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Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): What is the right hon. Lady's reaction to the comments by Lord Weatherill, which were reported in The House Magazine? He said:

the Weatherill amendment--

    "has been working well--let's leave well alone.

    That would preserve continuity . . . Surely a consummation devoutly to be wished."

Would the right hon. Lady be content to see stage 1 continue indefinitely? What assurances can she give the Committee that it will definitely end?

Mrs. Beckett: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is not asking two entirely contradictory questions. I shall deal with the first issue that he raised. He asked about an article--which I do not believe that I have seen--that appeared in Lord Weatherill's name. Lord Weatherill, like everyone else, will put his views to the royal commission, and the royal commission will make its deliberations and give its advice. We are some sufficient distance from that outcome not to need to reach a conclusion at this point as to what a response to such advice might be.

Mr. Clappison: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way, but she has rather glided away from my hon. Friend's question. What is her opinion?

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Mrs. Beckett: We have made it quite plain that the Government wish to see the Bill that is now before the Committee on the statute book. In order to smooth the transition and to move more speedily to stage 2, we are prepared to consider favourably something suchas the Weatherill proposal. However, it remains the Government's view that there should be no continuation of the right to sit and vote in another place on the grounds of heredity.

That brings me to amendment No. 3, which would allow a small number of existing hereditary peers to remain as Members of the upper House. If the wish is to preserve those peers of first creation who are there on the grounds of their own achievements rather than those of their forebears, the Government have some sympathy with it--after all, that is why the life peers will remain. However, that is unnecessary because the Government have made it plain that we have already made such an offer to those hereditary peers. However, if the amendment is designed to preserve them as Members of the upper House by hereditary right, it is not acceptable to the Government. The whole point of the Bill is that it severs once and for all the link between hereditary peers and membership of the House of Lords.

Several hon. Members--particularly the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire(Sir N. Lyell)--addressed their remarks to amendment No. 18. We do not dispute that some individuals who sit as hereditary peers have made valuable contributions to the work of the House of Lords. However, I reject--as I suspect many of them would--the apparent assertion last night by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) that their contributions are innately more valuable than those of life peers. I think that most hereditary peers would agree with me that the majority of the work of the House of Lords is carried out by the life peers--and that is not a criticism of hereditary peers.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): The right hon. Lady is perfectly aware that that is not what I said. I said last night, and I reiterate now, that the contribution of hereditary peers is at least as valuable as that of life peers and I objected to the manner in which the Government were seeking to gag them.

Mrs. Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman did not intend to so impugn life peers, I am glad to have given him the opportunity to set the record straight. They will welcome that news.

However valuable the contributions of individual hereditary peers may be, the fact is that that is not why they are Members of the upper House. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshiresought to introduce various mechanisms and--perhaps incidentally--further delay in order to preserve a larger number of hereditary peers on the grounds of individual achievement. His amendment refers to those who have played a "significant role" but does not propose who should be the judge of that significance.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman overlooks the fact that there is nothing to prevent any political party or the appointments commission from nominating as a life peer any hereditary peer who is thought to have made such a contribution. However, we do not believe that that is for Ministers to regulate; neither is it a matter for this

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Bill. I repeat that the removal of the hereditary right to sit and vote should come into effect at the end of this Session. We believe that that is sensible and that is why we ask the Committee to reject amendments Nos. 16 and 17, which seek delay either for an arbitrary period or in order to introduce a specific date. That risks a disruptive rather than a straightforward transfer to the transitional House.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett: Very briefly.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: The key point that the right hon. Lady is almost addressing--I would be grateful if she would do so now--is that the Government are obviously thinking constructively about the 91 hereditary peers, provided that the amendment comes from the House of Lords and provided that the Government are not prevented from using the Parliament Acts. Will the Government think constructively about having a rather larger number than 91 on the same terms because there is a strong case for that?

Mrs. Beckett: I am sorry, but I doubt very much whether the Government will be prepared either to accept a further and arbitrary delay--as some of the amendments grouped with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's amendment suggest--or to exempt a list of named peers from the abolition of hereditary rights.

Mr. Gale: On a point of order, Mr. Martin. Before the right hon. Lady gave way to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire(Sir N. Lyell), she said that she had very little time. Mr. Martin, will you confirm that this is the Committee stage of the Bill, that it is not time limited and that the right hon. Lady has all the time in the world to answer all the points that were made during the debate?

The First Deputy Chairman: The hon. Gentleman is correct: it is the Committee stage.

Mrs. Beckett: For the record, Mr. Martin, being mindful of the fact that the Committee had spent many hours considering this group of amendments, I thought that hon. Members might wish to move on to the other very interesting amendments tabled by Conservative Members.

Before I leave my last point, I reiterate that, regardless of whether some extra peers are added later by way of an amendment in the House of Lords, it should be absolutely clear that they will sit as life peers. They will sit as individuals on the basis of a contribution that they are judged by their peers to have made. Their heirs will not inherit their seats, and the link between the right to sit in the House of Lords and the hereditary peerage will be broken.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)--who, I am glad to see, has been able to return to us from what I know is genuinely pressing business--asked me about new clause 12. He is entirely correct: we have had a good deal of legal advice about the matter. That advice is that

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the steps do not in any way contravene the Act of Union. The spirit of the Act was that there should be equal treatment between peers of Scotland and others, and that is the effect of the Bill.

I know that some have claimed that the provisions in the Act cannot be amended, but the Act has already been amended because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, it provided only for 16 of the peers of Scotland to sit, and in 1963 that was amended to allow them all to sit. That is the measure that is being repealed. The provision of the Act of Union that allows for equal treatment is being observed.

6.30 pm

The hon. Member for Epping Forest made a number of accusations, among which was the accusation that, in not bringing what is not our proposal--or, indeed, that of the Conservative party--before this Committee for debate at this point, the Government were in some way acting to party advantage. I say--I hope she will think not unkindly--to the hon. Lady that that was a Freudian slip. If there is party advantage in the matters that we are debating today, it rests, and it has always rested, overwhelmingly with the Conservative party. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, listening to the debate as I have over recent hours, that Conservatives are seeking by hook or by crook to defend that advantage.

The Bill may yet, particularly in the light of that attitude and that fight, need to be subject to the Parliament Acts. If it be so, and the Government hope that it will not be so, the Bill as presented should be the Bill that leaves this House.

Mr. Evans: Is that a threat?

Mrs. Beckett: That intervention trivialises this place. It was not a threat. The hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends have, rather foolishly in my view, accused the Government of blackmail in what we are doing. We are putting before the Committee the proposals that we want to see pass into law. That is not blackmail. That is carrying out the principle, the purpose and the proposals in our manifesto.

If Opposition Members want to speak of blackmail, what would they call suggestions and indeed threats to use the powers of the House of Lords--what were the words?--and hooligan behaviour to disrupt utterly the Government's programme, opposing everything that the Government seek to do on health, education and crime at every step of the way? [Interruption.] I am sorry. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and hon. Members on his Front Bench did not say that, but it was said in the House of Lords by Members of the House of Lords who, as he well knows, have the power to make good that threat.

The Government are not blackmailing anyone. We are making sure that we have the opportunity to put into effect in our legislation the proposals in our manifesto. It is simple and straightforward.

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