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Noble Lords: Oh!

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I always find it so extraordinarily gratifying that members of the party opposite react in so predictable a way. It is like pressing a button, and they react just as required.

If your Lordships will allow me a little trip into perhaps over-elliptical history, I remember that Mr. Enoch Powell has reminded us in his scholarly study of the medieval House of Lords that it was convenient for the monarch to separate those who

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wielded disproportionate power from the House of Commons. Since power in those days was concentrated in the hands of landowners, it is hardly surprising that the lay members became hereditary and that the other great landowner, the Church, also sent representatives to the House of Lords. Although almost at once other interests began to challenge the power of the landowner, rather sadly some of us might feel, it was not until 1846 and the subsequent agricultural depressions that the power of the landowner was finally broken. Indeed, I suspect that had it still existed in 1911, Mr. Lloyd George would hardly have dared attack it--with the greatest deference to the Liberal Benches.

Now the number of traditional hereditary Peers--I use "traditional" in the nature of hereditary Peers, if my noble friends and others will forgive me for describing them in this way--diminishes year by year. I think that as time goes on the hereditary element of this House has become something rather different and altogether more disparate from what it used to be. It is well on the way to becoming--and will so become if allowed to develop--a cross-section of society chosen by lot.

Of course, the Athenians, I seem to remember, thought that election by lot was the only truly democratic method. It is a tempting thought, and as a potential hereditary Peer, one I find strangely attractive. However, perhaps to apply that argument to the modern age may be going a little too far.

On a more serious note, we should be careful about accepting the myth of the built-in Tory majority in this House, with which I know the noble Lord, Lord Richard, will shortly regale us. My noble friend the Government Chief Whip certainly finds that majority from time to time, and even this week, a depressingly elusive beast. Members of the party opposite have by implication accepted the accuracy of my noble friend's experience and say--I think that we have heard some such talk this week--that it is a lack of majority by absenteeism, and that this is outrageous. But actually self-selection seems to work rather well, like the rest of this House, because of the absence of rules. I know that when my noble friend the Chief Whip winds up, he will address himself in a little more detail to this important question.

In an age when politics have become the preserve of professional politicians, the leavening that the hereditary peerage provides is valuable--so much so, and I say this particularly to hereditary Peers who seem sometimes to feel that they should forsake our Benches for the Cross Benches, that any feelings of guilt seem to me to be dangerously misplaced.

After all, those who demand that all parliamentarians be full-time professionals never explain how hired guns can be true representatives. Every body politic needs its full-time pros--the Tory Party needed Disraeli at one stage--but a parliament entirely composed of hired guns loses an essential citizen element.

There is another reason, too, why the hereditary element is valuable in an era of professional politicians. It underlines the fact that politically at least your

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Lordships' House is essentially an amateur House, even though many of your Lordships are highly professional in your chosen callings.

I believe that that amateur status reflects the national attitude to politics. For the overwhelming majority of the population, politics is only a part-time preoccupation, and I thank God for it. Rightly, people do not choose where they work for political reasons or their companions in their leisure pursuits simply because they agree with them politically. This seems to me a great national strength, a source of stability. It is reflected in the nature of your Lordships' House and the manner in which it conducts its proceedings. If the Labour Party ever succeeds in establishing its devolved assemblies in Wales, Scotland and, on a voluntary basis, in the regions of England, the immediate effect will be a huge increase in the number of professional politicians. Indeed, perhaps under that rule politics will be the only profession where employment will rise, particularly if the Labour Party signs the social chapter and introduces a minimum wage as well.

But perhaps the hereditary Peers' most valuable contribution of all is that a House composed as ours is cannot legitimately challenge the ultimate authority of the elected chamber. Paradoxically, therefore, our very weakness contributes to the organic strength of Parliament.

