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House Of Lords Reform

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 23 February 1999

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3.16 p.m.

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Monday by Baroness Jay of Paddington, That this House take note of Her Majesty's Government's White Paper Modernising Parliament: Reforming the House of Lords (Cm 4183), to which an amendment had been moved at end to insert "; urges Her Majesty's Government in carrying forward the proposals in the White Paper to set as its objectives an increase in the independence of Parliament and an enhancement of its ability to

scrutinise legislation and hold the executive to account; and therefore specifically calls on the Royal Commission to reject the proposition in paragraph 7.26 of the White Paper that the available powers of this House might be significantly reduced.".

My Lords, I suspect it is almost inevitable that the proceedings of your Lordships' House from now on are bound to convey very much an atmosphere of an era coming to an end. I think it is always a dangerous moment because there is a temptation that we should descend into mawkishness. I am sure your Lordships are far too sensible to succumb to that temptation. However, I would venture to suggest that just a touch of nostalgia would not come amiss.

In my case, that sense of nostalgia is perhaps heightened by the fact that I am to be followed this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. For us perhaps this shadow boxing is a little bit of a trip down memory lane. Indeed, the pleasure with which I look forward to his speech is, as always, and has always been in the past, tinged with a sense perhaps of trepidation. After all, the noble Lord's tongue has clearly not lost any of its skill. But I must say to your Lordships that the emotion that I feel when contemplating this prospect is above all one of pleasure because it seems to me that the noble Lord and I agree at least on one point; that is, that a reformed House of Lords should have enough authority to perform its central task properly. As to what that central task should be, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to return to that in a moment.

I should like to emphasise one point at the outset of my remarks. I am conscious of the danger of being too didactic as five years as either Leader of your Lordships' House or indeed Leader of the Opposition is in any other assembly a great source of authoritative experience. But surrounded by the faces by which I am surrounded today, I am all too conscious that that is merely a beginner's record. Nevertheless, one must speak to one's experience. That is what I will do, and if I appear to be didactic, I hope your Lordships will forgive me.

The past five years have convinced me at least of one thing when contemplating the future of your Lordships' House. It is that this House does indeed need reform. There has been a curiously cost habit in this House of saying that our Chamber works well. In many senses that is self-evidently true. In many ways it does work well. We have an enormous repository of experience which is displayed with great elegance. Our Select Committee reports are read far more widely than are the Select Committee reports of another place, and deservedly so. We are very good at raising issues of the day, but, more importantly, issues of tomorrow, which the restriction of another place confines to an horizon no further away than the forthcoming election. We are, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has frequently reminded us, an effective legislative housemaid.

In spite of all that, it seems to me that your Lordships' House nevertheless fails in its central purpose. I venture to suggest that the definition of its central purpose above all today could best be expressed as to improve the performance of the House of Commons. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to explain what may seem rather an impertinent remark.

It has been my observation during a short period in government, particularly as a business manager, that great Secretaries of State are, by definition, no matter what party they come from, great men and women. But they suffer from one collective failing. I hope that those of my former colleagues who are present will forgive me for this observation. They seem to think that the best Way in which they can imprint their names on the pages of history is to pass as many pieces of legislation per Session as they conveniently can convince their colleagues they should. That is a serious mistake. It leads to poorly thought-out policy and late instructions to parliamentary counsel—who, I suspect, are among the real unsung heroes of Whitehall. It inevitably, therefore, leads to poorly drafted legislation.

That would not matter so much if it were not for the extraordinary power and efficiency of the Government Whips' Office in another place. That power and efficiency mean that the Government manage to pass their entire legislative programme in another place pretty well unscathed year after year, even in the dying days of an exhausted government, such as we were, who had lost their majority.

It is true that this House does much to improve that legislation when it reaches us. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, has done us a great favour in drawing our attention to the number of amendments that were accepted during the course of the previous Session, which I believe I am right in saying was nearly 4,000. But that is no more than extensive spring-cleaning of the kind that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, so much approved of us for undertaking.

However important the amendments may have been, they were in the great scheme of things no more than peripheral. I could instance a number of cases where your Lordships perhaps did not address central issues during the term of office of a Conservative government. However, I cannot resist being party-political even in this House, and perhaps I may concentrate by way of example on two glaring instances, particularly as they are in the constitutional field, which is after all where your Lordships pride yourselves on having a particular residual responsibility.

The two glaring cases that I have in mind are these. First, the Welsh Bill—which as your Lordships are all too painfully aware was an important piece of legislation, of some interest to the people of Wales above all others—arrived in this House with a large number of clauses that had not been discussed for one split second in Committee or on Report in another place. Another, even more serious instance was that of the referendum Bill, which allowed a rigged referendum to take place that was designed to produce the answer that the Government wanted. It was an answer that they would certainly have got in Scotland, but which I doubt they would have got in Wales had the referendum not been rigged in the Government's favour. The other instance was that the referendum Bill provided for pre-legislative referendums, which from the Dispatch Box opposite I have endeavoured in the past to condemn. That seems to me to be a totalitarian device, above all designed to unman Parliament for its consideration of the legislation that is to follow the referendum. So why did we not send both Bills back with a label marked "unconstitutional" on them?

The answer is simple. We do not believe that we have the authority or the standing to do so by reason of our composition. Were the hereditary peerage to have the same standing as once it had, there would be no case for reform of this House. Unfortunately, not even we believe that any more. That is why we need reform, and why we particularly need it now.

