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The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry: My Lords, it is with great diffidence that I intervene in the debate, but I have been listening carefully to the arguments. It seems to me that the main objection to the amendment is that it is not necessary. If it is not necessary, why are those on the Government Benches so strongly against it? It will not do them any harm. I believe that it may not be necessary in the near future or in the immediate future but perhaps in the distant future it could become necessary. One does not know what may occur in years to come. It may be that my feelings on this matter are somewhat encouraged by having recently read that great classic by George Orwell, 1984, where one sees things moving slowly towards a state of big brotherhood. There are already signs that the Executive is taking greater powers throughout the land and that Parliament is losing powers to the Executive. One sees the media becoming more dominated by the Left-wing. So the drift carries on towards the situation which George Orwell so clearly described. We should look rather further ahead than the immediate future. Therefore, this could be a worthwhile safeguard.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, when I saw the amendment I was very angry. I thought it offensive and insulting. I shall have to temper my remarks and try to calm down. It made me angry for three reasons. First, it flies in the face of history. On only two occasions in this century has the life of a parliament been extended. One was when we had a Liberal ascendancy and the other was when we had a Conservative ascendancy. Never has it been on the agenda for the Labour Party. Secondly, it perpetrates the big lie that the only safeguard for democracy in this country is the House of Lords. That is absolute nonsense. Noble Lords have been talking about packing the House of Lords. I was at a Labour Party Conference in the mid-1980s when Tony Benn made a resounding speech in which he declared that the Labour Party would install a thousand Peers to get rid of the House of Lords. We all cheered that to the rafters.
After we had had a good cheer, thinking it a terrific idea, I wondered how we would select the thousand Peers to flood the House of Lords. I thought that the sensible way would be to pick the chairs and secretaries of every constituency Labour Party up and down the
I take exception to the suggestion by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that it would do no harm to put the amendment on the face of the Bill. I think it would do a great harm to the House. One of the terrific strengths of this place is that when we come in, whether we are life Peers, hereditary Peers or Peers on the judicial Bench or are on the Bishops Bench, we are considered completely equal; we all have exactly the same rights to speak on the Floor of the House and to vote.
One of the terrible things that the amendment would do is to introduce the concept of second-class, probationary, apprentice Peers. That would be a grave mistake for the House to make. I was surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, put his name to the amendment because in this Parliament he comes into that putative category of apprentice Peer or probationary Peer. I would defend his right to speak and vote in the House on the same basis as I and every other Member of the House.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I am not offended, upset or insulted by the amendment. Rather, I think it is self-defeating. I find it strange that the Conservative Benches in particular, which I had always taken to be upholders of our unwritten constitution and of the conventions underlying it, should put forward an amendment which, on the admission of those proposing it, deals with an extraordinarily unlikely eventuality.
It may be odd for a lawyer, as I am, and part of this House, which is a legislative House, to question the effectiveness of trying to legislate virtue. It has always struck me that the strength of the British constitutional arrangements rests not upon their words but on their spirit and the fact that certain acts, certain denials of a constitutional nature, would be so repugnant to the broad mass of the people of this country, let alone those that sit in this House and the other place, that they would simply not pass.
Therefore, I have the sense that the amendments, far from sustaining and ensuring that which they purport to preserve and protect, could give a bogus credence to the very notion of packing this House and extending the life of Parliament. They could undermine the very taboo which in a sense they seek to protect.
While, I suppose, understanding the endeavour of the two amendments, I have confidence in the people of this country and in the occupants of this place and the other place, not only now but in the future. I also believe that ultimately we provide a much greater protection for future constitutional arrangements if we have confidence in the good sense and decency that have sustained us these thousand years.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I am not a politician. I am a life Peer though. I find no difficulty in supporting the amendment. It is not about the past; it is about the possible future. The White Paper says that the future powers of the House of Lords should be looked at and reviewed, and we are considering one of the most important powers among them. Indeed, it is so identified in the White Paper.
It seems to me logical and right that when so much constitutional change is happening--who could have thought two years ago what the extremely changed constitutional picture would be today?--we need to make absolutely sure that any further change, such as extending the life of a parliament, whoever does it, must be stopped and thought about.
I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, that this is an honourable and excellent House, but we are not talking about the constitution of the House as it is now; we are talking about a possible future threat. I cannot see why it is not right to be quite sure that the House of Lords, which I hope will always be the impressive body it is now, can exercise that very necessary brake on possible action by a possible future Prime Minister, who might by then be much more presidential, for instance, than we have ever had. There might not be that much consultation.
Therefore, I feel very strongly that we ought to put in this safeguard; we ought to do our duty by the future. I do not think that we ought to look at this in terms of one party thinking that another is insulting it. That is irrelevant and it is beneath us. We should not be thinking like that.
I greatly respect many of my friends on the Opposition Benches. I feel sure that if they think about it they will accept that we are talking about the future of the country. It is all very well saying that the people would rebel. If there is one thing about the British, it is that they never notice anything that is happening to them until it has happened. That is why we always win wars at the last moment. We cannot afford to put this particular liberty at risk.
The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, speaking from these Cross-Benches, I have no concern with party politics, but I remember one very old proverb: better be safe than sorry. I shall vote for the amendment.
Lord Cobbold: My Lords, while I very much support the purpose behind the amendment, I am a little concerned about the reference solely to the Act of 1958. For the amendment to become really important there would have to be some very exceptional circumstances. A Prime Minister, probably with a very large majority in the other place, would have the power, if confronted with the amendment as part of an Act, to introduce another new measure appointing life Peers or Peers Members of this House. Doing that under a completely new Act would get round the amendment. Would that be a problem?
My only surprise is that there is no provision in our constitution at present to prevent any government swamping your Lordships' House with sufficient Peers, whether hereditary or life Peers. I am amazed that it has not come in sooner. There were opportune moments. I do not know, I was not there, but the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, has given some indication. It was long before my time.
This must surely be an appropriate moment, when we are considering a major constitutional change, to write into the Bill this sort of amendment which prevents any tampering--for want of a better word--with the unwritten understanding of how we proceed.
I leave noble Lords with one thought. Do those who oppose this amendment have something to hide? Is there not something that we should fear? I thoroughly support the amendment.
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