to decline one.
Finally, I welcome the appointment of a Royal Commission, but until such time as I know who and what will replace me, and so long as I remain a Member of your Lordships' House, I intend to be obstructive towards the Government on this matter.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, it will not surprise your Lordships to know that in Ireland there is much interest in the debate which is now taking place in this House. One has only to read the Irish newspapers to realise that. I often think I can detect great underground rumblings from the various cemeteries in Ireland occasioned by the ecstatic turning over in the grave of many Irish MPs of the previous century, particularly those of the closing years of the previous century. Those Irish MPs carried through the House of Commons Gladstone's Home Rule Bill. We can see depicted in a painting in the Corridor in this House that it was totally undemocratically 1091 rejected by the House of Lords by 490 votes to 41, against the will of the vast majority of elected MPs in the House of Commons, both Irish and English.
I think my next point was first brought to our attention by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. A committee of Peers—I assume they were hereditary Peers—invited Prince William of Orange to take up the kingship of the United Kingdom as William Prince of Orange. We all know what effect he had on Ireland. The Battle of the Boyne took place and all the happenings which led for many years afterwards to the troubled times that we have had in Ireland. So there will be no overwhelming joy in Ireland in regard to the projected abolition of the rights of hereditary Peers.
I am not as enthusiastic as some. I have experience of both the House of Commons and this House. I am more concerned about the second stage of this legislation. I wish to put down a few markers for the Leader of the House. In Northern Ireland, particularly over the past 30 years which have been so troubled and tragic, Members of Parliament rising to make a speech or put forward a suggestion have always been conscious of the votes to be cast in their constituency at the next election.
Northern Ireland politics are tribal; therefore, a tribal approach has to be taken to whatever the issues may be. During my time in the Commons no Northern Ireland MP spoke exclusively of his own constituency. Because of the overall tragedy afflicting Northern Ireland any remarks were taken account of throughout all the constituencies in the Province. Many times elected representatives had to take a tribal stance to deal with problems that arose.
I have found a totally different attitude in this House. We do not have to face an electorate. We do not always have to look over our shoulder to see what response may be forthcoming. In the debates that have taken place, some hereditary Peers have been very constructive. I should certainly not argue with them—unlike what happened in 1893 in relation to the Irish Home Rule Bill.
I have heard the phrase, "some form of election", which equates with, "something must be done". If the Royal Commission proposes some form of election to this House, I urge this House to be very careful as to how the proposal is implemented. If Members of this place are to be elected, by whom will they be elected? Will it be by people in the Northern Ireland constituencies, as with MPs? If that is the case, they will have to look over their shoulder, as Northern Ireland MPs do now. One has only to look at the debates that took place before the Recess on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Bill in support of the Good Friday agreement to see the tribal responses that still occur. If we are to have an elected House of Lords, the attitude will be the same. Those elected have to have some respect for the people who elected them.
I wonder whether thought has been given to what type of election might take place. In the Northern Ireland parliament there was a senate, termed the upper House. Those senators were equivalent to Members of this place. They were elected by MPs. It worked out 1092 that three-and-seven-eighths of the MPs had to vote. (I always wondered where the seven-eighths came from.) Even under that system, senators had to pay due respect to the MPs who had voted them into place. To introduce elected Members would cause great conflict with the House of Commons, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland.
I listened to the remarks made yesterday by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. Indeed, I read his book in advance of this debate. It was very helpful in learning about the background of this place. Incidentally, pointing out the attributes of this House yesterday, the noble Earl said that we were all very well-mannered—and as soon as he sat down and another speaker rose, about 60 Members walked out. Whether that is good manners I do not know.
I had not intended to take part in this debate. I do so merely to draw to the attention of the House the dangers of having elected Members. Next week we shall debate the Northern Ireland Bill. The Bill has already passed through the Commons and it is highly unlikely that anything that we say now can dramatically change its content. I hope that we are able to make recommendations, to see what has happened over the Recess and since the institution of the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
A few days ago I and colleagues of all parties in this House discussed how we envisaged this House after reform has taken place, and how we should be addressed not as noble Lords but as "MLs". My mind immediately flew back 35 or 40 years, when I left the Merchant Navy after the war and attempted to enter politics in Northern Ireland, with the idea that I would change the whole world and do away with all the bigotry in Northern Ireland. I looked at the electoral register in the constituency I proposed to fight as a councillor and at the list of Protestant streets and Catholic streets. At that time I was regarded as a Catholic and could hardly expect any Protestant votes. I did a head count, and there was no way that I could be elected on the basis of the register.
At that time the Unionist government had a very restricted local government franchise. You could get the parliamentary vote, but the local government vote was severely restricted. The Unionist government took the view that if you did not make a contribution to the rates in Northern Ireland you were not entitled to vote. That was one of the great wrongs which gave rise to the civil rights movement. The cry was for "one man, one vote". Not only were ordinary working-class people denied the vote, but there were industrial establishments all around the dockside in the constituency that I proposed to fight. They received six votes each; they were company directors' votes. It caused me great alarm when I saw the number of votes that were liable to be cast against me. I then looked down the electoral roll and saw a very obscure subsection in a subsection stating that if a person made any contribution to the rates he or she was entitled to vote for the local authority.
At that time many young married people could not get a home of their own and were living with their parents. I bought a whole lot of small rent books. I believe they 1093 cost threepence or sixpence each. I went round to each of those houses and said to those people: "From now on, you say that you are giving your mother or father five shillings or 10 shillings a week"—which, in fact, they were. That entitled them to a rent book. I made out 300 or 400 rent books. I then went round every pub in Dock Ward. I was just beginning to get to know them as I had not been drinking during the war. I asked those who kept pubs in Dock Ward to form themselves into limited companies. I brought out the requisite form, they formed themselves into limited companies and paid £10, which was given to the Ministry of Commerce, and became limited companies with six votes each.
I remember one particular bar where I asked the publican to fill in the forms and he put himself and his wife down as directors. He said: "Who shall I put down as the other directors in the company?". There were six or seven drunks sitting in the bar and I said: "Him, him and him". They all became company directors. Having done all that, I acquired 600 or 700 votes and I fought the next local government election. I won by 27 votes. That was the beginning of my road to your Lordships' House.
My name on that electoral register was preceded by two letters: "ML". It meant "married lodger". That was the condition on which those young people got a vote. I have already been an ML and it will not unduly annoy me if we lose "your Lordships" and become "MLs". But I can visualise the situation where perhaps my noble friends are right. There are some noble Lords in this House who might feel annoyed if they were to be demoted and become "Mr Such-and-such, ML". So I hope that whatever change is to be made in the designation of Members of your Lordships' House, it will not be "ML".
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Lord Pender
My Lords, the debate goes on. The carousel goes round and round, disgorging scripts of sagacity from experienced hands placed at the disposal of the Government. That is healthy and befits the purpose of your Lordships' House. Let us hope that the views expressed during this two-day debate are considered with due prudence.
I wish to refer to one aspect of the reform of your Lordships' House—unsurprisingly, the future position of hereditary Peers. Before doing so, as a generalisation I can do no better than to quote a paragraph from a leader in the Daily Telegraph of this summer:In demanding that the system be changed at all, the burden of proof lies with the Government. The Tory Party has no need to endorse any one reform or, indeed, any change at all. It has opted not to wage a blood and thunder campaign to defend the status quo—and that is quite right. But this does not mean that it should accept any change without the virtues of that change being amply demonstrated".Since the Life Peerages Act 1958, the diminution of the hereditary element of the roll of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal has accelerated, because there have been no hereditary reinforcements. There are some 750 hereditary Peers. Of that total probably no more than half have a political interest and of the remaining 1094 50 per cent., many maintain a casual observance. However, the antecedents of these Peers were highly effective and their own progeny could flourish. Each generation has a "consolidator" who does not necessarily shine, though remains a steadfast rock in the ancestral chain.
My recommendation is: "let the vote die with the living Peer"—minors excluded. Quite simply, let us wither on the vine. After all, the average age of your Lordships is 67 years and death comes to us all—or would "demographic turnover" be more politically correct for this Government?
In this way, your desired results would evolve rather than be violently and unpopularly imposed. Let not history judge this Government as "demolishers" of a well tried, well tested, well respected constitution, but rather as "evolutionists". A little less of the "We are the masters now" attitude would be a good thing.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, at last in the speech that has just been delivered by the noble Lord we had some articulation of a defence of the hereditary principle. The interesting point about this debate—and I have sat through most of it—is how little defence of the hereditary principle has been evinced on any side of the House. Who can really defend it, not in terms of honour, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Pender, indicated, but in terms of functional action in our democracy and a role in our Parliament? That is the issue at stake.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. I do not expect him to have attended every minute of this debate, but if he reads Hansard he will find that I made quite a long speech defending the hereditary principle as such.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
Indeed, my Lords, in preparation for this speech I read carefully the position adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. He was true to form and it was a very articulate defence of that position. I was merely reflecting on the fact that the noble Lord's contribution and perhaps the one that we have just heard are almost the only ones which contained an articulation of the defence of the hereditary principle on the grounds that it made a contribution to this Chamber as part of our democracy today.
Certainly the Opposition Front Bench has been very wary of committing itself to a defence of the hereditary position. Why is that? The reason is that in a modern democracy it cannot be right that people exercise power. It is not the same as saying that people develop the same kind of skills as plumbers may do in a family business. After all, plumbers deliver a service to the community for which they are remunerated if they are good and they do not get the remuneration if they are not good. But the hereditary principle with regard to the nobility in this country, to people with the right to sit here, is an hereditary concept of being active in power over our people, playing a part in the development of our laws. That is why the issue is so different from any other form of inheritance. It is why, on the basis of fairness, we 1095 have to ask: what can possibly justify the circumstances in which this House at present has 471 Members who subscribe to the Conservative Whip and 164 to the Labour Whip? This is at a time when the country, only 18 months ago, declared that the will of the people, expressed at the ballot box, was entirely the opposite.
Is it the case that this House demonstrates a glorious independence in its stance? Let me point out the obvious. Already, in the first 18 months of a Labour administration, the Government have sustained twice as many defeats as were sustained during any year of Conservative power. It might be argued that that is because the Labour Government are exceptionally radical. That is not a view which is often expressed in many quarters with regard to the Prime Minister at present.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, will the noble Lord consider that the reason the Government have lost so many Divisions over the past 18 months is the failure of the Labour working Peers to come here and work?
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, I note what the Opposition Chief Whip says with regard to the position, but perhaps he should recognise that a significant number of working Peers on behalf of Labour in this House have to earn their living somewhere else as well. There is a real difficulty therefore about mobilising numbers. That may not be so for the noble Lord, given that he has three times as many troops, many of whom are not as dependent on earning their daily crust in quite the same way as Members on this side of the House.
In any case, the point I seek to make is as follows. Can it conceivably be suggested that the Labour Government at present are causing more offence to the general moderate opinion of this country than the previous Conservative administration? Is it the case that Labour is subject to greater defeats because in the judgment of dispassionate Members of this House the Government are prone to rush too hard into radical stances to which people have great difficulty adjusting? What about the poll tax?
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for giving way. Is the noble Lord aware that according to a MORI poll in the 18 months that have elapsed since the wretched manifesto was published—it is well past its sell-by date—only 11 per cent. of the electorate support the package?
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, by any criteria to gauge support for the Labour administration, its popularity or record of voter support, the noble Lord will recognise that the Government are entirely justified in pursuing what everyone recognises is the cornerstone of democratic politics; namely, that at election time a manifesto is put before the nation and the Government have the right to act upon it. Here we are not talking about a tired manifesto, although the noble Lord may infer otherwise. The Government have not been in power for 18 years; nor are they four years away from the previous election. The Government are in their first 1096 18 months of office and the legislation which has been subject to criticism and opposition in this place over that period has been based upon the first Queen's Speech of an administration elected by the largest majority since the war.
It is not as if this administration is outstandingly radical. There is no doubt that the administration led by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, created a great deal of radical expression in the country and her perspective changed many attitudes. Much has been made about the changes effected to my own party during the 18 years that it was out of power. One may also look at the almost total disintegration of her own party as a result of her radical challenge over the period. Clearly, that did not manage to sustain support in her own ranks throughout the whole period.
§ Lord Winston
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. Does my noble friend agree that what, the Government propose does not affect just this Parliament but Parliament for all time and that is why the issue is so important? The change will be permanent.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for emphasising that point. I recognise that we are concerned with constitutional change. However, a great part of this debate from the point of view of the Opposition Benches has depended upon coupling the concept of the rights of hereditary Peers in this place with future reform of the House. Reform of the House requires full consultation and investigation by the Royal Commission. We should look for a consensus as regards the constitution. However, the Government have every right—nothing in this debate has detracted from it—to separate out the exercise of the illegitimate power of hereditary privilege in this House that has not been for the good of the nation.
This debate does not simply ask questions of the Government, which of course must be responded to later this evening; it also asks questions of the Opposition. Will the Opposition conduct themselves during the passage of this legislation in a totally obstructive way on the entirely spurious ground that they favour a more radical change? If they say that they want a total package before they can agree to this much desired change, why was nothing done for 18 years when they were in power? Why are these gestures towards constitutional change only now coming forward when a Labour Government seek to carry out the first reform with regard to hereditary privilege?
The principle of inherited privilege is not acceptable in any other area of national life. Why should it be accepted in Parliament? Anyone with a shred of respect for democracy is aware that at the present time the composition of the Lords is elitist, overwhelmingly male, devoid of legitimacy and largely supportive of the Conservative interest. The withdrawal of the rights of hereditary Peers to vote and sit will bring greater equality and democratic legitimacy to this House—not a majority for Labour. The withdrawal of the rights of hereditary Peers will merely result in a situation in which Labour will just about have parity with the Conservative Party, but either party will have less than 1097 one third of the votes in this place taking into account the Cross-Benches, the Law Lords and the Bishops. On the ground of fairness I believe that the reform stands on its own merits. One expects the Government to introduce legislation to carry out a reform that has been overdue for 80 years. I hope the Opposition will at least confirm that the Salisbury convention obtains and they will recognise the mandate on which the legislation is based.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, I welcome the prospect of the White Paper and the Royal Commission, but what a pity that the Government did not get on with it earlier. Had they done so we could have had at least an interim report by now. As it is, we are working in the dark. Surely, we should decide what we want to build before we demolish.
The Parliament Act 1911 envisaged reforming the composition of the House. Nothing happened. Over 40 years elapsed before significant reform was introduced when life Peers were introduced and Peeresses were admitted. We do not want to have 1911 all over again. We would be left with an aged and toothless quango dependent on the patronage of the Prime Minister. An unreformed House shorn of hereditary Peers would lack the authority to check the Government or to carry out its important revising role. The checks and balances in our parliamentary system would be undermined and we would be taking a further giant step on the road to elective dictatorship by a government with a majority in another place. I do not believe that any good parliamentarian wants that.
I believe that the Government would be wise to pause and reflect. After all, their main constitutional proposals for Scotland, Wales and London will be on the statute book by the end of the Session. We also have in prospect the Northern Ireland assembly. The Government cannot be accused by any quarter of this House of dragging their feet in carrying out their manifesto commitments. Other constitutional reforms have taken place. We have seen a bewildering variety of changes in the methods of election which are either on the statute book or very soon will be. With all this rush of constitutional reform there are too many loose ends and unanswered questions. The reforms will not work unless these unanswered questions are resolved. I believe it to be in the Government's own interest to pause and reflect and to present the whole picture before proceeding further.
These problems concern both Houses. Another place will not be the same when domestic issues are devolved to Scotland and Wales. Its functions and character will change. In particular I refer to two very important unanswered questions. The first is the number of MPs. At present, Scotland and Wales are over-represented in comparison with England. This is generally accepted under present circumstances, but it will not be when Scotland and Wales have another tier of representation while England does not. That situation is asking for resentment to build up which could be very dangerous. 1098 I believe that a reduced number of Scottish and Welsh MPs at Westminster should operate from the first general election after these new bodies are established.
Secondly, and more important, of course, is the English question. We must have a procedure to enable English MPs to decide English domestic issues without intervention from Scottish and Welsh MPs. Unless an answer is found to this question, we shall be sowing the seeds of trouble which could result in an English backlash. At all costs we must avoid that situation developing.
With regard to your Lordships' House, a lot of work is needed on reform proposals. The first matter to decide is what the functions of the House will be. What should the House do? The second matter to decide is what powers it will need to carry out those functions. Only when those two questions have been answered will it be possible to decide on the composition; in other words, who will be best qualified to carry out the functions.
I suggest to the Government, with great respect, that they are doing things the wrong way round. I suggest that the path of wisdom on the part of the Government would be to pause and reflect. Their approach at present to these major constitutional reforms is piecemeal and unco-ordinated. There are far too many important questions left hanging in the air. If this situation is not resolved it will be bound to lead to trouble and instability and it could threaten the unity of the United Kingdom.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Armstrong of Ilminster
My Lords, I do not intend this evening to outline a blueprint for House of Lords reform. We have plenty of items on the menu and a rich selection. The Royal Commission will have plenty of material to winnow. There are only a few points on which I should like to touch briefly.
I should like to agree with those noble Lords who believe that, before one can make sensible decisions about the composition of the House or about how its Members should be selected, it is necessary to reach conclusions about what the House should do in future; what should be its powers and functions. In particular, before deciding whether membership should be wholly or partly by election, it would be sensible to decide whether or not we want a second Chamber which has a substantially greater degree of democratic legitimacy than your Lordships' House, as at present constituted, can claim.
There would, as I see it, be little point in having Members of this House elected at the same time as, for the same constituencies as and by the same system as Members of the other place. That would make this House little more than a pale shadow of the House of Commons. On the other hand, a House of Lords elected at a different time, for different constituencies and by a different system could create greater risk of more frequent and fundamental conflict between the two Houses. Is that something we want to do?
I have some sympathy with those noble Lords who have suggested that Members of the House of Commons are unlikely to look with favour upon 1099 suggestions that a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber should be created and should impair the right of the House of Commons to be regarded as the sole and sovereign representative of the will of the people.
I also wonder whether we want to institute yet another electoral process, on top of elections to the House of Commons, to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, for the mayor of London, to the Greater London Authority and to the European Parliament, let alone all the referenda we seem to have these days. I ask myself, when will voter fatigue set in?
If the House were to be chosen entirely by appointment, it would reduce the risk of it becoming merely a prime minister appointed quango, if some—perhaps most—of the appointments were made on the recommendation of some other body than the Prime Minister of the day, even though formally I believe the recommendations to Her Majesty would still have to be channelled through the Prime Minister, just as we were reminded that appointments to the Bench of Bishops are channelled. I suspect that the Prime Minister might well wish to retain some power of initiating recommendations himself or herself.
I note that we are encouraged now to talk in terms of a step-by-step approach rather than a two-stage approach. It still seems to me regrettable that we should be asked to take the first step without knowing what the second step is to be. The problem is that you get onto a first step and find you are on an escalator and you do not know what is at the bottom.
If the other elements of the House of Lords reform, apart from the disqualification of Peers by succession, is to be considered by a Royal Commission—a proposal which, in itself, I welcome—we have to look forward to a considerable interval of delay after the first step before we know what the second step will be. And there is the fear, voiced by some noble Lords in this debate, that the first step having been taken, the second will never follow because of the impossibility of achieving a consensus on what should be done or because of pressures on the legislative timetable. For those reasons, without seeking to defend the hereditary principle as it applies in this House, I share the view of those noble Lords who find the two-step approach less than satisfactory.
I recognise that the Government are committed, as a matter of principle, to the disqualification of Peers by succession. But it seems to me that it would be statesmanlike on the Government's part to accept that the implementation of this principle could reasonably wait until it can be dealt with in the context of the whole reform package. After all, it has already waited for several centuries. A pause of a year or two, or even three, would be but as a morning gone.
If the Government fear that the passage of their legislation is threatened by the number of Peers by succession and by the belief—if not the fact—that a very considerable number, if not an absolute majority of them, are supporters of the Opposition, then the House has it within its own power effectively to eliminate that threat, 1100 without the need for legislation, by means of a procedure on the lines set out in the Motion which stands on the Order Paper in my name. That is a procedure which would provide for the nomination of some 100 to 120 Peers by succession to be voting Peers, chosen so that they came in approximately equal numbers from the Conservative Benches, the Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches and the Cross-Benches.
