|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The Earl of Dudley: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may ask him why he believes that a vote won by a majority of life Peers in a House deprived of hereditary Peers would be any more democratic than a vote won by a majority in a House that includes hereditary Peers?
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for an entertaining though thoroughly reactionary speech. But for the first time I find myself among those whom I believe he described as "hired guns". As a hired gun, which in this case I regard as a compliment, I want to turn shortly to the central question which I know your Lordships wish to debate today; namely, the future of this House. Before doing so, let me say a few words about what I take for granted about our constitution and our system of government; what it is and what it might become.
First, the distribution of seats in any elected chamber should roughly reflect the division of political opinion in the country. Forty years ago--I take the convenient year of 1955, a year in which there was a General Election--it was possible to argue that it did so, when over 96 per cent. of voters chose either of the two largest parties. But, if it was acceptable then, it is certainly not acceptable today. Taking the last election in 1992, only a little over 76 per cent. of those who voted voted for the two main parties and many fewer would have done so had they not believed that otherwise theirs would be wasted votes. There is an overwhelming case for electoral reform, however much we argue about the most appropriate system. We should bear that in mind, whatever other matters we discuss today.
Secondly, I believe that the long dominance of a single party in Westminster or in local government is not a formula for good government or public faith in our institutions. One noble Lord in yesterday's debate referred to "monolithic, selfish superiority". That is so often the characteristic of any party which becomes so used to power that it becomes indifferent to its wider responsibilities.
Thirdly, there is today an excessive attachment to party, which is inappropriate to the need to find lasting solutions to our economic, social and political problems. It is within the capacity of Parliament to change that if we choose to be less adversarial in our procedures and the government of the day set the tone. On a day-to-day level, there could be fewer whipped votes in either House. There could be a greater willingness of governments to lose with grace and of oppositions to claim that not every vote is a vote of confidence. There could be a larger role for pre-legislative committees, even on controversial Bills. There could be recognition that some matters, apart from matters of conscience, are not party matters at all. Those are all issues which are within the competence of Parliament. Were there to be a change of government after the next election, a new government could set a new tone which could be much less adversarial than we have known in recent years.
I illustrate that point with one matter that is currently before your Lordships' House. Noble Lords will remember that on 8th March the House voted overwhelmingly by 124 votes to 64 votes against the privatisation of the Recruitment and Assessment Services Agency. Subsequently, the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal enabled the House to set up a Select Committee on the matter. But on Tuesday of this week, when the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, gave evidence before that committee and was asked how that committee's views would be taken account of and whether the Government had in mind to modify their view on privatisation, he said, "We intend to proceed".
That is the kind of contempt of Parliament which is a very serious matter and an illustration of the adversarial nature of so much that we do. The Civil Service is not the property of this Government or of any government; it is the property of all governments, of Parliament and of our very constitution. How much better it would have been had the Government decided to seek agreement across all parties after, say, a proper examination by a Select Committee of both Houses. As I said, that is
We have indeed very little on which to congratulate ourselves in the way that Parliament has conducted its affairs in recent years. Reference was made earlier to Bills which were so poorly drafted when brought to your Lordships' Chamber as to suggest that the legislative process was itself deficient. It is not only a matter of Bills brought to this House from another place when the other place may not have given them proper treatment. It applied to the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill which was brought direct to this House by Her Majesty's Government in a totally inadequate form for proper discussion and decision.
As for the establishment of executive agencies, there are now 110 of them, employing nearly 300,000 civil servants. Far too little thought has been given to the consequences for accountability and the division of responsibility between Ministers and the agencies in proceeding in that way.
In this House on several occasions we discussed the Prison Service and, for example, the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Mr. Derek Lewis. At every stage, your Lordships on all sides of the House recognised that the present arrangements are too uncertain. They remove accountability and raise a great question about when Ministers can be responsible for policy and at the same time allow officials to be responsible for its execution in the new agencies.
It is sometimes said that the development of Select Committees, particularly in another place, is an exception to the gloomy record. They have certainly worked tolerably well in your Lordships' House. I pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, and the noble Lord, St. John of Fawsley, who respectively in 1971 and 10 years later gave them a significant role in another place. But in another place they are often more theatre than substance. The reports are rarely debated on the Floor of the House. For the most part, governments take little notice of their conclusions and too often--this is a very important point--the committees are divided along party lines. So I hope that in any forthcoming debate or in changes that may occur, it is not assumed that the development of Select Committees represents a parallel authority to that of the Chamber and provides an adequate check on the executive and effective parliamentary scrutiny. Whatever their merits, they do not go that far.
