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My noble friend Lord Thurso made an interesting and worthwhile suggestion which gets over the problem of a retiral age. He suggested that in the future transitional House it should be possible for Peers to resign from the House if they no longer wished to take up a full-time role. That is worth considering.
The noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, regretted that with the abolition of hereditary Peers there might be fewer younger Members. He paid tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, in his 20s, on behalf of war widows. That is a fair point. But if we move to an elected Chamber, there is no reason why people should not be elected to this House in their 20s, as to the other place.
In a particularly pleasant and effective speech, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, asked whether we could retain some club rights for Members leaving. I speak purely personally now as my party has not discussed this, but I am sympathetic to that. After all, if we can allow Irish Peers who have never served here to sit on the steps of the Throne, I do not see why we should eject those who have served here and leave them without any access to the building whatsoever. Although that is not in the Bill, I believe that it should be given some further thought. However, I must admit that, curiously, my liberal generosity does not extend to the use of the carpark!
However, the proposal is more complex than that. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester described it as Byzantine, and certainly the details that have been revealed to us today are extremely odd,
The point I want to make to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, before he winds up is that our attitude on these Benches to the so-called Weatherill amendment will depend entirely on one issue, as explained by my noble friends Lord Rodgers and Lord Harris. It is this. Will the amendment further the aim set out in the White Paper to ensure that the transitional House more accurately reflects the proportion of votes cast at the last election? That is the commitment in the White Paper and that is what we want to be looking towards. If the amendment helps us in that direction, it will have our support. But if, as we fear, the effect of the amendment is simply to give further entrenchment to the Conservative peerage, then we see little reason to be sympathetic to it. The Government might be wiser to go back to the thought of creating life peerages under the new appointment commission system for those who have played a major role in this House and who we wish to retain.
My last words are these. I listened to the description by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor of what he called the "compromise". As I understood the "compromise", it was basically that in return for reasonable progress on the Bill, the principle set out in it would be eroded by allowing some hereditary Peers to remain. That was the nature of the compromise. I ask the question: when is a deal not a deal? The answer is, when one side resiles from it. I could not understand the reference in speeches from this side of the House to reprisals or heavy menace when in fact what the Lord Chancellor was doing was spelling out the nature of the agreement: that is, if the agreement is accepted, one thing would happen, and if it was not accepted, another thing would happen. That seemed to me, not having been party to the agreement, a perfectly reasonable description.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I can start by saying something with which we will all agree; that is, that this has been a long debate. It would have been better if we had had it over three days. I cannot help but notice that the Chief Whip is sliding towards the door perhaps for a quick get-away from those who feel that they have been kept up late for two nights when there was a way out.
We have heard some good speeches and some perhaps not so good. Fortunately, I am not in the role of the marker to judge them; that is left to your Lordships. I always enjoy following the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. It is perhaps just as well that
Perhaps I can say to him seriously that I listened to what he said about the way the Liberal Democrats feel that the so-called Weatherill amendment deals with them--a point made by both speakers from the Front Bench of the Liberal Democrat Party. I understand the point he makes and have some sympathy with it. I should not have thought it impossible for Mr. Ashdown to do a side deal with Mr. Blair around the Cabinet table on one of these days when they have their meetings. I do not know whether my support for such a side deal does the noble Lord any good, but I understand the point. However, it does nothing to diminish the importance of the amendment to be laid later today by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill.
In this long debate we even had a maiden speaker, the noble Earl, Lord Devon. He was getting his voice in early because, so to speak, the shutters were about to go down. I have some sympathy with him. In the early 1980s I was sent to a meeting of the full Cabinet in place of the then Secretary of State, George Younger, who was in an aircraft at the time. The officials, in their usual helpful way, had given me a very large brief, but there was only one sentence in it more or less saying, "You have nothing to say on this matter". But I decided that the chances of my getting to a full Cabinet meeting again were clearly remote, so I devised something to say so that I could at least say from then on that I had actually spoken at a full Cabinet meeting. I believe that the noble Earl has a point in coming here as quickly as he did to make his maiden speech; indeed, we enjoyed it.
I have no doubt that noble Lords watch these cooking programmes on television and know what they are like. The TV cook starts with all the ingredients, including the broken eggs, being laid out in special little dishes. I often think that I would hate to be the washer-up on those programmes. The Government remind me of those cooks. They have broken the eggs, poured out the syrup and the flour and weighed it all up. It is all there. The only trouble is that the stand where the recipe book should be is empty: they do not actually have a recipe and do not know what they are baking. That is the problem with the Government. It is not just in your Lordships' House that this problem has occurred. There is Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution, all with different kinds of relationships to Westminster and to the UK Government and all, in my view, without a proper idea of what the final product--the final cake, so to speak--will look like.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House talked about different sources of power and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, spoke of the planned reduction of centralised Executive power. I shall repeat that for your Lordships' benefit: the planned reduction of centralised Executive power. I doubt whether either the noble Baroness or the noble Lord are paying much attention to what is happening in Wales and Scotland.