When that Motion went down on the Order Paper some months ago, I received letters from some 200 of your Lordships, mainly from Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Cross-Bench Peers, but some from Labour Peers, and some 90 per cent. of them favoured the further consideration of this proposal.
The other advantage of this proposal is that it would facilitate the orderly conduct of business in your Lordships' House. Your Lordships will understand that a retired bureaucrat is apt to favour the orderly conduct of business. I do not expect the Government to abandon their commitment to disqualifying Peers by succession, but I fear that if they insist on proceeding with it as a first step, without putting it in the context of comprehensive reform, and indeed before there is any clear picture of what that reform will be, there may be some risk that not only the Bill for disqualifying Peers by succession but also other government legislation will be subjected to the delaying procedures allowed by the Parliament Act.
I suggest that the Government need to consider the potential effects of this upon the orderly carrying out of their legislative programme. I suggest that we all need to consider its effects on the standing and reputation of the House in the country at large. I suggest that, if your Lordships could be persuaded to approve the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, the total disqualification of Peers by succession could, without any significant damage, await the full reform package, and these regrettable consequences could be avoided.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, yesterday my noble friend Lord Onslow quoted from Livy. Today the noble Earl, Lord Buchan, quoted from Pliny. I shall quote from Mr. Gibbon's book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I quote from Chapter 3 which states:A martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince".I qualify "prince" for a modern government acting on his or her own behalf. I continue the quote:The people of Rome, viewing with a secret pleasure the humiliation of the aristocracy, demanded only bread and public shows, and were supplied with both by the liberal hand of Augustus …Augustus … examined the list of senators, expelled a few members whose vices or whose obstinacy required a public example, persuaded near two hundred to prevent the shame of an expulsion by voluntary retreat … created a sufficient number of patrician families …But, whilst he thus restored the dignity, he destroyed the independence of the senate. The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.1101But as soon as the senate had been humbled and disarmed, such an assembly consisting of five or six hundred persons, was found a much more tractable and useful instrument of dominion".I fear that; I really do.
Reference has been made to the importance of bicameral legislation, citing the United States, Australia and Canada as following us with their practice. But no one has made the point that none of those has a chamber with an hereditary element. There has been no comment on the United States and Australia having robust elected second chambers but on Canada having an ineffective wholly nominated one.
Having prepared this speech yesterday, I saw a splendid letter from Mr. Campbell Gordon in today's Daily Telegraph pointing out how inadequate the senate of Canada is in the public domain. I had personal experience of that as the naval adviser to the High Commissioner in Canada in the 1960s. During the year that I was attending diplomatic and local receptions, at no time was a senator ever introduced to me; nor did I hear a senator being introduced to anyone else. At no time was a senator quoted in the daily newspapers or mentioned on the radio or television. I cannot think that this House as presently constituted is viewed in that way by the diplomatic personnel in London or as regards the publicity it receives even when no issue such as this is being debated. Thus on the whole Gibbon's comments on a wholly nominated senate apply equally today.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Cranborne that the only important issue about the intended rigid implementation of a particular and not well supported subject in the Labour manifesto—until recently there has been little public interest shown in the proposals to do away with the rights of the hereditary Peers to vote and to sit in the House—is that it should be effected after, and not before, the whole matter of how this House should be reformed has been properly considered. Many noble Lords have said that. That is vital because, as others have said, it must be incredibly tempting to any Prime Minister—the point would apply just as much to a Conservative Prime Minister—having got rid of the hereditary Peers to say, "We do not have time for anything more"; or, "Yes, we'll set up a Royal Commission and expect it to report in 15 years time", by which time it will be out of date and everyone will have become used to the kind of senate the Romans had 1900 years ago.
I was pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, welcomed the Constitutional Commission being formed by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the noble Lord, Lord Hurd. I suggest to the noble Baroness that that would be much better than a Royal Commission. I suggest that Royal Commissions have not been a great success. They take a long time. They go into detail which perhaps could be dealt with more succinctly. In many cases the results are not good. While I know that my party is responsible for it in the first place, I suggest to noble Lords that the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the present structure of local government have resulted in local government not being as good as 30 years ago.
1102 Hereditary Peers are not in practice the Conservative poodles portrayed by the Government. Nor are we illegitimate as compared with the life Peers. There is no difference between our legitimacy. We are legitimate because we have formed a part of this Chamber for many hundreds of years and it has been accepted that we are part of the governmental system of the country. Therefore the word is not "illegitimate". The word may be "undemocratic", but we are no less undemocratic than the life Peers. And do not get me wrong: I think the life Peers are splendid, but not on their own.
I wrote a staff appreciation for the review committee of Lord Hume of the Hirsel. Like my appreciation, the committee recommended an agreed balance of nominated and elected Peers such as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, referred to yesterday. At this stage, I believe that that is a good solution in due course.
From 1977 to 1997 I examined at intervals how noble Lords present and voting balanced out on an average day in this House. Every three years or so I checked my figures. Very roughly, the Conservative voters were almost always more or less equal to Labour plus Liberal, with the balance of power being held by the Cross-Benches. If the Cross-Benches did not like a Motion, it did not succeed. I am sure that other noble Lords who have done such sums will agree. There is therefore no need for the Prime Minister to be fearful of losing votes here any more than were his Conservative predecessors. It is bogus to put forward the idea that because 400 Peers in this Chamber take the Conservative Whip officially they are dominating and frightening the Government of the day. I believe that the Government have won just the right number of votes in the last 18 months to fit the pattern that I have described. They have lost a few votes, as did the Tory Government.
At present, it is a reasonably balanced House in practical terms. It is interesting that people keep that balance in an unorganised way of their own volition. We are the best example in the world of a random selection for legislation.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Birkett
My Lords, it is always significant that the Benches from which I speak are such a tiny island in a great sea of Government and Opposition Benches. Party politics is at the bottom of so much of life today. It is plain that at general elections the electorate votes for parties in some cases having never even seen the candidate for which it is voting. The political parties seem to be reasonably content with that situation.
I find it lamentable that when it is announced that there will be a mayor for London it is a signal for immensely complicated manoeuvres to ensure that that election will be conducted along party lines—and the only reason there has to be a new government for London is because the last one was abolished due to the outrage of one particular party at the behaviour of another. So it is with this House. The measure being debated tonight is due, at least to some extent, to the outrage of the Government at the number of your Lordships who take the Conservative Whip.
1103 I am surprised that so many of hereditary Peers take a Whip at all. To take a Whip means a commitment to party loyalty. There are only two ways in which party loyalty can be tested, and both are unfortunate. The first is when a Peer agrees to turn up and vote knowing little or nothing of the details of the causes being debated. The second, which is worse, is when he knows perfectly well in his heart of hearts that his party is wrong but he is content to come along and vote as bidden just the same.
If a country has a parliament of two houses it is axiomatic that one house must be different from the other. As so much policy and so many of the great issues of the day are debated in another place, it is plain that the second Chamber—if it is not to be the much-maligned rubber stamp—must have a great degree of independence. It must be enabled to be critical in the proper sense of the term. To do that it will require not only independence but a considerable stock of wisdom from its members. If this House is not as independent of political parties as I would wish it to be, it is at least a repository of a great deal of experience, wisdom, goodwill and know-how.
I acknowledge that to belong to a political party does not make one foolish, just as to be independent does not make one wise. But to belong to a political party does automatically reduce one's independence. If this process of reform increases the hold of party politics over the life of the nation, then in some small way it will erode our freedoms, simply because the life blood of freedom is independence.
I am deeply unimpressed by the arguments that the abolition of hereditary voting rights in this House—mine included, of course—is somehow a necessary and timely first step on the way to reform, particularly when that reform has all the definition at the moment of the Wizard of Oz. If you do not know where you are going, taking a first step can hardly be the opportunity for loud applause.
This measure will do one thing only for certain; it will appease a small, ideological hunger. If the price of that appeasement is throwing into the wastepaper basket the accumulated wisdom and experience of all my hereditary colleagues in this House, then it is in danger of being a disaster for the nation.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Lord Naseby
My Lords, what a wonderful distracting element the future Bill for the removal of hereditary Peers will be in 1999, when unemployment increases, when there will be extensive factory closures, farmers going bankrupt, savage public expenditure cuts disguised as reworked figures, and a great deal more—all because of the global crisis and the fact that nobody would listen to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Against all this—and what I expect will be much more suffering in the country in 1999—the cry will go up from the Government Back-Benches "Rid us of the hereditary Peers" and, rather more sotto voce by some of the far left of the Government, "Rid us of the House of Lords altogether". Perhaps that is why the Labour Party dare not put on paper what a future House of Lords might look like.
1104 History should teach us something. I have made no bones in my speeches in this House that I am an admirer of Cromwell. I also firmly believe in Parliament. The folklore among some of your Lordships is that Cromwell was very anti the House of Lords from the start. It is true that he played a leading role in the Regicide, but research clearly indicates that he had no particular quarrel with the House of Lords. Indeed, he was personally quite close to many of its Members. If we look at some of the records of that time, it is recorded that he did speak out against the abolition on the grounds that it was,a needlessly divisive and provocative act".It seems to me that that has a ring of truth in the light of our debate last night and again tonight.
Years later he criticised the Rump for assuming to itself the authority of the Three Estates that were there before. Does not that too have a ring of truth as we witness the present Government modernising the Monarchy, reforming the Lords by appointing already over 100 new life Peers and stifling debates in another place?
Later, in 1657, when there was talk of Cromwell being offered the Crown, he decided that he should not attempt to influence the debate on the work of Parliament—partly, it is true, because they were doing what he believed in. There was an interesting case of one James Naylor, a Quaker, who had ridden into Bristol on a donkey, thereby committing a horrid blasphemy. Parliament attacked and severely punished the said James Naylor, which angered Cromwell, who saw it as the thin edge of the wedge for individual liberty. Cromwell felt that that case highlighted the weakness of a single-chambered Parliament.
As he told a meeting of the Army officers in late February 1657,You are offended at a House of Lords. I tell you that unless you have some such thing as a balance you cannot be safe".Flowing from this a new constitution came about. At that time he supported a restored second nominated Chamber of hereditary Peers because he believed that that provided greater safeguards.
So, there you have it. That was the views of Cromwell the republican, the firm believer in the human rights of the individual. Interestingly enough, the Mackay Commission seemingly supported that viewpoint, believing in a nominated Chamber which, at that time, was composed of a nominated number of hereditary Peers.
Let us move on two and a half centuries. Little had changed by 1910 and 1911. We have not yet reached the era of the life Peers, that enlightened development of the one-nation Tory premier, Harold Macmillan, the late Lord Stockton. I am sure we all agree that has done much to ensure the success of this House as we know it today. It put the spotlight on the "Ditchers", led by Lord Willoughby De Broke, at the time of the Liberal Government and the House of Lords crisis of 1910. Why do I pick on him and his followers? Surely they were just diehard right-wing conservatives who did not understand how politics worked? On the contrary, they understood only too well how politics worked. They 1105 criticised their leaders as having too much tactics and too little strategy. To them, the Parliament Bill represented the culmination of a Liberal war upon the constitution of this country. That is a very close parallel with today.
Willoughby de Broke and his colleagues argued two points. First, that a dramatic stand against the Bill would alert the country to the changes taking place. I suggest that that is part of the role of this debate, as it is televised across the nation. Secondly, to quote Lord Selborne, the greatest evil which can befall a nation is to have its constitutional stability destroyed by a revolution and not know it. That is equally applicable today.
The ditchers knew that they could lose the immediate Parliament Bill struggle in one of two ways. Either they could be in the majority in the Division Lobby, in which case the King might create enough Peers—a figure of 500 was rumoured at the time—to give the Liberals an overall majority. Would Labour do that? I am not sure. More than 100 are here already. Alternatively, the Unionist Peers, fearing dilution and wishing to have some fashionable democratic element, might in the end vote for the Bill, or perhaps more subtly abstain.
I mention that movement because, although it was unsuccessful, there was a clarity of thinking that we who oppose the Bill would do well to emulate. Finally, as an aside, I mentioned that the final Division took place on 10th August 1911—so I suggest that your Lordships book a late holiday in 1999!
In conclusion, perhaps I may assess the charge by some in my own party that a nominated second Chamber would become the Prime Minister's poodle. I had the enormous privilege of being nominated and voted in as Chairman of Ways and Means for five years in another place. Three of my predecessors are in your Lordships' House. Each of us has chaired controversial Bills on the Floor of the other place. Some of us have chaired controversial constitutional Bills; Bills so controversial that the government of the day had no majority.
With the help of my then colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, and my noble friend Lady Fookes, I chaired the Maastricht Bill. We sat for 25 days and some nights and there were nearly 600 amendments; yet the Bill was only three clauses long. It should be remembered that we had the benefit of closures and the Chairman of Ways and Means could control relevant content to the debate. It makes one shudder when one realises what could be done by a determined Opposition in this Chamber if it were so minded.
I remember all too clearly the Government Chief Whip hammering on my door at 3.30 a.m. saying that I was a disgrace in allowing debate to continue, so ably handled at that hour by the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, and his straight bat. My response was that I was asleep and that he should go away. I remember, too, the Opposition at that time believing that they had devised a wonderful amendment which they thought would blow the Government apart. The only trouble was that the amendment was not in order. I had 1106 representations, more representations, protestations, arm-twisting, and, in the end, a vote of no confidence admittedly moved by the more radical element of the Opposition. The vote was 450 to 81; a good majority of 369.
I reject totally the idea that the Prime Minister's quango means parliamentarians rolling over and doing his or her bidding. I believe that too often it is forgotten that those men and women who serve in your Lordships' Chamber come here to serve their country and their nation first, not their party. I say that with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Birkett. Few of us have ambitions to rise in our parties and few of us have any wish to rise personally in the esteem of the nation. We have a confidence which comes from having succeeded in our chosen discipline. What guides the vast majority of us is Burke's dictum:Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment".One could add to that another dictum of Burke:An event has happened"—I should say that it is about to happen—upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent".
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Carew
My Lords, much of what I had proposed to say has been said many times over. However, there are some points with which I completely concur and which I wish to re-emphasise, with particular reference to stage one of the hereditary Peers issue. I took my seat on these Cross-Benches three years ago. Since then I have witnessed numerous high quality debates. This two-day debate is no exception. Furthermore, in the words of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, "always with good manners". We on these Cross-Benches take great pride in our independent role and therefore speak and vote according to our judgment and conscience. At times, I have witnessed such independence on other Benches in your Lordships' House, which is most commendable.
My noble kinsman, the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, and my noble friend Lord Moran mentioned the unacceptable practice of backwoodsmen being brought into your Lordships' Chamber in order to win a Division. Such practice causes the loss of respectability of this House and I hope that we shall not witness it again in order to sway a vote.
Hereditary Peers from all sides of your Lordships' House have always been among the most active and effective Members and, as most noble Lords concur, have made a massive contribution over many years. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, in her superb speech, and the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, said that a manifesto is not set in stone. My noble friend Lord Chalfont, in his brilliant and objective speech, said that it was not necessary for every point in a manifesto to be discharged. The result of the general election would not have been different if the proposed reform of the House of Lords had not been in the Labour Party manifesto.
The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said that constitutional change needs to be acceptable and done properly and that we should not throw out hereditary Peers 1107 immediately just on a political whim. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, in his excellent maiden speech, advised that consultation should include the public. On Tuesday last and again last night two members of the public, both taxi-drivers, made the following comments entirely on their own initiative, with no prompting from me. The first taxi-driver asked, "Why do they want to get rid of hereditary Peers when they seem to be doing a good job?". The second taxi-driver said, "It is difficult to defend the hereditary Peers, but they are doing all right. The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know. Until you find a better system leave it alone".
Those are just two examples of the voice of the public, but it helps to confirm to me that it is illogical to get rid of one system unless a better one can be put in its place. I am sure that Members on all sides of your Lordships' House do not oppose genuine reform and are happy to consider the merits of change alongside the merits of the existing system. For Her Majesty's Government to abolish the sitting and voting rights of hereditary Peers before there has been all-round consultation and legislation on the shape of a new Chamber is destructive and damaging to Parliament. It would simply erode the independence of your Lordships' House.
I completely concur with my noble friend Lord Chalfont when he said that it was wrong radically to change our constitution just at a political stroke. He said further that stage one should be delayed until a Royal Commission has reported. If and when hereditary Peers are eventually to be removed, it should be done in a civilised and orderly way so that they can depart with grace and dignity.
Even the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that the choice was whether hereditary Peers should go at the beginning, stage one, or at the end, stage two. The proposals in the very interesting speech of my noble friend Lord Armstrong of Ilminster are worthy of consideration, at least as an interim measure, prior to the Royal Commission's report.
My noble friend Lord Charteris of Amisfield advised also that everything should be dealt with in one go by the Royal Commission and that the departure of hereditary Peers should be at the end. My noble friend the Convenor of the Cross Benches, Lord Weatherill, said that the abolition of voting rights of hereditary Peers should be phased in gradually. There should be evolutionary change rather than sudden death.
Her Majesty's Government have two options: option one is to press ahead with stage one, with the sudden death of hereditary Peers; option two is to shelve stage one and appoint a Royal Commission to look into all aspects of a reformed House of Lords. That option is surely the logical, fair and democratic one so that in the days and months ahead it will lead to there being an objective and co-operative House of Lords.
In conclusion, I concur with the words of our Cross-Bench Convenor, my noble friend Lord Weatherill, in hoping that this Government will consider the views expressed throughout this debate about the future membership and role of your Lordships' House, 1108 which has served our country well and is generally held in high regard and esteem by the electorate as doing a good job and very cheaply.
§ 7.21 p.m.
§ Lord Sudeley
My Lords, my fear is that once heredity is removed from the House of Lords we shall be left indefinitely with a quango of the Prime Minister's nominees. I very much doubt whether the Government will ever get round to stage two. I am not alone in that view. It is to be found among Members on the government side in the other place.
Nothing has happened here for over 100 years because it is an insoluble problem. Nobody wants a nominated Chamber or quango of the Prime Minister's nominees to increase the power of the already over-mighty Executive and proposals to give the House an electoral basis, independent of heredity, are equally flawed because that would give the House more legitimacy. It would be in conflict with the other place and would introduce gridlock.
We need to ask why we should remove hereditary service from the House. We are often told that it is because we are a democracy. But we are not a pure democracy. With a monarchy and heredity in the House of Lords, we still have a mixed constitution. Arguments to keep it that way can be drawn from the best political theory: from Aristotle's theory of a mixed constitution, which found so much favour in the 18th century, and from Burke's theory that our constitution has a prescriptive, or what is sometimes called an incremental, and pragmatic basis. England has always thought from the particular to the general. It is only on the Continent that the less practical route has been sought of arguing from the general to the particular.
Most of the Executive might find some arguments drawn from political theory to be somewhat rarefied. Nor do I believe that most of the electorate understands the forceful argument which has been put forward in this debate that we need to review the functions of the House of Lords before settling down to its composition. Most of the thinking since 1911 has been inverted in making proposals about the composition before attempting any foundation about function. However, most of the electorate will understand that in producing the familiar arguments about what is seen to be the unacceptability of the hereditary principle, which gives this House a valuable element of its independence, the Government—that is, the Executive—are playing on us the oldest trick in the book. Once the mask is removed, we see that the real aim of the Government is to increase the power of the Executive, which already has too much, when it has always been the function of Parliament to curb the power of the Executive, reaching far back into the Middle Ages, with the struggle which took place then between the Crown and the baronage. Now the Executive has shifted from the Crown to what my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham calls the elective dictatorship.
Perhaps I may cite principal instances of where Parliament has already become weak in exercising sufficient control over the Executive since the golden 1109 age of Parliament in the middle of the last century. There is the discipline exercised in the other place by the Government through deselection of MPs. There is the removal of the independence of the private Member on single issues through control of parliamentary time, which has grown out of the closure and the guillotine. There is the growth of delegated legislation. There is the evasion of Parliament altogether through a recourse to referenda. And there is the custom which has arisen of the Prime Minister addressing the electorate over the heads of Parliament through the media. The contact given here to the electorate is not the same as the control which, with detailed scrutiny, Parliament or Members of the other place should exercise.
