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Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I pay tribute to all those here who happen to have hereditary titles for their enormous and largely unsung contribution to our great debates and to the stability of our parliamentary process.

However, I think that we all recognise that the time has come for reform, but not reform at any price. There has been a very obvious growth in the class of career politician in our public life. I for one would not want to see that happen here.

I welcome the establishment of the Royal Commission, to be chaired by my very distinguished noble friend Lord Wakeham, and I regret that the Government did not set it up as soon as they came to power.

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That said, I wish that I could say that I welcome the contents of the White Paper. Unfortunately, its title alone signals the Government's preference for masking their true purpose. I repeat the question put by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde in his address at the commencement of the debate: "Modernising Parliament"--what does "modernising" mean? Even my laptop, provided courtesy of this House, does not want to recognise the word "modernising". A red light flashes every time I attempt to type it!

Whatever it means, are the Government planning to modernise the House of Commons as well? After all, one does not have a properly balanced legislature without the other. I am aware that a committee in the House of Commons is currently reviewing the practices and procedures of that House. That must be good. However, it simply does not compare with hacking at our constitution in your Lordships' House. Can "modernising" mean anything we like as long as it sounds good and a touch newsworthy?

How can we decide who should be here (or not) before working out what a so-called "modernised" Parliament is supposed to do? To put it another way, is it not rather amateurish--indeed, entirely odd--to be considering the applicant for the job before the job description has been drafted? Is this an example of the "better government" to which the noble Baroness the Leader of the House referred in her Statement about the White Paper on 20th January? I sincerely hope not.

Clearly, the Government seem to be interested in reforming this place only in order to throw out a certain group of people. That is their prerogative, but we must guard against the effects on our relationship with the House of Commons in the so-called brave, new, modern world which this Government are creating for us.

Faced with this overtly half-baked approach to "modernising", which I presume is supposed to mean "reforming", I now return to just some of the proposals in the White Paper--proposals which I believe are fundamentally flawed. In particular, I note:

    "Central to the future House of Lords is its composition".
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House made it clear in her Statement to which I have already referred that the Government wish to make the House of Lords more representative of today's Britain and nominations from many sources will extend the range of interests and types of people represented in the House.

The White Paper takes this further by reference to the likelihood that it will include more younger people, more women and more ethnic minorities. This all sounds very good in principle--and very newsworthy. However, while clearly favouring a largely nominated element, the White Paper also makes it very clear that elected Peers would be paid salaries and nominees would not. My response to that is: why not? As a mother with three young children to be properly cared for, I can confirm that being a Member of this House is a very expensive privilege and one which I would guess fewer than 0.1 per cent. of the population of Britain today could afford.

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One of the complaints of those who wish to oust the hereditary Peers is that a proportion of them do not regularly attend or only turn up to vote. The truth, if I may suggest it, is that many of them are out there earning a living in the hope that they may attend and do their duty if and when their finances and their responsibilities allow. The same would be the case for the overwhelming majority of Peers who might come to this House post reform. It is entirely unrealistic--indeed extraordinarily naive--to expect to call upon people from all walks of life to drop everything to be here without an income. In short, my response to this so called "modernisation" to "get better government" is: "get real".

In truth, the Government cannot honestly pretend that they really want to extend the range of representation with warm words on young people, women and ethnic minorities when only a small and elite minority could afford to be here. I believe that it is reasonable to ask whether this clear inconsistency is, in fact, all part of the building blocks for the Prime Minister's loyal yes-men and women who are prepared to pay up and shut up.

That question brings me to another related aspect of the White Paper. We do not know what role this House will play in the governing of Britain for the medium to long term. What we do know, by their actions, is that this Government are increasingly ignoring, indeed bypassing, Parliament in favour of the Executive and the media. Even our Prime Minister treats Parliament as an irritant. It is rather telling that the "Brit Awards" ceremony last week was of more importance to our Ministers than the future of this House. This blatant trend tells me that, whatever the future holds, it is the Government's intention to diminish the powers and standing of this House. What then?

The White Paper talks, almost excitedly, about developing the role of the working Peer. Men and women of calibre who are succeeding in their chosen path in the world outside are not going to compromise their lives to come to a House which is left with no teeth and no standing. What would be the point? It is also notable that, in the Statement which I mentioned earlier, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said that while hereditary Peers will be given the right to stand as candidates for election to the House of Commons, there will be no change in the position of life Peers. Life Peers will be unable to disclaim their titles. Why? Do this Government fear a mass exodus of life Peers to the House of Commons, once all the teeth of this House have been removed? I think we should be told.

