House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 3. 1960-1969: Reforms Attempted

by Peter Raina (Author)
©2014 Monographs XX, 974 Pages


Volume 3 of Peter Raina’s magisterial history covers the 1960s and draws on newly released documents. In astonishing detail, it traces new plans drawn up during the Macmillan-Wilson era to reform the House of Lords. ‘Mission impossible,’ a civil servant declared. But when, to remain a Commons MP, Tony Benn insisted on disclaiming an inherited peerage, he started off a fresh willingness to tackle old problems. The Peerages Act 1963 allowed peers the option of disclaimer and, at last, gave equal rights in the Upper House to Scottish and women inheritors.
A Labour government came in, and in 1967 gained the majority needed to embark on bold legislation. But it feared interference, so comprehensive plans were backed for changing the whole complexion of two-chamber politics. Led by Lord Shackleton and the intellectual Richard Crossman, schemes were devised and inter-party talks got under way – at first in a spirit of cooperation. But had the party elites listened to their fiery back-benchers? When a bill was introduced into parliament, the scenes were unforgettable …
This volume tells not just the story, but reveals the intricate thinking of those who wanted to make a bicameral system work in the age of modern party politics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Illustrations
  • Chapter 1: 1960–61. The Wedgwood Benn Case
  • Benn’s Persistence
  • The Enquiry Widened
  • The Bristol South-East By-Election
  • The High Court Decision
  • Chapter 2: 1961–63. The Setting up of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform: Conservative Proposals
  • Debate in Parliament: Committee Terms of Reference
  • Memoranda Submitted to the Joint Select Committee
  • Chapter 3: 1962. The Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform: Draft Report
  • Debate in the House of Lords
  • Debate in the House of Commons
  • Recommendations
  • Agreement to proceed
  • Chapter 4: 1963. The Peerage Act
  • Proposed Amendments: When the Act Should Take Effect
  • Chapter 5: 1965. Procedures and Functions of the House of Lords: Lord Alport
  • Chapter 6: 1966. The Labour Party Manifesto: Modernizing the Work of Parliament
  • Chapter 7: 1966. Memorandum by the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Privy Seal
  • Chapter 8: 1966. Motion to Appoint a Lords Select Committee: Lord Alport
  • Lord Alport in the Lords
  • William Hamilton in the Commons
  • Chapter 9: 1967. The Need for Reform of the Upper House: Lord Mitchison
  • Chapter 10: 1967. Composition and Powers of a Reformed House: The Lord President of the Council
  • Chapter 11: 1967. The Lord Chancellor’s Ministerial Committee: Powers of the House of Lords
  • Chapter 12: 1967. The Cabinet: Proposed Reform of the Lords
  • Chequers: The Two-Tier Scheme
  • Meeting of ‘the Big Six’
  • Lord Shackleton’s Working Group
  • Chapter 13: 1967. Detailed Proposals for Reform: The Shackleton Committee
  • First Meeting, 27 September 1967
  • Second Meeting, 9 October 1967
  • Third Meeting, 11 October 1967
  • Fourth Meeting, 11 October 1967 (2)
  • Fifth Meeting, 16 October 1967
  • Sixth Meeting, 17 October 1967
  • Seventh Meeting, 25 October 1967
  • Eighth Meeting, 1 November 1967
  • Ninth Meeting, 8 November 1967
  • Chapter 14: 1968. Inter-Party Conference on Lords Reform
  • Preliminary Arrangements
  • Early Meetings: Proposals and Memoranda
  • Further Proposals and Deliberations
  • Inter-Party Conference, 26 March 1968
  • Inter-Party Conference, 2 April 1968
  • Inter-Party Conference, 9 April 1968
  • Inter-Party Conference, 30 April 1968
  • Inter-Party Conference, 7 May 1968
  • Chapter 15: 1968. Conclusions of the Inter-Party Conference
  • Chapter 16: 1968. The Lords’ Rejection of Sanctions Against Rhodesia: A Provocation
  • Chapter 17: 1968. Bill to Abolish the House of Lords: William Hamilton
  • Chapter 18: 1968. The Government White Paper
  • Last-Minute Consultations
  • The White Paper
  • Chapter 19: 1968. The White Paper in Parliament
  • Lord Mitchison’s Parliament (No. 1) Bill. Rumblings from the Back-Benchers
  • The Debate in the House of Commons
  • The Debate in the House of Lords
  • Chapter 20: 1968. The Parliament (No. 2) Bill: The Text
  • Drafting the Bill
  • Text of the Bill
  • Chapter 21: 1969. The Parliament (No. 2) Bill: Debate in the House of Commons
  • The Queen and the Royal Peers
  • MPs’ Concerns
  • The Parliament (No. 2) Bill in the House of Commons
  • Chapter 22: 1969. The Parliament (No. 2) Bill Withdrawn
  • Signs of Determined Opposition
  • The Fate of the Parliament (No. 2) Bill in Committee
  • The Decision to Drop the Bill
  • The Debate on the Prime Minister’s Statement in the House of Commons, 17 April 1969
  • Chapter 23: 1969. The Parliament (No. 2) Bill: Regrets and Reflections
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • I. Archival Sources
  • II. Published Works
  • Index

