|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The Bill to end membership of this House by virtue of the hereditary peerage was indeed part of the Labour Party manifesto. But according to the polls, only 2 per cent. of the electorate were aware of the proposed Lords reform. Therefore, such a policy need not be cast in stone. Instead, Her Majesty's Government should be prepared to adopt a flexible attitude by listening to logical, sensible and responsible debate before embarking on such a drastic action.
I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, when he talked about arithmetic being the problem. The problem that the Government have with this House is that of numbers when voting. The in-built Tory majority over Labour is indeed an unfair balance. This matter should have been addressed years ago and could have been corrected by the previous government simply by culling the Tory voting powers so as to ensure a fairer balance.
I congratulate and support the initiative of my noble friends Lord Weatherill and Lord Marsh and the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, together with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, which is now known as the Weatherill Amendment, whereby some 92 of the 750 hereditary Peers would remain in the transitional House until the second stage of reform. It is an amendment that the Government are minded to accept, but with strings attached.
But will the Weatherill amendment be acceptable to those hereditary Peers who are scheduled to depart under the proposed stage one? I ask that question because those of us who have served in Her Majesty's
Flexibility is another principle of war. Despite the threatening words of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor I believe that Her Majesty's Government should consider an addition to the Weatherill Amendment whereby all hereditary Peers who are frequent attenders and play a significant role in this House should remain at least until full reform is agreed. That may mean the retention of 150 or 200 hereditary Peers instead of the 92, but at least all would have a proven track record. It must be remembered that hereditary Peers comprise more than 40 per cent. of frequent attenders. It is now proposed that over half of those should be removed under stage one.
In conclusion, entering the 21st century it is understandable that reform is on the agenda. I have no objection in principle to reform. But as the Government have no idea as to what that reform might be, especially in regard to the role, functions and powers of a future House of Lords, all those effective hereditary Peers should remain in place at least until full reform is achieved.
Should the Government insist on continuing with stage one, then I suggest that it should only be the infrequently attending and ineffective Peers who should depart. I have no hesitation in supporting the amendment of my noble friend Lord Cobbold.
Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, for me this is a day of high drama, altering the longstanding constitution of our country by one of the shortest Bills on record. If there had been a desperate need for this Bill, I might have understood it.
The Government, despite their vast majority in the other place, hate dissent. Dissent is part of the stuff of our democracy and must be heard, as the previous government also learnt to their cost, and rightly so. Over the past months under this Government on methods of European election and student fees, that dissent has also been justifiably heard in this House.
Under pressure, the Government have at last set up a Royal Commission, which has put out for comment an extensive consultation paper on Lords reform. In my view, the commission has an almost impossible task to find an acceptable solution, especially in conjunction with a very tight timetable. I expect that in the end it will offer several options. I wish it well. But, historically, solutions acceptable to the wishes of both Houses have not been found, as many noble Lords have mentioned during the debate. It would have been better to find that acceptable solution before starting on this road of major constitutional change.
This House is much admired for its courtesy. We listen to each other, as standing orders oblige every noble Lord to adhere to that discipline, in contrast to the other place, where the Speaker often has to shout to maintain order. We are less partisan and, as the majority of people in this country are not very party political, they hear subjects debated more broadly and with good temper, with which they have sympathy. We are not paid, although our expenses should ensure that no one is out of pocket, so people of modest means can accept appointment to this House, and that broadens the experience of Members in debate.
We are not looking over our shoulders for re-election, although I am sure that most Members, on all sides, keep in touch with public opinion through their newspapers and television screens. We are, on appointment or inheritance, mostly over 50, so we are not looking for promotion, and that enables a disinterested view of complex problems.
If this House consists in future, either in part or in whole, of elected Members, those Members will have to be paid and have researchers and secretaries, which we willingly do without. The costs of the House will escalate enormously and, in my view, the present mode of business will deteriorate in inverse proportion to expenditure.
I often do not know whether a Peer is hereditary or a life Peer in this House--unless the person is very young, in which case he or she must be a hereditary Peer whose father, sadly, died young. Such Peers bring in a refreshing view of subjects of debate.
