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Lord Elton: My Lords, that weakness in my analogy had occurred to me. But I have only to ask the noble Lord to look in the driving mirror to see what a long way we have come in directions which either his party or my party desired in the past 50 years. This proposition is a ludicrous way of proceeding, however wrong one believes the present system to be. To ask the electorate after an election what it believes a government should do is itself making a mockery of election and democracy. Electorates return parties to control the other place in order to answer these questions for them. Quite clearly, the proper approach is that suggested by my noble friend the Leader of the House that if we are to broach this issue at all, which I believe to be unnecessary at this stage, then we should put it to a Select Committee of the other place which, after its deliberations, can put its report before both Houses for consideration.
Anything else that I say on this issue is by way of a preliminary to the evidence that I would give to such a committee because I am not advocating change (for reasons which have been fully given by others who can speak better and more briefly than I). I would remind that committee that two elements of your Lordships' House ought to be preserved: the breadth of its diversity and its independence. The diversity flows from number. The right reverend Prelate referred eloquently to that earlier. If you simply and crudely sweep all hereditary Peers into the dustbin of history, it may give a frisson de grandeur but it will, in fact, enormously reduce the value of this place.
It is possible to retain that value and yet at the same time address the question of imbalance which is at the heart of concerns about this place either by the method suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, or by an electoral college as suggested by my noble friend Lord Renton. However, I add the proviso that having given hereditary Peers the right to elect from their number a particular contingent of this House, it should be possible to have a rule of substitution where the expertise that is required is present within the hereditary peerage but not among the elected hereditary Peers, so that the numbers available to speak and vote in that interest would not change but the expertise would remain as broad as ever.
The independence of this House is important at all times, but it is most important when a government attempt to extend the duration of their control of another place by postponing a general election. That is something that is not too evident for most of the time, but it would become very evident if it were made easy as a result of abolition of the principal independent element of this House (because it is the largest number and is not chosen by any government). I am not
Therefore, I suggest that in addition to the dual Writ--to the two Writ system as it may be called--the electoral college or whatever other device is chosen, if ever a Bill is introduced to amend the Parliament Act 1911, in which I believe that the five-year life of a Parliament is enshrined, at First Reading the bar against the attendance, speaking and voting of otherwise excluded hereditary Peers should be lifted and at least 14 days' notice of the intention to hold that debate should be given to Peers by succession. I believe that that would restore some of the vital independence of this House at the point where it is most needed.
However, all of those points are for the Select Committee, before the establishment of which nothing should be done. I ask your Lordships not to countenance a three-wheel buggy on the Blair model, if it can be avoided.
Lord Annan: My Lords, I rise to speak on only one topic--reform of this House. The question is: how can we make it more respectable and influential and give it a more appropriate role in the constitution? I believe that reform can be done only in stages. If we try to solve all problems at once in a Speaker's Conference or in some other assembly set up ad hoc for the purpose, we shall get submerged in a Serbonian Bog, in which, as Milton reminds us, "Armies whole have sunk". All that I am concerned with today is the first stage.
The Constitution Unit said that a key question about reform was whether membership of the second chamber should be a job or an honour. The antithesis is false. It will always be an honour to be a Member of this House, but it should also be a job--although not necessarily a full-time job. Some, as now, should undoubtedly be expected to attend each day, but for others it should be a part-time affair.
I do not believe that it is credible to have even part of the House composed of hereditary Peers. Like everyone else, I have deep respect for the abilities of many of the hereditary Peers. They should be entitled, as is everyone else, to be considered for nomination to this House. Every subject of the Crown should have the right to stand for election or, in this case, for nomination to one or other of the Houses of Parliament. But if the hereditary Peers were excluded by right, they should be entitled to stand for election to the House of Commons, as many eldest sons of Peers did in the past and were successful in being elected.
