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Lord Selsdon: I am one of those who feels unbound and I shall try to deliver a withering speech. I have never

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had a vote. I would say that those who have had the privilege of voting have always had the government that they deserve. If I had had a vote, I suppose that I should have voted for the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, when he was the Member of Parliament for Croydon, after which my name comes. But he offered me a vote the other day and I did not feel willing to support his amendment.

The reason behind that is one of conscience. One asks oneself to whom one is accountable. Is one accountable to oneself, to the House, to the party, to Her Majesty the Queen? I have some doubts on that but on this issue, I do not feel that I am accountable to the Conservative Party. To a certain extent, I am a free spirit and I am worried about the amendment because it is divisive. Already the signs are here that the hereditary Peers are setting themselves up against the appointed or the life Peers. There will be more and more divisions within us and this House divided against itself will not stand.

It would have been so reasonable and logical for the Government to say to us, "We wish to get rid of the hereditary principle". For years, many of us--almost the majority--in this House have accepted that that hereditary principle has no place. If that had been done in a friendly and gentlemanly way, then those side-deals, deals behind closed doors would not have been necessary.

They were done because someone was trying to save something. I do not speak against my noble friend Lord Cranborne nor the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, but I speak against the whole principle that the Government forced upon us something which is divisive. It will become more and more divisive as this day goes on.

As the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said, this is a place of true socialism. We speak not the one against the other. I agree with his first remark about Clause 1, although I should have preferred the amendment which I tabled, which was Clause 1 in the form of the old Labour Party amendment of 1968. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, is right that it will take time. But that is where the withering bit comes in: not whither do we go but how do we all wither on the vine?

Over the years, I have been studying the age profile of your Lordships' House and with a few friends, I have begun actuarially to predict the individual deaths of us all. We know full well--and age is not the argument--that, on average, we are all far too old to be here. But we are wise men. As I have said again and again, I have been privileged to have been drip-fed, in some form of university college hospital, by geriatric old men who the outside world think should be long gone but still have a major contribution to make. I am grateful to many of your Lordships who have given me more and more knowledge the older I get.

But it may take a moment of time or two, and we say now of our three score years and ten, how many more will not come again. We know that the average age in the House will be over three score years and ten within fourteen months. We know too that for whatever reason, appointed Peers are, by nature, older and, therefore,

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I could argue, wiser. But if the average age of Members of the House is to be over 70, and with 25 per cent to be over 80, the outside world may say, "Lords, you are withering on the vine".

I do not approve of this amendment nor the principles behind it. I believe that we should have waited until the Royal Commission had reported. The other day we were cut off short, but we have a right to debate and discuss during the hours ahead what we feel our future should be, whether we individually play a role from inside or outside the House, I know not. But we should all like to play some form of future role in this country. I sit down, saying:

    "Oh tell me Lord what power divine Will stop us withering on the vine".

3.45 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: In moving his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said he had not been consulted on the Weatherill compromise. I have heard that argument before. I have always been surprised by the theoretical insult which the noble Lord feels about that because the Liberal Democrats are represented on the constitutional sub-committee of the Cabinet and have been involved since the Cook-Maclennan talks on the redrawing of the constitution. Therefore, I have always assumed that information between the Government and the Liberal Democrats would have been shared freely from a very early position.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, called it a "shabby affair". I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said about that. However, that is all I agreed with in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Peston.

Clause 2 improves the Bill marginally, but it is an improvement and for that we should be grateful. The Liberals were involved also on the official group discussing the Weatherill proposals. They were not so offended that they boycotted those talks. I am glad that they took part in those talks because no doubt they have improved the draft Standing Orders. I am sure that at some point, their reward will come in the shape of life peerages to be offered to the Leader of their Party, whoever he or she may turn out to be. Certainly, it is always a fine moment when the Liberal Democrats descend to the practical business of politics.

The noble Lord was kind enough to remind us that he thought that the Weatherill amendment was a "dog's breakfast". The amendments that we are looking at are rather more like a "dog's dinner". The noble Lord invited us to examine them on their merits and I should now like to do so.

With Amendment No. 10, the Liberal Democrats are saying yes to the Weatherill deal but with only 77 hereditary Peers and not 92. That is not an objection of principle but of quantity. Therefore, I find little merit in it.

Secondly, Amendment No. 27 provides that 15 of the 77 must be voted for by the whole House rather than by the party colleagues of hereditary Peers. The separation of the 15 and the 75 is one of the features of

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the Weatherill proposal to which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, objected most strongly. In the past, he has called it the most surprising part of the amendment. If that was his original standpoint, I do not understand why he now wants to see a divide between 15 and 60. Of course, if we reduce the number from 75 to 60, the Liberal Democrat Party will suffer most because it will be reduced to one representative Peer. I wonder who the noble Lord had in mind should be taken out.

The third most important point is that the number of hereditary Peers should reduce steadily from 77 down, presumably, to nothing--the "wither on the vine" argument. As I understand it, that is because the Liberal Democrats are opposed either to having Peers elected in the place of those who die or topping them up in the process suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill. In that regard, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has been consistent. He has been opposed to that idea and he said that,

    "it means a self-perpetuating block of representative Peers with the right to constant replenishment".--[Official Report, 29/3/99; col. 24.] That is exactly what the Weatherill amendment proposes. If the noble Lord is against that, then he should have voted against the amendment when it was proposed two weeks ago, rather than sitting on his hands.

My noble friend Lord Cranborne argued, as he has done consistently, on the merits of the Weatherill amendment for two specific reasons: first, it prevents a wholly nominated House; and secondly, if we want a genuine reform, what better way is there of ensuring that than by retaining in the House a wedge of those people whom the Government regard, cordially, as being detestable, unacceptable, undemocratic, unmodern and unrepresentative? I should have thought that the incentive argument would run very well for Members of the Government.

I know that certain aspects of the amendment are not popular with some Members of the Committee, including many of my noble friends sitting behind me, but, almost certainly, it is the only way forward; it is the only amendment on which we can get agreement. I agree with my noble friend Lord Selsdon, of course, that it would be better--not only for the Government but for us as a Parliament--to wait for the commission of my noble friend Lord Wakeham to report. We could then move forward by consensus, after public debate, to a proper reform of the House. This is a deeply divisive measure which creates a great deal of unhappiness.

Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Lucas that there may well be amendments moved today which will improve the Bill. I have tabled one; there may be others. If the Government wish to enhance and improve aspects of the Weatherill clause, I am sure that we will be able to reach agreement. I would prefer to retain more than 92 hereditary Peers--100 would be better--but I am conscious that the Government have set their face against that. Therefore, I shall not only not support these amendments but many others also.

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For that reason and many others, I shall not support the amendments brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. If he puts them to a Division I shall vote against them.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: I wish to say only a few words. Perhaps I may begin by asking the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to help the Committee. Let us assume that one of the 15 Deputy Chairmen is elected; within a week of being elected he decides that he does not want to be a Deputy Chairman and prefers to sit on the Opposition Front Bench. What happens then? Does he remain a Member of the House? Would the Government be content for such a situation to arise? Or does he leave the House? So far as concerns that latter consideration, I assume that he does not leave the House.

We are being invited to agree to the election of 15 people who, after being elected as Deputy Chairmen, can then do precisely what they want. That seems to me an entirely unacceptable proposition. Like the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I far preferred Clause 1 and I do not like Clause 2. Enabling Members to be elected as Deputy Chairmen with the right, as I understand it, to remain and to become active partisans on the Floor of the House is, in my view, an absurdity--and we should recognise it as such.

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