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Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: I would regret very much leaving your Lordships' House but I am prepared to accept that it may be inevitable. I would particularly regret leaving it in the vacuum mentioned by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell. I feel passionately that I want to see what happens next. I accept the argument proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that once we know what will happen we could vote that out. However, it is far more likely in the tradition of your Lordships' House that we would accept the proposal and it would be voted out in another place if it made any sense. I suspect that that is what terrifies the party opposite; namely, that the proposal would be voted down by another place which does not wish to lose its powers.
Therefore it is highly important that we should see what is proposed and, furthermore, that there should be an incentive for another place to vote for a sensible measure in order to get rid of the hereditary Peers who remain. Why should we have a reason to stay if there was a proper and sensible alternative to our existence here? The difficulty which the opposite side has is that this matter has been outstanding for a hundred years. The Labour Party has longed to get rid of the hereditary Peers for a hundred years. It has longed for all kinds of things for a hundred years. Happily the collapse of the Soviet Union has abolished some of them. Socialism is rather out of fashion these days. Nevertheless, this archaic business of a hundred year-old shibboleth is
Lord Strathclyde: This has been an important and significant debate. I suspect that we shall return many times to some of the themes that have been mentioned before the various stages of the Bill are completed. There are two immediate points to make. First, these amendments go some way to deal with the issue of no stage one without stage two. Secondly, they probe what I have called the tension between this Bill being a stand alone Bill and it being part of a two-stage process.
I am increasingly of the view that what the Government intend is that this should be a stand alone Bill and that therefore we should treat it as such. When the noble Baroness replies to the debate it would be helpful if she could give a definitive view of whether this is a stand alone Bill or what guarantees the Government are giving about the long-term future of this Chamber. It would be useful for the Committee to be told that.
Amendment No. 13 is grouped with Amendment No. 112 and also with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Blatch. The effects of the amendments are broadly similar. They give Parliament a lock on the commencement of the Act until we know more about what may be in store for this Chamber in the future. The amendment of my noble friend Lord Boardman asks that we should at least have seen the report of the Royal Commission before purging the House of Lords. The amendment of my noble friend Lady Blatch goes a little further and asks that we should have the benefit of the report of the Joint Committee of both Houses before purging the Chamber. In that context I should remind both the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that the statistics on the composition of this Chamber show that the Conservative Party has about 41 per cent. Even though I am no mathematician, that does not strike me as being a majority.
I do not think there is anything inherently unacceptable about these amendments. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion--Members of the Committee opposite have heard me say this before--that what is so reprehensible about this whole process is the sense that the Government are plunging ahead without knowing what will come next. The Government's policy is, "Act before you think, not think before you act." That is one of the great hallmarks of this Government. It is not a distinguished epitaph for this Government to be remembered as the most thoughtless, least consensual and most partisan constitutional reformers in the history of the United Kingdom.
This is an unfit way to treat Parliament, or indeed the liberties of the subject of which Parliament is the guardian. In response to an intervention from my noble friend Lady Knight, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said that this is the kind of amendment which was excluded in the House of Commons. However, I am afraid to say that in another place on 3rd March 1999 a
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in his now infamous threat--possibly even opinion--in our Second Reading debate said that any kind of commencement clause was intolerable. The Government may think that that says all that needs to be said about this amendment; namely, that up with this the Government Front Bench will not put. I think that it says everything we need to know about the Government's attitude to constitutional reform. The Government's philosophy of "because I say so" is not enough. They have to deal with the issues that have been raised in this debate because we are dealing with the reform of Parliament. This Chamber has a right to know where it is going and what we shall end up with. Even if we do not have that right, surely the people of the country have the right to know what will happen. Even if the hereditary Peers do not have that right, should not the life Peers have an opinion right at the start of this process rather than half-way through? It is also right to expect that the Government themselves should know where we are going. We do not know that; the people of the United Kingdom do not know; the Government do not know; the Royal Commission has been asked for an opinion but that has not yet been delivered.
None of these amendments asks for a fatal delay; they are quite humble in their ambition. A small delay is asked for. We should know what kind of Chamber the Royal Commission proposes before we vote out of existence a Chamber that has worked well. We should know the kind of Chamber that Parliament favours before we vote out of existence a Chamber that has worked well. The irony is that later in the Committee stage we shall discuss the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, which may leave hereditary Peers here for a further generation. Yet if the Royal Commission reports in December, these amendments would leave the hereditary Peers here for perhaps one extra month, or a few weeks more than that, after the end of this parliamentary Session; or, if we wait for a Joint Committee of both Houses to report, for perhaps six months or a year beyond that. These are not long delays in the 100 years that the Labour Party has waited for this great reform; it is no time at all.
What is the Government's attitude towards the Joint Committee of both Houses? Do they have a view as to when it will be set up after the Royal Commission has reported? Will that happen relatively quickly in a matter of weeks, or will the Government wish to wait far longer? Do they know how many members the joint committee will have and what the split will be between Members of this House and another place? Do they have a view regarding what timetable, if any, will be set for the joint committee's report?
In considering the two amendments that are before us, I must say to my noble friend Lord Boardman that I marginally prefer the one proposed by my noble friend Lady Blatch because it allows the views of Parliament to be heard as well as that of the Royal Commission. If we believe in Parliament, it is important that its view should be heard.
Either way, this debate is about asking the Government to think again, to show some respect to the Royal Commission that they set up, albeit reluctantly, and to the two Houses of Parliament, before insisting on driving Members out of an ancient and successful House. The charge that the Government have to answer is a significant one, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: We have had another ingenious general debate. This evening we have discussed the long-term reform of Parliament, procedure in this House and in another place, secondary legislation and the Royal Commission. We have also spent some time, albeit not completely directed in the right way, on Amendments Nos. 13, 112 and 113, to which I shall now attempt to reply.
The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Boardman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, are in the Government's view another way of simply delaying the fulfilment of the pledge in the manifesto--I have no hesitation whatsoever in repeating that--to place the Bill, which we always said was the first stage of reform, on the statute book. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Crawley for pointing out that the Little Book of Calm was on the best seller list together with the manifesto. So I imagine that it will come as no surprise to the Committee to learn that the Government are not happy to accept either of these amendments.
The noble Lord, Lord Boardman, in introducing his amendment, and the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, said that there was no intention in the amendment to undermine the basic principle of the Bill and that their concern related more to the mechanics of the way in which the Government were proceeding to achieve this reform.
I say to both noble Lords, gently and with considerable respect, that that simply brings us back to the point that I made at Second Reading, which was taken up several times during that debate. If noble Lords are behind the principle of reform, it is rather strange that, during the 45 years in which the party they support was in government, following the first occasion when it was proposed that hereditary Peers should not sit in this House, no proposal for reform was made which was in their view sensible and which they could support. We are now dealing with the Government's Bill as proposed. It has always been clear that reform was proposed in two stages.
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