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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, has it occurred to the noble Lord that it has become an issue not because Mr. Blair wanted it to have a high profile but rather because people think that the Labour Party will win?
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, with great respect, I do not think that is the case. For quite a long time when people asked what Mr. Blair believed in, one of the few things one could think of was that he had referred on numerous occasions to the abolition of the House of Lords. I am not criticising that in the least; it is a fact. The Labour Party rightly jettisoned many policies which have kept it out of office, and of course it takes a little time to find something to take their place. It seems to me relevant to the whole function of the House of Lords that Britain has, since the early 1980s, moved away from the socialist consensus--which dominated this country for four decades--to a capitalist consensus.
As Mr. Tony Benn rightly reminds us, in many ways we now live in a one party state. However, as my noble friend Lady Young pointed out, the Members of this House are remarkably independent and unpolitical in many ways. If, after 17 years of opposition, the Labour leadership is seeking a means of filling up the parliamentary timetable, constitutional reform is a most inspired choice. But politically it is a rather bizarre choice. After the first year or so, if most of the parliamentary time has been taken up with constitutional matters, what will the electorate think of it? It is not always easy to make the electorate appreciate matters. I remember that Mr. Harold Lever once pointed out to his party that it might be a little difficult to persuade the electorate that the Co-op could be made as efficient as Marks & Spencer simply by nationalising it. That was a long time ago. But I am not sure that constitutional matters have this tremendous political sex appeal.
I greatly admire Mr. Blair for his courage and the way that he gets things done. On the other hand, I am not sure that he is a good general. A good general does not select a bog or quicksand for his army. I hope that the Opposition have thought carefully about the issue. The speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, yesterday, spelt out the dangers of how easily parliamentary time--it is the fuel and ammunition of the political battle--can be dissipated in matters connected with the constitution. This issue was signalled early in the new leadership. It is clear that the plans have not really been worked out in detail. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, produced a large number of important questions that have to be settled.
However, there are two important issues. I hope that the Labour Party will take careful account of them. First, let us decide whether we are aiming at a directly elected chamber in the foreseeable future, or are thinking purely in terms of limited reform. The timescale was not clear to me from the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. We reform local government at least every 20 years, and that is probably too often. It would be intolerable if we were now to make fairly radical changes to the composition of the Chamber with the idea of moving to an elected Chamber within the next 10 to 15 years. It would be an awful waste of the country's parliamentary time.
Secondly, the Labour Party has to decide whether it wishes to proceed by confrontation or consensus. I have spent long enough as a lobby correspondent at the other end to realise that there is no limit to the period by which a parliamentary timetable can be upset if there is a confrontation on constitutional matters. I ask the noble Lord who will reply for the Opposition whether it is right to assume that the Labour Party would not propose to discuss any constitutional change off the Floor of the House in another place. I assume that, but it would be helpful to have it confirmed.
Although there is not much wrong with this House in practice, there is in perception. I am lucky enough to have been attending for five years. I am convinced that the House performs functions which have to be performed but which, for reasons of lack of expertise and pressures of time, could not be fulfilled by Members of another place. With the intrusion of the Nolan reforms, I fear there is a real danger that the quality of people in another place may well deteriorate. One of the problems in this House is that although we behave relatively well and perform useful functions, we receive little media coverage. That may be cause and effect.
I believe in reform. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, reminded us, my party has advocated reform of this Chamber on a number of occasions. We would be wise to face up to the issue again. My approach is to modify and build on the assets that we already have. Let me at this point comment on the repeated assertion that it is profoundly undemocratic for hereditary Peers to be allowed to be legislators but that in some way appointed Peers have a greater legitimacy. The position is no more undemocratic than that judges should be appointed from those who have been called to the Bar, or that generals are appointed from those who have joined the army. That does not mean that all lawyers are capable of being judges or that all soldiers are capable of being generals. Nor, of course, should all Peers by succession be allowed to be legislators; but some are. Any unelected legislature is undemocratic, but it is not necessarily anti-democratic. Therefore, I favour a reform which would include representative hereditary Peers as one of its components.
