|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am extremely grateful for my Oxbridge education. But all of this apparently, either in ancient or modern tongues, is in the name of protecting the hereditary Peers until we have created a totally reformed second Chamber.
I do not intend to make aggressive remarks this afternoon. The time for that may come! But I cannot resist simply challenging those who lead the Conservative Party with the two words, Salisbury Convention. It was, after all, the noble Viscount's grandfather who first articulated the doctrine. I quote exactly:
If that is accepted, how do those who oppose the Government's proposals square the respect for the democratic process, which the Salisbury Convention obviously implies, with demands that the Government should only fulfil their manifesto commitments under conditions of their making? Our proposal could not be more precise: both what it is and its self-contained nature. If our opponents refuse to accept that the convention applies in this case, what manifesto pledges do they think are covered? Do they still subscribe to the convention at all? Do they think they can pick and mix
Of course, the next steps are very important. We must "get on with it" to achieve an improved transitional Chamber of appointed Peers, and then develop an appropriate second Chamber for the next century. We will be bringing forward more detailed proposals in a White Paper, but let me make clear some of the immediate elements of future reform so that it is understood what we have in mind.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, has said this week that he is primarily concerned with mechanics. Following the removal of the hereditary Peers, approximately 510 life Peers will remain. As I said earlier, there will still be fewer Labour Peers than Conservative Peers. We are committed, as the manifesto states, to maintaining an independent Cross-Bench presence, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced in his recent speech to the Labour Party conference that he will no longer have the sole power of patronage in appointing Peers. In spite of all this, Conservative spokesmen persist in asserting that the transitional House will be a new and alarming Chamber of patronage.
Frankly, again the reaction seems out of touch with reality, and indeed, in this case, history. After all, Prime Ministers have always had the power to propose peerages, hereditary or otherwise. Lloyd George notoriously recommended vast numbers for political ends and before him Asquith had persuaded the King that if necessary he should create hundreds of Liberal Party hereditaries to pass the 1911 Parliament Act. More recently, during the 18 years of Conservative government in the 1980s and 1990s, the huge Conservative majority in this House was made even bigger by double the rate of Conservative to Labour creations of life Peers. There has been nothing constitutionally inhibiting Prime Ministers from behaving like this.
However, this Government intend to move in the other direction. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is proposing under the new, transitional arrangements to reduce his patronage, to ensure that no one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords and to maintain an independent Cross Bench element. I have no hesitation in asserting that the transitional Chamber will be more legitimate than that we have today. It will also be a prelude to wider reform.
We think it right to consider the next longer term steps in the context of the other constitutional changes which are taking place. Establishing an effective and appropriate second Chamber for the next century needs proper deliberation--deliberation which includes, for example, the impact of devolution within the UK, of changing relations with European legislators, and also perhaps of changed methods of voting in this country. In that context I welcome the approach of the initial report of the commission chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that the objective at this stage should not be to limit the debate but to structure it and that the first need is thorough analysis of the issues. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, the other member of the commission, who is to speak in the debate, will be able to tell us something of the commission's future endeavours.
The Government recognise that the broader constitutional settlement is both relevant and complicated. It will take time to bed down and assess. For those reasons we want to build on our manifesto proposal for a committee of both Houses of Parliament to consider further reform. We intend to appoint, first, a Royal Commission to undertake a wide-ranging review and to bring forward recommendations for further legislation. When the Royal Commission is formally established, we will set a time limit for it--a time limit for it to do its work and a time limit for it to report back to the Government. The Royal Commission is not a delaying tactic but it is right that there should be wider debate and further analysis before the long term is settled. Our detailed proposals on the role and working operations of the Royal Commission will be announced in the forthcoming White Paper.
I hope I have said enough to reassure your Lordships both about the nature of the transitional Chamber and that the Government are serious about a step-by-step approach to longer term reform. We are not inviting noble Lords to step off a precipice into a dark abyss. The next steps have already been considered. Those that we need to be immediately precise about will be announced shortly and the process by which we explore the further steps will also be clear. We will remove the hereditary Peers from Parliament as a self-contained act of reform.
