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Certainly, the Committee has demonstrated a remarkable, if not altogether surprising, appetite for discussing these issues. In the October and February debates we had over 200 speeches, and last Tuesday, the first day of the Committee stage, we had a large number of additional Second Reading speeches. Some of those who participated claimed that they were speaking to probing amendments, as they were described, but there was and is nothing to probe. The only issue before us in reality is whether the Committee is prepared to accept the proposition that hereditary Peers should no longer be permitted to speak and vote in the House of Lords. That is the issue. It is the only issue before us. The Committee should recognise that.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: I am responding to a speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, who gave us a full account of her views on the subject. I make no complaint about that. I propose to return to one or two points of general application made in the debate because we should recognise the issue that we are discussing when dealing with this amendment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, referred to the Labour Party manifesto. Indeed, she was quite right to do so. It has been mentioned once or twice before. Nevertheless, given the character of some of the speeches to which we have listened since the beginning of this Committee stage, it is right to remind the Conservative Party of what was in that manifesto. The same applies also to my own party. That is why those of us sitting on these Benches are firmly in support of the Bill.
Although there have been many fierce attacks on the Bill, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, clarified the position when he spoke on the first amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. The noble Viscount said:
"I would strongly advise your Lordships against supporting on the first day of Committee stage debate an amendment the effect of which would be to wreck the Bill".--[Official Report, 20/4/99; col. 1042.]
The political consequences are clear. The Conservative majority in this Chamber could then vote against that resolution and the Bill would be dead. That is the reality. That is what we are discussing. There should be no misunderstanding. This is one of the most fundamental amendments tabled for Committee stage. For the reasons that I have indicated, what is being suggested is entirely unacceptable to us.
The problem is that a number of Members of the House--the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, referred to it--are determined that they will organise a prolonged series of debates challenging the decision made by the British electorate two years ago.
Earlier this Session, we were promised by noble Lords on the Conservative Benches--and this was before the negotiations of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, with the Government--some kind of political--
Lord Stanley of Alderley: The noble Lord referred to a deal, a bargain, brokered between the Opposition and the Government as regards the Weatherill amendment. I do not know what that was. Perhaps the noble Lord will tell me.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: As we were not parties to it, I cannot answer the noble Lord's question. But as the deal has been reported rather widely in the newspapers, there is not much mystery about it.
Baroness Blatch: The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has prayed in aid the deal without knowing the details of it. Will he tell the Committee whether the deal precluded the tabling of any other amendment to the Bill?
Lord Harris of Greenwich: That is a matter on which the leadership of the Conservative Party will be in a position to judge better than I because, as I understand it, at the time the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, was fired as Leader of the Opposition by Mr.. Hague, he indicated that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, had been party to some of those
Before the sad passing of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, as Leader of the Opposition, we were promised some form of political Gettysburg. We were told that there would be the fiercest battle that the House of Lords had ever seen. Last week, we certainly heard the thunder of the guns; but, of course, there were no casualties because the guns were firing blanks. There was no Pickett charge for the army had disappeared. As soon as the moment of decision arose, noble Lords concerned withdrew their amendments.
The reason is clear. As a result of the talks, on which, no doubt, in a few moments the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will be able to assist the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, the Conservative Party is aware, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde is aware, that it is on probation. If it attempts to wreck the Bill, its members know that the Government may drop their support for the Weatherill amendment which guarantees places for a minimum of 42 hereditary Conservative Peers in this House.
Therefore, until now we have merely witnessed a phoney war. Certainly, there has been a desire to wound the Government but there have also been grave doubts on the Conservative Benches about striking too fierce a blow against the Government, which could lead to painful reprisals.
The question for the Opposition is clear. If they support the amendment in the name of noble Lord, Lord Boardman, which is the paving amendment for the two others to which he referred, designed to delay the implementation of the Government's manifesto commitment, they are clearly in breach of the Salisbury convention. As we all recognise, they have an overwhelming majority in this House and if they go into the Lobby, they will win. None of us has any doubts about that.
As I indicated, for us, as I am sure for many others, this is a major issue of principle. The Committee deserves to be allowed to make a clear decision one way or the other. If yet another request is made for leave to be given to withdraw the amendment, we shall insist on a Division. The time has come to end the period of this phoney war. If the members of the Conservative Party then choose to use their majority to carry the amendment, so be it. The responsibility will be theirs.
Lord Strathclyde: I am intrigued by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who makes much of the constitutional convention. There are two important conventions in this House. One is the Salisbury convention. Another is the convention that we do not vote against secondary legislation. I have yet to see the Liberal Democrats stick to that second convention. They are picking and choosing on the conventions that they decide to support and it is not good enough.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: I am sorry, but my hearing is pretty good and that is precisely what was said. The noble Baroness said that because it was in the manifesto, that was a clear expression that the Bill was going to come through. I believe she said that it would be a one-stage Bill or a one-storey Bill; that it was obnoxious, appalling and against all sorts of conventions that anyone should put down amendments to it. I am bound to say to the noble Baroness that there are many people in this House who share with me a long period of time in another place. If it had ever been the rule that we were never to put down amendments or argue a Bill that was in a party manifesto, I think it would have been a surprising development for all of us and we would not have accepted it.
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