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New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 4, after clause 2, to insert the following new clause--Voting rights of life peers: extension of duration of Parliament--


" . In respect of any proceedings in the House of Lords on a Bill providing for the maximum duration of Parliament to be extended beyond five years, no peer appointed to the House of Lords under the Life Peerages Act 1958 during the course of that Parliament shall be entitled to vote on such proceedings."

10.30 pm

Mr. Tipping: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

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This amendment is unnecessary, nasty and will not achieve its objective. It is a mean little amendment that purports to provide an additional safeguard--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. There is a general buzz of conversation. The House must listen to the Minister.

Mr. Tipping: The amendment purports to provide an additional safeguard against an attempt to extend the life of Parliament. Under the Parliament Act 1911, the House of Lords retains an absolute veto on any legislation to achieve such an effect. The Government made it clear in the White Paper and elsewhere that we think that that veto should be retained. We recognise the importance of that constitutional safeguard and have no intention of undermining it. We made it clear that it should be retained not only in the transitional House, but in the fully reformed House.

The amendment suggests that some Members of the House of Lords should not be allowed to vote on a Bill to extend the life of a Parliament, irrespective of their party, the reason for their nomination as life peers, or the quality of their contribution to debates. The only criterion to be applied is the date of their patent. Some Members of the House of Lords are always potentially to be considered second class and untrustworthy, at least until they survive a general election, when they miraculously become first class and honourable.

When this amendment was debated in the House of Lords, the Conservatives totally failed to explain why they thought that protection against the power of a Government determined to extend their life should be needed now. They tried only two justifications for their approach. First--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Will hon. Members who do not want to hear the Minister leave the Chamber and continue their conversations outside?

Mr. Tipping: First, the Conservatives argued that the hereditary peers are uniquely independent of the blandishments of party and the siren calls of short-term expediency. Secondly, they argued that the balance of numbers in the House now means that it is much easier for the Government of the day to pack the House. Neither proposition is true and both are deeply insulting to life peers, especially to those from this party.

Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We all take note of your exhortations, but would not our proceedings be greatly assisted if the Minister addressed the House without muttering into his notes so that his speech is inaudible?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The House would be better able to hear the Minister if we had fewer contributions from a sedentary position, including those from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tipping: It is no easier now for any party to achieve a majority in the House of Lords than it has been for the Conservative party--indeed, it is rather less so. Life peers are just as honourable, just as independent in

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their views and have just as great a sense of public service as hereditary peers. What is being suggested is an insult to the integrity of life peers and of those who might in the future be honoured with life peerages.

The amendment would not even achieve its desired effect. To a Government really determined on such a course, there are several ways round even this obstacle. For example, a Government reasonably confident of their position could pack the House first, call a general election and then repeal the Septennial Act. There is a strange paradox--

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Tipping: No.

The proposal in the amendment would be effective only in the context of a rational, law-abiding Government, and in that context, it is quite unnecessary.

I urge that this amendment be rejected.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I do not know about insults, but I think that that non-argument was an insult to this House. This is a very simple amendment to which I shall address very few words, and I will make sure that they are audible. It seeks to prevent life peers appointed in the course of a Parliament from voting in any proceedings that provide for the extension of the life of the Parliament beyond five years. That is an extremely simple proposition to which no democratic Member of this House ought to have any objection.

We heard earlier that when the House of Lords meets next week, on 17 November, a quarter of its members will have been appointed in the past two and a half years by the current Prime Minister--

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): Not enough.

Sir Patrick Cormack: That remark makes my case that the House of Lords could be packed and, at the Government's behest, vote to prolong the life of Parliament.

There is a precedent for the amendment being made. The Parliament Acts that are currently in force specifically and deliberately leave untouched the absolute power of the House of Lords to reject any Bill to extend the life of Parliament.

I cast no aspersions on anyone present this evening; nor do I doubt for half a second the integrity of the Parliamentary Secretary, whom I respect. I do not even doubt what the Prime Minister might do. All I say is that the amendment is not one that any democratically elected Government need fear. It is a simple and emphatic statement that ought to command the universal respect and support of this House.

Many dictatorships have begun with elected Governments, and we do not want one ever to be inflicted on this country. I do not suggest that there is one currently in prospect, but we are debating an upper House with an indeterminate life span. All we want is to write in a simple safeguard, which takes nothing away from the Government's proposals, but merely reaffirms something

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that every democratically elected Government ought to reaffirm. I urge the House to come to a quick decision and to vote emphatically in favour of the amendment.

Mr. Forth: The amendment deals with an important matter, because it touches on nothing less than the role of the upper House as a safeguard of our constitution. Few matters can be more important than that and anyone who has given the amendment even the most cursory consideration will fully understand its import.

Despite that, the debate was given only the most superficial introduction by the Minister. I do not know whether he was ashamed of his argument, whether he did not fully understand his argument, or whether he was patronising the House in a manner with which we have become all too familiar. Whatever the reason, we have been given little to work on, so we shall have to use our imagination when trying to understand the issues. Therefore, the process might take a little longer than it might have taken had the Minister given us a proper explanation. A little detailed consideration will be required as a result of the Minister being unhelpful to the House, but I shall attempt to set the scene as best I can, so that the debate can run its proper course.

We are considering how the upper House is properly to fulfil its important role of safeguarding the constitution against any possibility of an extension to the term of a Parliament. Throughout history, that issue has arisen from time to time, often in extremely dramatic circumstances. Although it has not arisen in the recent past, the size of the current Government's majority in the House of Commons gives cause for anxiety about the possibility of an attempt being made to extend Parliament's term.

The irony is that the size of the Government's majority in this place brings the issue to the surface. We are entitled to be somewhat suspicious of the possible consequences. In a bicameral system, if one House comprises an overwhelming number of Members from the same party, we will rely more on the other House--in this case, the upper House--to provide vital safeguards against prolonging the life of a Parliament.

That is the background to this issue, and I turn to the details of the amendment. Paradoxically, the Minister gave us a clue--I do not think he intended to do so--when he used the phrase "pack the House". He obviously thinks that a future Government or Prime Minister could seek to--I use the Minister's words--pack the upper House with Members who would then influence votes in that place. If that is on the Minister's mind, it should certainly be on hon. Members' minds as we consider this amendment.

I may have come to this debate innocent of such matters; it may be that that point did not occur to me. However, even a cursory hearing of the Minister's comments would have alerted me to the fact that he thinks that the House of Lords could be packed by this or a future Prime Minister. That is why we must consider this amendment very seriously.

I thought it rather odd when the Minister went on to say that it would be an insult to life peers--he used those words--if we agreed to the amendment. A common theme has run through the debates tonight that I will characterise as, "Trust me, I'm from the Government; leave it all to me and don't worry". That is what the Minister implied in the previous debate when he resisted an attempt to put

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what amounted to his own proposals into the Bill to act as a perfectly natural, simple safeguard. When dealing with constitutional matters, what could be more natural than having on the face of legislation as important as this details of the mechanisms upon which we shall rely to settle future arrangements? That is a perfectly reasonable expectation. Yet in the previous debate, the Minister tried to persuade us that we need not--


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