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The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate sits down, could he answer one question. In listing the powers of this House, did he not accidentally omit one, which is the power of this House absolutely to veto any endeavour by the House of Commons to prolong its life in the quinquennial Act?
Lord Shepherd: My Lords, I have been a Member of your Lordships' House for some 44 years. I spent more than 20 years on one or other of the Front Benches and was perhaps at my happiest when I was Opposition and Government Chief Whip and later Leader of the House. With that experience, I say that I have always received the kindest understanding from my political opponents and from every quarter of the House.
I thoroughly endorse the tribute which the Leader of the House paid to the hereditary Peers. I hope that in the course of our debate we will not start comparing virtues, saying that the hereditary Peers are more independent minded than the life Peers or that the life Peers happen to have a greater degree of intellect and experience than the hereditary Peers. We are what we are and as a whole we have made a great contribution to this House in the way we have worked together. But the salient point remains. If, in the 21st century, this House is to play a major and increased role in regard to the House of Commons and the executive we must deal with our reputation and characteristics. You can speak with authority only when the people respect you.
I do not believe that ordinary people, other than affectionately, can respect this House while one party has a permanent position in the second Chamber. That is nothing new; the matter has been discussed in varying degrees of intensity for most of this century. The Liberals proposed to appoint a swath of Peers in order to create a majority for the Budget. We tried in 1968 and went a long way towards reaching agreement. But time has passed. I sympathise with the noble Viscount in saying that we ought to be searching for agreement, but I believe that, regrettably, the time has now passed.
We must deal with the imbalance which arises solely as a consequence of the hereditary principle. There are two choices: either we remove the hereditary right to membership of this House or we swamp it. We could bring in 300 or 400 new Members in which case we would perhaps need to hire the Albert Hall for our
How does one justify the situation? I know how I justify it. As an hereditary Peer, I went down to see Clem Attlee when the disclaimer Bill was passed. I said, "Mr. Attlee, what do I do? Do I renounce my title?" He puffed his pipe and said, "You're more bloody use there than you will be down here." So I stayed. I cannot justify the situation by saying that because I am the eldest son I have a right to attend this House. If I want to come here I make myself popular; if I were younger I might do so and become a life Peer. But at my age I have no intention of so doing. We must deal with the issue. If we are to improve the status of this House and increase its standing within the political scene in our country the Government's proposals are the only ones open.
Much has been said about a second stage and the Government have come under criticism for setting up a Royal Commission. I am a little worried about the appointment of a Royal Commission. I am not sure what a lot of theorists will contribute to a parliamentary assembly. I say to the right reverend Prelate that, yes, we may need a broad cross-section of people in this House. But this is a political centre, where political men and political women must be willing to scrutinise legislation and challenge the executive; it is not a debating society in that sense. I believe that we should be doing much more outside the Chamber in committee rooms examining Ministers and civil servants. I would opt for parliamentary scrutiny prior to the First Reading of major legislation.
I have another anxiety. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, referred to the Chamber being a quango and there being patronage. This place has always known patronage. In the old days, one was given a dukedom or an earldom. One would be created a Baron if one were low down in the batting order. But patronage has always existed. There is one way to eliminate the fear of patronage. One could say that from a certain date no one shall become a Member of this House through the honours system. If people are deserving of honours for what they have done in public life let us give them something that is appropriate. But what is the point of increasing the number of Peers through the hereditary and honours systems when such people have no intention whatever of attending? If we found a way in which the honours system could be removed, much of the fear of patronage would be removed. In fact, the first life peerages did not come forward in the honours list; they came in special lists so that one could identify them as Peers of Parliament.
The parties must now decide what they will do to fill the spaces which will clearly come about when the hereditary Peers leave this House. We shall need experienced men and women at the Table and in committees. They may not be easy to find. It may be that we do not have life Peers who are willing to take on those duties. We shall have to look at that. We must identify the problem to see what plans we can make.
