Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am surprised by that reaction. However, I am glad to say that this potential problem, like so many problems of its kind, has been satisfactorily resolved through the usual channels. Nevertheless, I must point out that even on the

22 Feb 1999 : Column 848

Chief Whip's optimistic assumption about the length of individual speakers' contributions, by the time this debate reaches its conclusion there will have been over 40 hours of general debate on House of Lords reform since last October. That compares with 14 hours on the National Health Service, seven hours on the economy and four hours debating homelessness. In the four-hour debate on homelessness there were three speakers from the Conservative Back-Benches compared with the 62 who want to speak today.

Lord Harding of Petherton: My Lords, will the noble Baroness say why the other place was given a week's holiday if a jam in legislation is feared?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I do not entirely understand the noble Lord's point. In fact, the other place was given two days. If he refers to the passage of the NHS Bill, as I have just said, that Bill began its passage in this House. Therefore, its passage this time entirely depends on the scheduling of business in this place and has nothing to do with the other place.

As I said, in the four-hour debate, which was the time given by your Lordships to homelessness, there were four Conservative Back-Bench speakers compared with the 62 who want to make their case today.

Individual noble Lords of course have the proper right to decide their own priorities. For instance, many of my colleagues seem to have decided to concentrate their contributions on consideration of the reform Bill when it reaches your Lordships' House. Looking at the list of speakers, it appears that most Liberal Democrats have made the same judgment. Personal choices are indeed legitimate. But I am sure the House as a whole will agree that we must collectively guard our reputation as a serious legislative Chamber.

The Government want to enhance the reputation and the effective role of this House. We do not want to lend credence to the unicameralists nor give ammunition to those who describe your Lordships as "predominately driven by self-interest and out of touch with everyday concerns".

In his introduction to the White Paper, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister writes,


    "for too long Britain has got by with a Second Parliamentary Chamber which is less good than it could be".
He goes on to say that the reform process proposed in the White Paper will create a second Chamber of which both Parliament and the people can be proud.

We are now embarked on that reform process. I look forward to our forthcoming debates on the first stage Bill. I look forward to the work of the Royal Commission and to its report. I look forward beyond that to the next stages of reform.

The White Paper charts clear steps towards a renewed Chamber which will be a significant part of Parliament in the new century. I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House take note of Her Majesty's Government's White Paper Modernising Parliament: Reforming the House of Lords (Cm 4183)--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

22 Feb 1999 : Column 849

3.32 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde rose to move, as an amendment to Baroness Jay of Paddington's Motion, at end insert "; urges Her Majesty's Government in carrying forward the proposals in the White Paper to set as their objectives an increase in the independence of Parliament and an enhancement of their ability to scrutinise legislation and hold the Executive to account; and therefore specifically calls on the Royal Commission to reject the proposition in paragraph 7.26 of the White Paper that the available powers of this House might be significantly reduced.".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wish to begin by thanking the noble Baroness for her felicitations on my birthday. I hope that the rest of the House will not take the length of her speech as an example to be followed.

I have heard some say in the past few days that there is nothing new to say on the subject of the House of Lords. Indeed, the noble Baroness herself has not disappointed us. Others have said that this debate is unnecessary. But I have also heard that this is all a matter for the Royal Commission and that we should therefore wait and see.

It is an odd doctrine that it is right for Ministers to have a view on everything, down to the new England football manager, but that this ancient House should not have a chance to express a view on its own future. To those who say that this debate is unnecessary, I say: just look at the list of nearly 100 speakers. Sadly, it includes only five Labour Back-Benchers. Yet, at the end of last week, there were seven. What has happened to the noble Lords, Lord Haskel, Lord Graham of Edmonton and Lord Gordon of Strathblane, in the intervening few days, which means that they have denied us their views during the course of this debate?

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, the noble Lord charges me with adding my name to the list of speakers and then removing it. Perhaps he will reflect. When I put my name down, I thought that we were going to have a serious debate. When I saw the list lengthening dramatically, having been a Chief Whip for some time, I knew exactly what was happening. I was not prepared to play the game.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I was not chiding the noble Lord for removing his name; I was chiding him because it does not allow this House to hear again his valid views on its future.

