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8.45 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Given that there is an element on the Labour Benches who believe in class warfare, is not my right hon. Friend alive to the risk that the Government could modify the arrangements to

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discriminate between one class of hereditary peer and another? For example, they might discriminate against viscounts or dukes and make alternative arrangements for mere barons.

Mr. Forth: I suppose that that is possible. Normally, I should have said that it is unlikely, but as my hon. Friend has pointed out, such is the dislike--that is a moderate word in this case--of the hereditary peers on the Government Benches that one might believe that any such action is possible. The provision not only gives no protection against such action, it would positively allow it. We should, at the very least, seek reassurances about that from the Leader of the House when she replies to the debate.

As if things were not bad enough, clause 4(4)(b) refers to

As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) pointed out a moment ago, when one allows for orders to be made by statutory instruments--a procedure with which we are familiar--no amendment may be made. Under that provision, a measure comes before the House on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Mr. Letwin: My right hon. Friend may be aware that tonight the House will be asked to nod through a statutory instrument that contains an egregious flaw precisely because it could not be amended in Committee.

Mr. Forth: I am aware of the motions on the Order Paper. We shall be asked to approve those and I hope that the House will be aware of difficulties in that provision and take a view on that matter. My hon. Friend's point illustrates very well the difficulty in which we may find ourselves with the Bill. Clause 4 contains a succession of phrases such as "may by order", "as he considers appropriate", and

leading, finally, to

    "shall be made by statutory instrument",

so that the only protection left in the Bill is that the House can take or leave any measures that are proposed.

That is no protection at all because, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has just pointed out--I know that he feels strongly about this and is knowledgeable about the subject--we have on today's Order Paper a measure that has gone through the very process outlined in the Bill, and which is defective, yet the House can only accept or reject it. That is not good enough. I do not like to criticise the procedures of this place, above all places, but I regret to say that it is a flaw in our procedures. That will be compounded by the provision in clause 4(4)(b).

Where does that leave us? It leaves us in a great deal of difficulty. I am now persuaded, largely thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, that the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, which I judged too quickly and too harshly earlier, would make an appropriate alteration to the Bill at this stage. However, I think that my hon. Friend and I would agree that if the amendment were subsequently overtaken by events of which we now know little or nothing, we would accept that the Government

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would want to reconsider the provision and make further changes. That, in itself, would hardly be a satisfactory approach because amendments may be made in another place and the Bill may return here in a completely different form, in which case all our deliberations, which we are taking very seriously, would be as nothing. That is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs, but it is regrettably the position in which we find ourselves. I am persuaded--in fact, I have persuaded myself during my brief contribution--that I should support the amendment, but with the reservations that I have outlined. I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to give us more reassurance than we have had so far so that we may proceed in a more orderly way.

Mr. Maclennan: I have listened to the debate with interest and not without sympathy because, on the face of it, clause 4 does appear to be a Henry VIII clause. Naturally, I am rather unhappy to see that in a Bill of such importance. However, there are some difficulties with the amendments and new clauses. I alluded tentatively to a couple that sprang to mind, but I see some others.

One problem is the age of majority for voting purposes. Amendment No. 22 appears to waive the requirement to have attained the age of majority. It may be thought that the peculiar abilities of the hereditary peers mean that that is not of great significance. After all, this House has in the past provided a special distinction for women. Before the flapper vote was introduced, women were not allowed to vote under the age of 30, so the courts might take the view that Parliament had intended peers to be able to vote at any age.

Mr. Grieve: I am absolutely fascinated by the right hon. Gentleman's argument. Even if it were true that the proposal would not be open to judicial interpretation by taking into consideration the restrictions that exist for ordinary mortals, simply adding an extra sentence saying that the provision was subject to the relevant clauses of the Representation of the People Acts would solve the whole problem, would it not?

Mr. Maclennan: Well, yes, but that is the point--so many further matters have to be taken into account that it might be better to proceed by way of subordinate legislation and spell out what has to be considered.

