Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that is precisely what the plan does. It accepts the possibility that the strict criteria of economic convergence have to be achieved in order for the Government to accept the case for joining EMU. The Government believe that their macro-economic policy and the new financial and economic structures that they have put into place in the past 18 to 19 months are precisely those which enable the British economy to grow. I should have thought that our capacity and indeed our expectation to avoid recession precisely encourages the convergence criteria to be more likely achieved than not. Perhaps that was what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, was referring to. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, it really is not possible, except in the most theoretical terms, to estimate what the possible costs to industry might be of staying out of EMU. Therefore, that is not a realistic strategy to plan for in the way that we are hoping to do with the announcement of the outline plan today. But we do believe that there is a real choice. It is in order to make that real choice have political and economic validity that we are proposing this plan.

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I welcome this Statement and look forward to studying the plan. I should like to pay tribute to the work of the Treasury euro unit over the past couple of years in combining and co-ordinating all the detailed technical work of the various interests involved in preparing for the euro. I think that the House should also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Bank of England for the work it has done over a much longer period in co-ordinating the interests of the

23 Feb 1999 : Column 991

financial market and the City of London in general in preparing for the euro and being actively involved in the conversion to the euro at the beginning of this year, enabling the City of London and our financial institutions to be not only up to speed but ahead of the game in many cases and to prosper, albeit that we remain outside euroland.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for that authoritative view on this sector. Naturally, the Government are concerned to protect the financial sector and the strength of the City of London within or without the euro position. I join him in paying tribute to the work of the Bank of England. As I said in the Statement, it has been advantageous to the preparation by the various teams involved that the BBA and the Bank of England specifically have taken such an active role and have played such a constructive part in drawing up these plans.

Lord Garel-Jones: My Lords, I very much welcome the Statement so far as it goes. Can we now hope that the Government will be prepared not to hide behind the undoubtedly important technical work that is being undertaken but to give a real lead from the Prime Minister downwards in leading Britain towards the economic convergence that we need? Does the noble Baroness agree that there is another side to this convergence, which is the convergence that has to take place from Europe? I refer to the restructuring of European industry and the restructuring of social and labour costs inside Europe. To present a referendum to the British people where we are inviting them to go back to the 1970s is not a proposition they will find very exciting.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: No, my Lords, I recognise that. That is precisely why the passage in the Statement, which was very clear and perhaps more detailed than some noble Lords appreciated--I concede that that added to its length--described the alternative social model which the Government very much hope to persuade the rest of Europe to follow and which we feel will be important to the success of our society as well as our economy.

On the point about the Prime Minister giving a lead, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, that a lead has been given in a responsible way since the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1997 which, I emphasise again, very much gave the go ahead to joining EMU but with the very important and responsible criteria laid down beside it. What the Prime Minister said this afternoon underlines that point. I am sure that at the moment, if it comes, when convergence is identified within the scope of the criteria that have been clearly demonstrated, the Prime Minister will, as always, give a very important political lead.

Lord Newby: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that many people will find this Statement

23 Feb 1999 : Column 992

extraordinarily timid? The Government say that business will take some satisfaction from the fact that there is certainty--namely, that no decision will be taken until the next general election. I suppose one should be grateful that there is not uncertainty--but, my word, if that is certainty from the Government it leaves a lot to be desired.

The Statement refers selectively to the economic convergence criteria. Does the noble Baroness accept that on at least two of those criteria--namely, of creating better conditions for firms making long-term decisions to invest in Britain and the City's competitive position--it is already abundantly clear that Britain's economic interests lie with joining the euro? Finally, on a practical point, the noble Baroness talks about a four-month period between taking a decision in principle to hold a referendum and the referendum taking place. Will the Government accept that, were that to be possible within the first months of a new Parliament, the sensible way to prepare for it would be to introduce and pass a paving Bill in this Parliament so that the Government could get on with matters after the next election?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, this 20 minutes of exchanges has been fascinating. We have seen precisely identified the divisions between--I think the noble Baroness was slightly concerned when I said ideological grounds; I was simply quoting from the Statement--the "no, never" and the "yes now, under any circumstances" positions of noble Lords.

