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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, one only had to listen to the debates here and especially in another place--of new Labour's third way, which is a euphemism for grabbing a headline, making a glitzy presentation and producing legislation without any thought whatsoever for its consequences.
At best this Bill will produce a neutralised and emasculated second Chamber and with a few additional cronies it will carry on its work passively without necessarily calling the executive to account. At worst, the Government will take advantage of a seriously weakened second Chamber to enact in the second half of this Parliament legislation such as the right to roam and the more damaging regulations which flow from European directives and, who knows, even paving measures for entry into a single currency. With such compliant and supine pager-controlled Government Back Benchers in another place--
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have obviously touched a chord! With such compliant and supine pager-controlled Government Back Benchers in another place, the Executive will have a field day with hardly any opposition.
Personally, I would not concede the hereditary principle nor the role which hereditary Peers play in the life of our sovereign Parliament unless and until something more effective is proposed to replace it. As my noble friend Lady Seccombe said, reform should make things better. However, this Bill as it stands does not achieve that. As my noble friend Lord Cranborne said, the only virtue of the Weatherill amendment is that it makes a very bad Bill marginally better. It is right that Members, preferably from all sides of the House, should support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. I certainly shall.
This country is at war in Kosovo; there is a crisis in Northern Ireland; the Berlin summit and the mass resignation of the Commission all present this country with great challenges in Europe apart from the many other national and international challenges. What is the Government's priority? It is discussing an ill thought-through Bill to reform this House in advance, by a mere six to eight weeks, of the Royal Commission's report on the long-term future of this House. That reflects extremely badly on this Government.
Meanwhile, I shall conclude once more with a fulsome tribute to the work of hereditary Peers in Parliament over the centuries. They have served the nation with distinction in this second Chamber, which is admired throughout the world. It is also worth repeating that, from time to time, evolutionary change has been enacted only after painstaking discussions and with a broad consensus of agreement. If only, even at this late stage, one could invite the Government to bury prejudice and to abandon this Bill in favour of engaging minds and brains before exercising the legislative pen.
Without doubt Parliament is weakening; the Executive is becoming stronger; and the centre of gravity for decision-making is moving to Brussels. The ultimate test against which the Government will be judged will be whether a stronger, more effective and more independent Chamber results from their proposals and the degree to which it is able to hold the executive to account. I can say for certain that the Government have not even begun to appreciate what will be lost to the nation from their constitutional vandalism, all in the name of modernisation. It is an ugly word with ugly connotations.
The tragedy is that those hereditary Peers who have served this House so well and who have declared themselves not opposed to and even in favour of reform will be denied the opportunity to determine their successor House. I continue to salute the hereditary Peers and I regard it as a privilege to serve with them. I believe that the country will come to regret their wholesale abolition and it is at this Government's feet that the culpability will be laid.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, the end is nigh. When I went into the Bishops Bar for a cup of coffee just after midnight, I was greeted by a former Conservative Minister who wished me happy birthday.
I received some advice from the same quarter from some of my Scottish friends, and I use that word in its loosest possible sense. They suggested that at this hour, the best thing that I could do is to move a vote of thanks to the chair and then sit down. I reminded them that I came from a tradition in the other place where the winder-up made at least a polite passing reference to every speech that had gone before. I shall try to find a happy medium between those two positions.
This has been a fascinating debate but it is the third two-day debate that we have had in the past year on the same subject. Not very much new has been unearthed in the past two days. In fact, if one looks to the Second Reading debate of the Parliament Bill 1911, which I have done, one finds that there is very little new that was not said then. On 2nd March 1911, my illustrious predecessor as leader of the Liberal Party, who happened then to be the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, was being taunted by Mr. Balfour from the Opposition Bench. Let us remember that that Bill dealt only with the powers of this place. Mr. Asquith said of Mr. Balfour:
The debate began today with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor reminding us of the changes that have taken place and the erosion of the hereditary principle which has taken place over the years since Lord Rosebery, another Liberal leader, introduced a Motion to abolish the hereditary peerage.
