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Lord Campbell of Alloway: I want to make the point straightaway that this cannot go into the Bill as an amendment. This sort of right, which is not a statutory right--it is a conventional right--cannot be enshrined in the Bill. I am not seeking that.

Yes, we are making heavy weather. I suppose it is because we are desperately seeking a humane, reasonable approach--a "gesture", as it has been called--from the Benches opposite so that it is recognised that this is not, so to speak, an individual request. It is a request on behalf of a body of people who have rendered great and valuable service to this country and who are willing and who wish to be able to continue to do so. Yes, that is heavy weather, but it could be made a very light affair by the kind of gesture that we are seeking. If we can never achieve a gesture, I believe there will be heavier weather.

Lord Brookman: I have listened carefully to the debate and I can speak from personal experience. When I left the House of Commons in 1969 or 1970 I was out of politics for five years. During that period I was able to write to Ministers and receive replies perfectly satisfactorily without the prestige of being a Member of your Lordships' House or of the House of Commons. In

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other words, when you write to Ministers, they treat you according to the eminence of the job that you have at that time and in relation to the case that you present to them. I am sure that that will continue. There is no reason why it should not. I entirely accept the assurances of my noble friend on the Front Bench on that point.

Before I sit down, perhaps I can say to the noble Baroness who was offensive to my noble friend on the Front Bench that her remark was unnecessarily offensive. In no way did my noble friend try to belittle the work that hereditary Peers carry out in voluntary organisations. Indeed, he gave special credit to them. I think that the noble Baroness must have misheard him. In no way did he intimate that such Peers would be disregarded in the future. I believe that the attack on this issue has gone on long enough and that we ought now to reach a decision.

4.15 p.m.

The Earl of Dudley: Unlike my noble friend Lord Caithness, I do not understand how any noble Lord on this side of the House can think that replies from Ministers in this Government are worth 20p, let alone 26p.

Lord Carter: I shall take up some of the points which have been mentioned. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, welcomed me to the Front Bench on this Bill. If he had been here at 12.20 a.m. on Wednesday he would have heard me reply to an amendment from the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam.

On this amendment, we have heard only about the voluntary organisations. What about all the commercial organisations with which noble Lords are connected? Will they have the same right or expect the same duty to apply to a Minister to reply if they are well paid directors of commercial organisations? In fact, the head of an important organisation, whether or not a Peer, would receive a ministerial reply in any event, when appropriate. There is no need for such people to be Members of your Lordships' House for them to be taken seriously.

My noble friends Lord Richard and Lord Northfield, with their experience as former Members of the other place and now as Members of this Chamber, explained very well what will happen in practice. Some hereditary Peers very rarely attend, but are very active in voluntary organisations. Should they have the same right?

Lord Stanley of Alderley: I am pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Carter, say that because I was about to ask whether he would reinforce the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I thought the noble Lord's remark summarised my amendment as I would wish it to be summarised. Of course, I see the problems. Not for the first time, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard. On many occasions I have not agreed with him, but I am delighted that he tried to encapsulate what I was trying to say.

One or two other points were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. I have fond memories of battles with him a few years ago. One point is whether the cart

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comes first or the horse. Many of us are appointed to such jobs because we have the ability to use our influence on behalf of a charity. Strangely enough, it is difficult to get people to do such jobs. It will become even more difficult when everybody is professional.

Not for the first time, what has been said by Members of the Committee has made me think. I believe that the answer was summed up by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, my noble friend Lord Pearson and my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth. They all hit the nail on the head. I may wish to return to this on Report, but I am happier having heard what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, had to say. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry moved Amendment No: 25:

Page 1, line 6, at end insert--
("(2) But subsection (1) shall not apply in respect of any proceedings in the House of Lords on a bill introduced by a Minister of the Crown providing for--
(a) the maximum duration of Parliament to be extended beyond 5 years, or
(b) new restrictions on the constitutional powers of the Crown.")

The noble Lord said: I approach this amendment with a considerable sense of modesty as I have never moved an amendment in your Lordships' House before and I do not pretend to be a great constitutional expert. I do not believe that in a fairly long parliamentary life in the other place I ever made a speech about the length of a parliament or the constitutional duties and powers of the Crown.

I was, however, moved to table this amendment. I am delighted to see that a similar declaratory amendment by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, has been grouped with it. History reminds me that the length of a parliament is a subject that was discussed by our predecessors between 1907 and 1911 at the time of the Parliament Act 1911. But the subject has not been touched on in our debates about the reform of the House of Lords.

The issue is not only about the duration of a parliament, but the duration of a government. How long can or should a particular government remain in office without being required to approach the electorate and have its democratic role renewed by their decision? There is no minimum period for governments in this country. However, a Bill was introduced on a number of occasions way back in the 1890s which would have provided that no general election should take place within six months of an election previously held. Our predecessors were then worried about a government getting the result they did not want and immediately going back to the country without good reason to try to obtain a more satisfactory result.

