I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As Lord Steel stated when he introduced the first of his five private Members’ Bills on this subject, some six years ago, the years of debate about the long-term reform of the House of Lords have obscured the need for effective, immediate, yet modest, reform. Today, I hope that we can all set aside any differences we may have on long-term, substantial reform of the House of Lords and instead focus on delivering the very modest reform that this Bill delivers—although modest, it is overdue and increasingly necessary. It is important, too, that the House notes that this Bill has broad cross-party support. It has broad support across both Houses of Parliament, in the media and across the country.
Over the past few months, I have engaged widely on this matter, doing my best to ensure that this Bill is not seen as frightening or sinister in any way. I hope that I have been successful, because it is not a stalking horse aimed at any group of peers and it is not certainly not an attempt to close off any potential future reform. I wish to tackle head on the issue of the debate over an elected House of Lords, because this Bill makes no contribution to that debate whatsoever. The Bill does not prevent or preclude further reform of the House of Lords, at any time or of any type. This Bill is simply irrelevant to the debate over election to the Lords, and I believe that any Member, regardless of their position on an elected Lords, should feel comfortable supporting this Bill.
It is fair to say that that Lord Steel’s Bills did contain some controversial features: the establishment of a statutory appointments commission and an end to the by-elections for hereditary peers. My Bill does not reintroduce those proposals, and instead contains three core elements, all of which have already been agreed by the House of Lords during the passage of Lord Steel’s most recent Bill. First, my Bill provides for the retirement or resignation of peers who are Members of the House of Lords; secondly, it provides that those peers who do not attend should be cease to be Members of the House; and, finally, it provides that those Members convicted of a serious offence should also cease to be Members.
Clause 1 provides that peers may retire or resign as a Member of the House of Lords by giving notice in writing to the Clerk of the Parliaments. It will, for the first time, provide peers with an honourable and dignified retirement mechanism. It has been suggested that, in some instances, the honour of serving in the Lords has become a life sentence, and it should not be so. As the Leader’s Group on Members Leaving the House observed in 2011:
“For a conscientious member who has played a full role in Parliament, and takes his or her commitment to the House seriously, an honourable release from obligation could be welcome.”
Currently, there is no mechanism by which a Member of the House of Lords can permanently conclude his or her membership.
A leave of absence system was introduced in 1958 to address growing concern regarding low or non-attendance, but it has failed to meet the objective outlined by the then Leader of the House, the Earl of Home. He said that
“the objective which all of us desire is that we should be, and should be seen to be, an efficient and workmanlike House of Parliament, playing a limited but a definite and valuable part in the Constitution of our country.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 24 April 1958; Vol. 208, c. 1005.]
Although my hon. Friend suggests that the leave of absence system is not working, the latest figures that were in last week’s The House magazine show that 43 Members of the other place are on leave of absence, and the Parliament website gives a list of them. So it does appear that at least some Members in the other place are making use of the system.
Absolutely; in the absence of any method of leaving the other House, the leave of absence system does provide a compromise. However, it is far from a perfect compromise, because one could very well ask: how many peers do we currently have? The 43 peers currently on a permanent leave of absence have a very ambiguous status. Some of them could, in theory, continue to seek a rolling leave of absence each time for 10 or 15 years and then suddenly decide to come back and start voting again.
My hon. Friend tempts me down a route that I shall avoid.
What is the status of those peers who have been granted leave of absence? Is it possible to replace them? Arguably not, because we could replace 43 peers who, it appears, have now chosen to leave the Lords, but all 43 could come back in five years’ time. So it is a compromise that has gone some way towards addressing the problem, but it is not an elegant or permanent solution.
Is it not the case that in 2011 an informal voluntary retirement scheme was introduced, enabling those peers who so wished to apply and receive voluntary retirement?
My hon. Friend has me at a disadvantage. My understanding is that there is no permanent way of leaving or retiring from the House of Lords. I am not sure what mechanism he is referring to, but I have been assured by the Clerks of the House and by the Leader of the House of Lords that there is at present no method to leave the Lords permanently.
There is scope under the 2011 arrangements for people voluntarily to retire, but the problem is that they do not receive any remuneration as a result. That is why only three peers have so far applied under that scheme.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I will certainly take great interest in that scheme at Committee stage and I will be happy to look closely at it, but I have been assured by those who have far greater knowledge of these matters than I do that whatever the scheme is that my hon. Friend Mr Chope is referring to, it is not a permanent method of retiring or leaving the House of Lords, because no such system exists. It may be a form of extended leave of absence; I am not sure. The Minister might receive some inspiration before he speaks.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. I know that he is concerned about that issue, which he and I have discussed. It is my understanding that there is no intention from the Government—indeed, it is not my intention—that the Bill should be debated in a Committee of the whole House.
We have touched on a matter that will undoubtedly come up later in the debate, so I shall discuss it now. It seems to me that the principle of constitutional Bills going before a Committee of the whole House is absolutely a convention used by the Government for clear first-class constitutional Bills. It is not, in my opinion, an absolute inviolate principle that any Bill that has, or could be argued to have, a slight hint of constitutionality automatically goes before a Committee of the whole House. Clearly a degree of judgment must be applied, according to the degree of constitutional change, if any, that a Bill brings in. For example, it is my understanding that my hon. Friend did not call for a Committee of the whole House for the European Union (Referendum) Bill, which was considered only a few weeks ago and which arguably has greater constitutional implications for the country than this Bill.
I fundamentally disagree. The referendum Bill provides for an advisory referendum that has no constitutional effect. It would require a second piece of legislation to give it any effect. Therefore, of itself, it was not constitutional.
That is an interesting point for debate, but I would argue that the Bill before us today could well be argued to be far more of an HR Bill—a human resources or housekeeping Bill to tidy things up by introducing relatively modest methods to allow those who wish to leave the other place to do so, and to allow the removal of criminals, bringing the House of Lords into line with this House.
I understand that my hon. Friend does not regard this as a first-class constitutional Bill, but does he regard this as a first-class second-rate constitutional Bill? Will he deal with the difference between this House and the other House, were the Bill to be passed? Someone can be elected to this House and not come here, on the basis that they do not want to—Sinn Fein Members, for example, are in that category, at least at the moment. Would there be a similar position in the House of Lords, if someone decided to join Sinn Fein and said they did not want to come? Would they have to apply for leave of absence, because that would require them to recognise the sovereignty of our monarchy and our system? Has he considered that?
That would be right. If there were a Sinn Fein peer who did not wish to attend, they would require a leave of absence; otherwise, under the Bill, they would cease to be a peer. I consider that there is a fundamental difference between those who have been elected to this House and those who, leaving aside the small number of hereditaries, are appointed to the other place. They are appointed to the other place in order to provide a service and a duty to their country, and if they are not doing so, it is perfectly reasonable for the House to decide that they should be removed and replaced with someone who will.
The reason why the current system has failed to meet its objectives is that it is neither binding nor permanent. Such an objective could, however, be achieved by the introduction of the retirement scheme provided for by the Bill, and the introduction of a scheme that would address the problem of non-attendance by certain Members.
Clause 2 provides that a peer who does not attend the House of Lords during a Session will cease to be a Member of the House at the beginning of the next Session. The provision will apply only if the Lord Speaker certifies that the peer did not attend at any time during the specified Session, and that they did not have leave of absence in respect of the Session. The provision will not apply where the Session is less than six months. Receiving a peerage is a great privilege, but it is one that comes with a significant responsibility: that of making an active and constructive contribution to the business of Parliament. Those absentee Members who fail to attend are not fulfilling their duty, and it is apposite and appropriate that they therefore forfeit their right of membership.
My hon. Friend uses the word “forfeit.” Does he anticipate that should a peer, whether it be of his own volition or not, cease to be a Member of the other place, he also ceases to use his title, styles and attributes? Will Lord Smith, on exiting the other place, still be Lord Smith, or will he be the former Lord Smith?
This Bill does not remove the peerage; it simply removes the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords.
Clause 3 provides that a Member of the House of Lords who is convicted of a serious offence will cease to be a Member. The provision will again apply only if the Lord Speaker certifies that the Member has been convicted of an offence and sentenced to imprisonment or detention for more than one year. If that person successfully appeals their conviction, the Lord Speaker may revoke the first certificate by issuing another. It has long been the practice of this House that those convicted of offences that carry a sentence of more than one year are expelled, and it is appropriate that the procedures of the House of Lords in that regard be brought in line with the procedures of this House.
