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Lord Renton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he will be so good as to bear in mind that every government in the past 50 years modified their manifesto commitments; sometimes because of a change of circumstances, sometimes because of expressions of opinion in the House. That then enabled the government to keep an open mind.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I am asked the question and shall try to answer it. I am not saying that the Government are bound by the details of the manifesto; that is not the argument. The argument is that by putting something in a manifesto and receiving massive endorsement for it from the British people, then continuing to do what one said one would do amounts to an endorsement by the British people of the policy one is trying to pursue.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I rise with great diffidence and misgiving, given that I have only been in this House 10 days and am seeking to participate in this debate of all debates by way of my maiden speech. Nonetheless, I hope that the House will think that my newness and lifelong preoccupations before reaching this place are relevant to the contribution I wish to make, which I propose to confine strictly to the issue touched upon by the noble Lords, Lord Weatherill and Lord Richard.
The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, referred to the fact that this matter of reform is for the nation as a whole. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, went as far as to say that he felt there should be massive public consultation with regard to it.
One of my preoccupations, conceived from my earliest days as a young lawyer in rural Suffolk, is the extraordinary ignorance in which the vast majority of our fellow citizens seemed to exist and still exist in terms of both the law and our constitutional arrangements. Twenty-three years as the so-called "Legal Eagle" on the "Jimmy Young Show" has merely given me a wonderful vantage point from which to see just how extensive public disaffection and confusion is with law and constitutional affairs.
Ten years ago I, with others, set up a charity called the Citizenship Foundation, of which I am still chairman, devoted to trying to make a reality of citizenship for so-called "ordinary" young people by enabling them to acquire the knowledge, skill and the will to take an active and contributive part in their own society.
Our experience, gained by working with over half the state primary and secondary schools, is that there is an avid potential interest in becoming informed and engaged citizens. It is about the means of Parliament engaging them that I wish to speak today.
One of the most noticeable things in the debates which I have attended, with admiration, in this House in these few days has been the repeated reference to what is sometimes called the "democratic deficit". A much more vivid description of the attitude underlying effective democracy was coined by John Pym. In 1643, on the eve of the civil war in a debate in the other place, he talked of that
Evidence of the lack of that quality in our own day is not hard to find. If it is voting turnout you are interested in, it is catastrophic for Europe and on a declining trend for Westminster with only a modest upturn, even with the excitement of the last election. If it is crime statistics, take little consolation from the marginal improvements recently announced. How many in this Chamber realise that of male adults between the ages of 18 and 30, over 30 per cent. have convictions--I repeat, convictions--for offences of violence or probity? If it is volunteering and giving to charity that concerns you, the trend is bad and downhill. If it is civic engagement or public discourse, the research done by Professor Ivor Crewe of Essex University and the University of North Carolina involving over 3,000 in-depth interviews over several years came up with very discouraging results indeed. In too many directions the faultlines of our society are widening.
I would venture to suggest, therefore, that whatever reforms of the House of Lords are now contemplated, included in the White Paper and then considered by the Royal Commission, the public--the whole public--should not merely be effectively informed, but effectively consulted.
Some may think that that is stating the obvious. I can only say that Parliament's record has been remarkably worrying in recent times. Just look at the European Union. Apart from the referendum of 1975, the fundamental constitutional shifts, particularly around Maastricht, have taken place with little or no public information and no public consultation. I say nothing of the Single European Act although we now know that even the Prime Minister of the day did not really understand the consequences.
The consequence of this near contempt for ordinary people, as they feel it to be, by Parliament and Whitehall, has been a highly significant factor in the sceptical and sour attitude on the part of perhaps the
It is notable that in the Cook-Maclennan report the first two priorities laid down for modernisation of the House of Commons emphasise "fuller" and "better consultation". It does not say "with the public" but that is what I hope is meant. I also hope it means "with the wider public". It is no longer sufficient--if it ever was--to consult through the usual channels the usual opinion formers in the usual ways.
What is needed, I respectfully suggest, is an in-depth, properly resourced, open-minded and popular information and consultation campaign. It is not impossible. In South Africa recently there has been a remarkably imaginative and effective consultation with the whole public--and an extremely under-educated one--vis-a-vis their massive constitutional format. It has been a phenomenal success. On a lesser scale, but worth remembering, was the work of our own Local Government Commission under Sir John Banham who put through the letter-box of every home in Britain a plain English guide about the options for local government reform, and a questionnaire, the results of which profoundly influenced the Commission's recommendations.
The White Paper, which we are shortly to see, could and I believe should be paralleled by a shorter, popular, tabloid version, illustrated and in a format which will be acceptable to, understandable by and attractive to the vast majority of so-called ordinary citizens.