The theoretical membership of this House at 1,200 is much too large. There are people who consider that membership of the other place is too large. For the purpose of discussion, let us assume that the minimum number required should be 600. All these figures can be argued. If we add together the life Peers, the Law Lords,
If we consider the differential attendance figures, that is a reasonable allocation. In the last Session approximately 30 per cent. of Peers by succession attended occasionally--for between one and 39 days. A further 30 per cent. attended for more than 40 days out of 142 days. About 20 per cent. attended on more than half the number of days. Of those, about 100 can be regarded as full-time, attending more than 85 per cent. of days. I refer to the attendance of hereditary Peers.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I cannot, and I do not think that anyone else can. I made the point that mere attendance does not necessarily mean that people contribute. That applies to everyone. I do not believe that one can use that judgment; it is a rough and ready judgment. However, as I said, I propose that only a proportion of those who attend should be selected to be Members of the House from the peerage by succession contingent. I suggest that Peers selected by Peers would ensure that the best was achieved. The public object to the belief that there are people who do not take the place seriously, or for some reason are quite unsuited to be here. I accept and respect that point of view. It is precisely to remove that criticism that I suggest that there should be a more limited number of hereditary Peers and that they should be selected in the way that I suggest.
There would have to be space for creations during a parliament. The reaper would provide some spaces. When I arrived here I was told rather comfortingly that Members of your Lordships' House live on average a decade longer than other mortals. I was told today that the average age at death of Members of the House of Lords during 1995 was 79. Let us hope that 1996 is an even better year. The last 10 Prime Ministers on death had reached an average age of 82. They are pretty tough at the top!
The maximum size of the House could be allowed to rise to 650 during a parliament. The following parliament could then revert to the figure of 600. That could be achieved by reducing the number of hereditary Peers by 50. Thus my scheme could eliminate the hereditary component of the House at the end of three parliaments. Actually I suspect that long before that wiser thoughts might have decided otherwise.
I hope very much that the Labour Party will take heed of this debate. Otherwise, if it rushes into ill-considered changes, some of us will be reminded of a remark made nearly 30 years ago by the late Iain Macleod. Referring to the Labour Party of those days, he told a Tory Party conference,
Lord St. John of Bletso: My Lords, I was delighted to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that regular membership of your Lordships' House can be a recipe for longevity. I hope that it will be true in my family; very few of us have passed the age of 60.
Today's debate has posed a personal dilemma for me, not because of my obvious concerns for the future of hereditary Peers, but because I had tickets for the Centre Court at Wimbledon today. It was difficult to give them up when I knew that I would be the 25th speaker and that whatever I had to say would have been already ably said by many noble Lords before me.
With the general election looming, it is perhaps opportune that your Lordships have spent the past two days debating key constitutional issues. My hope is that it has been an opportunity for rational discussion rather than an exercise in merely winning political brownie points. I say that, of course, as a committed Cross-Bencher. I hope that having allocated two days to constitutional issues, the Leader of the House will also allocate a full day before the Summer Recess, should time allow, for your Lordships to debate the report of EC Select Committee A, of which I am a member--I see that other members of the committee are here today--on the merits of being in or out of the European monetary union.
As a hereditary Peer and the 21st St. John of Bletso--a title which was created in 1558--can I justify my existence in your Lordships' House by birthright? Certainly, in a parliamentary democracy I cannot, nor would I wish to, attempt rationally to defend my privileged position. However, although it is an anachronism, the raw reality is that, despite its many flaws, the system has worked for many generations. It has unique qualities, with many talents. It represents all age groups and, for that matter, all interest groups. Most important, it is highly effective in many of its functions and roles.
I welcome the report of the Constitution Unit on the reform of the House of Lords and the informal study of my noble friend the Earl of Carnarvon and others on possible reforms of the second chamber. I sincerely believe that it is both instructive and essential at this time that the debate should be, and I am sure will be, fully thrashed out in the run-up to the general election.