Therefore, the removal of heredity from the House of Lords, which gives it such an essential element of its independence, must be perceived not so much as a move towards greater democracy, to which the Government lay claim, but rather towards dictatorship. With its present element of independence, perhaps I may cite three areas where the House has functioned so well: first, opposing the Government on single issues to which so many of the electorate are opposed—in particular, the licensing of homosexuality at a younger age; secondly, the protection of minority interests, especially field sports. Minority interests were better understood in the Middle Ages, when the separate powers and interests in the land, or liberties as they used to be called, were more evident. Where they happened to conflict, it was the function of the Crown to arbitrate. It is difficult to see how minority interests will be better protected if any future electoral composition of the House is to reflect the vote cast at the last election. Thirdly, there is the detailed scrutiny of European Union legislation where this House is way ahead of the other place. Being unelected, Peers are prepared to settle down to that rather dull work in a way never to be anticipated from an elected politician absorbed by the glamour of re-enacting the debate as to whether we should be in the European Union.
It may be that we suffer from not having a written constitution so that an unscrupulous government may play havoc with it. When the Minister replies—I have given notice to the Government of my question—perhaps he will tell the House what is the Government's perception of the question posed on page 203 on the recent book on House of Lords reform, Peers and Parliament Reformed, by William Wyndham, a parliamentary draftsman, where he writes:Suppose … the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council … were to rule such a Bill illegal (and/or no Bill at all) on one or more of the following grounds: 1. that the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 were never intended to sanction the dismantling of one House of Parliament by the other without its consent; 2. that even if they were intended to do so, the intention is a nullity because Parliament is not empowered to dismantle itself or a substantial part of itself (with or without the consent of all its parts); 3. that even if Parliament can do so, with the consent of all its parts, nevertheless one House cannot (under the Parliament Acts or not) dismantle the other without both its consent and putting in its place a parliamentary system as democratic or better as that which has been dismantled.The central argument on these lines would be that the one thing Parliament cannot do is to nullify or frustrate itself since its very raison d'etre is to represent the people to the government".1110 I conclude by dealing with the proposal to remove heredity from the House of Lords and the reduction of our ceremonial. There has been a feeling in some quarters abroad that it is ultimately the wish of the Government to remove the monarchy, which still plays an active role in the constitution. There can be no doubt—and the noble Lord, Lord Charteris, earlier in the debate expressed this fear—that if heredity is removed from the House, the monarchy itself becomes exposed. Therefore, I am glad to record the success through advertising of the Constitutional Monarchy Association, founded to uphold the House of Windsor with its obvious current difficulties and constant assault from the media to which it cannot reply and so on. Now the membership of the Constitutional Monarchy Association has nearly reached 3,000 and is potentially much greater.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Forbes
My Lords, I believe that this debate has shown the House at its best. It has demonstrated that most noble Lords are independently minded and speak following their own conscience, something that is extremely important. The debate has covered fully all aspects concerning reform of the House. All I wish to do is to endorse and emphasise what I feel are the crucial aspects in that regard.
The Government stated that they wish to reform the House. I have no quarrel with that. However, like many other noble Lords, I find the manner in which the Government propose to tackle that problem totally unacceptable. If the Government were to wait and then produce one Bill covering the comprehensive reform of this House after considering a Royal Commission report, then the Bill would receive a fair wind in this Chamber. That would be the correct way to tackle the matter. However, if the Government stick to their idea of a two-stage reform—first dealing with voting rights and leaving further reform until a later stage to be considered at some time in the future—they will find themselves floundering in tempestuous water and wondering why they ever embarked on the Bill.
To carry out reform of this House in two stages, without having decided on the final outcome, would be an act of folly. It would be rather like an army commander in wartime deciding not to use tanks before making up his mind on his plan of attack. If the Government are so unwise as to carry out reform in two stages, leaving a transitional Chamber before reaching stage two, it may lead people to conclude that the Government are more concerned—anyway, in the short term—with control of your Lordships' House rather than with its reform. I do not believe that either this Chamber or the country will go along with that because, thank goodness, manipulation of power is still completely alien and frowned upon in this country.
Let us not forget that this House is probably the most efficient second Chamber in the world. If it must be reformed then the Government will have to convince not only the people of this country but also the Members of this Chamber that the reformed House will operate better than the present House operates today. There is 1111 absolutely no case for change for the sake of change. Modernisation by itself is not enough. That would satisfy neither this House nor our country.
§ 7.33 p.m.
§ Lord Alexander of Weedon
My Lords, the more I have listened to this debate, the more I have felt the irony that it is a remarkable advertisement for the strength of this House. We still largely comprise hereditary Peers and yet I sense a general recognition by so many Members that accident of birth can no longer be treated as the basis for membership of our second Chamber. It has also been widely acknowledged—the tone was set at the outset by my noble friend Lord Cranbome—that the authority of this House will be enhanced by sensible reform. But the main recurring divide—it is a very real one—is whether we should have two bites at the cherry or seek to achieve a single package of reforms. To draw on a cricketing analogy, the Government would wish the series to consist of two matches. Those who doubt the wisdom of that course do so largely because they feel that the second match may well be "rained off'.
The history of the House of Lords shows that that is a real fear. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, says that this is the best opportunity we have had since 1910 for producing a sensible constitutional settlement. So, he says, "seize the moment". But 1910 is a salutary warning that the second stage of reform may never take place. We all remember the preamble to that Bill which shows that it was intended to substitute an elected for a hereditary Chamber,but, such substitution cannot immediately be brought into operation";neither immediately, nor it seems at all, in spite of the attempts between the wars and the efforts in 1968. There was never any second stage. We can have no guarantee that in the maelstrom of political events and priorities the future will not bear an uncanny resemblance to the past.
Why cannot we proceed fully to sensible reform at one go? After all, the Government have been working through these issues—so they tell us—in detail in Cabinet sub-committee. A White Paper is promised and we may hear later—I hope we will—as to when we will have the opportunity of seeing it. A Royal Commission need not be a recipe for delay and foot dragging. The Jenkins Independent Committee on Voting Reform, of which I am a member, has taken a great deal of evidence, has held many meetings, and will deliver its report in under a year from being set up. It would be perfectly feasible for a Royal Commission to report in 18 months and, if so, there would still be scope for legislation in this Parliament. I detect no upsurge of popular discontent which makes emergency legislation to remove the hereditary Peers necessary. There is no one manning the barricades and crying, "To the tumbrels with the aristocrats." To proceed in an ordered way over two or three years to determine the future of our second Chamber would seem a valuable and measured approach to constitutional reform.
1112 I do not want to add to what has been said about the virtues and achievements of the House as currently constituted. They are well known. But I want to say a word about the quality of independence. When I had the great privilege of joining this House 10 years ago the then Leader—my noble friend Lord Belstead—explained to me that, should I sit on the Conservative Benches, I would not forfeit independence of judgment in areas where I disagreed with party policy. He encouraged me to speak and, if I felt like it, to vote against the government. He added that that would give more credibility to such support as I could give the government on other occasions. I have taken regular—arguably too much—advantage of his encouragement. But I have never met with other than understanding and, indeed, generosity from him and successive Leaders and Chief Whips of my party. I see this capacity for a level of independence as a critical feature of any worthwhile second Chamber. Is that not the more so when one considers the lack of independence of the House of Commons? The Government in our country are currently regularly elected by a minority of voters but with a large parliamentary majority with individual MPs serving, for the most part, as the foot soldiers, the British tommies of democracy drilled to be always with their pager and always on message.
There must clearly be party loyalties and the ability to muster support on important issues. But surely a stout degree of independence, even among those with strong party loyalties, is a valuable attribute of the House. I suspect that that quality owes a great deal to the instinctive attitudes of hereditary Peers. If we are to lose them, we should not lose the contribution they instilled into our basic values.
I understand the importance which the Government attach to their manifesto commitment to the reform of the House of Lords. But I do not see why they should treat as sacrosanct the statement that it will be done in two stages. It is surely fanciful to think that there is some member of the public who, devouring avidly the manifesto line by line, decided to vote Labour because reform was to be carried out in two stages rather than one. In constitutional issues in particular what matters is surely that the Government achieve their broad objectives of completing reforms rather than proceed by the salami-slicing approach proposed. I welcome the fact that the manifesto stated unequivocally that the Government were committed to maintaining an independent Cross-Bench presence of life Peers. I welcome also the statement that no one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords. If we are to have an interim second Chamber—I would very much prefer that we do not—I hope that that will be an in-built feature of the transition stage.
Tonight is not the time to make suggestions about precisely what the role of an effective second Chamber should be. But I regard its present functions as being at the very least its minimum powers. I also share the view expressed by so many that at the moment we pull our punches because of doubts about our legitimacy. Nor is it the time to talk about the composition of the Chamber. It does seem, though, that devolution and the welcome policy of restoring more power to local government 1113 could give an opportunity to draw Members into our work from the Scottish parliament, the Northern Ireland and Welsh assemblies, and from local government representatives. But all these issues as to both powers and composition obviously await the White Paper and no doubt the Royal Commission.
I wish to make one other short point. In my experience of organisations, restructuring can create uncertainties throughout the staff. One of the reasons why this House works so well is because we are served so splendidly across the board by our staff. We have marvellous—indeed, I would say matchless—officials who serve us with great efficiency and dedication. As chairman of one Select Committee, my contacts with a succession of Clerks and a legal adviser have left me in awe at their skill, service and dedication. In changing this House, we must be mindful of the need to structure it in such a way that it retains these strengths and, indeed, enhances the opportunities for them to be given expression in public service.
I have been in favour of reform of this House since well before the last election. The Government's actions have undoubtedly concentrated the minds of all in the House wonderfully and there is a clear willingness on all sides to seek a package of reform which will strengthen our work and our authority. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has listened carefully to almost all of this debate with admirable stamina. With his incisiveness and sensitivity, I am sure that he will realise where the anxiety of the House lies. We have been given no indication of the Government's thoughts on the final shape of a revised Chamber. We have been given no firm timetable either for the work of a Royal Commission or for the implementation of reform. What reassurance can the noble Lord give us tonight? There are many who fear, both in the light of history and the realities of politics, that otherwise the promise of second-stage reform may disappear, floating away in the wind, as did the confident protestations of lasting reform made in the preamble of the Parliament Act 1911.
§ 7.43 p.m.
§ Lord Berkeley
My Lords, I am one of 18 hereditary Peers who take the Labour Whip. Perhaps I could call myself a member of a happily endangered species. I am here because my ancestors, over 400 or 500 years ago, looked after the monarch's interests in the best meaning of that word. I should say "most monarchs" because one monarch, Edward II, came to an unfortunate end in my ancestor's castle, so there are exceptions to every rule.
I hold one of a small number of peerages which can pass through the female line. I inherited this peerage from my aunt, who was one of the first women to take her seat when that was allowed about 40 years ago. Perhaps she made some small contribution to balancing the male domination in this House to which my noble friend Lord Ponsonby referred.
During the past 40 years, with women admitted and life Peers finally allowed in, there have been some changes. Before that, it could be said that the Conservative hereditary Peers ran the country, even if 1114 sometimes some other party which might have won an election and formed a government played a small role. That is an extreme example, but I believe that the present composition is no longer sustainable and that one party should not have a permanent majority.
It has been said that if the Prime Minister is responsible for the appointment of all life Peers, that will perpetuate what is now called in the media "cronyism". Let us not forget that over the past 18 years of Conservative government at least twice as many Conservative life Peers were appointed compared to Labour. When we say, as have many noble Lords, that somehow hereditary Peers are of a different type and quality from life Peers, we are on dangerous territory. Of course, all Peers have contributed greatly, as my noble friend the Leader of the House said yesterday. It is invidious to say that things will change just because some Members of this House may or may not be here in the future.
That change was mentioned in the Labour Party manifesto. I strongly support it as a first stage in what I hope will be a long-term reform of this House. I was grateful for what my noble friend the Leader of the House said yesterday about the contribution that hereditary Peers have made. I hope that I have played my small part. I have welcomed the opportunity to do so and I hope that my experience has benefited the House.
Perhaps I may say a few words about the next stage, about what I call the "interim stage" of a long-term reform. It is important that we get this right. We look forward to an interim stage that will work well on its own account and that will lead us smoothly into the next stage when that occurs.
The House must continue to be a revising Chamber. As many other noble Lords have said, scrutiny of our legislation and of European legislation is becoming more and more important. From my participation in Sub-Committee B of the Select Committee on the European Communities, I know that that entails a lot of work. All the sub-committees and the main Select Committees put a great deal of time into their work. I believe that that is one of the most important roles of this House.
What should be the composition of the House in the interim? I believe that a selection and appointment system, completely independent of the Prime Minister and government of the day, is essential—and I am not just referring to our present one. It is not just a question of a commitment not to have an absolute majority; it is important to have a balance that can be maintained even when Peers are away or ill—and when, as happens occasionally, they cross the Floor of the House. That must be taken into account.
Many noble Lords have mentioned the quality of debate. It reflects the expertise and the experts that this House has at its disposal and their willingness to put in time in unpaid service. There is a wide range of expertise in this House, although some professions are more numerously represented than others. I should like to see more engineers declaring an interest, along with more architects, planners, environmentalists, nurses and many others who are not so well represented as are our 1115 noble and learned friends. There are plenty of them around. Let us have more Members from the ethnic minorities, as my noble friend Lord Ponsonby said, and more women. We have an ideal opportunity to put that right. It certainly needs doing.
Getting rid of hereditary Peers is a necessary but not a sufficient step for the interim stage. In my simple definition, there appear to be two types of life Peer. We have working Peers and those who are awarded peerages as an honour, almost as one step above receiving a knighthood. Many of the latter, and some of the working Peers, are not seen in your Lordships' House very often. Perhaps that does not matter. A challenge for the future is to ensure that Peers who are appointed to work, if that is a definition—that is, to work through the details of legislation and to serve on committees—do sometimes show up. As unpaid Peers, many have to have other jobs to survive. I am not suggesting that they should be required to attend full-time. Many have to, and do, manage to juggle successfully jobs and families with their regular attendance here. In the future the independent organisation which will select and nominate life Peers will, one hopes, seek some kind of assurance of reasonable, regular attendance from potential appointees.
Lastly, the proposed change is not the perfect solution and I do not believe that anyone pretends that it is. Perhaps the Royal Commission will produce one. But to argue that we have to know the final end result proposed, whether it is elected, appointed, abolished or a combination of those three, before we allow the process of change to start is the classic argument for the status quo, to do nothing for ever. I could not understand the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, about leading to an elective dictatorship and an aged quango. If appointments to life peerages were made from people who are reasonably young, the average age of life Peers would tend to be younger than the average age of hereditary Peers. Perhaps the noble Lord can explain that point to me later.
The proposed change is a necessary first step. It may be a long or short interim stage. But while I am still here I shall certainly seek to contribute in any way I can to ensure that we have an informed, lively, independent and hard-working second Chamber appropriate to the needs of the next century.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, this is not the time for a history lesson, but it is the time to take note of the lessons of history. One of them is hanging in the "Content" Lobby outside your Lordships' Chamber in the form of a copy of Magna Carta. That is the first fully articulated statement of a system limiting the power of the Executive which runs this country. It hangs very appropriately in that Lobby in full view of the Government Whip, telling Members voting in favour of amendments to his party's programme. I sometimes wonder whether the present noble Lord who is Chief Whip for the Government party, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has ever been struck by the irony of the fact that the barony which by that document opened the country to the parliamentary process and which was admitted 1116 thereto as a result should now be asked to leave the parliamentary process by a party whose Chief Whip is also a Carter!
That brings me to a serious matter. I believe that many of your Lordships, with respect, have been addressing the wrong issue. We are not here principally to debate the future of a privileged few members of our national society, nor indeed are we here to debate the proper relationship between two Houses of Parliament, acutely interesting though the first is to some of us and the latter to all of us. What we are here to consider is the proper manner of controlling the freedom of the Executive power in this country to govern it. That has been going on since the 13th century.
At first the Crown was the Executive and its power eventually slipped into Parliament, not because of a civil war but because of the accident of succession of the Hanoverian family, the first member of whom to occupy the Throne could not speak English and had to have a Minister to conduct all his business for him in Parliament. The slide of Executive power into the other place and into parts of this place has continued thereafter. But the Government, who are now the Executive in place of the Crown, must still be distinct, in our consideration, from the Parliament in which they have their being; otherwise they will not be properly controlled. Whenever the Executive of this country has escaped from proper control the nation has had to take desperate remedies to put it back in its bottle, such as the execution of one king and the dethronement of another.
If we do not look at our history, let us look at the history of other countries. It is always essential that a nation shall eventually control its Executive even between the times it goes to the country. That has to be done by Parliament as distinct from the Executive. What we are talking about now is the control of the Executive in part by this House, which is resented by the other place because it increasingly sees itself as one half of a parliamentary balance. It is not. It is the Back-Benchers of all parties in the other place who are part of that balance with us and the Government are on the other side. Hence the publicly expressed concern of Madam Speaker in the other place about the compliance of many new Back-Benchers to the most extreme demands of their Executive. They are there to control the executive. It is our job to help them. If we do not, we fail in the business that we started in the 13th century with Magna Carta, followed by the first and successive parliaments.
It is under those circumstances that noble Lords are here by heredity. I am a Baron and part of the order which brought in Magna Carta. I am a Member of the House of Lords, which is the only House, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, pointed out in a rather different tone of voice, which brought in the House of Orange to try to get the genie back into the bottle. We have to complete that business before we go. I ask your Lordships to read or recall the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, as to why that has to be done now before we go. Once we go, the tooth, as he put it, will be drawn and there will be absolutely no reason why a government of any description or colour should proceed further down the road of reform. Once we have gone the excuse has gone 1117 and there is a further growing complicit silence on the Back-Benches of both Houses on the aim of the Executive of any party.
I resent the tones in which various noble Lords have said that the Conservative Party has such a majority here that it can push through anything it likes. That is a slur on my parliamentary commitment and my own rebellions against my party when I thought it was wrong. I did it before I was in government, but that did not stop me getting into it. I did it after I got into government, and it did not reduce my friendship with my noble friends—at least they are not shaking their heads—on the Front Bench afterwards. It is part of the job.
We may call ourselves Conservatives and it may be that we are too complacent about our party's programmes. I take that as justified criticism. But we are here to control the Executive, and let us make no mistake about it: that job will not be done if it is not done in one piece. It will be delayed or abandoned, as my noble friend just said in a remarkable speech, as it was abandoned last time it was tried. It has been going on too long.
I am in favour in reform. I am not standing out for my privileges or my son's privileges. He is quite complacent about being relieved of them. I am dedicated to only one thing and that is the protection of the interests of the electorate between and at elections. That can only he done by a House that is properly organised and manned. I agree that this House is not properly organised and manned for that job at present. It does not put the brakes on as often or as hard as it should. Let us have reform, and when we have it we shall have done our job. The hereditary Peers can then leave with satisfaction and honour and get on with sometimes more interesting things they have to do. I want to paint more pictures and other people want to make more money. We can go on confident in the knowledge that we have left the protection of the interests of the electorate in safe hands. While we are doing that, if it goes on too long and the Government are completely incapable of living with the apparent massive Conservative majority, let them adopt what has already been suggested and have an electoral college. Let us have a proportion of the hereditary Peers here while the process is being completed. But, until the process or the Government's commitment to it is in statute, I for one will feel that cannot leave with honour and that I must resist what is proposed. I believe a great many of us would co-operate with the Government if they could actually see what it is that we want and help us to get it.
§ 8 p.m.
§ The Earl of Northesk
My Lords, fortuitously I find myself pursuing the theme of my noble friend Lord Elton. Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, asserts that:Without doubt, the twentieth [century] has belonged to the executive, not the legislature. Ours is very much the executive's Constitution".1118 I agree with him. This assessment is the truth. We need look no further than the recall of Parliament last month to consider the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill to see how much a creature of the executive the whole legislative process has become.
Perversely, even New Labour thinking has understood this. Will Hutton has not been diffident in railing against,the centralising tendency built-in into the British state".Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, and despite expectation, the current Government have accelerated that tendency. Moreover, in tandem with Professor Hennessy's thesis, Hutton argues that the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty has become suborned to the party political agenda of the governing party rather than serving the overall public interest. He is of course right. But this represents a failure of the institution (specifically of the executive) rather than an explicit fault of constitutional construction.
