Constitutional Reform Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 13th July 2004.

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Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative 5:45 pm, 13th July 2004

I listened with rapt attention and considerable admiration to the opening of this debate by my noble friend Lord Kingsland. I listened with similar respect and attention to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. However, I wonder whether their generosity had not led them to forget rather too soon the events which preceded 12 June. Those events sowed some widespread seeds of deep mistrust both of the Government and of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor himself. I must briefly remind noble Lords of why that was so.

In my view, since they came into office the Government have handled your Lordships' House in a thoroughly hamfisted way. They were cavalier in their dismissal of a promise which persuaded hereditary Peers to agree to depart from the House on the basis that a reasonable settlement would be made before anything further was done. As far as I can recall, the noble and learned Lord who now sits on the Woolsack dismissed it in a rather lighthearted manner by saying that it was a temporary arrangement which no one could really expect to last. But that was a very different standpoint from that adopted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, whose name, surprisingly, has not been mentioned in the debate so far. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, considered that a promise was a promise, and so he stood in the way of the Government.

My other charge against the Government is that they have been singularly na-ve in their attempt to wrap all this up in the garments of respectability, saying that it is a well thought out plan of constitutional reform. I do not really think that it was anything of the kind. Moreover, a shock was administered to the Government when they found that neither the Prime Minister nor the noble and learned Lord himself could wave a wand and cause his office to disappear. To get out of the situation created by the honourable conduct of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, the Government called back the Lord Chancellor from the Dome—where, incidentally, he was winning very few laurels—because he had just those qualifications for the job of the present post that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, lacked. The obedience and flexibility of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor commended him to the Prime Minister.

I question the idea that a Secretary of State would be able to resist the pressures of the Home Office. As I said the other day, although the noble and learned Lord did not take my words seriously, I believe that he and his department would make a very easy meal for the Home Secretary.

I cannot forget the cavalier treatment of a certain binding promise which was made. The noble and learned Lord affected to treat it as if it was time-expired.

We have now had the experience of seeing the noble and learned Lord sitting happily on the Woolsack, still determined, at the end of his term, to destroy the office. I agree with what was said about this by my noble and learned friend Lord Howe. He expressed surprise that the noble and learned Lord, having enjoyed the office, could so easily then destroy it. If the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was right in what he said—that we are simply arguing about the name and title of the office—I cannot see why the Government should not accept that.

I do not think that the noble and learned Lord can be all that surprised at the chilly reception given to this Bill and which, indeed, has been accorded to him for his part in it. He is perhaps the first holder of his office who has thoroughly enjoyed eating his cake, and now relishes destroying it.

As I have said, I find it quite impossible to dismiss from my mind all the events which preceded 12 June. My one fear is that, when the Bill goes back to the House of Commons, the calm attitude and reasoned compromise displayed by my noble friend Lord Kingsland and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, will not in any way be echoed by the Members and Ministers who sit in that House. I do not share the hopes expressed by my noble friend and I am very sorry for it.