Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Noble Lords: Ah!

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in terms of its representation of the whole range of occupations and classes in this country, yes, I do believe it is regrettable that we have become so much more a middle-class party than we were, and I believe that that is generally felt not just throughout the Labour Party but in politics generally.

4 Jul 1996 : Column 1680

I come back to my question. If there had been 476 Labour Peers and 109 Conservative Peers, would the noble Lord, Lord Boardman, have argued that there was no in-built majority for the Labour Party, as he argued that there was no in-built majority for the Conservative Party? The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said in his article yesterday--I am very sorry that he was not able to take part in the debate today--that the nub of the practical argument for reform is that the House is dominated by Conservatives and that that has enormous effects on the representative character of this House, or the lack of representative character of this House. If there were as many miners as there are lawyers in this House, if there were as many farmworkers as there are landowners in this House, if there were as many primary schoolteachers as there are vice-chancellors in this House, then perhaps we might start to think that there was an element of representativeness.

I have always argued--not in this House--that the tenants of the allotment gardens where my wife has an allotment in Highgate are at least as well qualified as the Members of this House to carry out the functions of a second Chamber. In that allotment society there are not only doctors, publishers and lecturers, but also railwaymen, council drivers and car mechanics--people whose contribution to society is very significant and who are completely unrepresented in this House. The argument that this is in any way a representative House, whose independence reflects the views of the country as opposed to those of any political party, will not stand up for a single moment.

The sad thing is that the Conservative Party was not always like that. I have been reading with great pleasure the debates in 1910 in this House after the first 1910 election. Lord Rosebery, who was not a Conservative, but who was becoming increasingly conservative and sat on the Cross Benches, moved:

    "(1) That a strong and efficient Second Chamber is not merely an integral part of the British Constitution, but is necessary to the well-being of the State and to the balance of Parliament.

    (2) That such a chamber can best be obtained by the reform and reconstitution of the House of Lords.

    (3) That a necessary preliminary of such reform and reconstitution is the acceptance of the principle that the possession of a peerage should no longer of itself give the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords".
The first two resolutions were carried without a vote. The third was carried by 125 votes to 17, with the Conservative Front Bench being part of the majority. There were some lovely speeches in that debate. Lord Sheffield, who was the ancestor of our dear noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley, said:

    "I feel perfectly certain that when the Labour Party and the Socialists constitute the Government ... they will make very short work of your Lordships".
He further said:

    "You will not prevent this coming into power by assuming to yourselves arrogant pretensions which have not belonged to you in the past, or posing as bulwarks of society against their inroads".

Lord Halsbury--I can understand that the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, is not with us at this hour--said:

4 Jul 1996 : Column 1681

    "I do not believe that it is possible to make an institution more consonant with our habits and more practically useful than the House of Lords as at present constituted".
Have we not heard that repeated on many occasions in the course of this afternoon and this evening, 85 years later? Yet the Conservative Party was not always so conservative--if I may put it that way. In 1907, Lord Newton proposed to remove the voting rights of 75 per cent. of hereditaries; in 1910, the Tories voted for Lord Rosebery's resolution; in 1911, Lord Lansdowne, the Conservative Leader, proposed that there should be only 150 hereditaries in a House of 350; and Lord Salisbury, as my noble friend Lord Richard reminded us, said the same thing in 1933.

The Parliament Act 1911 referred to a second Chamber on a popular instead of a hereditary basis. In 1967-68, the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Jellicoe, as my noble friend Lord Shepherd reminded us, took part in an agreement on a radical reform of the House of Lords, to which I shall have to return in a minute. There was then the Home Report in 1978, in which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, played such a distinguished part. Finally, yesterday, there was the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, recommending that reform should take the form of reducing the number of Conservative hereditary Peers and increasing the number Labour and Liberal Democrat life Peers in order to provide:

    "a rough balance between Tories and the two other parties".
I assume that the noble Lord would agree that if there were a Labour Government, it would have to be a rough balance between the Labour Party and the two other parties. There is no other sense in what he is saying.

I have very little confidence in the consistency or continuity of thinking on those matters within the Conservative Party, but I have some confidence in now answering a considerable number of the questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever. What we say in our document published today is:

    "We will reform the House of Lords. We will remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords as a first step towards a more democratic and representative chamber. We will consult widely on the further reforms necessary. We will open up the appointments process. One proposal we can consider is that the House of Lords has some places reserved by appointment for those who have an outstanding contribution to make".
I say that with particular reference to the number of distinguished Cross-Benchers who have been seeking reassurance on that point. The document continues:

    "The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered. Its function will remain that of a revising chamber".

