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Viscount Cranborne: I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord when he is in full flow. What makes the noble Lord think that it would be possible for this Government's statement of intention, not even expressed in legislation, to bind subsequent governments?

Lord Carter: No Parliament can bind its successor. I shall return to that point; it is central to the argument.

On the general point, the proposals for reform of the House of Lords have produced a veritable upsurge and an interest in constitutional change and in novel constitutional ideas: fixed term Parliaments; constitutional safeguards; the proposal of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for reform of the other place. As I said in an earlier debate on this subject, the thought process of the Conservative Party in this area owes rather more to Rip van Winkel than to Socrates.

The constitutional safeguard that we have now is not the presence of hereditary Peers in this House. It is the Septennial Act as amended by the Parliament Act. I shall return to that point in replying to the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Perth.

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There could be a valuable role for a reformed House of Lords in relation to constitutional issues. I shall not be in the least surprised if a large proportion of the evidence given to the Royal Commission under the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, does not make suggestions on the role that a reformed House could play in constitutional issues. This Bill does not deal with that point. It is one to which I shall return.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is always introducing us to new ideas. He had a new theory. He seemed to say that the majority of Conservative hereditary Peers had Labour hereditary Peers as their fathers. That is an extraordinary tribute to the fertility of the previous Labour generation, given the number of Conservative Peers in this House.

The noble Earl referred to the idea that the new House will be an appointed Chamber. This House is an appointed Chamber. It is appointed by eight successive Prime Ministers in the case of life Peers; and in the case of hereditary Peers, by their genes. It is also implied that Conservative hereditary Peers are the only people available to safeguard the constitution. We do not accept that.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart referred to defects in the drafting of the amendment.

The Earl of Erroll: Perhaps I may correct the noble Lord: I believe it was all hereditary Peers, not merely Conservatives. There are a large number of us on the Cross-Benches.

Lord Carter: I accept the correction.

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, said that the presence of all hereditary Peers represents the only longstop. He wanted some form of safeguard which could not be changed in the future.

It is the heart of our constitution that no Parliament can bind a successor Parliament. That is absolutely central.

The Earl of Erroll: I said that it was an inadequate safeguard for the present. I suggested that an irrevocable constitutional court might be better.

Lord Carter: That is an alternative. The constitution as it presently stands is absolutely clear that no Parliament can bind its successor.

Turning to the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, we shall provide all the assurances that we can regarding the intentions of the Government as regards the Septennial Act.

The Government have made it clear that in the transitional House no party should seek a majority in the reformed House. We have committed ourselves to seek only broad parity with the main Opposition party. There will still be a substantial Cross-Bench presence. The majority of Members at any time will not have been appointed by the present government. Existing life Peers have been appointed by eight Prime Ministers over 40 years. So the fears expressed by noble Lords are unfounded.

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The idea of fixed term Parliaments is one that has been advanced over many years. It would be a major change to move to fixed term Parliaments at Westminster. Our parliamentary system depends on the executive commanding the confidence of Parliament in the other place and at the discretion, in appropriate circumstances, of the Prime Minister to seek the dissolution of Parliament for a general election. There are possible arguments for changing that, but they do not arise from the Bill. It does not change the powers and privileges of the executive, the Commons or the Lords. I should also point out that an Act introducing a fixed term Parliament could be overturned by the same elective dictatorship which it is feared will remove the safeguards of the quinquennial Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, seemed to fear that in future that we should be in the hands of a dictatorship. The noble Lord said that "only at this time" was he happy about the situation. He also agreed that to bring back the hereditary Peers as the constitutional safeguard was not the best way to deal with the issues that have been raised.

The noble Lord said that there is no guarantee in regard to stage two. There is a safeguard. We have made clear that, if this House accepts the Weatherill amendment, stage two is required to fulfil our manifesto commitment to remove the hereditary peerage. We have made that absolutely clear. The noble Lord referred to the possibility of a blocking majority on constitutional issues. I cannot accept it on behalf of the Government on the hoof in debate, but it is certainly an interesting idea and one that could possibly be put to the Royal Commission in relation to the final stage of a reformed House.

Lord Strathclyde: Perhaps I may intervene. The problem that we are talking about will not be resolved by the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission will be examining proposals to take this House from its interim stage to full reform. The problem that will arise immediately this Bill is on the statute book relates to the interim House. Perhaps the noble Lord will consider that point.

Lord Carter: We have explained that in the interim House no one party will have an overall majority.

Lord Strathclyde: If that is the case, will the noble Lord accept an amendment to the Bill that makes that clear?

Lord Carter: It is not necessary. We have already said so.

The Earl of Erroll: How can the noble Lord bind a successor Parliament with that assurance?

Lord Carter: I cannot; nor does the Bill--or indeed any Bill. No Parliament can bind its successor. We have made the position absolutely clear. If noble Lords do not believe us, we can only give our word and the word of the Prime Minister.