Parliament, its standing and its central place as the representative of the electorate, with a duty to hold the Government to account, are under attack as never before. We are now governed by a number of bodies whose authority is higher than that of Parliament de jure or de facto, or, if we are not, we are about to be—I refer to Brussels and the ECHR from above and the Scottish Parliament, above all of all the devolved assemblies, from below. No matter whether the Prime Minister decrees that sovereignty remains at Westminster, we have only to ask the question, "Whom will the Scottish parliament support in any Westminster/Edinburgh dispute?", to realise where de facto sovereignty will lie; or indeed, the question, "Whom will the Scottish people support in any Westminster/Brussels dispute?". If we add to this sad state of affairs a Government who find Parliament a contemptible inconvenience, Parliament looks increasingly like a horse in a sentimental Victorian children's book—ill-treated and over-burdened to such a degree that the soft-hearted onlooker feels that the only thing to do is to rescue it and put it out to grass. Of course, your Lordships and I know that it is better by far to feed it up and put it to work in humane conditions rather than succumb to that mawkish solution.

Paradoxically, a more authoritative House of Lords would help the House of Commons to perform better by forcing it to legislate better and to hold the Government to account more rigorously. That point was implicit in everything that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said in his admirable address yesterday. If this House in its reformed state is to perform that essential and urgent service for another place, its composition must above all command universal authority and respect and be independent. It must not have so much authority that it ultimately challenges another place; nor should it have so little that it risks going the way of the New Zealand Senate—a warning so eloquently set before us by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cooke of Thorndon, in a debate in this House on 15th October.

It also means that my noble friend Lord Wakeham would be most unwise to accept the hint set out in the by now notorious paragraph 7.26 of the White Paper that the Royal Commission should accept a reduction in the powers of this House, however alluring such a prospect might be, as perhaps put forward by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House yesterday. I submit that we shall need to use our existing powers to the full from time to time in a reformed House, if we are to have any chance of frightening the other place into holding the Government to account effectively.

So I must conclude by saying that, in the light of this analysis, I was immensely heartened by the speech of my noble friend Lord Wakeham in your Lordships' House yesterday. I confess that I am not altogether surprised by its content, although I suspect that the Government were. He will, he told us, be holding hearings in public. He said that he would be sure to make it clear that he and his commission would cover every aspect of a highly complex and important question.

I am glad that he finds the question to be important. I was sorry that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House did not seem to understand in her remarks yesterday that the causes close to our hearts, some of which she so eloquently enumerated, would be far better tackled in a properly reformed House and that on those grounds alone, therefore, it is worth our while spending what I am sure she finds a disproportionate part of our time in trying to persuade the Government to get it right in this once-in-a-century opportunity.

I have no doubt that until recently the Government wanted to stick to a stage one House for the foreseeable future. I suspect that, if your Lordships needed any more evidence of that fact, the rushed nature of the White Paper and the last minute appointment of the Royal Commission membership are evidence enough to support that contention.

The Government hoped that, when forced to reverse that intention during certain negotiations that took place in the latter part of last year, they could achieve the same objective by a fast stitch-up of a Royal Commission. How agreeable that in my noble friend—as so often in the past during a most distinguished career—they have completely misjudged their man.

3.31 p.m.

My Lords, it is, as always, a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I have done so before quite often and I suspect that I shall do so again. Indeed, we have almost become a double act, though I fear I know which of us is Laurel and which of us is not.

Not only do I agree very much with the opening remarks made by the noble Viscount; I think he will find that there is a fair measure of agreement between the two of us. Perhaps if he and I had been left alone, who knows what might have happened? However, there it is. We are all prisoners of our own parties to that extent.

The noble Viscount said that an era was coming to an end. It is. He said that we should not be mawkish. I shall not be mawkish, but I must put on record at the beginning of what I have to say to the House that anyone who has even a smattering of historical knowledge of British history over the past 400 or 500 years cannot but be impressed at the role that the hereditary peerage and the families played in that process. It has been fundamentally part of our constitution for long.

However, I agree with noble Lords that the time has now come. The Government's approach is a major step and greatly to be applauded. It is making a start on an historic reform which will do great credit to the Prime Minister, his Government, and potentially this House. My aim today is to stand back a little and try to explore some of the principles and objectives which should guide reform to ensure that it is genuinely durable.

The Government's approach is a major step forward because it starts this historic process. For nearly 90 years, governments have avoided full reform, leaving unanswered questions about the overall shape of Parliament; questions which have their origins in the coming of the democratic age in the last century. The House of Lords is, or should be, the second most important democratic institution in this country after the House of Commons. Reform needs to ensure that it is.

In that context, I extend a general welcome to the White Paper process and to the Royal Commission. These and the contribution which this House can make may enable us to solve permanently the seemingly intractable challenge of Lords reform. It is one of those issues that at first sight looks simple: you can do it at a stroke; all it needs is to pass an Act. Having concerned myself now for some years with the problem, I know that it is one of the most complicated, complex and challenging problems that I have yet come across.

Since the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, raised the issue yesterday, perhaps I may make it clear that I have supported a Royal Commission on the issue for many years. I note with some mild amusement that it is now collecting other progenitors among my former colleagues. I have said many times that the Royal Commission should be open and in public as far as possible and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, took the opportunity yesterday to underline that. The Cranborne/Weatherill agreement is to be welcomed for the important fact that it links stages one and two—a fact which the Conservative Front Bench in another place seemed to be initially slow to recognise. However, with the perception that is well known in your Lordships' House, the Benches opposite naturally recognised that rather earlier.

What should be the objective of House of Lords reform? In my view it can be expressed quite simply: it should be to strengthen Parliament as a whole. Almost any constitutional observer would agree that in the United Kingdom the Executive exercises stronger control over the House of Commons than in any comparable country. That is the fundamental fact to remember in looking at overseas examples. Reducing the scale of central power is or ought to be the main priority for constitutional reformers. This principle—the vital need to hand power from the centre to the citizen—underpins Labour's whole constitutional programme. It incorporates devolution, human rights, new forms of voting, local and regional government, freedom of information and reform of your Lordships' House.