The point is this: the true source of what the Labour Party manifesto identifies as,unquestionably a national crisis of confidence in our political system",lies within the current shape and nature of the executive. It is its frightening supremacy within the political and legislative process that is the constitutional imbalance with which we are wrestling. And what has suffered? The Chamber of the other place, bypassed, patronised and used. It is here that the pathos of the Government's proposals for your Lordships' House becomes so self-evident. Where is the element of consent in any of this?
By definition—and, it has to be said, at the Government's own choosing—their proposals lack consensus. By contrast, our debate has a glass-like transparency. Once the Government have enacted their plans, our constitution will be exclusively a construct of the executive, delivering the executive's aspirations, and specifically drafted to work to the benefit of the executive. As pointed out by my noble friend Lord Cranborne, the stage one Bill, when enacted, will represent nothing less than the final triumph of the executive over the legislative process. Indeed, scribbled in with the gratuitous graffiti of the Government's constitutional agenda, and the spectre of proportional representation, it may even come to represent the final triumph of the executive, this executive, over the electorate—tyranny by any other name.
What makes this all the more galling, even tragic, is the plain fact that meaningful and effective reform of your Lordships' House, including revision of our composition, would assist immeasurably in redressing the constitutional balance to the benefit of the nation. That gift is still within the Government's grasp if they have both the courage and the wisdom to take it. What thinking person does not welcome the Government's announcement of a Royal Commission? But are the "when" question and the "why now" question answered by this exercise in smoke and mirrors? The constitutional imbalance of the executive's foul victory will have been created in advance of any such body beginning its deliberations.
1119 I acknowledge the distaste that very many have for the hereditary principle within Parliament and its sincerity. I can even empathise with it. Like my noble friend Lord Cranborne, I would be content "to go quietly" if … But we are all—that is, hereditary and life, Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Cross-Bench—guardians of the constitution. However desirable stage one may be democratically and however much the noble Baroness the Leader of the House protests, there is a huge and lingering scepticism expressed here, and in the outside world, about this Government's horizons. To take these promises at face value would be, for me, to warp my idea of my duty to this House and to this nation.
Of course, irrespective of the eventual outcome of their plans for your Lordships' House, the vessel of state will plough inexorably on. I simply wonder—and worry—what sort of leaky Millbank-registered rust-bucket our constitution will have become as this Government steer us into the 21st century.
§ 8.6 p.m.
Lord Bruce of Donington
My Lords, I have now been in active politics for an era commencing with the chancellorship of Mr. Philip Snowden, accompanied by Mr. Montague Norman, extending to the chancellorship of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Gordon Brown, accompanied by Mr. George. This is not the occasion to enter into any comparison between the philosophies, shared, or not shared, by both of these Chancellors and their respective governors of the Bank of England, but it does perhaps establish the fact that I have been alive during that period and active politically. Indeed, I see many things occurring now which I have seen happen before, though within a different context.
It is only fair to say that this entire time was not solely occupied with political matters. There were six years with the Army during the war. There was a period in the House of Commons which lasted five years with Mr. Aneurin Bevan, followed by a somewhat arid period of being a prospective parliamentary candidate, though unsuccessfully, in a number of constituencies, which culminated in my being appointed here by Mr. Wilson, as he then was, and a period of some four years in the European Parliament. The rest of the time has been spent mainly at the disposal of your Lordships and sometimes, during that 10 years, on the Opposition Front Bench. I just mention those factors to establish that I am a proper practitioner in politics and have, at any rate, a little experience of it. I am quite sure that Members of the European Parliament would testify to my professional activities as a chartered accountant in securing satisfactory settlements with Her Majesty's Inland Revenue.
As I see it—and I do not talk with a forked tongue; indeed, I talk exactly as I believe—parliamentary government is very important. I believe that the House of Commons should be supreme and unchallenged in this field, based upon the votes of the electorate. As I conceive it, on the basis of my experience, it is the function of your Lordships' House to assist in every way the House of Commons to establish its will in the way 1120 that the electorate has determined. In my book that is extremely important. The composition of the House of Lords in assisting the House of Commons to achieve its purpose is far less important than its performance so far, as so far constituted, in the furtherance of the correct and direct rule of the House of Commons.
We have known for years that this House cannot possibly stand up to the test of democratic composition. We have known that for over a hundred years. Your Lordships may ask how it is that the House of Lords as at present undemocratically composed has lasted so long? I am sure that noble Lords who have any experience of the House of Commons will be aware that it could not possibly have sustained any continued or persistent attack from the House of Commons which challenged the Lords' existence, or for that matter, its composition. I talk now in another professional field, that of a management consultant, when I say that the House of Lords could not have survived unless it had satisfactorily fulfilled that purpose vis-à-vis the House of Commons.
The other place is well aware of its own limitations, or rather those who have been there some time—emphasise the words "some time"—are aware of their own limitations. We know perfectly well that large amounts of legislation are subject to the guillotine in the other place—and are therefore not discussed publicly—on the basis that the Commons knows very well that they will be discussed here. It assents to that proposition. The other place knows quite well that vast amounts of legislation are more or less in draft form when they reach this House. They do not even pretend to be Acts in their final form. The other place knows that it saves its own time by sending legislation to the Lords in an incomplete and often draft form. This function, which I have mentioned, is performed not only by our civil servants here but also by ordinary Members of your Lordships' House, whether they be hereditary or appointed Members. By and large this House performs that task well, and the Commons knows that.
In fact, on a little reflection, is it not quite clear that were it not for the extra work that is done within this place, the output of legislation from the other place would be halved? Some of us are skilled and some of us, like me, are unskilled and merely verbose, but the rest of your Lordships are fine administrators. We know that we serve that function and that we do it well. Subject to certain reservations that I may mention later if time permits, I must add that we also carry out work in committees too.
My next point is perhaps a little trivial. I do not like to stoop to this, but I must say that the House of Commons preferred to experiment with televising this House before adopting such a procedure in its own House. Therefore, as I said, we have a function to perform. During the quarter of a century that I have had the honour to be in your Lordships' House I cannot recall a circumstance where any government of any complexion have been seriously hampered in their work of getting their legislation ultimately through Parliament. In one or two cases there has been a delay which has been speedily dealt with by the Parliament Act, but on other accounts the legislation has gone through smoothly. 1121 There cannot be a government of any party in the other place who can really complain that we have unconstitutionally obstructed them. In point of fact as we are composed at the moment we have done a pretty good job.
However, in saying that, we have to bear in mind that there are other centres of power of a more undemocratic nature that may impinge on the rights and liberties of the people of our country. We have innumerable quangos all over the place. Where are they elected? How was their composition determined? Were they nominated, elected, suggested or propelled? Did they pay money? We do not question that. However, they have considerable and unaccountable powers—accountable to no one—over ever increasing sections of our affairs. But worse than that, of course, we have the quango that no one really likes to mention and which they sweep under the carpet if they can when they hear it mentioned. I regret to say that I have inflicted this matter upon your Lordships for longer than most of you can possibly remember. The area of legislation and the area of activity properly belonging to the Parliament of the United Kingdom is progressively narrowing and being taken away by the European Commission. Every day that passes sees new statutes on our own statute book that have not been scrutinised by either House but come under the scrutiny of the higher Civil Service—who I am bound to say are the best in the world—together with, of course, their Brussels' colleagues with whom they have a strong affinity in that the Brussels' institutions have now become part of the Civil Service career structure in the United Kingdom, both in terms of much higher salaries and greatly increased pensions for people who are seconded to Brussels.
I ask your Lordships to pause for the following reason. The other place, as at present elected, has been in existence for just a little over a year. I know from my own personal experience as a new MP in 1945 and later as an official in the Ministry of Health that it takes a long time to know exactly how the system works and to know exactly its limitations. Therefore, if there is to be a Bill—I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Pender, did not receive the same treatment—and if there are to be changes either in composition or functions, the Members of the other place, including many Ministers who have not previously held ministerial office, ought to be given time to become really familiar with the administrative apparatus in which they are enmeshed. I refer to the process of legislation, the processes of examination, and above all, the relationship with the European Community, about which few of them know anything in detail. I hope that whatever happens as regards our sustaining the powers of the other place we shall be mindful that we have a higher responsibility which is to our nation as a whole. Provided that we do that, we may continue with our function however we are composed, whatever differences there are in methods of appointment. In my own way, as my time draws to a close, I am confident that ultimately we shall do it.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, it is perhaps a mark of this 1122 House that I am lucky to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. I am grateful to him; he is one of the only speakers who is audible here at the back of the Chamber. I have been grateful to him over many years. He has taught me many new things this evening. His speech was one of the most constructive that I have heard during the two days of debate.
I feel that in the second day we are already well on the way to stage two. It seems an aeon since the introductory remarks of the Lord Privy Seal, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. When she returns, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Williams, might draw attention to the fetching outfit in scarlet that she wore yesterday. I see that today she has changed. Is that a good omen for Saturday afternoon? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will be able to explain to me when he comes to wind up the debate.
I was thrilled by the noble Baroness's quotation of statistics. She mentioned a figure of 1.4 per cent. of noble Lords being "workers". I look forward to all the new arrivals in this House not being classified as "workers" or "drone" Peers. I certainly agree on the figure of 1.4 per cent. I suspect that that is about the percentage of the general population who make a differentiation between life Peers and hereditary Peers.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Carew, from time to time when leaving this House I try to collect a taxi. I find it quicker to go across the road. When a taxi driver stops to pick me up he does not necessarily know that I have been—I shall not say "working" but occupying myself in your Lordships' House. The driver often says: "What's a geezer like you doing in there?", and, "Isn't Tony Blair going to abolish the whole House of Lords?" I hope the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will be able to convey those sentiments of about 98.6 per cent. of the population to the noble Baroness when she returns. There is wide misunderstanding throughout the nation as to what is to happen to this House.
I was thrilled to hear throughout the debate, and above all in the opening speeches, of the lovely inbuilt Conservative majority. It was referred to earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. I was pleased that my noble friend Lord Elton took courage and wondered whether the noble Lord was absolutely right. My noble friend referred to a great event that took place in 1981. I cannot remember whether my noble friend Lord Elton was still in the Whips' Office; I certainly was. There was a massive revolt against the Conservative Government, headed by my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk. There was a notable speech from the Treasury Bench by Lord Butler. It was the first enormous government defeat of the Thatcher government.
I recall going down the corridor to try to explain to our honourable and right honourable colleagues what had happened. They were simply unable to understand—as in the enjoyable thoughts of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who during my career used to make powerful speeches from the position where the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is presently sitting. I have had a long career, 10 years, as a Whip, longer than most of your Lordships save for four or five notable 1123 exceptions. I was not one of those grand people who sit in offices at the end of the corridor, but more like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, or those of your Lordships who sit on the Fender outside attempting to restrain people from leaving the Chamber. I was able to enlighten two Members on the Government Benches to christen—I hope I may call him a noble friend—the noble Lord, Lord Carter and liken him to the eternal Hauptmann Priem, the vice-commandant of Colditz. I suggested that mischievous people like myself would assist every Peer in the House to follow the great example of Airey Neave, who wrote a book entitled, They Have Their Exits.
That bears greatly upon the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. The noble Baroness said that she wanted a new and improved House of Lords after the hereditary Peers had gone. I am not too sure whether the noble Baroness served in the Whips Office. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, did. But I have news for them. No doubt my thoughts may be echoed by those in the Whips Office. There are three words that Whips in this House have to learn. They are all fairly polite. They are: "please" and "thank you".
As noble Lords will appreciate, although I do not know that it is necessarily appreciated down the corridor let alone outside this place, all Members of this House, save on the Government Front Bench and two or three other distinguished colleagues, are amateurs. When I am asked to try to explain how the House of Lords works with the House of Commons, even abroad in well-established countries such as Switzerland, which has a democracy dating back 700 years, people seem to take my simple example of one of the world's greatest events straddling the months of June and July—Wimbledon tennis.
In 1968 the Wimbledon authorities—I believe it is called the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club—took the decision that both amateurs and professionals would come to compete at Wimbledon. That puts in a nutshell the workings of our current system of Parliament. We in this House are the amateurs; those in the other place are the professionals. But it does not prevent your Lordships from acting in a thoroughly professional way. The greatest example is that of my immediate predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. It is a point that is perhaps not appreciated. When we the hereditary Peers go, I shall certainly not behave like a football hooligan. I am a Scot. I leave that to the English and other people—though perhaps the language that I use would not be entirely understood or suitable in many football grounds. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, who spoke earlier, was fairly discreet in not saying that he and I were exact contemporaries at Eton. It seems that the noble Lord did science. I was told that I was too dim to take that subject, so I learnt languages. Now, when I go to those great sporting events, I can invite the referee to get new glasses, or white stick or, even better, a guide dog, in eight languages! I find that that does much. However, I try to restrain my comments.
There will he some fairly difficult barriers to the reform of this House. The noble Baroness referred to a new and improved House. If there is to be an elected 1124 element, or if the House is to be entirely elected, it will be totally different. How will it be elected; and will it end up like a second Chamber? The German Bundesrat is a perfect model for what this House might become to in 15 years' time. To see the Bundesrat putting a complete stop on many necessary reforms in Germany is an interesting example of a second Chamber with inbuilt powers using those powers to the maximum.
If we have an entirely elected Chamber, that will be fine. But we may have—and here I may be politically incorrect—a proportion of Members elected and some nominated. Can noble Lords, apart from extreme zealots, of whom there are not too many present this evening, imagine tramping around looking to see whether they can get themselves elected to this House; coming here; not being paid; and when they move around on the blue carpet to my right it being suggested by their party Whip that they do not go home? I simply do not believe that.
Having been a Whip for 10 years, I have one or two hints. There are other people, men in boiled white shirts, at least three of whom would be able to drill me round. They are ex-warrant officers in the Brigade of Guards who have had a long career in psychology and coping with difficult people. There are plenty here and it might be a hint for a reformed House of Lords. A Whip sitting outside would not be needed. However, it is beyond the realms of reality to have a new and reformed House of Lords, with amateurs who are not paid running for election, coming here to do the kind of job we do day in, day out in your Lordships' House. I may be visually challenged, but I see that I have gone well over my time. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to take that into account when he comes to reply.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Lord Cockfield
My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Lyell in paying tribute to the powerful delivery of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. Some years ago my noble friend Lord Long moved the famous Motion, That the noble Lord be no longer heard. As the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, can be heard as far away as Trafalgar Square without the aid of a microphone, it seems to me that that Motion was misconceived.
I hold no brief for the hereditary principle in general, either in this House or elsewhere. Nevertheless, I object strongly to what the Government propose in this instance. The reason is simply this. We face a major problem which has been identified inter alia, or among others, by my noble friend Lord Elton. I shall come back to that in a moment.
The simple truth is that the Government have not got a clue what to do. That is obvious if we look at their record in a number of fields. They have bright ideas, but when it comes to doing anything about them, what happens? They have consultation. Consultation is admirable if you know what you are consulting about, but if you are consulting in order to trawl up ideas from other people, it only illustrates how little you are prepared. If you do not have consultation, you proceed to a committee or a commission in the hope that at least 1125 you will be told what you should think—if you have got as far as thinking. That is exactly the issue here. It is easy enough to have bright ideas. We all do, which shows how easy it is to have them. The real problem is not having bright ideas; it is translating them into practical application.
In industry, administration and government the right way of proceeding is to draw up a proper detailed plan and, if necessary, a costed plan. That can be put out for public consideration and discussion; it can be torn to pieces, amended and improved. But at least by starting that way you know what you are talking about. You focus your mind and end up, oddly enough, with getting something done. That might appeal even to the present Government.
I come back to the major issue raised by my noble friend Lord Elton. That is the overweening power of government. I am not talking about this government but about government in general. It was put succinctly and accurately in the Motion adopted by the House of Commons in 1780:The power of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be deminished".The Motion was moved by a hereditary Peer; nevertheless it was adopted in another place. I commend it to your Lordships.
But the issue is this: we have no constitution in this country. To say that we have an unwritten constitution is playing with words. That is borne out by the simple fact that it is within the power of Parliament to repeal the most fundamental statutes, to repeal the Bill of Rights, to repeal the European Communities Act 1972. That would appeal very much to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, not to mention the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, if he were here. That is proof of the fact that we do not have a constitution.
Look what the Government themselves have done. When they want to protect the citizen against the power of government, what do they do? They do not know what to do themselves; they ask us to pass into law the European Convention on Human Rights. That is not the European Commission to which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, objects so strongly. No doubt he approves of what the Government did. But what are they doing? They cannot even think of how to protect their own citizens. They have to go outside and find someone else to do their thinking for them. How, therefore, can one expect them to solve the major problem of the overweening power of government versus the citizen? That problem must be addressed. Trying to focus a debate on hereditary Peers is a mere diversion from the problem that really matters.
We see the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, here. I pay tribute to his ability, charm of manner and courtesy. He believed that he was entitled to ask the Opposition at Question Time to do his thinking for him. Of course, we are capable of doing our own thinking, but when it comes to policy we believe that we are entitled to ask the Government to do a bit of thinking of their own and tell us what they want to do. We will tell them soon enough why they have got it wrong, but that is the privilege of every Opposition.
1126 It is not that I want to support the principle of having hereditary Peers or the principle of how you elect them. I want to know what the Government propose to do. Until we know that, we should ask the Government seriously to think again whether they are progressing the matter in a way that is really in the public interest.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne
My Lords, I am a relative newcomer to your Lordships' House. Unlike some, I spent only a decade in the other place but I claim many past and present noble kinsmen here, as well as many honourable Members of my family in the other place.
All my forebears and present noble kinsmen here come from the hereditary principle. I wish to pay a familial tribute to their prolonged and—dare I say it?—distinguished public service over the centuries in the parliaments of Scotland, England and the United Kingdom.
However, I cannot argue for the retention of seats held here in perpetuity solely by virtue of being the male first born. The lottery of conception produces good, bad and indifferent over the generations in most families. The argument of suitability to govern created only by chance of birth and single gender is scientifically and logically unsustainable in a society without enforced human genetic breeding programmes. The prevailing argument that the hereditary lottery is just as good as any other lottery to produce suitable Peers detracts from the dedication of your Lordships' House to excellence—excellence in legislative decision making. But that is our job.
I want the best for the government of my country, and so do we all. Yet the received wisdom of yesterday in many speeches was that reform of the House of Lords was somehow of lesser import than the other reforming thrusts of the incoming reforming government; that the reform of the House of Lords was somehow secondary or even tertiary and that excellent reforms had already started in relation to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the European Parliament.
Surely, the House of Lords is a vital part of the full constitutional review and cannot be taken in isolation as if it is of lesser value to the Government's programme and is somehow an add-on to our democracy. I do not think so. The House of Lords should be the jewel in the crown of our renewed constitution. Does that mean that we should move immediately to stage two? I think not, because the position of hereditary Peers in our ranks clouds the issue. We must close the gaping fissure in our democracy before we move on to stage two. I do not believe that we can discuss a fully democratic House of Lords while we have the undemocratic weight of the hereditary principle in our midst.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, does the noble Baroness suggest that we have the democratic weight of appointed Life Peers? What is democratic about them?
§ Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne
My Lords, I find it difficult to agree with the argument that modern 1127 patronage is somehow worse than previous patronage when it is put forward by the inheritors of past patronage. Further, many life Peers—I do not place myself among them—come here by virtue of the excellence of their professions. I believe that the next stage of reform of the House of Lords should be to examine closely and carefully which groupings in our society should be here. I do not shrink from paying tribute to the many excellent qualities that individual hereditary Peers have brought to your Lordships' House, but I believe that the task now is to keep the good parts of the House of Lords—I shall identify them—and discard the outdated parts that distance our legislators from our citizens.
I have no personal criticism of those who fill the seats here by inheritance and gender. But surely the concept of inheritance as a password to power reeks of corruption—not the financial corruption that ensnared some Members of the other place in the previous government but the corruption of "jobs for the boys". It is the antithesis of competition that is the modern mantra of acceptability in Her Majesty's Opposition. There is no competition among hereditary Peers to get here; there are no examinations, just inherited titles. It is a fraternity that for many generations has continued to exclude the powerless.
I believe that your Lordships' new house must be refashioned to reflect and inspire today's citizens to become involved in politics. If there is change, which I welcome, let us not hark back to worn out democratic practices. I speak of representative democracy achieved as in the other place. To me that is a worn out concept: representative democracy depends upon prior and full information for authority over citizens, for its usefulness to citizens and for its defence of citizens. That is outdated simply by the technological advances with which we are so familiar. Today, our citizens are overwhelmed by knowledge that is available all round the clock, and they are a fully educated society.
