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The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, it is now almost impossible to confer on anyone that which was conferred on me: to be one of those Peers who was elected to remain in this House. It is a particular honour, as I believe that members of my family have been in one or both Houses since the 14th century. When I finally go, that will be the last of the Onslows. There may be great roaring cheers, but it will be a matter of regret to myself in view of the enormous honour bestowed on me.
Since the 1999 Act, this House has become much stroppier. The point of Parliament is to be stroppy; it is to hold the government to account; it is to stop the government getting all their business through. The myth that governments must always get their business is surely wrong. I am not suggesting to your Lordships
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that we go back to the situation in which it was possible for Pitt to lose a Bill to reform the House of Commons or to abolish the slave trade, which were major planks of government policy, but I do not see why every single Bill should get through Parliament just because it has been churned out of a government machine.
Considering the fact that we are now responsible for approximately only 40 per cent of our own law, a percentage which is diminishing all the timethe rest is handled in Brusselsand considering the amount of legislation that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has said that we pass, it is a horrendous amount.
When the Constitutional Reform Bill came to this House, it was sloppily thought out and back-of-an envelope stuff; it was appallingly bad. The announcement was made on the television and against the Government's will and against the silver-tongued eloquence of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellorthank goodness he will continue to be the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancelloryour Lordships voted to send the Bill to a Select Committee. What happened? Parliament worked. The Government had to come to a packed House and argue their points one by one. I had no idea which way the Divisions would go. That is what Parliament should do.
I believe that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has gone seriously wrong because it has produced an apparatchik idea of what your Lordships should do. It makes the Government's job easier. My job is to make the Government's job more difficult. That applies to my noble friends if, peradventure, they should get back into power on 5 May, or whenever. I regard it as an honour to make the government of whatever party is in power squirm.
The other day I happened to say to a Chief Whip in another place that if, by any chance, there were to be a change of government the next time round, the House of Lords would be extraordinarily difficult to a Conservative government. I said, "I relish the prospect", to which he replied, "I don't think you need worry about that because I'm going to send lots of loyal people who will do as they're told, like Archie Hamilton, to the House", which made me laugh and filled me with a certain amount of dread.
I still do not want any House to be a servant of the government. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said what I believe is essential about the composition: the majority of Members must be elected. We will then have legitimacy and authority and then we can make the government's life more difficult. If we make it more difficult, the Commons will tend to follow suit, because it will not want to be picked up by the Lords. That is how Parliament should work. That is what our forbears in 1688 wanted the Magna Carta to do. At the moment in the words of the Dunning resolution of 1780slightly paraphrasedthe influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. At the moment, the influence of the executive has increased, is increasing and must be diminished.
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Lord McNally: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, on introducing this debate with his usual fluidity and reasonableness. As a result he has provoked a debate of high-quality speeches and a certain high-mindedness, which fills me with a certain trepidation because I fear that I shall lower the tone a little by trying to put some of these proposals in a political context as far as the next steps are concerned.
My approach is greatly influenced by having taken part as a member of the joint Labour Party/Liberal Democrat study group on constitutional reform prior to the 1997 general election. That committee was known as the Cook/Maclennan committee after its distinguished co-chairmen.
It is interesting that so much of Cook/Maclennan has been enacted and that is a tribute to the thoroughness of the preparatory work done by that committee and the cross-party nature of its deliberations.
Indeed, it was only when the Labour Party acquired the hubris of office and started to go it alone that the momentum of constitutional change faltered. So let me say at once that we on these Benches believe that the kind of constitutional reform which sticks is best carried forward on the basis of consultation and cross-party consensus.
We were able to do that in 1996 because at that time we and the Labour Party believed that both Parliament and government were in need of radical modernisation and reform. We saw the need to strengthen the powers of Parliament against an over-mighty executive. We saw the need to curb the powers of patronage with its corrupting influence on our political life.
That, in some ways, makes this evening's debate so sad. Faced with the real challenge to our democracy referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, among others, the Labour Party responds with a paper which, while containing many interesting ideas, has an underlying theme which curbs and restricts the powers of this House. Its claim to do that is based on the wholly bogus idea that the House has abused its powers in recent years. The reality is that the Government have continued to get their business.
The Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, with her usual courtesy, came and told me personally why government business prevented her being here tonight. However, in an interview in the Daily Telegraph printed on Monday, she gave us a taster of what she would have said. The headline tells it all:
Thus, after two terms of Labour government with landslide majorities, a 100 year-old commitment to democratic reform is laid to rest, just at the moment
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when the Conservative Party, hitherto one of the chief barriers to democratic reform, espouses the idea. It is a rum old world.
Suddenly, the idea that this paper is a spontaneous outpouring of Labour Back-Bench initiative takes on a more sinister hue. For, as the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has pointed out, if what is on offer is that radical and democratic reform is to be replaced by a prudent pruning of the Lords' powers in favour of government convenience, then I think we have a difficulty on our hands.
Let me make the position of these Benches crystal clear. If the merry wheeze on which we are embarked is that the Labour Party will use the ideas in this paper to justify lines in its manifesto curbing the powers of the House of Lords, then, if re-elected, it starts citing the Salisbury convention to force those changes through the next Parliament, I have to say to the Government that such a strategy will be fought every inch of the way by these Benches.
As the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, has pointed out, we face the prospect that so distorted has our electoral system become that the next government could have a three-figure majority in the House of Commons on the basis of receiving less than 20 per cent of those entitled to vote. What the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said about using the Salisbury convention then becomes, frankly, disturbing. The Salisbury convention was designed to protect the non-Conservative government from being blocked by a built-in hereditary-based majority in the Lords. It was not designed to provide more power for what the late Lord Hailsham rightly warned was an elective dictatorship in another place against legitimate check and balance by this second Chamber.
Unless changes in the powers of the Lords are accompanied by real reform to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of both Houses, along with a strengthening of the powers of both Houses to call the executive to account, the Lords will be right to resist any piecemeal and arbitrary attempts to limit its powers.
The paper calls for streamlining, better focus and codification of conventions. In doing so, it shows a disregard for the realities of parliamentary life. What it offers is a Chief Whip's charter for a quieter life. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that a living parliament should not be an easy place for Ministers or governing parties. The strictures that,
were endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. I therefore found his speech a little disappointing because, frankly, I have always thought
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of him as one of the great parliamentarians of his generation, and this is not a charter for parliamentarians.
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