Clause 4 outlines the effect of ceasing to be a Member—specifically, that the person will be disqualified from attending proceedings of the House of Lords, and that they shall no longer receive a writ to attend the House. Further, it provides that a peer who ceases to be a Member is no longer disqualified from voting at elections, or being elected to the House of Commons.
Clause 5 makes provision in relation to the certification by the Lord Speaker, and clause 6 makes provision in relation to the short title, commencement and extent of the Bill.
On the issue of former peers being allowed to stand for this House, will there be any period between their leaving the upper House and being eligible to stand? It would concern me if it were possible for somebody to lose an election to this House, go to the Lords and then leave it prior to the next election in order to come back in here. I do not think that ping-pong would be suitable.
That is a very interesting point. As things stand, the Bill would not prevent that. That is the sort of detail that I would be more than happy to discuss with my hon. Friend, and we could consider whether some small amendment might be made in Committee. I am very keen, though, that the Bill should be kept as simple as possible.
Absolutely. I think we will leave individuals out of the debate for the time being, but it is an interesting point that I would be willing to discuss further.
I want to make it absolutely clear that the three principal elements of the Bill have already been agreed by the House of Lords, but the provisions have unfortunately faltered on their introduction to this House. Today I invite Members of this House to provide those of the other with the opportunity that they have repeatedly requested to make specific but necessary reforms that will contribute to their enhanced reputation and integrity. The cessation of membership measures will be an important step in enabling those who wish to leave the House of Lords to do so, and in removing non-attending Members. By doing so, the measures will assist in a small way in reducing the burgeoning number of Members of the House of Lords and in enhancing its reputation. The provisions to ensure that membership of the Lords ceases should a Member be convicted of a serious offence will also improve the integrity of that House and of our legislature as a whole.
There is the wider issue that the other place is too large, but one can only achieve so much in a private Member’s Bill. The Bill is simple, modest and clear and would bring into effect three measures that the other place has already voted for and persistently asked us to allow. Perhaps a future Bill tabled by my hon. Friend could address the over-large number of Members of the Lords.
Some people criticise this House for taking recesses that are too long, but others criticise us for spending too long here legislating, as they feel that less legislation is more.
“shall not be questioned in a court of law” will now be required in all legislation that we do not want questioned in courts of law? It seems to me that if Parliament is sovereign, what a Speaker or Lord Speaker does should automatically not be questioned in a court of law. If we put those words in one piece of legislation, will the courts then say that if they are not in another piece of legislation, they therefore have jurisdiction? That problem probably turns the Bill from a second-rate Bill into a first-rate Bill in importance, but means that it is not first-class any more.
I am not sure whether to thank my hon. Friend for that last bit, but I am not a parliamentary draftsman and that wording was put into the Bill on the advice of the Clerks. His point is interesting, and I am not qualified to comment on it, but that wording was drafted by the system, so to speak. If we feel that it sets a dangerous precedent that might require it to be put in all future Bills, I would be more than happy to discuss that point in Committee and address it if necessary.
I am struggling to know what difference the Bill will make, frankly. Why should anybody retire from the House of Lords when they are going to get no pension, and when they have to attend only once a Session? Would anybody ever retire from this House if there were no pension and they had to turn up only once a Session? Nobody would.
I could turn that around and say that if my hon. Friend thinks the Bill will make no difference, he has no reason to oppose it. The Lords have asked for these provisions, and I understand that at least five or six noble Lords desperately want to leave. We have already heard that many of them—43 at one point—have requested leaves of absence. There are peers who wish to have the right to leave, and even if only one is released from what has become a life sentence rather than a great privilege, surely we should allow that. It seems a bit bizarre to keep them against their will and send them a written summons every Session whether they want it or not.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many peers feel a sense of moral obligation to attend, especially in answer to a written summons? They may not be in the best of health, and they may be of advancing years, but even if it is a strain for them they feel a sense of obligation. They may be dissatisfied with their own infrequent attendance and want some mechanism to retire.
Absolutely, and as I said, I understand that a number of noble Lords are in exactly that position. I repeat that the Lords have previously passed these measures and sent them to the House of Commons, but the system for private Members’ Bills from the Lords has meant that this House has not agreed them. Why should this House continue to stand in the way of extremely simple and modest reforms that the other House has requested?
When these measures were considered in the other place, the noble Lord Steel’s Bill had the short title House of Lords (Cessation of Membership) Bill, but they are now in the House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill, whose title contains that dangerous word, “reform”. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on why he has not stuck with the noble Lord Steel’s title?
That is a good question. Lord Steel has made five attempts to bring in some degree of reform. His first four Bills were all called the House of Lords Bill. There is also a House of Lords Reform Bill before the other place in the name of Baroness Hayman. We would need to ask Lord Steel why he made the change for his last Bill, but one can speculate about why he felt the House of Lords (Cessation of Membership) Bill might have sounded less contentious. My view is that we are all grown-up and whether the word “reform” is in the title is not really the point. The point is what is in the Bill.
I am not sure I do, because some Liberal Democrats wish to see wholehearted reform and are concerned that a small amount of reform now might delay wider reform later. That is one reason why I was at pains earlier to make the point that the Bill will not prevent any future reform that we wish to bring in, which would stand or fall on its own merits. The debate about the word “reform” in the title is perhaps a red herring, because we are all grown-ups in this place and the other place. We can read the Bill, and we know what it says.
I am coming to the end of my remarks, so if any more Members wish to intervene with a question or a thought, now is the time for them to do so. If not, I will press on to my final words.
If the Bill is supported, it will deliver essential reforms. I urge Members to ensure its swift passage so that we can deliver to the noble Lords the opportunity to reform themselves that they have long been denied. I commend the Bill to the House.
I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to Members on both sides of the House, for the fact that I will not be able to be here for the whole debate due to a long-standing and immovable commitment.
I commend Dan Byles for using his successful bid in the private Members’ Bills ballot for what he has described as, and clearly is, a modest Bill that is none the less necessary. The interventions this morning have reinforced in my mind how lucky I have been never to have been drawn high up in the ballot. The difficulty of getting anything through, no matter how limited it is, has been shown by the number of Members who have danced on the head of a pin this morning.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to stick to his guns and make this limited but necessary improvement. This could have been called a House of Lords Improvement Bill, if some people are upset by the word “reform” in the title and others are upset by any kind of move, no matter how limited, thinking that it might undermine substantial reform such as an elected House of Lords. It is strange that those who are so strongly in favour of compromise and of always being here to compromise that they want proportional representation—so that there is permanent compromise—do not want to compromise when it comes to the House of Lords. They say, “If we can’t get what we want, we don’t want anything”. That has bedevilled attempts at improvements to the House of Lords—its operation, its relationship with the House of Commons, its make-up and membership, and its reflection of society as a whole—since 1911, through the post-war changes, the 1958 debates that have been referred to today and the great combination of Michael Foot and Enoch Powell, all the way up to the magnificent efforts of Jesse Norman, which seem like a lifetime ago—was it last year? Thank goodness, he was successful in stopping a constitutional outrage.
Not even those Government Members who are worried about the particulars of the Bill could view it as a constitutional outrage. It is a modest effort to be encouraged and supported. If hon. Members believe that there are too many Members of the House of Lords for the place to function properly, and there clearly are, they will back the Bill, even if it achieves only a modest improvement in that regard; if they believe that the Bill is too modest to effect any substantial change, they will not oppose it, because it is so modest that it could not possibly upset anybody. Either way, we should support the hon. Member for North Warwickshire.
It is appropriate that the Bill should have its Second Reading in the week in which the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform reported. The Committee highlighted just how much progress we could make if people on all sides were of good will, and if the hon. Gentleman’s optimism about us all being grown up was realised. I have been here 26 and a half years, and that was one of the most optimistic statements that I have heard.