However, what I believe falls to the root of the debate is that it should not centre entirely around the possible reform of the composition of your Lordships' House, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. A constructive reform must start by defining the House's functions, powers and the relationships with the other place and be directed at a clear set of final goals.
While the overall figure of eligible hereditary Peers to life Peers makes startling reading, the reality is that of the 580 Peers who sat for more than 20 days last year--and I cannot answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, as to how long they sat for--49 per cent. were life Peers and the remainder hereditary.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, in his criticism of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in your Lordships' House, pointed out the large percentage of Conservative hereditary Peers. He explained how the results of Labour Government defeats in the Lords between 1974 and 1979 and the far fewer defeats of the Conservative Government since they have been in office could have been dramatically reversed if there were no hereditary Peers voting. Apart from the fact that defeats in your Lordships' House serve merely to persuade rather than to direct the other place, the Salisbury/Addison doctrine established the convention of restricting a party in majority in your Lordships' House from blocking manifesto commitments by a government of a different party in the other place. That is an important point in the argument.
As a committed Cross-Bencher, I also agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, that in many cases Divisions in your Lordships' House are regularly won by the arguments on the Floor of the House rather than purely by party loyalty. It is interesting to note the point raised by many noble Lords that the Cross-Benchers make up the second largest group in your Lordships' House.
Constitutional reform has among its many objectives the reduction of the power of the Executive. I was interested to read in a recent letter that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, wrote to The Times that he believes that,
With most speakers focusing on possible reforms of this House, it was refreshing to hear my noble friend Lord Weatherill call for more reforms to the other place. The noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal argued that your Lordships' House was an "amateur" House yet had
Traditionally, your Lordships' House has never been a party political chamber, nor do I believe it should ever become one. There has been a wide-ranging assortment of suggestions for possible gradual or sometimes more radical reform of the House: from the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, that hereditary rights should cease on the death of the present holder, to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in The Times yesterday for reducing the number of hereditary Conservative Peers, particularly the backwoodsmen, and increasing the number of Labour and Liberal Democrat life Peers.
While I agree with the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", I do believe that there should be some reform of this House. However, I do not take the purist line of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, of a democratically elected chamber. That option would mean vesting far greater power in this House and would be a recipe for disaster. I do not believe that the majority of voters in Britain consider reform of this House to be a high priority.
Lord Mottistone: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso. I can tell him at the outset that my wife thinks exactly as his wife does. Although I have been in this House for 30 years, she still thinks it is a waste of everybody's time. Be that as it may, I do not.
Somewhat surprisingly, I propose to concentrate on the contribution of the hereditary peerage to Parliament. Before doing so, I wish to make brief reference to the subject of yesterday's debate. My father, 100 years ago, was a Liberal Unionist. He was half Welsh and half English by birth. My mother was almost wholly Scottish, though there was a bit of French in her family back in the eighteenth century. I am married to a girl from Northern Ireland. Like very many other British citizens I am therefore a Unionist to my backbone and believe that the strength of this Kingdom rests wholly in the Union in its present form. Any plans to dilute the Union should be resisted as strongly as any of us knows how.
As to creating regions of England to compensate somehow for any other changes to the Union, I resist that equally strongly. Having lived in three counties of England as well as in the Isle of Wight, I find no wish for regions locally and I have a positive dislike for the
Turning to the future of hereditary Peers, in 1977 as a contribution to the committee of my noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel, which was then examining the subject, I wrote what service staff officers call an "appreciation", selecting as its aim:
Let us look briefly at the contribution of hereditary Peers. After succeeding to the title, they can if they wish attend spasmodically as an apprenticeship. I did so for my first eight years, when earning my living was a high priority. For example, in Opposition and in supporting the Government, I learnt then, among many other things, that one can influence government spokesmen better by persuasion than by bullying. That is an understanding from which some noble Lords opposite might benefit.