I emphasise again that the Government see what they call the cautious but nonetheless responsible and determined path which is outlined in the Statement and the background document as the most useful one to follow. I cannot see any advantage, whether political or economic--and certainly it would not be in the interests of the British people--in saying that we shall go hell for leather for EMU whatever the costs to industry and whatever the background in terms of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, on the City of London and whatever the grounds in regard to the social impact and social policies mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones. This is a responsible policy of practical preparation. It is based on a decision in principle which has been made clear by my right honourable friend this afternoon. Noble Lords should accept it on that basis.

House of Lords Reform

Debate resumed.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I hope that with a modest mental leap we can return to the subject that we were discussing before we were so rudely interrupted.

We shall have an opportunity when the House of Lords Bill comes to your Lordships' House to consider its proposals in detail, not only at Second Reading but, if it survives that, at the Committee stage. In due course we shall have the long-term recommendations of the

23 Feb 1999 : Column 993

Royal Commission. I therefore want to concentrate entirely on the White Paper which is the subject of the Government's Motion and the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. (I need hardly say that I speak only for myself--as a Cross-Bench Peer I can speak for no one else.) Several noble Lords have criticised the quality and intellectual validity of the White Paper; but at least it has provided the opportunity for this valuable debate. And, for the connoisseur, it provides one or two interesting insights into the Government's ideological leanings.

I turn first to the claim in the White Paper, summarised on page 5, that the Government's proposals for constitutional change rest on the assent of the people. The Government state that,


    "People across the country have made clear what they want",
and they go on to speak of the referendums and subsequent developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and of the referendum on the governance of London. However, when they come to the reform of the House of Lords, there is no such claim. Indeed, there could not be because there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of a popular demand for such reform. As the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said yesterday, the indications are that probably no more than 2 per cent. of the people of this country are actively in favour of the proposals which the Government are now putting forward. Indeed, when it comes to justifying their approach, the wishes and will of the people play no part, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, observed yesterday.

Incidentally, those of us who listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway--which means, I hope most of us--may have noted that one important point in his speech was not clearly reflected in Hansard at col. 895. There seems to be a very important "not" missing from the text. I have discussed the matter with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and am assured that what he was saying was that a special enabling Bill which was not hybrid could be introduced, thus giving effect to the substance. I hope that that puts the record straight.

So, instead of the will of the people, the Government put forward (Chapter 5, page 27) under the interesting heading, "Why Reform is Necessary", a quotation from Thomas Paine, who said, some 200 years ago,


    "The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, as hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; as absurd as an hereditary Poet Laureate."
This is, as political historians will be aware, a typical example of Paine's familiar dialectical method of reducing to absurdity views which differ from his own. But, more interestingly, the quotation is taken from The Rights of Man; and anyone who has had the excruciating experience of reading that monumental work will know that it is an unashamed polemical tract which advocates, among other things, the establishment of a republican constitution in this country. I hope that there is no hidden significance in this. Thomas Paine seems to me to be a most unfortunate choice as a role model for new Labour and, if those who drafted the White Paper were looking for a catchy quotation, I might have suggested to them what Paine's

23 Feb 1999 : Column 994

contemporary, Edmund Burke, wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France some years before Paine wrote The Rights of Man:


    "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors."
But perhaps that would not have fitted comfortably into the general ideology of the White Paper. The first point I make, therefore, is that there is, so far, no identifiable public desire for the kind of reform which the Government are now putting forward.