← viii | ix → Preface

The present volume contains various schemes to reform the House of Lords made during the years 1960–1969. The demand for more radical reform became urgent when, in November 1960, Anthony Wedgwood Benn succeeded his father as second Viscount Stansgate, but refused to receive the Letters Patent of his father’s creation. Benn had resolved to renounce his newly acquired title. But this he could not do because of the law: it would require an act of parliament to make an act of renunciation possible. Having lost his seat in the House of Commons because he was now a peer, Benn requested that he should have a hearing in the Commons in which he could plead his case. There was no precedent to justify such a move, so the request was refused. Benn accordingly adopted a different course of action. A man of turbulent spirit, he kept his matter constantly before the public. He also made a petition to the House of Commons to appoint a select committee to examine his case. Benn’s reasoned arguments excited the attention of the government of the day. Prominent among those who recommended reform in the direction Benn suggested were Harold Macmillan, the Earl of Home and Viscount Hailsham. They eventually decided that a government committee should be appointed to introduce legislation enabling peers to renounce their titles, thus making them eligible for election to the House of Commons. Once this committee was established, the members’ considerations went even further. They recommended that peeresses should have the same rights as peers. The prime minister, Harold Macmillan, observed that, since a major constitutional change was involved, the inquiry should be undertaken by a Joint Select committee of both Houses of Parliament. In April 1961 the cabinet resolved to appoint such a committee. But it was not until March 1962 that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Iain Macleod, moved in the House of Commons that a joint select committee of both Houses of Parliament be appointed to cover: (a) questions of the surrender of peerages; and (b) how anomalies ← ix | x → in the position of hereditary peeresses could be repaired. A similar motion was put down in the House of Lords by Lord Hailsham, the leader of the Upper House. Both Houses then debated the motion, approved it and nominated delegates to the joint select committee.

The committee met nine times between May and July 1962, inviting and considering diverse proposals from interested bodies and individuals. Once the deliberations were over, the committee drafted a lengthy report on House of Lords reform. This was in December 1962. The cabinet considered the report on 24 January 1963 and recommended that a debate be initiated in Parliament on the motion that the Houses ‘do take note’ of the report. The government indicated, that it would maintain an open mind during these debates, and be prepared to introduce legislation if such proved to be the general desire. Although no promise was made on the date for introducing the bill, the cabinet thought it desirable to state that it should become law ‘in time to take practical effect at, but not before, the next General Election’. At the end of March 1963 the government moved the motion in both Houses: ‘That this House takes note of the Report of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform.’ The Houses debated the motion and agreed to the resolution. Thereafter, on 19 June 1963, the government introduced the bill for the Peerage Act 1963 in the House of Commons to be read a second time. It was a very short bill. The following were the main provisions:

In the Lords, a second reading of the bill took place on 4 July 1963. In both Houses amendments and counter-amendments were put down. Some amendments were defeated, others agreed to. The bill received the Royal Assent on 31 July 1963. Its provisions must be counted as the most profound reform the House of Lords had as yet undergone. The occasion was indeed historic. As the Earl of Longford rightly judged, the bill was also the ‘heroic achievement of one man’ – Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

The Peerage Act 1963 was soon applied to solve particular issues. Tony Benn was allowed to return to the House of Commons. Another strikingly practical consequence was that the Earl of Home disclaimed his peerage for life to qualify for the office of prime minister so as to replace Harold Macmillan in October 1963.

