Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:24 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative 12:24 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, on his speech and the Motion he has tabled. He has been fortunate to find time for it. I thank him most sincerely for his extremely kind remarks about me. They are greatly appreciated.

It has been noticeable with the relatively new practice of valedictory speeches that they are often attached to debates that have nothing whatever to do with them, but that is certainly not so in this case. I am here because of the significant constitutional change whereby it was decided that Members of the House of Lords could retire—after centuries and centuries when that was not so. I therefore find myself here today, having reached the conclusion that I ought to retire.

I should make it clear why. I am absolutely convinced, as many others have been, that the House of Lords is too large. The Lord Speaker has initiated a series of actions, including the reports from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on how it can be reduced and that programme of reduction is now proceeding through various people retiring or by natural causes and so on. I have come to the conclusion that since I have always believed that one’s vote should follow one’s voice and that, if possible, actions should follow one’s vote, I should take action as part of the campaign that has been initiated to reduce the size of the House. That is my only reason for retiring, but I should also say that it would be quite absurd if existing Members decided that they should retire, for the reasons I have given, and we then find the numbers creeping up again. The crucial outstanding point in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is that once we have reduced the size there should be a cap on that size, regardless of complications with regard to the royal prerogative.

I was first elected to the House of Commons as the Member for Worthing on 15 October 1964. I had not stood before and, despite the assurances of my agent, I was very worried about what the outcome would be; in the event, I was elected with a majority of 18,883. I am glad to say that while that majority somewhat declined since, my former constituency, which was split up, is now represented by two outstanding Members of Parliament: West Worthing by Sir Peter Bottomley, and East Worthing and Shoreham by Mr Tim Loughton. I am happy to say that my former constituents are very fortunate to have such good Members of Parliament and very clever to return them with what are, even now, extremely large majorities.

I served in the Commons from 1964 to 1997— 33 years—and then in your Lordships’ House from 1997 until now, which is 21 years. That is a total of some 54 years and one naturally looks back at some events in that period. One that stands out is the problem with Rhodesia, over which I had some difference of opinion with my constituents culminating in a public meeting of 1,200 people. I do not think that kind of thing happens nowadays but, at all events, that was one problem. Another problem was with the Ugandan Asians. I was in government at that time and we had serious trouble with Mr Idi Amin. Various solutions were proposed, such as that we might have a better relationship with him if we made him a field-marshal in the British Army. That solution was rejected but Ted Heath set up a very small Cabinet committee consisting of Robert Carr, as Home Secretary, Paul Bryan and me to make recommendations. We came out by saying very strongly that the refugees from the crisis in that country should be admitted to this country. That has had considerable economic benefit to this country and it is something of which I am rather proud.

I made my maiden speech in the other place on the plight of old age non-pensioners who had been left out of the original scheme, but nothing happened until I arrived in the Treasury, when I was able to rectify that injustice and make sure that at least they got that part of the pension not been covered by national insurance contributions.

Many things in political life are transitory, so one inevitably thinks about what one has done which might pass the test of time. I notice three in particular. One is decimalisation. I was put in charge of it on arrival in the Treasury in 1970. Ian Macleod had advocated a 10 bob unit. Jim Callaghan had argued for a pound unit, on the grounds of the international prestige of the pound, but a few weeks later he devalued the pound, which rather undermined his argument, and I was left with the problem when I arrived at the Treasury. We went ahead with the situation that we inherited and I think, on the whole, it has worked pretty well. Indeed, although the latest coin is very attractive compared with the ones I introduced, the situation has been resolved quite satisfactorily.

More important was the huge taxation reform I brought in with Ian Macleod by abolishing purchase tax and selective employment tax and replacing them with VAT. That has certainly stood the test of time. The basic rate is now double, or rather more, what it was when I introduced it. We went for a single positive rate with zero rating for essential items so that the tax would not be regressive. The problem with that was that, as I carried the reform through the House of Commons, endless amendments went down stating that this or that item should be zero rated, but we survived that, with one exception—children’s clothes and shoes. I see that some Members opposite remember that. An amendment had been put down by one of my colleagues to zero-rate it and I stood up to make my usual speech saying that it was a universal, wide-ranging scheme and so on, and then I received a note from the Whip saying, “Do you realise that everyone on this side is at the Royal Garden Party?”, so I succeeded in announcing that there would be a special inquiry into this item, and as a result children’s shoes and clothes are zero rated, which they would not have been before.

I am conscious of the time. In the Lords I went straight on to the Front Bench when I left the Commons and served there for a period in opposition against Lady Hollis of Heigham, whom we all greatly miss as she recently left us. It is a huge advantage in opposition to have someone against you who knows all about the subject. Indeed, she knew more about the subject than anyone else in the world. It was a very enjoyable period in my political life. I sat on a number of committees, including the Committee on the Speakership, the Committee on the Conventions on the Relationship between the two Houses of Parliament and various other ad hoc committees, which I enjoyed. I have been particularly engaged with the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which was initiated by my noble friend Lord Cormack and supported by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, both of whom are in their place. I think we are very grateful for the work which that all-party committee has done, which has certainly improved the constitutional changes that have been made. I hope there will be further constitutional changes in future.

I think it is true to say that your Lordships’ House is probably more effective now than it has been at any time in its history. It is making an outstanding contribution, it has taken on a great deal of the legislative burden from the other place—which I do not think is fully appreciated—and, generally speaking, it operates extremely well. It is an extraordinary place. The mass of expertise and experience that your Lordships devote to business of the House is very important. It is also a quite extraordinarily friendly place, which I have greatly appreciated.

In conclusion, I thank very much all the staff of the House—the badge messengers, the staff in the catering department and so on. If I may, I will say how grateful I am for the support I have received throughout from my wife and family. That is very important; one cannot do a good job here or in the Commons without it. I thank noble Lords for the kind remarks that I have received, and I appreciate very much the opportunity to say this today.