I now come to the claim that the Government are entitled to go ahead unhindered with their proposals because they were contained in their election manifesto. We all know about the Salisbury convention and, it is, indeed, referred to at some length in the White Paper on Page 17 of Chapter 3. I respectfully point out--and especially respectfully in the presence of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne--that that convention is based upon nothing more constitutionally binding than an opinion advanced by Lord Salisbury in a debate in your Lordships' House in 1945. I venture with some temerity to advance the proposition that in a matter of this constitutional importance (by the Government's own admission one of the most radical constitutional changes to be made for many years) this House is not obliged to bow too obsequiously before the Salisbury convention. The very idea that by inserting a proposal for radical constitutional change in their election manifesto a subsequent government can avoid scrutiny and even outright opposition in the upper Chamber is leading us along a very dangerous path.

As I have said before in your Lordships' House--and it is a statement of the obvious--the present Government were not elected with a large majority because they promised to abolish the hereditary peerage. Nor, I suggest, would the majority have been any smaller had that undertaking not been in the manifesto. I believe, therefore, that this House may have a perfect right, even a duty, to ask the Government to think again about the proposal.

My third and final observation concerns the degree of haste with which the proposals are being pushed forward. The Royal Commission set up under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has been asked to report by the end of this year so that the Government can respond to its recommendations in advance of the next general election. The Royal Commission will not even have its first meeting until 1st March.

Surely, before the Royal Commission can make recommendations about the composition of the upper House, it will have to consider in great detail the functions and powers of a future second Chamber. It seems to me almost incredible, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, indicated earlier, that we should expect a constitutional change of this depth and magnitude to be examined, debated and implemented within that time frame. Would it not be wise to provide more time for reflection and public debate, to assess the impact of the Government's other constitutional changes, all of which have an internal dynamic of their own but which are intimately linked with the future of Parliament? Would it not be logical to await the

23 Feb 1999 : Column 995

recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham's commission before embarking on this piecemeal slice of reform which seems to pre-empt some of the Royal Commission's options? As the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said in his remarkable speech yesterday, there seems to be no coherent intellectual framework to the Government's constitutional policies.

I have now been fortunate enough to spend 35 years in your Lordships' House. During that fascinating time I have never got any impression that this House does not function effectively. In my experience, hereditary Peers have made and continue to make an important contribution to its success. I have had occasion to say before in your Lordships' House that no one, least of all I, would deny the need for change; but change must be evolutionary, orderly and regulated. I conclude by asking Her Majesty's Government, even at this late stage--but without much hope of success--to think again about the ill thought out and precipitous legislation foreshadowed by this White Paper.

5.43 p.m.

Lord Belstead: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, expressed some fundamental doubts about government policy towards your Lordships' House which the Government Chief Whip may wish to answer when he winds up later this evening. For myself, I simply make the point that this debate enables us to have a wide-ranging discussion of the Government's plans for reform of your Lordships' House. But I have to say that for me the White Paper does little to allay the suspicion that although Ministers are determined to remove hereditary Peers from the House as a result of the stage one reform, what stage two will consist of no one, including Ministers, yet knows.

That is clearly demonstrated by reading Chapter 7, entitled rather grandiloquently, "Modernising the Lords". That, however, rather surprisingly embarks on rehearsing what are referred to in the text as "guiding principles", but which are nothing more than well worn and accepted conventions and understandings about the supremacy of the House of Commons.

Certainly the White Paper then discusses some options and suggestions for the future. I join my noble friend Lord Cranborne in having high hopes for the fruitful work of the Royal Commission, but until it reports it will be necessary to achieve a wide area of agreement at the end of the day, including the agreement of Members of another place. But we shall have to wait until that report arrives.

Although one might not think so from the statistics and pie charts in the White Paper relating to the composition of your Lordships' House, a simple fact which is well understood in this House is that without Cross-Bench support the government of the day will usually be in jeopardy in this House. That is not only because of the number of Cross-Bench votes which can be cast on any particular issue but also because, more often than not, movement against the Government on the Cross-Benches, whoever the government may be, is

23 Feb 1999 : Column 996

often the signal that Peers, including the Government's own supporters, have doubts which they are about to register on a specific issue.