I should like to think that this Government will be receptive to that idea and give it serious thought. Through devolution, the Freedom of Information Bill, the Human Rights Bill and now the Crick Report on citizenship education in schools, they have shown real commitment to civic engagement and public discourse. I am optimistic, therefore, of what might be their attitude to the suggestion I make.
Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, the House listened with great attention and pleasure to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. He struck out on a new and thoroughly refreshing line of argument. I am sure that we will hear it again from him and others in the future. The noble Lord's reputation precedes him into this House. I remember several practical and helpful dealings with him over the years. I was impressed, as I think we all were--but not
The noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, was also thoroughly pleasant and reasonable in the way she set out her case. However, the fact is, as the Prime Minister would say, that she has invited us to start out on a journey with a hidden destination. All we know is the first stop at which the train will halt. It is customary, in an advanced society, to inform passengers of the ultimate destination before they board the train. That is not what the Government are doing. And that, I believe, is the weakness of the position in which Ministers find themselves.
The Government have been under mounting pressure--not just from these Benches but from many quarters--over recent months to break their silence about stage two and the ultimate destination. The noble Baroness responded to that pressure today in some measure by saying that there will be a White Paper and a Royal Commission. But, of course, the Royal Commission will be deliberating after the train has left the station, rather than before. That raises the question of how constitutional change in this country is best carried out. As all noble Lords who have spoken accept, it should not be simply a matter of sparring between party leaderships or party faithful.
Under our system of basically adversarial politics, a party which is in temporary possession of most votes can use its majority in the other place to knock the Opposition into the ditch and leave them lying there. That is a robust and, I suppose, an efficient way of dealing with a good many matters. It is certainly customary, but it is not a satisfactory way of achieving constitutional change because constitutional change needs to be durable. That means that it needs, if at all possible, to be acceptable. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who treated this whole matter as if it were something on which, because of the phrasing of their manifesto, the Government were entitled--indeed, obliged--to use their temporary possession of the majority of votes to leave the Opposition in the ditch.
As the Government were until today, and to some extent still remain, silent on the question of their final objective, their real set of ideas, the Leader of the Opposition, rightly and justifiably, stirred up the debate by appointing the constitutional commission, under the chairmanship of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and to my noble friend Lord Cranborne for the courteous and helpful way in which they referred to our work so far. Perhaps I should make it clear that although the Leader of the Opposition launched the commission, he did not put a pilot on board. We are encouraged to operate in an independent spirit. Indeed, we are operating in that way. I believe that our initial report, of which favourable mention has already been made, reflects that spirit.
We are free to make what proposals we want. We have been encouraged by the reception given to our initial report which went well beyond party circles and embraced quite a wide body of opinion, as implied by
All noble Lords who have spoken and, I think, the great majority of opinion, accept the need for a second Chamber. I do not think that that case needs strongly to be argued. Having served for some years in the other place and in government, I am sure that both government and the other place need a confident second Chamber--not as a rival to the Commons, but as a means of raising the quality of policy-making and legislation in this country.
Many see no compelling need to alter the existing situation nor sense any urgent public pressure to do so. However, the Government seem determined. The plea of many of us--not just on these Benches, but among all those who have given thought to it--is that if the Government are going to do it, let them do the job properly. That means beginning with the question of why we need a second Chamber. Once that has been established, one can logically establish that Chamber's powers and its constitution for those purposes.
The range of a second Chamber need not be confined to what we do here at present; namely, revising, scrutinising and occasionally delaying legislation. There are gaps and imbalances in other parts of our constitution which have not been remedied and which to some extent have been created by this Government's constitutional proposals. It happens that the three gaps which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, chanced to mention were identical to those we identified in our initial report.
There is a gap in the plans for devolution. It is not so much the West Lothian question as the English question, which will cease to be a theoretical question if we ever get, as is conceivable, a government who rely in the other place on a majority of Scottish and Welsh votes. There would then be something of a constitutional crisis because clearly it would not be acceptable that English legislation and English policy on matters devolved in Scotland and in Wales should be carried through and enforced in England by Scottish and Welsh votes. I am not sure whether that point is being taken sufficiently seriously. Could the House of Lords, could the revising Chamber, help to deal with that problem?
The second gap concerns the proposed changes--the thought-of changes--to the electoral system. Here is another train, driven on this occasion by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. If the noble Lord's report contains what is widely reported, there will be a huge controversy on another matter which, if possible, should be established by agreement. Could the House of Lords, could the revising Chamber, be organised in some way to help to deal with that problem? That might not be too far from the solution which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, stated as his personal opinion. Could the House of Lords help to fill that gap?
There is also a gap in terms of the scrutiny of European proposals and legislation. There has been discontent on that matter for as long as I can remember. It is widespread, long-standing and not confined to those
Those are some questions, some gaps, some lacks of balance in our present constitution. No doubt noble Lords will want to raise others. In response to the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, I believe that a revised House of Lords could begin to deal with some of those matters without presenting the kind of challenge to the other place which he fears.
