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The Viscount of Oxfuird: My noble friend Lord Northesk quoted my own family peerage case, but what concerns me tonight is what is legal or illegal.

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I am minded of the visit of Peter the Great of Russia to Westminster Hall in 1697. He was brought in by his guide and was shown this great building, which was defined as the greatest building in Europe. He saw people walking across the steps and asked who they were. His guide said, "Your Imperial Highness, they are lawyers". He said, "I have but two lawyers in my entire kingdom and I am minded to behead one of them the very day I return".

We have heard the manifesto of the Labour Party. Where stands the law in this matter? We have to debate for long hours in this Chamber. We are not taking the advice of our predecessors. I wonder whether I may remind noble Lords of my own peerage case--or rather, my late kinsman's peerage case--in which Lord Keith of Kinkel said:

    "My Lords, the law on this problem is not an arcane one. It is entirely clear to those who are instructed and experienced in the law of Scotland about heritable property, and I suggest that it is a body of law which could not be repealed, as is suggested by the noble Lord"-- he was referring to Lord Molson--

    "without upsetting the whole basis of Scots peerage law. It would be possible perhaps to introduce by Act of Parliament some form of prescription of peerages, a species of limitation, but that would be an exception to the basic principle of Scots law that hereditable rights never prescribe. There is this consideration, too, my Lords: that having in view that every peerage not extinct or attained is vested in someone, even though he does not at present receive a Writ to attend, to introduce this prescription would involve taking away vested rights, and I do not think that this is a principle which is readily accepted in any Act of Parliament, at least not without some compensation being provided for".--[Official Report, 27/6/77; col. 902.]

What concerns me is that we speak of the law, and we are disinclined to refer to it. I am not a lawyer, but there are moments in this Chamber when we need guidance. I hope that the noble Lord on the Front Bench will give us firm and direct guidance in this matter.

Lord Trefgarne: My noble friend Lord Norrie raised a number of points. However, one point is perhaps more crucial than others. I hope that the Minister will address it. I refer to the concept of the property rights that attach to a peerage--indeed, the property rights attached to membership of this House which are being removed from the hereditary Peers. Is it the Government's view that there is no property right attached to membership of this House, and that therefore the Bill can be passed with equanimity?

A number of people have suggested to me that there are property rights attached to membership of this House. There are certainly property rights attached to a peerage generally. However, the peerage in its entirety is not being removed from hereditary Peers, but just the right to sit, vote and speak in this House. As noble Lords will recall, not only is the right to sit, vote and speak being removed, but also the so-called "club rights". Perhaps there is some benefit attached to those.

I hope that the Government have considered the matter and that the noble Lord will reply to it.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: This Bill is nothing to do with the abolition of the hereditary peerage. It is perhaps

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worth stating that. The noble Viscount, Lord Oxfuird, who spoke penultimately, said that we speak of law often and rarely refer to it. I think that I have listened to every speech on every occasion dealing with reform of this Chamber, and that has not been my listening experience.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, for moving Amendment No. 14A and speaking to Amendments Nos. 30A and 68A so courteously and fully. My noble friend Lord Strabolgi pointed out certain defects in the amendments. He put the points crisply: that the amendments were basically unsound and based on a false premise. Apart from that, there are other defects. The noble Lord argues, and I take up the challenge put by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, that hereditary Peers have personal and property rights to enter, sit and speak in this House, and that to remove their places in this House is a denial of those rights. I repeat: this is nothing to do with hereditary titles or dignities. It has to do with the right to sit in a legislature. The right to sit in the upper Chamber of the legislature is not a property right. I shall develop that argument in a moment. I am answering as plainly as I can the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne.

At Second Reading--it seems a long time ago, but it is not so temporally--the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, said that the Letters Patent were a contract irrevocable even by an Act of Parliament. That is the absolutist, Bourbon view. I reject it. I do not think that it is sustainable politically, morally, socially or legally. I believe that the sovereignty of Parliament subsists and matters, and Parliament is sovereign. The world may change, but the contra-argument is that hereditary Peers are entitled, as a matter of right and as a matter of law, to their place in Parliament; that the hereditary Peers will in fact go on for ever. That is where we part company. It is said that any Act passed after the removal of the hereditary element would be invalid. That is plainly wrong for the reasons set out by the Lord Chancellor on earlier occasions. The terms of Letters Patent are not sacrosanct.

It is put to me that I ought to offer an example or two, so I shall. As your Lordships are fully aware, the Titles Deprivation Act 1917 provided for all privileges and rights to any dignity or title, whether in respect of a peerage or under Royal Warrant or Letters Patent, to cease and determine in respect of all Peers who supported the Germans during the First World War. So we are not rushing on heedlessly into establishing a new precedent.