Now the Labour Party wants to reform the composition, but as I understand it--and I am open to correction--not the powers of this place. Despite what I have said in defence of our present arrangements, I am not in any way in principle opposed to reform, even radical reform, and I assure the party opposite of that. The more frivolous part of me recognises that any reform would increase the authority of this place and therefore welcomes the prospect. More seriously, it seems to me obvious that if anyone can devise a scheme of reform that self-evidently would deliver a more effective second chamber, we would welcome it with open arms.

What mystifies me is, first, why there is such urgency since our House works so well; and, secondly, the nature of the Labour Party's proposals. So urgent is the need for reform, apparently, that it will be one of the first tasks to be undertaken by an incoming Labour government. We constantly hear from noble Lords opposite and their honourable friends in another place that in their view there is an enormous amount wrong with Tory-run Britain (I note the silence from the Benches opposite): unemployment, the health service, no minimum wage, no social chapter, no devolved assemblies to satisfy Brussels' craving for a Europe of the regions and therefore evade the clutches of the only power that controls Brussels, national governments and so on. But all that which, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, they claim to be so urgent must yield its place in the queue to a proposal to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit in this House. The Labour Party affects at times to be frightened of the power of the House of Lords to derail its legislative programmes in government. Perhaps that is it. Yet this House has never blocked the will of the House of Commons under a Labour government. We may have asked them to think

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again but, since 1950, only a Conservative government, I think I am right in saying, have been obliged to use the Parliament Act in order to secure a piece of legislation.

Where are the examples that will no doubt be trailed for us under a Labour government? Would it be the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill? We stood on the principle of hybridity there. It was not a technical device but a constitutional principle designed to ensure equal treatment for all in the legislative process. Although there were contentious issues in the public part of the Bill the mere existence of the Parliament Act was enough, as it was with the Trades Union and Labour Relations Bill, to secure the Labour Government's business. No, my Lords. Your Lordships' habited deference, if I may call it that, would, I am sure, be even-handed, were Labour to be in power, as it has been in the past.

We must look elsewhere, therefore, for the reason for this headlong rush to reform. So morally outrageous, clearly, is the existence of hereditary Peers that here above all pragmatism must yield to moral imperatives. Here, as so often, sanctimoniousness cloaks party political necessity. The secret, of course, is that the leadership of the Labour Party has slipped a gag into the mouth of its left wing. That gag is beginning to work loose. It needs to find a bit of sticking plaster to slap across its mouth. Reform of this House is, the leadership hopes, that sticking plaster. That is why they are in such a hurry. They are using this House and mucking around with the constitution to keep their own party quiet. I have already said that if we can find a way of reforming this House which we could be reasonably certain would improve our constitutional arrangements, we should and we will welcome it.

I had hoped, when I heard that the party opposite wished to reform this place, that it would at least have found a proposal for reform that, whether one agreed with it or not, had intellectual coherence--a peach of an idea that compelled serious consideration. The party signally failed in all the policy pronouncements to adapt Mr. Blair's memorable phrase in his recent John Smith Memorial Lecture:

    "to justify in the thickets of detail".
In this case, Labour Party leaders have gone even further and freely admit that they have not the faintest idea how this House will be composed once they have implemented phase two of their brilliant scheme. We are told that this House will probably contain "an elected element", but that phrase is the only trailer that we have been vouchsafed. I have already suggested that "an elected element" would challenge the supremacy of another place, so even this modest lifting of its skirts by the party opposite is something I greet with modified rapture. Surely a party that aspires to form the next government will have to do better than that if it wants the electorate and other parties to take it seriously.

Nevertheless, it is in the best traditions of this House to be constructive and it is in that spirit that I have a suggestion to make to the party opposite. It seems to me that the decision as to whether and how to reform the House will in the end be taken by another place--and it is right that that should be so. The Labour Party wishes

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to reform us and apparently does not know what it ultimately wants to achieve. So why not, in the unlikely event of its winning the next general election, suggest to another place that it establish a Select Committee to look into the question as to both means and ends? In the end, this really is Parliament's business and not a matter for some committee of the great and good. After all, it is Parliament which must make the judgment as to any scheme's fundamental soundness and as to the practicality of its detail.