Against that background, I am not sure that we can be wholly confident about what the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said or give her more than the one cheer which my noble friend recommended. It is right that there should be a White Paper. I hope that it will contain a clear indication of the Government's ideas. It is right that there should be a Royal Commission. We need to know--I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate will give more information--when the Royal Commission will be set up and how long the Government will give it for its work. A wide range of timings has been suggested, but the quicker, the better. We need to know about its composition and its terms of reference. Perhaps then we, and many others outside the House, will be able to judge whether establishing a Royal Commission is, as some of my noble friends fear, a device for delay during which the only change will be the abolition of the hereditary peerage, which cannot be described as an advance in democracy, or whether we are present, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, hopes, at one of those rare opportunities for a serious rebalancing and reform of our constitution.
I urge the Government, if they are determined to take action--and there are powerful reasons for letting things be--to do the job properly and, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, emphasised, to bring before the public and Parliament a full and properly considered plan for an effective second Chamber when such a plan is ready. If the Government proceed in that way rather than following the course on which they seem at present to have embarked they will find that there is a better chance of making a change which will allow us to prosper.
Lord Annan: My Lords, I rise first to congratulate our maiden speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and secondly to emphasise that I speak as a Cross-Bencher. As a Cross-Bencher, I was so glad to hear our Convenor say that the Cross-Bench Peers are by no means all of one mind. We have many opinions. It is wrong to suggest that there is within us any kind of caucus which believes in a particular solution to the problem that we are discussing. I say that because, despite my affection for my Convenor, I disagreed with almost everything that he said.
I do not intend to argue the case for the abolition of the right of hereditary Peers to sit in the House and vote. The arguments of the retentionists continue to astonish me. I even heard the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, denounce the Government's proposal as interference with private property. Just a century and a half ago, when Oxford and Cambridge were being reformed, it was argued that a fellowship was a piece of private property and could be held by someone who lived in London, drew a stipend and never took any part whatsoever in the affairs of his college.
Of course hereditary Peers should be entitled in future to stand for election to Parliament. Of course they should retain their titles. I am certainly not one of those who wants to see the present Leader of the Opposition referred to as Citoyen Cecil.
I do not deny that there may be exceptions to this. No doubt the Government will want to consult Buckingham Palace about the position of the Royal Dukes and other members of the Royal Family who have rights to sit here. I believe that the Earl Marshal, who is responsible for ceremonial, and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who, after all, is responsible for the Palace of Westminster, should hold ex officio membership of this House. As should the Archbishops and Bishops, as long as we have an established Church.
Nor do those end the list of exceptions--or, rather, accommodations. In any reform, a limited number of hereditary Peers of all parties and from the Cross Benches should be entitled to disclaim their peerages and, should they so wish, be nominated to serve as life Peers. It would be monstrous if the weighty counsel of the Leader of the Opposition were denied us--and, indeed, if the even weightier counsel of his Chief Whip was not available to Members of this House. As an historian, I should be sad indeed to lose the expertise of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who can recall precedents dating back to the Middle Ages to support whatever case he is arguing.
It would be for each political party and for the independent Peers to decide how the new life Peers should be chosen. The numbers to be granted this privilege should be strictly limited. No injustice would be done if the Labour Party were permitted to nominate more than the Conservative Party in view of the disparity of the numbers of life Peers in each party.
I am not impressed by the argument that the committee system of the House and its very debates will collapse if the hereditary Peers, who at present do so much to make them work, are disenfranchised. Many life Peers have been created in the past decade and I cannot believe that they will be unable to fill the role which hereditary Peers now fill.
I am also not in favour of making Peers for life. There should be a retiring age. I tremble when I say this because I know that one of my favourite and most ancient hereditary Peers will speak after me. I have listened many times with pleasure to the informal way in which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, speaks, and I admire him for the compassion with which he addresses social problems. Nevertheless, there should be a retiring age in the sense that there is one for every profession. Mercy, however, is always part of my second nature. I would therefore suggest that the retiring age should be 75--that is 10 years after the normal retiring age in any public profession. After 10 years, I think one begins to get out of touch.
I do not agree with the proposal of my old friend the former Lord Altringham--known to us as Mr. John Grigg since he disclaimed his peerage--that the ex officio heads of public institutions should be nominated automatically. People in that position are often too busy to attend and too pressed by their official duties to speak as often as we would wish. It would be reasonable for many public institutions to have the right to nominate life Peers. I do not think such people should hold office only for 10 years. Ten years in such cases seems to me too short.
Should the House of Lords be totally nominated? No, that would rob it of its authority. Should it be totally elected? No, that would challenge the Commons and eliminate independent Members, which the Government have said they want to keep.
