Previous SectionIndexHome Page


The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): Simply for the sake of certainty and of clarity, may we return briefly to the figures, and to whether the Conservatives have a 3:1 majority in the other place? The hon. Gentleman has already quoted from the White Paper, which says that the Conservative party has 476 peers and that Labour has 175 peers. The Conservative party therefore has, roughly, a 3:1 majority over Labour.

Mr. Evans: What about the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Tipping: The Liberal Democrats have 69 peers.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. We are going back to the Second Reading debate, rather than keeping to the amendment.

Dr. Fox: The right hon. Member for Hartlepool said earlier that the Conservatives had a 3:1 majority over all others. That is where the numbers were twisted.

This is an exercise in the cynicism that we expect from a Government who treat Parliament, particularly their Back Benchers, with contempt. Perhaps, one day, Labour Back Benchers will develop a little self-respect and sense of history and realise that they are here for a purpose other than serving the Labour party--they are here to serve their constituents. The amendment would make a bad Bill marginally better and we shall support it.

In a supine effort even by the doorstep standards of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) raised one important point about Lord Cranborne. We have never argued with the substance of the amendment. It was agreed with Lord Weatherill. Lord Cranborne was sacked for defying the authority of the shadow Cabinet and for trying to trade away something that is not tradeable: the Opposition's

16 Feb 1999 : Column 762

duty--it is not just a right or an ability--to oppose the Government in both Houses. It is the duty of the Opposition to scrutinise the Government and to bring the Government to account. That cannot be traded away. There can be no deal because we are not willing to trade away our ability to oppose.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Was not Lord Cranborne negotiating with the Government to make the Bill closer to what he and his colleagues would like? The Leader of the Opposition had proved himself not only unable but unwilling to do that, saying that the Conservatives would oppose the Bill and defy the Government's mandate without giving an inch.

Dr. Fox: That was the Mensa version of doormat. That does not invalidate what I have said. A position cannot be negotiated on behalf of a party without the party's authority. That authority has to come from the leader of the party. All the Liberal Democrat Members want to be the leader at the moment, so I understand why they make little bids now and again.

In trying to secure support for the amendment in the other place, we shall not trade away our ability to oppose the Government.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I shall not take more than a second of the Committee's time. The hon. Gentleman's repeated assertion that an attempt was made to persuade his party to give up its proper duty to oppose cannot be allowed to pass without challenge. No such attempt was made. We are talking not about proper opposition or proper scrutiny of Government legislation or other proposals, but about the possibility of organised disruption and hooliganism and a straightforward abuse of the power that the Conservatives have always enjoyed in the House of Lords. We certainly want that to be traded away.

Dr. Fox: Last night, the Leader of the House told my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest that she had no right to move the amendment--an amendment that the Government will support in another place--and that she was wasting the time of the Committee. The Government seem to regard any reasonable scrutiny of their policies as time wasting. They regard the unwillingness of both Houses to roll over and die when faced with their power as filibustering.

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Perhaps he was not in the Chamber at the time. I do not criticise him for that. I accused the hon. Member for Epping Forest of wasting the time of the Committee because she repeatedly demanded that I come to the Dispatch Box to say what I had already said and what was clearly on record as the Government's attitude. I thought that that was somewhat time-wasting.

Dr. Fox: It was entirely appropriate for my hon. Friend to say that the Government's position was not clear. The Government have said that they are going to force their Back Benchers to vote one way tonight and the opposite way the next time. There cannot be a more perverse way

16 Feb 1999 : Column 763

of carrying forward business in the House. If the Government have such moral double-speak, how can they be surprised that the rest of the Committee is confused?

Mr. Mackinlay: I understand the duty of the Conservative party to oppose and frustrate. Can the hon. Gentleman envisage any circumstances in which his party would accept Government proposals seeking an agreed way forward? Outside this place, many people consider that we are playing games. It should be within the capacity of men and women here to reach an agreed settlement on one reform fairly immediately. Are there circumstances in which the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to do that?

