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Lord Marsh: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am following his speech carefully. However, can he address the point which has now been made twice; namely, what was to prevent any Conservative Prime Minister in a period of 18 years doing exactly the same thing? I am sure there is an answer to that, but I am waiting to hear it.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I have no problem with that point at all. In the course of 18 years of Conservative government there never was an attempt to change radically the composition of this House.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, that is clear. Although this Bill is about composition--as Clerks in the Public Bill Office have frequently pointed out to us--it is a fact of life that those appointed by different political parties use their powers differently. That is exactly why the Liberal government of Asquith took care to have a second general election in order to make certain that they had the country's backing for a reduction in the powers of this House. Therefore I very much support the amendment. My noble friends have certainly improved on the amendment that I moved in Committee. Like them, I regard the establishment of this constitutional bulwark in the rapidly evolving process of constitutional change that is now occurring as of supreme importance. I hope that the Government will therefore accept the amendment without a vote. If they do not, I very much hope that we will pursue it in the Lobbies.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I very much support the principle that this House should have the power to prevent the extension of the life of Parliament--a principle which is well enunciated in Amendment No. 61, tabled in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Perth. It is of great importance. However, I very much doubt that the amendment is appropriate to achieve that end. I say this not for the party political reasons so robustly advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, but on perhaps more dispassionate grounds.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, has quite rightly referred to the history of the procedure up to the 1911 Act. It seems to me that the noble Lords moving the amendment appear to have forgotten that the power to appoint new Peers is vested not in the Prime Minister but in Her Majesty. There had to be the two elections referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, because His Majesty--as he then was--declined to exercise that power for the sole purpose of swamping the House unless and until the country had demonstrated that that was its wish. It would be the undoubted power--and presumably the proper course--of a monarch who was invited to swamp the House purely to achieve an escape from the 1911 Act to decline to do so until there had been an election. Therefore, if swamping is not to be carried out until after an election, that of itself defeats the attempt to extend the life. If one cannot extend the life until after a new election, one has rather defeated the point.
Secondly, I fail to understand why this power has suddenly become necessary in the context of the Bill. There has always been, and will remain, a theoretical risk of swamping; however, I do not see why that risk grows with the Bill. Indeed, the House after the Bill will not be a better place but it will be a more evenly balanced place. I do not see that it will therefore require a greater number of appointments to achieve the overall majority to vote this through than it would have done had the Conservative Party made such a proposal in the past.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I fail to understand why it is said that pre-appointed life Peers are less apt or able to defend the constitution. Although it is fair to say that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, entirely disclaimed that allegation, it seems to me to be somewhat inherent in his proposals.
Thirdly, I find it a very strange proposal that Peers who were appointed long before the idea of extending life was ever mooted and who had exercised a position in the House for perhaps two or three years should suddenly be disenfranchised from a particular measure. Let us take the situation where a new Government are appointed and they desire to appoint as the Leader of this House somebody from another place or from outside this House. That person is duly appointed and exercises that role with great aplomb and skill and with the admiration of the House for three years. The Government then decide, for good or bad reason, that they wish to seek to extend that life. The mover of that Bill is this very Leader of the House. For some strange reason, that person will be disenfranchised. Because he or she arrived only on the first day of that Parliament
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, this story goes back a lot longer than even my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry said. This habit was started by the Tories after the Treaty of Utrecht. They decided to pack the House to make sure that a rather bad treaty went through. The Whigs used it to deal with the 1832 Bill and then the Liberals used it again in 1911. I should say that in no way do I distrust the Government; I give them, completely and utterly, 100 per cent for integrity. I am not saying that they would dream of doing something like that.
We have had recently a rather large number of ill thought-out constitutional proposals, all of which, I suspect and I am afraid, will end in tears. Therefore it is even more important to have proper checks and balances. Historically, whenever constitutional change has been introduced at such a rapid rate, things have got out of hand. One has only to look at England in the 17th century or France in the 18th century to see that things go wrong. It is essential that we should have in the Bill this particular check.
Let us assume--it is not a totally phantasmagorical assumption--that this Government potter on for another three years and we then have a general election; and then a stroppy Liberal Government are elected. I admit that it is unlikely. They may think that we do not trust them. We are not saying that we do not trust noble Lords opposite. I completely trust the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington--who would not? The point we are trying to make is that there are others who may not be trusted and we should have checks and balances. That is the way our constitution has worked. The Whig concept of checks and balances is terribly important. It is all very fine and large saying "Oh no, it will not happen" because almost invariably when people say that it will happen. As my mother frequently told me, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and things go wrong.
No one is impugning the honour of Labour life Peers, Tory life Peers, Tory hereditary Peers or even the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. One is saying, please let us be careful. It would do no harm at all to accept the amendment; it would do quite a lot of good to have it in the Bill. It would show the grandeur--I use the word advisedly--of the Labour Government if they were to say, "Yes, we see validity in your argument. In no way do we think it will happen, but we must be doubly sure". All we are suggesting is that we should be doubly sure. I support the amendment.
As matters now stand, the exception in the 1911 Act can be overridden in two ways: first, by a further Act of Parliament which removes that exception--although, of course, that would take a year if the Parliament Act procedure had to be relied on, as no doubt it would. Secondly, as matters now stand, it could also be overridden by packing the House with new Peers. That possibility has, of course, always existed. The risk of packing is no greater now than it was in 1911 or 1949.
Extensions of the life of Parliament will happen only in times of profound national crisis and with the consent of all major parties. That is what happened in the First and Second World Wars; and it happened then with the consent of all major parties. When that consent was withdrawn--as happened after VE-Day in 1945--a general election followed immediately.
No one has suggested that any Conservative Government at any other time have considered exercising the power to extend the life of Parliament; no one has suggested that any Labour Government have at any time considered extending the life of Parliament. The real sanction on a government who seek to extend the life of Parliament without the broadest national consent is that that Government would face rebellion on their own Benches in both Houses; that they would face massive public protests and demonstrations; and that they would face certain and catastrophic defeat when they were eventually forced into a general election.
The amendment therefore adds nothing of value. We have lived with the risk of packing for 88 years. Why is the amendment being introduced now? Nothing in the Bill makes packing any more likely. We on these Benches will be unable to support the amendment.
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