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Lord St. John of Bletso: My Lords, coming as late as I do in the list of speakers, now is not the time for original thoughts or proposals; it is more a time for sober reflection on what has been said and an opportunity to re-emphasise some key points.
Lord St. John of Bletso: My Lords, I am not sure I have used the right word. This has been a good and constructive opportunity to let off steam! I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and others that it would perhaps have been more opportune and more constructive if the noble Baroness the Leader of the House had given the House the opportunity to have this two-day debate some six months ago, and then presented the White Paper.
As a Cross Bench hereditary Member of your Lordships' House I make my position totally clear. I agree with the strong, logical case for a substantial and comprehensive reform of your Lordships' House, even though this may mean that I will no longer be a Member of your Lordships' House in the future. But central to my stance is the belief that such a reform should aim to improve the effectiveness of your Lordships' House and not just remove an anachronism for ideological and political reasons. Our role in this House is to be an effective check and balance on the other place, to persuade rather than to direct, not to block government legislation but to improve it. It would be farcical if the upper House became a nodding donkey for all legislation presented to it from the other place.
While it is impossible to defend the anachronism of being an unelected hereditary Peer and playing an active role in the revision of government legislation from the other place, credit must be given, and should be given, where it is due. Over the years many hereditary Peers have played an invaluable role in this process and have also spent many hours here for little pay or no pay at all. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House is totally wrong when she makes out that most active hereditary Peers are from landed farming backgrounds. I can speak only for myself. I gave up a lucrative career in the City in investment banking and equity sales to play a more active role in your Lordships' House. It has been a great honour. But surely the key point is not necessarily who is hereditary and who is a life Peer. What matters is the contribution that working Peers make to the effective functions of this Chamber and improving the public perception of what the House does. I am afraid that the perception of many of the public is that this House consists of a bunch of geriatrics, many of whom doze off in their seats. That is totally wrong. One of the most balanced speeches today was made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston. I support particularly his comment about the value of working Peers from all walks of life. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is a prime example of that.
While the hereditary principle is indefensible, no one can deny that the House has worked well and could, with moderate reforms, be an effective transitional Chamber until a comprehensive package of reforms encompassing stage one and stage two is introduced.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, was right when she argued that few voters are likely to have studied the small print of the Labour Party manifesto. They are certainly unlikely to have voted Labour just because there was a commitment to get rid of hereditary Peers from this House.
Is the Minister aware that in a recent MORI survey conducted for The Times 21 per cent. of the 1,000 members of the public who were interviewed favoured keeping things as they are; 12 per cent. wanted to abolish the House of Lords in its entirety, lock, stock and barrel; and 48 per cent. favoured a package of reforms which would include some elected Members. Only 11 per cent. were in favour of just removing the hereditary Peers in stage one. That is hardly the overwhelming support of the general public for stage one alone, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, wrote in the Daily Telegraph yesterday.
I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about the importance of a strong Cross-Bench presence in the reformed upper House and that no one political party should command an absolute majority in this House. I spend much of my time on committee work. I know that I can say this, not only for myself but for other Members on the Cross Benches. I rarely vote unless I have had sufficient involvement and am sufficiently well-informed to make a reliable judgment on the issue.
Despite the Leader of the House having given us the opportunity to let off steam over the past two days I fear that the die has already been cast for the future reform of this House and that the Government will not take cognisance of what has been said during the debate but will press ahead willy-nilly. I hope I am wrong. The noble Earl, Lord Dudley, was right in saying that it is a bit of a farce and it could possibly be the case of a kangaroo court.
We should seek solutions that achieve all-party support. My hope is that we shall have an opportunity whereby the Government can consider the reforms combining stage one and stage two as a seamless operation, and thereby phase out hereditary Peers. What we need is "phase out", not just "get out."
The debate has emphasised three issues. The first is that good constitutional reform should always be carried out by all-party agreement, not forced through by a single party. The second is that this House has never had a higher reputation and standing in the country. It justly deserves that and performs well. Thirdly, there is undoubtedly a consensus in all parties on the need for reform. I do not disagree with that. I am glad that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern is chairing an independent commission. I am sure that his findings will be most helpful to the debate.