It is abundantly clear, upon even a cursory reading of the White Paper, that this Government's intentions are, at best, ill thought through and, at worst, poorly disguised--and that the White Paper's content bears little relation to the practicalities of reforming so important an institution as this House. More than that, it highlights the very real dangers which the Royal Commission faces in its remit to change for ever an institution which plays a fundamental part in our United Kingdom, an institution which is a much loved part of our heritage.

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Reform cannot be properly considered in isolation. It begs the question: does modernisation mean fundamental change to the workings of this House? The whole process thus far, with its often casual references to reform with words like "radical" and "modern", has created a profound and uncomfortable climate of uncertainty for all who work in the House, in whatever capacity. I believe that it is now time for this Government to assure them that their future here is secure.

I wish the members of the Royal Commission well in their unenviable task and simply urge them to consider the future of this House in the context of its effects upon Parliament as a whole.

In conclusion, a hitherto inviolate cornerstone of our democracy--the check upon an elective dictatorship--is now at risk. It is our paramount duty to protect that element through this period of reform. That fundamental change to the British constitution should be taking place first by piecemeal devolution and now by piecemeal reform of our legislature is lamentable. We accept change that destabilises and diminishes for ever our United Kingdom at our peril.

Lord Hacking: My Lords, the noble Baroness used my name during the course of her speech. Would she be kind enough to tell the House whether she believes the House of Lords should be reformed at all?

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I think I made it clear that now is the time for reform and that we must have reform. However, I do not believe that it has been properly considered in the White Paper. I believe that the composition of this House is absolutely crucial, but you cannot decide upon the composition until you have decided what the people here are supposed to be doing. That was the main point of my speech.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, lest we forget some of the more spiritual matters of this House, I remind your Lordships that today is the feast of St. Polycarp, one of the oldest saints of all. If I recall, he was burned, but the fire would not consume him because his belief was so strong. He had to be put down by the executioner with a knife. Today is also the feast of St. Lazarus, who I believe tried hard to restore religious artefacts and works of art, for which he was condemned to death by heretics. But he was saved and honoured.

The only reason I know this is because 36 years ago today I received a formal telegram confirming the death of my father at sea. Therefore I have been a Peer for some 36 years. But that was not something I wanted to be; it occurred not by accident of birth, but by accident of death. Had my father survived, he would have been like the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, who was head of house at Winchester a year after my father, and I would never have come here and probably would never have had to suffer as I did in the beginning.

I have believed in reform from the moment I had to come here. I did not know that I had to come here. I did not want to change my name from Malcom

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Mitchell-Thomson. I was frightened. I did not know how to get here. Then I was told that you turned up. I turned up at what I now know is St. Stephens. I told a nice man that I wanted to go to the House of Lords. He said, "If you wait a moment, there will be a group going round shortly". I went on a tour and thank goodness I did because the staff were helpful. The Palace servants explained what I should do. They said, "Surely you must know someone". I replied, "No, actually I do not know any Peers, and anyway I am too young". I was 25 years old. A nice person I thought I had seen or knew sat me down and said, "Don't worry. You have the experience of youth". Immediately I felt important. He continued, "We are a bunch of old geriatrics and we need someone young. Please come".

I went back to my job with Universal Asbestos at Watford. My boss there said, "I expect you will not come here any more. You will go to the House of Lords and manage your estates". I did not like to tell him that we did not have any estates. I said I thought that I would have to attend the House of Lords sometimes. He replied, "Bear in mind we do not carry passengers here". I felt very put out indeed. I wanted this place to be reformed. I came and sat on the Back Benches. I was terrified at the prospect of taking my seat. I discovered that I did not have a Writ because I am one of those strange people who has an English barony registered in Scotland. When I went to the College of Arms they said, "You are not with us. You are with the Lyon". I had never heard of the Lyon but I had to go to Edinburgh and find right reverend Prelates to prove that my mother and father were bachelor and spinster at the time of their marriage and that I was therefore legitimate. When you are young this causes you angst. It makes me feel anxious now even to think about it.