In that sense, the transitional House will be more legitimate and that is a step forward too. But the crucial test will be whether the stage two House is strong enough to be what Hugo Young in the Guardian called,
"a meaningful actor in the creative tension between the executive and legislative branches".
As I see it there are three main reasons for reform of your Lordships' House. First, the rationale for a House of hereditary Peers has gone. However, as I hope I made clear, that does not mean that their contribution should be belittled. The challenge now is to make something positive out of the passing of the hereditary peerage, to find a rationale for a new composition which all—including hereditary Peers—can accept as an improvement in our democratic and parliamentary structure. That is the first reason.

Secondly, the House is politically unbalanced. As a party matter, everyone knows that this is politically unfair, but it is more than that. It distorts the business of revising legislation. A fixed and permanent dominance by one side robs the House of its political credibility. Its stance becomes all too often a product of the tactical approach of one party only. If that party overdoes it, legislative scrutiny becomes political routine. If it stays its hand, issues can go unraised. If it held its hand totally, the House would be neutered.

But, thirdly, imbalance is only part of the problem. Most importantly—as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said—the lack of legitimacy of the House means that the second Chamber cannot perform as effectively as it should. Nor is it sufficiently accountable for what it does. Its composition bedevils this House: either its lack of legitimacy has prevented it from using its powers or, when it has done so, its composition has become the issue—not the issue that the House purported to deal with.

The effect in all those circumstances is to raise the political stakes. Every defeat for a Conservative government is a political rebuff. Every defeat for a Labour government is an outrage. The issues in question can get lost. The normal give and take of legislating in a two-chamber system—taken for granted in other systems—becomes highly dramatised in ours, when even a small issue can come to be seen as a major political challenge to the government of the day. That is not just in relation to legislation. Scrutiny and investigative work can, if they are politically uncongenial to the Government of the day, be dismissed on the ground (often unspoken) of the irrelevance or illegitimacy of the House's membership. In this country we have virtually a unicameral system. It works as it does because one House—this one—does not use the powers that in theory it has.

In a reformed Parliament the supremacy of the House of Commons is vital. The aim of reform should be to strengthen the second Chamber to the point where it has the legitimacy vis-à-vis the government of the day to carry out its functions properly but not to threaten the position of the House of Commons. How one squares that particular circle is crucial to the whole argument. I believe that this requires a number of elements: first, that both Houses should have a democratic and representative composition appropriate to their functions;, that their respective compositions should place them in the right balance with each other: and that within that balance the powers of the second Chamber are such that it can properly perform its functions. also believe that those functions should be clearly delineated; and that in what it does the second Chamber should be able actively to assist the first in its key democratic roles.

Any model for composition should, therefore, meet the following criteria: the superiority of the Commons should not be challenged; there should continue to be independent Members of the second Chamber; and no one party should be able to command a majority here.

Some of the issues in the White Paper relating to direct and indirect election perhaps need to be disentangled a little. In paragraph 33 in Chapter 8 the White Paper comments rather disparagingly on a partly-elected Chamber and the work of the committee under the late Lord Home. While the Government have named no preference—I believe quite rightly so—the White Paper appears to stress the advantages of a nominated House perhaps with the addition of a few indirectly elected Members. This has certainly appeared to be the direction in which Ministers have briefed the press. Whether the Royal Commission will be influenced in that direction remains to be seen. I hope that it will resist that temptation.

This is not the time to go into the specifics of stage two—that is very much for another day—except to say that there is more to the case for an element of direct election in this House than the paragraph I have just mentioned appears to suggest. I hope to have more to say on that topic at a later stage but not today. What is vital is that the composition, functions and powers are a unified package. Fundamental to this is clarification of the respective functions and powers of the two Houses. In this context I was delighted to hear my noble friend the Leader of the House confirm specifically that the powers of the House are within the remit of the Royal Commission.

This House performs a number of functions. If one categorises them there are perhaps five functions, although the first does not really find a place in the White Paper. Apart from the judicial role, those functions are: first, a constitutional check and balance in particular in the work of revising major Bills; secondly, revising legislation; thirdly, scrutinising the Executive; fourthly, investigating issues that may not interest the Commons or are perhaps too sensitive for that Chamber; and, finally, debating national issues where the fate of the government does not hang on the result. All those functions are important. Others can and probably should be added as the terms of reference of the Royal Commission indicate.

The White Paper makes reference to better European scrutiny. As a former commissioner, I can attest to the strength and value of the work of the European Communities Committee. This area is a prime example of where the second Chamber could take on a strengthened role on behalf of Parliament as a whole. So, too, could it take on a. scrutiny role in relation to human rights, including perhaps a special responsibility in relation to legislation that affects human rights. In the same way, a reformed House could have a special role in relation to constitutional Bills, as the Labour Party suggested in its 1992 manifesto. Again, this would be an important safeguard in a country with an unwritten constitution. There are many ways in which the core role of a second Chamber—legislative and executive scrutiny—can be improved on behalf of Parliament as a whole: for example monitoring the implementation of legislation to see whether it meets its objectives.

The Royal Commission is asked in the White Paper to,
"take particular account of … the newly-devolved institutions".
I understand that aim but to add a few Members indirectly elected by the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly is not the only, or indeed the best, way in which the second Chamber can act as the focal point for the Union. There can be ways of representing the devolved areas and regions more strongly than the White Paper suggests, binding the Union together better without reopening some of the questions over devolution as indirect elections may do.

