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House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 3. 1960-1969: Reforms Attempted

Peter Raina

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.
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Chapter 9: 1967. The Need for Reform of the Upper House: Lord Mitchison


← 204 | 205 → CHAPTER NINE

1967. The Need for Reform of the Upper House: Lord Mitchison

Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, the subject of reform received attention from a different quarter. On 12 April 1967 Lord Mitchison1 rose to beg leave to call attention to the need for reform of the House and its powers. Because of an inbuilt Tory majority in the Lords, he feared that it had powers to ‘frustrate, delay and defeat the wishes of the elected Chamber’. His motion, he said, was drawn up to ‘elicit the views of your Lordships on both subjects – powers and composition’.2 The governing principle, he suggested, must be ‘that once any difference of opinion appears between the elected Chamber and your Lordships’ House, then in a democratic system, as we now understand it, the will of the elected Chamber must prevail without further ado’. Lord Mitchison was especially concerned about powers in connection with statutory instruments. These were made by ministers, or existed as orders in council, being subject to parliamentary review, because the particular statute empowering them to be made called for parliamentary approval of a draft order or allowed Parliament to pray for annulment within a given time after the issue of the order. The draft instrument ‘must be approved by each House or […] once made, the Instrument is subject to annulment on a Resolution by either House’. There were, Lord Mitchison observed, strong ‘objections to this House keeping its present control’.

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