A general election was timed for October 1964. In its election manifesto, the Labour Party declared that, if it won the election, it would take action against the delaying powers of the House of Lords. Labour did win the election, but only with a tiny majority; so the legislation it planned in this regard was postponed for the time being. This did not, however, prevent a Labour MP, William Hamilton, from moving a motion about the issue in the Commons. His motion, put forward in May 1965, asked that leave be given to bring in a bill to abolish the delaying powers of the House of Lords on government legislation. Second reading of the motion was deferred several times because Hamilton’s own party leadership would not support him. Harold Wilson, the prime minister since October 1964, decided to dissolve Parliament in March 1966. In the new election Labour won an overall majority of 97 seats. This meant that the party leadership could now go ahead to realize its pre-election declaration of 1966 that ‘legislation will be introduced to safeguard measures approved by the House of Commons from frustration by delay or defeat in the House of Lords’. In May the cabinet resolved to appoint a ministerial committee to propose ← xi | xii → schemes to reform the House of Lords. Those showing a strong disposition to work on these schemes were: Lord Gardiner, the Lord Chancellor; the Earl of Longford, the Lord Privy Seal; Richard Crossman, the Lord President of the Council; Lord Shackleton, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, and Lord Shepherd, the Chief Whip in the House of Lords. On the prime minister’s instructions, the proceedings of the committee had to be kept confidential.

The reforms were worked on by men who went beyond the terms postulated in the election manifesto of 1966. In their deliberations they did not limit themselves to reducing the delaying powers of the Lords alone. They felt that reform of the composition of the Upper House was equally important. Lord Longford was first to suggest introducing a ‘two-writ scheme’, which would give some lords the right to sit and speak but not vote, while others could sit, speak and vote as well. It took almost a year before the committee members began to get their various schemes together. In May 1967 Richard Crossman circulated his memorandum on composition and powers of a reformed House of Lords; a month later Lord Shepherd presented his very lengthy memorandum on composition, functions and procedure of a reformed House. The ministerial committee met at various times to consider draft proposals, to make suggestions and to invite fresh ideas. In its work, the ministerial committee counted on assistance from the government and from parliamentary officials. Here Michael Wheeler-Booth, in particular, distinguished himself.

While the work of the ministerial committee was progressing, both Richard Crossman and Lord Shackleton thought it expedient to invite the opposition parties to join in. Thus Lord Carrington, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, was approached. He very much welcomed the idea, and suggested that a plan should be put forward for consideration and should go to Edward Heath, the Conservative Party Leader. At the end of October 1967 Harold Wilson wrote to Heath and to the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, inviting them to begin inter-party consultations on what Wilson called ‘weighty and complex’ constitutional issues. Both Heath and Thorpe agreed to take part in these consultations. The first meeting of what came to be known as the ‘Inter-Party Conference’ was held on 8 November 1967. The conference resolved to appoint a working sub-committee of three to look fully into diverse drafts on reform, and submit ← xii | xiii → them to the attention of the conference. The members of the working sub-committee, Lord Shackleton (Labour), Lord Jellicoe (Conservative) and Lord Byers (Liberal) proved remarkable in their legislative thinking. They met on 35 occasions. By the middle of June 1968 the conference put forward a detailed draft of 75 paragraphs, recommending reform of the composition and powers of the House of Lords. It was suggested that these paragraphs serve as a conference white paper for discussion in parliament. But before this could happen an unfortunate incident occurred. On 19 June 1968 the House of Lords, by a tiny majority, voted down the Southern Rhodesia (United Nations Sanctions) Order previously approved by the Commons. The decision was entirely foolish; and it marred the prospects of the conference proposals.