I do not consider that the present nomenclature of Peers should continue. I believe that all Members of the House of Lords should be nominated and that they should be called "Lords of Parliament". I do not
It is essential that the present imbalance in voting be redressed. The Leader of the Opposition gave some astounding figures. However, it is also essential that a comprehensible balance be maintained between the parties. I therefore advocate that after a general election as a first stage each party which has representation in the House of Commons should be granted in the House of Lords the same proportion of seats it has in the House of Commons. The leaders of each party would nominate their members and it is certain that hereditary Peers would be among them. As has been said, the House would be much poorer if Peers such as the present Leader of the House, or the late Lord Shackleton, or the noble Earl, Lord Russell, could not be nominated. Those members would be working members, expected to attend most days. They would be the effective core of the Government and Opposition. They might number some 150 to 200 in total. The remaining members would be the present Cross Bench Peers.
I hope that in any reform the same practice would be followed whereby the Prime Minister, as advised--I am sure he would wish to consult the leaders of the opposition parties--would nominate men and women in various walks of life who could make a contribution to the affairs of the House. It is perhaps ill-becoming for a Cross-Bencher to say so, but it is something I have been told often--indeed, it was borne out by what the Leader of the House said in his opening speech--and that is that the appearance of life Peers changed this House for the better in that it brought to our debates people with experience in many spheres of life. I do not consider that this type of nominated Member of the House should be under an obligation to attend every day of a Session unless the Cross Benches are to become an institute for geriatrics. Members should be permitted to accept nomination while doing a full-time job elsewhere. I could never have guaranteed to be in my place even for a stated number of sittings when I was a member of the vice-chancellors' committee or even when I was Provost of King's. How much more so, then, for those in more exacting professions in business or in the law.
What of the Bishops? As long as the Church of England is the established Church by law and is subject to the Crown in Parliament, the Bishops should surely have a place in the House, although any government would be wise, I believe, to see that there was representation in the House from time to time of those belonging to other bodies of faith which have substantial numbers of adherents.
There remain the Law Lords. I say only this. I certainly wish the Law Lords to remain in the House, but I wish they could be called the Supreme Court. Members of the House of Lords are only too well aware of the difference between the Law Lords when sitting in judgment and when the House is legislating. But the general public do not understand the distinction. People imagine that when a judgment is made by a controversial judge such as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, it is in some way the whole House of Lords speaking. It may sound ludicrous to those of us who work here, but I assure the House that that is the perception when one talks to ordinary members of the public.
I do not agree, of course, that there should be any separation of powers. I follow the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, that much nonsense is talked of the separation of powers. But it should be evident to the public that the final court of appeal in the land is totally distinct from the House of Lords as the legislature.
I assume that the present power of the second chamber to delay legislation for no longer than one year continues to obtain. I also assume that the House of Commons will be jealous of the power of this House and would not consent to any increase in our powers or any delegation of powers to a second chamber, certainly one which contains nominated members. However, I also assume--of course, I may be wrong--that there will be no recrudescence of the ditchers party of 1910-11. If a number of Peers decided to disrupt the
Should a second Chamber be elected? Certainly not in the first stage of reform. If proportional representation or some form of regional or--in the case of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland--national devolution were to be adopted, then it might well be that the powers of the second chamber would change. Some believe that election to a second chamber is almost a sine qua non of its continued existence.
There is this problem, however: we already have many elections in this country, and may have more if national assemblies are to be established. It is not as if the turn-out in local government is all that high. It is not as if the turn-out for membership of the European Parliament is all that high. If we are adding to them assemblies and regional bodies which are also to be elected, I suspect that the electorate will become very tired of the process. It would, of course, be possible at a general election to combine the elections for both Houses. But what if the party forming the government in the House of Commons found itself in a minority in the second Chamber? Moreover, if the second Chamber is to be entirely elected, it will certainly lose such prestige as it has as a well-informed and, if I may say so, a very well-mannered institution.
I beg the political parties to consider that in any reform of the second Chamber a measure of nominated members should still play a part, although, having said that, I am only too well aware that I speak from exactly the same position as the hereditary Peers in the Cross-Bench interest. But I must add in my defence that it is not in self-interest. I am past the age of retirement.