Because of the uncertainties of succession, hereditary Peers provide a large proportion of the younger Members. Youth is very important in a non-elected Chamber. I emphasise, as other noble Lords have done, that any non-elected chamber is as undemocratic as any other non-elected chamber, if that is the point that is being made. In the nature of things Life Peers tend to be (not all of them) rather old, because they have to prove themselves before being selected.
The Canadian Senate, whose influence, as I discovered when serving in the UK High Commission in the 1960s, is minimal, is one example. It is significant that in the year that I spent on the staff of the High Commission, never once did I see the Senate mentioned in the newspapers; never once did I meet a senator at a diplomatic party. It would be quite remarkable in this country if Members of this House were not either quoted in the newspapers or seen at such parties.
The uncertainties of succession also make hereditary Peers a form of random selection, as my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal mentioned in his opening speech. That makes them much more representative of the country at large than is an appointed quango. The selection is also much more genuinely random these days than it was in 1911, since so many more of us have to struggle to earn a living. I have certainly had to. Hereditary Peers owe no allegiance to anyone, and attend only if they think that they can genuinely help the government of the country. If that leads to any of them acting with self-interest, the House quickly detects and squashes such a tendency. The House is good at that sort of thing.
In 1977, I also discovered that only about 300 of all Peers (about a quarter of those entitled) attend really regularly--I emphasise the word "really". Only about 250 of them usually attend on a normal day, even if both the major parties have a two-line Whip. That is supplemented by the balance of power being held by the
I prepared this speech on Sunday. On Monday we had a classic example of the Cross-Benches winning Divisions, and then not doing so when they wished because the Cross-Benches wanted it that way, regardless of what either of the major parties thought.
In 1977, my appreciation led me to recommend that if hereditary Peers were to be swept away they should be replaced by elected persons to balance the Life Peers--in what proportion would be for discussion: 50:50 might be one possibility, although at that stage I supported a proposal for two-thirds elected and one-third Life Peers. I saw that as the only conceivable alternative which might (though even that is rather doubtful) achieve the aim of my appreciation, for this House to contribute better (again I emphasise "better") to government.
Happily, Lord Home's committee put forward a very similar proposal. It is well worth reading for those who have not done so. Unless we can be sure that the other place would accept such a solution--and I do not believe that is as difficult as some people have suggested--I believe that, as things stand, hereditary Peers are far too valuable an element of this House for them to be deprived of any of their present rights.
As other noble Lords said, there can be no question of hereditary Peers being deprived of those rights as a first stage, with a vague promise of something better to follow. Any overall change must be considered comprehensively by the House in one stage only. It seems to me almost inevitable that, were we all persuaded to go away--and I do not believe that we should go easily--it would become too difficult to do anything more positive, and along the lines I have suggested because of the problems caused by the shortness of Parliamentary time. Therefore, matters would just drift on, to the end of the Parliament in question, then the response would be: "Oh, well we won't bother about it until the next time". And we should have a body similar to the Senate in Canada trying to help govern this country. God help us if we do.
If the noble Lords on the Opposition Front Bench are determined to sweep us away without some replacement because of the irritation that we cause mainly to them and certainly to Prime Ministers of both major parties, I hope most fervently that every effort will be made by the country to ensure that their party will never again form a government.
Lord Winston: My Lords, I was deeply sorry to hear that Lady St. John of Bletso felt that her husband was wasting his time. My wife, at least, knows where I am, and Hansard provides a written check of that. It is the best possible evidence.
I must apologise for my brief absences during a short part of this debate. I hope I do not repeat anything that has been said before but, of course, in a sense this is one of the conflicts of being both a working doctor and a working life Peer. Indeed, this paradox is quite important in this debate because I believe I would be much less valuable as a Member of this House if I were not a working doctor, an academic and a scientist.
My only excuse for speaking at all in this very lengthy debate is that I am one of the most junior Members, almost the most junior Member, of this House and possibly some observations from a very green newcomer would be appropriate.