When we sit down with and talk to people across the parties in this House, we find a whole range of feelings and views. Setting apart those who are absolutely dedicated to the belief that the House of Lords cannot perform an acceptable role unless its Members are voted for—even though the voting would be done on a list system, on a regional, proportional basis, so it would just affirm the party list and delude the electorate—when we come down to basics, there is consensus across the House. There is consensus on sensible reform; on building on the recommendations of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee; on whether we are able to develop the steps that are being advocated this morning; and on building on the Steel Bill of six years ago, and on Baroness Hayman’s modest proposals. There is actually consensus across the House on making sensible, logical changes.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee rightly identified the fact that consensus on the make-up and balance of the House of Lords is controversial and difficult, though not impossible, to achieve, but everybody accepts that if we move to more than 1,000 peers in the House of Lords, it will implode. Those who want to keep the House of Lords should be in favour of substantial, sensible, non-elected reform; those who want reform because they believe in reforming the House of Lords and its nature should be in favour of reform per se; and those who could not give a damn should leave the rest of us to try to get on and make some sense of the situation. Then we might have a House of Lords that has a new relationship with the Commons.
In future, we should not simply be debating make-up, or even the balance between parties; we should be debating how we can improve and reform this House, and then its relationship with the House of Lords as part of the broader constitutional changes taking place around us almost daily. There are the changes in the power of the Mayor of London and the Greater London authority; the change to the powers of the Assembly in Wales; the vote next September in Scotland and its aftermath—let us pray that the Scots vote to retain the Union—and our changed relationship, whatever happens, with the European Union after the referendum in 2017. All those changes, and many other major economic, social, political and cultural changes, are happening around us, but we are struggling to make any sense of the relationship between this House and the House of Lords, or of the Lords’ make-up, function, and purpose. I hope that the measures outlined by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire will enable us to do that.
I also hope that those who are concerned that the Bill does not go far enough in slimming down the House of Lords, or are more generally concerned that the House of Lords is becoming dysfunctional, will do their utmost to persuade the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister that stuffing even more people in there, on this side of the general election, is not a very sensible idea. As I said, if people believe that the House of Lords should continue, they must believe that it should continue on a functioning and acceptable basis.
Does my right hon. Friend agree—in some ways, the Bill is an example of this fact—that we are looking for ways of tinkering, whether we are talking about election, the different types of election, or appointment, when what we should be talking about is what the House of Lords is there for?
Yes, I do believe that, and I put forward a paper to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on how the House of Lords could have a different function, building on what it already achieves and is good at, if we took away, very carefully, the element of it being a legislature. That does not mean that it could not debate and put forward legislative propositions; I am talking about the constitutional role that it plays, which is what upsets people so much—people not being elected to it— even if, under the proposal of the Deputy Prime Minister, those people would not be responsible or accountable to the people who elected them, because they would never have to stand for election again; nor would they have held offices, or have had to report back to their multiple constituencies in any meaningful sense. It would be good to start with the question of what we want the House of Lords to do, and then go on to how it should be made up, and how we could make it function better.
Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, who opened this Second Reading debate, is always ready to acknowledge, the pressure on him was to minimise any suggestion of any proposition whatever. He cannot be blamed for bringing forward a Bill that moves—I was going to use the term “goalposts”, but I think that has been overdone in the past fortnight.
I was thinking of pitches. Let me put it this way: it is a Bill that moves the sods very little at all. We should commend the Bill, ask ourselves whether we are serious in wanting reform, and put it to our respective parties that it would be quite useful to put in the manifestos commitments to finding solutions, rather than putting up propositions that we all know will meet their demise once the practicalities, sensitivities and realities are examined and voted on in this place. Then we might get commendation from the electorate for acting like grown-ups and adults, and for being prepared to move our constitution on a little bit, while the rest of world moves the constitution around us.
I give my support to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire. Whatever heads of pins people may stand on, and while they might make sensible points in amendments to the Bill, it would be a great shame if so modest a measure was scuppered by people who wanted the perfect as an alternative to it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dan Byles on his luck in coming so high in the ballot and, I daresay, for his pluck in choosing a Bill that has the words “House of Lords” and “Reform” in its title. The noble Lord Hennessy, the noted constitutional expert, said in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:
“Lords reform is the Bermuda Triangle of British politics, or one of them. Every generation or so people go into the Bermuda Triangle. Some never reappear; others appear singed, vowing…never to return.”
I hope, at least for my hon. Friend’s sake, that he will make it safely into port, singed or not. Whether he vows to return is quite another matter.
In that spirit, will the Minister say to the House now that he will support the Government’s giving the Bill the proper time and attention to allow it to return from the Bermuda triangle entirely unsinged?
I was about to say that the Bill contains modest proposals that the Government are prepared to support. Obviously, it needs to be scrutinised closely in Committee. My hon. Friend Jesse Norman has ventured into the Bermuda triangle himself on occasion—whether he was singed or not is for him to say, but I am pleased to see him in his place today and look forward to his contribution.
The changes that are set out, as Mr Blunkett said, are relatively straightforward and represent common sense. There are those who argue that no change should be made until the wider case for reform, or improvement, as the right hon. Gentleman had it, or change, as other people might have it, can be agreed, but there is a clear consensus, after five attempts in the House of Lords, on the need to describe some arrangements that constitute incremental but nevertheless practical changes. It is only right that this House should listen to that call and take time to scrutinise it.
Bearing in mind that these proposals had already been considered on a number of occasions by the other place before the Government introduced the House of Lords Reform Bill, does the Minister agree that had these measures been introduced in this place at that time, they would now be on the statute book?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The case for these changes has always been well understood. I guess one of the reflections on recent years is whether the addition of various other measures prevented these measures from being adopted. That is a debate that has passed and my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire is right in seeking to concentrate the House on the particular matters in hand. If the House of Lords is willing to embrace sensible reforms, which it seems to be, and it seems quite anxious to proceed with them, we should provide the opportunity for it to do that.
The Bill allows Members of the House of Lords who are peers to resign, removes peers who do not attend the House of Lords during a Session, and removes peers and Lords Spiritual who are convicted of a serious offence and sentenced to imprisonment for more than a year. These changes would bring the membership rules in the House of Lords closer to those in this House, and in so doing would reassure members of the public that those convicted of serious wrongdoing in particular would be removed from the legislature.
I note that the Select Committee yesterday produced a helpful and timely report which supports the introduction of these three changes. It made some further recommendations, to which the Government will respond in due course in the normal way.
The Government have no desire to rerun through this Bill the debate on wider House of Lords reform. I know that some will argue that these changes are not extensive enough and that the opportunity should be taken to have a wider debate, but I was struck by the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, in which he said that that was not his intention and that he wants to keep the Bill very narrow. I know that for some people any change requires careful scrutiny and the limited nature of the Bill will afford it the possibility to have that. The Bill offers a set of proposals on which there may well be the basis of a consensus.
We cannot let the Minister off the hook. He is speaking very early in the debate, which surprises me, and he appears to want to avoid any wider debate. We need to know from the Government something about their plans. What are their present attitudes to further reform of the House of Lords? Just to say that this is a very modest Bill and we should support it, giving the House no intimation of the Government’s wider plans, is not good enough.
Order. Let me say that the Minister has spoken early because he was keen to do so, and I thought there was nothing disorderly or improper about that in any way. Just in case Sir Edward Leigh has any trepidation on this point, I can assure him that there will be very full opportunity for other right hon. and hon. Members who wish to speak to catch the eye of the Chair.
Of course my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh takes a great interest in these matters and I have the greatest respect for the contributions that he has made on that. My remarks are about the Bill before us. It is not the Government’s Bill; it was presented by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, and my comment is on the provisions in the Bill.
I think my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough knows well the Government’s position. There is a commitment in the coalition agreement to bring forward reforms to the House of Lords but it was not possible to make progress with it. I suspect that it was in the light of those developments that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire introduced these provisions today. Of course, as Mr Speaker says, it is open to hon. Members to air the wider questions, but if the Bill proceeds to Committee, it is to consider the specific measures that my hon. Friend is proposing. The Government are prepared to support the Bill today and to see it go into Committee because it provides for the introduction of some sensible, specific and relatively small scale changes to the House of Lords.
Will my right hon. Friend explain a little more why the Government think this is such a good Bill? Do they think it is such a good Bill because it would enable the House of Lords to be smaller? If so, why are the Government so busy appointing new Members to the House of Lords?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the coalition agreement makes it clear that the Government, pending further reform of the House of Lords, will continue to take steps to make it reflective of the result of the general election, in terms of the representation of parties. On the measures that have been proposed, there has been a degree of concern that the provisions, for example, on the consequences of criminal convictions, are out of line in the other place with those in this place.