I have spoken nearly past my time. I will leave it to others to suggest how the elected Members should be elected and, indeed, whether there should be elected Members. There is opposition, I know, to the notion that the rest of the House should be the nominees of the Prime Minister. I think that is a bit overdone. Prime Ministers change. A Prime Minister should not be totally deprived of this piece of patronage.
Some advocate, with reason--and I approve of this--that there should be a scrutiny committee which could choose and endorse candidates for the contributions that they have made to public life--or, let me add, are likely to make to public life, so that young men and women can be appointed to this House. But the Prime Minister should still approve. Let us not forget that a scrutiny committee of this kind will almost inevitably be a caucus of the Establishment. It is very important that other people should be able to be nominated.
Let me conclude by saying that I hope--although I know it is a forlorn hope--that all Members of this House would not take any title other than that of Lord of Parliament and add the initials "LP" after their name. We Cross-Benchers are not naturally armigerous, apart from one or two noble and gallant Lords who sit on our Benches. I hope that that would become, in due course, the custom, and that the House would, in that way, save itself the obloquy which is heaped upon us by the press that we represent old-fashioned and obsolete government.
The Earl of Longford: My Lords, the noble Lord who has just spoken and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, are by common consent two of the most attractive speakers in the House. We have had evidence of that in the case of one noble Lord and no doubt we will have it in the case of the other.
The noble Lord says that he feels that I should be eliminated from the House on the grounds of age and being out of touch. I spent this morning in Wandsworth prison. I am not sure that a young man like the noble Lord would have lasted the course there. Youth will be served--at any rate in his own opinion--but he undoubtedly had a point, which may be reiterated. I think that if he stuck to eliminating those over 90 he would be safer. If he eliminates everyone over 75 he will cause real carnage. I do not think that that would be popular with your Lordships.
My mind goes back to an occasion in 1946 when I was taken by the late Field Marshal Lord Montgomery to the staff college at Camberley. He was CIGS and I was Under-Secretary for War, nominally his superior, but of course that was not the reality at all. He concluded an eloquent address with the words, "Gentlemen, never forget the politicians"--pointing at my shrinking form on the platform. "They are our masters. It is up to us to lead them up the garden path. Gentlemen, dismiss." We are, as the poet would say, still the captains of our soul but we have to face the fact that we are not masters of our fate. The most we can do is make a vital contribution, as is being made in these two days, to the discussions about our future.
Having been a Member of your Lordships' House for 53 years, I am one of those who is conscious of the immense good the House of Lords has done and the great service it has rendered to the nation. If anyone can tell me of any harm the House of Lords has done in the past 53 years, perhaps he will say so now. That is how I see this place, which so many of us have come to love. One cannot speak dispassionately after all these years. But there it is. We are not the masters. We must see how we can assist a better future to emerge.
There are two main overlapping functions of the House. The one most often referred to is work on the revision of Bills. The other concerns the influence provided in so many different ways over the life, the culture and beliefs of the nation. Every noble Lord will have his specialised interest. Some will think of the great debate on charities which could not have taken place anywhere else. Others--myself included, I suppose--will think of the debate on penal reform in which a whole string of former Home Secretaries, including the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, who has just spoken, former Ministers at the Home Office, bishops and Law Lords took part. It was a marvellous debate. We have these wonderful debates, the best, I believe in my heart, in the world.
That may be so, but the question that must be asked is: what influence do we exert? I shall pick out one example of influence. It is the one that means the most to me and to quite a few noble Lords. I refer to the Christian influence. No one can say that the House of
I think also of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I do not know whether she is present today. She is probably endangering her life in the Sudan. I think of the noble Baroness taking the initiative which led to the inclusion of Christianity in a major piece of legislation. Even more recently, on the debate about lowering the age of consent for homosexuals, no one who was present can doubt the effect of the spiritual presence of the bishops. Whatever happens, and whatever future awaits this House, I only hope that the influence of the Bishops' Bench will in no way be weakened. I cannot refrain from mentioning also, although it may not be considered altogether appropriate, the work of various prayer groups in this House which exercise a wonderful influence behind the scenes.
What about the crucial issue of the hereditary Peers? I am one of those--I speak fairly dispassionately, as no one is quite dispassionate--who knows well the enormous value of the hereditary Peers, taking them collectively, over the past half century. When I say that, I am thinking partly of the individuals. I shall not mention names, although one or two have been mentioned today and some have already spoken in the debate. Nevertheless, certain individuals have played an unforgettable part in this House, some of them in headlines and some of them more quietly. But that is for individuals.
There is another deeper influence. The visitors who come to the House from all over the world are struck by the quality of the debates--as I said, in many ways the best debates in the world. There is the intellectual quality, the knowledge and the expertise. Perhaps one would expect that with a composition of 26 bishops, 28 Law Lords or former Law Lords, leading soldiers, businessmen, trade unionists and former Cabinet Ministers, including two former Prime Ministers. In view of all that, one would expect the intellectual quality of the debates to be high. However, people notice something else when they come here. The good manners, the civilisation and the inherent decency of this place strike people from all over the world. I would be horrified if in any new House that influence were to disappear.
