some default text...

Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Richard: My Lords, the noble Lord provokes me. Can he not see that a situation in which the opposite side of the House can drag 400 people into a Division Lobby and this side of the House can only drag 150, if everybody turns out, and as a result of that the opposite side of the House can win any Division it wishes, even if the Government Chief Whip pulls out all the stops, produces a strong degree of feeling on this side of the House that we are being and have been unfairly treated for many years?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. It is a ridiculous feature of the way things are at the moment. But I hope that the Government will have the strength to see beyond that long suffering through which they have been--to my mind totally unreasonably--and see that the future of this House should not be one where it is hard to defeat the Government. It should be one where it is relatively easy, with agreement in most sections of the House, to defeat the Government, but where restraint is exercised in doing so because the House wishes to win arguments and not play politics. That is a change that I hope to see from the Government Front Bench.

However, I am concerned, as is my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, that this Government see this House and its transition as a rather old and curmudgeonly crab in the process of changing its shell, and for a few moments it will be soft and vulnerable to attack so that they can take a large bite out of it. I share my noble friend's concern that they wish this House to lose powers. I am concerned too at what is said on page 32 of the White Paper:

as though holding some internal argument, some unstated wish to move beyond that, to the point where the Government have a dominating position. I support my noble friend's amendment and hope that this House will agree to it.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Hemmingford: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, whose efforts on behalf of freedom and information I salute. It became obvious to me some years ago as a newspaper executive that some of the problems with the role of the media in

22 Feb 1999 : Column 900

society were due to the weakness and imbalance in our constitution. What was happening was that two of the three pillars on which the constitution rested 300 years ago were severely weakened. The monarchy no longer exercised any effective political power and the ability of this House to check the power of the other place--and particularly the Government in that House--was more apparent than real. No wonder the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, spoke of an elective dictatorship.

Into the vacuum which was caused by the absence of effective checks and balances were drawn the media, but particularly the press because, while broadcasting is regulated by the Government, despite the events of the weekend, the newspapers are supposed not to be. As a journalist I have never been happy with the notion of the press as being even the fourth estate of government. But it seemed to me nearly 10 years ago when I first advanced the thought--and it seems even more so now with the burgeoning power of the multi-national media--that for them to become in effect the second estate is highly dangerous. I note with pleasure that the idea appears to be gaining currency among some of our more thoughtful columnists. Both Andrew Marr in the Observer and Hugo Young of the Guardian alluded to it in recent weeks.

It is timely to point out today that if governments faced much more rigorous scrutiny in the upper Chamber and could not even be sure of getting their legislation passed, they would have to pay more attention to Parliament with correspondingly less time or inclination for obsessive manipulation of the media whether by partial leaking or heavy-handed legal action. That would benefit both good government and freedom of expression. We might even get an effective freedom of information Act. In saying that, perhaps I should declare an interest as a member of the board of the Association of British Editors.

It is particularly against that background that I venture to hold up to your Lordships the document that we are considering today. And against that background, quite frankly, it looks pretty feeble. On the Eurovision Song Contest scale I give it deux points; one for finally proposing to end our rights to vote--in that again I am with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas--and to speak here, and another for proposing (or so I optimistically assume) a substantial reduction in numbers. If the United States can limit its Upper Chamber to 100, we can surely manage with no more.

John Bright said, 140 years ago, that everyone recognised that an hereditary legislature could not be a permanent institution in a free country and no one knew it better than the Peers. Today it is presented to us as something radical. Such a description I can only describe, remaining inside the parliamentary conventions, as exaggerated. At any rate, I will go readily when the time comes but I should like to feel that, in the process, we had contributed to an improvement in our constitution rather than to a cosmetic rearrangement, which seems more likely.

On the specific grounds which I have outlined, and I believe on general grounds as well, what is required is the re-establishment of effective balance in our

22 Feb 1999 : Column 901

constitution. In my opinion, that requires that this House be directly elected. We should not fudge this. There is much in the paper about legitimacy. Of course, our present make-up is not legitimate, but legitimacy is often in the eye of the beholder. Once we hereditaries are gone, give or take 91 of us here or there, the legitimacy and independence of the reformed House will not have been improved vis-a-vis the other place--not that the Government are leaving that to chance. They specifically tell the Royal Commission that it must maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent Chamber of Parliament. As the Guardian headline had it:

    "He calls it reform, but all Blair wants is an impotent second chamber".

From the world outside, where I spend most of my time, the reaction to all this by your Lordships has looked disappointingly near-sighted and self-serving. The Government supporters are largely silent. The Liberal Democrats are seen to have allowed themselves to be hamstrung by a promise of possible PR if they behave themselves. The Conservatives have hamstrung themselves by failing to tackle the problem in their 18 years of office, and the fact that so many of them are hereditary means that anything they do looks like an attempt at self-preservation. I regret that some Cross-Bench manoeuvring, as has already been mentioned, looks similarly unconvincing. Where are the clarion calls for some genuine radicalism and reform? The danger, as we recognise, is real but we are not highlighting it in the country.

I favour an upper Chamber elected on a regional basis and for a much longer term--say, 10 or 12 years--so that its legitimacy is equal to that of the other place. I believe that the Bishops should go. It is surely time that the Church of England was dis-established anyway, but I doubt whether the presence of some nominated Law Lords would be a fatal flaw. The document before us is headed Modernising Parliament. Its proposals do not look very modern to me; not that modernity in itself should be the measure. There is no great merit in it for its own sake. "Improving" or "strengthening" would be better watchwords.

Those who have an understandable attachment to the status quo are inclined to say of this House, "Well, I know you cannot justify it, but it works". I believe that we know, really, that it does not work very well and that the restrictions put upon the Royal Commission are designed to ensure that it goes on not working very well. I think that we should be prepared to say so, loud and clear.

6.54 p.m.

Lord Clitheroe: My Lords, I have been on leave of absence for some time. I should perhaps explain my reason for returning to your Lordships' House and speaking today. I have not been drawn back by threats or blandishments from the Whips. Indeed, perhaps I should apologise to the Whips' Office. I take the Whip in the same way that I take a daily newspaper--as a useful source of information, not generally as a serious guide to action. However, an article that appeared in the

22 Feb 1999 : Column 902

Daily Telegraph, attributed to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, with the striking headline, "Hereditary Peers are illegitimate" called me back.

Other noble Lords have mentioned this matter but perhaps I may add a few words. This House works extraordinarily well and has proved flexible to change and modernisation. Nevertheless, I accept, as do others, that there must inevitably be further changes in its constitution, duties and responsibilities. I accept that the hereditary principle is not the flavour of the month. I should be supportive of plans to modernise the House and have no hankering to retain any rights to sit here. So, why did the noble Baroness's article cause me concern? Why did the word "illegitimate" strike me so forcibly? It is mentioned five or six times, I believe, in the introduction to the White Paper.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord would give way. He, obviously, has not been present, and has explained why very graciously. I have mentioned before, when this particular article was raised, that the headline was not of my making but of the editors of the Daily Telegraph.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page