This House--thank goodness--is still capable of demonstrating independence of mind and spirit. So one of the few welcomes that I can give to the White Paper is its recognition of the value of the Cross-Benches, which are important in that respect.

There are three aspects of the White Paper which I wish to mention--not, I hope, in order to take minor and fiddling points, but to echo the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, which I so much enjoyed, and perhaps to emphasise the fact that we are setting off on a complex path.

First, as I read Chapter 8 which deals with the


    "Advantages and disadvantages of the elected options",
I could not help wondering just how expensive the second Chamber will be. Then, rather like meeting an old friend in the street, I came across a paragraph which could only have been written by the familiar hand of the Treasury which states:


    "Higher costs. The costs of both the elections themselves and the need to provide proper salaries and research facilities for elected members would considerably increase the costs of the second chamber".
I found it hardly surprising that with this warning ringing in their ears, the authors of the White Paper recommend some, but not too much, elected membership. In other words, a "Mixed House", as the White Paper calls it, for the future.

That sounds a safe compromise, but if the elected element were to be accorded separate and privileged treatment of that kind, then I believe that a mixed House would start to throw up some real problems even before it had ever met.

Secondly, I wish to ask what the Government envisage is the right role for a reformed second Chamber in relation to the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The White Paper suggests that a reformed House could have some "overt" role as the representative of the regions and the regional bodies. Along with other noble Lords, I find this an interesting possibility. But it raises two issues. If some Members were to attend the second Chamber in a representative role, mandated, as it were, from their devolved assemblies, it could mark a sharp departure for a House where noble Lords speak entirely on their own behalf and where presumably that would remain the case for nominated life Peers. It is an important matter when we are talking about a revising Chamber which is supposed to be as independent in mind and spirit as it is possible to be. Also, I regret to say that I can see little real progress being made in that area while the Government remain unwilling to address the West Lothian question. If nothing is done, it will threaten to sour relations at least between England and Scotland for some years to come.

Finally, I join many other noble Lords in believing that the White Paper has made a grave error in rather lamely recommending a reduction in the powers of the House. It is as though the authors of the White Paper had temporarily forgotten that they are supposed to be

23 Feb 1999 : Column 997

ushering in an exciting reform for a modernised second Chamber. Or is there possibly a touch of duplicity here? It is easy to see that one method of balancing the increase in the so-called legitimacy of the House by the stage one reform could then be balanced by reducing the powers of the House at stage 2. That very neat equation might be appealing to Members of another place.

Whatever the reasons for this particular recommendation, it runs entirely counter to the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde which I believe is rightly protective of the independence of Parliament and of the scrutinising function of the House of Lords. I also wonder what kind of message the recommendation to reduce the powers of the second Chamber would send to busy people who might be deciding whether or not to stand for some kind of election to the second House of Parliament.

If enacted, the Cranborne-Weatherill proposal (to use that shorthand) will go some way towards hereditary Peers being able to contribute to the work of a transitional House and to agreement on stage two reform. I welcome that and take great comfort from it. But my abiding reservation, which I share with countless other noble Lords, is that it is a serious matter for the Government to be determined to proceed without having a thoroughly considered plan for House of Lords reform. There is no such plan. We must be realistic and face the fact that in the end much will depend upon both the wisdom and good common sense of the Royal Commission and what agreement can be reached with Members of another place.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Belstead, whom I was proud to follow as Leader of this place some years ago. I greatly admired the skill, tact and charm that he brought to the discharge of his duties. I was unable to emulate those qualities. I shall not follow his speech today, not because I disagree with what he said but because I believe that there are some very important points to draw to the attention of the Royal Commission that so far have not been made. We are debating the White Paper and not the House of Lords Bill, but some words spoken during the recent Second Reading debate on that Bill by the redoubtable parliamentarian, Mr. Benn, appear to me to be very relevant. Mr. Benn did not argue, as he might have done, that temporary Bills like the Parliament Act 1911 have a habit of becoming permanent because no one can agree on what should be its replacement, but that permanency would be the lot of the House of Lords Bill because it will suit everyone at the top.