When I was Leader of the House 30 years ago I brought forward a proposal. It was not my idea. It was created by an old friend, the Clerk Assistant at the Table, the late Henry Burrows. He called it the two-writ plan under which hereditary Peers would come and speak but not vote. That was agreed to by the leaders of all the parties, in this House and elsewhere, but it was sabotaged by a strange Back-Bench combination in the other place. I still think that that was the best solution.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, it is always fun to follow the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who has the capacity to ingratiate himself with the whole House. I always enjoy it when I can actually agree with him, which has not always been the case in the past but I did today.
This is an important debate on the future of your Lordships' House and indeed on the future of the hereditary Peers. It is a curious sentiment to stand, as many of your Lordships will do, in front of your Lordships, rather like Marie Antoinette at the guillotine. Although the stature may not be recognisable, the sentiment may be. Naturally one feels that it would be desirable if the guillotine were not lowered. I feel that, and feel it quite strongly for very good reasons--at least I think they are very good reasons--but I do not propose to adumbrate the virtues of the hereditary Peers because that might be a little self-congratulatory. However, I think that it stands up to fairly careful scrutiny, as the noble Earl has just said, that hereditary Peers have contributed a great deal.
The one thing that worries me about the Government's proposals is the idea of reforming the House in two stages. I think that is crazy. First, you get rid of the hereditary Peers, and then you say, "What are we going to do?" That is rather like getting on a ship, going out into the middle of the ocean and then saying, "Where shall we go?" Not many people would think that that was a wise way of navigating. The danger is that, between the two, the second stage will not come to pass. I think that is a great pity. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, who said that we should stop to think what they are going to bulldoze down and see what is going to take its place. That we do not know. But the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, congratulates herself on calling it a step-by-step approach. I think this is a fundamentally bad approach.
Whatever one's views about hereditary Peers continuing in your Lordships' House, the one thing I cannot understand is why the Government fail to see that, if they get rid of the hereditary Peers, the House of Lords will have more power. It will not have more powers but it will exert those powers in ways which it did not when hereditary Peers were present. How often have we heard it said, "We cannot vote against it because, remember, it is the House of Lords voting against the House of Commons, which has supreme authority"?
Let us consider secondary legislation. One has to think only of the beef on the bones matter or the Berkshire order that I had experience of. Your Lordships will know that secondary regulations have to be accepted by both Chambers. If they are accepted by another place but not accepted here, they fall. In the case of the Berkshire order, I remember saying to your
A Bill--after all, there will be a Bill--to give more power to the second Chamber has never yet got through the House of Commons. I know that conditions are different now and all kinds of different techniques were used in the House of Commons, and no doubt the Government will get their way, but there is a good reason why the other place does not wish your Lordships' House to have more power and that is because they consider themselves, quite rightly, the supreme and elected body. I find it extraordinary that there should be a proposal that your Lordships' House should be elected. How on earth will that get through another place? They do not want a second Chamber that is elected; they want the supreme authority which they have. The idea of a fainting House of Commons accepting a proposal for a second elected Chamber is almost itself unthinkable. I think that would be a great mistake. If you go down that particular track, both of getting rid of hereditary Peers and of having an elected second Chamber, there will be far more confrontation between the two Chambers of Parliament than has ever happened before.
I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said on "Breakfast with Frost" that what we need is a professional House and that the hereditary Peers would no longer be included. I wonder what the definition of a "profession" is. Is the noble Baroness a professional politician? She was appointed, but I do not know whether she is a professional. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is an eminent and professional Queen's Counsel, but is he a professional politician? He says no. In that case he should not be here.
What about my noble friend Lord Carrington, an ex-Cabinet Minister, an ex-Secretary of State for Defence and an ex-Foreign Secretary? Is he a professional, or is he not a professional because he is no longer in post? He will not be allowed in the place anyway because they will put the bars up against him. What about my noble friend Lord Cranborne? Is he a professional, or is he an amateur? Which would he prefer to be? However, that does not matter because he will be excluded too. I wonder whether we really want two professional Houses. I wonder whether another place wants two professional Houses. I wonder whether the people want two professional Houses.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, made an excellent maiden speech. He said that people were disenchanted with politics and parliamentarians and that perhaps the people do not want two professional Houses. Whatever we do, there is one real danger that I see. At the moment the Government are allowing an assembly for Scotland and an assembly for Wales. They are talking about regional government and they are now talking about introducing proportional representation and changing Westminster. I just wonder whether it is right to move
I shall relate to your Lordships a personal anecdote. I got into a bus. Your Lordships may think that is surprising, but I did. Someone said to me, "Robin"--for that happens to be my name--"Do tell me what you are doing". The person used to be my commanding officer when I did my national service. At that time he was a colonel and I was terrified of him. He had since become a general and I was even more terrified of him. I said, "I am moving my house in the country and I am moving my flat in London within six weeks of each other". He made a penetrating observation, "My dear man, have you forgotten the elementary principle, always keep one foot on the ground at any one time?" I recommend that to the Government.
