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Sir Nicholas Lyell: A soft answer turneth away wrath. I can only say that I heard the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) debate matters extremely effectively during

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the time when my Government were supposed to be abusing and stifling debate. He slightly overstates his case.

Amendment No. 18 explains in a nutshell my suggestion of the right way to proceed. The amendment can perhaps be improved on, but its substance has real merit. Labour Members should recognise that the amendment would allow the Government to achieve their key objective--the ending of the hereditary principle in the medium term. Although the number of hereditary peers involved would be rather more than the 91 proposed by the Weatherill amendment, my amendment would, like Weatherill, give the Government no grounds to fear any future defeat by what they like to describe as an influx of backwoodsmen.

I believe that my amendments improve on the proposal for 91. One great strength of the House of Lords is the sheer diversity of talent on which it is able to draw. Those talents come in significant measure from the life peers who resulted from the great Conservative constitutional reform of 1963, on which the Prime Minister has built by creating 105 new life peers.

Significant diversity also comes, however, from the ranks of the hereditary peers, and not only from among those likely to make up the 91. Many others have made, or could in future make, a real contribution to the upper House. They have helped to give it breadth and wisdom, but they have spoken comparatively infrequently, or their main work has been less public as members of House of Lords Select Committees.

It is invidious to give names, and I shall do so only to illustrate my point, as I did yesterday when we discussed the possibility of a right to speak but not vote. The group to which I refer includes peers who have played a huge role in matters to do with the environment, legal issues, trade unions and criminal justice. However, the number of their speeches during the past six years has been comparatively small.

To recap the statistics, roughly 90 peers have spoken more than 40 times in that six-year period. I take my figures from the parliamentary on-line information service--POLIS--computer in the Library of the House, to which I am indebted. About 250 hereditary peers have spoken between five and 40 times and have lent the upper House great weight in doing so. Another example that I did not give yesterday was that of Lord Ridley, who is recognised nationwide by those who understand the subject for his profound insight into local government. [Interruption.] No, Lord Ridley has a remarkable insight and if the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) knew him, he would recognise that fact. Frequently, he was a constructive critic of the Conservative Government when we were in power--[Interruption.]

5.45 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): We just heard some guffawing from Labour Members. It may have resulted from confusion over the identity of the Lord Ridley whom my right hon. and learned Friend had in mind. I think that he is referring to the noble Viscount,

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whereas the guffaws might have been directed at the former Secretary of State for the Environment,Mr. Nicholas Ridley.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Yes, and I see that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead accepts my hon. and learned Friend's tuition.

Another example is Lord Gowrie on the arts. Since he ceased to be a Minister, he has spoken in the Chamber six times, but to great effect. I mentioned Lord Runciman, who chaired the royal commission on criminal justice and who has spoken 12 times.

One can take a spread of distinguished peers, some hereditary and some created. It is interesting to note from the figures that some life peers who play an important role in the House of Lords, and who will be able to continue to do so, do not speak often, but when they do so it is to great effect. That is part of the richness of the wider aspect of the United Kingdom Parliament. I mentioned Lord Selborne yesterday, a hereditary peer who is widely respected as almost pre-eminent on the environment, as is Lord Alexander of Weedon--a life peer--on the City. Our old colleagues from this House, such as Lord Merlyn-Rees, Lord Whitelaw and the late Lord Tonypandy played a big part after going to the House of Lords, but only spoke about 25 times in six years. The Countess of Mar is another example, as is Lord Wedderburn, the distinguished Labour life peer.

Mr. Mandelson: I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not know whether he was present throughout our proceedings yesterday, but virtually everything that he has said in the past few minutes was said by his colleagues then.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I said it myself.

Mr. Mandelson: Others did as well. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure the Committee that he is not simply reading from some prepared sheet that is being circulated among Conservative Members?

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I can assure the House that I am reading from a prepared sheet, if the right hon. Gentleman will listen, and I wrote it myself. I am also quoting figures that I gave the Committee myself. The right hon. Gentleman is enjoying himself, waving his arm round and round--spinning, I suppose--but he was not in the Committee yesterday, or not for long anyway.

Mr. Mandelson rose--

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. If we concern ourselves with who was in the Committee yesterday, we are straying from the amendment.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: You are right, Mr. Martin. Occasionally, I have wondered whether I might come across an old lady with a spinning wheel in some high room in this House, and now I have come across her.

We must also consider the work of the Select Committees of the House of Lords. I met Lord Merlyn-Rees this morning--he is a neighbour--and he told me that he regarded the work of those Committees as some of the most valuable work done by the upper House.

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Ten of the 20 members of the European Communities Committee, which is one of the largest and most influential Select Committees in the House, are hereditary peers. That Committee has six sub-Committees and the Chairmen of four of them are also hereditary peers. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee is unusual in having only one hereditary peer, Lord Ampthill; but hereditary peers play a significant role in the Committees on science and the arts and the in domestic Committees, which are in effect the usual channels in the other place.

The bottom line of my argument is that there are about 150--and perhaps as many as 200--hereditary peers who play a significant role in the work of the upper House and without whom it would be a poorer place. That number of hereditary peers is no threat to the Government, but their combined voices should cause the Government to check when they are wrong and would give no doubt welcome support when the Government are right. I am referring to hereditary peers of all parties and of none.

