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Lord Richard: My Lords, the noble Lord who moved the amendment said that on the last occasion it was raised I was somewhat strong in my objection. I was strong in my objection then, and I remain strong in my objection today. If it helps the noble Lord, I will coo as gently as a sucking dove in what I have to say, but that will not alter the substance of my view.
I find it a little ironic that the only time this issue arises is when the Conservative Party is in danger of losing its majority in this House. The implication is clear: it is that the constitution is safe in Conservative hands but unsafe in the hands of anyone else. I reject that view. It is neither accurate nor fair. I think that this side of the House and the Labour Party are just as capable of upholding the British constitution and the principles in which we all believe. Indeed, I believe in them, as, I am sure, do my noble friends, just as deeply as the noble Lord who moved the amendment. With great respect, it cannot be right to say that what has been sauce for the Conservative goose in this House because of its majority cannot be sauce for the Labour gander if, at some stage in the future, we get a majority in this House. I am sure that the noble Lord also knows that we are not even proposing that we should have a majority in this House; indeed, we are proposing rough parity with the Opposition.
I am afraid that I find the suggestion implicit in the amendment just as offensive today as I did on the last occasion the matter was discussed. It assumes--does it not?--two things in essence. The first is that a Labour Prime Minister will try to do this--not a Conservative Prime Minister because, by definition, Conservative Prime Ministers do not do that sort of thing--and I reject that. Secondly, it assumes that a Labour majority in this House would go along with it. I reject that just as strongly as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, rejects the proposition that the hereditary peerage on that side of the House would have gone along with a Conservative Prime Minister's suggestion to extend the life of a Parliament.
There is no suggestion anywhere that we should interfere with the power that this House has in relation to the Septennial Act. It is right that that should remain precisely as it is. But a suggestion--and that is what this is about--that somehow that side of the House can be trusted and this side cannot--
Lord Richard: Noble Lords can shout as much as they like. The fact is that when you actually analyse the essence of the suggestion that is being made by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that is what it comes down to. I reject it; indeed, I hope that the House will reject the amendment.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I agreed with a number of the preliminary points that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, made, but I wholly disagreed with his conclusions. He has sought to turn the issue into a Labour versus Conservative argument and an hereditary Peer versus life Peer argument. It is neither. The principle behind the amendment is that the existing House, and the House as it evolves, can be trusted to act as a safeguard to prevent a very specific set of circumstances arriving; namely, a government seeking to prolong the life of a Parliament without a very good reason for so doing.
What we are saying is quite simple. We are saying that an unscrupulous administration some time in the future--be it Labour, Conservative or even (who knows?) Liberal Democrat--would have the ability to pack this House with its supporters, with people who have given a pre-arranged commitment to support the government in their intentions whatever they may be, including the prolonging of the life of a Parliament. That is wholly different from what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, suggested, which is that Conservatives or hereditary Peers are better at judging these major constitutional issues than life Peers or indeed Labour Members of this House.
With the Bill that the Government are seeking to pass through your Lordships' House we are being asked to sign a blank cheque. We are being asked to pass a temporary measure, and ill-thought out measure, which the Government recognise will need urgent amendment at some time in the future. All we have is a commitment from the Government that they will bring forward further reform of an unspecified nature and at an
This is an incredibly important issue. The ultimate safeguard against serious abuse of the constitution is the fact that the executive must face re-election every five years unless there is an extraordinarily pressing national interest. This provision is there. The very fact of the numbers of the House as it stands at present means that it is difficult to pack this place. It is simple mathematics. Many times more Peers would have to be introduced in order to achieve the aims of an unscrupulous administration. With the removal of the vast majority of the hereditary peerage, that would substantially change. It would become much easier for that to happen.
I return to our central point. We cannot envisage any immediate circumstances in which this situation could arise. We do not know what is around the corner but we have to produce robust legislation. On these vital constitutional issues we have to produce legislation that will serve this country well in the long term. We do not pretend that this amendment will turn a bad Bill into a good one. All we are saying is that it would provide a strong safeguard on the face of the Bill against the terrible circumstances that we have discussed occurring in the future. The Government should recognise--they would be wise to do so--that there is strong feeling that a safeguard is required to prevent serious abuse of the constitution in the future. I believe that this amendment would achieve exactly that. I hope that the Government will accept it. If they do not, I hope that my noble friend will press the amendment.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, I shall speak briefly. I have no wish to oblige those noble Lords who are "packing" the House to stay too long. I am pleased to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen. As he will know, I have followed his name in another context. Unlike my noble friend Lord Richard, I do not just find this amendment offensive. Frankly, I find it rather insulting. It is insulting to all life Peers.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, the amendment is insulting to life Peers. For 18 years and more there was a majority in this House of Conservative hereditary Peers. No one on that side of your Lordships' House thought for one moment that they should introduce legislation to prevent life Peers undertaking this action when assurances have been given that the life of a Parliament will not be extended beyond five years. They will not say that they do not trust any future Labour Prime Minister on this
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that he found the measure offensive. Unfortunately, that message was repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. I think that they have this matter totally wrong. The amendment, spoken to so well by my noble friends Lord Mancroft and Lord Goschen, states the case simply; namely, that if there is a move to extend the life of a Parliament beyond five years--we all agree that that is highly unlikely--those who have been created life Peers since the previous general election cannot vote until there has been another general election. That applies to Conservatives, socialists and Liberal Democrats. I do not believe that that is in any sense an attempt either to demean life Peers--of which I am one--or to criticise socialist life Peers. It is an attempt to build an additional constitutional safeguard into the most important aspect of our life altogether in parliamentary terms; namely, how long can a government last?
In moving the amendment my noble friend Lord Mancroft said quite rightly that I had moved an amendment at Committee stage to discount Clause 1 of the Bill in the event of an attempt being made by a government in the House of Commons to prolong their own life. As was pointed out by several noble Lords during that debate--and as one of them rather unkindly put it--it was not possible to dust off a lot of hereditaries, bring them out of the cupboard and put them back in this Chamber again. That is a sentiment with which, sadly, I agree. But it was clear in that debate that there was a general feeling that some additional safeguard was needed for the particular circumstances of a government extending, or attempting to prolong, their life.
I hope that I may attempt to divert your Lordships for a moment. I refer to the idea that "packing" a particular party will never happen and therefore there is no necessity for the amendment. I quote from a cutting which is headed,
"These are the Master's notes given to Nicholson in the Chief Whip's Room, House of Commons, on the evening of July 11th 1911 to bluff the Tories". That is why the Liberals had to do it. It is worth remembering the history. There had been an election in January 1910 in which the Liberals maintained their majority over the Unionists of two. The question of the Parliament Bill, as it then was, was at the top of the agenda. The Liberals went back to the country again in December 1910 to get the country's support for passing the Bill that gravely reduced the powers of this House. It was only then, following a second general election in December 1910, that the threat of creating more Peers to get the Parliament Bill--with its great reduction in the powers of this House--through Parliament became a reality and they got the support of the newly crowned George V for it.
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