Sir George leads attack on Government on The House Of Lords
11 Nov 1999
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): If one wanted an epitaph to the Government's management of the legislative programme and their record on constitutional reform, one could do no better than look at the amendments before the House this afternoon, hours before the Government plan to prorogue. Some badly managed business over the past few days concludes with this half-completed business on the Lords today.

The Third Reading of the Bill, as amended in another place, was on the Thursday before last -- nearly a fortnight ago. We could have dealt with the amendments on Monday and Tuesday of last week. The House finished its business early on those days after an interesting but perhaps less challenging debate on whether Acts of Parliament should be printed on vellum or on paper. That would have given more time for the other Bills that we have been dealing with in the past week.

Instead, after those two quiet days we have had guillotines or announcements about them almost every day and an unseemly rush to complete the Government's business, which has at times degenerated into farce. We should be grateful that the Bill was not drafted by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who tabled 800 Government amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill in another place.

The Government have held back consideration of this important amendment until the end of the Session as part of some crude pressure on the second Chamber. They invite us to deal with it now, as the lights dim before Prorogation. It was only thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) that we were able to debate the issue the first time round.

It is possible, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has said, that the second Chamber, whose powers and composition are affected by all the amendments, may last for some time, yet we discuss it in this unsatisfactory way. With the hasty consideration of all the other Bills over the past few days, I have to say that this is no way to manage the legislative programme.

This is a Bill without vision or purpose, without principle or strategy. It is an attack not so much on privilege, but on wisdom, independence, duty and public service. The Bill makes way not for something that is better and permanent, but for something that is inferior and temporary. The Government have embarked on a constitutional journey without a compass. When they were getting lost, they decided to throw overboard many of the more experienced sailors. They then had second thoughts and despatched a lifeboat, manned by Captain Weatherill, to rescue some of them. Then they rang down for Admiral Wakeham to see if he could tell them where to go. That is no way to reform the British constitution.

Mr. Gummer: Does it strike my right hon. Friend as curious that all previous Governments bent on reforming the House of Lords, led by experienced politicians, have recognised that it was their constitutional duty to propose to the House of Commons an alternative? This is the first Government to produce a reform Bill that proposes no alternative. Is it just possible that all the others were right in their judgment of constitutional propriety and that this Government are wholly wrong?

Sir George Young: I agree with my right hon. Friend. He makes an interesting point, which sits neatly against that made by the Leader of the House. She asserted that breaking the process into two made it more likely that stage 2 would be reached. One could equally forcefully put precisely the opposite proposition -- that after completing stage 1 and disposing of the hereditary peers, stage 2 becomes less likely.

The amendment deals with the so-called Weatherill peers. The hereditary peers, who we are told are an offence to the democratic process, conducted their elections during the past few weeks with a dignity and decorum that has so far been absent from the process of choosing a Labour candidate for the mayor of London; a process allegedly conducted by those more familiar with the democratic process.

The electoral college in the amendment is all the hereditary peers, and most will not be in the transitional House. Frankly, they deserve better than the charmless "thank you and goodbye" from those on the Government Benches in the other place, with the emphasis, as it was, on the goodbye rather than the thank you. I read in The Sunday Times on 7 November that a spokesman for Baroness Jay said:

"They'll be getting a glass of champagne when the House prorogues. What more do they want after 800 years?"

On behalf of the Opposition, I want to place on the record our deep appreciation of the work of those hereditary peers who are not covered by the amendment. They and their predecessors have a record of public service to Britain of which they should be proud and for which we should be grateful. We are sad to see so many distinguished parliamentarians leaving the upper House, including scores of people who have given dedicated voluntary services over many years. Time and again, they have stood up for common sense and the rights of the weak against powerful Governments of all colours, and we saw them do that again last Monday.

History will judge those peers better than fashion now does. Parliament will be the lesser for their going. They deserve better than the graceless and charmless farewell from the Leader of the upper House. If the new House has a shred of the decency, courtesy, independence and open-mindedness of the old, it will be the better for it.

Angela Smith (Basildon): The hon. Gentleman's comments go to the heart of the Opposition's misunderstanding of the matter. Labour Members have never criticised those active individual peers who have given a great deal of service; it is because they have no legitimacy that we have criticised them.

Sir George Young: An elementary matter of courtesy should be discharged by those in the other place. That was omitted and I was happy to put that fact on the record on behalf of the Opposition.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: I should like to make some progress.

I doubt that the Leader of the House enjoyed delivering the speech that she just made, inviting, as she did, her right hon. and hon. Friends to vote down a clear manifesto commitment. Last week, I heard hon. Members ask where the manifesto commitment for the reductions in benefits for the disabled was. They were referred to some rather general commitments to reform the welfare state, which persuaded enough of them to support the Government.

Today, however, Labour Members must have listened to the President of the Council -- a title that has survived modernisation -- with some incredulity. The manifesto commitment could not have been clearer:

"As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the rights of the hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute."

Now they will not. Hereditary peers will be sitting and voting in the other place in the next Parliament despite the efforts of the people's party, and that Parliament will be the better served by their presence. Unlike life peers, they will owe nothing to the patronage of anyone living for their place there. Labour Members want to replace time-honoured privilege with modern patronage. They are a party which hates the past, but which is afraid to shape the future.