We look for constructive action from the Government. The Government have a duty to govern, which means that they have a duty to propose ideas themselves. Sitting haughtily in a corner and saying that there is a huge Conservative majority in the Lords that they are going to destroy, but that they are going to put nothing in its place to renew the upper House, is simply not good enough. The amendment offers a genuinely constructive way forward and I ask the Government to accept it.

If the Government are afraid to do that, for fear--as the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) explained--of losing the whip hand given to them by the threat of using the Parliament Acts, I ask the Government at least to recognise the strength of the argument, to discuss it with Lord Weatherill and others and to use it to build on the Weatherill proposals. In that way, they can ensure that, however short or long the interim period is, the interim Chamber retains as much as possible of that which is good in the current Chamber.

There is simply no need to destroy. Proper reform, in this area of the constitution above all, should be incremental and evolutionary and should proceed step by step. Removing the rights of hereditary peers is one step, but alone it is just not good enough. True reform must be constructive and build on the best of what exists. Amendments Nos. 16 to 18 offer a way ahead and I commend them to the Committee.

Mr. Mackinlay: I shall speak only briefly on this group of amendments. I reiterate my disappointment that the former Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Richard, was dispatched in July and that Viscount Cranborne, former Leader of the Opposition in the other place, was later dispatched by the Leader of the Opposition in this place. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition should have allowed them to explore exhaustively the possibility of agreement on an interim House, or of concluding the reforms in one Act, by consensus. I cannot help but feel that the opportunity to reform and democratise our Parliament is being jeopardised by the tactical considerations of both the Government and the Opposition.

It is not unreasonable to point out to my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench and to Opposition Front Benchers that there is still scope for them to come to some

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sort of agreement--one that would not jeopardise the Opposition's duty to oppose, but which, if enacted fairly swiftly, would give them opportunities to increase the parliamentary checks, balances and scrutiny that we all want. The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) does not achieve that.

In some weeks' time, there is to be a charade played out, in which I and my colleagues are to be persuaded to vote for the amendment. I am not happy about that. I shall remain deeply concerned that an unsatisfactory "interim" House will endure and the hereditaries stay. I implore my parliamentary colleagues to pause and consider whether there can be some sort of agreement that would be mutually beneficial, enhance the Opposition's opportunity to oppose and enable scrutiny to be provided.

In any event, the concept of the hereditary peers enduring in Parliament is unacceptable. At the general election, an overwhelming mandate was given for their being expunged from Parliament. The whole hereditary principle is alien to those of us who are socialists and to many other people who would not use that term but who, would call themselves democrats.

Yesterday, in what might have appeared a somewhat flippant intervention, I referred to the need for DNA testing--after all, who are the hereditaries? There is no prospect of DNA testing being introduced, but let us pause to think: there are people who sit as Members of Parliament by hereditary right, but is there no possibility of infidelity having occurred in their families over the past few hundred years? I do not believe that those people are all legitimate--hands up anyone who is certain that his or her lineage has not strayed outside of wedlock. Even if one accepts the hereditary principle, the position of the hereditary peers is absurd. It is legitimate for us to raise such matters.

I shall come in a moment to the point raised by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) about the Act of Union, but first let me tell the Committee about the time I spent in another place listening to the tortuous case about who exactly was the legitimate Lord Moynihan; a case in which the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), who was then the Attorney-General, made representations. The legitimate Lord Moynihan had to fight his case over many weeks and witnesses had to be brought from the far east. Presumably, similar cases might occur in future if the amendment were accepted: perhaps, at the critical moment, the election of the representative hereditary peers could be held up by such disputes. The rules are unbelievably arcane and I invite those who are interested in such matters to look at the Moynihan case so that they can see for themselves how absurd the whole process is.

If that case does not persuade the Committee, let us recall the time of the Maastricht debates during a previous Parliament. A good peer upped and died and a Member of this place, Lord Douglas James Hamilton, thoughtthat he might have inherited the title, but there was avote in the Commons that evening, so Lord Douglas James Hamilton--[Hon. Members: "Lord James Douglas-Hamilton"] Yes, that one. He went down to the Victoria Tower and repudiated or renounced, whatever the term is, a peerage that he might have inherited.

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I use the word "might" deliberately, because the inheritance became the subject of a trial in which Lord James Douglas-Hamilton was challenged by his cousin.

I trotted down to the Victoria Tower after him and made a thorough nuisance of myself by asking to see the documents and the books. After insisting on seeing the register and the instrument by which the peerage was renunciated, I put all the questions I could to a bewildered man from the Lord Chancellor's Department. Finally, when I became exhausted, I asked him, "Are you telling me that someone can come down here and renounce a peerage that they might have inherited?" The man looked me straight in the eye and said, "Yes." I then asked, "Does that mean I could come down here tonight and renounce the peerage of Glenfiddich?" He looked at me and answered, "Yes." That is the sort of absurdity that surrounds the vital question of whether or not someone can sit as a Member of Parliament. This is all factual stuff.

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