The Government may have a plan for your Lordships' House, and they may be pursuing it, without telling the British people--a plan hatched and implemented by stealth. There is a part of me which actually hopes that they do have a plan, because eventually it will be unveiled. It will probably be unveiled by a leak, and at that point the British people will be able to have their say. However, I doubt whether the Government do have a plan for our constitution. There is no evidence of, so to speak, joined-up writing in any of the constitutional changes that we have had. I have taken part in all the debates. They do not link up to each other and there is no real, obvious grand design.
My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has made that point from his expertise, as, indeed, did my noble friend Lord Buckinghamshire today. He brings real expertise to the House. I should like to use him as a illustration in making one of my points. During the passage of the Pensions Bill, as I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, will remember, my noble friend with his expertise on pensions matters was extremely valuable to the House and to the Government.
I do not think that the question of joined-up writing is any more evident than in this Bill. Almost two years after the general election, we know that the Government want to abolish the rights of those of your Lordships who sit here by inheritance. Obviously, we do not like inheritance, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, pointed out to us a short while ago, we are all here as a result of inheritance. I do not even think that Dolly the sheep could exist without inheritance, but perhaps it is a rather one-sided inheritance in her respect. Darwin would certainly have been amazed to hear that there was something wrong with inheritance. Indeed, if it was not for that, the species would not have survived.
However, as well as not liking inheritance, we also know that the Government do not like numbers. I should stress that I do not mean the species of inherited Lords, just in case the Government Front Bench think I do; I mean the human species. I was, of course, referring to Darwin. The Government are worried about numbers. I am puzzled about that because at paragraph 18 on page 18, appropriately enough, of their document I am told something that I have no reason to doubt. After all, it is a government document, so I believe it. I am told that the total number of Peers is 1,165. Half of that is 582½. The Conservatives have 476, and that is actually less than
The real problem for many of us is that we do not know what the final shape of your Lordships' House will be. For example, is it to be elected? Is it to be appointed? Alternatively, is it to be a mixture of the two? I suppose that we can derive some comfort from the fact that the Government were forced into setting up a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Wakeham. But if that commission had been set up in the summer of 1997, it could have reported by now, we could have received the views on that report from the Joint Committee of both Houses, and we could be dealing with a substantive piece of constitutional reform--reform written in joined-up writing instead of the childish printing used in the incomplete ideas we see in this Bill. That, of course, would have been like 1968, when both stage one and stage two were proposed at the same time.
It is worth underlining what my noble friend Lord Reay, my clan chief, said earlier this afternoon from his remembrance of what happened in 1968. This House--as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, underlined--actually voted for the abolition of the hereditary Peers and it voted for a composition and the powers of a succeeding House. So I suggest to the Government that the danger does not lie in this House; the danger lies in the other place. Why is that? That was clearly explained by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, and my noble friend Lord Cranborne and it is simply this: the other place is interested, above all, in its own primacy. That is what the other place is about and those of us who have been there know that is exactly the point. The other place is interested in its own primacy and it will look at the composition of your Lordships' House entirely against the test: does this endanger our primacy? I am clear in my own mind that whatever we do to this House the primacy of the House of Commons has to be preserved. I am quite clear about that and in that I join the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, and my noble friend Lord Cranborne and, I suspect, a fair number of your Lordships.
We all know, of course, that the Bill before us is incomplete. We all know that there should be an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill--an amendment which will be accepted by the Government and will keep almost a hundred of your Lordships in this House who sit here by right of succession. And yet here we are discussing the Second Reading without any of us actually seeing the amendment. Therefore, about half of the Bill is not actually there. The Bill will become an Act, but half of it is not there. We all know that. It is welcome that later today we will actually get a sight of that amendment. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for telling us that earlier today, or rather yesterday, but I suspect in House of Lords' terms it is still today.
I have to tell your Lordships that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is half a clansman of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and myself, and so one has to treat him with particular care. Towards the end of his speech I thought that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor came over a little threatening, although I have to say I was not nearly as bothered about it as some of my noble friends because it has to be said that the noble and learned Lord has a reputation for never using a light touch when a heavy hand will do.
