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Viscount Thurso: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. He has said a good deal about the Labour and Conservative parties. The reason why there are hereditary Peers in favour of devolution is that they sit on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am extremely grateful for that comment. It has been said that hereditary or life Peers are no more independent than would be members of an upper House appointed by any other means. I owe my position in Parliament to no one who is alive. I cannot be de-selected, although I may be disenfranchised. I do not have to obtain a good position on any party list. Under the current arrangements my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Strathclyde have no power over me. They may influence me but they have no clout. If they decided that they had no further need of my services it is probable that my income would go up and not down. That is not unusual in your Lordships' House. I have already planned for my disenfranchisement at the end of the Parliament--possibly earlier--so I have no fear of that either.
I support the view of my party that if there is to be reform and we are to destroy what we have at the moment it must be done in one stage and not two. I do not believe that on its own stage one will solve the problem. What will happen if following stage one legislation continues to be amended and revised in a way that the Government do not like and they continue to be defeated? Some form of stage two will have to be implemented quickly. I am therefore certain that the Government should produce a comprehensive plan for reform and then expose it to intellectual and public examination.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, it will come as no surprise to your Lordships that I have absolutely no difficulty in coming to terms with the removal of hereditary Peers. Their only claim to be here is the privilege and fortune of birth. It is indefensible by any measurement to seek to justify the participation in our legislative process of those whose only claim is based on an accident of birth--an event or chance happening--which in many cases stretches back over hundreds of years. This phenomenal privilege has for more than a century defied the standards of democratic society.
The Parliament Act 1911 first expressed the notion of removing hereditary Peers. Nearly 90 years later the manifesto of the Labour Party following the general election last May--which was won by an unparalleled landslide--spelt out this intention. The manifesto also clearly stated that the removal of hereditary Peers from the House of Lords would not--I stress that--be dependent on further reform. I believe that this removal should be implemented as a stand-alone provision without qualification as soon as possible.
Some months ago I recall a Question along the following lines being posed from the Benches opposite: what is the difference between an hereditary Peer being here and an appointed Peer being here? My noble friend Lord Richard who was then Leader of the House replied that the difference was that appointed Peers were here because of what they had done whereas hereditary Peers were here because of what someone else had done. That difference is crucial. Every citizen of this country can understand the appointment of an individual because of what he has done but cannot accept that someone can sit in this House simply because of birth. That is not to say that I do not have sympathy with the hereditary Peers who actively participate in the work of this House. In that regard I support the provision of some accommodation as long as such Peers sit in their own right and not because of their birth.
Having unequivocally expressed my view about the first stage of reform, I turn to my suggestions for the second stage. Essentially, I am opposed to any form of elections to this House. Here I part company with my noble friend Lord Richard. I regard the role of the House of Lords as a Chamber that is intended to complement the work of the democratically elected House of Commons. I do not envisage this House fundamentally challenging the will of the other place. This is a revising Chamber to dot i's and cross t's and deal with the details of legislative proposals coming from the elected Chamber. It is work with limitations but it is nevertheless work of value to our democratic system and hence to this country's democratic way of life. I wish to see that role and function continued by the House of Lords.
Against that background, I do not believe that elections would be appropriate for this House. Since the introduction of the Life Peerages Act in particular, this Chamber has benefited from the views of people with a very wide range of experience. It contains men and women from all walks of life who bring with them a lifetime of experience, skill, knowledge and expertise. They come from the judiciary, the Armed Forces, the police, the Civil Service, local government, business, the arts, academia, charities, politics and trade unions, to mention but some. They all bring with them a wealth of specialisation to enhance the calibre and value of our work. That is a great benefit which would be lost for ever if elections to this place were ever introduced. Why do I say this? I believe that most of us who are appointed to this House have in one way or another succeeded in the fields to which I have referred. We come here having spent a large part of our lives elsewhere. We are honoured by this privilege and wish to use our knowledge and experience for the benefit of our nation. Our only motive is to serve. I believe that, if elections to this House were introduced, very few of us, if any, would wish to stand in such elections and that the benefits of the characteristics to which I have drawn attention could be lost never to be retrieved.
What would be the other disadvantages if this House became an elected Chamber? First, I cannot see an elected chamber accepting for very long the limited powers that it now has. As greater authority is demanded, I see two elected chambers on a collision
Secondly, should there be elections to this House, I fear that the candidates will not have reached an age to give them the lifetime's experience to which I have drawn attention. Instead, they will be young, ambitious politicians, many of whom will see this House as a stepping stone to the House of Commons, much like those who have seen elections to the European Parliament as a stepping stone to Westminster.
