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Lord Harris of Greenwich: My noble friend Lord Newby does not want to waste any more time.

Earl Ferrers: One wonders why he started wasting time with a red herring--first, using the word "democratic" and then reverting to "popular".

6.30 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My noble friend Lord Ferrers rests his case. But it was an interesting example of the development of Liberal Democrat policy that the hopes encompassed in the 1911 Act will be breached by the passage of this Bill. That was the impression that I and many of my noble friends gained from what the noble Lord said.

It is also a pleasure to join in a debate where we heard the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, make an important intervention, as he normally does when he intervenes in these debates. There is no doubt on these Benches what the Labour Party manifesto said or what the Labour Party is now trying to achieve. However, where I part company from him is in the idea that we simply have to accept that without any debate or scrutiny at all. I understand that the noble Lord was not intending to say that.

When the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was Opposition Chief Whip he ran an extremely effective operation of scrutiny, harrying and occasionally of delaying. He was most successful in doing so. It was not a waste of time; it was not needless delay. He achieved some notable changes to the effects of government policy at that time and it was almost certainly right that he did so. Anything that we are doing is no more and no less than he achieved during his time in opposition.

As has already been said, the purpose of this group of amendments is to delay implementation of the legislation. I remind the Committee of where we stand. We wish to seek to amend this Bill, but the amendments we seek should be practical improvements to the Bill on matters of principle; changes that the country can understand as being within our rights and on which we would be prudent to insist. However, simply to delay the Bill--desirable though that might be--when the Government are not minded to do so, would bring this House into an open and direct conflict with the Government; it would not prevent the passage of the

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Bill. That is why, while I understand the principle behind the amendment and in an ideal world would sympathise with it, it is not the best place in which to expend our power. There are more fruitful areas for us so to do.

Of the choices that are practically available surrounding the birth, life and eventual death of the transitional House, I prefer the concept of a sunset clause. In that regard I add that I am not seeking to open the debate on the sunset clause; the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, dealt comprehensively with that yesterday afternoon. But as the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, said in his wise words yesterday, a sunset clause would give us time to search for the kind of consensus which is necessary if we are to reach long-term reform of this House.

I know that my noble friend Lord Ferrers was seeking to be helpful in his Amendment No. 121. There is a logic in delaying the removal of hereditary Peers until the end of this Parliament. It is another example of the Weatherill principle working; that is, if the hereditary peerage is so abhorrent to the Government, it makes stage two more likely. Of course, that does not obstruct the Government; it urges them on constructively. Given the choice between the two, I prefer the sunset route or the pressure of the Weatherill amendment to the blocking route of commencement. I am therefore in the unhappy position of not being able to support my noble friend Lord Trefgarne in his amendments.

Amendment No. 121 also raised the effectiveness of the ability to override the Writ in the light of the opinion which has already been mentioned, that of Mr. Lofthouse. I do not wish to go down this route again, but perhaps I might add this point. In the past few weeks the High Court offered a judgment in the case of Miss Jones, the Member of Parliament for Newark, which determined that she could return to another place because no successor had been elected and no Writ returned. It was remarked that, had another Member been elected for Newark and that Member had presented a Writ and the Writ had been returned, then that successor could not have been unseated in that Parliament.

I have drawn that to the attention of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor who says that he remains unpersuaded. But is that not at least prima facie evidence that a Writ returned may not be overridden? It would be helpful if the Government could explain why, in the light of all the evidence, they are ready to risk reference to the courts or the Committee for Privileges rather than amend this Bill. At least the Government cannot say that they have not been repeatedly warned as to the risk they may be running of passing ineffective law, and they may well find it challenged in a suitable place.

I look forward to listening to the response of the Government on the principles behind the amendments of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was kind enough to say that I dealt with the principles behind these amendments comprehensively

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yesterday. This was the group which was spoken to fully by, among others, the noble Lords, Lord Peyton of Yeovil and Lord Elton. The amendments were Amendments Nos. 110F, 110G, 110H, 115, 120, 135A and 135B. It is fair to say therefore that these issues have been ventilated.

In response to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, if there is a court challenge, I am satisfied that we can overcome it.

This group consists of Amendments Nos. 116 to 119 and 121. Amendments Nos. 116 and 118 provide for the Bill to come into force after the House has accepted the report of the Royal Commission. Of course, it does not follow that the report will be accepted, and if so the Bill would never come into force.

Amendment No. 117 asks that we wait until 2001 or the dissolution of this Parliament whichever is the earlier. I dealt with that I hope--to use the noble Lord's phrase--comprehensively yesterday. It perhaps bears repetition, I cannot say for the last time. Our objective and our commitment are clear: we have already delayed too long.

Amendments Nos. 119 and 121 are also in this group. If accepted, it would mean that all hereditary Peers could remain in the second Chamber as of right until after the end of the Parliament in which the Bill was passed. They would be able to sit and vote in the Chamber during the discussion on the second stage of reform and any other government legislation. They are not acceptable and I invite the Committee, if any of the amendments are pressed, not to accept them.