I am not sure that Mr. Benn got it quite right. I am more inclined to the view, shaped by the contents of the White Paper and the composition of the Royal Commission, that Mr. Blair is confident that everyone at the top will be well and truly suited when the Royal Commission reports because he believes that the Royal Commission will gratify the Government's clearly expressed wish that the House should not be wholly elected, or even have a very substantial elected element,

23 Feb 1999 : Column 998

and that the powers of the House should even be reduced. In short, Mr. Blair believes that he will win both ways. He will get a report that recommends a House that will not be a nuisance--a report that is entirely in tune with his own idea that Parliament is a good thing provided it does not get in the way of the project--and he will then be able to take credit for its speedy implementation.

The kind of anodyne report that the Government expect the Royal Commission to produce may not be as easy to translate into legislation as the Government believe. The Second Reading debate in another place showed that there is not the beginnings of a consensus in the Labour Party as to what form stage two should take. Of course the lesson of 1968 is not that hereditary Peers wrecked Labour's plans for reform but that politicians in the other place, on the right and the left, were not prepared to support the Parliament Bill.

The position is that the present House of Lords Bill, when it becomes an Act, may never be replaced, and for that reason we may be left with a wholly nominated House. If, on the other hand, the Government get through a second stage Bill it is very likely to be a measure that gives us anyhow a wholly or largely nominated House. We had better face up to it. It is a dismal prospect, for the reason that those noble Lords who embark on constitutional change must look not just at the mundane, workaday duties of the House but at the powers that it can use if necessary in wholly abnormal circumstances, for example in times of national crisis. We should look at those powers of the Lords that are most essential to the preservation of our freedom. The most obvious one is the power preserved by the 1911 Act to deny to a government a Bill to extend the life of a Parliament. We should ask ourselves what kind of House can be most trusted to exercise that power and stand in the way of dictatorial government. Certainly, it is not a nominated House that the government of the day can pack with their own supporters in order to secure a majority.

No doubt the Government will continue to stress that there will be safeguards to prevent the nominated provisional House, and by implication any nominated, or largely nominated, second stage House, becoming a mere rubber stamp of government. I am sorry to say that that is simply not the case. Neither in the House of Lords Bill nor in the White Paper is there any assurance that there will be put in place arrangements to prevent a Prime Minister being able to advise the Queen to create enough Peers to ensure the passage of any legislation. There is nothing in the Bill, and no legislation promised in the White Paper, to bar a Prime Minister from flooding the House with his own nominees. Pious declarations that no one political party should seek a majority in the Lords do not alter the constitutional and legal position. The position is that it will remain open to the Prime Minister, and for that matter any future Prime Minister, to secure for himself an absolute majority in this place and to render the House completely ineffective as a check on the Executive.

I identify the real weaknesses in the constitutional arrangements that have existed for a long time but have not mattered very greatly because of the strong

23 Feb 1999 : Column 999

independent element in the House of Lords which the hereditary Peers have constituted. But now that sweeping change is to take place the Royal Commission would surely be failing in its duty if it did not take this opportunity to address these weaknesses. I assert that the present House of Lords Bill and any successor that allows for nominated Peers should contain provisions that prevent any flooding of the House with supporters of the Government. One way would be to put a statutory limit on the number of Peers who could be created in any year and charge a statutory appointments committee with the task of recommending appointments from the various parties in numbers which ensured that, as nearly as possible, the government of the day had a small majority over the other parties but not in the House as a whole.

