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Lord Richard: My Lords, the Labour Party manifesto was perfectly clear on the issue. I hope that the noble Lord will agree with me at least on that. We said that we would reform your Lordships' House in two stages. The first stage would be a discrete stage standing on its own, which would be the abolition of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote. As to whether a different posture on the part of Her Majesty's Government would make an agreement more or less possible, that must be a matter of judgment.
Lord Chalfont: My Lords, if, as it seems, the Lord Privy Seal is underlining the Government's total commitment to a two-stage process, can he say when they will announce their intention as regards the second stage? Will it be before the first stage legislation is introduced, at the same time or somewhere in the distant future?
Lord Richard: My Lords, if matters proceed in the way set out in the Labour Party manifesto there will be the first stage, which is the abolition of the right of hereditary Peers in this House to sit and vote. There will then be a period, as I have described in the past, of full-scale public consultation. The manifesto mentions
Lord Richard: My Lords, of course the manifesto is not a sacred cow. If it had been a sacred cow I would not have been talking to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, to see whether it was possible to reach agreement on a single stage. Just as it is not a sacred cow, it is impossible, with great respect, for noble Lords in this House to ignore the fact that that was the policy which we put before the electorate upon which we were overwhelmingly elected.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, did the Leader of the House discover what was the opinion of the Opposition on the two proposals that he mentioned, the Royal Commission and the Joint Committee of both Houses?
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, perhaps I can help the noble Lord the Leader of the House in forming the judgment to which he referred in answer to my noble friend Lord Denham. I suggest that the answer might be yes. Can he give a guarantee that after the Government have introduced the stage 1 Bill, which he has promised, they will proceed with all due expedition to stage 2, bearing in mind that the last time a rapid stage 2 was promised was in 1911 and we are still waiting?
Lord Richard: My Lords, if we have been waiting since 1911 that underlines my view that this is unfinished business since 1911. We committed ourselves in the manifesto--I do not want to use it as a sacred text--to the first stage being precisely that; namely, the first stage.
Lord Richard: My Lords, the date of the debate is a matter for discussion between the usual channels. I can tell the noble Lord that those discussions are taking place. What I cannot do today is give him a definite date upon which the debate will take place. But he is right; we have promised a debate and it will take place.
Viscount Mountgarret: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that there is little or no demand by the general public to do away with the hereditary peerage in toto? If that is so, why the headlong rush? Does he agree that it might be better to look at the possibility of making this House totally independent in mind and view by abolishing the whipping system so that we can all speak our own minds, give an independent view and vote for or against the argument on merit rather than by whipping?
The noble Lord speaks of a headlong rush. It has been 87 years! That can hardly be a rush, even at the snail's pace which constitutional reform usually takes in the United Kingdom. I cannot help but remind the House that on at least three occasions during those 87 years this House accepted that the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote should no longer persist. That was in 1917, in 1948 and in 1968, when, if my memory serves me correctly, the majority in this House in favour of a package which deprived hereditary Peers of the right to sit and vote was five to one. In those circumstances, for us to be accused of indecent haste in respect of what this House has accepted three times in those 87 years seems to me to be pushing it a bit!
Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is my noble friend aware--I am sure he is--that parliamentary government is, whether we like it or not, an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process? Is it not also the case, as the Fabians pointed out some time ago, that evolution is inevitably gradual?
Lord Richard: My Lords, for the benefit of the House, and indeed for my own benefit, as perhaps my bedside reading is not the same as that of the noble Lord, Standing Order No. 20 deals with leave of absence from the House by Peers. I do not believe that there could be compulsory leave of absence and, as far as I know, that has not been proposed.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I shall answer the question but I shall answer it in my own way and not perhaps in the way that the Opposition would like me to. I cannot forbear from making the point that the party opposite was in government for no fewer than 18 years and that in those 18 years we heard nothing whatever from it about reform of your Lordships' House.
My party has been committed to that reform for a very long time. We included the matter very clearly in the manifesto and we were elected on it. Therefore, we are committed to that course of action. The noble Lord asked me about the reform being undertaken in a single stage rather than in two stages. I entered into discussions--somewhat desultory discussions, if I may say so--with the noble Viscount and members of the Opposition to see whether there would be sufficient support for an agreed reform which could take place in a single stage. Unfortunately, there was no such agreement.
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