I accept that it is a little time since a parliament lasted 17 years, but that was the length of the second Parliament of Charles II. Many of us forget--why should we remember?--that the Parliament of 1935 lasted for 10 years. It was renewed yearly by Herbert Morrison as

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Home Secretary until 1945 because of the exigencies of war. I am sure that no one blamed the coalition government for that; it was accepted. However, against that historic background I considered that the question of the length of a parliament, and associated with it the constitutional powers of the Crown, should at least be touched upon in debate in your Lordships' House.

All of us would have been reminded that the 1911 Parliament Act was specific and that Clause 7 states:

    "Five years shall be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act of 1715". The previous Clause 2(1) dealing with vetoes in this House specifically provides that:

    "the absolute veto of the House of Lords shall not apply to any Bill containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of Parliament beyond five years". Doubtless many in this House or outside will ask, "Why is he bothering? It is in the Parliament Act 1911. That is not being changed. Why worry about it?". The reason why I worry about it is because the composition of the upper House is being substantially changed by the measure now before your Lordships.

We must consider carefully whether the enactment in the Parliament Act 1911 is sufficiently valid within the context of an upper House whose membership is being substantially changed. I hope that your Lordships will not mind if in that context I quote briefly from the words of Campbell-Bannerman, at that time Liberal Leader, when he moved a Motion on the veto of the House of Lords in a three-day debate in 1907. In that, he made the reduction from seven years of Parliament an absolute and necessary part of the scheme to increase the powers of the House of Commons. He stated:

    "We consider that the undoubted danger that the House of Commons with the increase of power which we claim for it"-- as the Liberals did--

    "might for some years of its life have its genuine representative character impaired can best be guarded against by a more frequent reference to the electorate. This is, as is known, no new proposal. Most of us on this Bench have voted for quinquennial Parliaments and we believe that the reduction of the period of parliamentary existence to five years will add vigour, freshness and life to our parliamentary system".

The reduction from seven to five years went through in the 1911 Act with almost no discussion. Since then there have been occasional movements in the lower House further to reduce the term of a parliament. Austin Mitchell and Tony Benn, both Labour MPs, in the Reform Bill of May 1985 sought to reduce the maximum life of Parliament to four years.

Why is there such pressure for reduction? They were Back-Benchers, or Opposition Leaders, who were worried about the dangers of over-mighty government who were increasingly out of touch with the electorate and did not want any check on their legislative programme in a more or less independent upper House. In these days of focus groups and opinion polls such a government might find themselves seriously down in the eyes of the electorate and then say, "What we really need is 10 years to finish the job". I confess to having heard that said when I was a Minister in recent

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Conservative governments. They might say, "We need 10 years to finish the job, so why not extend the life of Parliament to give us that further term?".

One should also add that there is a new volatility in voting which can make governments believe that if only they can hang on for a little longer everything will come right. They might be 20 per cent down in the polls but that might change over the next year. We arrive at the question of whether leaving the 1911 Act as it stands is adequate for the very much reformed upper House which we shall have.

In my judgment, all that turns on the remaining powers of the reformed upper House and of its constitution. Like many other Members, I wish that we had discussed those aspects before we came to the constitution of membership; but we did not and that is behind us. The key question, which I hope Ministers on the Treasury Bench will consider in the apolitical and serious manner in which I am attempting to approach it, is how independent of the House of Commons the second Chamber will be. There is no point in having an absolute right of veto in this House, which under the 1911 Act is given on any Bill to extend the life of the Parliament beyond five years, if this House is to be the poodle of the Prime Minister of the day.

It could be said that after reform has taken place this upper House will always have a majority by virtue of the Parliament of the day. If it is not of independent membership, and if it is in some sense the servant of the Lower House, one is then led to the question of whether there is an argument for a fixed term of Parliament of four years; a fixed term that is outwith the control of the Lower House. I would appreciate the views of the Treasury Minister when he replies to that.

The second part of my amendment touches on the relative question of the constitutional powers of the Crown. I had that in mind in the context of the duration of Parliament. It is true that the Crown is involved in the lengths of Parliaments and in the question of who shall be Prime Minister. All Prime Ministers are formally appointed by the Crown; but my own experience does not go back as far as the Crown preference for Bonar-Law over Austen Chamberlain in 1922 or for Baldwin rather than Curzon in 1923. However, I remember very well that when I entered the House of Commons in March 1974 Ted Heath was not then the leader of the largest party, but we thought that for some time he was looking into the possibility of forming a coalition with the Liberal Party which would enable him to continue as Prime Minister. It is obvious that if he had been able to make that coalition with the Liberals and promised them a certain number of Cabinet seats that would have put the Crown under considerable constitutional strain, because one assumes that the leader of the largest party, Harold Wilson, would have said that he, and not Ted Heath, should clearly be Prime Minister.

