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The replacement of deceased retained hereditary Peers, particularly through bizarre by-elections, is an anomaly when the ending of their right to sit in the House is accepted as part of all serious proposals for the next stage of House of Lords reform. There is no mainstream view which advocates the retention of hereditary Peers in the legislature in the 21st century. My use of the word bizarre is fully justified when considering an election such as the one in which I was involved in 2003, which has already been mentioned. There were three electorsthat is, hereditary Labour Peersand 11 candidates, most of whom had no previous Labour Party connections. There were almost as many electors as candidates in five other by-electionsa strange form of democracy, to say the least, and one which makes a mockery of the proceedings of your Lordships House. It was an opportunity for ridicule not lost by several commentators in the media.
When the 1999 Act was passed, it was expected that the next stage of reform would probably take place in the next Parliament. But now we are half way through the one after that, and despite the decisive vote in the other place in favour of a totally or mainly elected House, it is extremely unlikely that our new Prime Minister will wish to use the remaining two or three years of this Parliament to engage in a full-scale battle with your Lordships House which has, as we all know, voted clearly in favour of a fully appointed House. Incidentally, the form which that House might take is well outlined in another Private Members Bill, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall and othersthat of the noble Lord, Lord Steelwhich is sitting in the wings waiting for its Second Reading on 20 July. It is in the context of the unlikely event of stage 2 coming soon that we should consider this Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.
The replacement of retained hereditary Peers on death is against the modernising spirit of House of Lords reform. It was only agreed to as a temporary expedient. As the date for the next stage of reform seems to stretch further and further into the future, is it not time for this anomalous temporary measure to be ended? To pass this Bill would be a simple way of doing it and I commend it to my noble friend Lady Ashton on the Front Bench.
Lord Northbrook: My Lords, I find it slightly surprising that the Bill is being introduced by a Peer elected under the House of Lords Act 1999, although I note that it is supported by the noble Lords, Lord Strabolgi and Lord Addington. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is usually vigilant and courageous in supporting minorities. In effect, however, he is pulling up the drawbridge on a minority of which he is one of the original members.
When the original 92 were selectedthis certainly applies to those on the Conservative Benchesthe election of the Front-Bench spokesman, my noble friend Lord De Mauley, completely invalidated that point. My noble friend was not even on the radar screen in 1999, and could not stand for election as his father was still alive. I also challenge the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the by-elections of the noble Viscounts, Lord Eccles, Lord Trenchard and Lord Ullswater, and the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, all of whom we saw and continue to see as making important contributions to the House, as have those on other Benches who have been elected.
As many speakers have already said, one of the main points of keeping the 92 hereditary Peers was to act as a catalyst for further reform of the House. I reinforce, as other speakers such as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway have done, what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said on the Floor of the House on 30 March 1999that the 10 per cent, or the 92,
Since 1999, the most significant reform vote came when the other place voted this year for a fully elected, or predominantly elected, House of Lords. I am not in favour of this personally but, in the end, if it becomes a manifesto commitment, the House must consider it accordingly. The current system will cease to operate, I believe, only when this reform goes through. Just because stage 2 may be a long way away does not change the situation.
In the mean time, piecemeal Bills such as this do nothing to help the process of reform. I firmly believe that issues of major constitutional importance should not be legislated for in Private Members Bills.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I very much welcome my noble friends proposed amendment to the House of Lords Act 1999. We have heard a great deal about the way in which the arrangement was arrived at as a result of the so-called Weatherill amendment, and I will not go through all that again. Experience has shown that at least part of the reasoning behind introducing the category of elected Peers was that the Governments real enthusiasm for reform was, as we feared, not terribly great. On the other hand, it is also difficult to feel that the continuing membership of hereditary Peers in this House now contributes much to furthering reform. Moreover, like othersthe noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, expressed this most vividlyI feel that the election system exposes this House to ridicule, and unavoidably so. As my noble friend reminded us, we are like a rotten borough, albeit a very small one. I, of course, do not have a vote in the election of these new Members to sit in my Chamber. There we go; that is only one of the oddities of the whole thing. The same is true of other life Peers.
