Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, Amendment No. 27 stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Caithness and is grouped with Amendment No. 25. Both amendments go to the heart of the problem of this particular Bill. Like my noble friend Lord Coleraine, I feel very strongly about these matters.

I summarise the problem by asking: what, who and when? First, what do the Government want the interim Chamber to do? Secondly, who will do this work? Thirdly, when will those two matters be decided? I fear that in Committee the Leader of the House did not answer these questions, except for the last one. On 13th May at col. 1308 of Hansard, the noble Baroness said that that was not the time to decide these matters, which reinforced my remarks at Second Reading that, obviously, she had not heard the words of the song,


In Committee the noble Baroness did not explain the position of the specialist part-time Peer in the interim Chamber or whether he or she would be allowed in at all. She criticised the amendment for looking after only landowners' interests. Together with her noble friend Lord Desai, she said that the amendment was concerned entirely with the economics of agriculture. This was not so. As I tried to explain, the countryside has social and cultural as well as economic problems. But, in order to meet the concerns of the noble Baroness, we have drafted this amendment very much more widely. On a personal note, perhaps I may remind the noble Baroness that if she had been a Member of this House for a little longer she would have heard my frequent criticisms of landowners, not least over tenancy matters, starting at the time of the 1976 Act which was her party's brainchild.

The question now is whether noble Lords support our Amendment No. 27 or my noble friend's Amendment No. 25. If my noble friend does not put his amendment to the vote, we shall certainly seek to do so with ours, unless the Government concede the point. Having said that, it would be irresponsible and pig-headed for me to suggest to your Lordships that you should support Amendment No. 27 instead of my noble friend's Amendment No. 25, which certainly answers my third and most important question: when? There is a difference between the two amendments. Ours is in

22 Jun 1999 : Column 832

favour of the commission appointing specialist part-time Peers responsible for monitoring and revising government legislation throughout the House, not just on the Cross Benches, whereas the Government, the Liberal Democrats--I say that in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has just said--and, until recently, my own Front Bench want all Benches to be filled with full-time party-political hacks who bow to the Whip.

I believe that my cynicism with regard to the Front Bench was unjustified. The remarks of my noble friend Lord Kingsland took the wind out of my sails. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, that when there is political balance, the Whips get the bit between their teeth and exert more pressure on Back-Benchers. I had very little pressure put on me when we were in power. Before anyone says, "He would say that, wouldn't he?", in the unlikely event of my party suggesting that my name should be put forward for what may be called the "Weatherill 90", I shall not agree with that for a number of reasons. I hope, however, that noble Lords will understand the need for specialist non-political Peers in the interim Chamber. If my noble friend's amendment is accepted, my noble friend Lord Caithness and I reserve the right to seek to amend that amendment at Third Reading. But at this stage, I support my noble friend's Amendment No. 25 and sincerely hope that your Lordships will do likewise.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I address your Lordships as a full-time party-political hack. I do not have the independence which is shown day in, day out by the hereditary Peers. I wish I did. I regard these amendments as absurd, and I hope that my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal will reject them in terms.

I remind your Lordships of the remarkable statements that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made about the future of this House. First, he said--no Prime Minister in my lifetime has said it--that despite his party's massive electoral victory he did not seek to achieve a majority, or anything like it, in this House. He said it in terms and committed his party to it. All that happens in return is that either cynical remarks are made to the effect that my right honourable friend is not to be believed or, if he is to be believed, any of his successors cannot be believed. That will not do. One should not underestimate the statement made by my right honourable friend.

Secondly, my right honourable friend committed himself to an appointments commission. Certainly, in my lifetime that is the first time that any Prime Minister has announced his willingness to do such a thing. We have not heard a word of appreciation from the Official Opposition as to that. Again, an attempt is made to insinuate that there is something underhand about these remarkably forthright statements by my right honourable friend. We are committed to two matters of enormous importance in future: first, not to seek a majority; and, secondly, the establishment of an appointments commission. I anticipate that my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal will repeat that on behalf of my right honourable friend in a few minutes.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 833

Since we are committed to an appointments commission, the debate has brought out just how difficult this is. We should not jump the gun. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has made it clear on every possible occasion that he does not want to debate this Bill; he wants to debate the next one. He has said forthrightly and honestly that he does not want stage one. In the language of the trade unions, he wants stage one only with stage two. I can see the banners as the hereditary Peers come marching down Whitehall.

The position of the Government, as I understand it--I hope that I shall not be undermined by my noble friend--is that they shall carry out stage one and are totally committed to stage two after stage one. They say that all of the present stuff is to do with stage two and what is to be done next. There is no point in pretending that it is not about stage two.