But I believe we should go further than that. The Royal Commission simply must not miss this opportunity to address real weaknesses that have existed for a long time. It must recognise that, in the absence of a written constitution that is amendable only by special procedures, there are few safeguards in this country against a government, supported by a hefty but perhaps very temporary majority in the House of Commons, destroying our most precious institutions, including the monarchy itself, that have grown up over the centuries. Most people recognise that these institutions are not the playthings of politicians to be tampered with at the whim of a temporary majority in the House of Commons, but are held in trust by us for our children and our children's children. It is difficult to see how vandalism of this sort can be checked and averted other than by a second Chamber so constituted that it is genuinely independent of the government of the day.

But I am not sure that even this is enough. I have become more and more convinced that there should also be a special procedure for Bills of constitutional significance, and in particular Bills touching on the powers of the monarch. In my view, legislation should provide that a Bill, certified by the Speaker as coming within this category, should, after rejection by the second Chamber, only become law if endorsed by the electorate in a referendum. Alternatively, in the case of constitutional Bills alone, the delaying power of the second Chamber should be restored to the 1911 Act position, and it should be provided that there could be no further changes in the second Chamber's powers without such Chamber's consent.

The Royal Commission has an awesome task. At a time when the House of Commons has proved itself almost entirely ineffective as a check on the executive; at a time when, according to Mr. Tam Dalyell, the House of Commons, which the Prime Minister rarely troubles to attend, is "atrophying"; and when, according to Mr. Benn,


    "democracy is being squeezed out of the system";
at this time of all times the Government have, with amazing effrontery, told the Royal Commission that they want fewer powers for the second Chamber and would not countenance an elected House or even a House with a substantial elected element.

23 Feb 1999 : Column 1000

I beg the Royal Commission to surprise us all by ignoring this Government's instructions, and recognising that this is an opportunity which will not recur for years to provide safeguards in our constitution against an elective dictatorship; an opportunity to be master builders of a very much more comprehensive constitutional settlement than that envisaged by the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

6.2 p.m.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I welcome the White Paper, but I do not believe that it goes far enough. As some noble Lords will know, I wrote a pamphlet about reform of the House of Lords for the Fabian Society two years ago. In it I laid out the logic of that reform, which is quite clear. The problem with the British constitution is not that there are hereditary Peers. As my noble friend Lord Richard and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said, it is a question of the power of the Executive. Because we have an unwritten constitution the provisions are not laid out. The power of the Executive has become what it is because of the nature of the House of Commons.

Therefore, an important part of the reform of the second Chamber is to have a chamber which will sometimes challenge the House of Commons. I see no problem with that. The House of Commons is pre-eminent and will remain so. We also know that any Prime Minister with a majority can do what he or she likes. It is very interesting that in British politics it is only when parties are in opposition that the danger of the power of the Executive is discovered. As the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said, it is only when the party is in power that it forgets that homely truth. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, is not here. That truth has been known since Tom Paine first pointed it out. I prefer him to Edmund Burke because at least Tom Paine did not praise Marie Antoinette and become a fan of Louis XVI, as Burke did.

Therefore, we need a second Chamber with legitimacy, as many noble Lords have said. That requires not just the removal of hereditary Peers but of most life Peers. If legitimacy is lacking in this Chamber because the hereditary Peers are unelected, so are we. At the second stage of any reform of the House--if we ever get to that stage--we should have only the Cross-Bench life Peers with, perhaps, the Bishops for the religiously-minded, which I am not. About 145 Members would form the rump of the House of Lords, if I may so call it. Then, according to my calculations, working on the two-thirds principle we should have 290 elected Members. That would represent a Chamber with two-thirds of its membership elected and one-third nominated.

One of the defects of the White Paper is that it does not contain a comprehensive survey of second chambers across the world. If other western-style constitutions had been considered, especially that of India, it would have been realised that there are other ways of electing a second chamber, which would have both an appointed and an elected element. It does not matter if an element is indirectly elected, but direct election would be easier and probably cheaper.