What do we have to offer as a governing body if the people have the knowledge and can take power themselves? The original concept of democracy was the involvement of all. Although in Athens that excluded women, slaves and the poor, nonetheless in the Athenian definition it was the involvement of everyone. Yet when I sat in the other place, which time I valued immensely, the first-past-the-post system achieved exclusivity in another way. It is virtually impossible for the disabled to enter the other place because of the exhaustion of campaigning. I do not know how the great Member of Parliament Anne Begg has managed it. Another wonderful example is the Secretary of State for Education. For virtually everybody else who is disabled the task is impossible. The exclusivity of the other place reigns supreme against the disabled.
One also has in mind the black and Asian communities, Moslems and other religious minorities, and women. We are a majority in numbers but we have other business to attend to. Very often we are the carers as well as the bearers and nurturers of society. We have many other tasks.
1128 The system of democracy that we have adopted excludes all those groups. Therefore, the democratic model that we have adopted is outdated because it does not reflect our multi-faceted society—a society in which everyone is working in the marketplace as well as having a home life. I see democracy as being made up of three parts, of which the obtaining of the vote is just one step. That may be the starting line of equality but just to have the vote is not enough. All the elements of our society should have a part in the voting of our legislators into power and in the framing of the legislation and its implementation. Westminster is responsible for the framing of the legislation. When your Lordships look again at the way in which the new House of Lords will operate, I believe that we should retain or create places for those groupings to which I have referred. We must take time to ponder on best practice for second chambers globally.
The alternative is to revert eight centuries and merge again with the other place. That may be something that is worth looking at, because there is so much that is good in your Lordships' House. But we must look at the techniques of modern governance. Modern governance respects the people—so much so that its disciples aim to flatten the pyramid of generally patriarchal inherited power—"we rule, you cower"—and draw in creative thinking from all corners of society to spark the engine of state. Modern governance techniques search out ways to match the global flow of knowledge to empower a nation's citizens positively.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, the noble Baroness has put forward a very interesting idea about a form of government that she regards as democracy. I am not sure that I regard democracy as a very good thing anyhow. But I should like to hear examples of countries where this kind of popular participation through computer terminals functions. The countries with which I am familiar, and about which I thought the noble Baroness knew—France, Germany and the Low Countries—appear to work with some measure of parliamentary government that relies on votes at general elections as we do for major matters. Can the noble Baroness provide some examples, or is all of this part of the imagination of the noble Baroness?
§ Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, quite rightly challenges me but I am not the Royal Commission and it is not for me to pre-empt its thinking this evening. The framework within which this debate takes place is the manifesto of the Labour Government. We cannot go too deeply into these matters but I would willingly discuss these matters further with the noble Lord. Modern mechanisms and methods to disseminate and use information have broken all boundaries and created a new society. Today we live in the information society and must recognise that within our legislation.
The virtues of your Lordships' House are many and we have to incorporate them in our future, but the timescale of the reform must surely be within this reforming Government. I beg them not to leave it so long that the loss of a general election may loom. In this 1129 century, 70 years of Conservative government have left a House of Lords which I believe is unreformed, and therefore, partially, at least, powerless in a way we would not wish.
Finally, a reformed House of Lords and a revised House of Lords should have more power because the other place, without the balancing factor of a real second Chamber, is omnipotent and omnicompetent, and that cannot be fully democratic either.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Viscount Cross
My Lords, Her Majesty's Government seem to be obsessed by what is in their manifesto. At election time parties sometimes put extreme measures in their manifestos. To propose to alter the constitution of the country and to abolish part of Parliament is an example of such an extreme measure. I have never heard anyone say that the House of Lords does not perform its job extremely well. Perhaps it does it rather too well. The last administration did not like some of their measures being sent back to the other place for further consideration and possible amendment. I believe that the present Government do not like it either. The House of Lords is simply doing its job and, of course, the will of the other place will always prevail.
As your Lordships know, the present composition of this House is a well balanced mix of hereditary Peers, life Peers, bishops and Law Lords. As the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, told us yesterday, there are no fewer than 203 hereditary Peers on the Cross Benches. What à pity it would be to lose them. Does the public realise that if you abolish the hereditary Peers and alter the manner in which the life Peers are appointed, making them a reflection of the composition of the other place, then you are halfway towards single chamber government and an elected dictatorship? Does the public really want that? I think not.
It is rather like the French Revolution all over again. These hereditary Peers are a lot of "aristos"—off with their heads. But what crime have the hereditary Peers committed? None whatever, I believe. On the contrary, they have given many hours of their time for very little reward, endeavouring to ensure the good governance of this country. They are democratic. Time and again, they have been shown to reflect the wishes of the people. They are representative for among them are experts in every field. They live all over the country and bring great independence of mind to bear on every subject.
May I venture to say that the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, have great merit? They would enable the great wisdom and experience of older hereditary Peers to be retained, at the same time allowing the voices of younger hereditary Peers, in their twenties, thirties and forties, to be heard. As your Lordships know, life Peers make an invaluable contribution to the House, but having already had careers of great distinction many of them belong to an older generation.
1130 The Government seem to think that there are too many Conservatives in this House, but this is a revising Chamber and therefore likely to be conservative with a small "c". Nonetheless, the Government, the Liberal Democrats and the Cross Benches together can outvote the Conservatives and have been known to do so on many occasions. Furthermore, as your Lordships know, Peers who are busy elsewhere are able to apply for leave of absence and do not have to attend the House for the length of that Parliament.
As mentioned by other speakers, there are certain political families on all sides of the House who have served the country in this House extremely well for many centuries. Hereditary Peers have a priceless asset in that they owe allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen but otherwise are beholden to nobody. They speak and vote without fear or favour for what they believe to be right, just, true and fair. With the greatest respect to the Government Front Bench, I believe that it would be an act of the greatest folly and madness to throw all this out of the window. When a government proposes to alter the constitution of the country, it should, at the very least, hold a referendum, or even a general election, on the subject.
The House of Lords is a happy accident of history. The country is very lucky to have it. It is much admired and envied throughout the world. This House works extremely well as it is. For heaven's sake, leave it alone and let it get on with its job.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Lord Cooke of Thorndon
My Lords, in 1949 the New Zealand National Party's election manifesto said,The Legislative Council as at present constituted has failed in its purpose as a revisory chamber and should be abolished. As the government, the National Party, will examine the possible alternatives to provide for sonic form of safeguard against hasty, unwise or ill-considered legislation".To your Lordships, the chord thus struck may seem to have a certain familiarity. The background was that the New Zealand Upper House, a nominated body, did not enjoy high public respect. Moreover, the National government, for it did win that election, was faced with the opposition of a Labour majority in the Upper House. So the Upper House was abolished. In the ensuing half century there have been three inquiries by parliamentary Committees and many suggested solutions, but still there is no second Chamber. It is unicameralism by default. Legislation is sometimes enacted with a speed that prevents mature debate or the formation of reasoned opposition, introduced perhaps on a Thursday and receiving the Royal Assent on the Saturday. I need scarcely underline the moral that in this controversial field of second Chamber reform, the piecemeal can easily become the perpetual.
The first committee of inquiry produced an extensive report saying that it was beyond the wit of man to create a perfect second Chamber. The dilemma is of course that, if predominantly elected, it will be a rival to the lower House; if predominantly appointed, it will be seen to lack sufficient importance, independence and standing. The committee recommended appointments 1131 according to party strength in the lower House, with a power to delay legislation for two months: which was bathos.
There is a second possible parallel from New Zealand experience. A young couple were murdered in their farmhouse. A neighbour was charged and was twice found guilty by juries, despite suggestions that some of the evidence against him had been planted by the police. The Prime Minister of the day disagreed with the juries. On his advice to the Queen's representative, the Governor General, the convicted man was pardoned and given compensation. That done, the Government set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the conduct of the police. The commission's proceedings were dogged by controversy as to the extent, if any, to which the pardon tied the commission's hands: that what the executive had already done precluded the commission from making full investigation. An unsatisfactory report emerged. It generated acrimonious litigation. Incidentally, the murders remain officially unsolved. The moral again needs no underlining; a Royal Commission should have a clear field.
When the New Zealand legislature abolished its Upper House, regrets were expressed that there was nothing equivalent to an hereditary peerage. The United Kingdom was envied its House of Lords, and the standing of the House in the eyes of the British public. May it not be shortsighted and a cause of wonderment to the rest of the world if this unique national asset is now totally thrown away—if an Estate of the realm which has played such a part in British history is denied any place at all in the legislature? A democracy is a complex organism. One person, one vote does not and cannot represent the true distribution of power in the community. Consider only the influence of the Fourth Estate.
Although coming from an egalitarian country, in the past two years I have learnt to appreciate the contribution to your Lordships' proceedings made by hereditary Peers. During the time of the last government, I was less impressed with another factor. Clearly no one party should have a permanent in-built majority. But I venture to think that some quite modest representative hereditary element—perhaps about 100—might be a useful and sensible compromise, because it could be an option at least open to consideration by a Royal Commission.
Nor do I share the pessimistic view that a Royal Commission must take years. The field of second Chamber structures is well ploughed. Comparative reading and reflection about practicalities need not be prolonged. Evidence, which in the end must largely be no more than expressions of opinion, could surely be controlled. Independent scrutiny by a Royal Commission seems to be the right constitutional course. But if half the answer is pre-empted, half the advantage will be lost.
§ 9.5 p.m.
The Earl of Dudley
My Lords, I am greatly encouraged by the wise words of the noble and learned 1132 Lord, Lord Cooke. His experience from the antipodes is as vintage as the New Zealand wine which I drink with far too great regularity.
As one of the 750 defendants in the dock, I have studied the prosecution's case with great care. Before I comment on it, I should like to apologise to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and my noble friend Lord Cranborne. Having been granted bail by the Government Whips yesterday to keep an unavoidable previous engagement, I was unable to hear their opening briefs. But I have read them in the "court record" available today.
I think that most of my fellow defendants, at least those on these Benches, are aware, as I am, that this is a kangaroo court. The verdict has been reached before the trial has begun. The prosecution has asked for a sentence, described variously as "Getting rid of the hereditaries", by the noble Baroness on television, and in the Daily Telegraph—a kind of political ethnic cleansing—as "eliminating the hereditaries", by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, which sounds even more drastic; or, more discreetly, "removing the hereditaries", by other noble Lords. The Liberal Democrats, represented by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, want to drop us through a trapdoor. Although I know my fate is sealed, in the true spirit of a Bolshevik trial, I propose to enter a defence even though I know it will do no good and that I am faced with execution.
I shall dismiss summarily the minor charges against us such as that we are an anachronism. Although the past two days tend to belie it, latest scientific evidence reveals that time does not exist, so that we can disregard anachronisms. I also disdain the old cliché that we are here by accident of birth. I am here by virtue of contracts between two former first Ministers of the Crown and my forbears, giving their heirs in succession the right to sit and vote in this House; a contract which the present Government seek to break.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House also called hereditary principles of selection "anomalous", which means "irregular" or "abnormal". After some seven centuries of regular use, I would have regarded them as customary.
I turn to the main charges against us. The first and original charge, as implied in the Labour Party manifesto and restated by the noble Baroness in her opening speech yesterday, is that we are undemocratic and unrepresentative, and that our removal will make the House more democratic and more representative. The composition of the whole House, including the life Peers, is undemocratic and unrepresentative.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard—I see that he is not in his place—will forgive me if I remind him that in an earlier debate on the subject he argued, in response to my question, that a House of Lords consisting wholly of life Peers would be more democratic than the House as now constituted. With all due deference to the life Peers, a nominated or appointed meritocrat is no more democratic than an hereditary aristocrat. There may be other arguments in his favour but they have nothing to do with democracy. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord 1133 Elton, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, just tied herself in knots when trying to address the same problem.
Of course, I would regard an elected second Chamber as more democratic and more representative than this House. If the noble Baroness's Motion and the Labour Party manifesto undertook to replace the hereditary peerage with a truly democratic elected second Chamber, I would have nothing further to say tonight. The rights and privileges of the hereditary Peers, or even what the hereditary peerage has to offer to the House of Lords and to the people of this nation, do not outweigh the constitutional benefits of an elected second Chamber.
I believe that the Prime Minister does not want a second elected Chamber; nor does the other place. They want to have it all their own way. I heard some noble Lords say yesterday that they regarded an elected second Chamber as unnecessary, or extravagant, or a waste of time. I do not agree. I seldom disagree with my noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley, but on this particular point I do.
Then there is the charge that we are unprofessional. A number of noble Lords have debated this point and I do not intend, in the short space of time available, to enlarge much on their arguments, except to say that in putting forward this argument noble Lords opposite must be meaning political professionalism. The only real improvement in that sense would be provided by an elected second Chamber.
Then there is public opinion. I do not believe that the outcome of the last election entitles the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to say, as she did in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, that the large majority of the British people want a reformed House of Lords and the removal of the hereditary peerage. If you want to quote public opinion, hold a referendum.
Nor is this a matter of voting majorities. On this side of the House we know that it is a sham to cite the voting imbalance between hereditary and life Peers as a cause for removing the hereditaries. In agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, I defy the Government to give one example where their legislation has been permanently disadvantaged by the hereditary Peers.
I do accept that in overall numbers, for public presentation, and to set at rest the unjustified fears and allay the prejudices of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, there is a need to redress the balance. I favour a screening process, aimed at reducing the hereditary Peers in the Lords to anything between a half and a third of their present number. Moreover, I think it is a matter of regret that no previous Conservative administration pre-empted this debate by some such reform. However, as I understand that the Government have rejected similar attempts at compromise—such as that of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster—I shall not at this late hour weary the House with the details of my proposal.
1134 All in all, I think that the Government have a very shaky case for removing the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House.
Now for my defence! There may be no moral justification, no practical reason, no political advantage, for hereditary Peers sitting and voting in the House of Lords. But, in many instances, remembrance of the deeds of their ancestors, of their families' role in our history, commemorated by their descendants attending, speaking and voting in this House, symbolise tradition and continuity, which, together with the annual gracious presence of the Sovereign, Her Majesty's family and entourage, and the glorious craftsmanship of Pugin, give this House a mystique which renders it unique among parliamentary second Chambers. And without—I hope that the majority of the House will agree—any politically harmful consequences. Quite the contrary. Moreover, many of these despised hereditaries, apart from their ability, are very good company; and the House will be the poorer without them.
Our weakness is not the charges levelled against us; our weakness is to have lost political clout. And in that respect, one thought consoles me. I assume that my eldest son, disenfranchised from the Lords, will have the right to stand for election to the other place, irrespective of how he styles himself. It would be ironic if one day the wheel turned full circle and the British electorate, in their wisdom, voted for a Parliament consisting mainly of Lords!
Finally, I have two further strictures that I cannot leave unsaid. They are directed not at noble Lords opposite but at my noble friends on these Benches and on the Front Bench. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, will forgive me—he is not in his seat—for expressing surprise at some of his remarks which could be summed up as, "Shoot the prisoners, but not until you've got the ransom money". Secondly, I have observed that in preparation for this constitutional conflict the Leader of the Conservative Party, whose Whip I take, appears to have donned the ermine and strawberry leaves of a Duke; a Duke with a reputation for leading from the rear, the Duke of Plaza-Toro. I earnestly hope and pray that the coming months will prove me wrong.
§ 9.16 p.m.
My Lords, "Trust in me. Trust me" were not the words of Kaa the snake in The Jungle Book but those of our Prime Minister. How many times did we hear those words in the run-up to the last election?We will clean up politics, end the hereditary principle in the House of Lords".Those words indicate the superficiality of Labour policy contained in the famous manifesto. If only it were so simple.
To me, this debate is about trust. We are being asked to consider the Government's proposals for the reform of this House; yet there are no proposals. The debate is a clever trick; it is all conjecture. We are not discussing proposals; we are letting off steam. Later we will no doubt read that we have discussed the Government's proposals for the reform of this House. That would be a 1135 lie. As the Government have no meaningful proposals they want somebody else to do the job; a Royal Commission. "Trust me. Get out and we the Government, on behalf of the people, will replace you with something better." That is the proposal.
Like it or not, we are the trustees of the constitution. It is not government property, as they would like us to believe. Being a trustee involves acting in utmost good faith. But leaving that aside, what indicators, what barometer, can we look for when considering the trust rating of this administration? Financial accounting and accountability have a place in such an indicator. Funds are scrounged for the Millennium Dome on an unknown basis. Who knows all the reasons why supermarkets are funding the Dome? They are certainly getting a bad press about British lamb.
"Trust me". At present we have a Government whose Foreign and Commonwealth Office is prepared to enter into secret commercial agreements with large corporations. Large sums of money, hundreds of thousands of pounds, were accepted from companies such as BP, BT, Cannon, Dell Computers, Group 4 and the Rover group to subsidise the summit meetings recently held in the United Kingdom. Why the secret commercial agreements for the funding of the G8 and other intergovernment summit meetings? Is this what is meant by involving professionals? Is this clean, open government? What happens when such a company tenders for government business? Is this the ending of sleaze? If it is, I fear for the future of this House.
"Trust me". Of the major contributors to Labour Party funds, one-third had their trust repaid. They received honours.
The Government appear to have no idea of the future composition of this House. One fact is certain: future Members will have to be paid if there is to be a sensible number who turn up for debates. How much are the Government proposing that the elected or voluntary members should be paid? Once salaries and expenses of, for example, £50,000 or even £100,000 are introduced to this House, then all that can be done is to sit down with a blank piece of paper and start again.
What is the purpose of trying to retain a similar place once the decision that the hereditary Peers are to go is taken? What is so sacrosanct about life Peers? We have a duty to the people of this country to ensure that the power of the executive is not increased as a result of the reform of this House. On the basis of the current track record of clean, open and accountable politics, we have a duty to reject the "trust me and get out" policy until something better is proposed.
§ 9.20 p.m.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for initiating this debate and congratulate her on the position that she has now assumed. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, most of us would agree that this has been a worthwhile debate. He said that the case is already dismissed and we are already condemned. This debate provides an opportunity to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and the noble Baroness to 1136 listen to some of the interesting and complex points which have been put to them this evening. I hope that they will think about them and not leave us, as my noble friend Lord Dudley said, condemned and that is it.
I share the concern of my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition that there should be no immediate elimination of hereditary Peers until there is an agreement about the form of the proposed House. Over the centuries hereditary Peers, through membership of this House, have rendered service to the governments of their day. Although in the main power has been vouchsafed to them by birth and although they have usually avoided the strains involved in a political career, their responsibilities have been carried out in a special way which is unique to this House.
The changes which are proposed do not close an era of oligarchy but rather mark a stage in our evolving democracy. It is important to preserve the best of the present system. The Government's aim to achieve a more democratic and representative House would not be enhanced if there is to be a gap between the departure of the hereditary Peers and the time when the new arrangements come into being.
Careful thought must be given to the problem of maintaining standards after the doors are opened to a wider intake. Hereditary Peers form the main tap root which has been nourished over the years by generations of Members of all political persuasions. It is important to decide what kind of House we are trying to achieve and how to preserve the best of the present system. My hope is that agreements may enable a number of working hereditary Peers to be selected for their ability.
Over the years I have taken part in many debates where the discussion has been on a non-party political basis and in which views have been exchanged which have been of some benefit to the wider world. There have been a few small victories, one of which the noble Baroness the Leader of the House may remember when she was shadow spokesman for health. She was pressing for changes in the mental health legislation. On that occasion I put down an amendment concerning the movement of patients from England to Scotland, where the laws were different, which was accepted by the previous government to the satisfaction of the noble Baroness.
The reason I mention that is just to show that many of the interventions in this House on mental health have been made by hereditary Peers like my noble friend Lord Mottistone. It is important, before we lose speakers like him who speak from individual experience and with the authority of the organisations to which they belong, that we know who will replace them. My concern is that the replacements may easily be appointed because of their political allegiance to a party. They will not be able to speak with knowledge about the realities of the issues in hand.
I fully realise the importance of maintaining a party balance; a system involving working Peers—some of whom may be hereditary but most of whom will be life Peers who are appointed for their skills as legislators—and one which offered the opportunity for debate by 1137 Members from all political and social backgrounds. The danger is that political appointments may not always be appropriate, as I have seen during my lifetime here.
