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 Mr Herbert Morrison Mr Herbert Morrison , Lewisham East 12:00 am, 10th November 1947

If we were going in for a Bill to abolish the House of Lords, I think it would have been feasible to object either that their Lordships' conduct had not been so outrageous as to make that inevitable, or that we had not got the mandate for that purpose. But we are not proposing abolition. What we have a clear mandate for is to take steps to prevent obstruction by their Lordships' House of the will of this House. That is what we are doing. However, I fully appreciate that some of my hon. Friends would probably like to terminate another place forthwith. There is no harm in going on hoping and agitating to that effect. If we had proposed to abolish the House of Lords, I could have understood the complaint that we were embarking on big constitutional changes in the middle of an economic crisis. But this Bill is the rational Bill of a rational Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rationing Government."] I would not expect Members opposite to be authorities on what is rational and what is not. This Bill is related to the facts of the situation, and the practical case for it is, I submit, conclusive. What we are doing is necessary to ensure that the work of Parliamentary Government is carried on without unnecessary interruption and constitutional crisis. As I said on another occasion, this is not a Bill to precipitate a constitutional crisis; it is a Bill to prevent a constitutional crisis arising.

In the present Parliament, the House of Lords has done useful work as a revising Chamber and has inserted useful Amendments in some of the important Measures which we have passed in the last two Sessions. I have, however, noticed among the praise which has been bestowed upon the other House in various quarters some tendency to give them credit for having passed the various nationalisation Measures which have been sent up to them. It was, of course, an accepted convention of the Constitution, soon after the passing of the Reform Act 1832, that the Lords ought to pass any Bill desired by the nation, and that the Lords ought, in general, to consent to a Bill passed by the House of Commons as representing the will of the nation, even if their Lordships did not approve of the Measure. It would have been a complete reversal of well-established conventions if the House of Lords had attempted to question the principles underlying any of the important Measures which have been sent to them in the last two Sessions of Parliament. The Government are, therefore, not unappreciative to their Lordships for the improvement which they have made in some of the Measures we have passed; but, in regard to the acceptance of these Measures, we merely note that their Lordships observed the proper conventions of Parliamentary Government in our country.

We have, however, no guarantee—none whatever—that, if matters were left as at present, a majority in the House of Lords would continue on every occasion to behave according to the established rules. The constitutional textbooks, written even before the end of the 19th century, all accepted the view that the House of Lords had by then become a revising Chamber. That eminent authority, Walter Bagehot, in his "English Constitution," written in 1867, described the constitutional position as follows: Since the Reform Act the House of Lords has become a revising and suspending House. It can alter Bills; it can reject Bills on which the House of Commons is not yet thoroughly in earnest—upon which the nation is not yet determined. Their veto is a sort of hypothetical veto. They say, 'We reject your Bill for this once or these twice, or even these thrice: but if you keep on sending it up, at last we won't reject it.' The House has ceased to be one of latent directors, and has become one of temporary rejectors and palpable alterers. Unfortunately, more than 50 years of practice and convention failed to prevent the House of Lords from kicking over the traces when it was faced with Liberal Government legislation in 1893 to 1895, and from 1906 onwards. Erskine May says in the 1912 edition of his "Constitutional History of England" (Vol. III, page 343)—and I have no doubt that he said it with truth—that: During the four years of the Parliament of 1906 no Government Measure, against the Third Reading of which the official Opposition voted in the House of Commons, passed into law. That is a pretty awful state of affairs, read in the light of what had been laid down earlier by Walter Bagehot.

What does that mean? It means that their Lordships' House had elevated the official Opposition, the minority in this House to the position of having powers equivalent to those of the Government of the country—in fact, of having powers superior to the Government of the country. That, of course, endowed a minority in this House with the veto powers of a majority. I am not sure that it was not worse than the Security Council. It represents an impossible and indefensible situation to which we as a Government are not prepared to submit. [Interruption.] That is precisely the situation in which, for the remainder of this Parliament, the Opposition want to land this Government. They are not going to get their way, and we are not going to tolerate that situation, as indeed, was described with dramatic force by the Leader of the Liberal Party. Yet he is going to object to limiting the powers of the Lords today, he does not want the change we propose. He has turned his back on Liberal doctrines—