Amendment No. 22 states:

That imposes a duty, but it is not specified on whom. It also puts peers in a rather peculiar category.

Ordinary mortals are entitled to vote only once they appear on the electoral register, having complied with the registration process by submitting a form that they have filled in, showing where they live and that sort of thing. The amendment involves a duty, but it is not specific; nor is it placed on a specific person. Although the intention behind the proposal is meritorious, the method proposed is defective. However, I look forward with great interest to hearing why the Government are proceeding as they are, and I do not want to postpone that enjoyment any longer.

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Sir Patrick Cormack: The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) has certainly enjoyed himself this evening. He referred earlier to having a frolic. We do not usually associate him with frolics, but he certainly disported himself with oratorical eloquence. However, this is a serious amendment, and I urge the Leader of the House to treat it seriously.

For the purpose of this argument, I urge hon. Members to accept that the Government are saying that the House of Lords has to be reformed because its legitimacy is defective. That is the premise on which the Bill is based. If we accept that, it is most extraordinary that a Bill of this nature should have at its heart a Henry VIII clause. There is no more illegitimate device--I am delighted that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) is nodding--than the Henry VIII clause, which gives a Secretary of State draconian powers. If the Government are trying to claim that, by this Bill, they are improving our constitutional and parliamentary system, why in the name of goodness do they put a Henry VIII clause at the centre--especially when there is no justification for such a clause?

We are not dealing with emergency legislation. We all accept that, on occasions, the House must, with great reluctance, give a Secretary of State wide and sweeping powers. We have done so, from time to time, in connection with Northern Ireland and other emergencies. I always find that a difficult pill to swallow, but I can sometimes accept that the national interest demands that I do so. That is not so in this case. The Leader of the House will have to put up a very good defence if she is to persuade us that it is.

I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who moved the amendment so eloquently. He said that he had always had grave misgivings about Henry VIII clauses. He has not had the good fortune to be in the House for very long, and we have not had the good fortune to benefit from his sage counsel and wise advice for very long. Some of us who have been hon. Members for a long time have rebelled against such clauses, even when introduced by our own parties. I cannot for the life of me see the justification for such a clause. Perhaps the Leader of the House will say that it is to enable writs of acceleration to be given, so that peers may be put on the electoral register very quickly, but that is not a substantial argument.

The interesting and somewhat mischievous point raised by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross does not hold water. He argued that, in effect, we would be giving the franchise to legions of lunatic, criminal or infant peers, who would swamp the electoral register, destroying at a stroke--or, perhaps, three strokes--the principles on which it is based. He knows, and I know, that that is arrant nonsense. If, at the time of enactment, a noble lord happens to be languishing at Her Majesty's pleasure--that has happened before; the Leader of the House must not become too hoity-toity about it--is anybody seriously suggesting that that criminal lord, or perhaps somebody detained elsewhere in a straitjacket, would immediately have the franchise conferred on him, and that the removal of one disqualification would automatically lead to the removal of another? Of course it would not.

Even if the Leader of the House, who is renowned for her desire to play safe on all occasions, thought that such a contingency posed a risk, all she would have to do is

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add to the amendment words similar to those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)--"subject to the Representation of the People Act", and so on. None the less, that is not a particularly valid argument. It was an Aunt Sally, suggested with mischievous eloquence and elegance by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

If, by any chance, the Leader of the House is not minded to accept amendment No. 22--I believe and hope that she is, because it does not detract one iota from the purport or intention of the Government's Bill--I draw her attention to amendment No. 7. That amendment does at least mean that we have some safeguards. It states:

That is something of a safeguard. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that it is valid.

We seek to ensure that wide-ranging and unnecessary powers are not bestowed on the Secretary of State--the emphasis is on the word "unnecessary"--that there is a strict limitation on precisely what the Bill does, and that that is clear and unambiguous. After all, that should be the aim of legislation. It should be understandable to all those to whom it applies. Some of the snide comments by Labour Members about hereditary peers show that some extra comprehensibility should commend itself to them.

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