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Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I believe that some confusion remains. It must be due entirely to my lack of clarity. In my earlier remarks I referred to the confusion which I thought had arisen with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. The issue that I described in the original Statement was related to the comparative powers of the two Houses. Perhaps that was not made clear.
The noble Lord--like others, I wish him a happy birthday--has made an issue of the very point about comparative powers. We do not like amendments to "take note" debates, and we therefore do not propose to support him in the Lobby tomorrow evening. At the same time, we are very sympathetic to the noble Lord's cause. Guidance to the Royal Commission on the possible reduction of powers seems gratuitous, despite the context, given the exclusion of powers, to which I have already referred, from its terms of reference. This is also something that must be further explored.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for giving way. As to the question of powers, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has quite fairly conceded that what she said on 20th January was in error. She has said twice that the question of powers needs no further clarification and that it is before the Royal Commission. What more can the Leader of the House do?
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I am most grateful for the noble Lord's intervention. I did not think that the noble Baroness had necessarily conceded that she was wrong on the previous occasion. She put a gloss on what she then said. I prefer that gloss to remain on the record in the Official Report to be looked at and considered by the Government Chief Whip when the time comes, as I suggested.
We on these Benches are concerned with the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. But where we can support the Government is in the general statement of underlying principles in paragraph 6 of Chapter 7: that the reformed House must remain the subordinate Chamber with the House of Commons pre-eminent. I go further. Any proposal that takes powers away from the House of Commons, or is seen to do so, will not succeed. Even the docile ranks of this Government--not here, of course, but in another place--would turn. I say that remembering vividly the course of the Parliament Bill in the Commons 30 years ago when it did not find favour even with many Labour Members of Parliament who loyally supported it.
I shall not try to anticipate the report of the Royal Commission any more than the Government should do. All I say is that any stable, long-term reform--I do not say permanent because the House will continue to evolve--must start from the powers, role and functions of a second Chamber. The first question is: what is it meant to do? Only then is it sensible to ask what sort of Members does such a House require; and, after that, how are we going to get it?
I hope that the timetable for the Royal Commission and then cross-party talks will enable the Government to put firm proposals into their manifesto--I think that that is what the noble Baroness has in mind--and that the modernised stage two House can be in place within about five years.
I should like to mention one other point about the longer term before saying something about a transitional House. I have thought for some time that there would be virtue if every government Bill started its life with a Second Reading in the Commons where its principle would be approved, and then moved on immediately for a Second Reading here. The Bill would then pass through all its stages in your Lordships' House before returning to the Commons where it would be picked up for its Committee, Report and Third Reading stages. That would enable the fully elected and politically representative House to have the first and effectively final say, but for your Lordships' House to carry out its full, expert process of scrutiny before the Commons had committed itself to details. The political role of the Commons would be maintained, perhaps enhanced. The role of scrutiny of your Lordships' House would be less inhibited by earlier Commons decisions.
I raise the matter now not as a major subject for discussion on this occasion, but because of paragraph 27 of Chapter 7 where there is an invitation to the Royal Commission to consider recommendations to the House about procedure. I am not sure about the weight of this suggestion. On the face of it, it is not an area in which the membership of the Royal Commission as a whole has an obvious competence. I should be grateful if Ministers would explain what they have in mind.
I turn now to the transitional House, debates upon which will occupy your Lordships for much of this year, and to which Chapter 6 of the White Paper refers. For the most part, I welcome what it says especially about the principles that should underlie the political balance and further nominations to the House. Broad parity between Labour and the Conservatives is about right, and proportionate creations for these Benches is in keeping with previous undertakings. However, I should like to know the significance of "presently" in paragraph 3 of Chapter 6; and "our present intentions" in paragraph 7. There is a note of reservation. The Government appear to be hedging their bets. It points to the possibility of an alternative approach. What would lead the Government to have second thoughts?
Whatever the answer, I have to say that what we have come to call the Weatherill proposals push in the opposite direction to the balancing principles set out in the White Paper. They involve a substantial and disproportionate addition to the Conservative Benches which already have the largest number of life Peers. This will aggravate the disparity between the two parties. I recognise that the proposal brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, the noble Lord, Lord
On 20th January, when the White Paper was published, I said that the Government were a little heavy handed in saying that the Weatherill proposals would succeed only if Peers behaved themselves. On reflection my sentiment was misplaced. I have to say, painful though it may be, that the only case for the Weatherill proposals is if they smooth the passage of the Bill by promising some hereditary Peers that they may stay longer here than they had expected previously. These Benches were not involved in any way in negotiations between the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the Prime Minister, or any other Member of the Government. The news was as much a surprise to us as to the Leader of the Conservative Party, although we received it with better grace than William Hague. We are prepared to acquiesce in the deal but only if the Weatherill proposals can be put in credible form and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, succeeds in keeping his own troops in order.