23 Feb 1999 : Column 1001

In reform at the second stage we should aim for a House with between 345 and 350 Members, which I believe is about the normal size of the active House at present. At the moment the active part of this House contains no more than 350 to 400 people. Therefore, the business that the House does today can easily be done by 350 people who will have to be paid. I am sorry to say that people are not going to do the kind of work that this House does if they are stripped of dignity and it is made just an ordinary second Chamber. Therefore, the Members of the House will be paid. It would be a properly serviced and, I am sure, an efficient House.

I was intrigued by the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, yesterday. He is one of the few people who has spoken about the functions of the House, apart from my noble friend Lord Richard. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, proposed that the reformed House should become a Committee, as it were, of the House of Commons so that any Bill introduced in the other place, and after Second Reading, would come straight here. Such a Bill would go through a Second Reading and Committee stage in this House. Either before or after Report stage the Bill will return to the other place. That would save a great deal of time and the House would be doing what it does best; namely, scrutinising a Bill, giving a great deal of expert advice, and investing much time in careful examination of it for which the other place does not have the time.

We could have a House with 350 Members. We could have a Committee, Select Committees and other specialist committees. A House with 350 Members would be appropriate. I look forward to the Royal Commission recommending that and I look forward to free afternoons and evenings for myself.

The Cranborne-Weatherill compromise fills me with foreboding. I am worried that we shall stop there. I am genuinely worried that it represents the perfect English compromise which never solves a problem. However, it makes it very difficult for anyone to insist that there is still a problem to be solved. If one believes that the real reason for wishing to reform this House is because of its Conservative majority, as do some Members of another place, that objection is removed by the compromise. If that occurs, what Government would be eager to reform the House of Lords two or three years later? It would be too close to the next election and after that who would care? I am very fearful of the compromise. I shall have to think very carefully whether I vote for it. I might vote against it.

Finally, I wish to say a few words about faith. Many people have said that we could use the opportunity of reforming the House of Lords to include many members who are "professional" representatives of different faiths. I am against that. The bishops are here and good luck to them, but it is a mistake to believe that all other religions consist of a priesthood or Church like the Christian Church. For example, the Hindus in this country do not have a Church and a defined priesthood. No one can be called a representative Hindu priest. It would be a nightmare. Of course, there are many sects in Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism--heaven knows! Of course, there will have to be atheist representatives and I offer myself for that. I believe that

23 Feb 1999 : Column 1002

if we want the faiths to be represented we should take the same stance as the Catholic Church; that faiths should be represented by the lay people who believe in them and not by the "professionals".

6.11 p.m.

Lord Aldington: My Lords, I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for the amusement he gave us, most of it on purpose. I noted that he is the only person on the other side of the House who has had the courage, or perhaps the intellectual discipline, to work out and propose a reform for the House. It is clear that the Government have not made up their mind and I do not believe that they back his idea. However, when he dealt with the Cranborne-Weatherill, Prime Minister-Lord Chancellor, agreement he showed a delightful ambivalence. I hope that in debates on the forthcoming Bill I shall be one of those who can persuade him that it is a good idea.

However, today's debate is about the White Paper and not about that Bill. I find part of the White Paper generally acceptable in describing the history and the present state of the House of Lords and many of the available options for changes. I say "generally" because I have noted a number of errors and ambiguities. The reason that I so strongly support the amendment, moved so well on his birthday by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, is because the White Paper is unclear about the future powers of the House, the importance of it, and of its individual Members being independent in mind, spirit and voice.

The White Paper sets out the options for the future. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, made a splendid speech following the equally, if not more, splendid speech of my noble friend Lord Cranborne. I noted that the noble Lord had not interpreted the White Paper in the sense that I had. I had believed that the White Paper was advising in favour of the hybrid House; two-thirds/one-third. He seemed to believe that it was advising in favour of a wholly nominated House. I rather wish that it were because I believe that there are substantial dangers in introducing into this House an elected element. If there are not dangers there are great differences. As in all constitutional matters I believe in evolution rather than revolution and building on what we have. I believe that we should be careful before making a fundamental change in the way that this House looks at things.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page