Repeated attempts this century have shown that abolishing their right to sit and vote will simply not happen if it is tied to the search for the perfect long-term solution. The Government are no longer prepared to accept that that is necessary or desirable--to do nothing just because it is not yet possible to do everything. Dealing with the issue of the hereditary Peers will free everyone to concentrate their energies on the future, not the past. I look forward to the properly focused debate on the future being started where it should be, in your Lordships' House this afternoon. I beg to move.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the Government Chief Whip for agreeing to hold this debate and indeed for agreeing to hold it over two days. I am glad that in advance of the Bill we have a chance to debate our own future. In view of the number of speakers who expect to address your Lordships this afternoon, I hope that I will set a good example and not speak for too long. I fear that this is a subject that we will come back to many times over the coming months. I hope that your Lordships will feel inclined to adopt the same self-denying ordinance.
I shall therefore not attempt to set out the arguments for having a second Chamber. They are at least nominally accepted, even by the Government, and challenged, I venture to suggest, only by a few dinosaurs in the noble Baroness's own party. Neither shall I set out how in almost every way the present Chamber does its job supremely well. Your Lordships are at least as aware of that fact as I am.
What I would like to do is to try to set out the consideration that will above all be animating my right honourable and honourable friends in another place and my noble friends and I in this place when we consider the Bill for changing the composition of your Lordships' House that the Government have promised us yet again this afternoon. I thank the noble Baroness in particular for her promise of a White Paper. We shall thus be much helped as we consider the Bill. I hope it may be possible to give some indication, when the noble Lord replies to the debate, how far in advance of the publication of the Bill that White Paper will be made available to us. Underlying our approach will be our own appreciation of what seems to us above all others the purpose of the second Chamber in our Parliament. I again venture to suggest to your Lordships that that purpose is to ask the House of Commons from time to time to think again, to say, "That seems a bit silly to us. Do you, the House of Commons, really want to do it?"
If this House is to perform its primary function adequately, its membership needs above all two characteristics, independence and authority. There, of course, lies the kernel of the argument for reform of our House. We are certainly independent as at present constituted, as any Chief Whip in this place not only
Some say that in our weakness lies our strength--that were your Lordships through reform possessed of greater authority and therefore felt able to challenge another place more frequently and over weightier matters, legislative gridlock would ensue. I reject that argument. I believe that perhaps the time has now come for a little more legislative gridlock to obstruct the legislative inadequacies of governments of both parties which arise from their domination of the House of Commons. That is the great argument for reform. Our present composition does not allow us to do that job adequately for we lack the authority to do so.
I had hoped that the Government might share that view. It was in that spirit that I was so pleased when the noble Lord, Lord Richard--whom we much look forward to hearing this afternoon--suggested private talks about reform some months ago. As your Lordships know, I have always thought that the two-stage process the Government are pursuing will guarantee that we shall never get beyond stage one. To me the reasons are clear and obvious. The first of those reasons is that there will be no incentive whatsoever for the government of the day, whatever their political complexion, to implement stage two once stage one has been introduced and passed. An entirely nominated Chamber is no more legitimate than a hereditary one, perhaps less so as its members owe their presence to the living rather than the safely dead. We all know the power that patronage confers--none better than a former Leader of your Lordships' House--whether through the filter of an intermediary committee or not. No prime minister would be in a hurry to give that up.
Secondly, it is difficult to find a stage two on which there is general agreement. I believe that the noble Baroness acknowledged that earlier this afternoon. As she also pointed out, it is a cliche that in a room of 10 people discussing how to reform your Lordships' House there will be at least 11 strongly held opinions about the right way to proceed. If the presence of hereditary Peers in this place offends the Government--which clearly it does--paradoxically I think the best way to ensure that they proceed to stage two at all would be to keep us here until stage two is agreed and introduced.
The third reason is perhaps the strongest of all for this Government. They do not like independent-minded bodies with rights and obligations to question them and hold them to account. For this Government in particular a legitimately independent Chamber would not do at all. The fourth reason--it is perhaps the most powerful reason of all--which my predecessor discovered in 1968, is that another place would hate, beyond anything else, a more powerful and a more authoritative second Chamber.
