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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I do not believe that the noble Lord could have been in the Chamber when I spoke because I certainly defended the principle that hereditary Peers should stay and I suggest that tomorrow, he should read what I said in Hansard.
Lord Desai: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. I have not been here throughout all the speeches. I shall look forward to reading that speech tomorrow in Hansard. With that one exception from a life Peer, which I welcome, we have not had a good defence of the hereditary principle.
There has been a string of proposals from the party opposite--from the noble Lords, Lord Carrington, Lord Home and so on. It has been agreed that hereditary peerages should not survive. Therefore, the first stage is beyond controversy. We are all agreed on that. There is a national consensus and agreement on that. So let us get the first stage out of the way.
However, we are not agreed on the second stage, so let us consult. As regards the second stage, I do not agree with what is said in the White Paper and I have said so. That is partly why I give the Bill only two cheers. The Bill is short, but not short enough. I would remove the word "hereditary" everywhere that it appears as an adjective for "peerage" and then the Bill would be perfectly satisfactory for me.
I want all peerages to go. Ideally, I want a directly elected Chamber. I said that many years ago and I say it again today. I say to my noble friend Lord Plant, who made an excellent speech, that in order to show independence of party political influence perhaps a
Therefore, there would be a moderate House with 360 to 385 Members and it would work perfectly well. There has been talk of 700 years of history, and so on, but in 1788, when Pitt the Younger entered the House of Commons, the membership of this House was only 290. The expansion has occurred due to the number of Peers created in the 19th and 20th centuries. Let us get rid of all that and return to a smaller House which will be efficient and a good thing. This Bill is the beginning of that reform.
I believe in the concept of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As a result, I regard with deep suspicion and doubt anything that seems to diminish that and break the unwritten contract which is our constitution. Devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in progress. Reform of the House of Lords is another link in the chain which is being broken without, it seems, any real concern for the consequences. Viable reform, as so many have said, requires a comprehensive reassessment of the parliamentary functions, powers, composition and procedures of both Houses.
I believe in the force and power of tradition. The mood in the country today--one might almost call it a mania--is all for modernisation. Tradition is misunderstood everywhere and, therefore, misrepresented as something stuffy, sterile and primitive, a useless relic from a bygone era. It is also regarded as hidebound and inflexible.
That misrepresentation is perverse and probably deliberate. However, it is contemporary decrees, diktats, and the many invented ideologies of our time which are stultifying and exclusive. Tradition, on the other hand, is flexible, adaptable and living, for it is not the dead letter of ideology, from wherever it comes, but the spirit that gives life. Therefore, it is the traditionalist alone who has the scope to be truly inventive, precisely because he understands what has gone before.
Tradition and freedom are parts of the same whole and they must, like friendship, be kept constantly in good repair. The way in which we do things says a great deal about who we are and what we want. I am an hereditary Peer. What does that mean? To some people, particularly within this Palace, it means nothing at all.
Working and, one might legitimately say, particularly tonight, almost residing in this wonderful building with its overwhelming feel of living tradition has been for me an enormous privilege. Lucky me! Quite clearly, too lucky me in the eyes of a Labour Government bent on changing everything in their power, particularly if it is old and especially if it works well.
It is strange--is it not?--that in Britain today, when every citizen is almost desperately concerned for his or her rights to be upheld and jumps headfirst into litigation if those rights are in any way challenged or impugned, we are having our rights taken away from us and our descendants, not because it is part of a reform package, but because of what seems to be part of a deep-down and no doubt deeply felt desire for revenge. Revenge for what?
The contempt shown for Members of this House and for all its works, particularly its reviewing and revising activities, by members of this Government betrays, it seems to me, a simple envy regarding something and some people who dare to be different. But, stay, is this primitive urge to change and destroy really a true reflection of the motives driving this Bill, I ask myself. What if there is a different scenario? Suppose this contemptuous attitude, so unnecessary if this was a genuine desire for reform, is actually directed at the House of Lords itself and not at us poor hereditaries whose powers are really not that great. Some Socialist manifestos in the recent past have been much more forthright--in 1983, one stated:
I find a certain parallel with the activities of the Parliament in the 1640s and 1650s. Trouble with the House of Lords? Abolish it. Trouble with the House of Commons? Suspend it. Trouble with the King? Chop off his head. What is the end result? A Lord Protector? A President? Or a Lord Destroyer? Fanciful I may be, but I am talking about power and an old apposite cliche--power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.
With the hereditaries gone, where is the underlying stability for this country? What is left to provide the essential backbone? The monarchy? The Labour manifesto said there are no "plans" to change the monarchy. That might be thought in the present atmosphere of vandalism to be a touch equivocal. I call
Too many of our fellow citizens were beguiled by the phrase "Education, education, education". May I suggest that for all our sakes "Stability, stability, stability" would be a most welcome watchword? This formerly united and stable kingdom is rapidly and disastrously being demolished. We hereditaries are a small but significant part of that process. When we go, it is vital to the House and hence our constitution that the right answers are found. Therefore, I welcome the appointment of the Royal Commission. Function first, then composition. Do the Government care? I believe that at least some still believe in the eventual abolition of the second Chamber and I am very worried indeed for the future of this sceptred isle.
Lord Saatchi: My Lords, the Benches opposite believe that they can view the massed ranks of protests from this side of your Lordships' House with complete indifference. They believe we will object in principle but do nothing in practice. That is because they believe they have read our minds about this Bill, and that we have concluded that it is either wrong to oppose it because of the Salisbury convention; or futile because of the Parliament Act.