We are all treated equally, which is good. I believe that we all try to do our duty, waiving all excuses, in our different ways--some better than others. But we serve the House in many ways other than by attendance and speaking in debate--a point which was rather lost in a newspaper article today--such as by service on Select Committees and supporting worthy causes, both nationally and locally.
In general terms, as noble Lords have said, there are no three-line Whips, so one is free to vote against one's party or abstain when one's conscience speaks strongly. One of the many strengths of the House is the Cross-Benchers, both hereditary and life, whom no one can control, as the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, emphasised this morning. Over many years under the previous government, if the majority of Cross-Benchers joined both opposition parties and there were a few Tory rebels--and there usually were--the Government could not win. I thought that that was right and a most healthy brake on the Executive. Long may it continue, whichever party is in power.
As is well known, I am an engineer, and my reaction to this Bill is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". This major and ill-thought-out reform is not good. In line with the Salisbury convention, I shall not vote against it, but I hope that during its passage through this House it will be substantially amended for the better. I shall respond to the Royal Commission's consultation paper and, as a Member of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology, I shall hope to see more engineers, scientists and technologists among the professional men and women who will make up the future membership of a reformed House. As practical, informed and qualified people of experience, they will be of great value to the work of the House in the 21st century.
Lord Varley: My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not follow her line, although naturally, during the course of my remarks, I shall pick up some of the points that she made.
The only hereditary Peer whom I meet regularly outside this building is the noble Duke, the Duke of Devonshire. I live in North Derbyshire, and I know what wonderful work he does there. I know that he was a distinguished Minister in this House and that he has a lot of parliamentary experience. He and I serve together, as president and vice-president respectively, of the Ashgate Hospice.
The last time that I saw the noble Duke, he said: "I'm being kicked out of the House of Lords, you know". I said: "I've heard about it. Are you bothered?" He said: "Not particularly. I shall continue to do all the charitable work with which I am involved at the moment. In fact, I shall probably have a little more time for it". He is not a passive charity worker; he works extremely hard and is greatly appreciated in North Derbyshire for the work that he does.
But a further comment the noble Duke made alarmed me. He said, "If I am kicked out of the House of Lords, I shall stand for election to the House of Commons", as he did in 1945 and 1950, as the Marquess of Hartington. I hope that he was joking, because that would place me in an extremely difficult position. The present Member of Parliament for Chesterfield was an hereditary Peer, the right honourable Anthony Wedgwood Benn, who escaped from this place as the result of a measure enacted under the government of Mr. Harold Macmillan.
Most of the speeches from the Opposition Benches to which I have listened during the course of the debate have largely concentrated on what the transitional House should be and what recommendations the Royal Commission should bring forward. Very few speeches so far have focused on the need for the Bill and why it is required at this time. My noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, with his experience, concentrated on that matter.
I do not think it has been seriously disputed that the Government have a clear, precise and explicit mandate for the Bill. For decades people have argued for reform of this place, and virtually nothing has been done about it. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said, the tiny, unrepresentative minority of the population here in this House has the power to dominate. That has been the trouble. A noble Lord on the Cross-Benches said a few minutes ago that the arithmetic in this House has never been dealt with. That is true. I was a Member of the House of Commons during the 1960s when the last serious attempt to reform the House of Lords was made. That measure was blocked by Michael Foot, Enoch Powell and others. As a foot-soldier in those days, witnessing how that Bill had to be abandoned convinced me that reform of this House could only come about in stages. It is all very well to say that this or that contingency should be wrapped up in a big package to be laid before the House of Commons and House of Lords and that is the way to do it. Anybody who has had any experience of what has gone before knows that it cannot be done that way. If we did that we would be talking for ever and no change would take place. The removal from hereditary Peers of the right to sit and vote will pave the way for a more representative transitional House.
No one can deny that the balance between the political parties in this House is grotesquely distorted. I am aware that the Conservatives exercise restraint but from time to time someone blows the whistle. I do not know how they do it. I once heard the noble Lord, Lord Denham, say that the Conservatives had no such thing as a three-line whip. I am glad that the noble Lord confirms it, but I give way to him.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page