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Lord Swinfen: I am in two minds over a "sunset" clause. It could be helpful, but the sunset should not come too soon because there must be time for Parliament as a whole to consider the recommendations of the Royal Commission on this House. We should bear in mind that if it looks as though the powers of this House that exist today will be used more fully in the future or that the powers of this House are to be increased, as against those of the House of Commons, there will be very considerable difficulty in getting a consensus, particularly in the House of Commons, and in making certain that any reforms go through.
Therefore I think that if there is a "sunset" clause it should be some time away--probably three to five years at any rate because anything shorter than that I think is too soon. We must also bear in mind that, despite the improvements being made to this Bill by the Weatherill
Lord Goodhart: The lead amendment in this group, No. 110F, has been put down in the names of Members of your Lordships' House for whom I have the highest respect. This applies of course to Amendment No. 110F in its present incarnation, and perhaps to an even higher degree to those who put their names to Amendment No. 94, which is the previous incarnation of the same amendment. Unfortunately they have entirely failed to persuade me to support them.
The result of these amendments, if passed, will be that unless the stage two legislation is enacted by an early date the hereditary Peers will come back to this House, lock, stock and barrel. The time allowed is short. In the case of Amendment No. 110F it is until 31st October 2001, which is only some two-and-a-half years away. In the case of Amendment No. 110G it is the end of the present Parliament: not later than May 2002. In the case of Amendment No. 110H it is three years from the passing of this Bill, and that probably means a date not later than October 2002.
Amendment No. 120, quite astonishingly, will bring back all the hereditary Peers as soon as the Royal Commission reports. That could be as early as January next year, unless the Royal Commission has proposed an increase in the number of hereditary Peers in your Lordships' House beyond the magic figure of 92. I would say that of these amendments only Amendment No. 115 proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, could give a reasonable time for stage two to be enacted. But even in that case, to these Benches, a "sunset" clause of any kind is unacceptable. It would be wholly wrong--
Lord Goodhart: Amendment No. 135A would give a very short time and Amendment No. 135B, I agree, would give a more substantial length of time, until the end of the next parliament, although that is a little bit shorter than the provisions of Amendment No. 115.
As I was saying, we believe that a "sunset" clause of any kind is unacceptable. It would be wholly wrong, having excluded some 88 per cent of the hereditary peerage, to bring them back again in full in any circumstances. The argument has been that it is necessary to keep the pressure on the Government to complete stage two and again, if necessary, to keep a watch on the executive.
That pressure, so far as is needed, is provided by the Weatherill amendment. That, as we all know only too well, will keep 92 hereditary Peers in the transitional, interim or appointed House. Surely 92 is enough. There
Let us remember that the purpose of this Bill is to get rid of an historical anomaly and in saying that I mean no disrespect whatever to individual hereditary Peers who, as we all know, have played an extremely valuable part in the workings of this House. However, the removal of the hereditary Peers is fully justified in its own right, we believe. The hereditary Peers are not gifted, in our view, with a special wisdom and experience to make them better guardians of the constitution than the rest of us. I must say that it seems odd to find hereditary Peers calling attention to the independence of the hereditary peerage while speaking from the Conservative Benches. They are failing to notice the inconsistency between what they are saying and the place from which they are speaking. I should also say, in response to a remark of the noble Lord, Lord Elton--
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Would the noble Lord give way? Would he not admit that there are quite a lot of Peers who are appointed Peers, who take exactly that attitude towards the independence of hereditary Peers? I think his remarks perhaps need tempering slightly in that regard.
Earl Ferrers: I think that perhaps the noble Lord might consider tempering his remarks a little because had he been a Member of the House when the Conservative government was in power he would then have realised there were many, many occasions when Conservatives did not vote for the government. That caused great distress to many of us who were responsible for trying to get government policies through. I could recite many occasions when Home Office matters were concerned when not all our friends, but quite a number of them, regularly went into the "wrong" Lobby. I remember reminding the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, of her name. I said, "Remember your name; it is Faithfull. You hardly ever come into the Lobby with us".
Lord Graham of Edmonton: I wonder whether the noble Earl recalls the comparison of the periods 1974 to 1979 and from 1979 to 1992. In 1974 to 1979 there was a Labour government and that government were defeated on average 80 times a year. Yet when the independent Conservatives had the right to vote against their government between 1979 and 1992, those defeats were reduced to 15 per year.
Lord Goodhart: We have heard that statistic a great many times. I do not dispute that there is a degree of independence from Members on the Conservative Benches, both hereditary and life. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred to the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. The noble Baroness was, of course, a life Peer and not a hereditary Peer. But the argument is equally true of noble Lords on my own Benches and those on the Government Benches.
The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that it was important to go ahead in circumstances where nobody was under an incentive to block reforms. That may be so. But I cannot think of anything that would give the Conservatives a greater incentive to delay stage two than the prospect of a sunset clause coming into effect. If the Government do not get on with stage two and come up with a proper answer, the real sanction will not be the continuing presence in your Lordships' House of 92 hereditary Peers, or even 750 of them, but the displeasure of the voters at the ballot box. If the Government drag their feet on stage two, the opposition parties should attack them, and we certainly shall. These amendments are unnecessary.
The Earl of Dartmouth: Is the noble Lord seriously of the opinion that the average voter in this country takes any great interest in matters of constitutional reform? I say that as somebody who is going to the polls on Thursday 10th June and holding myself up before the electorate.
Lord Goodhart: With respect, I believe there could well be a serious public backlash if the Government are seen to carry out stage two in a way that would make a second Chamber of the future an undemocratic body.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: On the question of electoral backlashes, does the noble Lord think an electoral backlash in the circumstance of the Government not proceeding to stage two is more or less likely than an electoral backlash in Scotland against his party describing its promise to abolish student fees as merely election rhetoric?
Lord Goodhart: That has very little to do with our debate. What is more, the agreement between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland will give Scotland a government based on the wishes of the majority of the population in Scotland.
The Earl of Erroll: The noble Lord stated that the backlash will come if the Government present a stage two which is totally unacceptable, to paraphrase what he said. But Amendment No. 110F relates to a situation in which the Government do not produce a stage two. As the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, said, the public may not notice. They might notice if the Government produce a stage two; but the danger is if they do not produce a stage two. That is the challenge.
Lord Goodhart: That is quite right. There will be a backlash if the Government fail to get a move on with a proper stage two or if they come up with an unacceptable answer in the course of stage two. Therefore this group of amendments is unnecessary in intention and undesirable in its consequences.
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