My main problem is that as I go through the details, all I find are difficulties. This is the Report stage of a Bill. I do not want to waste your Lordships' time by going through every single difficulty, but it is already apparent that the question of numbers is one that we must debate in much greater detail than we can on this occasion. Why should those members of the appointments commission be Privy Counsellors? I speak as someone who is not a Privy Counsellor. I have never regarded Privy Counsellors as the repository of honesty and objectivity. Why cannot the rest of us be considered for these matters?

There is some concern in the Official Opposition's amendment about someone from the Cross-Bench group joining a political party, therefore ceasing to be a Cross-Bencher. What about political people who join the Cross Benches? It is an interesting technical point which is not addressed. Why should there be broad parity between the numbers of government Peers and Cross-Bench Peers? I can see no basis for that.

I could go on--and noble Lords know me well enough to believe that I am quite capable of doing so, but I shall not. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, implied that no matter what is said he will divide the House. I hope that he does not do something so foolish as that. We should accept the fact that we shall have an appointments commission; and that we shall have the other principles laid down by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. We should then pass the Bill, albeit in the slightly imperfect form in which it now exists, and get down to the detail subsequently.

I am quite relaxed about whether or not the appointments commission is statutory. But I am clear that that should not be in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, asked: why not? The answer is in part what I have said; namely, that we are not ready for it yet because we have not thought the position through. The other logical point is that it is inappropriate to have this material on the face of the Bill. I hope that noble Lords opposite can therefore be persuaded to withdraw the amendment and let us get this over with so that we can get down to what is dear to many of our hearts; namely, building the new House of Lords.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, Hitler was elected to power and the German Parliament, by passing the

22 Jun 1999 : Column 834

Enabling Act, gave him absolute power. That is a reminder that no democracy is entirely invulnerable; and men and women can sometimes be persuaded to surrender their liberty in the fond belief that the proposition which is being put before them is more important than that.

I conclude from that that one should try to make one's constitution robust enough to withstand quite appalling strains with checks and balances, including checks on the carrying out of fundamental change, by perhaps a very temporary majority in the House of Commons. I should have thought that all noble Lords would agree with me on this: those who meddle with existing constitutional arrangements have a duty to ensure that the new arrangements they are advancing are at least as effective a barrier against tyranny as the old. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that there is nothing absurd in that. When one is making constitutions, if one has any sense of responsibility, one makes that constitution well.

I shall not spend much time on the Government's argument, adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that this is only a temporary Bill. We have gone over that many times. Whether it will be temporary is not entirely in the Government's hands. There happens to be a thing called Parliament, and there happens to be a thing called the House of Commons, which is sometimes forgotten by Members on the Front Bench, and was certainly forgotten by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when he replied to a similar debate not long ago, saying that he could give an absolute guarantee that there would be a stage two. Of course he cannot give any such guarantee.

As I mentioned earlier, there are some wise people like Mr Robert Sheldon who think that in any event it is likely that when the time comes the Government will have other fish to fry and will be loath to embark on a further constitutional Bill. It seems to me obvious-- I cannot see for the life of me why it is not obvious to the noble Lord, Lord Peston--that it is our duty in the absence of any sunset clause, or the like, to treat this like any other legislation, as being permanent in effect. We have to build for the future. This is not about stage two. It is about making a good job of the work which is before us now. We have to ensure that the largely nominated House the Government are bent on creating is at least as independent as the one they are replacing; and at least as strong a barrier against tyranny.

It is a difficult task because the new House--it was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Kingsland--will be a much smaller House. If the power of appointment of life Peers is to be left in the hands of the Prime Minister, it will be much easier for him, or any future Prime Minister, to make sufficient appointments to procure an absolute majority in this place. Look, for instance, at how the balance among life Peers has been changed in two short years. That in itself is sufficient proof of what I am saying.

The other reason why we have a difficult task on our hands is that, contrary to what has been said time and again by noble Lords on the other side of the House, the hereditary peerage has constituted a uniquely

22 Jun 1999 : Column 835

independent element in this place. I have to say to noble Lords opposite that independence of mind and invulnerability to pressure are not qualities which inevitably disappear when a person joins a political party. They are qualities which are most likely to exist in those, whether or not party members, who are beholden to no one for their appointments, have economic independence, and are not career politicians. In that connection, I commend to the House some other words spoken by Mr Robert Sheldon in the debate in another place to which I referred earlier.