I know it will come as a disappointment to some members of the Government and some members of the party opposite, but we on this Bench intend to follow the Salisbury convention on the Bill. We appreciate its intent was clearly spelt out in the manifesto on which the Government received their election victory, and we shall certainly not vote against the Second Reading.
The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, in his amendment lays out some of the reasons why the present Bill is inadequate. It is, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, a paving Bill when what we need is a properly thought out Bill, as detailed in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. I am not sure whether the noble Lord thinks that a decision to have a Division at this hour will increase his popularity in your Lordships' House, or will serve his cause. But if he decides to have a Division, I shall delay my departure to my bed and join him in the Lobby.
Although we shall not--as I have already clearly said--try to wreck the Bill by amendments which would deny the Government their clear election manifesto commitment, there are a number of issues which we shall want to discuss and we shall explore possible improvements, not just to the Bill itself but also to the amendment which will be laid by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill.
Underlying those amendments will be a belief--perhaps totally false, but still a belief--that it is just possible that this stage one House will last just a little bit longer than the Government currently tell us they think it will. I believe it will last at least into the next parliament, simply because it will take longer than the Government have allowed to come to a view about stage two. The Government will wish also to bring forward other pieces of legislation to which they will attach a higher priority. So we believe that it is sensible to build into the Bill--particularly into the Weatherill amendment--the mechanisms which will be needed if the stage one House lasts for a few years, or even for many years. I do not intend to list them all but, I should like to mention a few.
It seems ironic that the Bill removes active hereditary Peers while leaving the inactive life Peers in situ. There are a number of life Peers who, for no apparent reason, almost never attend. I think we should look at ways to deal with this, not just now but into the future.
In the case of the 100, arrangements should be put in place for by-elections in the event of the death or resignation of one of them. Although, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, I now know the answer, I think we have to explore whether we want, what I will call, the Irish Peer solution, which was an election for a lifetime, or the Scottish Peer solution, which was an election at the beginning of each Parliament. I think there should be proper provision for the leave of absence of life Peers, so that those who no longer want to play a part in your Lordships' House, either by inclination or through infirmity, can resign from active membership and thus no longer be counted in party and Cross-Bench strength. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, made that point.
I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that his noble friend made another point: that one should not be allowed to be a Member of two Houses. As the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is at the top of one of those dreadful lists, which will probably get him propelled into the Scottish Parliament, then perhaps the view of his noble friend Lord Thurso that he should not be allowed to be in two Houses is not quite so favourable to the noble Lord as he might like.
We should explore how to put on the face of the Bill--although I accept it will be difficult--the proposition that the governing party should have a small majority over the main opposition party. I do not quarrel with that proposition, but I should like to see it somewhere on the face of the Bill. They should not of course have a majority of the whole House. We should look also for a way to cap the total membership of your Lordships' House.
As we near the end of the Second Reading debate, I endorse the remarks made at the beginning by the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal and by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor about the service given by our hereditary colleagues to the House and to the country. Those of us who have come to this House as life Peers--like some other noble Lords, my father would be surprised to find me standing here in your Lordships' House, but there you are--have been welcomed by your Lordships. For myself, I must say that I have been honoured to fit into the procedures, behaviours and conventions of the House, which are markedly more civilised and intelligent than are found along the corridor. It is nice to make a winding up speech where one is listened to, unlike at the other end of the corridor where nobody listens and everybody shouts back. It is quite civilised.
I say to our hereditary colleagues, as have the two noble Lords on the Government Front Bench, that we appreciate the important role that their Lordships have played through the ages. It was, after all, the ancestors of some of your Lordships who stood against the
I have little doubt that, at the end of this Session, the Government will get what is called in a cheap novel "their wicked way" and we shall say farewell to all but about 100 of our hereditary colleagues. Whatever some of the few petty minds on the Government Benches say, I believe our hereditary colleagues can be proud of the part which they and their ancestors have played in the government of this country. Many of them have made it clear that they would be satisfied to go with dignity and with pride if they could feel that they were passing on to future generations in this country an improved House of Lords.
So over the coming weeks I think we should all try to ensure that the House which will come about after the hereditaries go will be more and not less effective in controlling the Executive and will be more and not less effective in counterbalancing the dominance of the party whip system in the Commons. I hope that the Government will be prepared to play their part in the debates to come. As the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, said, some many hours and speeches ago, it is in the whole country's interest that the second Chamber of this Parliament has the legitimacy and powers to fulfil its proper role.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I know that we have been engaged in serious business these past days and hours and that is why I can truthfully say that I have listened to more speeches than any other Member of this Chamber. I did that deliberately because I think that colleagues, from whatever part of the House, are entitled to have their views taken seriously and I shall respond as fully as I can to them within the limited time available.