It is well established law that Letters Patent are not sacrosanct. In the case of Viscountess Rhondda, to pronounce the name correctly, the Committee for Privileges does not accept the proposition that an Act of Parliament could not vary Letters Patent. We have the further example, which has been referred to on an occasion or two tonight, of Section 6 of the Peerage Act 1963 which overrode the terms of Letters Patent to give the right to sit in this House to Peeresses.

It is asserted, and I dispute it, that there is a personal property right to sit in this House. The noble Lord put his argument on two bases, and I believe that I

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summarise it fairly and briefly. One was the Statue of Westminster and the other was the European Convention on Human Rights. A number of us here, not least my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer sitting behind me and marginally to my left, introduced that with a good deal of pleasure. I am glad that our efforts have proved not to be entirely in vain, since it is designed for all citizens of this country to have their rights repatriated, but it will not help the noble Lord, Lord Norrie. The right to sit in this House is not a possession. It is not a piece of property like a house, a piece of land, a mountain bicycle or a video machine.

I listened to the noble Lord's argument with care and he gave as an example the Turkish litigation. That is nothing to this point because we are not excluding a group from participation in the legislative process. Quite the opposite; in this Bill will be seen the taking away of the long historic injustice that hereditary Peers are not able to vote in parliamentary elections. We are putting that right by giving those who have been deprived politically and legally their full entitlement to participate.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am sorry that your Lordships are treating that point with levity, because it is extremely important that we are now visiting the underprivileged with their full rights. If they were not in prison--

Viscount Cranborne: Perhaps the Minister--

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Perhaps I may finish my sentence because it is too good a point to miss. At least if they were not in prison they were disenfranchised and I still visited them.

Viscount Cranborne: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he slightly exaggerate the generosity of the Government in this respect? After all, perhaps one of the reasons why Peers have been unable to vote in parliamentary elections is that they have a right to sit in one of the Houses of Parliament. If the Government intend to take away from certain existing Members of your Lordships' House their right to sit here, perhaps it is only equitable that they should be given the opportunity to vote in parliamentary elections for another place. I know that the noble Lord was displaying his usual rapier-like wit at our expense, but, nonetheless, perhaps he will admit that it was not merely the righting of a long-lost wrong; it was the taking away of one privilege and the granting of another in exchange.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am sorry that with my lack of rapier-like wit I was unable to make my point plain. My point is that it is a good idea to treat everyone who lives in this country equally. That is the fundamental point of the Bill and the fundamental point of the Human Rights Act, now triumphantly on the

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statute book. Part of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, deals with what I think I could call a conceptual vote, which is certainly novel to me. What he proposed, if I studied his amendment correctly, is that hereditary Peers should be entitled to vote, but that their vote should not be counted.

It would be wrong of me to say that that is a novel constitutional device in the whole history of the world, but it certainly strikes me as bizarre. If I had proposed it, the first to have objected would have been the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, saying that it would be quite wrong that those who voted would have a vote that should be disregarded. The noble Viscount made that point. I certainly would object to that. It would be deeply dismissive of those who had a vote but were not able to have it counted.

The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, also raised a question which demonstrated a pleasant proposition to me; namely, that at least two Members of the Committee were awake. One was the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and the other was me. As soon as the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, mentioned this question we interrogated each other, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, wondering idly whether I would fall into the trap and I praying, nobly or ignobly, that I would not. The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, asked two questions: first, what was Her Majesty's view and, secondly, had we taken Her Majesty's view? As the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, well knows, that would be a wholly illegitimate set of questions for me to reply to, and accordingly I do not, on well-known constitutional bases.

The question of the Statute of Westminster has nothing to do with this at all. We are not interfering with the powers of the sovereign in the slightest way. Therefore, the extant dominions have no proper interest in these matters.

I know that a number of Members of the Committee are concerned about what may or may not happen. I have read with great care the different amendments--they are slightly different in shade and effect--that the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, has put forward. There is no exit that will be satisfactory, because we have come to our distinct conclusions. I have said on a number of occasions, because I mean it, that I recognise that other Members of the Committee have deeply held views. There will be no safeguard, beyond the possibility of the Weatherill amendment--and I say this with great care, without any aggression, malice or ill-thought--because we believe that the continuation of the hereditary principle, the capricious donation of birth, in the House of Lords, is no longer sustainable. That is the purpose behind our legislation. There is nothing by way of device or alternative, cosmetic amendment that will be acceptable to us.

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