Not so long ago--I am sure noble Lords will remember this--Mr Tony Benn commented that the House of Commons was atrophying and democracy was being squeezed out of the system. Mr Sheldon was equally unhappy about the way the House of Commons was working. It was not providing a sufficient check on the executive, principally, said Mr Sheldon, because Members have lost their independence. They have lost it, said Mr Sheldon, because,


    "[they] have become more full time and are looking to a career structure. It is that career structure that has tended to corrupt the system. That is the problem". He continued:


    "Now, we have large numbers of Members of Parliament who have little in the way of outside interests and outside concerns. As a result they look to the ordinary routes of promotion and envisage themselves forming part of the government".--[Official Report, Commons, 9/6/99; col. 669.] If the House of Commons is not working as an effective check on the executive, it is all-important that changes to this place do not make this Chamber a less effective check on the executive. If the House of Commons is not working properly because there are too many career politicians, we must learn the lesson for this House, and make sure that this Chamber is not overweighted with people either beholden to the Government for their place or looking to the Government for a place.

It cannot be denied that at the moment there is nothing in the Bill to prevent a government packing the place with people who they think can be relied upon to support the government through thick and thin whether the government are right or wrong. To that noble Lords opposite are wont to say that if there is a danger of abuse under this Bill, it is a danger which has existed for a long time. The Conservatives did not propose change when they were in power, so there is no reason to change now.

That is about the worst argument I have ever heard, for this reason: we are creating a new House; we are creating a different House; we are, according to Labour, engaged in a great modernisation of our constitution. Surely now the Labour Government have embarked on that exercise, they should try to make a good job of it and include the sort of provisions one would certainly include if one were starting from scratch and constructing a new nominated Chamber for a new Parliament. It is inconceivable that anyone starting from scratch would not include in a Bill measures which we have generally called "safeguards" to ensure that the power of nomination could not be abused by the government of the day.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 836

Noble Lords may recall that my noble friend Lord Elton and I moved in Committee an amendment somewhat similar to Amendment No. 25. We were minded to ask the House to take another look at what we proposed after we had taken on board criticisms made by the Lord Privy Seal, which were really criticisms about the method of appointment and the composition of the commission which we contended should be given the sole right to nominate people for peerages. We have not tabled an amendment on Report, because we think that Amendment No. 25 goes some way towards reflecting our views. In a subtle way it seeks, as does Amendment No. 27, to commit the Government in legislation to the sort of the House they propose in their own White Paper. If the House created by the Bill really does last for only a short time, no harm will have been done if one or other of these amendments is incorporated into the Bill. If stage two does not come about, the provisions of either amendment will go a long way towards preventing any possible abuse of power by a future government. I certainly support the intention behind each of these amendments.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and I have disagreed with one another for rather a long time, going back to 1966, when we had a little spat in the general election. I am happy to say that I then won and he had to go looking elsewhere.

I agree so much with my noble friend Lord Peston that I am brought to my feet. I hope my agreeing with him will not mean that my noble friend the Leader of the House proceeds to accept the amendment, because I could not disagree more with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. However, I disagree with the reference by my noble friend Lord Peston to the objectivity of Privy Counsellors, although some of us, even some Cross-Benchers, are objective, I am sure.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said that we must have barriers against tyranny. It is a remarkable statement to make when we have had Conservative government for the past 18 years and, many years prior to that, a huge majority in this place and therefore no checks and balances. And yet the noble Lord is telling us that all those independent Peers taking the Conservative Whip were providing the checks and balances! It is asking your Lordships to accept a great deal to accept that argument. I hope that your Lordships will not do so.

The noble Lord said that it was our duty to assume that the position will be permanent. He quoted a very dear friend of mine and close former colleague, the right honourable Robert Sheldon, Member of Parliament. He is a very senior and highly respected Member who has said many things that I said in Committee, and with which I agree.

The House was told earlier about some reasons why I had said that the transitional period would be long. I agree with Robert Sheldon and with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on that; I would not dispute it; but the fact is that even if it is a long transitional period, there is no case for all the points that he and others on

22 Jun 1999 : Column 837

the opposite Benches are making. As your Lordships will know, my own view is that the Government have conceded far too much already. I regret what they have conceded.

But even if the transitional period is long, we have what has already been said by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and others on our Front Bench. There is a word that we cannot use in Parliament, but we can use the expression that people have been "economical with the truth". The Opposition Front Bench and the noble Lord do not like to say specifically that they do not believe the Government. After all, the whole Weatherill deal was between Privy Counsellors, and on Privy Council terms. As we all agree that they are honourable men and women, when the Government have said that they will do all these things, why are the Opposition saying that they do not believe them? Perhaps when we hear a reply from the Opposition Front Bench we will be told. Do the Opposition think that the Government are being economical with the truth? What is the reason for their moving all these amendments?


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page