When the news of my appointment to this House was leaked to a newspaper my teenage daughter ran home to her mother in tears, saying, "Does that mean that Daddy is so old?" That is a view which is relevant because it is a view which is shared, to some extent, by the general public. Even intelligent people regard this place as outmoded, peopled, dare I say it, by a number of geriatrics or effete aristocrats who argue about hunting. There is nothing like joining a body for changing one's opinion.
Within two days, I became immensely impressed by this House as a revising chamber. That great impression has continued with me and is augmented all the time. As most people of my party would, particularly in the other place, without knowledge I had discounted the contribution and the stature of many of the hereditary Peers. I see now that that was a completely mistaken impression. One only has to look, for example, at the Government Front Bench to see the remarkable work that they do, with the great altruism and the time that they put in.
I rapidly recognised that it was rather difficult to distinguish between the hereditary Peers and the life Peers. The only evidence I could see was that the hereditary Peers were definitely fitter, in some cases younger, usually taller, and in the case of the Lord Privy Seal--who unfortunately is not in his seat at the moment--more handsome. Although, I have to say that my red carnation is bigger than his red carnation. I wonder whether I put more muck on mine.
Notwithstanding all the rather curious views represented by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, yesterday, this observation about the hereditary peerage has done something to restore my diminishing professional impression of the usefulness of genetics. Nevertheless, I have to agree with my noble friend and leader that the position of the hereditary peerage is hardly tenable in a modern legislative chamber. In spite of that tribute which we all feel, and that work which is in the greatest tradition of British freedoms, we have to accept that the precedence of the hereditary peerage, as constituted, is very difficult to defend.
The question is how should they be replaced? I am a life Peer. I am very well aware of the privilege of being here. I find that difficult to justify. I did when I heard that I might be appointed here and I still find it difficult to justify because I know that there are hundreds of doctors who are better qualified as doctors, and who are
Another problem of the life peerage, as it is currently constituted, is that it clearly does not reflect our society. In this House it is obvious. There are still very few women in this House as life Peers, and there are almost no Members from the ethnic minorities. The Bishops are all Anglican; there are very few Catholic of Jewish Ministers, and I believe I am right in saying that there is no Moslem cleric in the House. From direct experience the House cannot generally express the views of the more disadvantaged members of our society, and this can only be done from our indirect experience, and by the public service that so many of your Lordships carry out so well in various aspects of public life.
What about an elected chamber? I have to say that I am very fearful of that alternative. We already have an elected chamber whose decisions should remain paramount, but it has the problems of being extremely political in flavour. I cannot see that we would benefit from another chamber of that sort. This Chamber is at its best, as I have seen, and at its most effective when it is not being political.
A few months ago I went into the other place in the Peers' Gallery to listen to the opening of the Scott debate. It was remarkable and wonderful. I do not think one would have to be unpartisan, listening to Mr. Robin Cook and hearing him taunting the row of limpets stuck to the Treasury Front Bench, to recognise a great parliamentary performance. It was a truly entertaining experience. I then returned to this Chamber and heard a reasoned and carefully argued debate in all the traditions of this House.
That is a vital tradition that we have to protect because we do that so well. As we have seen in the last two days of this debate, there is an astonishingly high degree of communication, which we must maintain. We have seen it during the conduct of the Asylum and Immigration Bill when the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was forced to stick to the Front Bench for nine hours during one of the Committee stages. I took pity on her and bought her a packet of Polos. Two hours later, she sent me, across the Chamber, a chocolate biscuit--and we are not even good friends.
What was remarkable about that debate during the Committee stage was the level of the discussion, and it was only at one o'clock in the morning when everybody was tired and starting to get angry that we fell into the trap of being political. Then the debate petered out and we saw very clearly what can happen when we get too political.
There are other problems in this House. How can we justify Peers who come into the Chamber, make a speech and leave, which is against the conventions of this House? That has happened, even during this debate. Of course it must happen during a long debate but sometimes it seems not to be necessary. I find it difficult to accept that, in a Chamber which is not primarily a legislating Chamber but a revising Chamber which listens to arguments before making decisions, people can walk through a voting Lobby without having heard any part of the debate and therefore weigh in against carefully considered and important arguments. That is a great weakness of our system. It is one of the matters that we need to address.