I should be happy under those circumstances to recommend to your Lordships that we co-operate fully with another place to the extent necessary to allow the Select Committee to do its work. Any report from such a Select Committee would, I am sure, have benefited from evidence of Members of your Lordships' House and any subsequent legislation would be scrutinised with your Lordships' usual rigour.

Not the least of the advantages that would flow from such a proceeding would be that it would enable the Labour Party to ditch, without too much embarrassment, the rather curious half-way house it has proposed as a way of appeasing the gagged ones on the left of the party--the sticking plaster. It is clearly beginning to embarrass Mr. Blair in the same way as he is embarrassed by his devolution proposals.

I am not surprised that he is embarrassed. I am, of course, flattered that Clause 2 of the draft Bill that he supplied to the Constitution Unit and which it published in an appendix to its report should make an exception in favour of those Peers already sitting by virtue of a writ in acceleration. However, my deep personal gratitude for that kindness is, I fear, tempered by puzzlement as to why Mr. Blair should wish to transform one House of Parliament into the biggest quango in the land.

The device is dangerous. The swings of the political pendulum will ensure that its temporary nature will become permanent, particularly since it is not at all clear that we will ever be able to agree as to what the composition and powers of a fully reformed House of Lords will be. It will meanwhile deliver powers of patronage into the hands of party leaders unprecedented since the days of Newcastle and Rockingham. I have observed that the right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in another place rather enjoys stealing other people's political clothes--notably those worn by the increasingly outmoded Social Democrats of continental Europe. Perhaps now he rather fancies himself in a short wig and knee-breeches instead. All he would then lack is a Palladian mansion and a park but I am sure that they will arrive in due course.

I have spoken for long enough and there is a gratifyingly long and distinguished list of speakers who will, I know, make today's proceedings as much of an advertisement for your Lordships' House as did those who spoke yesterday. I believe that our debate over these two days will mark an important stage in the wider public debate over our institutions which has now been joined. If I were asked to give an interim judgment on that debate, I should have to say that so far none of the

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plans for constitutional reform mooted has as much merit as the constitutional settlement that we at present enjoy and that continues to evolve.

The world has always lived in a state of transition, driven above all by technological innovation. The late Lord Stockton once memorably said that Adam observed as much to Eve as they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. However, today's world is seeing a transformation more radical and more swift than any previous age of change. If we are to survive and prosper in this changing world we cannot ignore its challenges and hope that they will go away. If this country is not to become a poverty-stricken backwater, if we are to deliver the jobs and prosperity we all want, we have no alternative but to build on the economic transformation we have begun to bring about in this country since 1979. Economic change that embraces free trade and the economics of the market is not change driven by ideology, but by necessity and by opportunity.

Nevertheless, much as we may agree with that analysis--and it seems to me that this country as a whole does now agree with it--times of change stir another and conflicting emotion in all our minds. It is an emotion above all born of fear, a feeling of uncertainty, of wondering who we are and where we belong. It is in such times that the virtues of political stability become overwhelmingly apparent. Constitutional evolution, rather than constitutional revolution, becomes as much a necessary prerequisite for economic prosperity as economic change.

Our constitution is not--your Lordships' House is not-- some ancient monument. It is a living being which responds to the challenge of changing times.

I look round this House today and see many leaders of change, as well as many whose wisdom is born of long experience. Some are life Peers; some are hereditary Peers. In this House, with its unique tradition of self-government which, I believe, mirrors our wider constitution, we come together to deliberate and advise.

I do not rest my case on raising faces of change. I rest it on the virtues of stability. This Government stand for both those things in tandem: economic change and political stability. The party opposite is offering us exactly the opposite: economic reaction and political revolution.