There is a crucial gap between the theoretical powers of the House and how they are exercised in practice. As the White Paper says, the preferable approach may be to reduce the powers and to recognise that they may in consequence be used more frequently. The outcome needs to be that we have a working second Chamber that can do its job but whose powers cannot fundamentally threaten the position of the Commons. Thus, for example, there should be no question of the second Chamber regaining any of its former financial powers. The scope of the Parliament Acts should be rationalised, as should the powers of the second Chamber over statutory instruments. Reform will make the second Chamber more troublesome to the Commons. This is inevitable and, provided the second Chamber has proper legitimacy and credibility, it is not only inevitable but right; otherwise, one may as well have a unicameral system of government.

The Government should not be afraid to learn from the thoughts of other parties. That principle underlay my attempt to talk to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. This is not the time to revisit why those talks did not produce an agreed reform as I had hoped, but they represented a clear earnest on the part of the Government—certainly on my part—to pursue consensus on this issue. That is the spirit in which this issue should continue to be pursued. Everyone involved has a responsibility to play their part in achieving an historic and durable reform. We shall be judged harshly if we shirk that responsibility.

The Royal Commission requires vision. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, is a man of vision and will provide that perspective. The Joint Committee of both Houses will also need some vision. Members of this House can play a role in shaping that vision. This is a rare opportunity, which occurs once a century in British political life, to settle the proper relationship between the two Houses of our Parliament. I believe that sensible and durable constitutional settlement is within our grasp, but it will require determination and a clear decision by the Government that that is really what we are about.

3.48 p.m.

My Lords, this House has rightly devoted a substantial amount of time to this issue. By the end of today's sitting there will have been over 200 speeches made on this issue taking account of yesterday's and today's debates and the debates last October. I believe that it has been conceded by the majority of those who have spoken that hereditary Peers will be excluded from this House. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, pointed out, the issue before us now is what kind of House we shall have in future after the hereditaries have left us.

That brings me to the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and his colleagues. Certainly, we welcome the efforts that they have made to ensure that we do not all become involved in a prolonged and bitter battle—perhaps some kind of political scorched-earth policy—this Session. Nevertheless, as my noble friend Lord Rodgers pointed out yesterday, we were not involved in these discussions in any way whatever. Accordingly, if and when these proposals are put before the House we will discuss them on their merits.

We are in no way committed to the details of the plan. Indeed, we see a number of difficulties arising from it. First, we see little or no justification for making such a large increase in the number of Conservatives in this House. Secondly, and on a more detailed point, it seems a little odd that if a hereditary Peer, elected to remain in this House, dies, the other elected hereditaries of his party will choose his successor. As regards the two Labour hereditaries who will remain in this House, that means that there will be an electoral college of one person. That seems a rather modestly sized electoral college.

I turn now to the appointment of the Royal Commission. We welcome it unreservedly. However, it is a great pity that it was not appointed last autumn. The target date for its report of 31st December of this year would then have been entirely realistic. I do not believe that it is now a realistic date. It is difficult to see how the Royal Commission will be able to find adequate time to analyse the many different proposals that will be put to it in the few months available to it. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said yesterday that this matter has been argued over for a number of years and therefore it will be a fairly simple task for the Royal Commission to form a view on the matter. One has only to look at the debate in the House of Commons to see that there is no realistic prospect of a small group of clearly defined proposals being considered over the few months available to the Royal Commission.

I shall now touch on one of the great difficulties that I believe will face the Royal Commission. It is the proposal, or suggestion, that the new House should become wholly elected. That proposal was put forward in the House of Commons by Sir Edward Heath—a person for whom many of us have the highest regard—and subsequently by others. The arguments for that proposition are self-evident. Such an assembly would have a very high degree of democratic validity. I have no doubt that a number of colleagues in this House will believe that it is the right way to proceed. I suspect that it will also have some appeal to the court of public opinion.

But ranged against that idea is a fairly persuasive case. First, would not all Cross-Benchers be automatically excluded from the House given that situation? Would it not become merely a pale imitation of the House of Commons? Alternatively, armed with democratic validation and possibly elected by a different electoral system than that of the House of Commons, the opposition parties might be in a majority here. They could embark on a very vigorous confrontation with the Government in the House of Commons. I express no final conclusion on that issue, but I do not see how it can he argued that this House should become wholly elected and at the same time argue that the House of Commons should be pre-eminent. Those two concepts are in conflict with one another. That has to be recognised by those who put forward the proposal.

I now turn to some of the issues set out in the Government's White Paper. I find myself in sharp disagreement with a number of them and with what the Government have suggested. I accept their argument on others. I begin with the area of agreement between us. One of the most important is contained in Chapter 7, paragraph 26.

There is a great deal to be said for some form of formal conciliation process when there are disputes between the two Chambers of a kind that exists in the United States between the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. That is a better idea than, to quote the White Paper,
"the somewhat adversarial shuttle of business which takes place at present".
There is a very good example of that process, which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, will recall as clearly as I do. That is the argument that we had regarding English and other students attending Scottish universities. That matter could have been handled quite easily if there had been some form of conciliation process. As it was, we had endless and fairly bitter debates in this House. The matter shuttled between one Chamber and the other. As I have made clear, I believe that there is much to be said for what the Government say in the White Paper on that particular issue.

Having said that by way of introduction, I must make it clear that on a number of other issues I part company from the Government. Perhaps I may give two examples. The first is the rather ominous wording contained in Chapter 7, paragraph 25. I do not like the suggestion that in a reformed House, possibly one with a more democratic basis, we should consider,
"institutionalising the understandings under which the present House of Lords operates; leaving the powers intact but restricting the circumstances in which they might be used".
When the noble Lord, Lord Carter, winds up at the end of this debate perhaps he can tell us what those words suggest. Read together with the final section of paragraph 26, it could clearly mean that the capacity of this House to reject secondary legislation would be removed and a power of delay substituted. As far as we are concerned, that is out of the question.