More recently, I remember as Government Chief Whip in 1990 having very serious discussions as to what advice we should give the Queen if the Prime Minister lost on the first vote in the party leadership ballot and wished then to give up her seals of office immediately, before the further elections had taken place to decide who was to be her successor.

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These are real problems that face the Crown. They are added to by the greater volatility in voting that I have mentioned, and perhaps also by the adoption of proportional representation, which is likely to lead to more cases in the Commons of no major party having an outright majority and therefore to one party seeking to form a coalition--I have just quoted the example of Ted Heath in 1974--and then to be able to form a government that can apparently command a majority. This will put a strain on the Crown in deciding whether to accept the leader of that coalition as Prime Minister.

As Peter Riddell, that very wise political commentator in The Times, remarked a few years ago,

    "The monarch's role as umpire only works if it is above controversy." In the scenarios that I have just put forward there is a possibility of more controversy surrounding these constitutional powers.

It has been suggested, against this background, that the power to appoint the Prime Minister should be removed from the Crown and put out to a commission of the great and the good, or to the Speaker of the House of Commons. But at the end of the day who appoints the Speaker? Notionally it is done on an all-party basis. In fact, at the end of the day the appointment lies with the majority party in the House of Commons. Equally, who appoints a commission of the great and the good?

It seems to me that we all realise that there is a need for a bulwark of independent senators with whom would rest such final but very difficult decisions. That sounds very much like Athens of the 5th century BC, a sort of Platonic ideal that is not possible these days.

Of course, I think of the Privy Council. I declare an interest; I am a Privy Counsellor myself. The Privy Council is all-party, it is independent and it is secret--it keeps matters to itself. Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, have representatives on it. Canada has a nominated Senate, and could therefore feed in to our discussions about what sort of upper House we should have in this country. There are judges on the Privy Council; the judiciary is very strongly represented, not only from this country but from elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

What does the Privy Council do these days?--virtually nothing. Yet I remember that practically the first Starred Question that I asked when I came to the House of Lords was whether the Leader of the House anticipated the Privy Council having any part to play in consideration of reform of the House. I received a one-word answer from the then Leader of the House, who is sitting on the Benches opposite: "No." That is a pity, because the Privy Council might have had some useful thoughts from independent senators.

I put the amendment before the Committee in the belief that there could be a potential problem, one that needs to be thought about and discussed. If Ministers tell me, "Don't worry. What you're concerned about will never happen", I shall say "Splendid. If that is the case, there is no problem at all in accepting my amendment." I beg to move.

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4.30 p.m.

Lord Richard: I fear that what I have to say will not be quite so agreeable as my last speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, moved his amendment, which he said was apolitical and reasonable, in his usual charming way. But this is a Bill about composition. It is not a Bill about powers. Everything that the noble Lord said may be germane to a measure dealing with the powers of the House of Lords, but there is no proposal before the Committee that there should be any diminution of the powers of the House of Lords in relation to the extension of Parliament beyond five years, nor that there should be any diminution in the powers of the House of Lords in relation to a diminution in the power of the prerogative. That is not before the Committee. The Bill deals solely with composition.

In tying the two together, the noble Lord's amendment, moved in a charming, rational and apolitical way, is grossly offensive to those of us who sit on this side of the Chamber. The essence of what he is saying--and how dare he say it?--is that the only people capable of dealing with these great constitutional issues and preserving the constitution are the hereditary Peers who are being ejected by the Bill. That is an astonishing proposition, which I totally reject, not only on behalf of the rest of us who are not hereditary Peers, but very strongly on my own behalf.

I have just as much constitutional concern as any Member sitting on the opposite Benches. The idea is ludicrous that in order to preserve five-year Parliaments the hereditary peerage must be kept in abeyance, sitting outside the Chamber so that if a Bill to extend the length of a parliament beyond five years is introduced they can all come trooping in as the guardians of the constitution.

I cannot believe that the noble Lord, who on most matters is very sensible, rational, apolitical and reasonable, really intended to be quite so offensive as the amendment implies. I cannot accept, nor do I believe, that the Committee can accept a situation where it is solemnly alleged that the only group of people who can be trusted with the British constitution are the hereditary Peers.

The noble Lord talked about the life Peers being in thrall to the Government. For the past century we have had a predominance of Conservative hereditary Peers in the House of Lords. The danger is not that Labour governments will produce a Bill to extend Parliament beyond five years. If the situation had been reversed and a Conservative government had proposed the extension of Parliament beyond five years, they would have started with a massive majority in favour. The presumption would have been that the Bill would be passed. The constitutional dangers are greater if the hereditary peerage stays than if it goes.

I apologise for speaking with some heat, but as the noble Lord went on, in his rational, apolitical and moderate way, I found myself becoming angrier and angrier at the implications of what he was saying. I hope

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that in all the circumstances, when the noble Lord considers this in a calmer manner, he will seek to withdraw his amendment--and do it quickly.

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