Earl Ferrers: I wonder whether the Minister could expand a little more; he was marginally peremptory. In response to the suggestion that there may be a challenge in the courts, the noble Lord said that he is satisfied that the Government will win. That is not much of an argument when one hopes that we put forward substantial arguments as to the difficulties. Can the noble Lord say why he believes there are no such difficulties?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Yes. It is the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament. I am convinced that if there were a challenge by the holder of a Writ in contradistinction to the sovereignty of Parliament, the sovereignty of Parliament would inevitably be upheld.

Lord Trefgarne: I must confess that I am a little disappointed with the reply of the noble Lord which was rather short, even peremptory as my noble friend Lord Ferrers suggested. But the Minister is right; we have discussed this matter before. I will not detain the Committee further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 117 to 120 not moved.]

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Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 120A:

Page 1, line 14, at end insert--
("( ) Notwithstanding anything in subsection (1), this Act shall come into force only to the extent that it is in full compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the precedents established by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.")

The noble Lord said: The human rights problems with this Bill loom larger by the day. This amendment ensures the Bill's full compliance with the human rights clause, both European and British. I understand that the Government are advised that it would be impractical to implement fully the Human Rights Act 1998 before mid-2001 due to many practices and policies deep in our legal and administrative systems which are regarded as discriminatory and contrary to European human rights. Even the honours system is so affected.

Minorities such as hereditary Peers are classified by this Government as an "embedded Conservative majority". I refer to that phrase, as used by the Prime Minister in another place. I also refer to the labelling of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, of hereditary Peers in this House on 27th April as,

    "an enormous in-built Conservative majority".--[Official Report, 27/4/99; col. 212.] With this political labelling, hereditary Peers must be removed completely from this House. It seems so easily forgotten that, for many generations, hereditary Peers have been excluded; first, from the democratic process in being disenfranchised from election to the House of Commons; also, from voting in general elections, at least so long as they do not renounce their titles and rights.

Now we are offered compensation with a granting of those rights. Human rights cannot be granted. They exist because we are human, and not because those rights are a gift of government or a state. But hereditary Peers do not have to wait until 2001 to enforce their human rights. The removal of a political group--the hereditary Peers, as an embedded Conservative majority--is a violation of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no doubt, according to the Court in Strasbourg, that political groups are within the scope of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, an "association" of Conservative Peers is a political group, and, therefore, would not be denied the protection of the human rights convention, merely because its activities are regarded by national authorities as undermining the democratic structures of the state.

Indeed, other areas of vulnerability include the very process of awarding Honours. These may fail under this ruling because they are discriminatory. The Court's ruling embraces a non-competitive process whereby all Peers are appointed. I hope that that may help my noble friend Lord Montgomery with his question in the debate on 27th April at col. 262 of Hansard.

However, for the present, we may be willing to trust, but not blindly, that the Government know what they are doing with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights, and its effect on the Weatherill amendment. That, too, appears to rely on a non-competitive process of selection and that would

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render it open to reversal under European human rights laws. Can the Minister say whether that has been considered and whether that amendment would render the Bill contrary to European human rights laws? I believe that it would and that the Government have not considered such a scenario in their haste to get this Bill through quickly.

I referred to the case of the Turkish Communist Party in the European Court of Human Rights in 1996 in my previous speeches to this Bill. It proposes the abolition of the hereditary rights of a defined political group, simply because it is regarded by the Government as undermining, or contrary to, the democratic structures of this country.

It is clear that the Government will consider no amendments to the Bill, even to avoid human rights violations and even to comply with European laws. That posture does not sit credibly with the endorsement of this Bill as being compliant with human rights laws, as provided by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House.

Any British government that endorses a Bill as being compliant with the Human Rights Act must have been well aware of rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. This House has the right to know the detailed basis and reasoning for this endorsement, in light of the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, stated in the debate on 27th April 1999 (at col. 252 of Hansard) that the Government were not, by this Bill, excluding a group from participating in the legislative process. He explained this by saying the Government were giving the hereditary Peers, who have been deprived politically and legally, their full entitlement to participate in parliamentary elections. This was the benign face of motherhood socialism talking.

Voting in general elections is not normally regarded as a legislative process. With the greatest respect, I believe that the noble Lord has confused the making of governments with the making of laws. He then admits to taking with one hand and giving with another. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, is a truly generous soul, but I think that he is playing at magician. How can one give what one does not have the right to give?

My right to vote as a citizen has always existed since I came of age. It is my human right in a modern democracy. My right to vote is not for a government or any party to give. It is for a Parliament to enact. Hereditary Peers have always had the right to vote. It is a human right. Governments have refused to enact that right in our domestic laws.

This Government are giving nothing that is not already possessed by human rights. If that is not well understood and accepted, then we all have a much deeper political and constitutional problem than just this Bill. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Monson: No doubt whoever is to reply for the Government will be reminding the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has stated on the face of the Bill that, in her

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opinion, the provisions of this Bill are indeed compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Obviously the Government will have sought the very best and most expensive legal opinion on this question. Therefore, they can at least be 99 per cent. certain that they are correct in their assumption. The trouble is that where the law is concerned, no one, whatever their degree of expertise, can ever be 100 per cent. certain. So it would surely be prudent to accept this amendment by way of a safeguard. Indeed, one might describe it as a belt-and-braces safeguard. There could be no harm in so doing.

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