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Baroness Young: My Lords, I entirely accept what the 1968 proposals did. I was not in the House at that time. But my colleagues who were here supported the agreement and supported it consistently. However, it was preceded by general discussion and agreement, which is what my noble friend Lord Cranborne has been proposing all along. It was lost not by the House of Lords but by the House of Commons. That is the danger of any stage two reform.
Perhaps I may make my own credentials clear. During the 1970s, when we were in opposition, I served on a working party under the chairmanship of the late Lord Home to look at reform of the House of Lords. We produced a report which proposed not only a total reform of the House of Lords but also a number of subsidiary smaller reforms. I stand by those today.
There is an extremely genuine willingness to look at reform. I do not normally talk about this, but I was the first woman Leader of the House. At that time, I made a number of proposals. I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that if she compares the lot of women in this House with that of women in the House of Commons, she will see how much better women do here. Whatever one may say about the multitude of masculine hereditary Peers, they have never prevented women taking top jobs. Women have held all the top jobs in the House of Lords under both Conservative and Labour governments--something of which we should be proud. So there is a lot to be said for the opportunities that women have in this House as opposed to the House of Commons.
There have been three reforms of your Lordships' House since 1945 which have worked and which have carried all-party support. In 1949 it was action to reduce the delaying power and in 1958 the introduction of life Peers, a Conservative Party reform under the late Lord Stockton when he was Prime Minister. There followed the reforms of 1963. All were seen at the time as relatively small reforms but they have had large and, to a certain extent, unexpected success.
The difficulty of any major reform, the difficulty of stage two, is that any increase in the powers of the House of Lords--and unless it has increased powers there is, it seems to me, no point in reforming it--will mean a lessening of the powers of the House of Commons. That follows as night follows day. It was on this issue that the 1968 reform fell. I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Commons would be willing to give up its powers to the House of Lords, or that any government with a majority in the Commons would willingly choose to have an Upper House which made difficulties for it. But that is a problem for the Royal Commission. It is a constitutional problem.
However, there is a political problem as regards stage two. Whatever may be said today, whatever promises may be given about stage two, no government can commit their successors. The truth is that we are unlikely to see any conclusion to any commission, let alone its implementation which would clearly require legislation, in this Parliament. We have started therefore down a dangerous route. We have chosen what I think is a bad reform, stage one, of the House of Lords. We do not know how it will work out. There are no clear plans for a transitional arrangement. There are unclear plans for stage two. And we are asked to accept it. I, for one, do not consider it a very good package.
I listened to the noble Viscount with great interest. I am bound to say that in my dealings with him on this matter over the past year I never thought of him as a closet reformer who had nursed an unrequited passion for parliamentary reform all the time he had found himself collectively gagged when he was in another place and a member of the government in this House. I received a different impression. No doubt it was erroneous, and the noble Viscount succeeded in concealing this great reforming zeal from me. If he did, I am delighted to see it revealed this afternoon.
I believe that it is time the House had the opportunity of making its views known. The chance of legislating successfully on a matter of this importance and gravity is rare. As various speakers have pointed out, in the past the subject has been thought to be too difficult, the ramifications too intense and the political disturbance too great, and successive governments have balked at it. Indeed, the opportunity to regularise relations between the two Houses of Parliament comes perhaps only one or twice a century. In my view, this is the best opportunity that we have had to produce a sensible constitutional settlement between the two Houses since 1910. If we can produce a sensible constitutional settlement which will last, that seems to me to be an enormous prize for which we should strive. If we fail, I suppose we shall continue with what is in essence a unicameral legislature in which the upper House has considerable nuisance value but little else. So the stakes are high.
The Government are right to approach this in two stages. This was spelt out clearly in our manifesto at the last election when it received the massive endorsement of the British people. I am bound to say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I thought her description of that as a constitutional outrage was way over the top. If we had not put it in the manifesto, that would have been a constitutional outrage. If it had not been in the manifesto and we were now proposing it, I can imagine the speeches that would be made from the Benches opposite. This policy has been Labour Party policy for many years. Since 1910 the issue of whether one permits hereditary Peers to sit and vote in your Lordships' House has been a live one. I feel no shame whatsoever in proceedings to bring this matter before Parliament on the basis of the result of the last general election.
The Government are quite right, therefore, to move forward on the first stage. In a modern legislature there can be no reserved seats for a privileged few. The continued presence of hereditary Peers in the second Chamber is objectionable in principle, whatever their political leanings are. The fact that the great majority of those who attend take the Conservative Whip only underlines the grotesque unfairness of the present system in which one party has a permanent advantage in one of our two Houses of Parliament.
I support in general the approach of the Government in this matter. I was proud to serve as a lead Minister on the issue. I believed then and I believe now that it is important for the Government to indicate the general direction in which they wish to go. I listened carefully to my noble friend Lady Jay. Clearly on the basis of what we have heard this afternoon there are many issues yet to be dealt with.
It is right also to establish a Royal Commission between the two stages. However, listening to the arguments advanced by the Opposition, one thing strikes me. It seems to me inconceivable that a Royal Commission would recommend a continuation of the rights of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House. It may recommend many other things, but I should have thought that most people would agree that that is not likely to be the result of its deliberations. Indeed, the point most often made by the Opposition on this issue is that of course it is indefensible. We heard from the noble Viscount today: "It is indefensible. We accept that, but we shall not go until we know and approve all the details of any alternatives that might be proposed". In reality this is an argument only about timing.