When the Government speak about,
"institutionalising the understandings under which the present House of Lords operates",
I tell the Government quite bluntly that as regards our powers over statutory instruments these so-called "understandings" have never been accepted by these Benches and they have not been accepted by marry others in this House. They were adopted by the then Labour opposition for the perfectly understandable reason that it did not want a future Conservative opposition, with its in-built majority in this House, challenging its secondary legislation. Over a period of 18 years the Conservative government was perfectly happy to go along with that arrangement. So much for the so-called institutionalised conventions. It was a coalition of convenience between the two major parties in this House.

I now come to the second area of disagreement with the Government. It appears as a subsection of paragraph 26 of the White Paper. It states that another area where the powers of a second Chamber might be looked at include—and I quote it in full—
"arrangements to give government Bills introduced … into the second chamber the same protection as those introduced … into the House of Commons, so removing an artificial restraint on the management of Parliamentary business".
"Artificial restraint" is a curious choice of words. It must have occurred to the person who drafted that particular sentence that the so-called "artificial restraint" is based on the rather obvious fact that this House is not elected and the other House is. Mr. Asquith and his non-Conservative successors would not have dreamt of introducing highly controversial legislation here because their followers were always in a minority—often in a tiny minority. The idea, which is clearly proposed in that sentence, with its reference to giving the Government's Bills introduced here "the same protection" as Bills given a Second Reading in the House of Commons, is presumably, in some way to introduce a Parliament Act protection for such legislation. But, surely, this cannot make sense. One of the few ways in which it could be done would be to give Ministers some kind of power to certify Lords' Bills, thus weakening still further the authority of a reformed House of Lords. Perhaps I may make it quite clear that we see great difficulties over arty such procedure.

Of course, I understand the problems facing the Government on this whole range of issues. They will have to get the recommendations of the Royal Commission, modified as they may be by a Select Committee, through the House of Commons. And remembering only too well the consequences of the Foot-Powell coalition in 1968, they will, 1 am sure, want to be cautious. That is why there have been so many references in the White Paper to the House of Commons remaining pre-eminent. We must recognise that the House of Commons is a far less self-confident institution than it was in the 1960s. Its Members see real power slipping away. They see them slipping away to devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and possibly in the future to similar assemblies in the English regions. They see the Strasbourg Parliament increasing its powers. And now they see a reform of the House of Lords possibly encouraging the new House to be far more assertive over the powers it will possess.

The Government therefore face a host of forbidding difficulties. Increasingly, it will become evident that some of the most vociferous opponents of reform of this House will be Members of the House of Commons. Again, as Sir Edward Heath said, the Government Chief Whip in the Commons will face an extremely difficult task. Yet, now we are embarked on this process of reform, it is essential that the Government do not lose their nerve. For what we have to establish is a second Chamber with real authority in a number of clearly defined areas and one which will possess adequate powers to act as a real check on future executives. And that is a challenge not only for the Government but for all of us.

4.3 p.m.

My Lords, we have listened today to three substantial contributions from three Members of your Lordships' House who are held in high repute and who have great political experience. My contribution will not have the same constitutional substance and my total absence of political experience will be all too evident. However, I have been a Member of your Lordships' House for 15 years and I have counted it a great privilege to belong to this body. I mean "privilege" not in the sense of wearing scarlet and ermine but, if I may use a phrase which is not too grandiose, of being able to be of service to the nation. That is one of the reasons why we sit in your Lordships' House.

As your Lordships know, the service involves hard work. A great deal of reading is required in order to be on top of a subject. There is a great deal of talking and listening. It also requires long hours—on more than one occasion I have moved an amendment in your Lordships' House at three o'clock in the morning, not sure whether it was the end of the day before or the beginning of the day after! The main point I wish to make is that this element of service is stressed by the fact that we undertake the work unpaid. I have not heard much discussion about the question of payment, but it is a feature of your Lordships' House which is of great significance and which I very much hope will continue because it underlines the point that we are offering service to the nation.

The White Paper makes clear that Bishops originally came into your Lordships' House because they held large territories. That is no longer the case, although in my part of the world in Yorkshire the countryside is littered with names such as Bishopside and Bishopdale. They are memories of a long gone age. We sit in your Lordships' House with different concerns. Perhaps we bring a note of moral concern to the issues facing us, although I know that other Members also do that. But Bishops are distinctive in this House for one particular reason: that we are the only ex officio Members. We leave the House when we leave office. That has the weakness that we are working Bishops and cannot therefore be working Members of your Lordships' House; we can be here only occasionally. It has the strength that we bring knowledge, experience and views from every part of the land and, through our clergy and parishes, from virtually every part of society.

I warm to the notion in Chapter 8 of the White Paper that the new constitution of the House should embody a number of sources through which people reach membership. I suggest that the ex officio source might be used more widely. I note that Chapter 8 discusses extensively both nomination and election, but I do not find anywhere a mention of the possibility of the ex officio source being used.

It is clear that this House needs to have democratic legitimation, but I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Richard, stress not only the democratic nature of the House but also the necessity for it to be representative. There is always the danger of democracy, the voice of the people and rule by the people, degenerating into majority domination and minority oppression. Your Lordships' House needs to stand as an independent House which will not allow that to happen.