The government was furious. On 20 June the prime minister stated angrily in the Commons that, by a slim majority, the Lords, ‘accountable to none, have now, quite deliberately, sought to assert power to put this country in default of international obligations solemnly entered into’. Under those circumstances he declared that all-party talks on reform had to be terminated. But the government, the prime minister said, had every intention of soon introducing ‘comprehensive and radical legislation’ to give effect to reform of the House of Lords.

The precious work of the conference now appeared to have been lost. However, this turned out not to be the case. The ministerial committee was now entrusted with drafting a government bill on reform of the Lords. The committee considered the recommendations of the inter-party conference seriously, and its proposals were the primary basis of its own white paper. The Opposition was promptly notified. The government decided to have the white paper debated in both Houses of Parliament, before it introduced a bill.

The main feature of the white paper was a ‘two-tier’ scheme which would divide the membership of the House of Lords into two groups: ‘voting’ peers and ‘non-voting’ peers. All new members of the House would sit by right of creation, and not by right of succession to a hereditary peerage. Voting peers (the first ‘tier’) would constitute the ‘working House’ in which the effective power of decision would reside. Their number would include every created peer prepared to accept, for the term of one Parliament at a time, the responsibilities of regular attendance. The second ‘tier’ would ← xiii | xiv → be composed of non-voting peers making up all the other members of the House. The existence of the second ‘tier’ would make it possible ‘to bring into the House created peers who could not attend regularly but who would be able to make valuable contributions from time to time: they would include representatives of the professions, scientists, trade union leaders and other leading members of the community, together with those experienced parliamentarians who had passed the age of retirement’.

Other characteristic parts of the white paper were the following:

← xiv | xv → The white paper was published on 1 November 1968 and was debated in the Commons on 19 and 20 November, then in the Lords on 19, 20 and 21 November. In the Commons the Labour Left opposed the white paper, and the Tory Right put up even stronger opposition; but the Conservative front bench supported it. The government won a comfortable majority. The Lords appeared to be much more keen on reform than had been expected, and, surprisingly, the vote in favour of the white paper was larger in the House of Lords than in the Commons.

Approval of the white paper in both Houses made the government willing to introduce the Parliament (No. 2) Bill in the House of Commons on 3 February 1969. In the debate on the second reading of the bill, the Labour, Conservative and Liberal back bench opponents of reform showed no disposition to side with their corresponding front benches. And it was thus only with the support of the Opposition front bench that the government carried the division. The victory was temporary. The real battle started at the committee stage. Here the bill was abandoned to the mercy of the back bench MPs. They were now given an opportunity to exact revenge for their earlier defeat. The committee debated the bill on six days in February, two days in March, and on four days in April 1969. By April more than 80 hours had been spent on discussions. Various amendments were put down and points of order raised, and filibustering became the back benchers’ tactic. The government could stop this obstruction only with the help of the Opposition; but when this help was sought, the Opposition refused to assist, arguing that since the bill concerned important constitutional change it would be next to impossible to win the approval of its party members. The cabinet found itself in a dilemma. If it allowed the bill to run further, there was no certainty that it would be passed. Moreover, the government still needed time for other important legislation and time was running out. The Parliament (No. 2) Bill was becoming burdensome. Finally, its patience fully exhausted, the government decided to drop the bill. The prime minister announced this decision to the House of Commons on 17 April 1969. Such was the dismal end of a project on which distinguished men had worked with great dedication for over two years.

Why did the attempt fail? We are tempted to make some conjectures. We believe that the ‘two-tier’ scheme would have divided the House of Lords into two classes: a privileged class of those who could speak and vote; ← xv | xvi → and a class shorn of power consisting of those who could only speak, but were not permitted a vote. One could not really call this reform. Secondly, the bill had a long and unnecessary preamble which had no legal effect and which was an anomaly. Thirdly, the bill contained far too many clauses, which made it complex and not readily comprehensible to all MPs: a bill of one clause, two clauses or, at the most, three clauses would perhaps more easily have secured agreement than the bill actually presented, which contained 19 clauses.