Viscount Cranborne: I apologise for yet again interrupting the noble Lord. Will he not accept that an

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assurance, even from him--and this House has learnt from the beginning of the noble Lord's career to accept his assurances as carrying great authority, given in total good faith--would be less easy to overturn if it were embodied in legislation for a subsequent Parliament?

6 p.m.

Lord Carter: The assurance is not only from me; it comes from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has made our intention absolutely clear. It is to seek--unlike what we could seek based on the results of the last election--only broad parity with the major Opposition party in the transitional House and perhaps also in the finally reformed House; that the Government will never command a majority in this House. It is a familiar situation for Labour Chief Whips. That is what we have said, and we intend to stand by our word.

Turning to the substance of sub-paragraph (a) of the noble Lord's amendment, I assure the Committee that the Government have no intention of bringing forward legislation to alter the maximum life of a Parliament. We are quite prepared to face the electorate on our record at the end of this present Parliament; as, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, was in 1987, when his party commanded a massive majority in both Houses. We never dreamed of accusing Members opposite of wishing to take advantage of that majority to subvert the constitution. If anxieties on that score lie at the heart of the noble Lord's amendment, they are unfounded.

I am not at all clear as to the aim of sub-paragraph (b) of the amendment, dealing with the powers of the Crown. I assume that it relates to any attempt to reduce the powers of the monarchy. But it is by no means certain that it can be construed as narrowly as that. For example, would a Bill that attempted to reduce the powers of the executive also fall within the ambit of this sub-paragraph because of the Royal Prerogative. It offers scope for endless argument as to whether or not the provision of the sub-paragraph has been triggered.

I am not sure whether we are intended to take seriously the second proposition that apparently lies behind the noble Lord's proposals; namely, that life Peers are not to be trusted with the constitution of this country. As a life Peer himself, I am sure that the noble Lord believes himself to be eminently trustworthy in that respect. Why should he or we think any less of our fellow life Peers? Yet that appears to be the burden of his remarks. No doubt he assumes that this Bill will last much longer than we intend. We have heard the fears expressed that apparently there will be ample time for the present Prime Minister, who in the meantime will have won several elections without the help of suspension of the Septennial Act, to pack this House with poodles--to quote one expression we have heard--before he moves in for the kill. At that point, 20 to 25 years hence, the hereditary Peers will be asked to ride to the rescue. Presumably, by that time several hundred hereditary Peers will never have been Members of this House.

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The noble Lords opposite cannot have it both ways. Either they believe that this Government can remain in power for many years without cheating or that the present Prime Minister, or a future one, in defiance of everything that has been said about not seeking a majority in this House, will immediately add some 500 life Peers to it. Or perhaps they believe that the present Members of your Lordships' House--the life Peers--are not to be trusted. I shall be delighted if he is right in the first proposition that there will be a Labour government for 25 years. I and my noble friends are rather insulted by the last two propositions regarding life Peers.

I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Perth. I assure the Committee that the Bill has no impact on the provision whereby the Septennial Act, as amended by the Parliament Act 1911, is excluded from the operation of the latter. Amendments to the Septennial Act will therefore continue to need the consent of this House. I have already written to the noble Earl to explain this to him. We cannot amend that provision by sleight of hand; we would have to do it openly. We have not done so; nor do we have any such intention. I am happy to take this further opportunity to put that on record by quoting from the letter that I wrote to the noble Earl, a copy of which I shall place in the Library:

    "You asked me to confirm whether the House of Lords Bill was watertight in leaving intact the powers of this House to block any move by another place to extend the life of a Parliament. I am pleased to confirm that this is the case". I then quote the words of the Act. The letter goes on:

    "In order to apply the Parliament Acts to a Bill to extend the life of a Parliament, and thus to take away the important constitutional right which this House has, it would be necessary for the House of Lords Bill, or some other legislation, to amend section 2(1) of the Parliament Act 1911. It is clear from the text of the House of Lords Bill that no such amendment is envisaged. I do hope that this will set your mind at rest. My colleagues on the Front Bench and I would, however, be willing to give as many assurances as are necessary to this effect on the Floor of the House so that the Government's intentions in this area are quite clear".

I pick up one other point raised by the noble Earl about the wording of an Act. Since the judgment in Pepper v. Hart it is open to the courts to consider what is said in Parliament as evidence of intention. What I have just said is evidence of the fact that the Government have no intention of changing the Septennial Act.

As to the more general question of the effect of this Bill on the powers of this House, which was raised by my noble friend Lord Richard, we debated this matter last week in the context of an amendment moved by the Official Opposition. My noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn made it clear that there is nothing in the Bill that affects the powers of this House; nor is there any intention to do so. He explained then with his usual eloquence why amendments to say that the Bill did not do what it did not do, and was never intended to do, were irrelevant. The noble Earl was concerned about a particular issue. I hope that I have answered the point and that he and other noble Lords who have raised concerns will not feel it necessary to pursue either the general or particular matter any further.

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We have had an interesting debate in which I have tried to make the Government's position entirely clear. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, does not appear to believe that. Is that the case?

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