It may come as no surprise that I am a supporter of the status quo. "As an ex-Chief Whip, he would say that, wouldn't he?" I am not opposed to reform or to change. I am a supporter of the existing state and shape of your Lordships' House on the basis that it works better than any alternative I have seen proposed to date.
I have to say that I would not oppose anything which was an honourable Bill that came before this House and would see your Lordships' House acting in the historical manner: in a responsible and honourable way towards that Bill from whichever party held the majority in another place. But I have to say that today and over the past few weeks I have detected the possibility that I never envisaged of the Labour Party making the case for the hereditary Peerage.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, this afternoon made a remark which made me believe that I detected the shadow of Robespierre's ghost flickering across the top of your Lordships' Chamber. So interesting was his remark, that I wrote it down. He referred to,
Today, the opposition Benches have defined a new form of democracy. Whether or not I am going to be one of those who is led willingly or unwillingly to the undemocratic tumbrel, I do not know, but what I must say is that if I were a life Peer or a Lord Spiritual or a Law Lord in this House, I would not sleep happy with the definition that was laid before your Lordships' House under the rather bogus guise of democracy. I do not see where the definition can enter the Oxford English Dictionary in an honourable way.
My second great concern is that we face the proposal, should a Labour government come into office, that your Lordships' House will be confronted by a three-clause Bill which will remove the hereditary Peerage and do, not only little else, but nothing else. If the hereditary Peers of this House have one duty to their fellow countrymen and countrywomen, it is that whatever Bill changes or reforms your Lordships' House, it must be one which leaves this House as an honourable estate. The proposal is a wholly dishonourable proposal.
The reason it is dishonourable is easily demonstrated by the events of the past seven days. On constitutional matters, the Labour Party has been foolhardy, and certain, for a very long time, that it had a policy for the devolution of Scotland. Convenience resulted in a U-turn. It would be for the hereditary Peerage of this House a day of shame and dishonour to walk into the corridor of history having left their fellow countrymen with no choice of knowing whether that promise would be given and carried out by a Labour government. It is worth recalling that the last time a Labour government entered a horse in the eight furlong constitutional selling plate, which was called devolution, it lost its jockey and left us all in a pretty mess.
Lord Carter: My Lords, the subject of today's debate is the role and structure of Parliament. Understandably and properly, the House has interested itself largely in the role and structure of this House. I should say at the outset that there is virtually nothing new to say on the subject. From the late 19th century, through the 1911 proposals, through the 1930s, in 1948, and in 1968, right down until today and the work of the Constitution Unit, the arguments, the principles, the possible methods of reform and the problems have been explored exhaustively. Therefore I do not propose to go over that ground again.
The Conservative view of the House, which has been variously expressed--the noble Viscount the Leader of the House waxed lyrical on the subject--is that the House of Lords works; or, curious institution that it is, with its manifest incongruities and eccentricities, it mysteriously provides a check and balance on the workings of government; or in some unexplained way it calls the Executive to account and stops its worst excesses.
That is all very fine and well if one sits on the Conservative Benches and there is a Conservative Government. Indeed, the Leader of the House again referred to the beauty of our constitution, and particularly of this House. In this case beauty is definitely in the eye of the Conservative beholder. The true answer was of course given by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in his interesting article in The Times yesterday.
I do not apologise for repeating the figures quoted earlier by my noble friend Lord Richard. During the 1974-79 Labour Government--some five years--the House of Lords defeated the Government on 355 occasions. That is about 70 times a year. That compares with 156 defeats in the 11 years from 1979 to 1990, which is about 14 times a year. It seems that the vigilance of the House of Lords over the Executive mysteriously increases some five times when Labour is in power. The noble Lord, Lord Denham, referred to the fact that defeats by the Lords are always reversed in the Commons and the Government always get through their business. It has been calculated that defeats by the House of Lords between 1974 and 1979 effectively lost that government about a year of their legislative time.
It is interesting to note that the last Labour Government, with at first a tiny majority and then no majority, were in a position similar to that of the present Government, with their current nominal majority of one. Somehow I do not believe that the House will be defeating the Conservative Government 70 times this Session.