The Select Committee, on which my hon. Friend serves, has reflected on the leave of absence provisions and has noted that they have not been very effective in providing a mechanism for Members to retire. So the support that the Government are willing to give specifically reflects concerns that have been expressed beyond this House, but also by Committees of this House, and this is a way to facilitate the correction of those aspects, if not the wider aspects that we have debated from time to time.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would be good enough to reflect to the Prime Minister that it is a bit odd for a Conservative-led Government, irrespective of what is in the coalition agreement, with only 18 months to go till a general election, to allow the minor party to press a point that would undermine the stability and functioning of a Chamber that the majority party in the Government supports and wants to work. Is that not perverse?
The creation of the coalition was based on a coalition agreement. That was discharged. The Bill was put to the House and the House took a view on it. My hon. Friend’s Bill does not relate to those matters. It relates to some specific reforms that have come from a variety of sources, endorsed by one of the Select Committees of this House, and on that basis I am happy to confirm the Government’s support for it to proceed into Committee, if that is the wish of the House.
My apologies to Jesse Norman.
I congratulate Dan Byles on introducing the Bill. He has been lucky to be drawn so high in the ballot, and he has shown great judgment in deciding to bring this Bill before the House. It is modest, it is wholly sensible and it is needed. There has been some talk from the Government Front Bench of the Bermuda triangle of House of Lords reform. I hope that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, with his history as an Atlantic rower, will be able to get us out of the Bermuda triangle together and safely.
I also compliment the hon. Gentleman on the way he dealt with the matter today. At first he rather reminded me of a man trying to swat an irritating fly away from his modest sandwich, but then I thought that was unfair to him, because he was being so polite, deferential and respectful to hon. Members. He seemed more to be saying, “Honourable Fly, please take a seat. You may think that this piece of cucumber is good for you, but let me assure you that cucumber is very bad for flies.”
The hon. Gentleman also showed that he has done his homework by answering fully all sorts of points, some of which I had never considered, and those points that he was unable to answer today he hopes to be able to answer in Committee. I can assure him at this early stage that the Opposition will be supporting his Bill.
The House of Lords is too big. I understand that it currently has 825 Members, although that figure might be out of date already, because it goes up all the time. The Minister talked about the decision, set out in the coalition agreement, that the other place should reflect the results of the general election, and it seems to me that a strange kind of arms race is beginning. If we appoint Members to the other place after every general election in order to reflect the result but have no means by which they can leave, we will of course end up with a House of Lords that is far too large.
I have heard all sorts of tales from friends in the other place about having to get to the Chamber 25 minutes before a debate begins to ensure that they get a seat, and there are all the other difficulties that result from there simply being overwhelming numbers in the other place. I think that the continual appointment of large numbers of Members to the other place is undermining its ability to function properly and is to be regretted.
That is not something we are in a position to say at the moment. What we have always said in relation to House of Lords reform is that it needs to be done by agreement. We have to be able to sit down, talk together and reach sensible conclusions. There are sensible people in this place, and if they go into negotiations in good will we can reach a proper conclusion. I do not want to go over the problems of the past year or so, but our view is that the difficulty with those negotiations is that they did not begin on that basis.
Clause 1 would allow peers to resign or retire, and that seems entirely sensible. I do not believe that becoming a peer should be a life sentence. There are many reasons why people might want to leave the other place. They might be ill, or there might be other things they want to do, so it seems entirely sensible that they should be able to leave if they so wish. It does not seem sensible that they should continue to have desks and that papers should continue be delivered to them if they are not attending. I understand that if we were to introduce these measures, it is anticipated that the numbers would go down automatically by 10%, based on the estimates I have seen.
Clause 2, which would allow for automatic severance if someone is not fit to attend for a whole Session without leave—essentially, the “able” clause—seems very sensible. So, too, is clause 3, which would allow a peer to lose their seat if they had been convicted of a criminal offence and were sentenced to at least a year’s imprisonment or an indefinite sentence. Surely that is nothing more than a sensible provision that already applies in this place. There is some discretion in relation to overseas prison sentences, and I understand the reasoning behind that. My only regret, I suppose, is that it is not retrospective, so even if the Bill is passed, Lord Archer stays.
Labour supports the Bill, as, I am pleased to see, does the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Our support, however, does not detract from our support for full democratic reform of the House of Lords. I have only one other quibble with the Bill: having looked at the website of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire—I understand that it is a marginal seat—I note that he is calling it the Byles Bill, but I suspect that it will always be known as the Steel Bill.
I rise to support my hon. Friend Dan Byles and his Bill. I believe that he and it have the support of most, if not all, of the 91 sensible constitutionalists who voted against last year’s Bill to introduce an elected House of Lords. One predictable but slightly unhappy side effect of that Bill was that it delayed genuine reform, so it is enormously to my hon. Friend’s credit that he has been able to use this opportunity to restart, or indeed to start, such a process of reform. It is rare for a Bill of any constitutional significance to be brought forward from the Back Benches, but this one deserves to succeed, both on its merits and for the careful work he has put into discussing the measures with Front Benchers from all three major parties.
I would also like to pay particular tribute to the noble Lord Steel and the noble Baroness Hayman for their unflagging efforts to promote reform, to members of the campaign for an effective second Chamber and to the many others in both Houses who have supported that cause. I also pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister, who I understand has now dropped his opposition to these changes. It is hugely to the credit of the Government and my right hon. Friend the Minister that he and my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire will together constitute, with luck, a pair who can safely navigate their way through the Bermuda triangle of constitutional despond.
I do not wish to revisit at any length the events surrounding last year’s House of Lords Reform Bill, but whatever one’s views of the underlying merits of that issue or of an elected House of Lords, it is hard to deny that the Bill was deeply misconceived. It purported to create greater accountability by electing unaccountable senators. It purported to increase the power of the legislature against the Executive, but the fact is that the Blair Government were defeated four times in the elected Commons over 10 years and 460 times in the unelected Lords. It purported to advance democracy but would have meant fewer women, fewer people with disabilities and fewer people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in front-line politics. The Joint Committee sat for longer than any Committee in recent memory but was unable to achieve consensus. Indeed, it had an almost unprecedented minority report, signed by six Privy Counsellors, and even then it was all but ignored. I think that the Bermuda triangle is an apt metaphor.
And for what? In the words of the noble Lord Pannick, one of the pre-eminent lawyers of his generation:
“The Bill does not adequately address the central issue of constitutional concern”.
I, along with many others, warned at the time that the Bill would undermine the primacy of the House of Commons and transform the Lords into a Chamber competing with the Commons and that the result would be legislative gridlock. I reminded the House that the United States of America offers a useful cautionary tale: a political system manifestly struggling; beset by gridlock; vulnerable to powerful special interests; its two Houses repeatedly finding it impossible to achieve consensus on important legislation. The events of the past few weeks, with the US Government shutdown and the USA itself close to default, make that point perfectly.
By contrast, our Parliament has always been at its best when it acts in a spirit not of 18th century innovation, but of reform. I cannot help but mention the great Member for Wendover, Bristol and Malton, Edmund Burke, who is not in his seat—not surprising, perhaps, as he died in 1797. In his writings, he set seven tests for reform, which might be of interest to the House. Reform should be early, anticipating the emergence of a problem before its full effects are felt; it should be proportionate to the evil to be addressed, to limit any collateral effects; it should build on existing arrangements and previous reforms, so that it can draw on any lessons learned from them; it should be measured, so that those making the change and those affected by it can adjust their behaviour accordingly; it should be consensual, so that the process of reform can avoid unnecessary conflict and outlast a particular Government’s own period in office; it should be cool in spirit, to maintain consensus throughout the process of change; and, finally, each step must be practical and achievable in itself. The Bill meets every one of those tests.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for referring to Edmund Burke’s principles for reform. Under those principles, would it not be better, with regard to excluding peers who commit offences, to build on the Titles Deprivation Act 1917, which provides a precedent for removing peers and taking away their titles?
I thank my hon. Friend for that typically scholarly and thoughtful intervention. That piece of legislation worked in the opposite direction, beginning by taking away titles and then allowing removal or exclusion from the Lords to follow therefrom. Such an approach would raise a thicket of further constitutional issues and probably steer us directly into the centre of the Bermuda triangle, never to return. It is therefore with some hesitation that I would endorse his suggestion, but I absolutely invite him to expand on it in any remarks that he makes later.