I deal next with the reform of your Lordships' House. Whatever may be said in this debate--and despite the entertaining debating speech of the Lord Privy Seal--I do not believe that the present composition of this Chamber can be justified. We would not seek to create it in this way if it did not exist. Reform of the Lords is right and, were there to be a change of government, I hope that it would prove inevitable.
But there are two hard facts that all reformers--I include myself--must face. The first is that in the short term there is no easy formula by which to create an elected second chamber. We do not have a federal system of government in this country. Whatever the merits of such a system--there is much in the idea--we could hardly create one simply to enable us to have a second chamber elected on a different basis. I would not like to have a kind of bisexual second chamber which was part elected and part appointed. I believe that if there is to be a short-term reform of this place, it must remain a quango of a kind, little as we may like that description.
Secondly, I am in agreement with the Lord Privy Seal and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that, even with reform, your Lordships' House will not be able to take back powers that it has lost to the House of Commons because the latter will not surrender them. Whatever the government of the day may say, the outcome in effect will be a free vote in another place, with no majority for a transfer of power back to your Lordships' Chamber.
I believe that for any future government concerned to reform your Lordships' House the right way to proceed is to announce in the Queen's Speech the principles that they intend to embody in legislation for reform and then allow your Lordships' House, perhaps within a period of three months, to come up with cross-party proposals for implementation through legislation. I do not believe that a Select Committee would be the right way to proceed. A much larger measure of consent would be achieved, and it would be a departure from the adversarial approach to these matters, if the government of the day, having first made up their minds about the principles--one might argue about them or vote upon them but it would be for the government to make their own decision--then allowed this House to reflect upon what best should be done.
As for the principles--noble Lords will have their own views on how to proceed--I believe that, first, there should be a new class of parliamentary Peers, making up a House of perhaps between 450 to 500 Members. All hereditary Members would be eligible to become parliamentary Peers. Secondly, there should be space for Cross-Bench parliamentary Peers roughly in the proportion of active Cross-Bench Peers today, making up perhaps 20 per cent. or a quarter of the new House. I believe that those two essential principles ought to be part of any change.
As to the hitherto unanswered question of political balance and the method of selecting parliamentary Peers, I make the following suggestions for consideration by your Lordships. First, in each Parliament the political allegiance of parliamentary Peers should broadly reflect the proportion of votes cast for each party. In this way, there would be a degree of political legitimacy in the composition of the House because it would be a fair reflection of opinion in the country. However, there would be no challenge of the kind which both sides of the House are anxious to avoid.
I agree with a comment made yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. He was wise to warn the House that constitutional reform was the greatest absorbent of parliamentary time known to man. In that context, constitutional change in the next Parliament must not displace urgent steps to deal with unemployment, poverty, housing, education and health. Nevertheless, it is a central and urgent issue from which much good could flow.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I begin with an apology. I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate. I have to be back in Chichester tonight for an engagement early tomorrow morning. Noble Lords will expect me to speak about the position of the bishops in this House of which they have been an integral part since its origins as the King's Council. I am sure that many bishops who are or have been Members of this House--and a substantial number of other Church members--will affirm the importance of a second House as a valuable chamber of deliberation and revision in our constitution. I hope that its Members will continue to be chosen largely for their personal contributions to the varied aspects of the life of the nation and that a number of bishops will always be found to fall into that category.
We and other representatives of the Church of England have for long welcomed the appointment to this House of prominent members of other Churches and faiths. There are some practical difficulties. For example, most leaders of the Free Churches are elected for one year only. I am sure, however, that those difficulties can be overcome.
The position of the bishops in this House raises the question of the establishment of the Church of England. It is not easy to define simply of what that consists, or what disestablishment would involve. In principle, establishment means that the state looks to a particular Church to act for it in religious matters and on religious occasions. But the terms on which a Church is established vary a great deal in different countries. One has only to look north of the Border to see a Church that is established on very different terms from those which establish the Church of England.
