Orders of the Day — PARLIAMENT (No. 2) BILL

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd February 1969.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale 12:00 am, 3rd February 1969

I do not know. However, they might be more innocently engaged there than at the Bank of England. Perhaps that is the finest argument for the whole contraption we have been offered. If it provided innocent employment for ex-Governors of the Bank of England, it would be quite an achievement.

However, that is not my main point. It is no good arguing about the fact, since one can see it standing out in the speech of my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and no one can deny it, that, in the end, if a crisis comes and if a vote arrives on a major matter of principle, it is on the votes of these cross-benchers in another place that all eyes will be fixed.

We could have a national crisis with fierce controversy in the House of Commons. The matter is then referred to the other place. Momentous issues may be at stake. We may have a situation, where, just as in the Suez and Munich crises, parties and, indeed, families are deeply divided. At that stage, everyone is waiting to see what is to be the verdict of the House of Lords.

But the House of Lords may not only settle the issue temporarily. It is no good the Government saying that the House of Lords could settle it only for six months. A matter of a few weeks may be involved. There have been many important legislative Measures which Governments of all kinds have required to get through Parliament within days, even within a single day. Could not such a Measure be settled, in effect, permanently by the cross-benchers in the House of Lords? So, in the midst of a great national crisis, with the country aflame, with everyone having forgotten who these cross-benchers are, what would we hear as the final verdict on such great issues of national policy? We would hear a falsetto chorus from these political castrati. They would be the final arbiters of our destiny in our new constitution.

What an extraordinary arrangement to propose. I say nothing about other extraordinary features, such as the cash question. Listening to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, it seemed to me that this was at least partially disposed of, although I am not sure that I heard him aright. I thought that he referred to the future and said that he was keeping an open mind. Perhaps it was "open hand". I am not sure. It may be that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, who is really the father of this proposal, as we know, has dealt with this matter in another of his proposals and that by 1992 they will all be getting half pay anyway.

Nobody can seriously think that these proposals are a proper constitutional device for dealing with the problems which we face. We cannot talk about modernisation when what we are offered is a Heath Robinson House of Lords, a contraption which will fall to pieces in any crisis, which will be laughed out of court on such an occasion and which it would be better for us to laugh out of court now. That would be the best way to deal with it.

The Government may say, as they have said to me so powerfully on some occasions, "If that is your view, what is your alternative? Why do you not put forward an alternative? Why do you not suggest something to put in its place?" I will make a suggestion if the Government think that it will help. I hope that it is not introducing too jarring a note, but why do the Government not carry out what they put in their party election manifesto about it? They said that they would take away the powers of the House of Lords. Settle that first and then we could deal with the question—and I agree that there are many differences between us about it—of what to put in its place.

I am a fervent abolitionist. The notion that we cannot do away with the House of Lords because of the revising requirements is quite wrong. We could remodel the life of Parliament itself so as to deal with these problems. It might take a little time to do that, but it could be done, and in the meantime, particularly if the Government are worried about the next two years and particularly because they do not even appear to have got the accommodation out of the bargain which they had hoped for in the first place, they could revert to the party programme.

When in trouble, that is always a good thing to do. Why do they not do that? It would cause much more enthusiasm in the country and it would be a much more expeditious way of dealing with the matter. It would also save a great deal of Parliamentary time. If we are to be presented with this Bill, many of us will think that it is our constitutional duty to argue every Clause, and in that respect, if in no other, this is a Bill which offers wide opportunities.

The proposal which I am making to the Government is perfectly serious. They may ask, "Why did you not tell us earlier?" But we did tell them. We have been telling them for weeks, for months, for years. We have been telling them ever since this proposal came forward. Indeed, this was another of the jokes which Lord Butler enjoyed so much in the House of Lords.

Lord Butler said, "This little Bill, which is to do us"—that is, the Tories— "so much good, and which will set up the Tory Party for the next 30 years or so, is a true lineal descendant of the Life Peerage Bill which I introduced in 1957 and which was then bitterly opposed by Labour Members, who voted against the whole Measure. I told them then that if only we could get in that thin end of the wedge we would get the rest of the wedge in later"—he did not put it quite in these words. "Here is the rest of the wedge. Now let us use it as fast as we can to make sure that we establish in this country"—and here, again, I am not using his exact words—" a new kind of assembly, a new kind of second Chamber. We will make it respectable, sedate to the point of stuffy; torpid; quick to prevent any removal of injustice, but longanimous in the toleration of mischief; a perpetual encumbrance across the path of everyone wishing to act boldly; a standing incitement to those who do not wish to act at all."

I therefore say that we should kill the Bill now if we can; that, if we cannot kill it now, we should kill it in Committee; but that, at any rate, we should prevent the country from being burdened in this modernising age by such an anachronistic and absurd institution as is proposed, not surprisingly, by the collusion between the two Front Benches.