This Bill meets every one of the seven tests of Burke that I set out. If it succeeds, it will be an excellent example of effective reform, and we, and indeed our country, will be the better for it.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Jesse Norman, who made, as usual, a very illuminating speech on the matter of Lords reform. I was one of the 91 hon. Members to whom he referred. However, on this Bill I do not start from the same position as I started from on the gargantuan House of Lords Reform Bill, because although the Bill’s title contains the word “Reform”, anyone would have to accept that it is not in the same league as the previous Bill.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend Dan Byles on his courage in dipping his toes into the deep and turbulent waters of House of Lords reform. As an adventurer of world-record-breaking renown, he is no man to shirk a challenge. It is certainly a challenge to try to steer any House of Lords measure through this House, but no one is more capable of doing so than him. He should be congratulated on his bravery in picking up this issue. When he announced that he was introducing this Bill, he wrote on his website:
“Lords reform has been a difficult and controversial subject”.
Few would dispute that statement. It is a topic that has caused problems for many before him. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Bill, he should be congratulated on introducing it.
Although the Bill’s short title is the House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill, it is fair to say that it is not in the same league as the Government’s own blockbuster House of Lords Reform Bill, which hit the rocks and then sank without trace in the previous Session. It is nevertheless a reforming measure. I would take slight issue with my hon. Friend when he said that there was a “slight hint of constitutionality” about it. I would venture to submit that, on any measure, it must be construed as a constitutional Bill, albeit, I accept, a modest one. I wonder whether the private Members’ Bill route is the correct one for bringing legislation of a constitutional nature before this House. This Bill is certainly not typical of a private Member’s Bill.
I urge the Government to consider the merits of putting the Bill over to a Committee of the whole House rather than sending it to be dealt with upstairs, as would be normal for a private Member’s Bill. As I said in my intervention on the Minister, had the Government introduced a House of Lords reform Bill along these lines instead of the leviathan they did introduce, there would be no need for my hon. Friend’s Bill. The matter could have been dealt with in the normal way as a Government Bill, and that would have gone some way towards assuaging the feelings of those who would like more far-reaching House of Lords reform measures. At least, for them, it would have been some measure of progress.
My own approach to constitutional reform, which is particularly appropriate in relation to reform of the House of Lords, is that if it is to be done at all, it should be done on the basis of evolution rather than revolution. I accept that the aims of this Bill are fairly modest, but let us recognise that they have the potential to have a fairly radical effect on the membership of the other place. Because of the nature of the Bill, one can only surmise what its true effect would be. For example, if a statutory retirement scheme were to be introduced, we would have no way of knowing whether there would be a sudden rush of Members of the other place wanting to take advantage of it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the number of people who might take up such a scheme would depend on what the incentives were? One of the proposals that I made in my modest Bill is that there should be an opportunity for those who seek to retire from the other place to exchange their life peerage for a hereditary one.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion, which he says is contained in his Bill; obviously I have not yet reached that provision. That would be an innovative way forward. As the law stands, it would exclude people from membership of the House of Lords, but they would be entitled to stand in any by-election that arose among the hereditary peers and would thus have a potential route back, should they so desire.
According to last Friday’s edition of The House magazine, dated
That gives a total of 829 peers, or 786 if one excludes—which one usually does—those who have taken leave of absence. Of those 786, roughly two thirds—537 or 68.3%—come from the three major parties: Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats. The rest are the Cross Benchers, the Bishops and members of the various other smaller parties.
I understand that the average attendance is in the region of two thirds of the total, which means that it is a little over 500. That is not that dissimilar to this place. The argument for House of Lords reform is invariably made on the grounds that it is too large and unwieldy. As my hon. Friend Mr Chope has said, it is somewhat ironical that over the years Governments of all descriptions have rushed to appoint new peers. The previous Labour Government created 408 peerages when they were in power, which led to an enormous increase in the size of the House.
The Bill would not have much effect—except in the case of the occasional, perhaps forced, expulsion of a Member who committed a serious criminal offence—on the numbers turning up to take part in the day-to-day work of the other place. No one should kid themselves that the problems of overcrowding would be eased that much by the Bill.
The Bill essentially has three different aspects and I will consider each in turn. The first is the retirement or resignation of a peer, the second the removal of a peer for non-attendance, and the third the removal of a peer after conviction for committing a serious criminal offence. I am inclined to agree that it is absurd that a Member of the other place should be required to remain a Member if they no longer wish to do so, but there is already in place a procedure that enables them to take leave of absence. Last Friday, The House magazine stated that 43 noble Lords have taken such leave of absence. Roughly 5% have taken advantage of the process, so it must be fairly widely known and it seems to be working. There is a list on the Parliament website of those Lords who have taken a leave of absence. I will not read it out, but what I will say is that 10 Members of the other place applied for leave of absence and were granted it in the first month of this Parliament back in May 2010. Those 10 knew straight away what the situation was and that they would not be able to attend, so they applied for a leave of absence.
Although the mechanism set out in the Bill is one way of dealing with this—and perhaps we can consider it in more detail if the Bill gets to Committee—it might be better if, rather than starting up a new system, we built on the existing mechanism of a leave of absence and made a provision for something that might be called a permanent leave of absence, whereby peers could simply say that until they write again they do not wish to be bothered by receipt of the writ of summons.
Is that not exactly the system that is in place? A permanent leave of absence system was established in 2011 and I think that three noble Lords have taken advantage of it. The only respect in which it is not permanent is that it entails at the beginning of a new Parliament that each peer, even when in receipt of a permanent leave of absence, receives a writ of summons.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am not aware of the minutiae of the two schemes, but perhaps the informal voluntary scheme, which was introduced in 2011 and which allows a Member to write to the Clerk of Parliaments indicating their wish permanently to retire, has not been given a chance to work. It has not even been in operation throughout an entire Parliament yet. As my hon. Friend says, in its first two years of operation the scheme has attracted only three Members to take advantage of it, two of whom had been non-attenders for several years.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee helpfully produced, only this week, its ninth report of Session 2013-14, “House of Lords reform: what next?” The Committee took evidence during its inquiry and the broad consensus in the written evidence it received was that the current voluntary retirement scheme has not been effective and that it has had no notable impact. That raises the question of the extent to which the scheme has been publicised to their noble lordships. How many of them are aware that it is in place?
I think I am right in saying that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire said during his excellent opening remarks that, at present, six Members want permanently to retire. If that is the case, it would be interesting to know—perhaps we will find out as the Bill moves through its various stages—why they have not availed themselves of the present voluntary retirement scheme, which, as I have said, was introduced back in 2011. Do they know that the scheme exists? If they do, why have they not taken advantage of it?
I am extremely concerned about the desire to offer an incentive scheme. The danger is that, far from this being a cost-saving measure, it could end up costing the taxpayer a great deal more than the present system.
I accept, as a ballpark figure, that the scheme might involve several dozen Members of the other place who, for whatever reason, are not regular attenders. However, because peers receive an attendance allowance only if they turn up, all those who have taken a leave of absence or who simply do not turn up are not costing the taxpayer anything. If we offer their noble lordships an incentive to retire, we will enter an arms race of incentives. Although some Lords might accept the incentive, others will say that it is not enough, so people will say that we ought to make the incentives more generous. There are dangers in going down that road.
I can understand why peers might want to retire. As I have often said, a peer who is appointed in middle age or at the end of many years in another career will want to spend 10, 15 or 20 years in the other place. However, many of them will feel obliged to keep soldiering on out of a sense of duty to the other place and to the country. Of course, many of them do so.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must not underestimate the power of the writ of summons. For somebody who has devoted a substantial portion of their life to the service of their country and to Parliament, receiving the writ of summons from the monarch is difficult to ignore, even if they have taken leave and are entitled not to attend. Some people really do feel that they are letting their country down by not attending or not playing a more active role. It seems to me that having a formal retirement mechanism, rather than the informal one that is in place, whereby they would no longer receive the writ of summons but a great thank you for their service and would be allowed to retire in peace, would be an important step.
My hon. Friend makes an important and worthwhile point. There will be noble Lords in the other place who feel that they have an obligation to continue. One suggestion is that there should be a formal retirement ceremony to mark the service of a peer. There is, after all, a formal ceremony to introduce new peers into the House of Lords. We saw that ceremony only yesterday, when two new peers were introduced. That demonstrates that the figures that I gave from last week’s The House magazine are already out of date because of the new peers who were announced over the summer.