Lord Wigoder: My Lords, these issues have been debated in one form or another not simply for many months but for many years. I have no doubt at all that they will continue to be debated for at least as long in future. Other noble Lords may feel as I do; namely, that sooner or later, the time comes when one has to stand up and be counted.
If, and when, the Government bring forward a Bill to disfranchise the hereditary Peers, I shall be counted in the Content Lobby. But I am bound to say that I shall go into that Lobby with less enthusiasm than I have ever felt when I have voted in the hundreds of Divisions in which I have participated during my time in your Lordships' House. I say that because I find in a curious way that although the case which is put forward by the Government is unanswerable--indeed, no one has sought to answer it so far in the debate--it is, in an odd way, not overwhelming. It is a case that depends partly on principle and partly on practice. The principle is a simple one and it has been stated over and over again. In a modern democratic society you cannot have people who can and do become legislators simply because of the death of an ancestor who was himself a legislator. That is not a rational way to run a democracy.
However, that is not the only irrational part of our democracy, and it is by no means the most important irrational part. It is becoming increasingly recognised that it is not rational, for example, that a party can obtain more votes and yet win fewer seats than another party, or can, with a minority of the votes, become a majority government. It is not rational, at least in my view, that we should believe that everyone who voted for that government obtained a copy of the manifesto, read it through from beginning to end, decided they were fully in favour of every single pledge set out in it and were in favour of everyone proceeding on that basis. I think the noble Baroness has already said that in some ways that was an odd basis on which to found the Salisbury Convention.
All of these matters are irrational and all of them need to be dealt with if we are really to have a modern, up-to-date democracy. I suspect that the real reason the Government have selected the hereditary Peers issue--as I say, I do not believe anyone has answered this issue--and given it the priority they have is quite simply because, apart from the principle involved, in practice it is a nuisance to a Labour government. As we all know, hereditary Peers provide a pool of votes which can be used by a Conservative Party either to bolster an unpopular Conservative government against the otherwise unanimous wishes of this House, or can be used--and is being used frequently--to defeat in this House the measures brought forward by a Labour government.
I have seen all that at first hand. I was what is quaintly described as a "usual channel" during the whole of the previous Labour government and the succeeding Conservative government. On many occasions I saw the Conservative backwoodsmen, as they are called--I do not say that in any derisory tone--arriving downstairs and asking politely if they could please be directed towards the Chamber. Over and over again there have been occasions, under the previous Labour government and this one, when the Government have found themselves defeated primarily as a result of the activities of hereditary Peers. That is a nuisance, an irritation; it is a blow to the pride and prestige of the Labour Government. However, it ought not to be exaggerated beyond that. I find it difficult to recall, during my time in this House, any really important matter brought forward by a Labour government which has been permanently lost as a result of the actions of the hereditary Peers. If there has been embarrassment from time to time, it is because Labour governments, just like Conservative governments, always overcrowd their timetable. There is never sufficient time towards the end of a Session for them to sort out difficulties which may have arisen in that way. Therefore, although I will in due course support a Bill dealing in this way with the hereditary Peers, I do not believe it is a cause for enormous excitement, or that in itself it will be a great step forward towards a more democratic society.
I wish to make an observation about what will happen after stage one has been completed. I am extremely perturbed as to what the future holds. When people propose schemes for reforming the composition of this House, they talk in terms of not affecting its powers, only changing its composition. I believe very strongly that that is a fallacy. The composition of this House may in due course, and in totally unintended ways, affect its
To give a simple, obvious, practical example, a situation might arise whereby, after three or four years of a party being in power, the government are stale and possibly losing by-elections on a substantial scale. That has been known to happen. There could be a situation in which just at that moment there are elections on some basis or other to this House and new people of considerable calibre come in having recently been voted for by the electorate, whatever the nature of the constituencies. Is it not inevitable in those circumstances--and they are not fanciful--that this Chamber would be regarded by the general public and the media as representing the country far more than the House of Commons? Inevitably in that situation more powers would be sought by this Chamber, and might well be obtained. A delicate balance might, quite unintentionally, be impaired.
For that reason I very much welcome the noble Baroness's statement about a Royal Commission. Contrary to the views of many noble Lords, I believe that the matter may take years to sort out. It will require the greatest research into our constitutional history and the constitutional history of other democratic countries. It will require extensive consultation and debate. Much as I should like to see stage two follow stage one as soon as possible, there are dangers in pressing for that.