That is why I have always tried to get the Government to agree--the noble Baroness acknowledged this during the course of her remarks--the mechanics for reaching stage two rather than parading my own pet solution. I think that every Member of your Lordships' House has a pet solution and I am no exception to that. If we are to overcome the obstacles to reform--some of which I have enumerated--we shall have to establish machinery which can build a consensus in public strong enough to generate a momentum able to overcome them. I believe these mechanics would be relatively simple: an options paper and hearings conducted in public by an authoritative body--perhaps a Royal Commission--whose conclusions could be reviewed by a joint committee of both Houses, and certainly no change to this House until its conclusions are implemented.
Sadly, the Government have consistently failed to answer that challenge, which is why the Opposition eventually--frustrated in their wish to be constructive--prevailed upon my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern to do the job for them. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for paying tribute to my noble and learned friend in the way that she did. I find that extraordinarily encouraging. Indeed my noble and learned friend produced an options paper in fewer than two months from his appointment with no resources beyond what was necessary; namely, his own qualities. In contrast, after nearly 18 months, what have we heard from the Government? We have heard nothing whatsoever of substance. But we have heard something. We have heard one matter of little substance and two admissions. The matter of little substance is the allegation--which formed the main burden of the noble Baroness's speech--that everything I say on the question of your Lordships' House is designed for one purpose only, to protect the future of the hereditary peerage in this House.
It is clear why the Government cling to that mantra like a shipwrecked man to a spar. They know that attacking the hereditary Peers is the only political issue left that unites the upper classes of the Labour Party with their followers, the gentry of Islington with the helots of Old Labour. They need such an issue particularly badly now, at a time when the Prime Minister can hear the murmur that he dreads most from his own Back Benches, the murmur of dissent.
And, of course, just as important, they know that once they admit that everything I say reflects what I really think rather than what they would like me to think, they have to begin to answer some particularly awkward questions--of which perhaps the most difficult is: why
They have shown that they are sensitive to our criticisms. I should hope so too. That is the first of the two admissions. Like pulling teeth, we have forced them to mitigate the effects of our accusations that they want a House of patronage. The Prime Minister has suggested an appointments commission; and now the noble Baroness has forecast a Royal Commission. It is an attempt to try to show that they are serious about full reform. The noble Baroness, with her customary skill, made a balanced attempt to do that today. So let us not be curmudgeonly about this. Let us throw up at least one cheer for that attempt. But is it enough? I have to say that, so far as I can see, there is no guarantee that will prevent the Government kicking stage two into touch whenever they feel it is a matter of political expediency to do so. In fact, to the contrary, there is plenty to suggest that they have no intention of proceeding beyond stage one--or at least, stage one-and-a-half, the so-called rebalancing which in itself poses a threat to much of the life peerage.
The most compelling piece of evidence seems to me to be the fate--and I commiserate with him--of the noble Lord, Lord Richard; or at least until Monday last it did. I have always felt that the noble Lord genuinely wants a more authoritative Chamber. He made the mistake of saying so and the Prime Minister, showing his impatience with honesty, cut an honest man down.
For one moment I feared for the noble Baroness's future too as she advocated full reform in principle. However, I suspect she has saved herself by the second admission which I referred to a moment ago--although in making her admission she has finally let the big cat out of the bag. The second admission, as reported in the Guardian on Monday 12th October and foreshadowed by the noble Baroness today, is that,
As a hereditary Peer, I assure the Government Front Bench that I will go quietly if a properly independent Chamber takes our place. To be asked to go without that guarantee is to be asked to connive at the final victory of the Executive over Parliament. I hope and believe that in the coming Session we shall, as we always have--I say this particularly to the noble Baroness in the light of some of her remarks earlier--observe the conventions of this House. However, I also hope that we shall use our powers, not least our powers of persuasion, to convince the Government that it is still open to them to build by consensus rather than try to advance by attrition. If they begin to do that, I also assure them that
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, this is not an entirely comfortable occasion for any of us. On these Benches we endorse the Government's intention to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and to vote. However, we are acutely aware of the impending sense of loss that will be felt by many noble Lords who have diligently served this House.
