Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Lucas: My Lords, of course I shall withdraw the amendment. I accept defeat, but sadly. It will be of great interest to hear details of the appointments commission once the Government tell us. They have been quite secretive about the details. I look forward to that; and it may calm many of the fears and concerns I have about how the Government's promises will be enacted.

I do not share the concerns of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House about preambles to Acts. The year 1911 is not that long ago as regards this House and a Government who prefer in place of the 1911 precedent a procedure which goes back to the Divine Right of Kings. But perhaps that suits this Prime Minister better. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 28 not moved.]

In the Title:

[Amendment No. 29 not moved.]

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass. It is now over a year since this House began to consider the Government's manifesto pledge to legislate to end the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in Parliament. Taking account of all the debates in your Lordships' House, including the Bill, the White Paper, the debate on the Report of the Procedure Committee and the debate on the reference to the Committee for Privileges, we have spent some 19 days--I do not need to remind your Lordships that some of them have been exceedingly long days--considering this question. I do not think

26 Oct 1999 : Column 277

that anyone can fairly claim that the relevant issues have not been fully aired, duly explored, and duly responded to.

It is customary at this stage of the Bill to go back to first principles and, although it is already late, I should like to do so tonight because the basic principles of this Bill are clear and simple, and can be simply put.

The Bill is a central part of the Government's programme to modernise the British constitution. It is the start of a process to reform the second Chamber of Parliament to make it fit to serve the whole country in the 21st century. We believe that a necessary first step is to remove the profoundly undemocratic element that the hereditary Peers represent. We believe that it is a change long overdue.

Perhaps I may repeat--my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General said it recently--that although we believe that the change is overdue, I and no one on the Government Front Benches belittles the contribution of individual hereditary Peers to this House. Many of them have been most distinguished and assiduous in their duties. I should like to pay special tribute to the hereditary Peers who sit on these Benches. We have all been continuously impressed by the dignified and constructive way in which they have taken part in the proceedings on the Bill. If they are unsuccessful in the elections next week they, and indeed other hereditary Peers in other parts of the House, will be missed. However, as I said in my very first speech on reform last October, the time has come to wish them well and to say thank you and goodbye.

The Labour Party's manifesto commitment to initial stand-alone change for the House of Lords was precise and explicit in the run-up to the election in May 1997; so precise and explicit that the Bill before us today, even as it has been amended, is only a little longer than the original proposal on which the Government were overwhelmingly elected. Of course it is because the Bill was exactly previewed in the election manifesto that on its passage through this House the Salisbury Convention has been properly adhered to. I must put on record my gratitude to the Opposition Front Bench and Liberal Democrat spokesmen for reinforcing their acceptance of the Salisbury Convention at every relevant point in our proceedings.

The Bill which we must now pass is not, of course, the same Bill as that which came to us from another place last March. The Government readily accept some of the changes. The Government agreed to the inclusion of Clause 2 as a way of easing the passage of both the Government's programme and the hereditary Peers.

I once again pay tribute to the work of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, who have so effectively prepared the way for the new Clause 2. The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and his Cross-Bench colleagues deserve great credit for proposing and carrying through the amendment which has now become Clause 2.

26 Oct 1999 : Column 278

So far, everyone in this House has stuck to the spirit and the letter of the undertakings which lay behind this important change to the Bill. Today, for example, the Government have introduced amendments, to which your Lordships have now agreed, to make Clause 2 yet more acceptable to the excepted Peers. I anticipate that these arrangements will hold in your Lordships' House. However, the amended Bill must now, of course, be considered in another place. I cannot prejudge how my right honourable and honourable friends will respond to it in its different form. That is a matter for them.

The Government regret the insertion of Clauses 3 and 5. We believe that Clause 3 is unnecessary in the context of the transitional House. It is internally inconsistent. It raises difficult questions about the relationship between the Crown and Parliament which have not been resolved. It is our view that Clause 5 is a rather insulting provision. The debate which led to its inclusion demonstrated an attitude to life Peers which we on these Benches found offensive. I suspect that my honourable friends in another place will take the same view. However, that again is a matter for them.

For the present, your Lordships' duty is to give them an opportunity to take a view on all these matters. It is not constitutionally right for this House to deny the elected House the chance to consider whether a Bill which has been amended in this way is, in its new form, acceptable to the other place. Your Lordships make much of your constitutional right to ask the other place to think again. In order to do that, they must have the Bill before them. By every tenet of the conventions under which your Lordships operate, therefore, the Bill should pass. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

10.24 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, in 1968 this House voted by a 195 vote majority to remove the rights of hereditary Peers to vote in this House. The notorious Tory hereditary Peers voted in favour of that proposal. Of course, there was in those days a Tory majority of hereditary Peers; not so today, even though that is one lie emanating from No. 10 Downing Street that still continues today.