But suppose that by some chance they were mistaken in that judgment. Then they could become embroiled in what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House memorably called a "pitched battle". Can that be prevented?
The deep problem is mutual suspicion. The Government believe that our Benches are insincere when we say we welcome reform. They believe we only want to delay because then, as the saying goes, "the horse might sing". The Government Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said as much in relation to the timing of this debate today, about which he suggested we complained for no reason other than,
Would it be completely naive to suspend disbelief just for a moment and consider the remote possibility that both sides of the House may be sincere in wanting reform? If that were true--that is, that each accepted the sincerity of the other--then perhaps we could come to an agreement. Was that not the insight of my noble friend Lord Cranborne and the Prime Minister? Did not those two exceptional men, from wholly different political backgrounds, briefly conclude that there is
But why should the Benches opposite agree? They have the power; they can proceed by force. They do not need agreement. I suggest that there are two motives for seeking agreement, and as is often the case, one is emotional and the other practical. The first, the emotional reason, is in fact guilt, because they want to do the right thing and deep down they know it is wrong to create a House of Lords, even for a few weeks--even for a day--over which the Prime Minister of the day has total power. The Prime Minister's office already has enough power. They must know in their heart of hearts that it does not make it right to do the wrong thing simply because their intention to do so was included in the small print of their manifesto and noticed by 2 per cent. of the population.
The second reason, the practical political reason, is that the Benches opposite do not wish to repeat the mistake they made in Scotland. There the Labour Party raised the flag for democracy as a modernising stick with which to beat the Conservative Party, and very effective it was too. But then they found that a supposedly reasonable, small, democratic step, giving more local democracy to the Scots, led to powerful pressure to go the whole way and grant full independence to Scotland. I am sure they must feel the same process starting here in this House. They heard, for example, the Liberal Democrats' constitutional spokesman in another place stating categorically that,
They might perceive therefore that they need an agreement to stop something happening that they do not want--an all-elected second Chamber. They will surely then begin to see that if they do not do this job properly and if they leave a half-baked House of prime ministerial patronage, the pressure for a directly democratically elected House of Lords will grow and become irresistible.
So, if for those two reasons, the Government need an agreement, what prevents them seeking one? As I said, it is mutual suspicion. The Government believe that any concession made to this side of the House would only be taken as a device to delay. If it would help to relieve them of that concern, I, for one, would offer my commitment to vote in favour of the Royal Commission's recommendations for this House and to give my metaphorical proxy to my noble friend, Lord Wakeham. I would hope that others might follow. If others did do so, that would truly put the Government's own sincerity to the test. We would all see if they were willing to return the compliment to make a commitment to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission, or at least to enter into a serious dialogue between the parties about the future of this House. If they did that, then history would surely judge all of us more kindly.
I am told that in the normal course this Bill will receive Royal Assent and become law in October. Within 60 days of that date the Royal Commission will report. Is it really necessary to throw away 600 years for 60 days?
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, it is claimed that your Lordships' House is the oldest legislative assembly in the world and one of which we should be rightly proud, but it is also one of the most undemocratic. As my noble friend Lord Chandos indicated, the Bill before us is based on the need to make this House more democratic. It is not, as has been suggested, being introduced for political expediency. We are the only civilised country in the world (no Commonwealth country, no new democracy, has adopted the practice) where a part of the legislature comprises Members who are there for one reason only--by virtue of birth--and have been born to rule. No one today would dare to invent such a concept.
No one would deny the useful work and role played by your Lordships' House. No one would deny that the House of Commons is far from being a perfect legislature. There is plenty of work for a second Chamber to do, not least in containing the executive. But whatever the usefulness of the present House, this should not be used as an excuse for avoiding, delaying or, as my noble friend Lady Crawley said, derailing the question of reform. The present composition of the House, the imbalance in party strengths, means that the House lacks the legitimacy to resist government effectively.
I recently re-read a fascinating article by Donald Shell, lecturer in politics at Bristol University, in which he imagines the challenge of explaining to a group of East Europeans how the hereditary principle equates with democracy. That is a path I should like to follow having been actively involved in helping a number of the new democracies of east Europe to write their constitutions and establish their parliaments. I felt an empathy with his dilemma. Sometimes it also helps us to try to see our Chamber as other people see us.
How does one explain to a group of young people from, say, the Czech Republic that Britain, which pioneered the development of democracy in other countries, still retains such an archaic and unrepresentative structure? How does one explain logically the case for someone who, by birth--not ability or experience--has the right to participate in our legislative process? I do not believe that that would be found to be an easy task.
As my noble friend the Leader of the House said some hours ago, being a Member of your Lordships' House is a privilege not a right. I am proud to be a Member. It is an amazing atmosphere to work in, and I have always found it friendly and welcoming. I am sure that I shall miss many friends I have made, but we cannot continue to defend the indefensible.
The passing of this Bill will, at a stroke, produce a legislative Chamber which goes some way honestly to represent society, not only in terms of background, education and employment but also in respect of gender and ethnicity. Among the hereditary Peers only two come from the ethnic minority communities and only 16 are women.
When there were opportunities to provide a better gender balance they were rejected. I wish to spend a moment illustrating the resistance to achieving that gender balance, which has not yet been referred to except in passing. In 1953 Lord Simon introduced a Bill to create a limited number of life Peers and providing for women to be eligible to be created Lords of Parliament on the same terms as men. During the Second Reading debate one noble Lord, who I think should remain nameless, opposed the Bill because he did not want,
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