Yet, the ill-fated Parliament (No. 2) Bill had its worth and dignity as well. The enormous number of memoranda drafted and redrafted, the intensive discussions these documents provoked, and then the final conclusions reached divulge the dedication and wisdom with which attempts were undertaken to enact reform of the House of Lords. As evidence sufficing to establish these facts, we produce here all the documents relevant to it. These comprise: (i) minutes of the cabinet, ministerial and conference meetings; (ii) the extensive correspondence entered upon; and (iii) a comprehensive record of the reform proposals. Until recently, all this source material was kept secret, but the files are now open to the researcher. We here make the documents available to the public for the first time.

— Peter Raina
Senior Research Associate

Holywell Manor, Oxford
Hilary Term 2014

Graduate Centre, Balliol College, Oxford

← xvi | xvii → Acknowledgements

I gratefully record my obligations to:


The National Archives, London.


The Parliamentary Archives, Houses of Parliament, London.


Rights & Images Department, National Portrait Gallery, London.


The Controller of HMSO.


Mrs Isabel D. Holowaty, Bodleian History Librarian, Oxford.


Dr Douglas Dupree, Dean of Balliol College, Oxford.


Professor Tom Melham, Praefectus, Holywell Manor, Balliol College, Oxford.


Lord Plant of Highfield.


Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth.


Mr Jon Ashby, my copy-editor.


Mrs Lucy Melville, my publisher.← xvii | xviii →

← xviii | xix → List of Illustrations

Edward Arthur Alexander Shackleton, Baron Shackleton by Godfrey Argent
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

George Patrick John Rushworth Jellicoe, 2nd Earl of Jellicoe by Elliott and Fry
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Frank Byers, Baron Byers by Walter Bird
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Gerald Austin Gardiner, Baron Gardiner by Bernard Lee (‘Bern’) Schwartz
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Richard Crossman by Bassano
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Jeremy Thorpe and two unknown men by Cecil Beaton
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Michael Foot; Quintin McGarel Hogg, 1st Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone
by Anthony Wysard
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Enoch Powell by Bassano
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Burke Frederick St John Trend, Baron Trend by Bernard Lee (‘Bern’) Schwartz
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

William George Arthur Ormsby-Gore, 4th Baron Harlech by Bassano
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

(Helen) Violet Bonham Carter (née Asquith), Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury
by Howard Coster
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

← xix | xx → (Anna) Dora Gaitskell, Baroness Gaitskell by Godfrey Argent
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Rachel Cecilia (née Bingham), Lady Alport; Cuthbert James McCall (‘Cub’) Alport, Baron Alport by Bassano
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Noel Gilroy Annan, Baron Annan by Walter Bird
Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Francis Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford by Allan Warren
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled ‘GNU Free Documentation License’.

Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth by an unknown artist
Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford

Peter Carrington, 6th Baron Carrington by an unknown artist
Reproduced by permission of Lord Carrington, Carrington Estates Limited

While every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, if any have been inadvertently overlooked, the author will be happy to acknowledge them in future editions

← xx | 1 → CHAPTER ONE

1960–61. The Wedgwood Benn Case

There are some people who appear to be destined to fulfil a certain mission in our world. They do it with all the will and energy they can command. Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn1 was among them. In our last volume we remarked upon why he wanted to reform the House of Lords. He had personal reasons for it, arising from an uneasy anticipation of the day when he would succeed his father as second Viscount Stansgate, and would automatically become a member of the House of Lords, consequently losing his membership of the House of Commons. The very thought of this was abhorrent to Tony Benn: he loved his House of Commons and was determined never to leave it unless he lost an election. But what could a person in his position do? When born a lord, one was condemned to be a lord: such was the law. There was no way Benn’s newly acquired title could be renounced: he would inevitably get his Letters Patent, obliging him to enter the House of Lords. This to Benn meant a journey to Inferno. Only an Act of Parliament could stop it.