It would seem sensible to eliminate those hereditary Peers who cannot attend regularly, who are old or infirm or who have no expertise to offer. There should also be a non-working category, which includes life Peers who are experts in their field but who are unable to attend regularly, as well as hereditary Peers who represent voluntary bodies or who have experience in the arts, medicine, agriculture or industry; people who have given their services over the years and who are recognised authorities on their subject. Those busy people would attend debates only on their specific subjects.
If these proposals were accepted, it would be for a joint committee or Royal Commission to decide whether occasional Peers had a vote and whether they would receive an expense allowance. For them there would be no whipping and no hanging about waiting for the Division Bell. There is a difference between speakers who speak purely from individual experience about a cause close to their heart and legislators whose response is fair and just but with more of a political motivation.
Finally, I offer full support to my noble friend Lord Cranborne in his efforts to find a solution to the problems in designing a reformed House. He has a specific heritage to preserve. As the guardian of this precious trust he looks back to his forebears for guidance. In a much lesser way I remember as a new boy in your Lordships' House in 1945 being shown the ropes by the then Clerk of Parliaments, Sir Henry Badeley. All of us on all sides of the House must look for guidance on how to handle these difficult problems.
§ 9.27 p.m.
§ Lord Tanlaw
My Lords, it is always a delight to listen to the noble Earl's contribution; many has he made to this House. I hope that he will feel I am not disagreeing too much with him when I attempt to make a subjective contribution, as most noble Lords have done, on the principle of how power is handed down through the hereditary system rather than the hereditary system itself.
I was born the youngest son of a hereditary Peer and therefore for me the hereditary principle of primogeniture has always been fatally flawed. Surely there must be some younger sons or daughters who are better suited to inherit a title on merit rather than those who have done so under the system of primogeniture. My grandfather was created an Earl in 1929 for services to the shipping industry in this country. Today, all other things being equal, he, like many others of his time, would almost certainly have been created a life Peer instead of a hereditary one. I am sure that he would have accepted that honour with the same gratitude, as, indeed, I did but for different reasons.
The question was raised by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House as to whether there is any other second Chamber in the world where political power is passed directly down through the hereditary principle. Is 1138 the noble Baroness correct to say that your Lordships' House is unique in this respect? Does not the Dewan Negara in Malaysia and its equivalent in Brunei not have a majority hereditary element incorporated into the constitution? Perhaps the powers of appointment to it by the Supreme Head of State under Islamic law do not make it exactly comparable to your Lordships' House. But is it not similar in many respects?
It may be worth recalling my family's Far Eastern experience of the hereditary transfer of political and constitutional duties. Their experience seems to me to demonstrate how hereditary powers can only be successfully transferred down within the family, especially when two completely different constitutional legal systems are involved, if the system of primogeniture is not employed. Members of my family on my mother's side were the supreme heads of state for more than 100 years over a greater part of what is now referred to as East Malaysia.
The Brooke dynasty was founded on Islamic and English constitutional law. Although it was hereditary in principle, it was, in effect, based on merit within the family. The Brooke dynasty, which was totally undemocratic in most respects, may have succeeded for 100 years because it was, in effect, an hereditary meritocracy. Only those members of the family considered best suited to take on the difficult responsibilities of absolute ruler over a multi-racial population were selected.
Furthermore, their system of government even allowed for retirement from office. The only defect of the dual constitutional systems in so far as I was concerned was that under Islamic law women, who included my mother, could not accede to the title.
Therefore, I feel that, on balance, I must support the Government in their basic premise that the hereditary system of primogeniture should not form even a part of a reformed second Chamber of government. Are there not too many Peers here at the moment—both hereditary and life Peers—and will not the exclusion of the hereditary element at least help to rectify this situation?
If I can just go "off script" for a moment, I have never before seen the House so crowded than in these past two days. The essential services, both outside and inside the House, were clearly strained, even to the extent that some noble Lords were unaware of their location.
I do not understand the Government's proposal to mean that hereditary Peers or their descendants should be denied re-entry through any of the new doors which I assume will be open to them in a reformed Second Chamber. Many families of hereditary Peers—much older than mine—have played an important part in the work of this House. Some, I have no doubt at all, will continue to do so in a reformed Chamber but under a different guise from that of an hereditary Peer.
A reformed second Chamber, if it is to succeed, must surely be capable of looking above and beyond the event horizon of party politics. In my view, it can achieve that end only if there is a strong independent element represented on the Cross Benches—an element not restricted to men only, but with men and women who are aware of the latest developments in science, business 1139 and information technology relevant to current legislation. Should not national associations be encouraged by the proposed Royal Commission to put forward ex officio candidates of both sexes for the new Chamber, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Annan? I would hope that these professionals would be both articulate and competent to guide noble Lords on these matters without political bias.
I would find it particularly helpful in debates where knowledge of time, space or astrophysics was required to have the Astronomer Royal here in person or at least his nominee present. He or she would at least, I am sure, make their professional contribution in such a way as to help non-professionals better understand the subject and any proposed legislation connected with it that one day may be passed in this House.
I also agree with my noble friend Lord Annan that there should be a retirement age set for all Members of a reformed House. I think that 75 is an accepted maximum age for most professions. I will get my bus pass next year. I am just not sure whether I will catch the right bus once I am 75, but there are many examples here of those who clearly do. However, that is the usual and accepted maximum age. If it is accepted in the professions and elsewhere, why should it not be accepted in a newly reformed House? That would also help to reduce the number of Peers while making space for the new arrivals.
Without having the benefit of the White Paper before us, there may be a hereditary element included in the reformed House on account of the Royal Appointment. I ask the noble Baroness and the Government to consider that, if there is such a hereditary element through the Royal Family, with its historical role in our House, they give up the idea of primogeniture and appoint those members of the Family best suited to make their contribution in this House; and they too should be subject to an agreed retirement age.
§ 9.35 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, hear, hear! The noble Lord made a very good speech. I have heard a number of very good speeches during this debate. I enjoyed most of the speeches whether they shared my views or not. I appreciate the passion and firmness with which people have used this opportunity. An earlier contributor said that this was an important debate. It is something that this House does very well by providing the opportunity to air views, to trail coats, pinprick and to try to make progress. It began with the excellent introduction to the debate by the Leader of the House and has continued throughout the discussions.
I hope that next year I am invited to go through the Lobbies to support the abolition of the vote of hereditary Peers. I shall look on it as one of the supreme political moments of my life. As I go through the Lobby I shall echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, saying, "Rejoice, rejoice" because great will be my reward somewhere, if not in Heaven.
I believe that Members of this House who oppose the Government's point of view do not fully grasp the depth of feeling that Members who share my political view 1140 have against the hereditary principle. What is more, it is what it has meant in practice. If there were a text as regards what I am about to say it would be simply that "by their deeds shall ye know them". We have heard a great deal from Members on the opposite side of the argument to me with which I cannot agree. I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley, who said that the system works. I ask the question: for whom?
When one examines what it has meant in practice, I believe that the hereditary Peers have been digging their own grave for a very long time. I very much enjoyed listening to my noble friend Lord Richard. He said in yesterday's debate,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 the arguments independently; and then they independently vote Conservative".—[Official Report, 14/10/98; cols. 945–6.]It will not be a uniform situation, of course. There are colleagues around the House who disagree with the Government from time to time. But the evidence is quite clear. I refer to the use to which this House has been put by previous administrations during my time. It was a great privilege to serve in Whips Offices in both Houses for more than 20 years. Therefore, I take an interest in numbers. Despite the overwhelming disparity between the numbers on the Labour Benches and the Conservative Benches over many years, that did not stop previous administrations under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and Mr. John Major in the years 1979 to 1995, taking into account deaths and succession, increasing the Conservative numbers by 33 while the Labour numbers decreased by 28. Over that period there was a disparity of 61 between the two parties. The party opposite tries to maintain that that has been good for democracy—and the word democracy has been sneered at more than once tonight; indeed, I hope that we are all democrats and believe in democracy—I should tell them that that is something which I believe the people of this country cannot stand.
When I say, "By their deeds shall ye know them", I should point out to your Lordships that from 1974 to 1979 the Labour Government were defeated 343 times, which is an average of 69 times a Session. From 1979 to 1996, the Tory Government was defeated 231 times, which is an average of 13 times a Session. Of course, that can be accidental; it can be something which is par for the course. Indeed, as other colleagues have said, it is something which means that the House works. It certainly worked for the Tory Party, although it does not work for others.
I carried out some research to determine in what issues the preponderance of hereditary Peers meant that the Tory Government won when they would otherwise have been defeated without hereditaries. I took, first, the year 1996 and a debate on an amendment to the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill as regards extending grants to people with learning difficulties. The Tory Government won with the support of hereditaries. Secondly, I looked at a Motion calling for Opposition spokespersons to be given reasonable time to study the Scott Report. It was rejected by the then government, with the support of hereditaries. Thirdly, 1141 there was an amendment to the Asylum and Immigration Bill designed to exclude unaccompanied children from fast-track asylum proceedings. That, too was voted down by the government. Then there was an amendment to the Housing Bill which would have given greater security to temporarily housed homeless families. Again, that was voted down with the support of hereditary Peers.
There was also a further amendment to the Housing Bill to prevent the sale of the MoD married quarters estate without consultation and parliamentary approval. Again, that was voted down by the government. I also found an amendment to Commons amendments to the Asylum and Immigration Bill which would have ensured that asylum seekers claiming asylum within three days of their arrival in the UK would still be eligible for social security benefits. That was also voted down. I believe that all that is a shameful, shoddy and disgraceful record. It is one which is part of the debate and part of the argument. I believe that the people of this country are entitled to hear from the Government.
I have with me a facsimile of a card. It is a post-card depicting a poster, which was produced by the Labour Party in 1910. It shows the House of Lords and workers of the time bashing at the door to break it down. It says, "Labour Clears the Way". What the Government have done tonight is to continue unfinished business and business which the party opposite had 20 years to stir and stimulate but about which they decided to do nothing. I repeat: when I am invited to go through the Lobbies next year, I hope that it will be with a full heart and that I will be fulfilling the destiny not of someone with 14 or 15 generations behind him but, in my case, as someone following 14 or 15 generations of the Graham clan who were Border reivers and who have just as much right and entitlement to have their views expressed and heard in this House. I shall support the Government in their policy.
§ 9.43 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Bletso
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, will not be surprised to know that I disagree with much of what he said. Obviously, the years that he served in the Whips' Office of both places have put him in good stead to determine the hour at which noble Lords will speak. I casually asked the noble Lord at about ten minutes past three this afternoon what time he estimated he would be on his feet to speak in the debate. Without any hesitation the noble Lord replied that he expected to rise to speak at 9.30 p.m. When he began to speak, I looked up at the Clock. It was 9.31 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Bletso
My Lords, coming as late as I do in the list of speakers, now is not the time for original thoughts or proposals; it is more a time for sober reflection on what has been said and an opportunity to re-emphasise some key points.
1142 We are all, of course, grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for having given us the opportunity to air our views and to let off wind, as many have said—
§ Lord St. John of Bletso
My Lords, I am not sure I have used the right word. This has been a good and constructive opportunity to let off steam! I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and others that it would perhaps have been more opportune and more constructive if the noble Baroness the Leader of the House had given the House the opportunity to have this two-day debate some six months ago, and then presented the White Paper.
As a Cross Bench hereditary Member of your Lordships' House I make my position totally clear. I agree with the strong, logical case for a substantial and comprehensive reform of your Lordships' House, even though this may mean that I will no longer be a Member of your Lordships' House in the future. But central to my stance is the belief that such a reform should aim to improve the effectiveness of your Lordships' House and not just remove an anachronism for ideological and political reasons. Our role in this House is to be an effective check and balance on the other place, to persuade rather than to direct, not to block government legislation but to improve it. It would be farcical if the upper House became a nodding donkey for all legislation presented to it from the other place.
While it is impossible to defend the anachronism of being an unelected hereditary Peer and playing an active role in the revision of government legislation from the other place, credit must be given, and should be given, where it is due. Over the years many hereditary Peers have played an invaluable role in this process and have also spent many hours here for little pay or no pay at all. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House is totally wrong when she makes out that most active hereditary Peers are from landed farming backgrounds. I can speak only for myself. I gave up a lucrative career in the City in investment banking and equity sales to play a more active role in your Lordships' House. It has been a great honour. But surely the key point is not necessarily who is hereditary and who is a life Peer. What matters is the contribution that working Peers make to the effective functions of this Chamber and improving the public perception of what the House does. I am afraid that the perception of many of the public is that this House consists of a bunch of geriatrics, many of whom doze off in their seats. That is totally wrong. One of the most balanced speeches today was made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston. I support particularly his comment about the value of working Peers from all walks of life. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is a prime example of that.
I welcome the announcement of a Royal Commission, but surely it should consider combining stage one and stage two of Lords reform. I agree with the noble Lord, 1143 Lord Hurd, who said yesterday, at col. 952, that in embarking on the reform of the House of Lords the Government are starting out,on a journey with a hidden destination".The noble Baroness the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and others have referred to the mandate the Government were given from the electorate and the overwhelming public support to rid the House of the illegitimate and undemocratic hereditary element.
While the hereditary principle is indefensible, no one can deny that the House has worked well and could, with moderate reforms, be an effective transitional Chamber until a comprehensive package of reforms encompassing stage one and stage two is introduced.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, was right when she argued that few voters are likely to have studied the small print of the Labour Party manifesto. They are certainly unlikely to have voted Labour just because there was a commitment to get rid of hereditary Peers from this House.
Is the Minister aware that in a recent MORI survey conducted for The Times 21 per cent. of the 1,000 members of the public who were interviewed favoured keeping things as they are; 12 per cent. wanted to abolish the House of Lords in its entirety, lock, stock and barrel; and 48 per cent. favoured a package of reforms which would include some elected Members. Only 11 per cent. were in favour of just removing the hereditary Peers in stage one. That is hardly the overwhelming support of the general public for stage one alone, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, wrote in the Daily Telegraph yesterday.
I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about the importance of a strong Cross-Bench presence in the reformed upper House and that no one political party should command an absolute majority in this House. I spend much of my time on committee work. I know that I can say this, not only for myself but for other Members on the Cross Benches. I rarely vote unless I have had sufficient involvement and am sufficiently well-informed to make a reliable judgment on the issue.
Despite the Leader of the House having given us the opportunity to let off steam over the past two days I fear that the die has already been cast for the future reform of this House and that the Government will not take cognisance of what has been said during the debate but will press ahead willy-nilly. I hope I am wrong. The noble Earl, Lord Dudley, was right in saying that it is a bit of a farce and it could possibly be the case of a kangaroo court.
We should seek solutions that achieve all-party support. My hope is that we shall have an opportunity whereby the Government can consider the reforms combining stage one and stage two as a seamless operation, and thereby phase out hereditary Peers. What we need is "phase out", not just "get out."
§ 9.52 p.m.
§ The Earl of Kinnoull
My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate. It has never been dull. One of the 1144 factors that has made it lively is the eight-minute time limit. I am glad to say that Speaker No. 109, namely myself, will be even briefer.
The debate has emphasised three issues. The first is that good constitutional reform should always be carried out by all-party agreement, not forced through by a single party. The second is that this House has never had a higher reputation and standing in the country. It justly deserves that and performs well. Thirdly, there is undoubtedly a consensus in all parties on the need for reform. I do not disagree with that. I am glad that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern is chairing an independent commission. I am sure that his findings will be most helpful to the debate.
One of the mysteries in relation to reform of this House is why the Government have taken so long to produce their White Paper, and why, before they even published their thoughts, they suddenly turned back to their manifesto and announced the over-riding urgency of removing 35 per cent. of the working Members of this House. It does not make sense; there is no logical argument for it, and none has been made out. It may well be that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will convince us later.
I also wonder why the Government have chosen the merits of a Royal Commission over those of a Joint Select Committee. Again, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will comment. He will recall that the Joint Select Committee almost succeeded the last time reform was attempted.
One of the most moving speeches made over the past two days was that of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. He spoke with exceptional clarity and authority, having served in the House for 53 years, including, for some of us, as a distinguished leader. For me and, I am sure, for most Members, he touched a button when he said how often visitors would come and be amazed at the quality of the debates and the pleasantries of our procedures. I would have added the outstanding work of the Select Committees and the thorough examination of Bills through our revising role by dedicated part-time Members.
I am sure that those are qualities and strengths of the House which we should jealously guard for the future when the reforms are finally decided on.
§ 9.55 p.m.
My Lords, we are now at last approaching the end of this marathon event, which has attracted many distinguished contributions. Nevertheless, some noble Lords may feel that it has not been an entirely satisfactory debate. If so, that is because the Government have given us no indication of the kind of House they wish to achieve and have advanced no rational reason whatever for demolishing what exists before they have even an outline plan for a replacement.
Legislating before thinking rather than thinking and then legislating is always unsatisfactory. When one is altering the constitution, it seems a recipe for disaster. The debate has, however, disclosed overwhelming acceptance of two propositions. The first is that in practice the present House works fairly well. 1145 Notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, said, his noble friend Lord Bruce was undoubtedly right when he said that the Government have never been seriously hampered by the House of Lords in getting their legislation through. The second proposition is nonetheless that hereditary membership is not logically justifiable and should be replaced by some other system.
Thus, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, recognised, there is not the issue of hereditaries suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, to which most of her speech and many other speeches were directed. That is a non-issue and there is absolutely no need for a separate stage one Bill to resolve the non-issue. It is now clear that the vast majority of the House accepts without qualification that in due course the hereditaries must go. Not only is the stage one Bill unnecessary to resolve the issue, it is also a gross waste of parliamentary time. Whenever this House or Parliament considers stage two, it will necessitate a considerable debate; and rightly so. But, if it is introduced as a comprehensive measure, there will be no need whatever to debate the appropriate transition. On the other hand, if a stage one Bill on its own is introduced, it is plain that a great deal of additional parliamentary time will be consumed in considering what is necessary to ensure a proper transition to stage two. Thus, a stage one Bill is a waste of parliamentary time.
What has emerged in this debate is that the real issue which divides the Government's supporters from the rest of the House is the question of when and in what circumstances the hereditaries should depart. In one sense, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, it is a mere question of timing. But in reality, it is an issue of great importance. It is not a question of whether as a sop to the dear old hereditaries they should be allowed an extra year or two. Some Labour speakers have said of those who recommend that we should not immediately depart that those are the tactics of delay. That is a wholly unworthy suggestion. Such speakers may disagree with the argument but surely they can at least give the speakers credit for honesty and not accuse them of hypocrisy.
Nor is this issue primarily a question of how the House is to operate in the interim. If the interim is really to be a short period, a reinforced House of life Peers can undoubtedly cope with the business during that short interim, although like so many of your Lordships I fail to see why such a House should appear to be any more legitimate than what we now have.
There is another point that the Government have solely failed to address or to tell us about. If they are to refill a House with a number of additional life Peers, what is to happen to all the life Peers when they have to make way for the persons chosen under stage two? Is there to be a ritual decimation? Until it is known what is to happen to the persons appointed to this House in the interim one ventures to wonder whether outside persons of stature will be enthusiastic to accept appointment to a mere transitional position.
1146 The real question is whether stage two will happen or, if the hereditaries are abolished, whether we shall be left indefinitely with a so-called interim House. One notes with interest that the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has dropped the phrase "interim House" in favour of "transitional House", presumably because she believes that it sounds better. I cannot see why either an interim House or a transitional House is a body to inspire great confidence in its authority. But "transition" is a misnomer. One is in transit when one has embarked on a journey from A to B, but not only does no one have any idea where B is but there are no grounds for confidence that any journey whatsoever will take place. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said that we were embarking on a journey with a hidden destination. We may be embarking on a journey that has no destination at all. It is not a question of doubting the honest intent of the Government's spokesmen or spokeswomen. But, even if they do provide a timetable for the future, how can it be guaranteed that it will be fulfilled and the recommendations of the Royal Commission enacted when any such measure is likely, as so many have pointed out, to be highly unpalatable to the other place?