We have set our course and we are steadfast to it. We are adamant to our purpose and the purpose is the removal forever of the automatic entitlement to sit and vote in this House on the basis of one qualification and one qualification alone--the capricious donation of birth. In opening the debate for the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, generously observed, as he always does about me, that occasionally I do good service for, what he called, my political masters. On this topic I have no political masters in this world and it is principle alone that drives and instructs me.
A good deal has been said about elective dictatorship. Perhaps I may offer a proposition at random. Let us assume that the names Jay, Irvine, Falconer and Williams came attached to this proposition. We want a House permanently dominated by hereditary Labour Peers, whatever the outcome of any general election for the next 100 years. That has been the situation that has obtained, which I would imagine would have brought a blush to the cheek of even the most Stalinist boss of Tammany Hall at its full height of power.
It is said, and I agree with it, that, historically--certainly since the end of the last war--the executive has become overpowerful. There are four members of this Front Bench who agree and have demonstrated by their actions in introducing legislation why they agree. Three of them are sitting behind me: my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer as Solicitor-General, my noble and learned friend Lord Hardie as Lord Advocate and my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine as Lord Chancellor. All of us brought in a Bill that has not been mentioned at all but which is of critical importance in the devolution of power from the central executive to the individual man and woman in this country. I refer to what is now the Human Rights Act. That is a greater potential stripping of Executive central power--I use the word again--and its devolution to the individual. It is the greatest possible assistance that has been returned to our citizens this century.
We have done that deliberately. It means that the law now binds government departments. It binds Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, asked me courteously to look at the Bill. I did, and I saw on it the certificate of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington. That is not a cosmetic device. It binds her to assure your Lordships by certificate that the Bill is convention compliant. And more subtly and more infinitely powerful than anything, every court in this jurisdiction in this Kingdom will be a public authority and therefore bound to produce results which are convention compliant.
So it is idle--worse, it is not informed--to think that this Government are a centralising government. Whatever the arguments about the mechanisms of devolution--the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, raises these questions and I always enjoy them--the point is that in three areas of the United Kingdom there are now established assemblies or parliaments which are taking power away from the United Kingdom Parliament here at Westminster. We did not do that because we had not estimated the consequences. What has occurred in the context
Your Lordships will hear no harsh words from me. I do not believe that your Lordships would say that I have ever used harsh words about any individual in this House and certainly not the category of hereditary Peers. I shall develop that point in a moment.
I started my working life as a barrister in south and west Wales. Whether that fitted me for any useful occupation outside the Bar is not for me to judge. But it gave me one modest advantage. It gave me the ability to recognise a wholly bogus defence at a distance of at least 500 yards!
It is no good saying that this reform is the product of envy. One noble Lord said yesterday that the Government are eaten up with envy because they cannot stand privilege. We cannot stand privilege--not unjustified privilege. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, complained that one noble Lord of significant distinction in this House would be expelled "because of where he was born". But he was only here in the first place because of where he was born.
I can say that no envy drives me. I have always believed that in this House as elsewhere loyalty is a two-way street. I have had infinite kindness, courtesy and help from hereditary Peers on all sides. It is invidious to specify--and I therefore shall--the names Ferrers, Denham, Courtown, Strathclyde and Cranborne on one Bench; Strabolgi, Grenfell, Ponsonby and Acton on another; and Falkland and Russell on a third. I believe that if people treat you decently you should respond appropriately. Those are all ancient names, redolent of our country's history, which I respect and venerate. I know them, the names as well as the men. Incidentally, Williams is not too bad a name either; nor are Jones, Evans, Irvine, Jay and Falconer.
I shall turn to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for a citation. He said that the question is not whether the hereditary Peers do a good job, but rather by what right they do the job at all. One hundred and eighty speeches refine and define themselves to that simple question.
Not all hereditaries are of uniformly high quality. Many of them are excellent; some are absolutely infuriating, eccentric, dull or just plain stupid. But so are many of the life Peers. The question comes down to one of principle: can we any longer be ruled by a dominant category of hereditary Peers? I believe the answer to be plain. I do not say it in any sense of malice. I shall be sorry to see the hereditary Peers go, partly because I enjoy their company enormously and partly because anyone who does not recognise that the tide of history is changing is a fool.
I am not sure what the distilled, considered position of the Opposition is. I gathered that the view of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is that the hereditary principle is not sustainable, and, unless I am contradicted, I shall proceed upon that basis.