We hear a great deal about the effectiveness of the House as a working House. I thought that I would take a slightly different approach from that which is normally adopted. That view prompted me to analyse the overall attendance record in the 1994-95 Session--the previous Session. I took as a marker an attendance of 50 per cent. or more of the maximum possible 142 attendances in that Session. It is pretty reasonable to attend for half the number of Sittings. The proportion of noble Lords in each group who attended for more than half the maximum attendance figure was as follows: Conservative life Peers 47 per cent.; Liberal Democrat life Peers 66 per cent.; Labour life Peers 70 per cent.; and the Cross-Bench life Peers 27 per cent. On the same
I am the first to recognise that attendance can be variously interpreted. As a former Whip, and Deputy Chief Whip, I recognise that being here for Questions and a companionable cup of tea is by no means the same as staying here and slogging through amendments until 11 p.m. or midnight. However, we have to face the curious fact that if we take a 50 per cent. attendance as a reasonable norm for a working House, the largest numerical group--that is, Conservative Peers--has the lowest proportional attendance rate of the three parties in the House, but somehow it wins virtually all the Divisions. Indeed, we know that it is the Conservative hereditary vote which sees the Government home every time. There is again no need to labour that point. The figures were given most effectively by my noble friend Lord Richard.
The answer of course lies in the actual active numerical strengths on the 50 per cent. basis--Conservatives 184; Liberal Democrats 32; Labour 73; and the Cross Benches 59, making a total of 348. In other words, the numerical preponderance of the Conservative vote far outweighs their much lower proportionate attendance figure.
If we approach the figures in that way, they reveal something of a weakness in the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and the academic theorists in the Constitution Unit, who base their proposals for reform on the nominal strengths in the House and not the active strengths of the three main parties and the Cross-Benchers. The figures suggest also that a reformed House could work quite well with a total membership of about 350, excluding the Law Lords and the Bishops.
In passing, I should pay tribute to my Labour colleagues--both life Peers and Peers by succession--who have the best proportional attendance figures of any group in the House, despite their much higher average age. The effect of all that can be seen if we take just one Division at random: the important vote on Monday on the asylum Bill where the Government had a majority of 13. The voting did not depend merely on the votes of hereditary Peers; it depended upon the votes of 19 hereditary Peers who did not reach the 50 per cent. attendance mark in the past Session. That would apply to almost every Division, if one analysed them. I shall spare the blushes of the Benches opposite by forbearing to analyse the notorious vote on the poll tax. But having said all that, I recognise the valuable part that is played in the work of the House by hereditary Peers on all sides. Any practical reform of this House will have to take that into account in some way. After all, the Association of Conservative Peers will have to man the Opposition Front Bench somehow.
I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, replies to the debate he will give us the Government's considered view on the obvious and glaring inequity that I have described and say whether they have any plans to deal with it. I hope that in reply he will not follow the noble Viscount the Leader of the House by quoting the random selection argument which is sometimes used to justify the present situation. It is true that, if one were selecting a group which was white, male, public-school educated, with an above-average involvement in field sports and the patronage of charities, the hereditary peerage would represent a statistically valid sample.
But I am sure that there are thoughtful Peers in all parts of the House who recognise that the present situation is indefensible. Equally, as a lifelong member of the Fabian Society, I am a great believer in federalism. An important question should be asked, and it has not been put today. There was a story in the weekend press that some of the wilder spirits on the Conservative Benches have indicated that they would not regard themselves as bound by the Salisbury Convention in the case of a Bill to reform the House of Lords brought in by a Labour Government. Will the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, say whether, if a manifesto commitment to introduce a Bill to abolish the hereditary right to sit and vote is legitimised by an election victory and such a Bill is passed in another place, the Conservative Party will observe the Salisbury Convention and not use its in-built majority in this House to kill such a Bill?