I do not claim to have yet answered all the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, but I have a moment or two left to me. In order to achieve all those objectives there are alternative routes. One, which has been recommended by a number of noble Lords and most recently by the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, is an all-in-one Bill--"Do it all in one go, and get it over with". The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and the noble Lord, Lord Denham, said that that would be hasty and ill-considered change. I rather suspect that they are right. If I have misrepresented the noble Lord, Lord Denham, I apologise to him.

4 Jul 1996 : Column 1682

To do that--this is where we return to 1968--would be possible, because there are plenty of well-considered and well-documented ways of achieving it. But would it achieve what we would want, and would it achieve the consent of the British people? Would it in the end pass through the House of Commons? Although an all-in-one Bill is possible, I believe that the Labour Party is wise to do what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, described as a mouse, but I believe that it is a mouse with descendants. At the moment, we are proposing the absolute minimum required to deal with the nonsense of the hereditary peerage, but then we have a firm commitment to later action.

The second alternative, which has been recommended by a number of noble Lords--notably the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill--is to have full consultation and consensus before proceeding to the first stage of any reform. What is the point of having a general election? A general election manifesto will clearly state that the rights of hereditary Peers to sit and vote will be removed. If I understand the Salisbury doctrine correctly, that is a proposition which, if it has achieved the support of the British people at a general election, will not be opposed by the Conservative Party in this House. For us to give up and to let down the people to whom we have committed ourselves in a general election would simply be cowardly. On the part of those who propose it, it would obviously be a delaying tactic.

The third alternative is a two-stage reform. In my view, that is right not only practically, because it is the only way of seeing that it achieves the consent of both Houses of Parliament, but it is right in principle. It is right in principle that we should be consulting through the form of a Royal Commission or a party leaders' conference or whatever; I do not believe that the detail matters that much. We should be consulting thoroughly on what form of second Chamber is acceptable in this country. I agree with those who say that it is not easy. We are not naturally a federal state. We are not like the United States of America or Germany, where Lander or states form a natural constituency. I do not find it very attractive to have a different electoral system which might result in a different balance of parties and yet give no indication of which is to be given precedence.

There is no lack of difficulty in achieving that. I am convinced that the people of this country do want a second Chamber which has a significant elected element--probably a majority elected element--but it is also likely that they will want to preserve some of the virtues of the Honours List and of the distinguished people who serve in this House. Whether they are life Peers or hereditary Peers, we will want to keep a significant number of them as Members of a second Chamber as a supplement to the elected element.

Although it is true that 85 years ago this was stated as an objective but has never been done, it is worth emphasising that the interim stage of a House which consists only of the life Peers rather than having hereditary Peers is inherently unstable. A number of noble Lords who are not sympathetic to our ideas have pointed out that, if the balance between the parties were to be corrected at each election, the numbers in the House would explode. That is absolutely true and it is

4 Jul 1996 : Column 1683

a strong argument against continuing with the interim provisions. So there must be, there is and there will be a firm commitment to future change and to, as we say, a more democratic and representative Chamber.

We end up with a three-stage approach. The first is to deal with the hereditary peerage, the second is extensive and fundamental consultation and the third is with the mandate of the people, and only with the mandate of the people, to proceed to the final composition of this House. Anybody who believes that it might be better to leave the House of Lords as it is rather than have an interim Chamber really ought to think again. Yes, of course, there are some good hereditary Peers in this House. I look around me and see that there are many good hereditary Peers in this House. I look up in order not to look at anybody in particular. But we can create life Peers from the hereditary Peers. I have just worked out that my noble friend Lord Longford does not have to be created because he is already a life Peer too. Therefore, his hereditary peerage can go and he will stay in the House. Yes, of course it is true that there are a number of distinguished independent Peers, mainly on the Cross Benches. But most of them are life Peers, very few of whom would be removed by this reform. However, there could be a mechanism for replacing the more distinguished of them from the Cross Benches. But, above all, I really must resist the idea that there is something inherently offensive about the interim change of an unelected House.

The choice is between a House which is composed on the basis of merit and that which is composed on the basis of birth. Merit is a more difficult concept to assess and it is much more difficult to find ways of achieving effective choice on the basis of merit; but can there be any doubt that it is better than the basis of birth?

It is not for me to prejudge the result of the extensive consultation period. To that extent, I cannot possibly answer some of the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Astor. However, surely a more democratic and representative Chamber which recognised the outstanding contribution of many hereditary Peers and which contained elected Members as well as others, including Cross Benchers, is an objective worth aiming for.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page