Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. McAllion: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: Not at the moment.

One thing that has especially puzzled me about the Government's ready acceptance of the Weatherill amendment is the fact that it occurred to me that they were aware of that issue, and realised that it would be a neat way of solving the problem. Before Labour Members say that it is a non-issue, I must tell them that I differ.

We spent a considerable part of last year discussing the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our law, a move that I supported. I remember the Home Secretary saying that the European convention was not going to be the be-all and end-all--it was simply the foundation on which subsequent, better rights were to be based. How on earth do we square the principle whereby we have consistently denied peers the right to vote in elections and--rightly--will continue to deny life peers that right because they will still be able to represent themselves, with a system whereby, arbitrarily, halfway through a Parliament, we say to a whole group of people, who have also been deprived of the right to vote, "Out you go on your ear; you will have no representation for the rest of this Parliament"?

The beauty of the Weatherill amendment, and the reason why the Government should have tabled it instead of waiting for it to be brought from the upper House, is that it solves that problem in a way that I consider to be acceptable. However, I should be interested to hear from the Leader of the House the Government's view on that point.

Interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said that one of the problems with the present Government was that we could never understand what they were trying to do--they would not tell us. However, I must tell her that one of the problems is that the Government have reached such a pinnacle of arrogance that they seem to imagine, in their inclusiveness, that they know what each one of us thinks.

16 Feb 1999 : Column 776

On Second Reading, I wished to ask the Leader of the House about that very point when she developed her arguments. I asked:

She replied:

    "No, I am awfully sorry. I must get on. I feel confident that I could answer the hon. Gentleman's point."

I said:

    "The right hon. Lady does not know what it is yet."

The Leader of the House replied:

    "I do."--[Official Report, 1 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 615.]

The Leader of the House has many attributes, but that of being a clairvoyant and a witch was not one that I had thought that she would claim as part of her own. [Hon. Members: "Shame."] If that is the quality of the way in which debate is going to be addressed in the Committee, I hope very much that I have now enlightened her so that her clairvoyance may have proved to have been justified, and I hope at long last to have a reply to my question.

6.15 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): We are discussing a transitional Parliament. There are 200 to 300 active hereditary peers, and we are considering their right to sit, speak and vote in another place. Amendment No. 2 proposes that some 91 of their number should be retained. My preference under a stage 2 replaced House of Lords would be for an elected House of Lords. Under that system, some--at least 91, probably 100 to 150--of those 200 to 300 would be elected in any case. We are therefore talking about a transition.

The Government have made it quite clear that they will accept an amendment in another place but not an amendment in this Committee. Indeed, the House of Lords--I am sorry, the Leader of the House; I elevate her already, but I am sure that she would like to be elevated--made it quite clear that

There we have it. The pressure--I was going to say, "the blackmail", but that would have been unparliamentary--to be brought on the other place is that, if its Members behave, they will be allowed to move that amendment. There we have it--the power of the Executive. That is what this is all about--patronage.

Patronage is being exerted in another way--a second, and even more insidious way--because, as I understand it, if this amendment is accepted in another place, it is also accepted that the Government will create sufficient life peers of their own political colour to make up the political balance.

I cannot understand what the fuss is all about. If amendment No. 2 were passed tonight, we would allow 91 of the most active, most eminent, most knowledgeable hereditary peers to remain and take part in the great democracy of this country--and yet the Government will not accept that. I cannot understand the gerrymandering that is taking place, purely so that they can use the Parliament Acts if their Lordships in another place do not behave. It is lack of principle; it is gerrymandering of our democracy. Future generations will judge it as such.

Mrs. Beckett: I congratulate the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on winding up the debate in the spirit in which much of it has been conducted.

16 Feb 1999 : Column 777

There is a group of amendments before us. What all but amendment No. 25, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), have in common is the desire to "save" some group of hereditary peers in the transitional House and to write that into the basic Bill as it leaves the Committee of this House. All but amendment No. 25, and new clause 12, which raises a different point, in one way or another seek to water down the Bill--as amendment No. 10 says, to restrict rather than to end the rights of hereditary peers.

The principle of the Bill, as it is put before the Committee by the Government, is that hereditary peers should cease to sit and vote by right of inheritance. The Government are not prepared to risk the existence and passage of that basic Bill. We made that point plain--I believe perfectly courteously and quite straightforwardly--on Second Reading. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) moved amendment No. 2 in order to air issues that we all know may well be raised in the House of Lords, although it is not clear how the Conservative party will then vote, or whether such an amendment will be carried. Nevertheless, we have had a debate on the possibility that such an amendment will be tabled, and may be carried and return to the House.

I am sorry to say that we have had a rather strange debate in some ways--one in which, from the outset, some rather intemperate, not to say extravagant, arguments and language have been used. The Government have been accused of stopping debate on this issue. In fact, we were accused of preventing debate today, even after some hours of debate had occurred. We have done nothing to stop or to impede the debate. What we refused to do, and what we continue to refuse to do, is, as a Government, to put forward a proposal along the lines of that in amendment No. 2, because it is not our proposal.

It is a little unusual, as you will remember, Mr. Martin, and as several hon. Members observed yesterday and today, for a Government to be attacked for arrogance, obstruction of debate and undermining democracy for daring to signal that they might be prepared to compromise. Yesterday, Opposition Members repeatedly asserted that debate on this proposal would in some way be restricted by taking place--as it may well--if the Bill returns so amended from the House of Lords. That is nonsense, as they well know. There is nothing in the Bill, or in any intention stated or signalled by the Government, to curtail debate on this matter. The Government have no quarrel with the Opposition raising the issue--it is perfectly reasonable that they should.

It is perfectly reasonable that Conservative Members should have a bit of a knockabout at the Government's expense at the possibility that we may vote against the amendment tonight but, in a few weeks or months, we may accept a similar amendment. We have no quarrel with their right to do so. However, I suggest, in all sincerity, that wilder assertions about honour, integrity and blatant abuse of power are a very strong currency that we should be wary of devaluing by using to bolster an otherwise rather weak argument.

Laying side the tenor of the arguments deployed in this debate, the proposal to modify the Government's Bill will come--if it comes at all--from Cross-Bench peers. It is not a party proposal: it is not a Labour proposal and, presumably, it does not come from the Conservative Front Bench--if it did, a Conservative Front Bencher would

16 Feb 1999 : Column 778

have moved it. The Government are prepared to look favourably upon such an amendment if it seems likely to smooth the passage to stage 1 of reform, and hence allow us to move more quickly to stage 2.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I am terribly grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. Will she answer the question that we have asked repeatedly: is it not odd for the Government to take the view that something is beneficial for the constitution if their lordships cause no trouble but, if their lordships cause trouble, that very same thing is not beneficial for the constitution?

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is not the point. The Government would prefer the Bill that is before the Committee to pass on to the statute book. However, if it will assist the passage of this and other beneficial legislation regarding issues that, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) pointed out, are of much greater interest to the people of this country to accept something in the nature of a compromise, the Government are by no means unwilling to do that--despite all that has been said about our arrogance and insensitivity. I do not know why the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) finds that so difficult to grasp.

I understand and sympathise with the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. He is anxious that the fact that there is no time limit on the transitional House could allow 90 or so hereditary peers--if such an amendment is accepted--to remain indefinitely. I understand his concern, but I ask him not to press amendment No. 25. It is not needed because, despite what has been said in the debate, the Government have no intention of stopping indefinitely at the transitional House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page