Another problem can be well seen during Question Time. I quite understand that it is not the fault of Ministers, but very often they make little or no attempt to answer the Question which is to be addressed. The problem is that they do not have a mandate to do so. It is only Secretaries of State in the other place who can make policy on the hoof (even in the case of BSE, dare I say?) and make comments which might be contentious and which might have to be justified afterwards to their Ministry.
As the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, said, holding the Government to account is very difficult when Ministers may not have the authority to answer to us. I hope that the Questions and the Answers to them which are put in this House are listened to by the Government in the other place. Many of us wonder whether that in fact happens. It seems to me to be a very important part of the process in this Chamber.
We have to be very careful indeed to recognise on all sides of the House that in all our deliberations we must not bring Parliament lower in the estimation of the public. I am concerned that reform must therefore be taken extremely carefully and with proper consensus. We certainly need reforms, but they must not just be for political expediency. I have learnt that as a junior Member of this House. This Chamber is a vital checkpoint in our democratic processes.
With all the paradoxes that I see in the possible recomposition of this House, it worries me that we might make changes too quickly without looking carefully at alternative solutions, solutions which might, for example, include their slower evolution. It amuses me that nearly all Peers opposite say that they want to reform the House but none of them seems to want to change it. We must change but we must be sure to protect this great legislative Chamber.
Lord Hindlip: My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, "Et in Arcadia ego" . I should like to speak very briefly in defence of the hereditary peerage and its place in the constitution. I support almost everything that my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal said.
But there is a simple and more immediate reason for keeping the hereditary element of your Lordships' House. Strangely, perhaps, it is about independence and freedom from patronage. In a speech on the constitution on 7th May 1782, in the other place, Edmund Burke said:
The reason that I, one of my noble friend Lord Monson's apprentices, wish to speak in this debate is to recall a conversation that I had, shortly before I left the Army and joined the auction house whose name my noble friend Lord Gowrie forgets, with a wise and experienced Member of the other place and later of your Lordships' House, Lord Margadale of Islay, who was chairman for many years of the Conservative 1922 Committee. I asked his advice about a career in politics. "Ask me again," he said, "in 25 years' time when you have done something. Politics is becoming full of people who have done nothing else. It is bad for Parliament and sad for the country."
That conversation took place 35 years ago. The trend visible then has become the norm today. The other place is full of career politicians, reliant for their advancement on the patronage of the Prime Minister of the day and the approval of the Whips' Office. Step out of line and you will be de-selected. Many people must wonder why the target for reform is your Lordships' House. Does career politics, with jobs for life its inevitable aim, make for good government? To quote Burke again:
Reform--yes; let in some fresh air and by all means some change--the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, made some excellent points--but do not destroy the basic fabric of this House and the constitution. Do not take away the experience of generations and, more importantly, independent minds. Make it possible that decisions can still be taken with no debts to outside interests, no regard to advancement or to financial reward, only a conscience and listening to the strength of the arguments. We have a good constitution in this country. As the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, said, "If it ain't bust, don't fix it."
Lord Monson: My Lords, like many other noble Lords, I shall confine my remarks to the future of this House and in particular the future of the hereditary Peers, in which naturally I declare an interest. Many people, including the much quoted noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, writing in yesterday's Times, have pointed out the inappropriateness of an elected second chamber for a non-federal nation such as ours.
Perhaps I may suggest two further disadvantages, among many, not so far mentioned. First, an elected Peer sitting for a marginal constituency, however that constituency happens to be made up, would almost certainly feel just as inhibited in expressing his true feelings about such contentious issues as capital punishment or foxhunting as would his counterparts in the other place instead of being able to tell the truth as he sees it and as Peers are able to do today in a non-elected chamber. That would be a pity.