Then there is a question of how those Peers--75 plus 14, if that is still the right number--are to be chosen. I know of no later authentic text than the press release of the noble Lord and his colleagues of 2nd and 3rd December. Apparently, leaving aside the 14, a block of one-tenth of hereditary Peers will be "elected among its number". But we are now led to believe that there will not be a block, but different groups in each party will elect their own; they will still be elected by hereditary Peers. Will this be laid down in statute or by a resolution of the House? If the latter, how can it override the provisions of the Bill? Why in any case should the political parties be given instructions on the conduct of their own affairs on who, among their number, should be free to stay? As regards the 14 hereditary Peers who have this particular role, they will not be elected by the hereditaries, as I understand it, but by the whole House. Why them and not the others?
I do not wish to ridicule what is a genuine attempt to solve a problem, but the situation becomes stranger and stranger. Hereditary Peers will presumably be free to stand in two elections: hoping to get on their party list
I know that the Government are trying to sort this out; and good luck to them. I hope that they can and we shall try to help them. But until we see the fine print we are suspending judgment on whether the Weatherill proposals really stand up. At the moment they are a dog's breakfast--and I say that because I do not believe that that can be an offensive expression in your Lordships' House. We shall find great difficulty in supporting them if, after all the trouble, they fail to deliver the Bill without wasted time.
When early discussions on the prospect of legislation took place, it was widely accepted that some hereditary Peers who played a particularly active role in the House--and there are many known to all of us, widely respected and held in the greatest affection--should become life Peers when the Bill received the Royal Assent. My present view is that it would be far better to return to that straightforward approach with reasonably generous numbers than to press on with the Weatherill amendment, given the present problems with it.
The White Paper is plainly written and clearly presented. It deserves to be widely read outside Parliament as well as within. It shows the complexity of the task on which we are embarked; bringing statutory change to a living institution with all its conventions, instincts and unwritten ways. It is a reminder, even to those of us long familiar with the arguments, that the task upon which we have embarked is not an easy one.
The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I welcome the appointment of the members of the Royal Commission and the inclusion among them of my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. And not just because he sits on these Benches but for the range of experience, insight and independence that he will bring to a commission which will require all that it can have of all these, and which has, it still seems to me, very much more to do than it can do properly so as to report by the end of this year.
I appreciate the reasons which the noble Baroness the Leader of the House again adduced today for the pressure of time which the White Paper placed upon the commission. But although she mentioned some of the elements which have surrounded the debate for 100 years, she presumably chose not to mention those elements, in part set out in the White Paper and in part around in public debate, which are of much more recent origin and which are intricate, uncertain and in a large part beyond prophesying. I think of those which relate to the Government's various devolutionary strategies, to regional government and even to relationships with the institutions of the European Union.
The White Paper notes that the House of Commons is itself committed to some modest reforms of its procedures. But whatever the outcome, and whatever the political composition of that House, and whether one party has a large majority or none has--as may be the result of moves towards proportional representation--it will surely remain crucially important that any second Chamber keeps at least powers comparable to those which your Lordships' House has at present and gains the fullest confidence in its own legitimacy to use them to the full.
I turn to other issues, though not necessarily less controversial. I welcome, as the Church of England has welcomed at least since the 1970 Chadwick Report on Church and state, the points made in chapter 7, paragraph 22, about the benefits--though it also notes some of the complexities--of enabling the presence in a future second Chamber of representatives of other churches and of other faith communities. I and others on these Benches have made clear in previous debates our encouragement to the commission to explore how this can be achieved. However, we have also consistently tried to explain to your Lordships' House, and so to the Government, that we should not ourselves, the Lords Spiritual, be understood in this way.
With my colleagues, and with many others, I appreciate and welcome chapter 27, paragraph 21, of the White Paper where the Government show themselves well informed both about the range of issues, international as well as domestic, on which Bishops contribute from experience to the work of your Lordships' House and about the difficulties which in our circumstances we would have in sustaining this range of participation if our numbers were at all significantly reduced. But only rarely, and with reference to specific Church of England legislation, can we be accurately described as "representing the Church of England".
I hope that I have your Lordships' understanding to quote a sentence on this matter from the distinguished Roman Catholic theologian and Church historian, Professor Adrian Hastings, from his contribution to the collection of letters published by the Policy Studies Unit under the title Church, State and Religious Minorities. He writes:
On those questions, and across the whole range of its work, the Royal Commission will shortly receive a detailed submission of the Church of England. I wish the commission well and I repeat the hope that once it is at work--and I presume that it has not yet met--it will take whatever time it finds that proper consideration of its terms of reference require.