One of the mysteries in relation to reform of this House is why the Government have taken so long to produce their White Paper, and why, before they even published their thoughts, they suddenly turned back to their manifesto and announced the over-riding urgency of removing 35 per cent. of the working Members of this House. It does not make sense; there is no logical argument for it, and none has been made out. It may well be that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will convince us later.
I also wonder why the Government have chosen the merits of a Royal Commission over those of a Joint Select Committee. Again, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will comment. He will recall that the Joint Select Committee almost succeeded the last time reform was attempted.
One of the most moving speeches made over the past two days was that of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. He spoke with exceptional clarity and authority, having served in the House for 53 years, including, for some of us, as a distinguished leader. For me and, I am sure, for most Members, he touched a button when he said how often visitors would come and be amazed at the quality of the debates and the pleasantries of our procedures. I would have added the outstanding work of the Select Committees and the thorough examination of Bills through our revising role by dedicated part-time Members.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, we are now at last approaching the end of this marathon event, which has attracted many distinguished contributions. Nevertheless, some noble Lords may feel that it has not been an entirely satisfactory debate. If so, that is because the Government have given us no indication of the kind of House they wish to achieve and have advanced no rational reason whatever for demolishing what exists before they have even an outline plan for a replacement.
Legislating before thinking rather than thinking and then legislating is always unsatisfactory. When one is altering the constitution, it seems a recipe for disaster. The debate has, however, disclosed overwhelming acceptance of two propositions. The first is that in practice the present House works fairly well.
Thus, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, recognised, there is not the issue of hereditaries suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, to which most of her speech and many other speeches were directed. That is a non-issue and there is absolutely no need for a separate stage one Bill to resolve the non-issue. It is now clear that the vast majority of the House accepts without qualification that in due course the hereditaries must go. Not only is the stage one Bill unnecessary to resolve the issue, it is also a gross waste of parliamentary time. Whenever this House or Parliament considers stage two, it will necessitate a considerable debate; and rightly so. But, if it is introduced as a comprehensive measure, there will be no need whatever to debate the appropriate transition. On the other hand, if a stage one Bill on its own is introduced, it is plain that a great deal of additional parliamentary time will be consumed in considering what is necessary to ensure a proper transition to stage two. Thus, a stage one Bill is a waste of parliamentary time.
What has emerged in this debate is that the real issue which divides the Government's supporters from the rest of the House is the question of when and in what circumstances the hereditaries should depart. In one sense, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, it is a mere question of timing. But in reality, it is an issue of great importance. It is not a question of whether as a sop to the dear old hereditaries they should be allowed an extra year or two. Some Labour speakers have said of those who recommend that we should not immediately depart that those are the tactics of delay. That is a wholly unworthy suggestion. Such speakers may disagree with the argument but surely they can at least give the speakers credit for honesty and not accuse them of hypocrisy.
Nor is this issue primarily a question of how the House is to operate in the interim. If the interim is really to be a short period, a reinforced House of life Peers can undoubtedly cope with the business during that short interim, although like so many of your Lordships I fail to see why such a House should appear to be any more legitimate than what we now have.
There is another point that the Government have solely failed to address or to tell us about. If they are to refill a House with a number of additional life Peers, what is to happen to all the life Peers when they have to make way for the persons chosen under stage two? Is there to be a ritual decimation? Until it is known what is to happen to the persons appointed to this House in the interim one ventures to wonder whether outside persons of stature will be enthusiastic to accept appointment to a mere transitional position.
The real question is whether stage two will happen or, if the hereditaries are abolished, whether we shall be left indefinitely with a so-called interim House. One notes with interest that the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has dropped the phrase "interim House" in favour of "transitional House", presumably because she believes that it sounds better. I cannot see why either an interim House or a transitional House is a body to inspire great confidence in its authority. But "transition" is a misnomer. One is in transit when one has embarked on a journey from A to B, but not only does no one have any idea where B is but there are no grounds for confidence that any journey whatsoever will take place. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said that we were embarking on a journey with a hidden destination. We may be embarking on a journey that has no destination at all. It is not a question of doubting the honest intent of the Government's spokesmen or spokeswomen. But, even if they do provide a timetable for the future, how can it be guaranteed that it will be fulfilled and the recommendations of the Royal Commission enacted when any such measure is likely, as so many have pointed out, to be highly unpalatable to the other place?