Like all of us, I have my opinions about reform of your Lordships House. My first preference is for an all-elected second Chamber, which in theory at least could be constructed relatively easily. In practice, of course, it would be almost impossible to achieve because of the English dislike of working from theory to practice, rather than the other way around, when constructing new ways of doing things. I shall not continue to fantasise about that possibility.
My second choice would be for an all-appointed second Chamber; I am firmly opposed to any mixture. That option received the greatest amount of support when we recently voted on the matter in this House. I also firmly believe that the number of Members of this House should be fixed, as in other second Chambers. We would have a limited number of Members, say 350, each appointed for 12 or 15 years. The delightful prospect offered by my noble friends Bill is that of being able to move slowly and decorously, as is our wont, towards just such a second Chamber, or Senate as I would prefer to call it, which most of us seemed to support.
First, we stop electing substitutes for the 90 hereditary Peers who are not either the Earl Marshal or the Lord Great Chamberlain. We would then become a wholly appointed House. The Government would then bite the bullet and begin pensioning off willing victims among the life Peers, while creating a special commission for the appointment of new members of the Senate, only for 12 or 15 years and only for thosethere are many in the House at present who would easily pass this testwho are willing to attend and to contribute regularly. In perhaps 15 or 20 years, we would arrive at our goal; not a perfect goal, but a quite acceptable onea wholly appointed Senate, the membership of which changed as the years went by without requiring death or disability to play the decisive part. This approach ticks so many of the Governments own boxes that I look forward to the Minister telling us that the Government are considering my noble friends Bill.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Avebury epitomises the very best of conscience and reform in his dedicated service to Parliament and in the public interest. He is a great hereditary Peer and a fine former Member of the other House, and I salute him. We on these Benches strongly support the Bill, and we hopehope dies lastthat the new Conservative Official Opposition and the even newer new Labour Government-in-waiting will also do so.
This is a very modest Bill. It does not provide for the full-scale reform of this House, as envisaged in the Parliament Act 1911 and by new Labours 1997 election manifesto. It does not provide for this House to be wholly, mainly or partly elected by the people, even though each of the main parties now claims to favour such a reform. It does not seek summarily to remove the remaining hereditary Members from this House, even though that would at last give effect to the agreement reached between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, known as the Cook-Maclennan agreement, and to the basis on which new Labour was first elected a decade ago. Nor does the Bill go as far as the House of Lords Bill of my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, which deals with wider proposals for reform.
The Bill seeks merely to end the farcical and anomalous procedure that is put into effect when one of the remaining hereditary Members of the House dies, whereby his or her place is filled by another hereditary Peer chosen in a by-election by his or her peers, although unlike Brookss, Boodles, Whites or the Garrick, without a system of black-balling. It seeks, gradually and by natural causes, to end a pocket borough worthy of the close attention of Plantagenet Palliser. When a life Peer such as me dies, there is no afterlife in this House. His or her place is not automatically filled by a new life Peer. Indeed, there is no prescribed quota of life Peers of any particular party. The Cook-Maclennan agreement on constitutional reform, which I helped to negotiate, promised that the hereditary element would be completely removed. The agreement clearly stated:
There is an urgent need for radical reform of the Lords. Its current composition is indefensible, in particular the fact that the majority of its members are entitled to take part in the legislative process on a hereditary basis ... The two parties
I am sorry to say that the Government broke faith with their Liberal Democrat allies by making a covert deal with the then Leader of the Official Opposition in this House, the then noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, to retain some hereditary Peers so as to ease the passage of the House of Lords Bill. We were not consulted on what I have to describe as a sneaky side-deal to which we strongly objected. We explained that at the time and abstained. We on these Benches are not bound by that deal, whether as a matter of honour or otherwise.