However, the people here were so nice to me. They told me to speak only on a subject I knew about. They told me to be careful of the people called Whips. They said that the Whips would try to make me do things that I probably should not do. They also said, "You should be independent. You probably are Conservative although your uncle was Stafford Cripps and your father was on the other side". I could go to any side of the House. However, I was told that it was my duty to come to the House to contribute as I had sworn an oath.

I did not know much about anything but I am grateful to this House for what it has taught me through coming to listen to people. I have learnt more here than throughout the rest of my life, and I appreciate that. I am not a hereditary Peer; I am a Baron. There are Marquesses, Dukes and Earls. I do not like the term "hereditary Peer", but I like the idea of reform.

I suppose that I have to declare an interest--and I did not want to do this. Unfortunately I then became a director of a research company. Back in those early days, we did the research for the Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Wilson, on the reform of the House of Lords. As your Lordships know, his government were a little worried. They said, "We need to get rid of them because they are blocking everything on Zimbabwe"--Rhodesia. So the Bill was introduced. There was a White Paper, and, if I recall correctly, there was a

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majority of 195 in the debate on the Motion in the House of Lords in favour of reform, and a majority of 111 in the House of Commons.

The interesting thing about doing research for political parties is that if they do not pay you the research belongs to you. So I scratched through my files, through all the Hollerith cards, and I have revitalised it all. As it is beyond the 30-year rule, I would like to publish it. I have given it an appropriate title--Towards a Peerless Future. I reactivated many of my research colleagues because I believe that one of the problems we are facing is lack of knowledge and information.

Are the 94 people speaking in the debate representative of the House of Lords? Your Lordships may be interested to know that the average age of those who have spoken or will speak is exactly 64. It upsets me; I have been trying to get up to the average age for 36 years, and I cannot make it. About 16 per cent. of Peers have been here for less than five years; 50 per cent. have been here for between five and 20 years; the remainder have been here for more than 20 years. I belong to one of that happy gang of about 16 per cent.--the same percentage as those who have been here for less than five years--who have been here for 36 years. I still wonder why. I did not want to come here in the first place, but now I do not really want to go.

I was taught that it was my duty to attend. I actually swore an oath. I was more frightened of that oath than of the Official Secrets Act when, over 20 years, I held unpaid Government appointments--because socialist governments always appoint chinless wonders, hereditary, merchant banking Peers, to useless bodies, where you are unpaid.

I also suffered because I did not like to do what the Whips told me to do. I do not like the idea of two-line Whips and things like that, and so I would never accept them. I invented the "Selsdon Convention". When my noble friend Lord Denham sent me something with two black lines, I used to "Snowpake" one line out and say that I have only ever taken a one-line Whip. I have voted against governments. When I find that I do not want to be Whipped, I am conveniently absent.

At the moment I am conveniently absent for five days a week because I have a job. As my noble friend Lady Buscombe has just pointed out, one of the problems of having a job is that you have to balance everything. Your bosses say, "It is us or the House of Lords, or the Government". They think that we are all wealthy here, but those of us who work in the sort of job I had have to come to an agreement with our employers. We work a 40-hour week for them and the rest of the time is free. It is quite difficult to create a balance. It is difficult to gain expertise solely within the House, so we have to gain it from outside.

As I see the noble Lord, Lord Desai, I cannot resist saying something about his students. When he came here, they did not see quite so much of him. I thought it was rather charming when they used to say "Yes, we see him at the beginning of the term and the end of term, and quite a lot on television". I have learned a lot from him, and I respected his speech today.

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But I do not intend to resign: I think we should all resign and stand for re-election. We should look at the Companies Act and look at who our shareholders are.

As part of my plan, over the past few years I have talked to 53 foreign governments, including some Commonwealth governments, although I have not got round to them all yet. We have not consulted with many Commonwealth countries, but they feel very strongly about the Queen and about this House. Most of their governments feel that this is one of the bodies that can stop the overturn of democracy. I say no more, but watch this space. I am also trying to produce a CD-Rom and I am being trained by PVDN so that I can communicate with all our constituents worldwide. Twenty-five per cent. of the population of the world are members of the British Commonwealth. I am too.

I hope that we will enjoy the next few months. I wanted to sit on the Labour Benches today because I thought they were so under-supported; they have no one speaking.

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