The English establishment has developed over many centuries; no one Act has brought it about. In recent years it has been modified by the passing of the Worship and Doctrine Measure, which gives the Church greater flexibility in the control of worship, and the setting up of the Crown Appointments Commission, following an agreement with the leaders of the three political parties during the premiership of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. It could continue to be modified in various other ways. The presence of the bishops in this House is not a necessary part of the establishment. But the removal of the bishops from the House would certainly be seen by many as a step towards the dissociation of the state from its present recognition of the Christian religion. Many temporal Peers have expressed the view that this House might be the poorer without the distinctive experience, moral and spiritual contribution of the bishops however far that contribution may fall short of what we ourselves would wish it to be.
The bishops are the top of a pyramid of service of which the bottom is the parish. The parish clergy have responsibilities to all who live in their parish and all parishioners have certain legal rights in relation to the parish church. That is an expression of the commitment of the Church of England to the people of England as a whole and the presence of the bishops here is a sign of it.
We welcome our role in this House and would not welcome its substantial reduction or removal. But if the size of the membership of the House as a whole were to be reduced, we would expect to take our share. I repeat that we are not exclusive; we would welcome a more broadly representative spread of spiritual Peers through the creation of appropriate life Peers and indeed of more Peers from other faiths.
During the 17 years I have been a Member of this House I have valued especially two things about it. The first is the breadth of knowledge and experience represented here. I know of no other institution in which, whatever subject may arise, there will be one or more persons who can speak with knowledge and authority. The second is the atmosphere of mutual respect, good temper and friendship which prevails despite the rare occasions on which the style of the other place begins to intrude. Although there are obviously many differences of belief in the House, I believe that there is basically a truly Christian atmosphere here. I hope that whatever changes may take place, that will not be lost. In the way in which it behaves the House sets an example of right conduct to the nation; of proper relationships and behaviour to one another. That is an example which is never more needed than at the present time. I would regret any changes that made a profound alteration to that.
Baroness Young: My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal very much not only for his most interesting and important speech this afternoon, but for giving us two days to debate these constitutional issues.
It is almost 25 years to the day since I made my maiden speech in your Lordships' House. On that occasion a constitutional issue was for debate; namely, the principle of Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, which I supported. Today we are in the midst of another constitutional debate. Its importance is that, when all the debating points have been aired, should the proposed constitutional changes take place they will to a very large extent be irreversible. We can no more renege on our international treaty obligations freely entered into than chop and change about the constitution. The issues are not those of nationalisation or privatisation; armament or disarmament; high or low taxes; selective or non-selective education. They affect the balance of our constitution and the relationship of this House with the House of Commons. Any proposed reform must satisfy the test that it will be an improvement on what we have at the present time.
As the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, said in his report, the House of Lords represents several hundred years of development. Indeed, the same might be said of the House of Commons. I was interested in the remarks of my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal on what further constitutional developments are proposed for that House. In our House we have seen continuous developments. When I look back on the 25 years I have been in this House, I see, first, the enormous increase in the number of women Peers and the enormous increase in the number of life Peers, so that the balance between hereditary Peers and life Peers has altered. There has been a great increase in the number of Cross-Benchers. There has been the development of the Select Committees, arising out of our membership of the European Union, whose reports are now widely read outside your Lordships' House and, I believe, are widely respected.
We have the expertise of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, based very largely on the extensive experience of a number of your Lordships. Those of us who regularly take part in legislative debates--I believe that this must be true of Members in all parts of your Lordships' House--have noticed a growing interest and, dare I say it, respect from professional organisations of one sort or another which seek to amend legislation. Outsiders recognise that it is frequently in the House of Lords that changes can be made. The House as a revising Chamber is effective.
Perhaps I may give three illustrations. I believe it to be true that we would not have achieved split pensions on divorce but for the House of Lords. In the great educational debates the issue of academic freedom was upheld by the House of Lords; and there are many in the university world who share that opinion.
If the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and his colleagues really believe that Conservative Governments think that the House of Lords is a push-over, let me tell them of my experience in achieving the largest ever defeat for the Government when I was in the Department of Education and Science. The issue before the House was to give a power, not a duty, to local authorities--which is something that I am sure New Labour would support--to allow them, if they so wished, to charge for
Perhaps on a more serious note, what Chamber in the world would have a debate such as we are to have tomorrow, introduced by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on morality? No one has suggested so far in the course of this debate that these functions--revising legislation, the work of expert committees and the judicial function of the House as the supreme court of the United Kingdom--should in any way be changed.