I applaud the determination set out in the White Paper not to allow any one party to dominate. I also applaud the determination to strengthen the role of Cross-Benchers. However, I also note that on page 18, which sets out the present political composition of the House, there are five categories; there are the three political parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat), the Cross-Bench category and a category termed "other". I am not entirely clear who falls into the category of "other". Rather oddly, it mentions Peers who have not taken the party Whip. I had not understood that Cross-Benchers took a party Whip. However, among the category of "other" are to be found the Bishops and members of the Royal Household. Indeed, there is a total of 128, but I am not sure from where the other members of the category come.

It indicates that it is not only the Cross-Benchers who provide a note of independence that is so important in your Lordships' House. I picked up a list of speakers from the Whips Office to find that opposite the name of each noble Lord speaking in the debate there was a category—Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Cross-Bench—and I found opposite the names of the two Bishops speaking the letters IND. I hope that they stand for "independent", although the imagination could run riot with other explanations!

However, my point is that the independent element in this House is of enormous importance. I am suggesting that that degree of independence might be secured more firmly by considering the use of the ex officio source as a way of Members entering your Lordships' House. Bishops have been glad to play their part in your Lordships' proceedings over many centuries. We hope that the new constitution of the House will allow us to continue our contribution.

4.10 p.m.

My Lords, the Government are determined to modernise Britain. They appear to want to make this country more like other countries whose constitutions have been held up to us as enviable models but some of whom actually envy us our old-fashioned, out-of-date form of government. I wonder whether the Government have ever noticed that, for all we are out of date, we have been singularly blessed in this country. Leaving Ireland out of it, we have been fortunate enough to enjoy stable government for a very long time—approximately 300 years in England and Wales and about 250 in Scotland for which stable government can only be said to date from after the.45 rebellion. Still, that is no mean record when considering other countries around the world which have a long enough history to be compared with Great Britain. I cannot think of one which, during the last 250 years, has not had at least one revolution, civil war or coup d'átat. If any noble Lord can argue the contrary I shall be delighted to give way. Yet our constitution, unwritten as it is, has not been static. Much has changed over that period, but it has evolved a little at a time and each reform been assimilated and problems arising have been dealt with before another round of changes has been embarked upon.

Now a government with too big a majority and too little sense have embarked on wholesale reform of everything, all at once, all in one Parliament. What is more, they are in such a hurry that they even grudge the time spent discussing the proposed reforms, for which they are entirely to blame. If other matters lose out it is their fault, not ours.

Separate parliaments for component parts of the United Kingdom have been legislated for at the same time as it is proposed to change the composition of this House without any certainty of what its future form will be. Is this wise? It seems to me folly to try to change the structure of the United Kingdom Parliament at the same time as you change the structure of the United Kingdom, and above all folly to try to reduce the power of Parliament to control the executive. One of the most important functions of Parliament is to keep the executive—that is, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, and particularly his kitchen cabinet—under control. They are supposed to be answerable to Parliament, to both Houses of Parliament.

In a situation where the Government have too large a majority, as now, and where increasingly the Members of another place are not chosen locally but are imposed upon local associations by the party machines—and I think all the parties are guilty nowadays of doing that—you are apt to get a situation where an MP's first loyalty is to his party instead of to his constituents, as it used to be, and consequently he is incapable of saying boo to a ministerial goose. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, enlarged on this phenomenon yesterday. That is what has happened in this Government in another place. Of course it suits the executive. The only fly in the ointment, as far as they are concerned, is this House where even those who take the party Whips cannot always be relied on to vote with the party because there are no sanctions.

I might just add here that I am tired of hearing the Government say that the Cross-Benches are not independent; that they always vote with the Conservatives. Many of us do frequently vote against the Government, but that is because we believe the Government to be wrong. The Government should blame themselves, instead of accusing the Cross-Benchers of being closet Tories.

What is becoming transparently clear is that this Government are very intolerant indeed of opposition or criticism. This House, and the hereditary Peers in particular, provide plenty of both. So having got rid of us they would have a clear run at producing a second Chamber which would rubber stamp any Bill the government of the day wished to pass through Parliament and might even be prepared to consent to another place prolonging the life of a Parliament indefinitely. That is the high road to dictatorship, tyranny and totalitarian government, and, in the end, to civil unrest, rebellion and revolution which we have seen, over the past 200 to 300 years in almost every other country in the civilised world, with all the suffering and misery that such upheavals bring. We are going down a very dangerous road indeed. That is why I shall vote for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.

Going back to the proposals in the White Paper, I cannot say that I am very impressed with the argument that the proposed appointments commission will be independent of the Prime Minister. Who is going to appoint the appointments commission? Will it not be the Prime Minister, who will then be able to appoint people who will appoint people whom he wants appointed? If so, the proposed appointments commission is purely cosmetic. And it is not very effective make-up. It is quite easy to see the spots underneath it. If a committee of the Privy Council were to appoint the appointments commission, that would be a very different matter.

It is a pity that some members of the Government display such ignorance about the origins of so many hereditary peerages. They suggest that quite a number were created for the sons of Kings' mistresses. Only a handful were. I can only think of four or five out of about 750 hereditary Peers. The vast majority of hereditary Peers are descended from people who spent their lives in the service of their country, be it in the armed forces, in politics or local government, diplomacy, the law, science or medicine, business or charitable work. I decided to check the origins of the peerages of the hereditary Peers whose titles began with the letter A. I took out Debrett. I found 51. Of their newly ennobled ancestors, I found 18 politicians, two prominent in local government, five distinguished lawyers, three diplomats, two professors, four soldiers, three prominent businessmen and one heavily involved in charitable work. Seven were the descendants of Peers who had been Lords of Parliament in the pre-Union Scots Parliament; another five were the descendants of English Peers of similar vintage. I cannot remember the origin of the remaining one, but none had got their peerages for being kings' bastards.