Lord Denham: My Lords, the question has been asked by noble Lords in all parts of the House, and even this afternoon, why should it be necessary to hold a debate on the subject now when we already debated it fully in October and we shall have another chance to do so on Second Reading, when the Bill has come up to us from another place. The answer that I have been able to give, without hesitation, is that the Second Reading debate in another place showed an almost universal lack of understanding of your Lordships' House, which must be put right before the Bill completes its stages there.
Another facet throughout the debate was to dismiss as a cliche the saying that, while the hereditary content is indefensible in theory, it has always worked in practice. If the party opposite is determined not to recognise the fact that the existing House works rather well, and at least make some effort to understand why, how on earth will it be capable of deciding what to put in its place?
The question, to which we have never yet had a satisfactory answer, must be asked once again. Does the party opposite really believe, against all informed opinion, against successive polls, that it is more likely to achieve the best possible alternative second chamber if it is done in this piecemeal fashion; or is it just that its right honourable friends cannot wait that long for the prospect of spilling parliamentary blood on the floor? Is it really wise to get rid of the people who are best qualified by long-term experience to know about the working of this House so long before the final decision as to its future shape is to take place?
It is at least a concession--and I must welcome it rather more than did the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank--of some sort that the collective experience of hereditary Peers is now to be represented by 91 of our number when we leave. But what is so magic about the number 91? A researcher of mine has come up with a possible answer: 91 is the maximum number of passengers allowed to be carried on the latest model of a London bus--43 upstairs, 28 downstairs and 20 standing. Your Lordships may laugh but it is scarcely less far-fetched than the real answer. It was originally intended that the nine remaining hereditary Peers of first creation were to make up the round 100. In all previous attempts at reform, and notably the 1968 reform, hereditary Peers of first creation rightly ranked with and, indeed, above life Peers under the group name of "created Peers" and not with Peers by descent.
I find it totally unacceptable, particularly with regard to the late Lord Stockton, the late Lord Tonypandy, my noble friend Lord Whitelaw and my noble friend Lord Cranborne, advanced like his grandfather before him in one of his father's titles, that what had been given as a signal honour has been turned by Her Majesty's Government into a slur and their offer to throw in a life peerage to make up the balance does not make it better; it makes it worse.
More serious still is the fact that we have been told by the Leaders of both Houses that this concession will only be honoured if your Lordships enable reform to proceed by consent. When questioned by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House refused to elucidate further. Perhaps the noble Lord the Chief Whip could do so at the end of the debate. If we send a number of amendments back to another place, which we are certainly entitled to do because it is a matter which affects us really rather closely, would that be proceeding by consent? What if we sent an amendment back a second time; or even if we insisted on one, as is our constitutional right, and on occasion our constitutional
In previous debates about this two-stage reform, I have been far more concerned about the interim House on the grounds that I did not believe that the second phase would ever arrive or, if it did, that it would never get through another place. I am far more concerned now that we might indeed get a second stage, but a bad second stage. The terms of reference, which have been mentioned already, of the Royal Commission start quite reasonably with the words:
If 30 years on the Front Bench has taught me one thing about the difference between the Houses, it is that Members of another place seem to exist in a sort of air-tight time capsule, bounded by either extremity of the single parliamentary term in which they find themselves. Nothing that happens before the start of that term has any relevance and, more dangerous still, consequences, however direct, that might happen after the following general election are not worth bothering about. On the other hand, Members of your Lordships' House think in a straight, unbroken line.
Generations of Labour oppositions have been only too happy to use the independence of your Lordships to inflict defeats on Conservative governments. This happened between 15 and 25 times a year throughout my time as Chief Whip. All right, in times of a Labour government, there might have been rather more defeats but a higher proportion of those are usually reversed in another place, so the net result on the Acts as they appear on the statute book is about the same. Of course, these are only a fraction of the number of amendments which can consequently be won by argument on the Floor of the House. Yet to read the debates on this Bill in another place, you would think that none of that had ever happened at all.
I remember my noble friend the former Prime Minister once asking me why I did not arrange to modernise the procedures of your Lordships' House so as to get her business through more easily. "I cannot do that, Prime Minister", I said. "Why not?" "Because next time there is a Labour government, we are going to need the very procedures that you are complaining about". I thought I was going to be taken out and shot forthwith for the mere suggestion that there might be another Labour government ever again.