Our present dangers are the chattering voices who offer the Opposition economic reaction and political revolution. They could undermine irretrievably the settlement which tells our people where they belong and who they are.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Richard: My Lords, perhaps I may say to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that I enjoyed about 20 of the last 27 minutes. It is a change for me in the Labour Party to be called a revolutionary. I am very grateful to him indeed. It is not very often that my credentials are so easily established. I hope the noble Viscount will forgive me if I do not follow him through the tortuous path that he seemed to me to be following; namely, that in order to preserve democracy in the other

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House, we have to safeguard the undemocratic element in this House. That seemed somewhat contradictory, and also slightly at variance with his later remarks. I understood him to say that he would co-operate with a Select Committee of the House of Commons in doing what seemed to be necessary to remove the undemocratic element from this House. I shall read his remarks with attention.

I hope that I shall not take as long as the noble Viscount in opening the debate from this side of the House. I regard this debate as an opportunity to do two things: first, to make the position of the Labour Party clear; and, secondly, to listen to the views of Members of the House. Judging by the number of speakers on the list, there will be no shortage of views to be listened to.

However, I cannot help but observe that rarely can a government have tabled a Motion to take note of a series of propositions advanced not by themselves but by the Opposition. Indeed, I congratulate the Government on the care and attention that they have given to this debate so far. It is clear that they are hard at work preparing for opposition. We wish them all success.

The House will, I know, expect me to deal with the proposals for reform of this House which the Labour Party is to put to the people of this country at the next general election. I shall be perfectly, and I hope unmistakably, clear right at the outset. It is our intention, if elected, to remove the right of Peers by succession to sit and vote in this House. That is the proposition. It is clear; it is simple, it is unambiguous; and it will be put to the country.

I start however by paying tribute to the role that the hereditary peerage has played in British history over the years. Some of the noble families of this country represented today in this House have had a major role in British history, government and public life. Some of them go back a very long way. Lord Bryce in his famous report on the House of Lords referred to this House as:

    "The oldest and most memorable of all British Institutions reaching back beyond the Norman Conquest and beyond King Alfred into the shadowy regions of teutonic antiquity".
I would not seek to question such a profound historic judgment. But dare I say even in this House that antiquity is not necessarily a justification for continued support?

The noble Lord the Leader of the House has a proud and rightly honoured name. His family has given service to the nation not merely for generations but for centuries. It is right that we should acknowledge that, and I do so willingly and freely.

But at the end of the 20th century the accident of birth on its own cannot justify a legislative seat. And the fact that one particular family, however distinguished, may, over the generations, have produced men of consequence--men of consequence, my Lords, for the lineage has been irredeemably male--does not and cannot justify the existing system. If there are people of exceptional ability, they will no doubt prosper by their own efforts. After all, the rest of us have to try to do that.

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So I do not denigrate the history or the past work of the hereditary peerage. It has had its place. It is part of the rich and continuous history of the United Kingdom. What I do say, however, is that its time is now past.

What can one say of this House as it is at present constituted? There are some very strange, even bizarre, somewhat rosy views. I came across a speech given in 1982 by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, to a conference of European speakers. Dealing with his then fiefdom, he said:

    "I have no disciplinary powers at all over my fellow peers: aware of my wolf-like character, they prefer to enforce their rules of order and conduct on one another rather than to submit themselves to my authority. Thus they dwell in a sort of Arcadia, a kind of Quaker meeting in which they speak as the spirit moves them. The result is peculiar".
I would certainly agree with that.

    "Instead of producing chaos, our Arcadia is almost perfect order. We treat each other with respect. There is no tumult. There is a complete absence of insult, fisticuffs, and duels. Because there is no one to enforce the law, no gavel or bell to ensure compliance with it, no one dares to disobey it. The House of Lords is the complete denial of the doctrine of original sin".
I am not sure whether I agree with quite such an idealised view of this House. But, speaking for myself, I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for the absolution contained in the final sentence.