Some may have made sizeable contributions to party funds. Debrett does not provide that kind of information, but neither does Debrett indicate how much various life barons may have contributed. On behalf of my fellow hereditary Peers, I deeply resent the slur cast on them and proliferated by the media. Most of us have great respect for the achievements of our predecessors, and few things make us more angry than slurs on their characters and integrity. I dare say not every member of the Government would like to have his predecessors examined too closely, but that is a game two could play at if we were prepared to sink so low. It is a pity that the Government have seen fit to sink to the spite and meanness evinced both in their White Paper and during the Second Reading of their Bill in another place.

Should the Royal Commission turn out to be a truly impartial body it might consider keeping a sensible number of hereditary Peers to be elected on the lines along which the Scots Peers themselves elected 16 of their number to represent them in this House between 1707 and 1964. It was an excellent system because it weeded out very successfully anyone who was useless or undesirable, or who was not prepared to attend regularly. I enlarged on the workings of the Scottish Peers' election in the debate on reform of this House last October. I shall not weary your Lordships again with the details, but I shall make a submission of them to the Royal Commission for its consideration.

4.20 p.m.

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the speech of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and indeed all the speeches that have already been made in this debate. The two most outstanding, if my colleagues will allow me to say so, were those made at the outset by my noble friend Lord Cranborne and the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

All the speeches started to some extent with a recognition of the so-called "illegitimacy" of this House, founded in the first place upon the antiquity and eccentricity of the hereditary principle. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, presented a vigorous defence of that which shows that it need not be accepted at face value.

The second reason given is the existence of a so-called permanent blocking majority for the Right. That point also is often widely overstated. The fact is that if those two features are features of illegitimacy, it is very strange that they have been tolerated for so long. If they are as intolerable as they are said to be, why have they been tolerated for so long? It is because each of them has been exaggerated; because governments, for example, have only occasionally felt it necessary to exercise the powers that they have to override this House on specific occasions.

The predominant reason for their toleration, again as has been made manifest in earlier speeches, is because it is far from easy to improve legitimacy in a way that amounts to improvement. How can it be said with confidence that nomination is more theoretically legitimate than heredity? On the other hand, the further we move towards an elected element in this House the more we risk further increasing the powers of dictatorship and diminishing our chances to check the elective dictatorship for which this House exists.

Curiously, it is the very "illegitimacy" of which we speak which has constrained this House for so long from pressing its role too far. This House has been unwilling to test or risk its authority beyond what is tolerable. That is a strikingly good example of the balance provided in our constitution, if not in many others, of the "conventions of the constitution".

Even so, my noble friend is anxious to promote the case for reform. I see why; because, I, too, wish to get away from these slurs and criticisms. But I am not sure that I share his confidence that the changes that may take place will necessarily improve the performance of the present structure. He was too modest in defending the virtues of the present structure. I can speak as someone who was leader of the other place for a short time and had some experience in other respects. How could the other place possibly survive without the impact made by this House on the quality of our legislation? Speaking as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, I wish that this House sometimes had a part to play in improving the Finance Bills rather than leaving them entirely to the jousting of the Finance Bill Standing Committee. The quality of debate in this House has been demonstrated by the quality of this debate so far—until I rose to my feet. So we need to be extremely careful before we tamper with these institutions.

Where is the mischief to which we are directing our energies? The only manifest mischief is the eccentricity of our composition. Yet it is just that which above all imposes the necessary constitutional restraint. If we are to be given more legitimacy, if that can be designed, I shall certainly expect us to be given more power rather than less. I entirely agree with my noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord Cranborne as well as with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon that the proposals for reducing existing powers would be quite unacceptable.

The question is how the Royal Commission, the Select Committee and this House will give more legitimacy, more substance and more style to this place. Ironically, I fancy that the real task facing the Royal Commission will be to come as close as it can to reproducing the style, spirit and substance of the present House, granted the removal of the element of illegitimacy.

Chapter 8 of the Government's White Paper comes close to acknowledging a large part of that case, though not in so many words. In that White Paper the advantages of elected membership are clearly seen, however tentatively, to be less than those of nomination. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, demonstrated in detail the dangers that may arise if this House were dominated by the elected element in the same way as the other place. I was struck by the reminder that many years ago, when Lord Home put forward his proposals for reform, he suggested that the Chamber should be two-thirds elected. I am glad that the Government, in the White Paper, see those proposals as too radical. Lord Home was probably ignoring his own advice. He was fond of echoing a statement by Lord Balfour that "democracy is government by explanation"; that is not government by whipping. By that standard, this House is significantly more democratic than the other place.

How are we to retain the good institutions of this place? One way would be the survival of what has come to be known as "Lord Weatherill's compromise", on the basis that rien ne dure comme le provisoire. I am not sure that that will necessarily happen. If it did, it would be a further example of the benefits of incremental rather than fundamental change. It might be a less than surprising result of reform fatigue. It may be a place where we could stop at a different point from where we might otherwise have stopped. To that extent it is an advance.

I know that my noble friend Lord Wakeham will be looking for other ways of finding a broader basis of legitimacy. It is a good augury that the Royal Commission will meet not only under his chairmanship, but also will hold its first meeting on St. David's Day. I join the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon in his commendation of ex officio membership. It is an obviously successful precedent. It has been successful in the case of the Law Lords and the Bench of Bishops and could well be extended in a suitably broad-based ecclesiastical way to other faiths, Churches and even other people.

