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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

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4.45 p.m.

Viscount Mountgarret: I feel that too much attention is being given to the question of the manifesto and what was contained therein. It is irrelevant that the proposal happened to be in the manifesto. It need not be blindly followed. Let me give an example. Flexibility in all things is essential. A good general leading his troops into battle has a plan, and he decides to go straight forward to his objective. However, halfway there he finds there is some very good reason for changing his plan and going another way.

I believe that is exactly the position in this case. We all believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, that reform of your Lordships' House is desirable: it is necessary. I do not think there is very much argument about that; but, really, to have to rush at it in such a way without giving any detailed thought--as has emerged in later debates and many speeches--seems to me to be a fundamental mistake.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, merely follows a line which has already been set out by my noble friend Lady Saltoun. Namely, there was a manifesto commitment by the Labour Party that devolution would be on the table for Scotland and Wales. And what happened? There were referendums on that proposal. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If the Labour Party wishes to change the entire constitution of this country then it is only logical that we should be entitled to ask the people of this country if that is what they wish. It needs to be a positive question, and not tied up with commitments on health, education, pay or what you will--in which I believe the people of this country are far more interested than they are in the constitution of your Lordships' Chamber.

Another question occurs to me, and other Members of your Lordships' Chamber will be able to correct me if I am wrong. I wonder whether Parliament has the power unilaterally to change the constitution of the country without receiving the positive support of the people. Parliament is there by the will of the people. Parliament has been invested with the power of upholding the laws and the conventions which lead to the understood and unwritten constitution of this country. If Parliament wishes to make a fundamental change to our constitution it seems to me that Parliament should be obliged, to be on the safe side, to go back to the people of the country and say, "This is what we suggest; we think it is in your interests but we would like to be sure."

I may be quite wrong, but that seems to me to be not unreasonable. For that reason I ask whether there really has to be a mad, lemming-like rush to get stage one through. It ought to be considered not only by the Royal Commission, but the people of the country ought to be asked first. For this reason, I support wholeheartedly the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and others. I hope very much indeed that, despite the powerful speech of my noble

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friend Lord Marsh, which I found very impressive and difficult to refute, your Lordships might feel that this amendment should be agreed to.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, as I am the first speaker in the debate from these Benches at this Committee stage, I would like to argue against the mass--now some 275--of amendments as a whole. I can do that in one sentence, which is that we want the Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill.

We will need to be convinced of the need for any amendments to this Bill, and that goes for the Weatherill amendment also. We are certainly not convinced of the need for this amendment. It calls for a referendum. The use of referendums in the United Kingdom is novel, but it now seems to be accepted that advisory referendums may and sometimes should be held on major constitutional changes or those with constitutional implications--

Viscount Cranborne: I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way, particularly so early in his remarks. By whom is it accepted that advisory referendums should be held, if he means by that pre-legislative ones?

Lord Goodhart: Pre-legislative referendums have been held recently in Scotland and Wales. There is not complete agreement, but a considerable consensus, among constitutional experts that that is an appropriate and sometimes desirable course to take. As the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, pointed out, the first and only United Kingdom-wide referendum was that held in 1975 on whether the UK should stay within the European Community. Since then there have been other referendums in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London. We may have nationwide referendums on joining the euro or changes in the voting system for the House of Commons. All of those issues, except that relating to London, were very important ones with major constitutional implications.

But what is the proposed referendum here about? As I read it, the intention is that if the Government wish to bring the Bill into force before stage two they can do so only by a referendum. That referendum cannot be held until the Royal Commission has reported and the Joint Committee has reported on the report of the Royal Commission. Plainly, that is not a referendum on the simple question whether hereditary Peers should be removed from your Lordships' House. It is arguable whether a referendum on that issue would be justified. It is not an argument with which I agree because I believe that the position is quite clear. In effect we had two referendums on the issue in the January and December elections of 1910. The principle that hereditary Peers should leave your Lordships' House was decided in 1910 and has never been reversed by any party in this country since then.

My party and the government party have always wished to reform your Lordships' House by ending the rights of hereditary Peers. The Conservative Party has not, and does not now, say that hereditary Peers should remain permanently in your Lordships' House. Your

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Lordships' House voted in principle in 1968 for the removal of the voting rights of hereditary Peers. For these reasons, and also because there is a manifesto commitment--which is as clear as any manifesto commitment has ever been--I believe that a referendum on that issue would not be appropriate. But at least if the issue was whether hereditary Peers should remain here permanently it would be an important and arguable one giving rise to a clear and simple question.

What, however, is the purpose of the referendum proposed by Amendment No. 1? The question will be whether hereditary Peers are to leave immediately after the referendum or hang on for a year or two until stage two is implemented. That, frankly, is not a major constitutional issue, and your Lordships delude yourselves if you think that the public shares your enthusiasm for that point. It will be extremely difficult to explain to the public what it is all about. Do your Lordships expect major public interest in this question? If so, I am bound to say that you will be disappointed.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I am becoming rather confused and am trying to follow the argument. I know that it is my fault. The noble Lord talks about "my party". He uses "we", then "I" and returns to "we". Is he speaking for the Liberal Democrat Party? Is the Committee to hear what I call free-range contributions to the debate that we have heard from the Labour Party and other quarters of the House; or is the noble Lord just speaking for his party?

Lord Goodhart: The answer that the noble Lord might have concluded from the position from which I address the Committee is that I speak for the Liberal Democrat Party.

Lord Waddington: Perhaps the noble Lord will give way again. Is he saying that it is the policy of the Liberal Democrat Party to see created a wholly nominated House, with nominations solely in the hands of the Prime Minister of the day? If that is the view of the Liberal Party, it surely was not the view of that party in 1910 and 1911.

Lord Goodhart: I point out that in 1910 there were no life Peers. The position today is that we do not support a wholly nominated Chamber, but we are anxious that the matter should proceed in the two stages that have been made out and in which our party concurred in the Cook-Maclennan agreement before the previous election.

Reference has been made to opinion polls that show a majority in favour of retaining the hereditary Peers until stage two. That may or may not be so, but frankly I believe that the whole matter ranks extremely low in issues of public concern. I believe that the public neither expects nor wants a referendum on this question. Just imagine a "yes or no" campaign in this referendum. What would the referendum broadcasts be like? I believe that the whole question would raise apathy to new heights and there would be a wholly minimal turnout. Why delay the referendum until the report of the Joint Committee? Why not hold it now? The

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conclusion I reach--it may not be the intention, but it is surely the effect--is that there would be no time to hold a referendum before the next general election.

Amendment No. 2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Gray, makes matters even worse because it would require approval by a majority of the parliamentary electorate. In the referendum of 1975, which dealt with a very high profile issue, there was a 64 per cent turnout. Just over two-thirds of those who voted in that referendum voted yes, but even so that amounted to only about 43 per cent of the electorate. The chances of getting more than 50 per cent to vote in favour of the proposition in a referendum of this kind are negligible.

In reply to the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and others, we do not believe that the retention of hereditary Peers makes a proper stage two any more likely. It has always suited the Conservative Party to preserve the status quo. After this Bill becomes law that will no longer be the case. In the unlikely event of the Government not committing themselves to stage two by the time of the next election, the Conservatives will be able to put forward proposals for a new second Chamber and gain support for doing so.

I believe that this is a wholly inappropriate question for a referendum. It is in practice a wrecking amendment, even more so when it delays the operation of the Bill for some two years. I add my voice to others--I refer in particular to the very powerful speeches of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Marsh--and urge your Lordships not to agree to this amendment.

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