I go further and say, in all seriousness, that just as we have seen the end of Prime Ministers, or half the Cabinet, coming from this place--I can recall in my political lifetime when we had two distinguished Foreign Secretaries from this House; the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and Lord Home--I question whether, 20 or 30 years on, it would be acceptable, in present-day politics to have a Foreign Secretary from this House. We must be aware of the fact that that hereditary principle has not only eroded in the past but is still eroding at present.
When I was a student of constitutional law I remember sitting an examination question which read as follows: The Parliament Act of 1911 was a bucket of whitewash sloshed over a structure riddled with dry rot--discuss. I did discuss it. I never expected, 40 years on, to be discussing it again.
We have heard very varied speeches. We have had one or two really rather odd speeches, if I may put it politely. One noble Peer suggested that in all the present troubles in the Balkans what is needed is the
I then looked at my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who is to follow me, sitting on the Front Bench listening to these speeches and I was reminded of what was said by Lord Lansdowne in a similar position on the Tory Front Bench during such debates in 1911. It was reported that when he heard Lord Halsbury speak against the Bill he knew, as one sentence followed another, that he could no longer vouch for the sanity of his followers. That is a harsh observation on only one or two of the speeches.
We have had other speeches of great charm. I particularly enjoyed one of the shortest speeches from the noble Earl, Lord Kintore, who, in a minute-and-a-half, managed to make a job application to be among the 91 survivors. Many others performed much more subtle auditions, I thought, for posts in later events.
Many Members of your Lordships' House gave us potted family histories. Others, sadly, told us that they were making their last speeches, including, rather extraordinarily, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, perhaps achieved a unique distinction by making his first and, possibly, his last speech at one and the same time. I congratulate him on that.
There were also some very contradictory speeches. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, suggested that if we remove the hereditary Peers, a House composed entirely of life Peers would be more likely to amend legislation and, therefore, prove itself more difficult to the other place without, as he said, the restraint of the hereditary Peers.
On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said that the House would be less effective. They cannot both be right. I suspect neither of them is right. I suspect that the House will continue much as it is today.
There was also some argument about the fact that we should not be discussing the composition of the House, but should be discussing its role. The noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, was one who put forward that argument. Again it reminded me of the debates in 1910 and 1911, when Mr. Austen Chamberlain argued precisely the opposite. He said that we should be discussing the composition of the other place and not the powers. So the arguments ranged backwards and forwards. The truth is that noble Lords would rather discuss anything except the abolition of the hereditary principle.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham, in a speech to which we have just listened, and the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, reminded us that we can all be proud of our ancestry and venerate history without necessarily believing that it is essential that some people should have, as part of that tradition, the automatic right to become legislators with no other qualifications.
An article in the Guardian at the weekend, by David McKie, pointed out that, as far as the hereditary Peers are concerned, it was a myth to imagine that they were all of ancient history. He put it this way. He said that there are more Strathclydes than Cecils among the hereditary Peers. By that he meant that most creations of hereditary Peers were either in this century or at the tail end of the previous century, as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, kindly put it in his speech, perhaps created by another former Liberal leader in response to a particularly anxious financial appeal.
Perhaps noble Lords will permit me an aside and allow me to make a small confession. In 1970, after a poor election result for the Liberal Party, we were reduced to six Members. It was all hands to the pump, so I was appointed Chief Whip. How one can be Chief Whip of six Members I am not sure. I was waited upon by a legal gentleman from party headquarters, who congratulated me on my appointment. I thanked him and he said, "I have to inform you that you are now ex officio chairman of the trustees of the Lloyd George Fund". I said, "Wealth at last". It turned out that there was only a small amount in the fund with which to pay the pension of Lloyd George's former secretary, who was still alive at that time. I am always aware of history where Liberal leaders and peerages are concerned, and so should be many other Members of this place today.
Other speakers made interesting suggestions. Those who worry about the alleged effect on the Monarchy should have listened to the interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord Acton, who reminded us that there are at least five or six hereditary monarchies in Europe surviving well in the aftermath of the abolition of any other hereditary principle, and they are very popular monarchies. I add that in Sweden the abolished peers have retained their own entity. There is a House of
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