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Lord Weatherill: My Lords, tributes have rightly been paid to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for the part which he played in negotiating this compromise. I repeat those tributes this evening. We are all extremely grateful to him.
When we started these negotiations almost a year ago I was asked how many Cross-Bench Peers I could deliver. I had to say that there were three; that is, my noble friends Lord Carnarvon and Lord Marsh, and myself. That is because, as your Lordships know, we have no Whip for the Cross Benches and we really speak for ourselves.
The House knows that the amendment which I moved with the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, on 11th May was overwhelmingly supported by this House. It was, of course, a compromise. As the House well knows, it was designed to overcome the fact that this House could not act effectively or efficiently if all the hereditary Peers were to disappear at once.
I share the views of many that it would have been better to have had the Royal Commission first and thereafter to have dealt with the composition of your Lordships' House. Indeed, in 1992, when I first entered this House I went to see the then leader, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and asked him if it would not be wise for him to set up all-party talks then in order to ensure that a compromise could be reached through the usual channels and with all-party consent. I agree with the comments made earlier today by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that that is an opportunity, over 20 years, that has sadly passed.
However, we are where we are. The Government have a right to bring forward the Bill. It was in their manifesto and has been in Labour Party manifestos since the early part of this century. To their credit, the Government have accepted a number of amendments, notably that which we moved on 11th May and that on the by-election procedure.
To their credit, the Government have regularly repeated the manifesto commitment; namely, that no political party should seek a majority in the House. Despite what was said today by the Leader of the House about Clause 3, I hope that they will set up an independent appointments commission to ensure a strong independent element in this House in the days to come. To their credit, the Government have kept to all the agreements which we negotiated in the autumn of last year and throughout this year. This is obviously not an ideal solution, but it is a fair compromise. I hope that tonight it will be accepted by your Lordships' House.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, we are all aware that this has become an extremely unhappy place in the past few months. I hope that, if and when the Bill finally becomes law, all of us, if we are lucky enough to remain, will do our best on all sides to reconstruct the atmosphere which made the old House work so well. That atmosphere has, I fear, inevitably been undermined or even destroyed as a result of the dramatic change we have been discussing for so many months.
In expressing that wish, I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench. Sparing my noble friend Lord Strathclyde his blushes is something I endeavour to do all the time. I hope he will forgive me if I make an exception this evening. I pay tribute to his perspicacity, balance and the remarkable
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I owe it to him to put on record my sense of gratitude and admiration to him and his team. This is not a moment for long speeches. From now on I shall be extremely brief.
Perhaps I may turn to my own side. The question before us is a simple one. Much as we may dislike the Bill and the way the Government have attacked it, we have to decide whether we think it is more glorious to destroy the Bill as it is now and to have it back in its original form in a way we could do little to prevent, or whether to accept a less bad Bill and hope that we will have at least produced an incentive for the Government to go on eventually to a better and more thoroughgoing reform at stage two. It seems to me that that is the choice before all of us this evening who dislike this legislation. If, like me, noble Lords feel that the least bad option is the second, then we have no option but to support my noble friend Lord Strathclyde in the recommendation he has made to us this evening.
Lord Elton: My Lords, tributes have been paid across the Table. I would not like the night to pass without paying tribute to those who actually brought us to where we are. I speak as one of the most recently joined members of the hereditary peerage, but 700 years ago it was the barons who actually brought about the fact that we have a Parliament at all. Your Lordships should spare a moment to recall that the order which is now to be almost totally banished from this House has secured democracy by, first, bringing the Executive under control in the 13th century and, secondly, then co-operating in its transfer into Parliament when we had a king who could speak only German and had to have a Prime Minister. It has served this country well.
I would like to pay tribute not to my own forebears, but to those noble Lords of far more ancient lineage than I am, some of whose ancestors took part in bringing Parliament into being. It is a sad moment but also, I believe, a hopeful one that we now look to a future in which some of that order will be able to contribute to the institution which will replace the one we have now.
If I may be so bold as to call it my order, the hereditary peerage has played a very great part in securing the future of democracy in this country. Those of us who now have to leave entrust that burden with confidence and hope to those who remain.
In essence, the only major change in the Bill is the celebrated Weatherill amendment, now incorporated as Clause 2. The question we have to ask ourselves now is whether that clause sufficiently improves the Bill to justify our voting for it tonight. Listening to the lengthy debates that we have had and in conversations outside the Chamber, I believe that most hereditary Peers accept that the automatic birthright to a seat in this Chamber is no longer justifiable in the modern world.
However, I do not believe I am alone in believing very strongly that that is quite different to saying that all connections between the hereditary peerage and this House should be broken. Abolishing the automatic right of all hereditary Peers fulfils the much-quoted Labour Party election manifesto commitment. Preserving some representation of the hereditary peerage in a reformed Chamber does not conflict with that commitment.
On the positive side, it has the advantages of retaining a link with the long and distinguished history of this House that other noble Lords have referred to this evening and of retaining in this House some of the people who have made a huge contribution to the House, in some cases over many years. It maintains a degree of continuity and tradition which has been an important characteristic of constitutional change throughout our history. Last but not least, it maintains a historic link with our much-valued hereditary monarchy.
Clause 2 of the Bill provides for a reasonable and effective representation of the hereditary peerage in the transitional House. It ensures, importantly--as noted earlier today by the noble Lord, Lord Elton--that there will be a strong voice of the hereditary peerage in the deliberations of the transitional House on all subjects, but in particular on the forthcoming recommendations of the Royal Commission and the consequent proposals for stage two. And it is always possible--dare I say even likely?--that the transitional House may last for a considerable time.
But tonight we have to decide whether Clause 2 represents a genuine change of heart on the part of the Government, which they would be willing to see perpetuated in some like form in a stage two reformed House, or whether it is merely a political deal and a smokescreen designed to appease us hereditary Peers and to persuade us to accept the Bill only to be cast aside in the stage two proposals next year.
I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to give us some assurance on that point before we vote tonight. I realise that she will not be able to prejudge the recommendations of the Royal Commission. I realise also that, should the Royal Commission propose and Parliament accept the radical option of a 100 per cent elected second Chamber (a most unlikely outcome in my opinion), participation of both hereditary and life Peers would cease. But on the assumption that at least a proportion of the stage two reformed House will be appointees, can the noble Baroness give us the assurance tonight that, in those circumstances, the Government would support or at least not oppose some continued representation of the hereditary peerage along the lines proposed for the transitional House in Clause 2 of the Bill before us? If the noble Baroness is able to give us such an assurance, I shall be happy to vote for the Bill tonight. But if there is no such assurance from the Government on this point, I shall be inclined to believe that we are being hoodwinked and be much tempted to revert to my former opinion and to vote against the Bill.
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