In the interim, I am sure that this House will survive with its present life Peers and with the creation of new life Peers--I hope with an increased independent element. I hope that it will thrive, too, because after stage one we shall welcome back a number of the hereditary Peers in a new guise as life Peers. Many of them have been a great asset to this Chamber in recent years.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, reference was made in an intervention by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, during the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, to the Roman general whose reputation for masterly inactivity earned him the nickname of Fabius Cunctator, the delayer. I confess that he would be a mere tyro against some of the delaying tactics that one sees in evidence from time to time. The Government have taken the advice not so much of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, but of his former commanding officer whom he met on the bus. They have kept one foot on the ground by delaying stage two. If they had gone for everything at once, they might have fallen guilty of the charge that he made.
It will be difficult to reach agreement on stage two. However, I assure every hereditary Peer that I hope that anything that is done to change this House will strengthen it. Although it will be without hereditary Peers, I bear no animus towards hereditary Peers. Indeed, I have the greatest admiration for their achievements. My admiration is sufficiently high to make me believe they are entitled to be here on their own merits, not on the merits or demerits of a long-forgotten ancestor.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, imagined the reasons that the Government would give for delaying stage two. I can imagine the remarks that would have come from the Opposition had the Government proceeded with stage two. There would have been a great deal of wringing of hands: "Of course we are against hereditary Peers, but are the Government wise to proceed with such a prescriptive plan for a new House at this time of great change and flux in our society? There is devolution in Scotland and Wales, a new relationship with Europe; we are even reforming the electoral system. Therefore, much as we should like to abolish the right of hereditary Peers to vote, now is not the appropriate time".
Surely the central concern is to do what the Government have done and take the matter one stage at a time. The truth is that we are not rushing headlong into a change that has been debated for most of this century if we try to enact it in the final year of the century. It would be interesting if, during the course of 114 speeches, anyone made the case in logic for the right of someone, purely by birth, to participate in the legislation of this country. That is to say nothing by way of demerit as regards the independence of thought, the wisdom, and the contribution of hereditary Peers. It is not their heredity--the accident of birth--which makes hereditary Peers independent, but the fact that they are not elected. That is the important point.
I disagree with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and my former Leader, the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I do not believe that a new Chamber should be elected. It would lead to increased tension with the Commons and would produce first- and second-class citizens in this place. In addition--and, as a non-hereditary Peer, I am better able to say this--we should recognise that there would also be a democratic deficit. Elected politicians are naturally at least as much concerned with a social work role on behalf of their constituents as they are about legislation. They are also, not unnaturally, very much preoccupied with the results of the next election. The independence of thought that has been so cherished by every speaker in this House will be maintained precisely because its Members are not elected. That will survive the abolition of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote. Reference was made to the anguish of Chief Whips trying to keep their troops in order. It is recognised that Members of this House do behave independently, and that is its main strength.
I wish to conclude my remarks fairly quickly. I am conscious that the average time taken by speakers is well in excess of the eight minutes mentioned yesterday by the Chief Whip. Perhaps I may leave noble Lords with one thought. I echo the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, at the unearthly hour of 7.20 this morning on breakfast television. The noble Viscount argued that what was important was what we left behind. I suggest that if hereditary Peers were to attempt to defeat the Government's move to abolish their right to sit and vote, for a start it would be unseemly. It would not be true to the traditions of public service of which they have been such shining examples. It would also lead to this House being held in less respect by the community.
If, on the contrary, hereditary Peers were to embrace the Government's reform, there would be a swing of sympathy for this House. At the moment there is a mood which was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, in his maiden speech. The public are fed up with ding-dong, hammer and tongs; they want consensus politics. This House is a good example of that. If the hereditary Peers were to show themselves in tune with what most people in their heart of hearts regard as long overdue reform, there would be a swing of sympathy and increased status for the House. That, surely, would be the finest act of a group of Peers who have done great service in the past.
Lord Beloff: My Lords, in so long a debate as this, it is customary for people to become worried lest they repeat what has been said before. I can assure such of your Lordships as remain in the Chamber that as I have disagreed with every single speech so far made from every corner of the House, that risk is not one that I run.
My second reason for disagreeing is that, although other people have mentioned the various constitutional proposals that have been before the House or are likely to come before it, in relation to devolution, electoral methods, what we do about London and so on, they have not been brought together in the way I see them coming together. What I see is a series of proposals by the present Government for constitutional change, ill thought-out, with no relation to each other, rushed through Parliament with impossible speed. They are therefore likely, unless somehow they are checked, to throw away this country's historic constitution and the affection which its constitution--and I agree with the noble Lord--if not its present legislators, largely enjoys.
