Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, if the noble Viscount will give way, I can perhaps shorten his speech. My noble friend gave a very clear undertaking in his opening speech, so the noble Viscount need not go further into that.

Viscount Chandos: My Lords, I am sorry if I missed that. If that is the case, then we can look forward to the swift passage of the short Bill necessary to implement the policy contained in the Labour Party manifesto and, at the same time, to the normal and proper passage of all other Bills put before the House in the next Session.

9.18 p.m.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I shall be brief, as I always am. I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for giving us this opportunity for debate and for her charming note to me. Laying aside the chilling tone of the Labour manifesto's reference to a final solution for hereditary Peers and the obvious pleasure in our departure which some life Peers whom we thought were our friends exhibited, and before I am thrown off the precipice into the abyss, it raises the question: what is the House of Lords for? Do we in Britain need a second Chamber?

Having had the great good fortune, through no merit of my own, I hasten to add, unlike life Peers who all arrived on merit, of having been here for 12 years, of having been welcomed in such a warm and friendly way by your Lordships and of having had the opportunity to work with so many of your Lordships--both life and hereditary--and indeed being aware of the volume of work they undertake, I am very sure that we do need a second Chamber.

My second son, a scientist, worked in Australia and perfected a complicated system of producing clear drinkable water from sewage through a series of filters. It seems to me that one of the chief functions of the House of Lords is very similar. It is filtering out the untreated legislation from the other place and making it into workable laws. It is also going through EU directives with a fine toothcomb which the Members of the other place, having constituencies to attend to as well as their parliamentary functions, do not have time to do. It has also the power of delay, like the letter you write overnight and think better of sending in the morning. And, having had the good fortune to listen to

14 Oct 1998 : Column 1010

many splendid debates in this House and to hear many far-seeing, funny, moving and magnificent speeches from so many of your Lordships, both life and hereditary, I feel that they also are part of our real contribution to the nation.

The House of Lords, as it is at present, works extremely well. The only difficulties I can see are that the two major parties are still not quite evenly balanced, which they ought to be, and that there are in theory 1,300 Peers who can vote. In practice around 400 attend and contribute regularly. And talking of the much-quoted taunt of the Back-Bench body of hereditary Peers got in by their Whips to win any important vote, there is a vital point I should like to make.

Speaking from these Benches, when I have voted against my own party on a matter of principle, which I have done from time to time, and we have been defeated, I have gone through the list of not usually attending Peers who have come in to swing the vote. I have discovered that at least 50 per cent. of them are in fact life Peers who are not regular attenders. The hereditary element is only half. That supports my suggestion. The Peers, life and hereditary, who attend this House on a regular basis and who also contribute, should retain their speaking and voting powers. Those who only attend intermittently should have the power to speak but not to vote. That would eliminate any accusation of bussed-in backwoodsmen and any element of anti-hereditary spite.

There has been much talk about dying in the ditches for the hereditary principle, which was so well defined by my noble friend Lord Beloff who is no longer in his place. Heredity has been used as a dirty word, but it is not. Every single person born into this world is hereditary; it is in their genes. Heredity is about the family, and the family is what civilisation, as we know it, is based on. I am very proud of my parents and my grandparents, just as I am of my children and grandchildren. I have only to look across this House at the noble and splendid Baroness the Leader of the House--sadly, her noble, dear and much loved father has not been in his place today--to see heredity alive and well and at its best.

This is what it all boils down to. We are not here as depicted so often in cartoons in the media--a collection of outmoded old buffers in red robes leaping aimlessly. We are here from a sense of duty--a dedicated body of Peers, both life and hereditary, and all trying, each in our own way, to serve our Queen, our country and our people.

9.23 p.m.

Lord Moran: My Lords, for 14 years I have had the good fortune to be a Member of your Lordships' House as an independent Cross-Bencher and as one of the hereditary Peers whom the Government so deeply deplore. During those years I have been struck by the gulf between what is said and done in this House when, as is often the case, party politics are laid aside, and what happens when party politics are uppermost and the Whips are on.

14 Oct 1998 : Column 1011

Since I became a Member of this House I have served on a number of its committees. I spent most of this morning hearing evidence on genetically modified crops. On these committees I have been struck by the way in which all participants leave their political prejudices at the door. They deliberate as individuals. The work of those committees seems to me to represent the House at its most constructive.

In this Chamber, I have found that those Peers to whom I have found it most worthwhile to listen are those who are, if not independent, at least independent in spirit. I refer, for example, to someone like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, or the noble Baroness, Lady Young. They have clearly seldom been much influenced by the Whips.

