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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may preface my remarks by saying one or two things which I hope will preserve my friendship with the noble Lords, Lord Barnett, Lord Graham, Lord Richard and Lord Monkswell. Nothing that I or any of my friends say on this issue implies in any way that we think that the present Prime Minister, or anyone we know who is likely to be Prime Minister in the future, is ever likely to try to use the majority in another place to drive through an extension of the life of a parliament unless, as happened in the two world wars, there is general agreement on all sides that that should happen. I certainly do not think that the current Prime Minister falls into any category that deserves suspicion. He may drive down bus lanes, but I do not believe for a moment that he would drive a bus through the very heart of the British constitution. Let us have that clear.
To those who say, "You did not complain about this over the past 90 years, so you must have been happy with the previous provision", I would say that, on reflection, I think that perhaps the previous provision was not that terrific. Of course, as my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry pointed out, there have been threats in this century to pack your Lordships' Chamber with hereditary Peers. The Chamber could have been packed with hereditaries every bit as easily as it could in future be packed with life Peers. I believe the position is perfectly straightforward.
Why are we discussing this matter today? It is for the simple reason that the Government have come forward with some major constitutional changes, including the reform of your Lordships' House. Therefore, thinking laterally, it is quite legitimate to look at some of the other aspects of your Lordships' House. The matter referred to in the amendment is one of the most important duties laid on your Lordships' House, a duty which will continue to be laid on the second Chamber.
My preference for dealing with this would have been along the lines of the Scotland Act, of which I am reminded because I shall be attending the opening of the Scottish Parliament tomorrow. In Section 3 of that Act, which is about the life of the Parliament, the Government themselves chose to put in a qualified majority, not for the extension of the life of the Parliament but for the restriction of its life. The Scottish Parliament is a four-year Parliament and in order for that four-year Parliament to be dissolved early it is required that the resolution is passed on a Division, the number of Members voting in favour being not less than two-thirds of the total number of seats for Members of the Parliament. That is a new concept in the British constitution, put into the Scotland Act by the Government because they felt it necessary. I should have liked to see a similar provision to that put into the Bill. Unfortunately, that was deemed not to be in order because of the Long Title of the Bill. I believe that my noble friend Lord Mancroft has come forward with a provision which is almost as good which puts in a protection. If noble Lords on the Government Back Benches think that that protection should have existed before, perhaps they are right. That is a good reason for putting it in today. I think the House should put it down as a marker.
None of us can foretell the future. A Prime Minister of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party or even the Liberal Democrat Party--admittedly, that is an unlikely event--may have a sufficient majority and convince himself and sufficient of his colleagues that, for a number of reasons, Parliament should last a bit longer than five years. As in this Bill we are looking to the future, we should consider how to prevent that admittedly very unlikely event.
Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will say that this is only an interim measure and that when in three or four years' time--who knows?--the Government bring forward stage two, that will be the time to address the wider powers of the House. I can see that argument, but is it not sensible that today when discussing the changes under stage one we put down a marker in the Bill so that when the next one comes along it is carried forward? Those of us who are here then will realise that they must put in a similar protection for the Parliaments to come. I believe that that is the sensible way to proceed. It is no reflection on anyone living today, but it guards against the possible danger that some day in the future the world will be different. The world will certainly be different in future but it may not be to the advantage of democracy in this country. This amendment is a straightforward protection and is worthy of support.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, it is heartening to see such a good turnout this afternoon for this particular amendment. I cannot begin to put my finger on the reason for it. I felt downhearted when I heard the in terrorem argument of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. He threatened me, among others, after death with the great debating chamber in the sky. Please, God, no,
The amendment together with that in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, proposes that some Members of this Chamber should not be allowed to vote on one particular issue irrespective of party, where they came from and why, the quality of their attendance or non-attendance, their contribution to debates or lack of it and their independence of mind or heart. They are, therefore, always to be considered potentially as second class and untrustworthy. As was rightly pointed out, that applies to a number of life Peers presently here who came after the previous election. That remains a fact even though unpalatable.
It seems to me that two justifications, spoken or not, underlie the approach. It is not said, but sometimes hinted--admittedly, not this afternoon but certainly in similar debates in the past--that hereditary Peers are uniquely independent. Experience demonstrates the contrary. They are no more independent than life Peers. It is suggested that the balance of numbers in the House may make it easier for the government of the day, or any future one, to pack this Chamber. I do not accept either of those propositions.
I listened carefully to the speech of the noble Baroness, as I always do. I also listened to the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil. I recognise that there is concern, and it is only right that I should try to deal with it. One way of addressing the concern that has always been refused by the Conservative Party and Conservative governments throughout the years is to have a written constitution that can be amended only in the circumstances described generally by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. This amendment does not begin to do that, and I shall demonstrate why.
I find the amendment wholly unacceptable, not least because it cannot work for two reasons. First, even if passed--I recognise that the present arrangements allow the mover of the amendment and his supporters overwhelming fire power to have their way this afternoon--the amendment cannot bite on any legislation to amend the Act of 1911. It is therefore wholly valueless and meaningless except as a rather superficial, cosmetic device. Secondly, it would not catch a newly re-elected government who had taken the trouble to pack the House shortly before an election. If one looks for the "conspiracy" motive in modern political life, one needs to bear in mind that anyone with half a grain of intelligence, or even the foresight to read what is being said presently, will not be hampered in the slightest.
Let us see what powers would remain in the House. Those who were disenfranchised from voting on what one recognises would be an important aspect of your Lordships' duties could still vote on a number of matters. I take some examples across the spectrum. Those noble Lords could still vote on a declaration of war, a state of emergency or martial law. Should they be so inclined, they could vote--perhaps it is doubtful--for the complete restitution of the hereditary peerage in
The fact is that this is a device. I impugn no one's motives because I take the guidance of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. It does not take the argument any further to say that an amendment is bad because motive is bad. An amendment may be good and motive bad, and vice versa. The fact is that none of this will work. This is a self-indulgent amendment, which I am aware is capable of being passed this afternoon. The amendment will have no effect at all, except to demean--I put it neutrally--what we have been about.
Lord William of Mostyn: My Lords, it will not work for two reasons: first, it does not bite on the fundamental statute, which is the Act of 1911; and, secondly, any government can pack the House before the election and the post-election sitting life Peers will have a vote even on the basis of this amendment.
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