For Benn, the gate to Hades opened on 17 November 1960, when Lord Stansgate died, and Benn received the Letters Patent of his father’s creation. Immediately, on 22 November, he returned the documents to the Lord Chamberlain; but the papers were sent back to Benn through the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. Thereupon Benn signed an Instrument of Renunciation, declaring that he was renouncing his peerage. The declaration had no legal validity. The Common Law had given its verdict: it had ‘convicted’ Benn to be a peer, and he would soon have to vacate his seat ← 1 | 2 → in the Commons. Benn now proceeded to adopt a course of action which would be long, complex and time-consuming, but it promised eventual success. The Peerage Act 1963, which resulted, is (so far) the most fundamental reform ever to have been enacted in the centuries-old history of the House of Lords; and the credit for it goes entirely to Tony Benn’s efforts. The action began on 29 November 1960, when a petition in Benn’s name was presented to the House of Commons requesting that a select committee be appointed to redress his grievances.

The House of Commons agreed to appoint what it called the ‘Committee of Privileges on the Petition Concerning Mr Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn’, and it ordered that the committee should consist of twelve members:

The committee had power to send for persons, papers and records. With a quorum set at five, the committee called Mr Secretary Butler to the chair, and met and deliberated on eleven occasions: 1, 12, 16 December 1960; 26, 31 January; 6, 14, 21 February; and 2, 9, 14 March 1961. In the course of its inquiry the committee invited the following as witnesses: Anthony Wedgwood Benn himself, Dingle Foot, Dick Taverne, Sir Edward Fellowes and G.D. Squibb. Tony Benn was invited to give evidence twice. Because ← 2 | 3 → of other engagements, he had to seek the indulgence of the committee chairman. He did this in a letter:2

Wedgwood Benn to the committee chairman

9th December 1960

Dear Home Secretary,

I wonder if I might raise four points with you before the Committee of Privileges meets on Monday?

First, about the appearance of expert witnesses on my behalf. I understand that you have agreed to consider the possibility of calling Mr Dingle Foot and Mr Richard Taverne who are working on the case. I have discussed it at length with them and they have asked me to say that the research involved is so tremendous and involves going back to the Record Office that they would be grateful if their evidence could be postponed until after Christmas. They feel that this is of the highest constitutional importance and are anxious to submit evidence of an appropriate quality. Do you think this could possibly be arranged?

The second point concerns myself. I note that you will be requiring me to make a brief opening statement. I will, of course, be ready to do this but my submissions – properly presented – would take some considerable time. I wonder if I might, therefore be permitted to submit a document setting out my submissions in greater detail which could be circulated to the Committee and thus to spare them the burden of hearing it all orally.

The third point concerns my own attendance at the Committee. Nearly 18 months ago I accepted an invitation to lecture in the United States in January and early February and would be most grateful if my evidence could be completed before Christmas so as to permit me to fulfil these engagements. I realise ← 3 | 4 → that the commands of the Committee must have absolute precedence over my personal engagements but such an arrangement would be most convenient for me.

Finally, I notice that I will be required to submit the Letters Patent issued to my father, together with various birth, death and marriage certificates. I shall come furnished with these as commanded. But I would like to have an opportunity to make it clear that in submitting them to the Committee I do so under direction and not in any way so as to make it appear that I am claiming the succession. Perhaps to clarify this I might be permitted to circulate with these documents the Instrument of Renunciation on which part of my case is based. This point is of practical and not merely theoretical importance for reasons which I would be very glad to clear.

With many thanks,

Yours sincerely,

Anthony Wedgwood Benn

The committee met Benn’s wishes without hesitation. Accordingly they examined him before Christmas – on 12 and 16 December (1960). Others appearances followed: Dingle Foot, Q.C. on 26 and 31 January (1961), Dick Taverne and Sir Edward Fellowes, Clerk of the House of Commons, on 6 February, and G.D. Squibb, Q.C. on 14 February (1961). The Committee of Privileges laid its lengthy report, together with minutes of evidence, before the House of Commons on 14 March 1961 with the following conclusions:3

← 4 | 5 → a) Mr Wedgwood Benn was disqualified from membership of the House of Commons on the 17 November 1960, by succession to the Viscountcy of Stansgate.

b) The Instrument of Renunciation executed by Mr Wedgwood Benn had no legal effect. A peer cannot surrender or renounce his peerage.

c) The House of Commons Disqualification Act, 1957,4 did not give any option to Mr Wedgwood Benn to renounce the viscountcy.

d) The issue of a Writ of Summons to attend the House of Lords to Mr Wedgwood Benn would not raise any question of privilege.

e) The introduction of a bill to enable Mr Wedgwood Benn to remain a member of the Commons was not to be recommended.

f) The terms of the petition referred to the committee did not require the members to express any view on whether legislation was desirable to enable those succeeding to peerages to remain members of, and be eligible for election to, the House of Commons.

