House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 10th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 3:48 pm, 10th January 2002

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, will forgive me if I do not follow him in his special scrutiny of the provisions for our homeland in Wales. But I may draw some comfort, perhaps, from the fact that the first three speakers in today's debate are all from the Principality, and out of the first five speakers yesterday, three were from Scotland. So there is some representation at least from both countries in the House as it is presently constituted, and there is that virtue in the present position.

Of course there are other virtues as well, which should not be overlooked. The right place from which to start was identified yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, when she drew attention to the much wider issue outside this specific debate relating to the considerable crisis of confidence in the parliamentary system. That is a view widely shared. Professor Anthony King, in a piece he wrote for the Economist's survey of the year ahead a few weeks ago, pointed out that,

"the main line of political division in Britain will lie, not between traditional right and left but between political class and the people, between all of 'us' and all of 'them'".

Having made that general point, it is important to understand where and how that dismay, that withdrawal of confidence, is at its most serious. I was surprised to see that analysed just after the debate in this House on the anti-terrorism Bill by a well-respected and, in this context, surprising witness, Hugo Young, in his column in the Guardian when he said this:

"What happened last week to the Anti-Terrorism Bill supplies a model . . . the House of Lords has shown itself far more willing than the Commons to bring the basic tools of democracy to bear on the making of big new law . . . Something important is being said about democracy when the only legislative chamber to perform the functions the people expect—deliberation, revision, improvement—contains not a single elected politician".

One has to start with that understanding. I refer also to the point made yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, when he drew attention to his appreciation of the debates in this House on that very Bill. I was struck by it myself. I believe that in no other assembly in the world does one see such an intense, purposeful concentration of a diversity of talent seeking the best answer to some difficult questions.

It is against that background that one has to set out in the search for the consensus which all the leading speakers have said we ought to seek. I refer to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and, of course, to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. I join him and others in regretting the fact that the Government appear to have chosen to discard the use of a Joint Committee of both Houses as the proper vehicle for seeking that consensus. I hope that they may yet repent of that unwise decision.

But even without that consensus there are large areas of common ground in the debate. The essential constitutional position is that it is the other place alone which disposes of power. This House, in a strictly advisory role, may propose how that power may be exercised and ask the other place to think again. But it is the other place that in the last resort has the power to decide. The Government have throughout—this, at least, is virtuous—acknowledged (I quote from the original White Paper, Cm 4183) that extreme care is necessary and is, indeed, of particular importance to ensure that the present balance between the two Houses is not disturbed.

The other thing that it is important to examine when considering the next step is the general acceptance—which surprised me at the outset of the debate years ago—of the present functions and powers of this House. The performance of this House is described in the original White Paper and in the background papers now before us in almost superlative terms. In the original White Paper the most valued features of the present House are summarised in epithets that I have never heard applied to any other institution. I refer to such epithets as "most valuable", "real expertise", "distinctive", "well-regarded", "distinguished" and "particularly valuable". Those were the tributes paid to the work of this House and to the way in which it works by the Government at the outset of the debate. They are all echoed in the later papers now before us. The basic case made from the outset for this present round of discussions has always been the so-called lack of legitimacy of this House due to its anachronistic composition—the presence, in other words, of the hereditary element and, in the eyes of some people, of its Conservative majority.

However, in almost every other respect—this is the important feature that I want to underline—the Government have claimed and still claim to be ready to retain the advantages of the status quo. That is an important premise for our discussions. I do not dissent from that, nor does anyone who has spoken in the debate. The question before us now is, what more, if anything, needs to be done to enhance and consolidate the basic change; that is, the removal of the hereditaries? Most specifically, what, if anything, needs to be done to enhance and consolidate the legitimacy of this House given that it already commands, as Hugo Young pointed out, substantial respect among wide sections of our society?

Obviously, a legitimate question is raised—and is at the heart of the debate—by serious people who claim that the House would not command the authority that it should have in the absence of a substantial elected element. I do not doubt that many people argue that case sincerely. We were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that the opinion polls also point in that direction. However, I imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, will agree with those who say that opinion polls are not always infallible, bearing in mind the view that he and, indeed, I take on the question of capital punishment and many other questions where we do not go along with opinion polls.

I start from that analysis. The important principle then is how we set about looking for consensus on the next stage. To do that it is important to understand the history of how we arrived at where we are. We have not arrived at where we are by revolution or upheaval but by incremental steps, the importance of which was hardly recognised at the time. The introduction of life Peers in 1959 began a transformation of the House. The decision at the outset of part one of stage one to remove the hereditaries was another incremental step which was almost immediately followed by a third incremental step in the opposite direction—the deal arrived at between the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, my noble friend Lord Cranborne and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for the resurrection and survival of a substantial tranche of hereditary Peers. Those were three incremental steps. The baton has been passed smoothly from one reform to the next, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out in an article in the Sunday Times colour supplement in November 2000.

We have had enough continuity over the decade to secure the benefit of incremental change. We have borne in mind an observation that Winston Churchill once made about the shaping of the new Europe when he said that we are not designing a machine but nurturing a growing plant. I believe that that approach is the right one to adopt towards the reform of an institution which has proven itself as well as has this House.

Against that background what is my position? Despite the enthusiastic advocacy of those who take the opposite view, I have not been persuaded that this Chamber should contain any elected Members. Even if it were to do so, I am sure that Members of this House should not be salaried. The present allowance system, coupled, as others have pointed out, with the significant attraction of the title of "Lord"—which I myself should retain—works. It works with a degree of informality perhaps, but it sustains a better attendance in this Chamber, for example, than in the other place. It does so not least in conjunction with the absence of Standing Committees taking so much work away from this House.

There are positive reasons for taking that view. I refer to the two contributions to the debate that made that most clear. First, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford in a deeply moving speech pointed out, as did my noble friend Lord Norton, that we can be an effective, full-time House with part-time Members. As the right reverend Prelate said, noble Lords need him to be involved in his business in the community if he is to be of any value to the House. I agree with that sentiment absolutely and not just as regards those on the spiritual Bench. On all Benches this House needs people who cannot be here all the time. That is an important component of it.