Many of my hon. Friends will have seen The Sunday Times last Sunday, which stated:

"Blair wants the Committee on Lords reform to stop discussing policy. He wants it to start discussing tactics. Denis Carter lost his temper. `Tactics! Tactics! All he thinks about are tactics! He's got no policy at all!"

Policy he may not have; patronage he has. The Prime Minister has created 171 peers in less than two and a half years -- more, as we have heard, than my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) managed in seven years. One third of all life peers have been appointed by the Prime Minister.

One quarter of the new House will owe its presence there to the Prime Minister. Is that the sort of second Chamber that we want?

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that despite what he and his colleagues suggest is the unreasonable exercise of patronage, there are still more Conservative life peers than Labour life peers. This reflects the point that I made to him earlier.

Sir George Young: I hope that the Leader of the House is not concluding that we want a house of patronage, which would be deeply damaging to Parliament.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has said, we should not be dealing with this amendment at all. If the Government wanted to reform the second Chamber, they should have done so rationally and thoroughly. If they had made faster progress -- as we urged them to -- we would have the report of the royal commission before us, and we could have dealt with the whole matter sensibly and coherently. We could have dealt with stage 1 and stage 2 together -- demolition and reconstruction. We could then have judged whether what the Government proposed was better or worse than what we have at the moment.

The Times put it very well in a leader on 15 May, which said:

"We see no sufficient justification for a measure which merely abolishes the participation of the hereditary peers before the composition of the new second Chamber has been determined."

Mr. Campbell-Savours: In years to come, when the hereditary peers have had time to reflect on why, in the early 1990s, the Labour party suddenly took a greater interest in the question of reform, they would do well to reflect on a few votes in the House of Lords in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as on the community charge or poll tax. Labour activists were incensed that these people came to London uniquely to vote in favour of their own self-interest. When they reflect on these matters, they might then consider why this has happened.

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question -- should a revised second Chamber have the right to overthrow a manifesto commitment of the elected Chamber? That is the implication of what he has said. Even if one concedes his argument, it does not deal with my point. We should have reconstruction at the same time as demolition. The Government's failure to approach this task in a logical and considered way is typical of their approach to the constitution, which they treat with cavalier disregard.

Mr. Mackinlay: It will not have escaped the notice of the House that the Conservatives never proposed reform of the upper House -- at least not on the scale that we are talking about now. The right hon. Gentleman said that we should wait for the royal commission. Will he give an undertaking, on behalf of the Opposition, that they will support the recommendations of the royal commission, and will be prepared to do so in the Lobby? If not, it will underline the point that there is not much prospect of getting consensus and legislation for the next stage.

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman asks me to give a commitment which I very much doubt his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would have given had he asked her. We are delighted that the royal commission has been appointed, and we await its deliberations with interest. However, it is not right to say that we have not reformed the House of Lords -- we introduced life peerages in the 1950s.

Mr. Bercow: It seems as if the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) misrepresents the thinking of Conservative Members of Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most distinguished Conservative philosopher of all time, Edmund Burke, was right to say that the state which lacks the means of change lacks the means of its conservation, but that the criterion according to which we should judge the desirability of change is whether it is practically effective, and not on the basis of some abstract theory?

Sir George Young: I agree entirely.

In the amendment, we see the 92 Weatherill peers as the hereditary grit in the constitutional oyster, provoking the Government to produce a pearl of constitutional reform. Indeed, we need to press the Government to move to stage 2 -- proper, genuine reform. We may then have not a house of patronage, but something better than what we have lost.

The amendment keeps in public service a number of people who would otherwise have been lost, bringing with them continuity, experience and judgment.

4.30 pm

I disagree with what the hon. Member for Thurrock said about the by-election arrangements. I welcome the proposals on the replacement of Weatherill peers who die. That will happen from the end of the first Session of the next Parliament if stage 2 has not been enacted by then. Until then, places will be filled by the nearest losers in last week's ballot. The ballot for the 15 Deputy Speakers disproved the assertion that the House is run by Conservatives for Conservatives. The top two were a Cross Bencher and a Labour peer.

Originally, the Government said that by-elections should be left to Standing Orders. That would have meant that the remaining hereditary peers could have been allowed to wither on the vine and we could then have seen a quango House created by stealth. If the transitional Chamber lasts and is not to be wholly appointed, we need some means of replacing the elected peers. The amendment means that if the Government subsequently want to knock out peers who are elected, they will have to do so by primary legislation in the full glare of public debate.

In the meantime, the Bill has been a distraction for the second Chamber, whose main task has been to hold this Government to account and scrutinise this Session's massive legislative programme. Worse, the Government have sought to set House of Commons against House of Lords when the real battle today is between Parliament and the Executive. The two Chambers are allies in that battle, not enemies.

This is all being done in the name of democracy and modernising Parliament. However, the Government are not modernising Parliament but marginalising it. Parliament needs not modernisation but strengthening. As this Session draws to a close, we see a Government losing control of their legislative programme. We see a Government who never had control of the constitutional programme. They are in disarray as they choose a candidate for mayor and ignore the English dimension of devolution. They are in disarray on the second Chamber and proportional representation, on which they are walking away from their manifesto commitment to hold a referendum -- all this from a party that has the nerve to lecture the country about joined-up government.

Tonight, we should say goodbye not to the hereditary peers but to this Government's irresponsible approach to the British constitution.

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