Thirdly, we must ask ourselves, do we really believe that our society, our nation, our democracy will be any better served by having two elected Chambers? I strongly suggest not. I would go further and say that, with two elected Chambers, fundamental conflict is inevitable sooner or later. In my view, the consequence of that would be fatal for the House of Lords. A part-elected, part-appointed House of Lords would be an even greater disaster.
Although I have made my case against elections, change does need to be considered, whether by means of a White Paper, by a Royal Commission or by an Appointments Commission. It has to be change that is well thought-out and not hasty; change that is based on a rational assessment of what this House is for, and not change brought about by an emotional reaction to the removal of hereditary Peers.
I should like to see the changes kept simple and the basic work of this House largely unaltered. I therefore advocate change to assist and enhance this objective, not to challenge and undermine it. I believe it is sufficient to give consideration to, first, establishing an acceptable system of appointments, maintaining a reasonable balance and with an influential Cross-Bench presence; secondly, making an accommodation for active, participating hereditary Peers to sit in their own right, not based on birth; and thirdly, seriously considering a reduction of the existing 12-month delaying power.
In conclusion, I offer a word of caution to those opposite who argue that further change should be spelt out before the removal of hereditary Peers. Such an argument will be closely scrutinised. This stance may well be thought to be only a ploy to preserve the hereditary element by stealth, by never being prepared to accept the terms for further change, whatever they happen to be. If the British people see this as the view being put forward by the Conservative Party, then the consequences for them at the next general election will indeed be grave.
Lord Blackwell: My Lords, in the first speech I made to your Lordships' House I argued that one of the lessons from history was that the fashionable consensus of the day was often wrong and that it was the duty of this House to stand up against the fashionable consensus and to argue for what was right.
One such fashionable consensus of the day is the view that an unelected second Chamber is in some way necessarily undemocratic and illegitimate. It is no doubt for that reason that the Labour Party manifesto is a mirror of all that is fashionable consensus, suggesting that the House should be made "more democratic and representative". That view reflects the false notion that democracy means that a government elected with a temporary majority has a mandate to impose on the country whatever legislation it chooses. The reality is that free democracy depends on checks and balances on an elected government, otherwise what we have is an elective dictatorship.
The crucial role of the House of Lords in the UK constitution is to provide that ultimate check on the elected government, because the other House, dominated as it is by the party Whips and by the re-selection process, is in reality unable to call the Government to check when that Government have a large majority. The House of Lords is able to do that precisely because it is independent. That is a crucial point that we must not lose in this debate. As many have said, it may not be easy to defend the current composition of the House of Lords in logic, but it works.
Like many relatively new Members, I cannot help but be impressed by the quality of debate and by the independence of Members of both sides of the House in what they say and in the way they vote. It is because the House of Lords avoids the lobby fodder mentality that, as we have seen in many debates over the past year, it is the House of Lords which has in effect been the House of common sense, standing up for ordinary people's views against a Government trying to push through legislation regardless. I am sure that was also the case in previous years with other governments.
In many ways it is a strength and not a weakness that, rather than having a House of professional politicians, the House of Lords draws on a large group of Peers who do not all attend daily for every part of the business, but can and do attend if there are major constitutional issues. It is exactly that large pool of commonsense Peers who are able to come in when the issues demand it which gives it that strength and independence. Even though it has been argued that it is undemocratic, the reality is that most of the votes that this and other governments have lost on the more day-to-day issues have been lost when they cannot get the support of their own Back-Benchers and Cross-Benchers, not because of the turn-out of Tory backwoodsmen.
I am therefore in the camp of my noble friend Lord Baker. I would not change it unless there was a clear alternative which would work very much better than the House of Lords does at present. As a realist, however, I accept that that is an argument which may not win in the current debate. Unlike some of my colleagues, I am not so much fearful of stage one--although I prefer not to get there--I am more fearful of what stage one may lead on to in stage two. In particular, I fear that this fashionable consensus which drives us will lead to pressure for what, before the summer, the Leader of the Opposition described as a democratically elected second Chamber. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that
An elected membership would simply replicate in this House the party political debates and patterns of voting that occur in the other place. It would reinforce the elective dictatorship of a government with a large majority, rather than standing as a bastion against it. It would mean that this House could no longer stand firm as the House of common sense. Whatever happens, therefore, I want to declare my opposition to any solution which moves to an elected second Chamber. I prefer to keep it as it is, but moving to an elected second Chamber would be the worst of all worlds. This House must be prepared to stand out again against fashionable consensus on this issue and must argue as hard as it can for what is right.
Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, in my youth I was taught by my schoolteacher parents and by my own teachers to have a high regard and great respect for the hereditary aristocracy of the United Kingdom. Indeed, I learned much about the outstanding contributions to the life and work of this country and in the international arena which many noble families made in the service of Crown and country over the centuries. Members of many such families continue to sit in this House, among them the noble Viscount the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition whose proud ancestry stretches back over many generations.
When I had the privilege of joining your Lordships' House in 1989, I was immediately impressed by the persuasive speeches and other contributions to the work of the House made by many hereditary Peers. Being heavily embroiled, as I soon was, in debates on human fertilisation and embryology and on reform of the National Health Service, I quickly recognised that the standard of debate in your Lordships' House was exceptional. Often, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said in his recent letter to The Times, it seemed better than in another place. Clearly, too, among the life Peers there were many with expertise in the professions, politics, business and academe who possessed specific expertise which added cogency and illumination to many of our debates.
Despite my personal previous political affiliation, I decided to be a Cross-Bencher, as I believed then and do now that the ability to express an independent view, not coloured by party loyalty, allows one to contribute effectively to debates on many issues. I am therefore delighted, as one of about 320 Cross-Bench Peers, to learn that all parties and commentators are agreed that any reformed House must have a strong independent element. I also resolved in those early days that my contributions to debates would normally be limited to speaking on issues relating to medicine, science and education, but with an occasional sideswipe relating to
I have breached that self-imposed ordinance today with some temerity by speaking in this debate, as I firmly believe that the future of this House is so important that we must get it right for the sake of this still proud nation. The question of reform has engendered a mass of comment and speculation from Members of this House, journalists, political commentators and many others. I have particularly enjoyed reading the diverse views expressed in an issue of the House Magazine published on 3rd August, the House of Commons Research Paper 98/85 published on 19th August, and the initial report of the constitutional commission chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, published last month. The wide range of views expressed in those and many other documents, both public and private, have clarified some points but to others have added confusion, doubt and even occasionally bewilderment. A few proposals which I shall refrain from specifying have been breathtakingly naive.
I listened carefully to the clear and forceful introductory remarks of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. I welcome the Government's decision to publish a White Paper which I am sure we all await avidly. But while my experience of this House, now of some nine years, is relatively brief, I believe that several important principles are self-evident. The first is that the House, as now constituted, serves as an effective revising Chamber in amending, where appropriate, some comparatively ill digested legislation emanating from another place.
Secondly, the range of expertise and wisdom in this Chamber is so exceptional that it would be difficult to conceive of a national forum of greater competence and skill. Thirdly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, stressed, the reports of its Select Committees have plainly had a major influence on policy decisions of governments of all political persuasions. However, I must add that while I am totally in favour of an hereditary constitutional monarchy (and long may it continue) I have become reluctantly but increasingly convinced that despite my admiration for the contributions made by many hereditary Peers, and not least by many of my noble friends on these Benches, the principle of conferring a right to sit and to legislate solely through accident of birth is one that can no longer be sustained in the 21st century.
For that reason I could not in all conscience oppose a Bill designed to remove the right to sit and vote of present and future hereditary Peers. If, however, Her Majesty's Government were simply to introduce a one clause Bill with that sole objective, it would leave behind a House which I believe, contrary to the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, would be almost unworkable. Before the recent influx of new working Peers, of the 450 or so life Peers 52 per cent. were over the age of 70. Having myself had experience of the work of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and having chaired two of its sub-committee inquiries, as well as your Lordships'
Nevertheless, I appreciate that so many views have been expressed about such a final solution that a lengthy period of detailed consultation and consideration will be needed before agreement can be reached. Some would prefer an all-appointed House; some, one which is part-appointed and part-elected. Only a few seek a wholly elected senate. In my view, even a partly elected chamber could not properly function without acquiring some of the responsibilities of another place, functions which that Chamber might be reluctant to relinquish. I add a second point. I and I am sure many other professional men and women would never have considered standing for election. Nor would I have been prepared to do so when very much younger.
My personal wish, like that of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, would be to see in the longer term an appointed House. But I wholly agree with the proposed removal of exclusive prime ministerial patronage in order that an independent commission could be established to nominate future life Peers, while the Prime Minister would retain some limited authority, along with other political leaders, to nominate a few.
