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The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he accept that the Bill which he has castigated accords precisely with the commitment in the Government's manifesto which won a popular majority of 179? Will he also accept my personal assurance that the Bill as drafted was exclusively the product of the First Parliamentary Counsel?

Lord Cochrane of Cults: My Lords, it is indeed an honour to have clarification from the noble and learned Lord. On the first point, I disagree with him. On the second point, I am most happy to accept his assurance.

1.31 a.m.

Baroness Berners: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Cochrane of Cults, and many other interesting and constructive speakers. The noble Viscount, Lord Oxfuird, and other noble Lords have ably described the history of this House on many occasions, a history with which my own family has been involved on and off since 1455. Although I appreciate the principle behind the decision to end the role of the hereditary peerage, I find it extraordinary that this narrow Bill seems to ignore the contributions made by those hereditary Peers who are active in this House.

In the three years I have been a Member of the House I have seen the work of many noble Lords who, as hereditary Peers, derive little income from their position yet dedicate themselves entirely to the issues which concern them. The contributions made by those noble Lords and many other hereditary Peers over the years have been significant in political life in our country. Indeed, for many centuries the hereditary system was the only system of government.

Bearing that in mind, I find it extremely offensive that the Government propose to abolish the position of hereditary Peers without reasoned argument or a satisfactory proposal for our replacement. This is not

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reform; it is abolition. The motive is unclear; the outcome undefined. Contrary to popular belief, many hereditary Members are concerned for the future of this Chamber as a revising watchdog of the executive. But in such an atmosphere of uncertainty what motivation is there to offer considered advice and opinion on the future of this House if indeed the Government are at all interested in hearing any?

On behalf of all the members of my family privileged to have been involved in the political and, in some cases, the cultural history of this country over the past 500 years, I should like to express my sadness that an era of our participation in political administration may now be over. By accident of birth, we have been given an opportunity to serve our country in government. Some of us have been better at it than others, but I am sure that many noble Lords will agree that this system has not always been a bad thing. In fact it has served us rather well in the absence of any alternative.

Let us hope that the Government will in the fullness of time find a better alternative than that which has served us well for almost 700 years. I support the amendment to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold.

1.35 a.m.

Lord Ellenborough: My Lords, the monumental length of the list of speakers on this Bill certainly indicates that the House will not just tamely acquiesce in such a fundamental and sweeping measure. I suppose it must be rather galling to the Government that in pursuing this vendetta--because that is really what it is--against hereditary Peers there is absolutely no public outcry about the House of Lords as it is at present constituted: in fact, far from it. Opinion polls indicate no enthusiasm for the removal of hereditary Peers before full reform, and indeed most people realise that something which has lasted for so long must have something going for it.

It cannot be stressed too often that everything is being done in the wrong order. As with other constitutional measures of this Government, this Bill is incoherent in that it does not take us clearly from one stage to another. Functions and powers should be decided before composition, and it is most regrettable that we will not know for some years what form of electoral system may be decided upon for the House of Commons, or indeed its size, and above all, whether we continue as a nation state or become regions of a Euro federation. Thus we do not know for what purpose the reformed House is needed, but this Bill, unless it is very substantially amended, will undermine one of the main pillars of the constitution which has given us such stability over three centuries.

Already another main pillar, the House of Commons, is treated with undisguised contempt and has been greatly diminished by this Government. As an illustration, one can take this House of Lords Bill, which was rushed through another place and in the middle of the Committee stage there, what happened?--the other place simply went on holiday for half a week. Prime Minister's Question Time was just abolished for that week and so there were no parliamentary Questions for the Prime Minister for a full fortnight.

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This is all part of the insidious way in which this so-called New Labour Government are proceeding by stealth under the guise of modernisation to change this country from a unitary kingdom and submerge it into regions of a Euro federal state. Noble Lords may laugh, but the general public are not fully aware of how these constitutional changes will affect them--certainly not least the English, over the West Lothian issue, which is still ignored. I hate to say this, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister is in danger of going down in history as the Prime Minister who presided over the disintegration of the Union and the constitution, and he may well bear the ignominy of being the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as we know it today.

In the circumstances, this Bill removing hereditary Peers should not be enacted prior to a post-legislative referendum when people can see what form the transitional House replacing that of hereditary Peers will take, which may last for many years. There is no mention of the word "interim" in the Bill. There is absolutely no guarantee that any full reform will take place. It would be outrageous if this, the most important of all the constitutional measures, were to be the only one not subject to a referendum--I hasten to say a post-legislative referendum in this case, not a pre- legislative referendum, involving such a fundamental and radical change in the composition of this House.

I refer briefly to the Weatherill amendment, wrongly put about by the media as a "Cross-Bench proposal"--as if there is such a thing as a Cross-Bench party, which of course there is not. When I hear that the Government are in favour of something, I become worried and suspicious. Despite their cynical manoeuvring and voting against an identical Opposition amendment in another place, of course the Government are minded to accept the amendment. "Minded" is an extraordinary word which, in Blair-speak, means endorse enthusiastically. By doing so the Government expect to have a much easier ride and, from all accounts, look upon it as just about the best thing since sliced bread. A derisory number of 91 hereditary Peers may have a reprieve. But I implore my own Front Bench to be extremely wary and not to become too enmeshed or enthusiastic about it.

Already the media are speculating on who will be elected, or is it chosen or selected? We do not know. I shall not repeat in detail what I said in the recent debate. However, I feel that if the Conservatives and Cross-Benchers salvage a little on one side and the Government achieve most of their goal on the other, both will be disinclined to hasten in implementing any conclusions reached by the Royal Commission and the Select Committee. Thus, what is supposed to be temporary, as is often the case, becomes permanent.

I am one of the considerable number of noble Lords who feels that the Government should consider, at least as an interim measure for the transitional House, the much better two-tier system of a House consisting of

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voting and non-voting Peers. That was dismissed rather inadequately by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in his summing-up speech on the White Paper.

After all, the proposal that hereditary Peers, who, for the most part at any rate, would lose their voting rights should still be able to attend and speak during their life-time was the brain child of such senior figures in the Labour Party as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who I believe is to speak tomorrow, and the late Richard Crossman and others and was adopted by the Labour Government in 1968.

The whole emphasis was on the need for the participation of a considerable number of part-time Members with wide interests and experience who could make a useful contribution. Both the Opposition amendments to that effect and the Weatherill amendment were discussed and defeated in another place. But if the Government can be so flexible as to change their minds on the one, so they should be able to do so on the other.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, who I see is now in his place, made the criticism that hereditary Peers would still retain considerable power if their speaking rights were maintained. That is rather ridiculous. If a number of hereditary Peers--100 or whatever the figure turns out to be--can be allowed to retain their full voting rights, that would represent some power. But the notion that hereditary Peers who speak, but not vote hardly, represents power. Quite often, such Peers would impart some much-needed common sense and advice. A proposal on those lines should be far more amenable and acceptable to most noble Lords on all sides of the House than the Weatherill plan. The main advantage is that it would deal successfully with the problems of the in-built Conservative majority, and the hereditary principle and provide continuity. It certainly deserves further scrutiny and attention. In the meantime, I strongly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold.

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