The hereditary Peers did not cling to the furniture in 1968, and we do not do so today. The ethos of this House is not one of self-service; it is one of public service. Therefore, on behalf of the noble Lords on all sides of this House who are hereditary Peers, and for myself, I reject utterly the imputation that we have acted through the generations out of narrow and petty self-interest, and not always in the interests of what we believed was best for our country. I would welcome later this evening some recognition by the Government of the truth of what I have just stated. It would be gracious, it would be proper and it would be just.

Ours is a tradition of courteous debate, of distaste for narrow ideology, of respect for differing views and background. It is a tradition of dignity and decency.

26 Oct 1999 : Column 279

Let us today, even at this hour, be true to that tradition. Like so many noble Lords, crowded anxiously here tonight, I honour those on all sides, people who I am proud to claim as friends, who soon will be driven from us by this Bill. A long chapter of history is being closed tonight. The tale is now told; the past is done; the glass is shattered, and it cannot be remade. The Prime Minister has taken a knife and scored a giant gash across the face of history. But the past is no longer the point. The point is the future; the future of this House and the future of our Parliament.

An obsession in parts of the media with a stereotype of what hereditary Peers never were has for too long diverted attention from what is the original aim of the Bill; the biggest accretion of power to the Executive in this country that we have seen for many years--possibly ever. That is the real issue. It is not 75 words on an election address with which the media have regaled themselves, but a blank page; the blank page of the Government's plans for the future. That is the real issue for the country. These are the first principles; the modernisation to which the noble Baroness the Leader of the House clings.

As the old book closes, a new and urgent question arises. What kind of House do the Government want? Do they care? Have they anything else to tell us about that tonight? Are we to have a stronger, more independent Parliament? Do we slide further down the road for partisan presidentialism? Perhaps it is only by our passing that the nation will awake to that question. If so, even this dismal Bill will have served a kind of paradoxical purpose.

I believe that your Lordships know my view of the Bill. We have discussed it at length and I and my noble friends have debated it extensively among ourselves. But it is not the least or last tribute to this House that it leaves it a bad Bill still, but a better Bill by far than when it arrived. We had a Bill sent to us that would have imposed a quango House of patronage; patronage remaining in the hands of the Prime Minister. There were no plans for a Royal Commission and there were no safeguards for the future. Now there are. And here I pay tribute to the statesmanlike endeavour, as did the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, of my noble friend Lord Cranborne and of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill.

Now we have the certainty of the survival of some independent hereditary Peers until stage two arrives--whenever that may be. We have the grit in the oyster to push this Government on to a long-term reform that I do not believe they truly want. In the meantime, we have avoided the nightmare of a quango House that the Government originally desired. What is more, today we have secured another notable concession. The Government have agreed that the hereditary peerage will continue through by-elections until the overall reform arrives--whenever that may be.

Who would have thought that we could have achieved all this when the Bill was published in another place and the Government laughed scornfully at the hereditary peerage? But we have still more. We have a

26 Oct 1999 : Column 280

defence in the Bill against Parliament extending its own life. We have a statutory framework for an independent appointments commission to supervise patronage; one to which every future Prime Minister will have to pay heed.

If the Government punches out those constitutional safeguards when the Bill returns to another place, as I was truly astonished to hear today that they might, the whole country will hear the sound of vandals breaking glass. They will rightly wonder what is afoot and why.

In all of this we have made progress--limited progress--progress from a bad base, but progress none the less. As a result, there are two alternatives left to us. After the hours of debate, the 19 days that we have discussed the Bill, there are only two alternatives left. The first is this Bill--to some degree the House's Bill--improved as it has been in this place. The other is the Government's preferred Bill; the quango Bill; the Bill the Government would impose if we gave them the pretext under the Parliament Act. That is the choice and this is the moment to make it.

I have thought long and hard about the right course to take. To me that course is clear. I ask my noble friends to acquiesce in this Bill. We will take the Government at their word; we will hand on the task to a new interim House with a promise from the Government that that House will soon be superseded. In that way, no one will be able to say of the old House that it clung on to life in such a way as to deny the hope of something better. That lie will at last be firmly nailed.

I do not give this advice with anything other than a heavy heart. Of course, the Government could have acted better. Of course, we could, and should, have had comprehensive reform in one go. They are a self-styled radical party with a huge popular mandate. They could have given us a real and lasting reform instead of tearing down a House of Parliament and leaving behind a question mark. They could have done so, and I believe that they are mistaken in not having tried.

