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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that I had been summoned in by the Whips. I was not. It would have been helpful to have been informed before he attempted his device.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, that is exactly my point. It would have been helpful if the announcement had not been sprung on us by television. What is sauce for the goose is, I am afraid, sauce for the gander.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I suppose that that is on the well known constitutional and moral basis that two wrongs do not make a right. At all events, I forgive the noble Earl his unusual discourtesy and shall attend to the facts. I offer a word of advice, if I may: do not believe everything that one hears on the television. I cannot remember how many people have told me today that I was either resigning or had already resigned. As Lord Denning famously said, I have all the virtues apart from those of resignation.
The noble Baroness is quite right: this is not the occasion to discuss something of such importance to all of us. In my experience here, no one side and no one individual has a monopoly of regard for the House. However, I would like to read out the words that were distributed. They have not been properly commented on or properly disseminated. The title is:
Lord Denham: My Lords, I am not quite sure from what the noble and learned Lord said whether there will be discussions between the usual channels as to whether the abolition of the Lord Chancellorship should take place, or only as to what should be put in its place.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am dealing with the question of the speakership of the House of Lords. I repeat that I have been requiredwillingly soby the Prime Minister to consult all other parties in the House as a whole on changes to Standing Orders. Some would sayI could not possibly commentthat for a legislative chamber of what we all believe, I as much as any noble Lord, to be of importance to have no voice in choosing its own "speaker" is very curious. I am not sure that I know of any other Chamber in the world that does not choose its own speaker.
It seems to me that most noble Lordsindeed, all of us herewant to make this House stronger, more effective and more efficient. This is an opportunity for us to do so. However, I shall read the words again. Obviously, I speak so softly that those words have not been understood:
The specific point about the speakership of this Chamber is dealt with in the paragraph to which I referred. There is nothing new about constitutional change. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, brought about a good deal of it.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I have one small point to make. I do not necessarily disagree with some of the proposals contained in the document that I have only had a change to glance at. However, as my noble friend Lord Onslow said, it is regrettable that we were informed of government thinking in this matter by means of comment on television programmes and a press release that suddenly appeared on the desks of some noble Lords.
There may be some important sense in the proposals contained in the document. I should like to reflect on those and think about them. I have long been in favour of the idea of having a separate supreme court to your Lordships' House, but I hope that the Government will reflect on how irked and irritated many noble Lords feel to learn of the Government's thinking in these matters in the way that I described.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I agree with the underlying theme of the remarks just made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. As he said, this is not the occasion to have a debate without having first reflected on these matters. If I understand the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, correctly, and he wished merely to register his point, I believe that he has done so. The sense that I have is that your Lordships would welcome a fully informed and reasoned discussionindeed, I would hope a fully informed and reasonable discussionwhen all those who have an interest can contribute.
I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was, as always, courteous enough to tell me this morning that he had a prior engagement. It is not a trivial one. He could hardly discharge it without discourtesy. The noble Earl has made his point: it has been heard and doubtless it will be reflected on. It is time to draw the line.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I believe that my noble friend has done more than make his point. He has done the House a service in drawing out of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House the description of what it is that the Government have in mind and how they propose to take it further. However, it would have been better if that explanation had not been dragged out of the noble and learned Lord by the initiative of my noble friend. It would have been preferable if the House had been given this information more directly.
I believe that I am right in saying that the noble and learned Lord was reading from a press release from No. 10 Downing Street. Therefore, it would be extremely helpful if, at the very least, copies of that document were made available in the Printed Paper Office as soon as can conveniently be arranged to enable noble Lords to study not only the words read out by the noble and learned Lord but also the surrounding proposals.
We are discussing a very profound change, not only to the constitution but also to the management arrangements of this House, which it is proposed to alter in the future. I believe that I am right in saying that the Lord Chancellor is the second person in the land after Her Majesty the Queen. That is his position. Simply to announce on television that the position no longer exists, and not to tell this House, which will be so deeply affected by this decision in the future, was a discourtesy of a kind for which the noble and learned Lord is not normally responsible. As he himself claimed, he does indeed consult on many matters, and it is very important that on this matter there should be careful consultation. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for at least saying that that will be so. He explained that he has taken his instructions from the Prime Minister. I accept that. But it is a matter which deeply concerns the House as a whole, and the House has not been courteously treated this afternoon.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is in error. The second most important person in the land is WilliamsRowan Williams, of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Of course a copy of the documents will be made available. But it is idle to attempt to have a debate on matters of importance when very few noble Lords are present. I respectfully suggest again that we ought to draw a line under this. I have taken note of what has been said and shall give it all appropriate attention.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene. We were in the middle of a debate on the Water Bill. Two matters distress me enormously. The first is that this has happened in the way that it has. Whatever the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House has said, I hope that he does feel that it was perhaps an unwise way to treat this House. Secondly, his colleagues on the Benches behind him were very flippant. That is an attitude that is regrettable. To laugh at the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, as they didone or two are shaking their heads, but some Members on the Benches opposite didwhen she plainly explained that she was a comparative newcomer to the House and was seeking guidance, was a disgrace. I wish to record my regret on that point.
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