Last week the Prime Minister made a speech, too, in which he meditated aloud about the nature of your Lordships' House. He said:

    "If you actually look at what the House of Lords does in its Parliamentary role, it is hard to cast it convincingly as the villain. Has the House of Lords been overstepping the mark with the House of Commons? Of course not. Has it been showing bias over the years, dispensing favour to one political party in Government and refusing it to another?"
Asking the question of himself, he replies:

    "Not at all".
One would hardly expect him, or the Leader of the House, to say otherwise. He continued:

    "So what precisely is broken, that needs to be fixed? I find no convincing answers to these questions. To people who say that a House of Lords with a strong hereditary element is an anomaly, I say that it works".
A little later he said:

    "I don't make an apology for defending what works",
and, with a boldness perhaps uncharacteristic of him recently:

    "I'm a Conservative and I reject change for change's sake. That doesn't mean I avoid change when it is needed".
That is the Prime Minister's view of your Lordships' House. He says that all seems to be well and that it works. He wishes to defend the House of Lords and keep it as it is. He is against any proposal to do anything about it.

Whatever else this place is it is not democratic. None of us has been elected. There are at least 372 of us who are here because of what we are supposed to have done, and not because of what an ancestor of ours is supposed to have done or did.

The noble Viscount who opened the debate gave us no figures of any kind, so let us look at the composition of this House. At the end of the 1994-95 Session there were

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1190 eligible Members of the House of Lords. This total includes 755 Peers by succession, 15 hereditary Peers of first creation, 372 life Peers, 24 Lords Spiritual, 24 Law Lords, and of that 1190 only 79 were women. Therefore, 770 Members of your Lordships' House are hereditary Peers.

I ask myself the next question: what is the party affiliation of those Peers? There are 476 who take the Conservative Whip, 109 take the Whip of my party, 52 take the Whip of the Liberal Democrats, and there are 289 Cross-Benchers, 23 Bishops and 88 others.

This House is not only not democratic, it is also overwhelmingly Conservative. Few who approach this problem objectively and dispassionately would dispute that. I shall take three examples which I put before your Lordships' House to illustrate the effect of this imbalance.

In the 1988-89 Session, under a Conservative Government, there were 172 government victories and 12 defeats. If the votes of hereditary Peers had been excluded, and all the other votes had remained the same, there would have been 21 victories for the Government, 159 defeats and a draw on four occasions. In other words, the votes of the hereditary Peers guaranteed 172 victories, and if they had not been present there would have been 159 defeats. In the 15½ years between 1979 and 1995 under a Conservative Government, this House defeated the Government on an average of 10 to 12 times a year. For the five years from 1974 to 1979, under a Labour Government, the figure was not 10 or 12 times a year, but the average was between 70 and 80 times a year. In the vote last Monday on the Asylum and Immigration Bill, the Government won a crucial Division by 153 votes to 140. Without the votes of the hereditary Peers the figures would have been 66 to 108, and the result would have been different.

Let us get away from the idea that the votes of hereditary Peers in this House do not matter when it comes to legislation. They do matter and that can be proved by the figures. We have carried out a detailed analysis of the Division lists of this House and the pattern is the same. This situation repeats itself issue by issue, Session by Session, and year by year. Is it broke? As far as fairness is concerned, in this House it is in fragments.

We then have to ask ourselves the question: does this situation matter? The answer is clearly yes, if we are to take this House seriously. It is meant to be a legislative Chamber, not a club. I do not want to see the Upper House of the British Parliament, my Parliament, reduced to a quaint assembly, eccentric in a rather British way, good for the tourist trade and embodying along with warm beer, village cricket and ladies cycling home from church, the characteristics so beloved of the Prime Minister. The idea that into 21st century Britain should continue to be partly governed by legislators whose sole legitimacy is birth is frankly absurd.

