Orders of the Day — Parliament Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th November 1947.

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Photo of Colonel Ralph Glyn Colonel Ralph Glyn , Abingdon 12:00 am, 10th November 1947

I do not wish to detain the House more than a few moments, but I venture to intervene because I think there are very few hon. Members who have had the experience that I have had of fighting three elections in one year on the question of House of Lords. That was in 1910. I mention that fact only because I do feel that at this time of national crisis this matter will, among some sections of the electorate, create a diversion of thought from that upon which thought and energy should be concentrated—the economic situation. Moreover, I feel that today the House is treating rather lightly a proposal to change our Constitution, and that at a time when, throughout all the world, we see the difficulties that are arising in the defence of democratic principles. As we understand those principles, it is essential to have two checks.

I have been long enough in this House to think that we have to accept blame for not having tackled reform of the House of Lords before. I regret it bitterly, because I think it is a great handicap. I believe that at no time was it so necessary to have a Second Chamber composed of people who would bring opinion, at once expert, unbiassed and detached—from the party point of view—to bear on our public life. In this House, as the Leader of the House said in moving the Second Reading of the Bill today, we are engaged in an ever-increasing volume of work, mostly concerned with economics and with the everyday affairs of men and women; and too little of our time is devoted to those things which are the test, surely, of all good Government, and which cannot be defined as purely material. That is why I believe that the time is so urgent that there should be a reform of the House of Lords.

I should like the Home Secretary, when he replies to the Debate tomorrow, to give us reasons why it has been consistently the policy of the Socialist Party to prevent the reform of the House of Lords whenever it has been proposed. I remember hearing the noble Lord, Lord Salisbury, introduce his scheme, and I remember the conclusions of the Bryce Committee. Why they were not followed up I do not know. Surely, however, it is obvious to everybody that we cannot attempt to change the constitution of this country by altering the powers without considering the status and composition of the Second Chamber that we should like to have. I am interested to notice on the Order Paper proposals for the reform of the Second Chamber attached to this proposal of the Government to alter the powers of the Second Chamber. I think there is hope there.

It is time that there was a committee or a conference called—and I should like to see it done before the close of the present Parliament—to consider what should be the composition of the House of Lords, or whatever the Second Chamber may be called. Whether it is to be a Lords Parliament—or whatever we like to call them—with a very reduced representation of hereditary peers in an ever-diminishing quantity, or whether it is to be in any way elected—which, as a matter of fact, unless it is a very small proportion, would be to the detriment of this House—I am absolutely confident that people throughout the world, who have looked to our Constitution as an example and a model of what democratic institutions should be, will look with great questioning on whether now, at all times, is the right moment to do what is now proposed.

Whilst I recognise and agree with the hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher), I think it is an entirely new and false doctrine to say that no Government can touch any form of legislation unless it has been previously announced at the time of the Election. Anything more ridiculous I have never heard. We are not all prophets. Those who composed "Let us Face the Future" cannot foretell what will crop up during the lifetime of a Parliament. Is it really contended that a Government of the day should not tackle this? Of course they must tackle it. It is the business of the Government to govern, and it is the business of the House of Commons to see that if a Government lose public confidence, as the Opposition believe, then everything should be done to force an issue.

One of the tragedies we are facing now is the overwhelming majority of the Government. I have been long enough in this House to see many Governments in danger more from the ferocious tail they carry than from any other cause. The best Governments are very often those who have to adapt their legislation to a strong Opposition, and it is then, and only then, that this House of Commons really functions. When a Government are supported by a very large majority, there is always the risk that certain elements in that majority may be forcing the pace against the better judgment of the more sober-minded statesmen composing that Government. That is the time, above all others, when the revising and delaying force of a Second Chamber is needed.

I have only intervened for these few minutes to say that I hope we shall hear from the Government that they are not averse from considering the reform of the House of Lords. For far too long the Second Chamber of this country has been put in a weak position, from one cause or another, because no political party has really faced the necessity of having a Second Chamber which will have the confidence of the country, and which will not derogate from the position of a purely elected House of Commons.