It is important that the mechanism for moving to the second stage is clearly and unmistakably spelt out. I think that the Government are well on the way to doing precisely that, although I would wish them to go somewhat further in spelling out their overall intentions. I believe that the Royal Commission should be set up earlier rather than later. I am pleased that the Government have moved away from the idea of a joint committee of both Houses to consider the matter. It always struck me as too cosy a meeting of parliamentarians. The Royal Commission should have a tightly drawn mandate. It should be given a timetable of, say, 18 months. Its work should therefore be concluded, its report published, in the lifetime of this Parliament, although towards its end. All parties, including of course the Government, will have to give evidence; and all parties, including of course the Government, will have to consider and react to the report.
Membership of the commission will be crucial. It should contain people who are not overtly attached to any political party. There is clearly a case for having some academics in the field. Industry, the trade unions and the regions should also have a voice. The chairman has to be someone of undoubted and recognised stature and integrity. It will have to take evidence widely. It will have to take evidence from anyone who wishes to give it. Indeed, it will have to be a massive exercise in public consultation if it is to do its job properly.
I hope that the Government will make clear the timetable they propose for subsequent legislation. By doing so they will definitely answer one of the main questions at the core of this debate. I read in the press
I do not envisage legislation on the report of the Royal Commission until the first or second year of the next Parliament, so that the whole process would take around four years. As I said earlier, in many ways the issue of the hereditary peerage and its right to sit and vote in this House in some ways resolves itself into a question of timing. Should that step be taken at the beginning or at the end of the process? In all candour, I have heard no convincing arguments for postponing it. Indeed, when pressed, the opponents to the Government's proposition seem to condense the point to one of not being able to trust the Government to do what they say. The House will not be surprised that that is not a view which I share.
In any event, most of the arguments come from a mistaken view of the nature of the interim house. I believe it has been referred to as the "transitional House" but I can assure noble Lords that it is the same beast that we are describing. It will be one composed of life Peers. If hereditary Peers are extracted, there will be approximately 500 life Peers. It is said that the Government will pack it with their own supporters. We heard that argument yet again this afternoon, and I have no doubt that it will be repeated during the course of the next two days.
There are two answers to that. First, if the Government were to accept and to initiate a cap on the size of the interim House--say, around 600--and to accept as we have, and as repeated this afternoon by my noble friend the Leader of the House, that no party should have an absolute majority in this Chamber, then most of the arguments disappear. The scope for massive packing would not exist.
Clearly some life Peers would have to be created. In my view the Labour Party is entitled to seek at least parity plus one with the number of Conservative life Peers--even the noble Viscount might concede the rough justice of that proposal. There are as yet an unspecified number of hereditary Peers who may be converted into life Peers, so there must be scope for new creations within the cap. It seems to me that Cross-Benchers could remain at about the same proportion of life Peers as at present. Furthermore, the Government have already said that they favour an independent appointments commission to remove new creations from being the sole prerogative of the Prime Minister--something no other government have ever said before. I am sure that the House will await with interest the details as to how that commission will function.
The position at which we would arrive is this: a two-stage process in which, as our manifesto said, the first stage stands alone. There would be an interim House in which the number of life Peers is capped and in which the unfettered right of the Prime Minister to create as many peerages as he would wish is diminished. There would be a Royal Commission and a clear understanding that the Government would proceed to early legislation in the next Parliament so that the
The one issue on which I and the Government differ is whether or not they should say now, or in the forthcoming White Paper, the type of second Chamber they would eventually wish to see. My preference--there is no secret about it--is one in which two-thirds are elected and one-third is nominated. I am anxious to preserve the role of the Cross-Benchers. They genuinely add independence and expertise to this House and it would be sad if the British legislature could not continue to provide them with a voice. The political element would be the elected two-thirds and the independent element would be the nominated one-third. No one party therefore would ever be able to command an absolute majority in the second Chamber.
It is said, and I heard it recently, that a chamber thus constituted could conflict over much with the Commons--we heard that from the noble Baroness this afternoon. But let us be clear about this. Whatever one does to reform this House, it will be more troublesome to the other place. At the moment our constitution works partly because of the relative reluctance of this House to use the powers that it actually possesses. We must expect that a newly constituted House may use those powers differently.
Should we find that prospect unappealing? I do not believe so. Most other bicameral legislatures in this world exist and flourish with a degree of creative tension between the two Houses. Inevitably, institutions of government react with and to each other. It happens in Australia, the United States, France and in Germany, to name but a few. It would happen here. Relations are not static; they can and do change. We must face the fact that one cannot reform and expect things to remain the same; they will not.
The Government therefore have a major opportunity to move this matter forward. I would wish it to go one step further. With respect to my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington--I see he is in his place--they could sensibly and legitimately adopt the diplomatic device much used in the affairs of the European Union known as avis favourable. They could say now that, in principle, they believe that the eventual second Chamber should be composed of an elected and nominated element. They could go further if they wished and say that the two-thirds/one-third division, advanced among others by the late Lord Home, is a proposition which they could well favour. That is not to pre-empt the views of the Royal Commission. It is to indicate firmly that, as a government, they are in favour of a democratically elected majority in the second Chamber of the British legislature.
If the Government can, in the course of this debate or in the White Paper, go as far as I have indicated, then we will be well set on the road towards a reform of this House that will last. I believe too that this Government will rightly take their place among the great reforming governments, certainly of this century and perhaps also of the 19th century. I hope that we have the collective courage to grasp this opportunity, for such reforming governments rarely come.
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