The question is who to add of that kind. It must be somebody who is not too busy, not too short-lived in his office, not too responsive to the party whip and who has the necessary degree of independence. If the Bishops and the Law Lords have done as well as they have, busy as they are, we should not rule out other people as well. Lord Mayors may be too short lived. Vice-Chancellors are not unrepresented here already. But we could look to the presidents of the TUC and CBI and similar categories.

Indirect election will be a better alternative than direct election, particularly if those elected in that way are given a long enough term of life to feel free from the restraint of the Whips hovering in the background. That will be particularly so if they are not elected on the form of electoral lists chosen by party bosses.

Two problems give me cause for concern. One is the age factor.. I am told that the current average age in this House is 67. If we were all of that age it would indeed be a terrible place. But we are hugely enlivened by the presence of the "golden oldies". I see one of them smiling at me in the form of my noble friend Lord Renton and another in the form of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. But the place is also enlivened by the presence of the young hereditaries.

How are we to retain this diversity of age structure? We should certainly reject the concept of ageism. The Royal Commission should look carefully at some way of replacing the young hereditaries. It is extremely hard to reproduce them except by natural means and that is going to be ruled out. Will it be possible to find special seats for the young, such as university seats or seats to which they can be nominated provided they are under the age of 36, or seats sponsored by independent radio stations? I deliberately choose eccentric ideas. That is the way I believe we need to go.

The real question is how we are to reproduce the qualities that have made this House so successful— those of independence, courage, wisdom and vitality— and to do so in a way that will give us, the Commons and the nation sufficient confidence in our role in the future to maintain and, if possible, increase our present powers.

4.29 p.m.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, will always be listened to, for many reasons, just one being his great service to the nation as Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am glad that he rejected the concept of an age limit. A young man from the other place said to me the other day, "Aren't you a bit old in there?". He should come and listen to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, the noble and. learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, and the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, not to mention many others. I am therefore glad that that argument has been rejected.

I recall that it was said of a famous philosopher—I believe it was Immanuel Kant; if not, I am sure I shall be, corrected—that he started from both ends of the road at once and never met himself in the middle. I start from three ends of the road. I taught academic politics for some years before the war at Christchurch, Oxford, first with a Conservative person and then a Labour person. In those days the House of Lords was a kind of constitutional anomaly which we discussed in an abstract way. Later, in the Labour Party, of which I have been a member for some 62 years, the House of Lords was regarded as an obstacle to progress. Those are two starting points. The third is that I have been a Member of this House for 53 years, and I have found this to be a wonderful place.

The noble Baroness, Lady Strange, said recently that this House is a perfect place. I would not go so far as to say that, but like so many other noble Lords who have been here any length of time, I love this place and I regard its services to the nation as being beyond argument. Certainly, in the past 50 years nobody has been able to point to any harm it has done. One person stated that it delayed the abolition of capital punishment for eight years. That may be so, but let us think of the harm that has been done by other institutions, not too far away. By and large, I believe that this House has performed a great service to the nation. In that sense, it has to be taken most seriously when we talk about altering its whole character.

Considering this House from my experience, one is bound to be biased in its favour. In my view, the debates here are the most intellectual in the world. I do not believe that anyone has disputed that fact. At any rate, nobody has been able to point to debates elsewhere which are better than ours. This House has not only an intellectual quality, but many wonderful Members, many of them, but not all, life Peers. The debates have an inherent decency which attract people from all over the world. In my opinion, that owes something—not just a little—to the hereditary Peers. I am not paying a half-hearted compliment to the hereditary Peers; I am saying that they have been of fundamental importance to the history of this place. Of course, there are other famous individuals here, but the whole tradition of this House has depended upon the continuity which has been sustained by the hereditary Peers.

This House has a Christian flavour which I do not think can be found in any other legislature of which I know. That is not its dominant flavour; nevertheless, it is strong. That applies, obviously, pre-eminently to the Bishops but also to the hereditary Peers. It can be illustrated by the house of Cecil, represented by the noble Viscount the former Leader of the Opposition. Those qualities which belong to the present House cannot just be thrown away because of a certain appeal to the man in the pub.

Nevertheless, one has to admit that there is no resisting the abstract argument that a man or a woman is not entitled to play a part in the legislature of this country because his or her father was a Member of this House. So, in the end, the House must be reformed, and we now approach these proposals. Nobody who believes in democracy, with all its imperfections, can resist the argument that reform must come.

Thirty years ago, as Leader of this House, I brought forward a proposal, the brainchild of Henry Burrows, an old friend of mine and a Clerk at the Table. We used to play golf together at Rye. Whenever I missed a putt, he would come up to me afterwards and say, "You do believe in the Two-Writ Plan, don't you?" That was rather upsetting. However, Henry Burrows produced that plan, which proposed that the hereditary Peers of first generation could come and speak here but not vote. That would preserve the tradition and continuity of this great Chamber. I still hope that somebody will bring that proposal forward, with more contemporary relevance. If not, I shall do so myself. I still believe that that is the best solution. However, it may well be that that is not adopted.

Then we have the deal. We have not heard much about the deal up until now. It sounds to me to be the best of a bad job. If I was an hereditary Peer, I would rather that some emerged from the deal than none. Therefore, I hope that the deal will go through. There are many complications. It seems to be dependent upon all sorts of strange, hypothetical conditions. I am not sure that it will pass through as easily as I hope.

In a year or two from now, there will not be many hereditary Peers remaining here, and much will be lost by that fact. However, that is bound to happen. It is, perhaps, like someone having an operation. One cannot rejoice at the fact of having an operation, but it may be inevitable. I hope and believe that in all the discussions regarding this House everyone who has ever been a Member of it—even the newest Members—will bear in mind that they are discussing something of which they will always be proud.