Time and again Members of your Lordships' House have asked for copper-bottomed guarantees. If such guarantees can be devised and written into the Bill, I and I am sure many others will support them. But, if, as I suspect, such guarantees cannot be drafted, the best that we can hope to do if the Government persist in introducing a stage one Bill is to create a situation in which any government has a powerful reason for wanting to go on to stage two. One such possibility is to have a provision in the Bill that retains the hereditary element, or at least representatives of it, solely until stage two is enacted or--if I may say it--it is rejected by this House. That would give the Government their principle while providing a real inducement to enact stage two. Surely, in the light of this debate the Government could and should agree to it. If not, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, prophesied, they must be in for very long debates on their Bill.
Lord Hacking: My Lords, I do not want to deprive the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, of his 109th position--although I think the numbering of the Speaker's List has been updated--but speaking as the 108th speaker, I have listened to almost every speech that has been made in this long debate. I missed the Vaudeville speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, but that was all over in two minutes. It is a great privilege for the most recently arrived Labour hereditary Peer to be called on last in this debate.
I entered this House twenty-six and a half years ago. I had no expectation of being here but for a short time. It was my father's unexpected death that gave me my opening into your Lordships' House. At the time I was having talks with the party Leader in the Lancashire constituency for which the current Member is the son of my noble friend Lord Hoyle. I had to put the talks on hold, and I should tell my noble friend Lord Hoyle--as I will in the morning--that those talks are still on hold.
I felt that I needed some advice, but I had no Prime Minister or party leader to consult like my noble friends Lord Shepherd, Lord Kennet and Lord Ponsonby so I consulted my grandmother. Her advice was quite clear. "You take the title, dearie", she said, "you won't last long". Although I was not quite sure whether she was exercising political judgment on the future of the House of Lords or giving me some more personal advice, I accepted it and asked for a Writ of Summons.
I have no regrets. It has been a great honour to have been in your Lordships' House for a quarter of a century. It has been extremely interesting and enjoyable. Happy though I have been, I have always known that the House of Lords must be reformed. First, the hereditary principle is unacceptable for any chamber of any parliament actively involved in the legislative process. Secondly, I came to recognise the need, in the interests of our parliamentary sovereignty, that the House of Lords must exercise more authority.
Therefore, I stand in your Lordships' House this evening to give my wholehearted support to the Government's proposals and to the process which they suggest that we follow. However, I have one caveat. In making this caveat, I believe that I speak for all other Labour hereditary Peers, and probably for a number of other hereditary Peers throughout the House. There should be no deals, and no private arrangements for returning hereditary Peers to this House as new life Peers. I strongly hold that we must go.
After we have gone, and when there is agreement between the parties on the number of seats that each party and the Cross Benches should have, it is for the party leaders to choose whom they want. It will not be an easy choice, particularly on the Benches opposite, to choose between those who have been inside the House and the many talented people outside the House.
Despite the differing views, I believe that it is generally accepted in the debate that the hereditary principle cannot be retained in a reformed House of Lords. Therefore, the issue has been whether the reform should be in one stage or two. I believe that the Government are quite right to propose two stages. I support that for two reasons.
The Government are wholly entitled to ask now that they should conduct all their business--not simply the reform of the House of Lords--in this parliament with proportionate membership between the parties. The present position, which has not been designed, is absurd, with the Labour Party having only 168 Members with the Whip and the Conservatives having 472 Members. In a very generous comment, the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, said that it would not be acceptable if it had been the other way around and such a position faced her party and my former party.
Secondly, I believe that there should be time for proper consideration for deciding the new constitution of the House of Lords and indeed Parliament itself. Frankly, this requirement does not fit into the timetable for the Government's rightful current needs to have proportional representation in this House.
I know that on the first point it can be said that the Opposition will act reasonably; they will not take advantage of the Government; the Salisbury Convention will apply. I have attended your Lordships' House for some time. I have to say that there are difficulties. It is not that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, would ever think of plotting against my noble friend Lord Carter. He would not think of bringing in a horde of backwoodsmen, concealing them somewhere in the House and then ambushing my noble friend. I would never suggest that the noble Lord is a plotter. He was my Chief Whip for about four or five years. The problem is that the noble Lord does not know who will come from the backwoods.
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