It is, to my mind, surprising because, as some noble Lords will be aware, I once had for many years the honour of holding a professorship named after Mr. Gladstone. He was a great statesman. In the latter part of his long career, he tried, as others have tried since, alas, with equal lack of success, to solve the Irish question. The determination that Mr. Gladstone put into getting his measures through earned him the nickname of "an old man in a hurry". I have a feeling that the present Prime Minister may come to be regarded as "a young man in a hurry". There he is, 18 months into office, with already a whole series of these constitutional proposals on the statute book, or about to be. Somehow or other, he takes this as though it were a
People, or those who support the Prime Minister in these antics, do not seem to realise that the British constitution developed over the centuries out of a feudal monarchy, by the association with a growing enfranchised commonalty and a surviving aristocracy, into a tripartite system--monarch, two Houses of Parliament--which was and, I think, if people travel, they will find is still highly admired and regarded. Most of the constitutions or what we call our fellow democratic constitutions which have been developed in the past 200 years, have failed because they have not had this element of continuity. They have had to start from scratch. As a result, one has seen revolutions, coups d'etat, breakdowns and so on.
It would seem that for a successful constitution there ought to be two elements in the legislative body. One would be composed of people who see change as not only necessary but even desirable and who are frantic to be ahead of the most fashionable nostrum of the day. The other would provide an element of ballast, people who would bring to the consideration of so-called reforms or perhaps even in some cases real reforms, the wisdom that comes of experience and of not being subject to the whims of polling organisations or even focus groups.
It is possible to imagine a legislature of a single House in which both what one might call the advanced and the ballast groups would take part. Fifty years or perhaps a little longer ago, one could have said that the British House of Commons could fulfil that role. It could have done without the House of Lords. There were people who represented important elements in society, in industry, in the workforce, who represented the landed and other interests. They were men of weight and experience. The present House of Commons merely exaggerates a trend which has been continuous for some years; we know that the modern House of Commons is not like that at all. It has been said by previous speakers that it consists of people propelled there by party and managed there as well by party. One has a only to read their autobiographical interviews in The House magazine: their claims have little to say about the general problems of the country, let alone the world. They leave much to be desired.
Therefore, since the House of Commons cannot fulfil its proper function, it is not a question of how it is organised nor of its membership--I do not see how we shall change that--it means that the House of Lords has a responsibility for putting a degree of weight into the consideration of important issues, whether domestic or foreign--something which could not so easily have been argued a generation or two ago.
The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, said he did not think anyone would defend the hereditary principle. I find the hereditary principle a common factor in most advanced societies in many branches of life. In my religion the priesthood is hereditary; in many other countries there are hereditary occupations; and there are hereditary links between families and people. The whole idea that
I do not say that in an ideal world a parliamentary chamber should consist only of persons who are there for hereditary reasons. Obviously there are other assets that I should like them to bring to bear apart from their families' experience in ruling. But simply to toss the concept out of the window as though it was out of date and was last year's fashion does not strike me as worthy of debate in your Lordships' House.
The Earl of Kintore: My Lords, the House of Lords must be reformed. I have no problems with this statement, provided reform leads to increased commitment--by which I mean attendance in general in the Chamber on a normal day (not a day like today) and in particular in the evenings and after dinner. This would create a more democratic and effective House. In the short period that I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House, on a number of occasions Ministers have advised that the House should not speak or vote on certain issues, either because it is unconstitutional or the other place would not like it. I do not believe that your Lordships have ever paid much attention to Ministers' advice, but surely there is something astray in a system that leads to the advice being given in the first place.
Each House of this Parliament should debate legislation independently with a view to arriving, after genuine debate, at the best solution. If the Houses cannot agree then, as at present, there must be a mechanism for legislation to proceed. I hope that in the 21st century in a mature democracy there is still room for a part-time House where Back-Benchers are not paid and the ethos is much more public service than financial gain. But if it is decided that the House should be paid it should be modest and there should be a compulsory retirement age, probably 75, as has already been mentioned.
There is a proposal to end by statute the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords. I declare an interest as the current holder of an hereditary Scottish earldom. That honour was bestowed on my family in 1677 for its part in saving the Scottish regalia from falling into the hands of Oliver Cromwell at its castle at Dunnottar. I am pleased to read that Her Majesty the Queen will use the Scottish regalia when she opens the parliament in Edinburgh next year. I caution any noble Lord who carries the Sword of State to hold it very still as for the purposes of concealment the blade of the sword had to be broken. Although it has been rivetted together again it is pretty fragile. The appropriation of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote is a matter of considerable constitutional importance and effect and is not to be undertaken lightly.
Finally, I hope that if nothing much else survives the reform the tradition of conducting our proceedings with courtesy, dignity and good humour will, as has already been said by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, survive for ever.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I was greatly amused to hear the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, come to the defence of the hereditary principle. He is the only non-hereditary Peer to have done so. He was cheered on by many on the other side. It may be that there is greater support for the noble Lord's position than we realise. I do not believe that I would employ an hereditary plumber and I suspect that a good many people up and down the country share that view.
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