Let no one doubt that Members of this House are deeply interested in the future of this House and of Parliament--not from some vain sense of our own self-importance, but because we are deeply suspicious of where the Government may want to take us. This debate is an opportunity for the Government to explain their vision of the future--which was sadly lacking in the noble Baroness's speech. They must realise that there is no institution more precious than Parliament. Parliament is the vessel in which the liberties of the people are cradled and protected. Shatter that vessel, weaken that protection, and the ability of the ordinary person to stand up against all the petty tyrannies of the executive will be reduced.

22 Feb 1999 : Column 850

How often in its history has it fallen to this House to protect the subject against the misguided actions and ambitions of the executive, whatever party may be the government of the day. This House, however reformed, must have the freedom, the will and the authority to perform that role in the future.

It often seems to me--and we have heard it from another place time and again lately--that hereditary Peers are the last group in our society whom it is politically correct to abuse for who they are, not what they do. Whatever may become of the current Members of this House--and the Government with their majority in another place can do what they will with this House--I put it to your Lordships that we must fight to ensure that the ability of this House to check bad law is no less.

That is why I have tabled an amendment to the Motion moved by the noble Baroness: to give this House a chance to state a view on its future role, its functions and powers, in a way that the narrow compass of the Bill itself may not allow.

I know that making an amendment to a "take note" Motion is a rare occurrence in this House. But this whole situation is unusual. The Government's handling of it is extraordinary in its combination of high-handedness and low manoeuvre. I believe it is appropriate for this House to have a chance to express a formal opinion on its future powers. Tomorrow evening I intend to give it that opportunity.

Of course we have debated the Government's vague plans and threats in the past. This time, at last, we do so with an official document before us. Sadly, the White Paper is not well written, informative or even accurate. It is a sorry thing. But it is the best apology for a policy that we can now expect to wring out of this grudging Government. This is the document that the Government never wanted to publish. This is the debate that they never wanted to have. And tomorrow is the day that they never wanted your Lordships' voices to be heard.

The Government have consistently prevaricated over their long-term plans for this House--and they are still doing so today. What are their opinions? Do they want this House to exercise more power, or less? Do the principles--the so-called better approach--set out in paragraph 7.26 of the White Paper represent the views of the noble Baroness? Or do they not?

The questions are not so hard. This House looks to its Leader to have the answer. Throughout last year, Ministers refused to provide even a relatively simple options paper. Your Lordships will remember my noble friend Lord Cranborne continually asking the then Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, why no options paper had been produced, or even better a Royal Commission. Answer came there none. Only when William Hague asked my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern to produce an options paper, and he published an interim report in less than three months, did the Government crumble. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, told the House in October that the Government would after all, and reluctantly, publish a White Paper.

22 Feb 1999 : Column 851

But what are we to make of this document? It says that it is about "modernising". But we are never told what modernising means. "Modernising" appears in five of the eight chapter headings. But what does it mean? It is never explained.

I worry about "modernising". It is a good slogan, but it is your Lordships' House no policy. And now we discover that it is just a veil drawn over the centralisation of power. When it came to electing a Labour leader in Wales, modernising was out like a shot. Old-fashioned gerrymandering was in. We do not want to see this House treated in such a cavalier fashion.

If instead of "modernising" the Government had used the word "strengthening" then we would have been on much more united ground. After all, in the face of an ever-rolling tide of executive power, what task is more important than to strengthen the authority of Parliament? That will be my party's objective in the weeks and months ahead, and when we return to power.

This debate should be about the kind of second chamber that the people of our country and this Parliament need. I believe in a strong and independent-minded House of Lords as part of a strengthened Parliament; a second chamber which is not a simple rubber stamp, but one that can hold the executive truly to account.

If all that comes out of this process of reform is a long-term retirement home for ex-politicians and former civil servants, admirable though they may be, with a nod to elected members of the new parliaments and a smattering of the good and great; and if, with all of that, comes a reduction in the powers of the House, then this whole process will have been wasted. Another sad, perhaps even closing chapter, will have been written in the 20th century story of the debasement of the authority of Parliament.

It may be another generation before this subject is broached again. That is why we are so opposed to the two-stage process chosen by the Government. A single-stage reform, after the Royal Commission had reported, would have been so much better. The Government turned down that advice. It put class prejudice before constitutional reform. So we are left--


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page