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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is he willing to answer two straight and simple questions? First, does he accept that the Labour Party manifesto had a clear and unequivocal commitment to remove the hereditary peerage? That is the first question.
Lord Ellenborough: My Lords, the answer to both questions is yes. It was in the Labour Party Manifesto, but I do not accept that millions of people turned out to vote for the Labour Party because this measure was proposed in the manifesto.
The hereditary Peers' rights to attend, sit and speak would remain intact, as granted by letters patent. My proposal was an attempt to resolve the perceived problems of an embedded Conservative majority in this House, thus avoiding a constitutional conflict.
My desire was, and remains, to encourage your Lordships to remove the arguments about reform of this House from parliamentary conflict and even litigation in the courts. Further, it was intended to take our debate and decisions about reform out of the heated realms of partisan politics, bound up with dogmas and opinions about class and so-called privilege.
I hoped to draw your Lordships' attention to aspects of the constitutional issues involved. I did that, not as a lawyer--which I am not--but as a citizen with an abiding respect for the laws and precedents of our constitution. I asked your Lordships to address reform dispassionately and to look away from conflict.
However, as I indicated, I do not wish to protect and preserve what is indefensible in a modern democracy--that hereditary voting should determine the passing of Bills and rules of procedures in this House. My assertion was, and is, that Peers by inheritance have rights just like any citizen. To deny me, an hereditary Peer, access to sit and speak in this House is unlawful. To accept this Bill would be a denial of my personal and property rights granted by the sovereign.
Thus, I ask in signing this Bill into law, would the sovereign annul my rights? If so, by what power? Even Peers, beheaded as traitors on fields of battle, were permitted by law to pass on their rights to their successors. Those in this House and Parliament who seek reform by statute do so by rescinding property rights granted by the sovereign. That would be expropriation without compensation, even in law.
Is that to be the power and example of this new state? Have this Government a mandate to abolish personal property rights? I do not believe so. If the Government prevail with this Bill, would that not be the finest argument yet for a Bill of Rights such as the Canadian statute which specifically protects the enjoyment of property rights from the attempts of a parliament to remove them? Do we now meekly accept that our new Labour democracy should abolish any personal rights, or do we have to resort to the European Court to assert them?
Various politically motivated proposals have emerged involving a selection of hereditary Peers remaining in a so-called reformed House. Such proposals ignore the rights of those not selected to continue to sit and speak in this House. By letters patent I inherited a specific
In our new Labour state, must we now fear for those with personal rights but without the sovereign's guarantee? I believe that everyone should be apprehensive about this Bill. Many citizens who have freeholds or leases are better protected than are my property rights which were granted by the sovereign. Citizens have the freedom to enter, sit and speak in their own houses. I am a citizen too. How is it that my rights will be denied so easily? Because of my perceived political allegiance? Because I am part of that embedded Conservative majority? Is it because I am not politically acceptable at present?
I oppose the Bill not because it seeks to enact greater democracy, but because it denies it. I shall support a Bill which achieves greater democracy, but it must also protect personal rights. I see on both sides of this House a resolve to proceed with interim compromises or, as journalists have said, "political fixes", which no party has the moral right to do. I wonder how deeply politicians see into the mind of British people who, throughout the history of our culture and our country, have opposed sovereigns and governments who revoked personal and property rights.
It seems clear that reform of this House will be decided only by politically expedient compromises to end the hereditary Peers' rights no matter what. Some magnify and theorise about the real politics involved, unconcerned about the cancellation of personal and property rights. Even the media debase the issue and denigrate personal rights as mere privilege. I wonder whether this is true for every citizen or is true only for hereditary Peers.
May I now draw attention to a matter of more profound concern? Your Lordships may wish to note that the Government have not, during the parliamentary course of the Bill, mentioned their statutory obligation to consult and agree with all the 54 sovereign Commonwealth states concerning the abolition of the rights of hereditary Peers. I realise that the remark may surprise your Lordships. But by this Bill, the Government have made a daring attack on the hereditary rights of our sovereign Queen.
Since the accession of Henry IV in 1399 a reigning sovereign is an hereditary Peer. The Queen is the Duke of Lancaster. That is Her Majesty's hereditary title and peerage. The fact could not have escaped the Government's notice since the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a member of the Cabinet. I do not see the Queen's hereditary rights as Duke of Lancaster excluded by the Bill. Abolishing the rights in this House of all hereditary Peers must therefore include the rights of the Duke of Lancaster, our Queen. It is clear that the way in which the Bill has been drafted proposes also to remove the Queen's rights as an hereditary Peer. This
Perhaps I may refer your Lordships to the preamble to the Statute of Westminster which declares that each Commonwealth parliament must consent to any alteration in the succession or the royal style and titles. Has this consent been sought? If so, what are the responses of the Commonwealth states? Why has this requirement not been mentioned in the Government's presentation of the Bill?
Would not your Lordships agree that the Bill's conformity to our human rights laws is as important as its conformity to the Statute of Westminster and agreements from the Commonwealth states? If so, why have the Government stated the Bill complies with our human rights laws, but been silent about the Commonwealth's consent? Now we have a Royal Commission, I hope that my noble friend Lord Wakeham will consult most closely with leaders of all the Commonwealth states on this statutory requirement.
I believe the Government could well consider that they have more important matters on which to legislate than to run any further headlong into a morass of laws which block the path of this Bill. It is better for us to find ways to clear that obstructed path. In doing so, I mention the observation of perhaps the greatest and most acerbic of all political journalists, Walter Bagehot. He said of our constitution:
I respectfully recommend that the Government accept the benefits of a constitutional compromise, devoid of partisan politics and of class attitudes. Could we not for a moment in our parliamentary history imagine ourselves as statesmen and adopt a compromise--a convention of the constitution--which, although ending the hereditary Peers' power through votes, preserves personal rights to sit and express their views?
As I proposed to the House on 22nd February, the votes of hereditary Peers would no longer be counted in determining the passing of laws and rules in this House. If that were to be our practice by convention, this Bill would be superfluous, and for that reason should be withdrawn quickly.
In the interests of legislative progress and of supporting good government, could we not all agree that such a constitutional arrangement, if proposed by this Government, could replace this ill-drafted Bill? Would
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