I listened with great care to what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, but I do not entirely follow his argument. He said that the criticism of the House of Lords is that it is not democratic and that therefore the hereditary Peers should go. He and I share the distinction--if that is the word to use--of both being life Peers, but are we democratic? The short answer is no, we are not. If we want a democratic House we should have an all-elected Chamber. That is the logical consequence. We should have either an all-elected Chamber or we should be abolished. That is the logic of the argument. It has been suggested that it should be an all-nominated Chamber, which is very strange, particularly in the light of the remark made by his noble friend Lord Irvine of Lairg in yesterday's debate. He said at col. 1461 of Hansard,
But let us consider a nominated Chamber. It would give unbelievable powers to political parties. For the first time in this country we shall have a party list system, and what a lot of competition there will be to get on that. Anybody who has been in politics knows the difficulties. I believe that I quote the noble Lord, Lord Richard, correctly. He said that once we have an all-nominated Chamber, we should then have a major exercise of public consultation. But I am afraid that I do not understand on what precisely we would be consulting. Would we be consulting on having an elected Chamber; would we be consulting on ending the House of Lords; or would we be consulting on a mixture of all sorts of things? I do not think that that is quite good enough to put before the public.
There have been a great many suggestions about reforms of the House of Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, referred to the working party under the late Lord Home. I must say at once that I was a member of it. I have looked carefully at the question of reforming your Lordships' House. Indeed, when I was Leader of your Lordships' House I made a number of suggestions which I put to the Cabinet, but I came to the conclusion--this is a serious point--that a major reform of the House of Lords would not be possible and would not work. If it strengthened the House of Lords, it would inevitably weaken the House of Commons--and that would not be acceptable in another place. I do not
In fact, if one looks at the history of reforms of the House of Lords since 1945, one sees that they were all regarded as relatively small reforms. I refer to the reform of 1949 which shortened the time for delay and to the reform of life peerages, which at the time was introduced as a small reform but which has had a profound effect on the House. That reform has been very effective. Of course, a great many other reforms could be considered and if the time were available today, I would make a number of suggestions. However, from my own experience I suggest that real consideration should be given to both Houses of Parliament having the opportunity to meet together on certain occasions. I have never forgotten the special summoning of both Houses of Parliament on a Saturday at the outbreak of the conflict over the Falklands. There was no possibility of us discussing things together and it was very difficult for my noble friend Lord Carrington, who was then the Foreign Secretary, to make his position clear to another place.
We do things in a rather curious way in this country. I believe that there are many small reforms worth considering which would make this House still more effective than it is. Will a nominated Chamber perform better? I do not believe that it would; nor do I think that it would have the effect which has been suggested. Anybody who has been a government Minister knows that once people are Members of your Lordships' House, they are very unreliable. If it is any consolation, the figures that have been given about defeats and other votes do not take account of the many instances when settlements are made outside the House and when amendments are agreed to because the Government have accepted the point and because they have listened. It is quite wrong to suggest that the Government do not listen.
I was interested to see a number of criticisms of nominated Chambers in the report from the Constitution Unit, including of the Canadian Senate, which, after all, is an example of a nominated Chamber. I shall not go into all of that this afternoon, but before we change anything it is necessary to consider all the arguments.
No one who has been a Member of your Lordships' House can possibly believe that it is somehow perfect. Like any human institution, it is not. However, I believe that it works well and gives an opportunity for revision and consideration. It allows one to hear experts in a Chamber the like of which one would not find anywhere else. It is perfectly true that if we were starting all over again we would not make a House of Lords; but if we were starting all over again, would we have a Commonwealth--that too is a rather curious institution--or a great many other British institutions which I could name but shall not? I have seen some constitutional changes in the past 25 years and I cannot say that I think that they have all been
Lord Shepherd: My Lords, I am sure that the Leader of the House will confirm that tomorrow's business could well be lost if we do not complete today's debate by 11 o'clock this evening and I shall therefore deny myself the joy of speaking to the amusing and highly provocative speech that he delivered. It had very much the hallmarks of the press conference on Wednesday, but I presume that that is why we have had two days for debate, Wednesday and today.