It is reasonable that new peers are introduced from time to time. Inevitably, the numbers will fall over time by reason of death. When there is a diminution in the number of working peers—those who regularly attend and take part in proceedings—because peers have died, it is right that the party leaders should replace them. What is not right—we saw this all too often under the last Government—is the creation of new peers for party political purposes. Currently, the Conservative party has nowhere near a majority in the other place.
“modest pension, or payment on retirement” would provide peers with an incentive to take up voluntary retirement, while also providing an overall saving to the taxpayer. I am not sure that it would provide an overall saving to the taxpayer. To be fair, such a payment is not suggested in the Bill, but I hope that it is not the thin end of the wedge. We should make it clear that there will be no inducement for Members of the other place to retire.
Is not one of the problems with the Bill that it is silent on that issue? If my hon. Friend is right, surely the Bill should provide that retirement should not be associated in any way with payment.
If it was felt that something of that sort was necessary, it could be considered in Committee. Originally, the Bill simply referred to “retirement” and I changed it to “retirement or resignation” because I felt that the word “retirement” on its own had a number of implications to do with age, pensions and so on. I made it “retirement or resignation” to make it clear that it was not linked to the end of somebody’s working life and the connotations that go with that.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is entirely conceivable that there will be peers who wish to leave the other place for reasons other than retirement. They might wish to pursue another avenue.
It is often said that the other place is full of retired politicians. The last figures that I saw showed that only about a quarter of the Members of the other place had previously been Members of this House. On that basis, it would be a little unfair to describe the other place as being full of retired politicians.
Order. Perhaps we can refrain from discussing individual Members of the other place, or even those who might be individual Members of the other place.
I am grateful for the helpful intervention from my hon. Friend, because I fear that I would not have got very many points for that particular question in the pub quiz.
If I may return to where I was—which was not with the Liberal Democrats—it is perhaps a little unfair to condemn all the Members of the other place as retired politicians, when only about a quarter are former Members of this House. Moreover, they are not retired politicians, because they are still taking part in the political process. That is the crucial point. They may be retired Members of the House of Commons, but it is an entirely noble—I use the word in its fullest sense—calling to be a Member of the other place and to devote one’s working life to the scrutiny of legislation, as they do so admirably.
All too often, certainly when House of Lords reform is being discussed, we look at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. I am not making that point about this Bill, which is modest in its aims, but generally we look at the mechanics of the Lords rather than whether it is doing a good job in its primary task of scrutinising the legislation that we send to it. The answer is invariably that it is doing a good job.
The 2011 Leader’s group report suggested that it would be worth while investigating whether a modest pension or payment on retirement should be provided. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee took evidence on that point, and the evidence of the Clerk of the Parliaments confirmed that savings could be made. I have some doubts about that, but it is a cause for concern. There is merit in the suggestion that we should have some sort of retirement procedure, whether it is called retirement or resignation—perhaps we could call it a leaving party. If that idea took off, it could mean a boost to the economy with House of Lords retirement parties, and give all hon. Members a new diary engagement at the end of each Session, as various Members of the other place retired or resigned.
We have had considerable discussion about what sort of scheme should be in place, and what use retired Members could make of the facilities. It has been suggested, for example, that the retired or resigned Members could still be entitled to make use of the facilities, and it might be worth looking at that idea. It is not an idea that I would favour, because in my view if someone has left, they have left, but it would perhaps be one way to encourage people to resign or retire.
“did not attend at any time during the Session, having regard to attendance records kept by officials of the House, and…did not have leave of absence in respect of the Session, in accordance with Standing Orders of the House.”
My concern about that provision is that it is not entirely clear what “attend” means. For example, if someone attends the building, but does not take part in proceedings on the Floor of the House, does that count as attendance?
I was coming on to that point, but it does not explain whether attending the proceedings of the House covers, for example, somebody who wishes to attend and listen to the debate, but then decides that they do not want to take part in the vote.
My hon. Friend will be aware that, because of the very large numbers in the House of Lords, the seating at the Bar of the House that is not technically within the Lords is now being used by peers. If a peer were to sit behind the Bar, hoping to attend but not actually in the body of the House, would that count as attendance?
As always, my hon. Friend makes a valuable and pertinent point. Have those peers attended the proceedings or not? What if they were to attend but had to witness the proceedings from the Gallery because of the lack of seats?
I can help my hon. Friend on that point. Certainly in this House, the Gallery counts as the House and, if the Chamber is full, it is possible to speak from the Gallery, which I hope at some point to do—although not today. [Laughter.]
No, not today. Whether one is on the Floor of the House in the other place or in the Gallery, does merely attending and watching count as attendance, or would one be expected to vote? Many of the Cross Benchers, because of the nature of their appointment to the other place, often do not wish to vote on certain issues, so we need to be careful with that provision.
Clause 2 amounts to the compulsory exclusion of a peer from the other place, and in many ways it is therefore much more controversial than clause 1. Clause 1 has its problems, but we can deal with it. Clause 2 is more controversial, because someone would risk being excluded from the other place against their will. They might not be happy about being excluded and we should be careful in our consideration of the provision. It has been suggested that we should go even further and put in a minimum attendance level and link it to the number of votes a peer takes part in. For example, as a minimum, a peer should take part in at least 10% of votes to maintain their membership of the other place.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be a dangerous precedent to adopt. We heard from Mr Blunkett, who suggested that voting should be used as a method of determining whether peers are non-attenders. In a written submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, he stated that peers who have not voted in more than 10% of Divisions for three Sessions out of the last five should be removed from having “a formal role”:
“They would of course remain Peers and could be allowed access to the restaurants and bars (but not offices, research and other working facilities). This would be commercially prudent.”
That may be prudent from a commercial point of view, but it would be the worst of all worlds. We would have Members of the other place effectively treating it is a social club: not taking part in proceedings, just having a drink in the bar. If anything were to bring the other place into disrepute, it would be such a mechanism.
My hon. Friend makes a good point that links in with my earlier point about Cross Benchers, who often feel that they only want to take part in debates on issues on which they have specialist knowledge. It may be that in one Session their area of expertise is not brought before the House, but that in the next Session it is and their expertise is desperately needed.
I am grateful for that intervention. I think the vast majority of peers, as the figures demonstrate, take an active part in the proceedings of the other place. As with any large body, there will always be one or two Members who fall outside the general norm. The old adage says that difficult cases make bad law. We should not form our laws around one or two cases; we should look at the majority.
There are a lot of other things we could do to deal with non-attendance. Frankly, if peers are not attending, they are not causing any problems—they are not taking up any space and not making use of the facilities. I understand that there are one or two Members who, apparently, use the facilities but do not attend. Quite how that works needs to be considered, but I am sure there are other ways to do it. For example, it would be easy, even if the clause became law, for Members who wanted to retain their membership of the other place to take advantage of their membership without playing a full and active part. They could turn up on the first day of the Session, take part in a Division, thus ticking that box, continue to come and go as they please and not take part in anything else. Human nature being what it is, there will always be one or two who do that if such a provision is introduced. It would perhaps become known as “the Byles attendance”. They would do their Byles attendance day, get their mark and think, “Phew, that’s dealt with clause 2.”
I would hate it for anybody to think that any measure in the Bill, with the possible exception of the references to criminality, is accusing any Member of the House of Lords of gaming the system. That is not the intention. The Bill does not suggest that people are trying to pull a fast one; it is simply that some people want to leave and should be allowed to leave, and that some people have no interest in attending and therefore should be moved on so they can be replaced by somebody else. Of course, my hon. Friend is right that there are always ways of gaming the system, but the Bill starts with the premise that we are all hon. Members and noble Lords and will probably not be gaming the system.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I need to make it absolutely clear that no one is suggesting, and I am sure that none of the hon. Members who have intervened is suggesting, that any noble Lord is taking advantage of the facilities of the other place without playing a full part in proceedings. What we are doing is looking at hypothetical cases that might happen, which is right and proper when we consider legislation of this nature.
“it is difficult to say this but it has to be said. There are those who attend very regularly indeed and do precisely nothing. They do not speak; they do not take part in committees; they vote.”
That is evidence straight from the other place. If that is the case—we have no reason to doubt that it is not correct—the situation we are discussing might not be as hypothetical as I have just ventured to suggest. I still express the hope and desire that it is not widespread. If it is happening, it raises questions about whether we need the provisions in clause 2. My point, which is that there will always be people who try to play the system, is applicable.