There is nothing inconsistent in believing in an unanswerable case for change and regretting that that inevitably involves the departure of colleagues whom we have come to respect and whose company we have often enjoyed. The Government should listen with the greatest care to all that is said today. I am glad that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said as much. There will be a way back for some hereditary Peers, though I am not sure that the Leader of the House repeated that commitment today. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that he would go quietly. But I hope that he will come quietly back when the dispensation allows those who have been hereditary Peers to opt, if that is what they choose and in so far as membership of this House allows, to become "parliamentary" Peers. Notwithstanding that, our next parliamentary Session is likely to be the last for many of our colleagues. We should fully acknowledge and understand that.
Since May last year, the Government have had more immediate priorities for legislation. On the whole, they have chosen the right order of business. However, this debate to take note of the Government's proposals should have taken place six months ago. That would have allowed more time to take account of the views of noble Lords, and for the publication of a White Paper or a Green Paper well in advance of legislation. The noble Baroness gave no indication as to when a White Paper would be published. Our debate today would have had a much better form had it been before the House now. I regret to say that I think the Government have lost some of the initiative they possessed despite the noble Baroness's strong performance this afternoon.
The departure of colleagues will be sad. However, sentiment does not make the case for leaving the House alone. In a representative democracy it is simply unacceptable that more than half the Members of the second Chamber should have arrived here not because of individual merit--even where there has turned out to be individual merit, and often it is great--but by random selection at birth. No learned institution, no body of fighting men, not even a gentlemen's club could be run successfully for long on the basis of taking pot luck on favourable genes.
The argument on political balance is familiar. Noble Lords will be glad that I do not intend to produce any figures, certainly not any new ones. An overwhelming majority of hereditary Peers who declare a party allegiance do so to the Conservative Party, and have done so virtually throughout this century. The country
But that is not the main argument. The hereditary composition of this House would be indefensible even if it did not secure the dominance of the Conservative Party. The issue of principle, of legitimacy, would be the same. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House is quite right about that. We all know it, we admit it to ourselves and we admit it to others, especially when we debate the conventions of the House. Our restraint in the exercise of our existing powers is a measure of our doubt. We do not vote on Second Readings, we do not vote on statutory instruments. We are reluctant to disagree with the Commons when they reject our amendments. Indeed, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said, we know we lack the authority which a second Chamber ought to have.
Therefore I assume that the great majority of noble Lords share a common starting point for today's debate: if the House did not exist no one would seek to create it in its present form. The only argument for the hereditary principle in government is that social position, and its continuity, creates men, but only occasionally women, uniquely fitted to the responsible exercise of political power in the public interest. But the credibility of that view is extinguished by the extension of the franchise and I doubt whether we shall hear much of it in this debate. It would certainly not win many friends or influence many people outside your Lordships' House.
A more plausible contemporary argument might be that hereditary Members of your Lordships' House are freer spirits, more independent of party than the rest of us. William Hague has been bold enough to refer to hereditary Peers as being "the main independent element" in the Lords, completely ignoring the role of the Cross-Bench Peers, whose identity we all agree should stay. But there is no evidence in the Division Lists that hereditary Peers are a particularly rebellious lot, more ready to vote against their party than life Peers.
There is also the occasional claim that our hereditary colleagues, for all their virtues, bring a special knowledge and experience to our debates. Once again, it is hard to find the evidence, except perhaps from our debates on agriculture. The House benefits greatly--we all know it--from the contributions of those who have made distinguished careers in the law, academia, the Civil Service, business and the Armed Forces, to take obvious examples. But with a few notable exceptions--and of course there are exceptions--these contributions come from life Peers who have been appointed on their own, on personal merit. The only collective merit of the hereditary principle is that our hereditary colleagues are sometimes a good deal younger than the rest of us. But that too could be remedied. There is no lower age limit for life Peers, though perhaps there ought to be an upper one. That is something we may discuss in our two-day debate.
If I may say so with respect to the noble Viscount--and perhaps I may resurrect a hereditary phrase--this is too clever by half. I hope he will jog my memory. I do not remember that he was ever a persistent advocate of reform during his eight years in another place; or that the Cabinet of which he was a member showed much interest in--and here I quote from his lecture--"beefing up the role of local government", which he now apparently believes might "lighten the load of Parliament". I hope the noble Viscount will forgive those of us who welcome his passion for parliamentary reform but suggest that it appears to mean almost any reform except the proposals before us today.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page