I can guess at, and I believe I understand, the feeling of hurt and disappointment that anyone will feel after having been a Member of this House for 50 years, 30 years, 20 years or even, like the noble Earl, Lord Devon, for a short period. I understand why some of your Lordships feel unhappy and why the feeling and tone of much of our deliberations has been elegiac.
I mentioned that I worked in Wales for a time. When I was there I tried to guess at the hurt, disappointment and bewilderment of miners who were dispossessed of their daily work, their loyal communities, friendships, homes and prospects. Disappointment and enforced change come to us all, and those I know and care for in those mining communities are certainly not strangers to them. That is not to oppose ignobly the disappointment of one class of our fellow citizens against the disappointment of another. It is stating, I hope gently and with understanding, the fact that change must come to every one of us.
The noble Earl, Lord Arran, spoke of the continuous service over centuries. I accept that. But continuous service over the centuries grants in our world no eternal freehold on a particular position. It grants no wand to wave to give power, position, influence and privilege to the sons and daughters.
I think that, on reading Hansard, some of your Lordships will think that some of the phrases used were a little extreme. I do not think that the Bill is a nasty, ineffectual little Bill. It is perfectly simple and straightforward. I am happy to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. It provides for the exclusion of hereditary Peers; it gives the undoubted civil right that your Lordships should have had to be able to stand for election to the Commons. It is of the simplest possible construction.
Some used the term "institutional vandalism". An enforced constitutional change took place in 1066. I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart, Lord Pearson and Lord Bruce, are present; the noble Lord, Lord Shore, is not here, because he has been taken ill. That enforced constitutional change was entirely overseen from Europe, as far as I remember it. Subsequent to that change, the recent history of our constitutional development has been one of continuing, general, organic change. I suggest that it is those who cannot change and who wilfully obstruct improvement who are the constitutional vandals. Our constitution is a living growth. It is not desiccated; it has to breathe with the air of changing circumstance.
Some noble Lords urged us not to give in to blackmail. I entirely agree. We shall not give in to blackmail, even when sometimes it wears a smiling face, well-cut clothes and always a very courteous manner. We have been the object of power exercised in your Lordships' House in a lawful but not legitimate manner. Some bitter words were said. It was said that we viewed the hereditary principle or hereditary Peers with contempt. That is not so. The real question is whether the hereditary principle in the affairs of this House is tolerable any longer. I suggest that the answer must be no.
I was grateful for the scruple with which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, redefined plainly, as he always does, the Opposition's accepted obligation to conform on a continuing basis to the Salisbury convention. I advise your Lordships to study the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. I do not believe that on any fair, objective or rational approach it is justified. It is not the "yah, boo, sucks" of the primary school yard, as one noble Lord suggested, but I do not believe that it adds much to the stock of human knowledge or political understanding. That is a matter for your Lordships.
The Lord Chancellor has spoken to the Weatherill amendment. I am told--I have not seen it--that it will be available tomorrow. I advise noble Lords, with great respect, to look at it with care to see whether or not something graceful has been offered and decided upon between the Lord Chancellor and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. It is worth a careful thought or two bearing in mind where the true interests of the continuing fruitful development of this House lie.
I believe that the criticisms launched against the Lord Chancellor were unfair and unjustified. He simply said--had he not done so, in the nature of things one of your Lordships would have rightly asked him to explain the Government's considered position--that this was an agreement arrived at on Privy Council terms. He suggested not for a second that it bound anyone other than those who had participated in it. He said that it was binding in honour, which I believe to be a correct description and categorisation of dealings between him and the noble Viscount. He simply said at the end that he was grateful for your Lordships' attention to his speech which he hoped your Lordships would accept had been marked by frankness about the intentions of the Government, sincere appreciation of the historic service that the hereditary peerage had given and a plea for statesmanship in the closing of a long chapter. Construing any word he uttered as I may, I can find nothing objectionable. My opinion, which I have not discussed with my noble and learned friend, is that he fairly discharged his duty to the House openly, honourably and entirely properly.
It is time to finish. By the end of this Session I hope that I shall be able to say on behalf of the Government, but also on behalf of those who have struggled for a very long time to get a different basis of representation in this House,
Lord Cobbold: My Lords, we have had a very long and absolutely fascinating debate over the past two days and nights. At this very late hour I shall not keep your Lordships long by going into the background of the amendment that I moved. I will only say that I stand by the wording of the amendment
I believe that we should not give the Bill an unqualified Second Reading. Therefore, with apologies for keeping you all from your beds a few minutes' longer, I ask for the agreement of the House to the amendment.
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