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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, always makes an entertaining speech, and he is usually right. But with the greatest respect, this time he is wrong. My noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil, who also makes entertaining speeches, is also wrong. I happen to believe that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway is right.
I do not like referenda, for all the obvious reasons that have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. People have said to me that we elect people to the House of Commons in order to take decisions, and the first thing that they do is to turn round and ask the electorate what they ought to do about a particular matter. As one person who made that comment said, what on earth do we pay those people for other than to take decisions?
We have become hooked into these wretched referenda. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, referred to a number of different referenda--on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and possibly the euro. Presumably the total alteration of one of the Chambers of Parliament is at least as important a subject for a referendum as the others.
I hesitate to disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, but to say that the Government have displayed such huge loyalty over the Weatherill amendment that, therefore, there should not be a referendum is not a matter of any moment. Of course the Government have shown loyalty over the Weatherill amendment. They instigated the arrangements that brought that about.
We have been told all along that this was in the manifesto. But what is being done now was not in the manifesto. The manifesto referred to the abolition of all hereditary Peers. There is now to be retention of 92 or 100 hereditary Peers. That is a very different matter. Much as I hate wretched referenda, as do many others, this question ought to be put to the people of this country. They should be asked: "Do you want one of the Chambers of Parliament altered like this, as a temporary measure?".
I always long to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I almost always disagree with what he says, and never more so than today. He says that no political party wants hereditary Peers; no one believes that hereditary Peers have any part to play in the political life of this country at all and that is out. He is plainly wrong. There is a just a hint of what outside this Chamber would be termed arrogance. It is the flavour that one would normally attribute to the noble Lord. The inference is that life Peers are tremendous and everyone wants them and does not want hereditary Peers. That is not my experience at all. Many people have said, "For goodness' sake why are the Government messing up the House of Lords? We want it kept as it is because we approve of the balance of hereditary and life Peers". The great idea that no one wants hereditary Peers, all they want is life Peers, is frankly a lot of nonsense.
I agree with the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that this is a constitutional change of profound proportions. So it is. Let no one think that it is anything else. It is not merely a minor twist or change. It is a total alteration. I do not believe that that is right. There is a good argument for saying: let the people of the country say whether they want it, yes or no. I hope that the House will accept the amendment.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps he will help me to understand his argument. I understood him to say that, without the additional twist of bringing in hereditaries, he would have had no objection to the will of the people as expressed at the general election. The problem as he sees it is that now the mandate which was sought and given is being varied, that variation entitles him to argue that it alone should be the subject of a referendum.
Surely the noble Earl was present in this Chamber when, months ago, arguments were put that some mechanism was needed to ensure that the Government's intention to have two stages had to be locked in by making the changes that were made. Surely the noble Earl has heard his former Leader, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and others putting the argument that was generally well received by his own side, that they have achieved an additional opportunity for a section of the House, a number of hereditaries, to remain until the second stage is achieved. So will the noble Earl help me by explaining his argument that a referendum is necessary because of the additional change, but was not necessary when the mandate was sought and received?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may reply. The noble Lord gets the whole matter completely wrong. He refers to the will of the people. It is not the will of the people to alter this House of Parliament. It is the result of a few lines in a manifesto. It is the will of the Labour Party. In a major situation such as this, whether with or without the addition of the Weatherill amendment, that change is of such profound importance that the view of the electorate should be sought.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, first "democratic catastrophe" is a novel description of a situation in which one's own vote is halved. Secondly, my noble friend Lord Ferrers was very keen that none of us who wanted a referendum on Maastricht should have our way. Thirdly, I must congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, for wearing a spiffing blue--obviously to celebrate Thursday's election results. Up until now we have managed to pass constitutional Bills by the use of Parliament. I pressed for a referendum on Maastricht because I thought that it would go the way that I wanted. There is always a tendency to favour a referendum because one believes that one can get one's own way behind the back of Parliament. I believe that to be a bad idea. It seemed to me to be totally unnecessary to have a referendum on Scots or Welsh devolution. That was part of the Labour Party's manifesto, and it should have stuck to its guns and done it through Parliament and not by referendums.
I believe that it was the Duc de Levis who said, "Gouverner, c'est choisir"--to govern is to choose. That is what governments are there for. The Government have made a choice in this Bill. They proposed one set of propositions and under considerable pressure, and, I suggest, with great grace, changed their mind and offered a major concession to those of us who thought that the first stage was not a dog's breakfast but a dog's indigestion or hangover in the middle of night--which it was. The Government have given a great deal and there is now only one point of real disagreement; namely, the issue of by-election, to which we shall come next Tuesday. We are being asked to insert into the Bill a provision for a referendum. Governments are there to govern, and if it comes to a Division I am afraid that I shall vote with the blue Lobby.
Lord Monson: My Lords, like the noble Lords, Lord Elton, Lord Goodhart and others, I have reservations about the wording of the proposed referendum. Like the noble Baroness on the Government Benches, I believe that such a question should be less legalistic and more user-friendly, but that is a detail that can easily be rectified at Third Reading. The important point is the principle. In addition to the reasons so well advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, there is another one touched on by my noble friend Lord Chalfont. The referendum campaign would provide a very necessary opportunity to correct widespread misapprehensions about this House. When a newspaper headline shrieks out "House of Lords spurns battered woman's plea"--referring to an appeal by a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for killing her violent and drunken husband--fully 50 per cent of the electorate, or perhaps more, imagine that 750 hard-hearted hereditary Peers have dismissed the woman's appeal, not a handful of Law Lords sitting in their judicial capacity.
The confusion does not end there. Within the past few weeks highly educated and intelligent people like Dr Matt Ridley on the right of centre and a lady on the left of centre who holds a senior position in Charter 88 have written articles which indicate that they genuinely believe that at the moment there exists a hereditary right
My noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale was worried that the amendment might be construed as reopening the question of Peers versus the people. With all respect to him, it would have precisely the opposite effect. The short and medium-term future of this House would be entirely in the hands of the people as expressed by the referendum. What could be fairer than that?
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, reminds us, a number of entertaining speeches on this subject have been made. Like him, I want to be as clear where I stand as he is. I believe that he and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, are wrong and that the noble Lords, Lord Marsh and Lord Peyton, are right. To call for a referendum expresses two kinds of circumstances: at best it is some kind of strategic retreat; at worst it is further clutching at straws. The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, said that this saga could be put to music. It seems to me that if so it would become a classic Gilbert and Sullivan opera. If we put the constitutional position of the House of Lords in a referendum to the British people we would become an absolute laughing stock. The people are concerned about employment, health, education, the economy, keeping their families together and living in a society that is good for them. People are not concerned about the retention of hereditary Peers in the House of Lords.
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