I should like to explain to the House my experiences as Government Chief Whip in 1964 and as Leader of the House in 1974. They were periods of very great anxiety. I felt anxiety about the burdens that I could place upon the Back Benchers in my own party who were small in number and, in many cases, quite elderly; yet a quorum was necessary if the House was to complete its business. Equally, I was frustrated because I was highly conscious that I had survived in both capacities by grace and favour. It was only with the agreement and the consent of the Conservative Party that I could get agreement to any business procedures. Those circumstances still dwell with me.
I freely acknowledge the co-operation and agreement that I enjoyed with the then Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and particularly with the late Lord St. Aldwyn, because, once made, promises of consent and agreement were fulfilled impeccably. However, there was always the potential threat that some Members of the House might not follow the advice or the leadership of the Conservative Party.
As a consequence of that, in 1968 we had informal discussions about the possible reform of our composition. We began on the basis of an agreed statement by the three major political parties in 1948. I shall read it to your Lordships because it shows that the question of hereditary Peers and their place in the constitution is not new today; it has been around for a long time. Those who took part in the conference stated:
In 1968 we had informal discussions among the party leaders here and made sufficient progress to be able to inform Dick Crossman, then Leader of the House of Commons, of what we had achieved. As a consequence we were able to have a more formal all-party discussion and a White Paper was issued in 1968. It was agreed that there would be a House of about 250 voting Peers. Hereditary Peers within the House could attend, could speak and could even move amendments; the one thing
We reached that agreement and it was brought to the House. It produced one of the largest majorities that this House had ever seen up to that moment; it was supported in the Division Lobby by the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the Labour Party and the Cross-Benchers. There were some dissidents but the leadership of the Conservative Party was in support.
The year 1968 is a long time ago. I have to say to my noble friend that, in the practicalities, I still support those proposals. They suggest ways whereby one can overcome some of the potential constitutional difficulties. However, times have changed. The pressures within our composition have altered quite dramatically. In 1968 the number of Members of this House was 1,062, of whom 373 never showed any interest in attending. Approximately 291 failed to get expenses because they did not fulfil the 33 1/3 per cent. requirement. In those days, the Conservative Party had 351 Members. Today it has 477, an increase of 126. The Labour Party had 116; today it has 114, a fall of two. The Liberals--the Liberal Democrats, as I must now call them--had a membership of 41. The number is now 55, an increase of 14. Therefore, the disparity between the parties has increased and, I suspect, is still increasing, despite what the parties agreed to in 1948.
A reason will no doubt be supplied as to why that has happened. But we have to envisage--do we not?--that if there is a Labour Government next Session, our composition in the very early days will be broadly what it is today. The Conservative Party will be in a position to dominate, whatever the government of the day, elected by the people, may have decided in respect of our proceedings.
I now feel, regrettably, that the hereditary right to attend and speak is perhaps no longer tenable. I recognise, as all of us do, the major contribution that certain hereditary Members make. This House would indeed be poorer as a consequence of their loss. But that does not necessarily cover the entirety of the hereditary membership. The matter could well be resolved by the abolition of the hereditary principle from this House while retaining, through the Life Peerage Act and by agreement among the parties, those hereditary Peers of value whose presence would be missed in this place.
I accept that there is one slight difficulty to be overcome. That difficulty exists not so much within the parties--it is the parties, in a sense, who would be nominating their life Peers--but in the element from the Cross-Benchers. Their role is of great importance. We
To revert to what was agreed in 1968, I suggest that this House would be richer, would have more influence and would be more respected if its composition were to be as I described earlier, with the government of the day having to fight for votes and unable to depend upon its bare majority over the two organised political parties. I believe that would be right. We need to agree on the number of Members of the House, but, again, that can be done through all-party discussions. Those proposals, until such time as we get a full reform--perhaps at present a bridge too far in terms of an elected second Chamber--would, I believe, achieve what is our objective; namely, greater respect from the Commons, greater understanding by the Commons of what we do and, perhaps, greater credibility among the general public. Above all, I believe that we could perform the role of a revising Chamber and, as the noble Viscount the Leader of the House said, perform a greater service in the fields both of scrutiny and of being complementary to the House of Commons.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page