Dr. Fox: There are, and if we had had the royal commission some time ago, we could now be considering the results and moving on to subsequent reform. It would be far better to move to a single-stage reform by consensus than to have the current piecemeal approach. The last time such reform was proposed, it was frustrated not in the other place, but by Back Benchers on both sides of this House who did not want a challenge to the power of the House of Commons by the other place.

New clause 12, on which we may seek to divide later, relates to the Scottish peers and the Act of Union. Article 22 of the 1707 Act of Union provides for the number of Scottish representatives in the Parliament of Great Britain. Article 23 provides for the peers of Scotland to have


By the Act of Union, the Scottish peers--who had previously sat in the Scottish Parliament--were not granted seats in the united Parliament, but were granted the right to elect 16 of their number as a quid pro quo for the loss of their seats in the Scottish House of Lords.

The system was abolished by the Peerage Act 1963, which granted all peers of Scotland a seat in the House of Lords. Peerages created subsequent to the Act of Union were made as peerages of Great Britain, and there were no further creations of peers of England or Scotland. The schedule to the Bill repeals section 4 of the Peerage Act 1963, which repeals the section of the Act of Union that deals with the election of Scottish peers but deems that all Scottish peers have the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

I would like to know from the Leader of the House what advice the Government have had on whether the proposal contravenes the Act of Union. The Leader of the House may say that the 1963 Act has already altered the Act of Union. Although the 1963 Act did, in practice, amend the provision of the Act of Union for 16 Scottish peers to sit in the House of Lords, it did not run contrary to it. It did not prevent 16 peers from sitting; it merely said that all Scottish peers could sit in the House of Lords.

The House of Lords Bill repeals the 1963 Act, and prevents 16 Scottish peers from sitting. The Leader of the House may claim that the number of life peers who are Scottish is far in excess of 16, and that therefore the spirit of the Act is not broken. However, all life peers are peers of Great Britain, not Scotland--and, therefore, the letter of the Act of Union is most certainly broken. In the absence of any stage 2 proposals, there is no guaranteed Scottish representation in the House of Lords.

16 Feb 1999 : Column 764

All this becomes much more important when we look at the piecemeal and incoherent proposals from the Government on devolution. This is a serious issue on which I would like the Leader of the House to reply. No doubt there was considerable legal discussion about this matter in Government circles before they published the Bill. For a Bill to break the Act of Union would be a serious matter--although, given the contempt with which the Government treat Parliament, it would not be at all surprising. It would be nice to have some answers, just for once. Perhaps we could have the same answer here that will be given in the other Chamber.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East): I wish to intervene briefly in the debate--not least because of the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) about the Act of Union and the need for Scottish representation in the form of unelected peers sitting in an unelected second House of Parliament. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Act of Union represented the status quo in Scotland before the 1997 general election? The only defender of that status quo in Scotland was the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, which was truly routed in the 1997 general election.

The will of the Scottish people was that the terms of the Act of Union be renegotiated and changed through the constitutional changes introduced by the Government in this Parliament, including the reform of the House of Lords--which the people of Scotland are completely behind. There is very little sentiment in Scotland for unelected peers to represent our country in a second Chamber of this Parliament. The hon. Member for Woodspring--who has been away from Scotland for some considerable time--shows how out of touch he is with genuine opinion in Scotland by tabling an amendment that would have no support, I suspect, even among the Scottish Conservative party.

I am delighted to be able to follow my Whips' instructions tonight and vote against amendment No. 2. I have no desire whatever to save the political skins of the Lord Great Chamberlain or the Earl Marshal, or any of the other 89 hereditary peers referred to in the amendment.

If the hon. Member for Woodspring is concerned about Labour Members being only half-opposed to the hereditary principle, I can assure him that I am opposed to it wherever it rears its head. There is no place in democratic politics for people to inherit positions of power and influence rather than being elected by their peers--by which I mean their ordinary fellow citizens.


Next Section

IndexHome Page