Finally on the non-attendance provision, what if someone was in a coma as a result of tragically being involved a road traffic accident, and so unable to apply for leave of absence or attend? I appreciate that it is up to the Lord Speaker to issue a certificate, but I wonder whether someone suffering from ill health ought to be protected by being excluded from the clause.
Under clause 3, a Member could be excluded from the House of Lords if they were convicted of a serious offence and
“sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained indefinitely or for more than one year.”
To get straight to the heart of my concern, human nature being what it is, there is a danger that those involved in sentencing, knowing the accused to be a Member of the House of Lords and knowing that were they to hand down a sentence of 12 months or more they would lose their membership of the other place, might think, “Well, we’d better not give them 12 months, because we don’t want them to lose their membership”, or, “Well, we’ll give them more than would otherwise be the case, because we think they ought to lose their membership.”
I do not know which of those two evils is the worst; they would both be equally unwelcome, so I wonder whether we would not be better to leave the matter to a committee on standards and privileges in the other place to consider each case on its merits. It could then weigh up the different aspects of each case and decide whether it would be appropriate to expel the Member. I entirely agree that there is a danger, if the other place does not have rules in line with those in this House, that people outside will rightly think that there is one rule for some and one rule for others; and they would not expect those who have broken the law in a serious manner also to sit in the legislature making the laws. All we have to do is come up with a mechanism for dealing with that.
I am concerned about sentences handed down by foreign courts. I suspect that such concerns are the reason clause 3(6) provides that if the other place resolves that there are special circumstances, a Member of the other place convicted of a serious offence could still remain a Member of the House of Lords, if the conviction was outside the United Kingdom. Obviously, there could be many jurisdictions in which an offence carries a much more serious penalty than in this country, which is why this provision is in the Bill, and rightly so. I wonder, though, whether anything would be lost by removing the phrase “outside the United Kingdom” and leaving it open to the Lords in any case, even if the sentence had been handed down by a court in this jurisdiction, to waive in certain circumstances the provisions in clause 3(1).
The final three clause deal with the effect of ceasing to be a Member, the detailed rules about the issuing of a certificate by the Lord Speaker and the short title, commencement and extent of the Bill, all of which I have no comment to make on at the present time. Although this is a relatively modest measure, it could have enormous constitutional consequences for the other place. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire on his bravery in bringing it forward and repeat my request that this matter is considered by a Committee of the whole House.
I also commend my hon. Friend Dan Byles for promoting the Bill. I hope he did not mind my intervening on him and suggesting that it would make very little difference. His reply was interesting; he said, “It’s going to make so little difference, it’s not worth opposing,” which is an interesting constitutional innovation.
I think that my hon. Friend is going about this the right way, though. We are all familiar with the dictum that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. I think we can add to that: when it is necessary to change, it is necessary to do so very slowly. That is a gradualist, Conservative, Tory—high Tory, if I may say so—notion of constitutional reform, and Edmund Burke would have been proud of him today. Edmund Burke, incidentally, was known as the “Dinner Bell” during his time in the Commons because his speeches were so long and so boring, but that certainly did not apply to the crisp way in which my hon. Friend introduced his Bill and replied to all our many points.
What I like about the Bill is that it establishes the notion that it is possible to reform the House of Lords gradually and to remove its greatest faults without suggesting that we need an elected House of Lords. I am personally convinced that this is the way forward. It was a very good point made earlier that it is extraordinary that those most hellbent on creating an elected House of Lords, based on proportional representation to ensure that no one party can dominate it, are the same people who, precisely because they want a radical reform, insist on killing off every single modest reform ever attempted. That is an extraordinary constitutional notion.
With this extraordinarily modest Bill, we are just trying to take one or two steps, and if it becomes law, there is no reason why we could not take two or three further steps next year. Of course, I do not think the Bill goes far enough. It does not get to the kernel of the problem, but that is not a good reason for denying my hon. Friend’s Bill progress today.
I want to make a few points about how we could solve some of the House of Lords’ major problems. If the Bill were to become law, what would it achieve? It would allow people to retire. My hon. Friend made a fair point when he asked why anyone should not be allowed to retire. No one would suggest that the provision on retirement is a wrong notion in itself. We all know, however, that it is already possible to take leave of absence. My hon. Friend Mr Chope has intervened to make that entirely justifiable point. There are no incentives to retire, because there is no pension and because people can take leave of absence. Even under this Bill, Members of the House of Lords would have to turn up only once a Session to retain their membership. It is therefore hard to imagine why anyone would choose to retire. However, according to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, there are four or five people in the other place who wish to do so. Fair enough—why should anyone stop them? The fact that only a few people want to do something is not a reason for opposing their right to do it. So I have no problem with that provision.
I do not think anyone has a problem with putting the House of Lords pretty much on a par with the House of Commons in terms of criminal convictions, although I think that too much is made of this point. Just as there are probably very few people who would choose to retire from the House of Lords, because it is unnecessary to do so, there are also very few people who have been convicted of relatively serious criminal offences.
Indeed. So that provision would hardly make any difference.
The main problem with the House of Lords is that there are too many people there. It is not that the Benches are overcrowded or that people have to turn up early to speak. The problem with having too many people in the House of Lords is that it gives too much power and patronage to the Government. The Bill will make absolutely no difference to that. That is not a reason to oppose it, however.
Our debating these important constitutional points today gives us an opportunity to say that the Government are in a difficult position on this matter. They introduced a massive Bill last year that would have fundamentally changed the relationship between the two House of Parliament. It would effectively have created an elected House of Lords and put people in there for a 15-year term. Such a dramatic, radical step would have offended many Conservative sensibilities, and the Government failed to achieve consensus on the Bill. They also tell us constantly that they are worried about the other place because there are too many people there, yet they go on stuffing it—I use the word advisedly—with more and more political placements. It has reached the stage where even someone like me could hope to go to the House of Lords.
I am perhaps not quite such a reactionary as my hon. Friend. I fear that his idea of reforming the House of Lords would be to get rid of all the life peerages and to return to the hereditary principle.
I do not go along with the Groucho Marx rule that it would not be worth being a member of any institution that would have me as a member. We all know, however, that in the past the House of Lords was reserved for people who had delivered extraordinary service to the nation, for example by serving in the Cabinet. My hon. Friend Mr Nuttall said that only a quarter of the Members of the other place were former politicians, but when I go there these days, it is like looking at the House of Commons of 10 years ago. The same people are now there, and I believe that that gives far too much power and patronage to the Government.
For what it is worth, I would reform the House of Lords by going a lot further than the Bill and getting rid of the fundamental iniquity whereby the Government can go on appointing more and more people to it. I would set an upper limit on the number of its Members. It would be reasonable to set a maximum size of 650, the same as the House of Commons. That would concentrate minds and ensure that only the most distinguished people, such as former Deputy Speakers of the House of Commons, could end up there. We should aim for that level of distinction, Madam Deputy Speaker. My serious point is that setting an upper limit would concentrate minds. It would also prevent Governments from threatening to create extra peers if they could not get their way in relation to a particular Bill.
I cannot believe that there cannot be a mechanism for retirement. I am not talking about a voluntary mechanism. After all, if cardinals have to retire at the age of 80, why should not Members of the House of Lords do so?
I did know that. I share with my hon. Friend a certain interest in those matters. It would be perfectly possible to allow Members of the other place who were over 80 to attend and go on using the facilities, but not to vote. That would put them on a par with the cardinals. I believe that setting a sensible retirement age and placing a limit on the number of peers would solve many of the problems.
The importance of this very small Bill in terms of constitutional change is that, if by some miracle it gets through its Second Reading by 2.30—I hope that it does, and there is no reason why it should not—and if it proceeds through the House of Lords in the ordinary way, we will have established the principle that it is possible to make these small, incremental changes.
We have been talking about these matters for a very long time. We started with the Parliament Act 1911, after which came the Bryce commission, which was set up by Lloyd George following the interregnum of the first world war. The commission failed to agree on any proposals. It is interesting to note that most people then favoured a House of Lords with 246 Members, chosen by MPs, from different geographical regions. I have said that there is something wrong with the size of the House of Lords, but there is also something wrong with the geographical spread of its membership.