What is the Government's position on this question? It is simple. They do not advocate change. They see no need for change. The Prime Minister's speech set out a very clear and unequivocal position: the Government will go into the next election defending the institution

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of the hereditary peerage. On this side of the House we are grateful for the clarity with which that has recently been expressed. The issue is not even one of gradual change, or evolving change; it is one of no change in relation to the composition of the House of Lords. Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that this is a view which we do not share.

There is no lack of precedent for attempting to do something about this situation. I remind the House that the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 stated:

    "And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation".

After 85 years, and heaven knows how many years of Conservative Administration, it still has not been brought into operation. Various attempts have been made since that date. Indeed the noble Viscount's great grandfather in 1934 proposed that the hereditary peerage should be reduced, by election within the hereditary peerage, to 150, and that the House should consist only of 150 hereditary Peers and 150 Lords of Parliament from outside. I presume that the Government and the Prime Minister would oppose this too on the basis of no change.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham--I have not finished with him yet--in the speech from which I have already quoted went on to say:

    "Ideally however, I would emphasise the need for a predominantly or complete elected assembly, elected from constituencies geographically different from those in the lower House, and by a method of voting also different to the voting system in operation for the lower House".

That was the then Conservative Lord Chancellor in 1982. Things do seem to have changed rather radically in the past 14 years. I quote also to the House some wise sentences written 20 years ago:

    "we feel bound to observe that the House of Lords as now constituted reveals a certain remoteness from the prevailing ideas of our age about the conditions qualifying people to exercise political functions. The majority of the population may express approval of the House in general terms, but they would almost certainly react differently to more specific questions about its present composition and legitimacy. Without doubt few would seriously defend the hereditary principle as a basis for a seat in the legislature; and finally, for all its virtues the House of Lords maintains something of the style and atmosphere of a club for distinguished amateurs, people who intervene in politics occasionally when public duty calls. This reputation is at once endearing and yet a precarious basis for survival in a society facing such problems as beset us today. Thus on balance we feel that to leave the House of Lords unchanged would be to leave it with a composition which, should a political attack on it be mounted, would be virtually impossible to defend".

That was the report of the Conservative Review Committee on the House of Lords chaired by the late Lord Home and dated March 1978. He was quite right. Lord Home recommended a House two-thirds of which should be elected by PR and one-third of which should be nominated. I wonder what happened to those suggestions after 1979. I do not know, but I assume on the basis of what the Prime Minister said last week that he would oppose that too.

Where, then, do we go from here? The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and the group that he chaired, took the view--I read his report with great attention and detail--

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that of course the hereditary principle is indefensible and that the group would be quite prepared for that to go provided that a better alternative were proposed. That is not exactly a humble approach, if I may say so respectfully. It is rather like a condemned man saying to his executioner, "Of course I am guilty and of course the sentence is just, but you should carry it out only when I am satisfied that the world without me in it will be an improvement on the present state of affairs."

If the issue is put clearly to the country, as it will be, and if the country accepts it, as I believe it will, is there not perhaps just a tinge of aristocratic superiority in the assumption that he and his group know better than the people? That attitude seems to me to be a recipe for almost indefinite further delay, and I have to say to the House that we shall not accept it.

I agree with the Prime Minister that these are great constitutional issues. That is why the final resolution will take time, as it should. It is precisely for this reason that the Labour Party is proposing reform in two stages: the first is the removal of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House; the second is a major exercise in public consultation. We want to ensure that so far as possible the whole country should be involved in the consideration and determination of the precise nature and form that our second Chamber should finally take. That is our long-term aim. That is what we shall put to the country and advocate at the next election.

Let us not forget that from 1911 onwards everyone who has looked at the problem has agreed on one thing; and in 1968 this House by a very large majority agreed on it too: that the right to sit in Parliament by virtue of hereditary advantage has to go. It is time that that was grasped. The time has come to begin the process of bringing this Chamber up to date and that is exactly what we propose to do.

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