Clearly, my party has thrown down a challenge with its proposals for reform of the House of Lords. It proposes a short Bill, with wider consultation to follow. I happen to believe that there is a will to change this House for the better. There is a will to produce a House which is a genuine revising Chamber, with the power to warn and inform the Executive, whichever party is in government, which is established on a defensible and equitable basis, balancing the many interests involved, and which does not threaten the powers of the elected Chamber. We must hope that today's debate will be the beginning of that process.
Lord Boardman: My Lords, I am glad that the debate extends to the role and structure of Parliament and is not confined merely to the future reform of this House. Any decision as regards the reform of this House will depend completely on how it is met by Members of another place. Any reform of this House proposed by the Labour Party must involve the transfer of authority and power from the other place to this House. The other place would not like that and would not agree. It would never consent to transfer any of its powers to this place. The noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Annan, referred to that today.
I urge those on the Labour Front Bench, and Mr. Blair in particular, to read with care the debates in 1968 when Michael Foot and Enoch Powell combined the same objective with different arguments to destroy the agreement made between both Front Benches in both Houses for the reform of the House of Lords. Anyone
Throughout the centuries massive changes have been made in Parliament. The House of Commons has increased its powers and this House has adapted to his present role. One could properly describe this House as a forum for high quality debate on national issues. It has the role of scrutinising, amending and improving legislation. It also has the important role, which we sometimes overlook, of ensuring that Parliament does not extend its life over five years. Another important role is securing the independence of the judges--I am tempted to say judges to interpret the law and not to make it, but perhaps that strays too far.
I believe that this House carries out all its roles very well. It has in its membership experts in all aspects of life. It is something of an elder statesman or father figure. I hope that when I use the term "father figure" noble Baronesses will not think that I am in any way trying to play down their great contribution to this House. It is full of wisdom and experience which are drawn from a very wide circle. Its young hereditary Peers bring in a freshness perhaps to offset to some extent the more mature former leaders of government, the Armed Forces, industry, the Bishops and the judges who otherwise make up the majority of the membership.
The onus is upon those who want to change the House to justify doing so. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and others, the difficulty is that we have a greater number of Conservative Peers than there are Peers of the other parties. We do not have a majority but we have a larger number. They may feel that it might be right to reaffirm the Salisbury rules and perhaps to extend them in order to assure the electorate that the Conservative Party in this House would not block any measure for which they clearly voted. That would be right, and I believe that if we were not prepared to do so, the electorate would be suspicious of the role that we might otherwise exercise.
Any reform of this House would require the agreement of the other place in transferring its power. I ask Members of the Labour Party to consider making it clear in their manifesto--I have not yet had the pleasure of reading today's draft manifesto--that in fulfilling its promises it will warn Members of the other place that they will have to surrender part of their powers. They will have to transfer a part of their powers to Scotland, a part to the European Parliament or Community and a part to the reformed House of Lords. Members of the other place will not like it and I should be surprised if they agreed to it. One must anticipate that the other place will have strong views about the transfer of their powers or any reduction in them.
Finally, I was privileged to be a Member of the other place some time ago. I believe that there are now too many Members. Constituencies and membership were built up in the days when one depended on horses to get around. With modern transport and communications, I believe that we have a great surplus of Members. The result is that Members tend to get loaded with matters which are properly the responsibility of district or parish
Members of the other place are also under severe restraint as regards their outside occupations; indeed, that pressure has been increased. I fear that there are now many frustrated Members who feel that they are underpaid and required to work unsocial hours. Those noble Lords who have visited the other place will know that the Chamber there is nearly always empty, except for Prime Minister's Question Time. I find it a very great contrast to the House of Commons that I knew only a relatively few years ago.
Anyone who is seriously looking for reform of Parliament should, instead of concentrating on the reform of this Chamber, which would be very difficult to achieve, look at the effectiveness of both Chambers. However, in the meantime I would urge those concerned not to seek the reform of this House--certainly not in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, with a two-phased arrangement taking away the right of hereditary Peers to vote and to turn up here--but while they scratch their heads, to decide what alternative they might suggest. I urge those anxious for reform to look right across the board and consider the attitude that Members of the House of Commons would take to any such changes. They should think most carefully before they try to implement any change.
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