The second, and perhaps less important, disadvantage is that elected Peers, with the enormous and growing constituency obligations referred to by my noble friend Lord Weatherill, would require massive and fairly expensive secretarial assistance. That would have to be paid for by the taxpayer.
Other noble Lords--notably the Leader of the House--and some outside this House shudder at the "quango-ish" implications of an all-nominated second chamber: I shall not go further into the matter. I must be about the tenth speaker today who, with hereditary Peers in mind, has used the maxim "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." However, New Labour maintains that it is indeed broken, as opposed to slightly maladjusted, and therefore requires drastic and extensive fixing. Whether New Labour genuinely believes this or simply says it as a sop to its left wing to compensate the latter for the abandonment of red-blooded socialism is hard to say. Let us assume charitably that its concern is genuine. In his article in The Times yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, like the noble Lord, Lord Carter, today, reminded us that since 1974 Labour governments have
A minor irritation is none the less an irritation. The longer it remains unsoothed the more irritating it becomes. But why throw the baby out with the bath water? Why indulge in overkill and provoke constitutional upheaval when the problem can be dealt with in a much less radical fashion? The proposal that parties, or the Cross-Benches, should elect a small proportion of hereditary Peers to become life, or quasi-life, Peers is not a good one. The party whips would always press for regular attenders to be elected. Viewed objectively, they might not always be the best people. For example, it would exclude busy people such as the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, a most eminent biologist and chairman of English Nature. His commitments are such that he cannot attend very often, but when he does his contributions are extremely valuable.
A far better solution would be to adopt a modified version of the 1968 proposals whereby all Back Bench hereditary Peers would become non-voting Peers. Surely, that would take care of all the grumbles voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, in his opening speech. Non-voting Peers would still be able to ask Starred Questions, table Questions for Written Answer and speak in Second Reading debates and what might be termed Wednesday debates, timed or otherwise. They would be able to table and speak to amendments in Committee, at Report stage and on Third Reading with a view to influencing voting Peers to vote for those amendments, provided they persuaded at least two such Peers to act as tellers. They could also serve on Select Committees. Various noble Lords have pointed out that they already serve on such committees, in particular the Select Committee on the European Communities, where their expertise is often invaluable. One has in mind hereditary Peers such as the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, who served on a Select Committee concerned with reform of the betting laws and provided expertise which would not otherwise have been available.
I suggest that most non-voting Peers would eventually become, almost by default, independents since there would be no point in the whips trying to persuade noble Lords who were unable to vote. That would be no bad thing, because it would allow an even wider variety of opinions to be expressed. If it were argued that non-voting Peers would have fewer obligations than
It would be unseemly to single out individuals on my own Benches. But unless the 1968 proposals, or some modification of them, were adopted, the House would risk losing not only the constant rejuvenating influx of younger hereditary Peers but the invaluable knowledge and experience of, for example, the noble Lords, Lord Kennet, Lord Kilbracken and Lord Strabolgi among others on the Labour Benches, and possibly the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who did not seem entirely sure of his status in this regard. I instance also the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, on the Liberal Democrat Benches, and, if he ever returned to the Back Bench, the noble Earl, Lord Russell. It would also debar former Ministers of the Crown like the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Windlesham and other Conservative Back Benchers. I take three at random who happen to have great expertise in particular fields: the noble Lords, Lord Selsdon, Lord Stanley of Alderley and Lord Swinfen. This House would be a very much less effective place without them and other hereditary Peers too numerous to mention.
To the extent that they exist, unfair voting patterns can easily be tackled without physically removing such individuals and casting them politically into outer darkness and, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, undermining the heritage, ethos and symbolism of this House.