The removal of the hereditary peers will still leave an imbalance in party representation in the Lords during the interim stage. Following their removal, we should move over the course of the next parliament to a House of Lords where those peers who take a party whip more accurately reflect the proportion of votes received by each party in the previous general election.
That was another pledge that was broken by the Government once they had secured our support for the removal of the hereditary element. We were told at the highest level that this was because we could not be relied on to support the Government in the Division Lobbies. As a result my party has remained under-represented after the removal of most of the hereditary Peers who took the Liberal Democrat Whip because, unlike the Labour Party, we had a very significant proportion of hereditary Peers. That does not augur well for the next stage in the reform of this House and for wider constitutional reform on which the Government will need cross-party support, but I hope that we shall be able to proceed on the basis of mutual trust and confidence across the parties and with the crucial support of the Cross Benches.
It is now 88 years since the Parliament Act restricted the powers of this House and promised that the House should be reconstituted on a popular, not a hereditary basis. That is nearly a decade longer than the period that separated the Parliament Act from the Great Reform Bill of 1832.
While the whole process of democratic reform of our political system which started with the Great Reform Bill was in all other respects completed with the full enfranchisement of women in 1928, only this last piece of reform, the composition and role of your Lordships' House, was left outstanding and has remained so for decades.[Official Report, 29/3/99; cols. 180-81.]
No one who has spoken in this debate so far has given any good reason, as a matter of logic, principle or common sense, for enabling the remaining hereditary element to replace itself when one of its number dies. The process of election is a process of selection by a self-perpetuating group of unelected legislators, and it is no more democratic in our modern democracy than the process used to elect a new member of a Pall Mall social club.
What I say in no way underestimates the great contribution made in this House and beyond by hereditary Peers. One has only to recall my good friend and colleague, the late lamented Lord Russell, to recognise that contribution. I echo the remarks of another late lamented good friend, Lord Harris of Greenwich, when debating the House of Lords Bill. He said:
There will be no sneers from these Benches about the contribution made by hereditary Peers. Indeed, it would be remarkable were there to be any given the fact that 24 of our colleagues are hereditary Peers. But the blunt reality is that their day has passed. It is impossible to justify a system which gives male children born in the right bed the right eventually to become members of the legislature.[Official Report, 30/3/99; col. 210.]
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, the noble Lord used my expression haste in a context in which I did not use it. I totally accept what the noble Lord says about the deal not being binding in honour on his party. All I am saying is that it is binding on the Government because they made it. As they made the deal, and as the hereditaries on all sides of the House have done such a fine job, and the deal will end in any eventit is a temporary dealthere is no haste to get rid of the benefit of the services of the hereditaries.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I understand that now and I stand corrected. I perfectly agree with the implication that the Government are bound by the deal unless and until they support legislation which removes it. Since the Government control the other place, they have the unique power to do that. Until this House is at last fully reformeda process which is likely to take several more years at bestsurely the right course is to accept that a hereditary Peers place should not be filled after his or her death. That would have the additional advantage of reducing the size of this excessively large House of Parliament as a result of natural causes.
We hope that there will be a positive response from the Conservative Front Bench and from the Minister and that the Bill will be enacted in the lifetime of this Parliament. The anomaly should not be allowed to continue until wider reforms are made.
Everyone who has spoken in this debate is in some sense self-interested. There is a temptation to speak of the public interest without acknowledging the private and personal interests involved. There is a tendency to speak to each other and to ourselves without recognising that we are here as members of a Parliament with the power and the duty not to administer a club but, as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, so pithily, wittily and authoritatively explained, to enact the laws of the land. The present position is untenable, and the longer the Government and the Official Opposition allow it to continue, the more they will undermine the legitimacy and authority of the House in the eyes of the public, or those who know about it beyond the Palace of Westminster.
I say to the noble Lords, Lord Lea of Crondall and Lord Norton of Louth, that the argument based on the doctrine of unripe time regarding the need for wider reform is not a cogent or convincing reason for retaining this absurd and unjustifiable anomaly, bearing in mind that we are not saying that we will abolish hereditary Peers today but that we will simply allow natural causes to take effect.
Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way again. The point I was makingI think the same is true of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louthhad nothing to do with unripe time. I do not think that expression was used. However, it was not the argument. The argument was that this Bill on its own cannot get through the House of Commons. So I can return the compliment, will the noble Lord support the Steel Bill?
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, it is the doctrine of the unripe time. As I understand the doctrine, in the wonderful book that propounded it, it is that we should not do today what we believe to be right because we believe that the time is not right to do it but we should wait for some other occasion when it can be done. As I understand the noble Lord, he agrees with me that it is right to phase out the hereditary element by, at the very least, natural causes as part of wider constitutional reform. That is common ground. What the other House may or may not do is hypothetical. We are surely concerned with what happens in this House, especially on an issue that intimately concerns the procedures for the composition of this House. It is impossible to speculate
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I do not follow the noble Lords argument about unripe time, as the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, was introduced on the same day as the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, this Bill and that of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, both of which I hope will be given a Second Reading, will give this House the opportunity to look at this issue either in the most modest way, which is the way of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, or in a more ambitious way. It is entirely right that that should happen. I am saying that there is no reason why the most modest reform should be opposed on the argument that wider reform is desirable and might or might not win approval in the other place. Let us first deal with this Bill, then deal with the Steel Bill, then see what this House believes on both, and finally see what the Government and the other place decide to do. That seems right.
I found the intervention by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, rather depressing. She attacked the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, suggesting that it was wrong in principle to introduce constitutional reform by means of a Private Members Bill. If that were correct, I would be very guilty indeed, because I introduced two Private Members Bills on human rights, which I think led to the Human Rights Act, and, even more presumptuously, I introduced the Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill not once but several times.
It would be a serious abridgement of the rights and duties of Members of this House if the view expressed by the noble Lady were given wider currency or support. I believe that the Great Reform Bill was originally a Private Members Bill, although eventually it was taken over by the Government. One of the great virtues of this House is that we are often a catalyst for wider reform. I would like to think that that was true of civil partnerships and I hope that it will be true of forced marriage. We in this House also have a unique possibility of initiating constitutional reforms, which it is then for the democratic Chamber to decide on.
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I wish that I could say that it gave me pleasure to welcome a Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, whose work in this House, both before and after he himself became one of the 92 excepted hereditary Peers, I greatly respect. But I cannot do so. The Bill touches on very important issues: nothing less than the future composition of one of our Houses of Parliament. I share the view of other noble Lordsalthough not, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hillwho do not think that these issues are properly addressed in a Private Members Bill. That has never been our constitutional tradition and it is not a modernisation that I would want to see. In the debate preceding this one, my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising made exactly the same point about a Private Members Bill, introduced by a member of my own party, which is also on a constitutional matter, albeit, some would argue, a more important one.
This Bill, drafted in isolation from any other reform, is not one that my party could ever support. It could create an all-appointed Houseby a slow route, it is true, but by a sure route none the less. Over a period, and not a long one in the context of the history of reform of the Lords, this Bill, if passed, would reduce Cross-Bench strength by 16 per cent, Conservative strength by over 20 per cent, Liberal strength by over 6 per cent and Labour strength by less than 2 per cent. Even Mr Straw, in his recent White Paper, acknowledged that to be unfair, as it would benefit Labour disproportionately against the other parties and the Cross Benches. However, a new Prime Minister and a Labour majority in another place may well find that quite attractive, so I suggest that it is unwise of the noble Lord to expose the Government, by trying to send his Bill down the corridor, to temptations that could include amending it to exclude at a stroke the extant 92.
I did not think that an all-appointed House was the policy of the Liberal Democrats and I have heard nothing today to suggest that their policy has changed so as to move towards an all-appointed House, as this Bill would create. It would do so without any safeguards against the kind of abuse of the appointments system that we have seen on such a flagrant scale in the past 10 yearsa scale not seen since the days of that noted Liberal, Lloyd George.
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