Many suggestions have emerged about the future authority and powers of the House. I believe that its present powers are about right and need only minor amendment, perhaps by filling in the gaps identified by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell. As for the long term future, despite my wish and that of many others to see a comprehensive Bill dealing with phases 1 and 2, there are now so many imponderables to be considered that I must reluctantly accept that this is unlikely to be achieved immediately. The chance of fulfilling this ideal objective seems almost as impossible as the prospect of a Eurosceptic Conservative Party winning the next general election. Provided, therefore, that Her Majesty's Government are prepared to give a firm commitment that there will be a phase 2, and will define a reasonably precise timetable, I would be prepared to support phase 1, modified as I will suggest in a moment, while fully supporting the appointment of a Royal Commission empowered to advise upon the longer term.
In the meantime, I would wish to see an interim House strengthened by the addition of up to 100 of the present hereditary Peers who have been regular attenders and effective contributors to the work of the House selected as life Peers on a quota basis from the individual parties and the Cross-Benches in order to sustain a satisfactory balance between the parties and the independents. I do not believe that it would be beyond the wit of man, and certainly not of your
I add a final note of what I hope may be regarded as enlightened self interest, being now myself nearer 80 than 70 years of age. I again disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. I trust that Her Majesty's Government, despite my earlier comments on the age structure of existing life Peers, will not impose an upper age limit. On listening attentively to debates in your Lordships' House, I have been impressed by the cogency, power and quality of many of the contributions made by noble Lords in their eighth and ninth decades.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, in today's debate there has been a polarisation of the timing of any proposed changes. Either they are to be immediate or the status quo prevails. I suggest that there is a middle way. I also believe that the Members on the Benches opposite do not appreciate the significance of the announcement about the formation of the committee headed by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay.
It should be accepted that we on these Benches believe that a change is inevitable. That could form the basis of an all-party consensus. I, too, am concerned that the interim Chamber will not be so effective a revising Chamber, according to the principles of my noble friend Lord Cranborne. I should like its existence to be as short as possible--it is only an interim measure.
I am attracted by the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and my noble friend Lord Ferrers and by the more radical proposals of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, that the phasing out of hereditary Peers should be delayed. The Leader of the House suggested that a Royal Commission to be set up promptly should look at stage two. If the present character of this House were maintained for two or three years, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Cranborne, that would enable the Royal Commission to sit and perhaps issue an interim report. The transition would then be much more seamless.
The Government would have the assurance of a finite end to the hereditary principle. I suggest that the condition of all-party agreement would be that stage two is brought forward to a definite date and therefore the fear would be removed from those on these Benches that stage two would be delayed for another 80 years. I suggest that that would eliminate the confrontation which looks dangerously apparent. The consensus, which is the glory of this House, would be reasserted. If any subject needs consensus it is this one.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, we have already heard that the duties of this House are to amend legislation, occasionally to delay it and, importantly, to prevent a government extending their own life. That has not happened in my memory, but I believe that it happened with the consent of all parties in both Houses at the beginning of the First and Second World Wars. And rightly so on those occasions.
However, this House has another duty which may have been mentioned when I was not in the Chamber. It is the duty to protect the independence of the judiciary. We read in the papers and hear on the news that the judiciary in other countries is used to force through a government's policy and to get rid of unwanted opposition. The duty to protect the judiciary is enshrined in Section 11(3) of the Supreme Court Act 1981. An Address from both Houses of Parliament to Her Majesty the Queen is required before a Supreme Court judge can be removed.
We have an extremely unbalanced House of Commons with a very large government majority. In no way am I suggesting that the present Government would seek to interfere with the independence of the judiciary. But at some time in the future there may be a government which might wish to do that. If the House of Lords as then constituted were unbalanced and not independent there would be a danger that our judiciary could be removed if it were not prepared to do what the government of the day wanted and force through government policy. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we keep a large independent membership in this House. That need not necessarily be those who do not take a Whip. Many Members of this House of all parties although they take a Whip act independently. I know from experience that one can be very unpopular with one's Whips for doing so--as I see from my noble friends on the Front Bench!
I, too, would like to see the reform of Parliament completed in one stage, otherwise we shall be in danger of achieving an unbalanced Parliament which will have difficulties in the future. However, if the Government do not believe--and they appear not to believe--that they can deal with the whole reform at once, any Act to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote must contain a fixed timetable setting out the future reforms that are to be put in place. There might be the possibility of a Royal Commission, as suggested by the Leader of the House, with a fixed timetable. There must be not only a timetable for the commission's consideration but a timetable for its reporting and any reforms to be enacted. That must be enshrined in the legislation to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, is not in his place at the moment. He suggested that the power of this House to delay legislation should be reduced from the existing period of one year. I disagree strongly with that because I was in this House when the War Crimes Bill was thrown out on Third Reading on two occasions. It was brought back to the House of Commons, having been introduced by the Conservative government of the day, immediately after the Queen's
I believe that history has shown that we were right to throw it out. It has cost the country countless millions of pounds and, as far as I can see, so far it has been totally ineffective. But for all practical purposes, the delay was some five or six months and no more.
The noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, suggested that there should be no upper age limit in this House, and with that I entirely agree. There is a built-in wisdom and experience with age--experience more than anything else and a knowledge of what has happened in the past. I can remember listening to Lord Shinwell shortly before his 100th birthday making an extremely fine speech. He showed that age is no bar in this House to performing extremely well.
Viscount Chandos: My Lords, I rise to speak not with the sadness of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, but with the excitement that comes from the first sight of land after a great voyage. After nearly 90 years of political tacking, there is at last the imminent prospect of a second chamber in Parliament which is not disfigured by its own composition, a composition which, despite the distinguished contribution of many hereditary Peers, as my noble friend Lady Jay acknowledged, is patently unjustifiable through its hereditary element and is offensive to a large proportion of the electorate.
I speak as an hereditary Peer, the beneficiary of a peerage awarded to my grandfather as a Conservative politician. I suppose that that is the mirror image of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. I take great pride in the career of my grandfather through an extraordinary and crucial period in British history, but I have not for one moment believed that his achievements in any way justified my right to have a seat close to the centre of the country's political and legislative heart.
Unlike my noble friend Lord Shepherd, I did not have the benefit of advice from a former Prime Minister as to whether to take up my inheritance, but I reached a similar conclusion; that until the cavalry arrived, I should do what I could to mitigate the huge imbalance between Conservative Members of this House and those who take the Whip of other parties.
It has been my privilege to play a small part in your Lordships' House for 16 years, but I have played that part also as a result of privilege and not through my own merit nor through the choice of the electorate. Therefore, I unequivocally and unconditionally welcome the confirmation of my noble friend Lady Jay that our manifesto commitment will be implemented through a Bill to be introduced in the next Session. I urge your Lordships, hereditary and life Peers alike, to support this first step of reform to end the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House. Unusually, I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I hope that our right, in the unforgettable words of P.G. Wodehouse to "browse and sluice" will likewise be ended.
I hope and expect that the ending of the rights of hereditary Peers will be without favour or exception--no quotas, no horse-trades, no promises. As the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, requested, let former hereditary Peers be eligible only for whatever election or nomination is open to other citizens.
I, too, believe that the ultimate composition of this House should be substantially through direct elections but I am sympathetic to the Government's caution about committing to a precise timetable for agreeing and introducing the next stage of reform in a period when other hugely important and worthwhile constitutional reforms are being implemented and bedded down.
I have absolutely no doubt about the sincerity of the Government's commitment to a democratic and accountable second chamber. I am confident that the second stage of reform, whatever the self-declared knowledge of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, will take place and will take place in a form and within a timescale that satisfies all those of your Lordships with a genuine commitment to reform.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, alleges, with the cynicism of his party, which was recognised by the electorate last year, that no government will have the incentive to move beyond the transitional position. I say that this Government have that incentive, through a deep-seated commitment to constitutional and democratic reform as a central part of our country's modernisation. Even if, through mishap, the reform stalled at the transitional stage--which I do not expect--it would be unequivocally better and closer to the electorate's wishes than the present position.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and other speakers from the Benches opposite, try to make the country's flesh crawl with cries of "patronage", "government lackeys" and "ermine-clad quangos"--charges which I can only describe as rich with dramatic irony. In doing so, moreover, they seem to me to insult the performance and integrity of life Peers of every party whose record of critical independence--as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, pointed out--is at least as good as those of hereditary Peers. Indeed, I was witness in a smoke-filled bar before the Recess to my party's Whips formulating plans to recommend hereditary peerages for my noble friend Lord Desai and other particularly independent life Peers in the hope--forlorn, I am afraid--that they would thereby be rid of their own particular turbulent priests.
The most striking omission in the opening remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, was his failure to answer--or even to attempt to answer--the question of my noble friend Lady Jay as to whether he and his colleagues will adhere to the rules formulated in part by his grandfather; that is, the Salisbury-Addison rules. Even if the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is right that no ordinary voter ever reads a party manifesto, I am sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne--deep in the engine room of the Conservative Party's last election campaign--did, and will acknowledge that the Government plan--as indicated by my noble friend Lady Jay--is exactly and precisely in line with the Labour Party manifesto.
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