Baroness Flather: My Lords, I once described the House of Lords to someone who happened to be English. After a few moments he said to me that in England nothing was ever as it seemed. I believe that that was a very telling statement. Certainly the House of Lords is not as it seems. I am an outsider. I have no emotional attachment to hereditary Peers, although I have formed attachments to individual ones. All of my views are based upon observations over the past six years. I have great sympathy with the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the noble Lord, Lord Monson. This is one of the most remarkable places of which I have had the privilege of being a part. It is warm, friendly and, most remarkably, non-sexist. As a woman, I do not believe that I have ever been treated anywhere else as well as I have been in this place, as a colleague and valued friend, not as someone to be competed with, put up with or patronised. I am a great expert at being patronised by all kinds of people.
I was interested in the description of a Christian House given by the right reverend Prelate. It was a good description. There is a good, benign feeling about this place. Having extolled the virtues of this place, naturally I would be very sad to lose the best of it in any changes that took place. I should like to list some of the matters that I believe to be the greatest virtues of this House.
We all know that the House is effective and that it works. We scrutinise Bills better than anyone would expect us to do. We make changes by agreement. It is very important to remember that those of us who sit on the Government Benches do our bit to make changes to Bills. We do not always divide the House, but we try, by agreement, to make changes.
This House is the cheapest, and some of us know it! The only people who do not know that and who do not care are the taxpayers. None of them ever believes me when I say that we are not paid, so we might as well be paid. This Chamber has been described as a treasure house of experience and expertise, and no one can gainsay that. The House is also independent and I rate that as one of its highest qualities. Even those who are not politically affiliated are of independent mind. That is because we are unelected Peers and here for life, which no one can take away from us. We can do what we like and we can, and do, say things to our Whips which are unrepeatable in this Chamber.
We are not in competition with the other place. That is a virtue and how it should be. Once we send a piece of legislation back to the other place and it returns to this House, not having been accepted, it is only right and proper that we should accept that.
For the sake of convenience I shall call the next section of my speech "vices". They are not exactly vices, but I use that expression for convenience only. The present composition of the House is a contradiction of democratic values. That applies equally to life Peers. Noble Lords have been talking about hereditary Peers, but it is not only they who form a contradiction to democratic values. I do, too. All life Peers form that same contradiction. If we go, then we should all go and the House of Lords should go. We cannot be the House of Lords without hereditary Peers being here.
There is a built-in Tory majority in this House. Whatever we heard from my noble friend the Leader of the House and others on the Government Front Bench, that cannot be put aside. We are delighted that so many more hereditary Peers support us than any other party. Whether all hereditary Peers come to vote, they have the right to do so. I consider that a vice as well. The reason is that so many of them come very rarely. They walk into the Lobby when they may not only be unfamiliar with what is going on in the Chamber at the time but they may not even be familiar with what goes on there, and that really worries me.
The House is too amorphous. I heard earlier that there are 755 hereditary Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, said that we all speak about change, but that we do not want it. My noble friend the Leader of the House said that change should be evolutionary and not revolutionary. I entirely agree with him. Unfortunately, he went on to defend the status quo. Some evolutionary change has to take place and we must not fear it. We must retain the qualities of this House, but make certain perhaps administrative changes, not constitutional ones, to make it a better working House in order to remove this very large in-built Tory majority. If roles were reversed and the party opposite had a huge in-built majority, I am sure that I would be saying this much more loudly than I do at the moment.
We have heard a great deal about service by hereditary Peers in the House through the generations. That is wonderful. I am glad that they gave service, but I believe they got something from it as well. It is always a two-way process. We must not think that the hereditary Peers who come to the House come out of a sense of altruism. They come because they like it, it is interesting and it is something that they want to do.
I feel extremely proud, for many other reasons which are obvious to everyone. We all give service here. As we all know, we do not get paid so we cannot be accused of attending the House for the money alone because the money is not there. Many noble Lords would be much better off working in their professions and jobs rather than coming to the House. We come here because we feel that we are contributing something to national life, and that applies to all of us.
I do not know whether any other Member of this House has noticed an interesting fact. On the Government Front Bench all the males are hereditary Peers; all the females on the Front Bench are life Peers. I wonder whether it is unfair to male life Peers that none of them can ever aspire to serve on the Front Bench. That is an aside.
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