Time and again Members of your Lordships' House have asked for copper-bottomed guarantees. If such guarantees can be devised and written into the Bill, I and I am sure many others will support them. But, if, as I suspect, such guarantees cannot be drafted, the best that we can hope to do if the Government persist in introducing a stage one Bill is to create a situation in which any government has a powerful reason for wanting to go on to stage two. One such possibility is to have a provision in the Bill that retains the hereditary element, or at least representatives of it, solely until stage two is enacted or—if I may say it—it is rejected by this House. That would give the Government their principle while providing a real inducement to enact stage two. Surely, in the light of this debate the Government could and should agree to it. If not, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, prophesied, they must be in for very long debates on their Bill.
§ 10.5 p.m.
§ Lord Hacking
My Lords, I do not want to deprive the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, of his 109th position—although I think the numbering of the Speaker's List has been updated—but speaking as the 108th speaker, I have listened to almost every speech that has been made in this long debate. I missed the Vaudeville speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, but that was all over in two minutes. It is a great privilege for the most recently arrived Labour hereditary Peer to be called on last in this debate.
I entered this House twenty-six and a half years ago. I had no expectation of being here but for a short time. It was my father's unexpected death that gave me my opening into your Lordships' House. At the time I was having talks with the party Leader in the Lancashire constituency for which the current Member is the son of my noble friend Lord Hoyle. I had to put the talks on hold, and I should tell my noble friend Lord Hoyle—as I will in the morning—that those talks are still on hold.
1147 I felt that I needed some advice, but I had no Prime Minister or party leader to consult like my noble friends Lord Shepherd, Lord Kennet and Lord Ponsonby so I consulted my grandmother. Her advice was quite clear. "You take the title, dearie", she said, "you won't last long". Although I was not quite sure whether she was exercising political judgment on the future of the House of Lords or giving me some more personal advice, I accepted it and asked for a Writ of Summons.
I have no regrets. It has been a great honour to have been in your Lordships' House for a quarter of a century. It has been extremely interesting and enjoyable. Happy though I have been, I have always known that the House of Lords must be reformed. First, the hereditary principle is unacceptable for any chamber of any parliament actively involved in the legislative process. Secondly, I came to recognise the need, in the interests of our parliamentary sovereignty, that the House of Lords must exercise more authority.
Therefore, I stand in your Lordships' House this evening to give my wholehearted support to the Government's proposals and to the process which they suggest that we follow. However, I have one caveat. In making this caveat, I believe that I speak for all other Labour hereditary Peers, and probably for a number of other hereditary Peers throughout the House. There should be no deals, and no private arrangements for returning hereditary Peers to this House as new life Peers. I strongly hold that we must go.
After we have gone, and when there is agreement between the parties on the number of seats that each party and the Cross Benches should have, it is for the party leaders to choose whom they want. It will not be an easy choice, particularly on the Benches opposite, to choose between those who have been inside the House and the many talented people outside the House.
Despite the differing views, I believe that it is generally accepted in the debate that the hereditary principle cannot be retained in a reformed House of Lords. Therefore, the issue has been whether the reform should be in one stage or two. I believe that the Government are quite right to propose two stages. I support that for two reasons.
The Government are wholly entitled to ask now that they should conduct all their business—not simply the reform of the House of Lords—in this parliament with proportionate membership between the parties. The present position, which has not been designed, is absurd, with the Labour Party having only 168 Members with the Whip and the Conservatives having 472 Members. In a very generous comment, the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, said that it would not be acceptable if it had been the other way around and such a position faced her party and my former party.
Secondly, I believe that there should be time for proper consideration for deciding the new constitution of the House of Lords and indeed Parliament itself. Frankly, this requirement does not fit into the timetable for the Government's rightful current needs to have proportional representation in this House.
1148 I know that on the first point it can be said that the Opposition will act reasonably; they will not take advantage of the Government; the Salisbury Convention will apply. I have attended your Lordships' House for some time. I have to say that there are difficulties. It is not that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, would ever think of plotting against my noble friend Lord Carter. He would not think of bringing in a horde of backwoodsmen, concealing them somewhere in the House and then ambushing my noble friend. I would never suggest that the noble Lord is a plotter. He was my Chief Whip for about four or five years. The problem is that the noble Lord does not know who will come from the backwoods.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I do practically nothing else but plot against the noble Lord, Lord Carter.
§ Lord Hacking
My Lords I was hoping to establish that those backwoodsmen who arrived were not the responsibility of the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has given a further reason why we must proceed in the way the Government propose.
We are told that the second stage will never take place. There has been much discussion during the debate about the train having left the station without the passengers knowing the destination. Peers seem to have forgotten the nature of the debate. This is not the Second Reading of the Bill for the reform of the House of Lords. It is a debate in which the Government have asked for the views of the House. It is a debate to which the Government have expressly stated that they wish to listen; and, having listened to it, the Government will publish their White Paper and propose the terms of reference of the Royal Commission.
The Government have listened. My noble friend Lady Jay heard almost every speech yesterday. The noble Baroness has not been able to be in the House the whole of today. My noble friend Lord Williams has sat almost constantly for two days in your Lordships' House—for 14 hours—taking no refreshment. In my recollection, his steadfastness is matched only by the jury in the Penn and Mead trial of September 1670. The court ordered the jury to be kept all night for 14 hours or more,without Meat, Drink, Fire or any other Accommodation; they had not so much as a Chamber-pot".
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. I apologise. However, is the noble Lord aware that there are two types of listening? Of course one can sit and listen. But what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House proposed was that the Government should take stock and listen with an open mind. That is quite different from sitting and just listening.
§ Lord Hacking
My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend Lord Williams can reply adequately to that. He speaks for the Government.
1149 To have the views of your Lordships expressed in the debate, before the White Paper, before the publication of the terms of reference of the Royal Commission, demonstrates to me that they are a listening Government.
Let us finally hit on the head the notion that we shall not go to the second stage. After we have gone, the answer to that lies exclusively with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish—I do not see him in the Chamber at present—and the 172 other Conservative life Peers. It is for them to show their mettle. Let them exercise the authority that they undoubtedly have. Let them refuse a Second Reading after debate when the Bill is sent from the House of Commons, ill drafted and ill considered. Let them refuse a Third Reading in your Lordships' House, when the Bill is still in an unsatisfactory state. Let them refuse a First Reading in your Lordships' House of a government Bill first produced here. If they do that, I guarantee that the House of Commons will move rapidly to the second stage.
In the meantime, it is time for we hereditary Peers to leave in dignity, in the words of my noble friend Lord Shepherd. I know that my noble friend Lady Jay also wishes us to be allowed to leave in dignity.
§ Baroness Trumpington
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, am I to assume from what he has said that he would refuse a life peerage were he to be offered one?
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
My Lords, I was offered one and I did not refuse.
Last night my noble friend Viscount Thurso said that when he was asked by the Whips' Office to be the last speaker from these Benches last night he felt like a comma in the proceedings. It is even more daunting to be considered a full stop at the end of a debate which has had more than 100 speeches.
When I was asked to carry out this task, it reminded me of an occasion some years ago when I went to give a fraternal address to the conference of the German Liberal Party. I was sitting on the platform beside their leader, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and the time for my important address on the future of Europe and the world was passing by as the debate went on and on and on about some obscure topic concerning the operation of the European Commission. In exasperation I turned to Genscher and I said "Has not everything that needs to be said on this topic been said?" He said "My dear David, you are absolutely right. But you do not understand. Not everybody has yet said it."
There was a real danger that that might have happened in this debate. It is a tribute to your Lordships' House that there has been remarkably little repetition. In these 100 or so speeches there have been literally hundreds of proposals quite constructively brought forward from all quarters of the House for the Royal Commission to consider.
1150 It is well known that on these Benches we come from two streams of thought in one river. My noble friend Lord Rodgers is unencumbered by the aura or baggage of previous Liberal leaders. I, unfortunately, am not. I remember that David Lloyd-George, one of my distinguished predecessors, described the House of Lords as 500 ordinary men chosen accidentally from among the unemployed. He seemed to think that he was improving matters if he chose them accidentally instead of from those who had very large bank balances.
The main argument that has run through the debate—particularly from the Benches on my left—has been whether the Government are right to proceed in two stages or whether we should demand that we have the whole of the reforms at one time. Others have adopted a half-way house, saying that they would accept stage one if they could have sight of stage two and so on. The Benches on the left seem to be divided between the ordinary Conservatives and the progressive Conservatives. The ordinary Conservatives are those who believe that nothing should be changed for the better; the progressive Conservatives are those who believe that it should, but not now. The general tone of the speeches was delay, delay, delay.
I will turn in a moment to press for more details, as others on my Benches have. Before I do, I draw the attention of the House to a quotation from the Prime Minister on 21st February in the other place at col. 1747 of the Official Report:are we … to wait until, after what must be a long and laborious process, we evolve a new Second Chamber, possessing in its size and composition the qualities which are needed for the impartial and efficient discharge of the functions, and the only functions, appropriate to such a body? … We say 'No' and the country has said 'No".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/11; col. 1747.]That is not a quotation from Prime Minister Blair. It is a quotation from Prime Minister Asquith on 21st February 1911.
I did not know, until I delved into previous Official Reports, that, even before the introduction by the Liberal Government—and how I enjoy that phrase—of the Parliament Bill in 1911, a year before a resolution moved by the Earl of Rosebery, another distinguished former Liberal Leader, had been passed in this House in these terms with regard to the future of the House of Lords:That a necessary preliminary of such reform and reconstitution is the acceptance of the principle that the possession of a Peerage should no longer of itself give the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/3/10; col. 423.]That resolution was passed by this House on 21st March 1910 by 175 votes to 17. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, will be interested to know that among those voting for it was the Marquess of Salisbury. But that is important because this House decided long ago that the hereditary principle is not a basis for any sensible composition of this House. Its abolition was described as a "necessary preliminary" to further reforms. Is not that what we are discussing here today?
In that context, I found some of the language used by some noble Lords quite extraordinary. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, announced that the Labour Party manifesto was tantamount to abolition of the House of Lords. In that case, I can say only that this House abolished itself in 1151 1910. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, talked about a constitutional outrage and accused the Government of behaving in a cavalier fashion. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said that they were proceeding in a precipitate way. Precipitate from 1910 until now? The noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, said that in the 19th century it took nearly 100 years to achieve the extension of the franchise. How long does he think it has taken to achieve reform of the House of Lords? It is exactly the same period.
However, I believe that the prize for the best distortion of the English language must go to the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, of whom I am very fond. He drew extraordinary gazes from the Bench of Bishops when he asserted that the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount that the meek shall inherit the earth was somehow biblical authority for continuation of the hereditary peerage. The truth is that opposition to a two-stage reform has been unsustainable and to maintain an unrepresentative House is no longer sustainable in present conditions.
I said that I would turn to some questions. Although the Leader of the House gave us an excellent preview of what is to happen it was a little short on detail. My noble friend Lord Rodgers was right when he said that she used the phrase "building on" in reference to the manifesto, but it was not at all clear. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, can tell us what exactly is proposed. Is the Royal Commission in place of the joint committee mentioned in the manifesto, or is it to precede the joint committee of both Houses? We should be clear about that.
We need to know a little more about the timing of the White Paper. I assume that it will spell out what the Government propose in stage one and broadly in stage two. I hope that we will have that White Paper and be able to debate it here and in the other place before we proceed to the Bill dealing with stage one.
Many noble Lords from all parts of the House asked whether it is proposed, as has been widely rumoured, that some of the hereditary Peers should be allowed to remain. I think that that is only fair. Those who have given good service to the House ought to be entitled to become life Peers, or Peers of Parliament, as my noble friend said. But how many, and when will it happen? How will it be arranged?
When I was a student of law at the University of Edinburgh, the professor of constitutional law used to tell us—and I remember the phrase precisely—that the House of Lords was the only parliamentary institution in the world which was kept efficient by the persistent absenteeism of the majority of its Members. That is undoubtedly true. We cannot go on with the numbers that we have. However, I believe that it would be only courteous to allow those who are already here, as distinct from those who will succeed them, but who are having to leave under the legal changes to have the use of the facilities of this building, as the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley, suggested—although personally I would delete the car park from that item of generosity! It was interesting that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester reminded us that retired bishops have such a facility and I do not see why others should not, too.
1152 There is then the vexed question of the age limit. Two of my oldest friends in this House, my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie and the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, advocate an age limit of 75. I am not aware that we have any party policy on this matter, but it seems to me reasonable that an age limit should be introduced. The bishops have to retire at 70 and we retire ambassadors at 60. Over the years since I started in the House of Commons, the House of Commons itself has changed. When I first entered that House there were many Members in their 70s and 80s. I believe that there is now only one of whom I know who is well over the age of 70. The constituency parties of all parties have introduced an effective retirement age.
If, as one noble Lord said, we are to have carnage, one might as well have a more effective cull and introduce an age limit at the same time. But I do not like words like "cull" and "carnage". I think "ermine euthanasia" is a better alternative.
Another point which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will confirm is that after the passage of the stage one Bill those hereditary Peers who choose to stand for the House of Commons should be able to do so and certainly their successors should be able to do so.
We should like to know a little more about the responsibility in terms of appointment of the Royal Commission. The major issue which it will have to confront—and it was a recurring theme in this debate—is whether the successor House at stage two should be elected or appointed, or a mixture of both. My noble friend Lord Goodhart quoted from the preamble to the 1911 Act. It is interesting that the adjective used was not that it should be an elected assembly but that it should be a "popular" assembly. That was the word used by Mr. Asquith in the debate as well.
My noble friend Lord Wigoder gave us some thoughtful reflections on the tensions between the two Houses were we to move towards election. He was supported in that by many noble Lords—the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the noble Lords, Lord Gordon, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Armstrong—pointing out the danger of rivalry between the Houses if we have elections. Indeed, that is what happened—and I remember it well because I was there at the time—in the debates in the House of Commons in 1968.
One has only to look at the United States to realise that the prestige of a senator is much greater than that of a congressman. I do not see the other place agreeing to any such future arrangement here in this House.
I am well aware that I fought many elections arguing for a wholly-elected second Chamber. Colleagues in my party used to say that I never really knew what party policy was on any particular issue. That was an image I liked to cultivate because it avoided the embarrassment of having to espouse policies with which I did not agree. But I understand that our current position is that we think it should be 80 per cent. elected and 20 per cent. appointed. I believe that that should be an issue for much wider public debate and certainly for scrutiny by the Royal Commission.
1153 Secondly, there is the issue of the powers. A number of noble Lords have made the sensible suggestion—and I believe it is in the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern—that issues such as human rights, our relations with Europe and, as my noble friends Lady Linklater and Lord Bath said, dealing also with the future issues of the devolved parliaments and the regions of England.
Then there is the extremely important point made by my noble friend Lord Phillips in a remarkable and refreshing speech about the need for public consultation on the changes. I believe that the Royal Commission mechanism provides an opportunity for a much wider public debate than would have been possible simply by a committee of both Houses. That is a very important point.
In the meantime, before we have the Royal Commission, we shall have that other commission which is to appoint the life Peers to this place in future. I unhesitatingly congratulate the Prime Minister on the decision to give up his personal power of patronage. But how is that commission to be appointed? Is the noble Lord, Lord Williams, able to tell us any more about that?
Much more important than the present power of the Prime Minister to appoint, which is open to objection, is the power of veto. My noble friend Lord Harris was remarkably restrained this afternoon when he failed to pick up the point made by my noble friend Lord Addington yesterday about the quite disgraceful treatment of this party during the period of the previous government. In the 12 years that I was Leader of the Liberal Party I was allowed to nominate only one working Peer to this place. There were, admittedly, four others who were retiring on dissolution lists as retired Members of the other place and three who were distinguished public servants who happened then to come and sit on our Benches. But that is a total of eight in 12 years. I am happy to say that under Prime Minister Major and Prime Minister Blair the number has gone up to 30 in eight years and is much more reasonable.
But I remember going with Lady Seear, who was then leader of my party, to see the Prime Minister and argue that we had Members in their 80s acting as Front-Bench spokesmen here and our numbers were dwindling. We have a saying in Scotland: there are occasions when you should save your porridge to cool your breath. I can assure your Lordships that that was one of them, because we got absolutely nowhere. We were left with the technique of pursuing at funerals of our departed brethren the eldest sons. As soon as the coffin was decently in the ground we would inquire gently as to whether they would be taking our Whip. That was no way to maintain numbers in a second Chamber, and the process of appointment on a proper basis is, I am sure, the right one.
I conclude with one further quotation. It is from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, in a debate in this House on 10th April 1962. He said:But, my Lords, with all these merits, the composition of your Lordships' House has never during this century been capable of theoretical justification. As long ago as 1908 this House resolved that the mere succession to a United Kingdom title was insufficient ground by itself to merit the right to sit and vote".1154 He concluded by saying:In 1911 the Liberal Government declared that the subject brooked no delay".—[Official Report, 10/4/62; col. 376.]I believe it brooks no delay.
§ 10.31 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I rise to wind up the debate on behalf of the Opposition with a sense of regret, a sense of disappointment that we have not attracted enough speakers to reach a third day. It has been a pre-legislative debate. That in itself is unusual. It has been a good experiment and I very much hope that the Government Chief Whip and the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will consider these kind of debates in the future. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will not find it impertinent if I say that one of the most striking elements has been the magnificent sight of so many right reverend Prelates listening to the discussion. It may well be that there has been a meeting of the House of Bishops, but they are always welcome here, particularly when we are discussing the future of this House.
Also, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, on his contribution and on his courage and patience in making his maiden speech in a two-day debate.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House began by saying that she was going to listen. She spent a few minutes explaining exactly why she was going to listen, but then rather spoilt it by saying that the Government's position was unequivocal and that they had decided to introduce the Bill. I hope that, some 30 hours later, this debate will have convinced her to do otherwise.
I sense two clear themes. The first is how little the Government know about how to continue the debate; the second is the desire from so many of your Lordships to see a real reform of this House and not just limited change. Sadly, nothing has been said by the Government during the course of the past two days of debate which can give anyone any comfort that they wish to improve the quality of government in this country or that the Government want the House of Lords to play a greater part in keeping the executive in check. Even worse, we have not received many illuminating answers.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House set out the Government's policy. We thank her for that. But perhaps for the service of the House I can sum up what I understand her to have said in response to questions raised by noble Lords, not just in this debate, but over the course of the past 18 months. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will correct me if I am wrong. To the question, "What do you intend to do with this House of Parliament in future?", the answer is,"We will set up a process by which we will explore further steps." That to me, in plain English, means "We don't know." To the question, "When will you detail your plans?", the Government say, "What we need to be immediately precise about will be announced shortly." If you can understand that, well done. To the question, "When will a reformed House of Lords be created?", the answer is, "We don't know." To the question, "Will there be a guarantee of stage two before stage one is 1155 enacted?", the answer is, "We cannot say." To the question, "Will a new House be elected or part-elected?", they say, "We do not know; we will ask someone else." To the question, "Who will you ask and when?", they say, "We are sorry, my Lords, we cannot say."
Can it really be that the Government know so little, as my noble Friend Lord Ferrers put it, about where they are leading this House and this Parliament? Can it be that they have thought so little and said so little because they care so little? Those are very serious charges against the Government.
There has been no shortage of Green Papers recently. We have had Green Papers on the modification of bailiff certification procedures, casino deregulation, fees for driving licences, wind energy and seed regulation. Green Papers on 62 other topics were published during the summer Recess. But until this less-than-illuminating debate we have had nothing on one of the biggest changes in our upper House of Parliament in its centuries-old history. I think this House deserves a little more.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House gave us a little glimpse, a little hint, of something welcome—a Royal Commission. A flood of questions came from all around the House, including just now from the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood: when, who, how long, what terms? There are no details so far. Why go to all the trouble, pain and anguish—and there will be all of those—of removing the hereditary Peers while the Royal Commission is still sitting? Why, oh why—I suspect that the Government will regret this—if the debate of the last 18 months is to result in a Royal Commission, did they not do it a year ago? This debate would then have been about the report of the Royal Commission. It would have been about real reform, not ersatz reform.
Is there any evidence that the Government have been doing any thinking at all over the last few months? After the election we were told that a Cabinet sub-committee had been created to examine the issue, chaired by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. Its members comprised the then Leader of your Lordships' House, the noble Lord, Lord Richard; the Leader of another place, Ann Taylor; the Government Chief Whips of both Houses, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and Nick Brown; Peter Mandelson; and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary—seven people in all.
When the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, replies, can he tell us whether that sub-committee has been reconvened or reappointed since the reshuffle? Has it met? Has it decided anything? If he cannot tell me now, perhaps he will write to me.