However, the Government have the right to do what they are doing, even if what they are doing is not right. As well as having the right, they have the power. If we reject this Bill tonight, we shall call down on our heads, and far more importantly, on the country, something far worse.

The Government have complained tonight that we do not trust them. My noble friend Lord Tebbit used precisely those words earlier this evening. He may well be right, but I believe that we should put that trust to the test. If the Government betray that trust, I shall not be the one to call them to account; the country as a whole will do so. Noble Lords opposite now stand on the proposition that this Bill is only the first stage of reform. The country knows that. The country will not be forgiving if, on this great issue of the future of a free and independent Parliament, it turns out that the Government did not mean what they have been saying.

For many of us, this is a profoundly sombre moment. It is perhaps the last time that so many of us will assemble in this ancient House in the way in which

26 Oct 1999 : Column 281

it has been constituted for so long. In the words of my noble friend Lord Elton in this House last week, the House has been a great resource of free wisdom, advice and service to the nation. It has been a great and honourable task, and it has been nobly done.

This chapter closes. A new one is opening and I feel confident in this: much that is best in that new chapter will come long after we are gone from what was built and left behind from the House that this Bill destroys. All that is worse will be avoided by holding to the virtues that this House and so many of those in it exemplify.

Therefore, I must invite my noble friends this evening to abstain; to let this Bill pass, repugnant though that may seem. Some have called that surrender. I reject that utterly. It is a course that keeps the continuity of this House alive, one that may yet enable us to win the long battle for a strong, authoritative and independent House of Lords. That would be a fitting legacy of what has gone before.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I should like first to join in the courtesies expressed, very rightly at this stage in the Bill, by both the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. We all owe debts to our own teams, as indeed I do to my noble friends and to Members on Benches behind me who often agreed to fall silent when they would much have preferred to intervene, and often agreed not to vote against the Government when their instincts, particularly over the Weatherill amendment, were to do precisely that.

I thank also the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and all their team for being persistent and good-humoured throughout almost all, if not all, of our long proceedings and for advocating their case with great skill. As for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I find him genial at all times. It is sometimes a little difficult for that reason to take him seriously, but if I may say so, he has led his troops extremely well and shown a wisdom on which they should all reflect.

As we come towards the end of the Bill, I remember what my noble friend Lord Goodhart said early in our proceedings. He said that we wanted the Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill. It was our view then on Second Reading, has been our view throughout the proceedings, and is still our view, that we should have preferred the Bill as published rather than with the Weatherill amendment which is now attached to it.

I noted, for example, what was said today by the noble Lords, Lord Barnett and Lord Richard. Indeed, I believe that many on that side of the House do not like the Weatherill amendment. Therefore, if noble Lords on the Conservative Benches were to revolt against the otherwise wise advice of their Leader and vote against the Bill at this stage, I should not weep too much if the Bill went away and came back in precisely the form it was first published, without the Weatherill amendment.

26 Oct 1999 : Column 282

There will be colleagues who will be missed. The view has already been expressed on other Benches that there are colleagues behind us who we shall not expect to see again. Moreover, I shall be sorry to see go colleagues in other parties. Indeed, I have a sharp stab of sentiment which would surprise some of them at the thought that I may not see them again, perhaps even in the Bishops Bar. But that is the way it is. We are not legislating for the best club in London; we are legislating for one of the Chambers of our Parliament. That must always have been the undercurrent and spirit behind the decisions which we made even though those decisions have meant that we shall be losing some of those with whom we have enjoyed our time here and who have contributed considerably to this House.

I should say in passing for those who do not know or remember that before the Weatherill amendment was introduced, on these Benches we believed strongly that there were many hereditary Peers who, in terms of their service to this House, deserve to come back. However, we should have preferred to see them come back as life Peers rather than that they should continue the hereditary principle--for that is precisely what it is--in the second Chamber of our Parliament.

I make just two further comments. For how long will this new House last? I should be extremely surprised indeed if we do not last for at least five years. I have wagered that we shall not last for less than 10. It is extremely doubtful whether the Royal Commission will produce any proposals which will command support in all-party talks. There will certainly be no agreement in this Parliament. The time will come when we settle down again with old friends and with friendships renewed and feel that perhaps, after all, the interim House might be a semi-permanent House.

I should greatly regret that because I believe that the reforms should go further. Having said that, on these Benches we accept fully that had it not been for a decision which the Government made that the reform of this Chamber would take place in two stages, it would not have taken place at all. To that extent, we believe that the right decision was made and we rejoice in the fact that this Bill is passing through this House.

We do not do so with a song in our hearts. It is not that, not with this Bill. But we do so at least in the belief that we can take some satisfaction from one step, and quite a large step, in the reform which we have all long wished to see.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page