And here we go again. Owing to the impetuosity of the party opposite, the connivance of the Liberal Democrats and, I have to add, to a certain extent, the inertia of my own party, we seem to be drifting inexorably towards the point where we could be left for all time with a second chamber tailor-made for the temporary convenience of just this one Administration, which happens to possess a crushing majority in another place.
I must ask the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen at Arms, who does not himself suffer from such limitations to his vision, how he thinks that he will cope with the legislation of a right-wing Conservative government of the future if he has allowed this House to be emasculated by his right honourable friends in the meantime?
It is being said of hereditary Peers--although the noble Baroness the Leader of the House was a little kinder than that--that although we may talk very big, all we are trying do in reality is to preserve our own seats in this House. I am not going to pretend that it will not be an enormous wrench to leave your Lordships' House, and after 50 years it would be strange if it were not. But I assure your Lordships that that wrench will diminish into insignificance compared with the fear that blindness and bigotry will have caused us to do so without our having any assurance that we shall be leaving behind the best possible alternative in our place.
Baroness Young: My Lords, I share the view of my noble friend Lord Denham that this is an extremely important debate. It is a matter of the constitution and its importance is only equalled by the debates we have had either on decisions to join the European Union or some of the important constitutional Acts which followed from that original decision.
Of course it affects much more than the House of Lords. It affects the relationship of the House of Lords with the House of Commons; it affects the balance between the Executive and the legislature; and ultimately it affects the relations between the legislature and the electorate and the Executive with the electorate.
Constitutional changes are unlike other political changes. They should be agreed by all party agreements and are intended to last a long time. The Royal Commission on the House of Lords cannot be compared, as I suggest the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, did when answering a Question the other day, with the solution of the long-term care of the elderly. The issues are of an entirely different order of magnitude. Nor did I follow the argument of the noble Baroness this afternoon about the other Bills before the House. Of course the Bills on the health service, the debates on the homeless, pollution or the environment matter; but they are issues which to a large extent can be altered by one Parliament or another; they can be altered within the lifetime of a Parliament. Matters of the constitution, like the future of your Lordships' House, are quite different.
What worries me and many of my noble friends is whether the Government actually take this matter seriously. There are times, when listening to the speeches and reading the White Paper--here I share the view of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, that some of it is inaccurate and much of it repetitive--when one feels that this is not a serious document. Indeed, I have the feeling that the Government were pushed into producing this White Paper; pushed into producing this debate and pushed into producing the Royal Commission, no doubt because the Conservative Party set up the valuable commission under my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern.
The first six chapters of the White Paper are almost entirely devoted to stating that hereditary Peers must lose their right to sit and vote in the House. They are devoted almost entirely to the transition of the House. Let us look at the arguments adduced for this. It starts, in the introduction, with the comments of the Prime Minister. He refers to:
Then, over the weekend, we had the unbelievable spectacle on our television screens and read extensively in the newspapers about the extraordinary events over the election of a new leader for the Welsh Assembly. To the outsider New Labour's idea of a democracy, let alone devolution or devolved powers to any of these organisations, is hardly open, transparent or democratic; indeed, some might say that it comes dangerously close to a "fix" by the Government.
That compares with the real concerns of many people that the Government, under the guise of modernising Parliament, are intent on down-grading the House of Commons. Who would have believed that they would enjoy a half-term holiday at a time when extremely serious events are taking place in the world? After all, British troops may be sent to Kosovo and where will the MPs be? Back at home, having a holiday. The Government appear to be fixing those who will be responsible for devolved institutions, emasculating the House of Lords and elevating the Executive. Referendums are not a substitution for consideration and debate.
The Government's proposals for an interim House of Lords do not have the support of a single, serious, outside observer. As far as I can see, there is no suggestion in the White Paper that the present House of Lords is doing a bad or ineffective job; it says that it is doing an effective job with the wrong people. Far from being,
It is only when we come to chapters 7 and 8 that we touch on the Royal Commission itself. In the short time left I should like to make only three short comments. First, I very much support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. It would be absurd to go through all this and end up with a House of Lords which was weaker than the present one. If it has been criticised, it has been criticised for being too weak or not exercising its powers sufficiently. At least it ought to be able to exercise all those powers in any future House without worry. To weaken it would be absurd. It is important that the House of Lords, in a reformed state, along with the House of Commons should keep intact for the future its constitutional power to check the Executive. There are already far too many who believe that the Executive, in the form of the Government of today, is far too powerful and that it is Parliament that needs to be strengthened, not the Executive.
I end where I began. Any change in your Lordships' House affects all the other parts of the Government and our constitution. It is important that we take this matter seriously; that we take no steps that weaken
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