I welcome the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to this debate. He is the chairman of the sub-committee. He has not been present much during the debate. I know that he has many other important duties to perform, but I hope that he will read the report of the debate. If he does, he will find some rich material to help him in his endeavours as he chairs that sub-committee.
1156 Right at the heart of government there is a dilemma. Do the Government want to see genuine reform of this House encompassing all current Members? Do they want to give a new body greater powers or even greater confidence to use the powers that this House currently possesses, or do they simply wish to tinker with the House for their own ends?
What are the Government's motives? For a while it has been popularly assumed that what the Government wanted was a policy that would unite the Labour Party; appeal in particular to the old Left and new Blairites alike; give no problem in the constituencies; please the trade unions; and not unduly fuss the electorate. Hey presto, their answer was to dig out the "Reform the Lords" file from the archives: kick out the hereditary Peers, promise long-term reform, a problem-free policy initiative, and thus give the Labour Party some cover for not having any policy on practically anything else in the run-up to the general election. That is an old idea that would fit in neatly with their ideas on other parts of the constitution, especially devolution. They may yet regret part of that package sooner than they think.
In fact, as time passes something far more sinister is coming out of the woodwork for increasingly this debate on the reform of the Lords is about the Government neutering criticism of what they do wherever they find it and however small that criticism might be. Have the Government really suffered at the hands of this House during the course of this Parliament in the past 18 months?
This is a debate about obedience. The Labour Party wants a House that will do its bidding as much as the Commons does. The Labour Party wants an obedient House. Yet what the country needs is not a House that will always do what it is told, but one which, by its very existence, is institutionally independent. Achieving a measure of institutional independence is central to the Conservative view of the future of this House.
Perhaps I may take two major issues which have recurred again and again during the course of this debate. The first is the question of balance. It was first raised by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and many others. In particular it was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I can understand why he raised it. We were told that it is one of the biggest problems; namely, the preponderance of Tory hereditary Peers. If that is the biggest problem, then I ask the Government: is the only solution to get rid of the hereditaries entirely? Is there no other way in which to deal with the problem?
Perhaps I may suggest some alternatives. First, leave of absence. Could we not improve the scheme on leave of absence and provide incentives and encouragement? Could not noble Lords opposite introduce a qualification for attendance in order to vote? That would have the beauty of dealing with Members of your Lordships' House who are life Peers as well hereditary Peers. And what about the case made for representative Peers made so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster? Have the Government written off all these ideas and suggestions before they run headlong into the complete destruction of the hereditary Peerage in your Lordships' House?
1157 There is another unbridgeable gulf which, simply put, is this. We do not believe that the Government will ever get round to stage two. I recognise that for many noble Lords opposite, including the Government, their intentions on this subject must be pure. But when one listened to my noble friends Lord Baker of Dorking, Lord Alexander of Weedon and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and many others, using the experience which they have had in government and in other places, they simply do not believe that stage two will ever happen. It is one of the Government's stated intentions that stage two will happen. Throwing in some healthy scepticism one really begins to believe that it is never going to happen at all.
From listening to the debate in your Lordships' House over the past two days there are many noble Lords who do not believe in stage two at all. They are very happy to have an appointed House and certainly do not want an elected House. I agree with those who have said, as did the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that the time may have come when reform of this House is possible; that there is a genuine momentum building up to push through fundamental reform. But as my noble friend Lord Cranborne said at the start of this debate, it may well be that the best guarantee that genuine reform takes place would be not to move on stage one now.
Indeed, to reverse what the noble Baroness said, I believe that the removal of hereditary Peers now may actually ensure that stage two will simply not happen. All the motivation that drives the Labour Party will have gone and all the fear of ceding powers that has deterred governments and another place from acting across the years will remain. The points that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, made a few moments ago in continually referring to 1911 are as true now as they were then. If we have a stage one without a stage two we may have to wait another 87 years before we have this debate all over again.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will say in his speech that all this is a ploy to delay much-needed reform of the House. He is smiling. I expect that he has it written down. He will have come prepared, no doubt, with a long list of the failings of hereditary Peers. He will be armed with a statistic for everything to prove that the hereditaries are Tories and reactionary and, therefore, must be done away with at once. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, believes that. He will say that a system based on accident of birth is so fundamentally wrong that we cannot wait for a more comprehensive reform; and, of course, he will say that we, the Conservatives, are not really interested in reform at all and that we just want to defend the hereditary system.
Here is my advice to the Minister. If that is his speech, why does he not just put it away and tell us what the Government's plans are for long-term reform? He does not just owe it to us, he owes it to the nation, 1158 as this morning's press reports will testify. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is considerably brighter and cleverer than I am. Indeed, I know that—
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but I should like to ask him a question. Does his party accept that, in a reformed House of Lords, the hereditary Peers should go?
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I believe that my noble friend Lord Cranborne made that position quite clear in his opening speech. I shall not quote him accurately because I do not need to; indeed, I can paraphrase what he said and what he has said many times. If it is time for the hereditary peerage to go, then it must go. We have no quarrel about that. This debate has been characterised not by the fact that it has been about the hereditary peerage, but by the failure of the Government to propose anything adequate to put in its place. I give way to the noble Lord.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I am much obliged. I do not want to make this into a dialogue, but is the noble Lord saying that the Tory Party agrees that, in a reformed House of Lords, the hereditary peerage should go? It is a simple question. The answer is either yes or no. Which is it?
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, the answer to that is, yes, if we can replace the hereditary Peers with something which is at least as independent as the current system. My noble friend said "if'; but, as I understand it—and I may have misunderstood—there is also an "if' at the heart of government policy because they want a stage two as well. Indeed, there are very few hereditary Peers who have said over the course of the past few days, "We wish to stay; we must stay. We won't go. You will remove us over our dead bodies."
However, I turn back to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who is still cleverer than me. I know that he will have done a lot of thinking. He will probably have many of the solutions to some of the problems that have been raised over the course of the past few days. It is late. The House is quiet. Why does the noble Lord not take us into his confidence when he comes to conclude the debate? We have had enough of manifestos and mandates: why does the noble Lord not tell us what the long-term plans are? Otherwise, we may have to conclude that both he and the Government have not got a clue in that respect.
If the Government continue with their vague, half-baked and unconvincing plans for reform based on a first single stage, I can only predict that they will find that this House may become increasingly troublesome in the months ahead.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, they will get their Bill eventually, because that is what governments do and the law requires that to happen. But what a waste of time to take two bites of the cherry when one would do. I can assure noble Lords that it will take a lot of time to deal with the Government's stage one Bill. I do not say this 1159 as a threat; indeed, noble Lords opposite know me well enough to know that I would not do that. This debate has been characterised not by hereditary Peers against the rest, but by hereditaries and life Peers from all sides taking different views on the argument. That is one reason why it has been so impressive. It is my belief that many Peers from all sides of the House are not willing simply to nod through such a fundamental change. What the Government currently propose is not the third way, but the absurd way.
At the start of my speech I said that this is a pre-legislative debate which I welcome. On the whole it has been a good debate, but I could not help sympathising with the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, who said that aspects of it were unsatisfactory. It has attracted more than 100 speakers and has received unprecedented publicity in the electronic and written media, not all of which, I should point out, is favourable to the Government. But I am sure that they will have realised that for themselves. Indeed, I think that they will admit it.
Speaking as an hereditary Peer myself, but not for the hereditary Peers, I say that if it is time for me to go I shall go. I certainly do not want to stay in this House if I am not wanted. I share that view with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, and many others who spoke from that side of the House. But I feel a sense of responsibility. I may be wrong. It is rather old-fashioned to feel a sense of duty. That is not new or modern and it is certainly not "cool". However, I feel a sense of responsibility to those who put me here to make sure that what is put in my place will serve the interests of the nation and of parliamentary democracy.
I suspect that in the months ahead we shall return to this subject many times. I look forward to that. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House said that she will listen. I am sure that she and her colleagues in government will do so. This House works and it works well. That may not in itself be a justification for its continuation as it is, but we have already waited so long for the right reform that waiting a little longer to get it right will do no harm whatsoever. I urge the Government to think again.
§ 10.50 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is such a kind-hearted person he not only offered to write my speech for me but he also claims to have read it out. Unfortunately, what I am about to say is not quite what he had in mind. Inscribe this upon your tablets, bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said a moment or two ago about 1910 and 1911. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said that the time may have come when reform is possible. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, in his masterly demolition yesterday of the Opposition case, said that it surprised him to discover during his conversations with the noble Viscount and the noble Lord the Chief Whip that they had over all these years been closet reformers. Well, they have not really outed themselves tonight, have they?
1160 Another scheme—I must not call it a ploy, because that would be very wrong of me—that the noble Lord suggested was that if there were too many hereditary Peers they might be given leave of absence, a sort of compulsory set-aside, I imagine, at £80 an acre. There is no speck of malice or envy which informs my thoughts or words concerning the hereditary peerage. Let us not forget that the hereditary peerage will continue to exist. Your Lordships all know how soft-hearted I am. I have to say that some of my very best friends are hereditary Peers. I have spent years urging the protection of endangered species, but only in their natural habitat.
This proposal, the first stage—of which nothing could be clearer—should be a golden opportunity. The hereditaries should look on these proposals as a career opportunity. They will be able to offer themselves to a grateful nation in open elections to the House of Commons. Bearing in mind how many of your Lordships who have spoken have said they have been importuned by taxi drivers who have said what an excellent job all hereditary Peers do, I am sure that none of you will have any difficulty in being elected to the House of Commons.
A number of disagreeable aspects have intruded. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, mentioned the large number of Old Etonians who are present in this House. I believe he accused the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, of hiding the fact that he had been there. I have no animus at all against Old Etonians. They have already suffered enough. We are in fact a very generous Government. We are able to take away from the hereditary Peers the burden of public duty which they have all so admirably described.
At the outset yesterday we heard a notable maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. A long time ago, we both read jurisprudence together at the same university. It was downhill all the way after that. The noble Lord became a solicitor, I became a barrister, and we both ended up in this House.
An aspect of his speech which interested me was that it was not the speech of a party hack. It is not right to say that independence resides only with the hereditary Peers. One or two names float into my mind at random—to the horror, I dare say, of the Whips: Stoddart of Swindon, Pearson of Rannoch, Bruce of Donington, Peyton of Yeovil. Party appointees and party hacks? They wish!
Let us remember the words of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. It is simply not true to say that the hereditary component in your Lordships' House has not generally been used for party-political advantage, and for a single party's political advantage; namely, the Conservative Party. It is not nonsense. The figures have been given by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. They are known perfectly well and they have been challenged by no one.
What are the bleak, implacable facts with which we need to deal. One: there was a clear, unambiguous manifesto commitment. I recite it in part: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".1161 Some among us say, "Ah, the common sort never read the manifesto. If they did, they would not be able to understand it. We fought the election on a pledge that was so plain and unambiguous that in all conscience and all constitutionality we are entitled to bring it before Parliament and respectfully ask for its passage.
This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.
No one party should seek a majority in the House of Lords. Two: that is what we intend to deliver. Three: in this House there are 472 Conservative Peers, and 168 Labour Peers.
Four: when the hereditaries have gone off to spend more time with their acres, there will still be a Conservative majority of 22 over Labour.
Five: the vast Conservative majority here—and it is no good saying that this is nonsense or misrepresentation; these are the facts that cannot be denied and shall not be forgotten—was increased by a double ratio of 2:1 Conservatives to Labour in the 1980s and 1990s. I should not myself, nor would my colleagues behind me, be inclined to take lessons about a fair distribution of appointed Peers or a fair representation in this House.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, if Kinnock refused to nominate people for peerages and therefore they did not get them, they cannot complain. It was because the Labour Party would not put people forward.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, that is not true. There are at least two of us who know that not to be true. One is me, and one is my noble friend Lady Jay who sits behind me. He did not refuse to nominate us; his approaches were spurned.
Some interesting questions have offered themselves and crystallised in our work here over the past two days. The first is: how is a permanent Conservative majority to be justified? There has been no answer to that. The real reference to it on the Opposition Benches came from the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who robustly condemned it.
Secondly, what is the official Opposition's attitude to the Salisbury convention? We have had no clear answer. I shall come back to that in a moment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I hoped I had made it perfectly clear at the end of my remarks at the beginning of the debate. We will observe the Salisbury convention during the course of the passage of the Bill.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am most obliged. I did not hear that when the noble Viscount opened his party's contribution. I listened carefully to it and in particular to the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, late last night, because he said that the Opposition would observe the convention. Equally, I listened with great care to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, the 1162 Shadow Lord Chancellor, from the Opposition Front Bench today when he was not accepting the Salisbury convention. Please allow me to finish my observations. He spoke of a five-year delay and when my noble friend Lord Carter rose with some correspondence, the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said that his remarks had been personal and he was not speaking for the Opposition.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, will my noble friend pursue this for a moment? In the light of the intervention by the Leader of the Opposition, does this mean that when we have the Third Reading and Bill do now pass, the noble Viscount, as Leader of the Opposition, will ensure that his party does not obstruct the passage of the legislation?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, the noble Lord has put his finger more precisely on the point than I might have. It is a legitimate question because we have had differing signals. Perhaps it is because the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is brighter and cleverer than I am, but I did not get the message plainly. So I ask again now: what is the position? Is the Salisbury convention going to be accepted by the official Opposition throughout all stages of the first-stage Bill?
My Lords, I thought that I had made it perfectly plain, but I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way yet again so that at least, like the Bellman, I can say it three times and perhaps it will be accepted as being true.
My clear understanding of the Salisbury convention is that for a manifesto Bill your Lordships' House will not oppose such a Bill at Second Reading. Although it has an obligation to amend a Bill during its passage in the later stages, those amendments should not constitute wrecking amendments for that Bill.
My Lords, I am again grateful to the noble Lord. As your Lordships know, I am sure better than I, unlike the other place, we have the right to suggest amendments at Third Reading. I suggest that those amendments should be subject to the same rubric as amendments to previous stages. If those amendments were deemed to be wrecking amendments, they would be breaking the Salisbury convention.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am most grateful, as always, to the noble Viscount for his courtesy and promptness in reply. I shall not ask him to respond to this. I shall further assume that his unambiguous statement about manifesto commitment legislation applies to other legislation which was in our manifesto.
1163 I continue. The third point for which I was contending before I was so helpfully assisted by my noble friend is this. We suggest that the hereditary principle—which means sheltered employment for the undeserving classes—must cease and cease now.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, it is not cheap. I will explain why and I shall do so in a little detail by referring to one or two words from the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, to which I listened with great care.
Now that the noble Viscount has clarified that matter, I need to develop our further agenda. This is only one part of a scheme for constitutional reform and renewal. We want to wreck nothing. I have been in your Lordships' House a relatively short time. I hope I can say that I am aware of its advantages. I believe that all governments should be subject to restrictions and controls. Very often the best controls are those that governments impose on themselves. There is a wide-ranging debate to be had about the future of this House, and many of the options have been set out by noble Lords. The Government believe it important to have a Royal Commission to consider this matter in the light of other constitutional changes.
One or two points have been put, sometimes humorously and sometimes vigorously, about why the Government have not come to conclusions in the past 18 months. There are plain answers to that. We have conducted a vast amount of legislation—more than 50 Bills by the end of this Session—that has often been the subject of complaint. More fundamentally, the process of devolution and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, which your Lordships have already considered, are very important constitutional changes. It would be folly to consider the future of this House except in that distinct context.
The House is also aware that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, on possible changes to the electoral system is to be published shortly. The Government believe that once the rights of hereditary Peers to sit and vote have been removed the longer-term future of this House should be considered against the background of these very significant developments. I believe that that is a prudent way to continue. It is the right way to reform but also maintain the best of this House.
Yesterday a legitimate question was put about where matters slotted in. The overarch is the devolution of power to those who are the proprietors of it, transparency of government and democratic legitimacy. The theme that I try to address, which has been put by so many noble Lords in different ways, is the intention of the Government. I repeat that the Government are intent on the immediate abolition of the right of hereditaries to sit and vote. Your Lordships are aware that it is not proper for me to anticipate the Queen's Speech, and therefore I do not. But I believe that our intentions have been made pretty plain. We are intent on the publication of a White Paper. That will take place in the context of the publication of that Bill. A Royal Commission will be appointed. The details of its chair 1164 man or woman, members and terms of reference will also be in the White Paper. There will be a timetable within which the Royal Commission will be required to work. There will be new transitional arrangements. I say without any partisan overtone and, I hope, without irritating anyone opposite, that it is a rare Prime Minister who has the confidence and moral standing deliberately to shackle his discretion. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, says that he has not done so. He announced his intention to do it as recently as the Labour Party conference. My noble friend Lady Jay repeated it. I believe that it would be a shade disagreeable not to accept what has been said.
There is no question of a 15-year delay or an intention to stop at a transitional House. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked me specifically whether or not the committee had re-met. The answer is yes. But there are not always easy answers to difficult questions. We must think about it. It may come as a surprise to some that I value not simply the traditions of this House but those of another place (never having been a Member of it) and the institutions that make up the complex society in which we are fortunate to live. We are fortunate to live in a changing society, not one that constantly looks back and thinks that things were always good.
It is a fact, and again I do not want to be unduly disagreeable—just moderately disagreeable—that the history of this century is one of failed attempts to attend to hereditary dominance. The failures have come from a lack of will and determination allied to the insidious doctrine of unripe time. Those of us who have been lawyers know it all well enough, and I see the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, in his place. This time is ripe and we shall not deviate and we shall not blink. We intend to put this legislation through, if both Houses agree, as I believe they will.
There have been a number of ingenuous and ingenious attempts to defend what I suggest is indefensible. Personally, I shall be sorry to see many of the hereditary Peers go. I hope I can say this with their approval: I enjoy their company; I enjoy their courtesy, their grace, their charm and also their contributions to this House. Those concerned know of whom I speak, but the Indian summer is past now. I am sorry that people will feel disappointed, that they feel that their service over the years will be spurned. It will not be. I hope it is fully recognised. But the fact is that all these things must pass.
I promised, when I responded to a complaint that I had said something unworthy, to return to what the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood said. He described his pride in his family, in history and in public service. I respect that. I honour it. I know him well and I think he would identify himself as one of those I described earlier. He said of his ancestors and relatives, quoting Yeats, "they are no petty people". Perhaps I may explain why some of us have a slightly different view of society, history and tradition.
My own father was a village schoolteacher. His father was gassed in the First World War and could not, therefore, work properly thereafter. His father, my father's grandfather, remembered the evictions in West 1165 Wales of tenant farmers because they voted according to their consciences in parliamentary elections before the secret ballot Act of 1870 was passed. They were evicted from their homes and their farms and many of them had to emigrate. They were back country people. They lived unremarked, though not unremarkable, lives, and I take up the noble Lord's words, of duty and service. There are millions like them in our country today. All I would say is this: "they are no petty people".
That is a small illustration, just a tiny cameo—and forgive me my indulgence this late at night—but I am entitled to say, as long as I can breathe, that I am proud of their service and duty, but equally I do not look to them for any advantage in this world, except their memory. I do not look to them to have provided me with any personal or political advantage. I believe it would demean them and demean me similarly.
The noble Baroness, the Leader, said that we would listen and look forward to a wider debate. I repeat that. We will not change our minds on the fundamental aspect of stage one. As regards the future, I believe that we have a conjoint duty to see what are the best reforms that can be brought about. That is why we want a Royal Commission. That is the burden upon our shoulders. It is a yoke, because we shall have an independent 1166 commission, quite separate from government, able to take evidence, to hear submissions and—I stress this above everything—to produce disinterested conclusions and proposals.
The relationship between your Lordships' House and the hereditary principle has to come to an end. I think that I have listened to virtually every speech apart from two, when I left the Chamber for a moment or two yesterday. In a moving speech the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, who regards his ancestors with affection and fondness, said that this House was disfigured by his presence upon that basis. That is a courageous thing to say.
We shall not be moved from this first stage. We intend to limit the power of patronage of the Prime Minister. We intend to look for the best possible outcome for a thriving, revived second Chamber. Whether one has been here for a moment or two like me, or perhaps since before the last war as in the case of the noble Earl, we all feel regard, affection and devotion towards this place. But it is not perfect. It can be improved; and that is what we are intent upon doing. I commend the Motion.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House adjourned at seventeen minutes past eleven o'clock.