In view of the move towards devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and inevitably in England, it is not possible to justify either the House of Commons or the House of Lords as at present structured. If such change takes place how is it possible to justify 650 Members of another place? It seems far too large a number. But there are 1,166 potential Members of this House. The mind boggles at the idea.
We have reform. We hereditaries have done our job. I hope that when we go, we shall go, as the noble Viscount said, with a degree of dignity. I hope that we shall not feel that we have been badly treated because we have not. We have done our duty and our duty is now concluded.
Baroness Young: My Lords, this is a very important debate but in many respects a sad occasion. We listened with great care to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the Leader of the House, and will read equally carefully in Hansard what she said. The noble Baroness made quite clear, and is quite unequivocal about, the proposals for stage one. We must expect a Bill in the next Session to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.
The noble Baroness was much less clear about the future stage two. She talked of a White Paper and a Royal Commission. When the noble Lord, Lord Williams, replies to the debate--and I wish him well in the task--I hope that he will address those points. The anxiety and seriousness of the situation relates to having stage one without stage two and no clear indication of what happens in the transitional period. I hope that the noble Lord will take to heart the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, on that subject.
The Motion before the House today is to take note of the Government's proposals on stage one. It is a commitment which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, obligingly read out for us in case we had not read it ourselves in the Labour Party manifesto. That was good of her because I am sure she will agree with me that nobody, except a few professional politicians, a few journalists and a few academics, reads party manifestos. The idea that the great British public read the Labour Party manifesto, identified those three paragraphs, and said, "Of course I shall vote Labour because those paragraphs are there" is ludicrous. When one reads the three paragraphs, they are worthy perhaps of a sixth form debating society on one of its better days.
The proposal is to make a major constitutional change to one of the Houses of Parliament that has existed for hundreds of years. No one has said that that House is not doing its job properly, effectively or, indeed, cost-effectively. Indeed, I read an article by the noble Baroness in the Daily Telegraph today making those very points.
Every serious commentator has said that the House of Lords is doing a good job. But, of course, we have the party manifesto. There has been no Green Paper, no White Paper, no Speaker's conference, no committee of both Houses and no Royal Commission to consider any of the intricacies or problems identified already by the first five speakers today.
I believe--and I feel that many people will come to think--that it is a constitutional outrage to use a manifesto to make a major constitutional change. I believe that I am right--although I stand to be corrected on the matter--that nobody has put in a manifesto a major constitutional change and taken it as the way to proceed on a serious issue. I do not believe that there is a single democratic country in the world which would seek to amend its constitution in such a facile fashion.
We now have the spectacle of a government sated with power, seeking to reinforce their will everywhere. They are silencing their own MPs in the Commons and, if the press is to be believed--of course I do not believe everything I read in the newspapers--they are controlling the remarks of Ministers making sure that they are always "on message". They are now attempting to silence the House of Lords, largely for their own political ends.
The proposal to abolish the hereditary Peers in cavalier fashion is a case of gerrymandering the institutions of Parliament to suit the Government who happen to be in office at present. They are concerned neither with the past nor with the future. It is a short-term political expedient. It is indefensible. Party slogans suitable for haranguing the party faithful are not a substitute for thought.
We have been told on many occasions already today that hereditary Peers are undemocratic. What, I may ask, do the Government think that life Peers are? We are all here, except the Bishops and the Law Lords, either by accident of birth or by political patronage. There is much that can be said about the latter subject which I shall save for another occasion.
I said that this is a sad occasion. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, spoke movingly of the work of the House of Lords and I agree with him. I have been in the House now for nearly 28 years. I agree very much with what my noble friend Lord Cranborne said and with what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said. It is a tragedy that what is now being offered as a possible stage two was not offered at the beginning. I do not know anyone who is seriously interested in either the work of this House or the Commons or the constitution who is not prepared to consider seriously reform of the House of Lords.