By contrast, when the House takes on its party political aspect, it becomes in my view far less admirable. We all know those occasions when, say, an amendment has been discussed by a few knowledgable Peers, the matter is put to a vote, and other Peers troop in from the Library and the bars, knowing nothing of the issue at stake, and inquiring, "Which way are we voting?"

In his stimulating maiden speech, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, mentioned the failure to consult the people about Maastricht. I vividly remember the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Blake, in July 1993, which called for a referendum on Maastricht and the deplorable way in which the Conservative Government bussed in supporters to achieve a vote against it of 445 to 176. That was a black day for the House of Lords, a great opportunity lost, and showed the House at its party political worst.

We know that outside this House impatience with party politics is widespread and, I think, growing. The bewilderment of farmers, fishermen, nurses, industrialists, public servants and many others is turning to anger. The Government and Parliament seem cocooned in a world of their own. I was struck the other day when my wife and I visited a farmer and his wife in west Wales. Over tea they said to us, "The Prime Minister speaks to us like God out of a cloud. He talks about the big picture, but we are never in it". That applies to many of us.

The Government's present proposals, however they may be tinkered with and improved cosmetically, seem bound to reduce the independence of this House and to increase the party political element by the creation of more of those whom I have heard described as "place mats". The preservation of a token Cross-Bench element will be wholly inadequate to maintain the independent, non-party strength of this House. I was sorry that we did not have much earlier a debate on the very sensible Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who will be speaking tomorrow. It is a Motion which has sat for so long near the top of the No Day Named list. I also agree with much that the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, said this afternoon.

Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said earlier, I think that merely abolishing the hereditary Peers will inevitably leave the House to become more and more political and subordinate to the Executive. It

14 Oct 1998 : Column 1012

will enjoy little credit in the country. Clearly, it will be a long, long time, if ever, before stage two emerges. Il n'y a rien qui dure comme le provisoir. I therefore think that what the Government are planning to do is wrong and deserves a very critical reception.

9.27 p.m.

The Earl of Iveagh: My Lords, it is a great honour to speak in this debate tonight. There is nothing like the issue of survival to focus the mind.

What lies behind the hereditary principle? In the first instance, it is pure chance. The odds of being an hereditary Peer are not unlike those for winning the National Lottery jackpot, although the outcome is far less financially rewarding. In fact, the lack of monetary reward in most cases means that financial sacrifices are made to serve in this House. The work is done completely voluntarily and in most cases selflessly. I believe that that squares fittingly with Labour's vision of Britain as,

    "a society where we do not simply pursue our individual aims but where we hold many aims in common and work together to achieve them".

On a question of finance, I must ask the Government to consider seriously whether there will be better value for taxpayers' money in the reformed House. We have the longest-standing liberal democracy in the world. Yes, the hereditary principle is anachronistic, but it successfully contributes to the wellbeing of the nation. As the saying goes, "If it ain't bust, don't fix it".

I inherited my seat aged 22 when I was a university student. I have to ask the reformers, if hereditary Peers are abolished, what plans will they put in place for the representation of the young? If this House becomes populated solely by successful people from the professional classes, I believe that it may become even more elitist and non-representative than it is at present; the elite corps merely changing, and with it, the real danger of this House losing independence through relying solely on political appointees. May I remind the Government of Lord Hailsham's powerful description of the potential for an "elective dictatorship".

As to representation, many of us are aware that the Labour Party came into office with 43.2 per cent. of the vote. Substantially under half of those who voted have the Government they expressed a preference for--and, yes, it was the same under the Tories. Added to that, only 77 per cent. of the electorate voted. All this, and Labour commands 64 per cent. of the seats in the Commons.

This reform Bill is faulty because it fails to address a fundamental weakness in our democracy, that the democratic part of our democracy is not very democratic. Political reform of the Lords should take place only after we have fine-tuned the much more fundamental weaknesses of the present constitutional system.

Let me end by putting forward the suggestion that if we are to have a reformed House, there should be representation from Europe, from MEPs.

14 Oct 1998 : Column 1013

9.31 p.m.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I am really pleased to see the number of bishops who are listening to the debate. At this hour of night we do not normally have so many bishops. I know that two have just left, but I commend to the House the fact that they are as interested in this debate as other noble Lords. The speech of my noble friend Lord Cranborne was the best I have heard in this House. I support totally the views he expressed.

I found a headline above the name of the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal in today's Daily Telegraph most offensive. The headline stated that hereditary Peers are illegitimate--a slight contradiction in terms because a hereditary Peer cannot be illegitimate. Immediately underneath the headline was the name of the noble Baroness.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page