In a separate paragraph, however, the Committee expressed the opinion that ‘if any change in the law is to be made, so as to enable those who succeed to peerages to remain members of, and to be eligible for election to, the House of Commons, that legislation should be general and not be retrospective’.

On 28 March at 11 a.m. a meeting of the cabinet was held at Admiralty House. R.A. Butler, Secretary of State for the Home Department was in the chair. Also present were:

Among various other topics discussed, the first item on the agenda was the Report of the Committee of Privileges. Here is the record of the minutes with regard to succession to peerages:5

The Home Secretary said that there would be an early debate on the report of the Committee of Privileges on the petition concerning Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn. The Committee had concluded that Mr Wedgwood Benn was disqualified from membership of the House of Commons by succession to the Viscountcy of Stansgate and that the instrument in which he had ← 6 | 7 → purported to renounce his Peerage had no legal effect. They had recommended against the introduction of a retrospective Bill to enable Mr Wedgwood Benn to remain a member of the House of Commons but had refrained from expressing any view on the desirability of general legislation to enable those who succeeded to Peerages to remain Members of, and to be eligible for election to, the House of Commons. The simplest course would be for the Government to put down a Motion taking note of Mr Wedgwood Benn’s disqualification and approving the Committee’s report. There was, however, a substantial body of opinion, not only in the Opposition but among Government supporters, in favour of referring the whole question to a joint committee of both Houses.

Discussion showed that there was some support in the Cabinet for the appointment of a joint committee, although the Government would retain greater freedom of manoeuvre if the proposal were put forward in the form of an amendment moved by one of their supporters rather than by the Government themselves. The joint committee’s terms of reference should be restricted to the future, so as to preclude their recommending legislation which would affect Mr Wedgwood Benn, but should be wide enough to allow all the implications of a change to be considered.

On the other hand, it was at least possible that those who favoured a change in the present law would be in a majority on any joint committee. The Government would therefore be unwise to agree to the appointment of a committee unless they were themselves willing to accept some change. Before deciding this question the Cabinet would need to give further consideration to the arguments on either side and to the balance of advantage, especially in relation to the influence which any change in the law might be expected to have on the validity and effectiveness with which the House of Lords would be able in the future to discharge its functions.

← 7 | 8 → Summing up the discussion, the Home Secretary said that the general view of the Cabinet appeared to be in favour of a Government motion noting the disqualification of Mr Wedgwood Benn and approving the report of the Committee of Privileges. He would, however, take an early opportunity to ascertain the strength of feeling among Government supporters in favour of appointing a joint committee to consider the desirability of changing the law for the future. There would be time before the debate for the Cabinet to give further consideration to this question, in the light of whatever information he was able to put before them.

The Cabinet:

1) Took note that the Home Secretary would ascertain the views of Government supporters on the proposal to appoint a joint committee of both Houses to consider possible changes in the law of succession to Peerages.

2) Agreed to resume at a later meeting their discussion of the report of the Committee of Privileges on the petition concern-ing Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

The government showed some indications suggesting they might want to appoint a joint committee to look into the future of the House of Lords. On this and other points the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, proceeded to seek advice from various constitutional experts, Sir J.D. Barlow, Viscount Hailsham and the Attorney-General, Sir Reginald Manning-Ham-Buller. Sir John Barlow wrote back immediately:6


XX, 974
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
legislation cooperation bicameral system
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. XX, 974 pp. 17 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Peter Raina (Author)

Peter Raina has been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and an Associate Member of Nuffield College, Oxford. He is is currently Senior Research Associate at the Graduate Centre of Balliol College, Oxford.


Title: House of Lords Reform: A History
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995 pages