About 22% of Members of the House of Lords come from London, and 18% come from elsewhere in the south-east. Only 2.94% come from my region, the east midlands, and 2.2% come from the north-east. That geographical concentration on London is a problem, and the House of Lords has become the home of the metropolitan liberal elite. I am sure that my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg would agree that it is a sad fact that there are probably now more social conservatives in the House of Commons than in the House of Lords. Without wishing to get into the whole subject of gay marriage, we saw that, when that legislation was passed. The membership of the House of Lords is not spread widely enough, geographically. If it had more Members from the midlands and the north of England, we might get a more representative debate.
I have mentioned the initial reforms that attempted to achieve such a geographical spread, and the Bryce commission, which proposed those ideas in 1922. At that time, people were still talking about limiting membership of the House of Lords to hereditary peers, albeit with some kind of election by the House of Commons. All along, however, and even in those early days, and there was a determination not to upset parliamentary conventions, as is this Bill, which I like, so there was no power to amend or reject money Bills and the Parliament Act would not apply. The gradualist notion that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire is talking about is important because it means that the fundamental conventions, which primarily ensure the supremacy of the elected House of Commons, are not affected. All those who take part in these debates must constantly repeat the point that no Bill should so radically alter the House of Lords or make it democratically justifiable in some shape or form that the supremacy of this House of Commons, which has been supreme now for over 100 years, would in any way be questioned.
The Marquess of Salisbury proposed a scheme based on the Bryce idea and that received a Second Reading in 1934, but again no progress was made. An inter-party conference on Lords reforms in the late 1940s agreed on nine principles, and I do not think any of them would be affected by this Bill, and none of them would fall foul of the notion of gradualism. They included the principle that no party should have overall control of the reformed House, that life peerages would be created, that women would be allowed to be Members and that allowances would be introduced. They at least had the right idea, therefore, which was that they should reform gradually.
The Life Peerages Act 1958 brought in life peerages, while the Peerage Act 1963 allowed all Scottish hereditary peers, previously subject to election as representative peers, as well as peeresses, to sit in the Lords in their own right, and we all know about the innovation of disclaiming a hereditary peerage, à la Tony Benn.
The Parliament (No. 2) Bill 1968 would have introduced various changes so that primary legislation was subject to shorter delays and so that the Commons had the power to override a Lords veto of statutory instruments. Harold Wilson dropped the Bill in order to allow time for more pressing Government business.
We are all familiar with what happened in 1999, so we do not need to rehearse it. That reform produced roughly the House of Lords we have today. What is interesting is the sheer number of reports that have followed it: the Wakeham commission of 2000, the White Paper, “Completing the Reform”, of 2001; the first and second reports of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform of 2002; the Government consultation paper, “Constitutional Reform: next steps for the House of Lords” of 2003; the Labour White Paper, “The House of Lords: reform” of February 2007; and its Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain” of July 2007.
These involved a wide variety of plans for mostly, or completely, elected Chambers. The point is that no consensus was ever found, and it is my contention that no consensus will ever be found, so let’s get over it. Perhaps we should send buses around London bearing billboards saying, “The House of Lords will not be elected: get over it,” because that is the reality. No consensus will ever be found in the House of Commons to create any kind of elected House of Lords, and that is why the approach we are trying to follow today is right and important.
The addition of any element of a reformed Chamber that includes directly elected Lords threatens the whole raft of conventions that have been carefully built up over 100 years, and which determine the relationship between the Commons and the Lords. These conventions are important and bear repeating: the Salisbury convention regarding Bills implementing manifesto commitments; the convention that the Lords do not usually object to secondary legislation; the convention that the Government should be able to get their business done in reasonable time; the financial privilege of the House of Commons; and the convention on the exchange of amendments between the Houses. These conventions are not unimportant. They are central to our constitution and I believe they have to be preserved because they conserve the supremacy of the elected House of Commons.
I am not in favour of these conventions being codified, because the lack of codification gives them a flexibility whereby they can adapt and change slowly over time. That is what we are doing with this Bill: we are slowly changing things over time. This adaptability and the ability to bend is a strength of the British parliamentary system and of our common law: it bends rather than breaks.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about convention. Does he accept that one of the problems with the Government bringing forward large numbers of new peers based on the vote at the previous general election is that that undermines the convention of give and take with the House of Lords, and that it would be much better if the Government just forgot about what had happened at the last general election and looked at what was best for the House of Lords?
Yes, I think one of the key elements of traditional Conservative thinking is that we do not necessarily think that in order to be representative and to feel justified we have to have some direct relationship with what happens in a general election, particularly one based on proportional representation.
I therefore think that the Government should get all the extraneous and radical thoughts out of their mind. I know my right hon. Friend the Minister is a great thinker on these matters and he would much rather have extended his speech to include some of his thoughts on these wider constitutional conventions and ideas. I suspect he felt rather constrained—but that, of course, is in the nature of being a Minister.
Although the House of Lords is fundamentally irrational in many ways, it fulfils its central purposes. That is the point my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire was making. When we talk about House of Lords reforms, we focus far too much on structures. We should be focusing instead on this question: does it work? Does it do its job as a revising Chamber? The answer, surely, in terms of both quality of debate and its general ethos is that it does. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. It does not matter if somebody only speaks in the House of Lords once every year—or, I have to say to my hon. Friend Dr Coffey, if they only speak once over 10 years—if they speak with sufficient knowledge from personal experience. That is what they are there to do. We are here in the House of Commons not to speak as experts; we are generalists. We are here to represent public opinion as we see it. Of course our own prejudices occasionally come into play, but we do attempt to reflect public opinion. The House of Lords is not there for that purpose. It is a Chamber of experts, and it does its job in those terms in an excellent fashion.
People should not criticise my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire by saying, “He’s had the opportunity of a whole day for his private Member’s Bill and he could have done something far more radical.” I am sure he could intervene on me to give me a dozen ideas of how he would wish to improve the House of Lords further. Perhaps, like me, he thinks that there should be some sort of retirement age and limitation on numbers, but he knows that if he takes one step too many—if he takes four or five steps, rather than one or two—those who are determined to kill off anything but the most modest of reforms would ensure that this Bill never made any more progress. So he has conducted himself wisely on constitutional reform.
Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of how well the House of Lords does its job, will he cast his mind back to 1984, when he had been in this House for a year and sought to move a sensible amendment to bring in postal ballots for trade union elections? That amendment could get nowhere because it was heavily whipped against, and it was defeated. But in the other place, where people listened to reason, that amendment went through, and so when the legislation came back here, the Government had to listen and take some parts of it on board, which they did, with very beneficial effects over the years that followed.
I agree with that point, and I think the House of Lords performs that function excellently. Those who believe that the House of Lords can have legitimacy only if it is elected forget what the result of an elected House of Lords would be: it would filled with elected politicians. We are called “politicians” because we are elected and too many of us believe that we can feel justification in our life only if we become Ministers. That is why on dozens of occasions, including the one to which my hon. Friend Dr Lewis alluded, reason has come to see light in the House of Lords, whereas in this place it is almost impossible to defeat the power of the whipping system, because most politicians are naturally ambitious. So let us not focus on the structures or on creating an elected House of Lords; let us focus on the small and necessary steps that this Bill can take, and which a Bill next year might take one step further forward.
As I was saying, the major strength of the British parliamentary system not just in the past century, but over 200 years, is that it bends rather than breaks. It does move very slowly, and people often criticise us for the slowness of our constitutional change, but its very slowness is its major strength. If we were to enact legislation to codify a convention—if my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire were to say that, as we have excellent conventions regulating the relationship between the two Houses, we should codify them—we would, in essence, kill it. We do not know how any of the proposals for House of Lords reform will upset the conventions, which time, tradition and compromise have erected. Time, tradition and compromise are the essential agreements of any successful constitutional change. That is a conservative principle—a Burkean principle—and it lies behind what my hon. Friend is doing, and it is on those terms that I wish the Bill well in its passage.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. He spoke at length on certain other aspects that he wished were in the Bill but, like him, I agree that keeping it modest means that it has a reasonable chance of making progress in this
When I was a candidate at the general election, one gentleman in Kelsale wanted to speak at length on constitutional reform, and that was the sole reason on which he would place his vote. As we all know, when we are canvassing it is difficult to get the opportunity to spend more than two minutes with an elector without going back to see them another time. May I say to that gentleman in Kelsale that this bit of my speech is for him? I hope he is listening.
This useful Bill takes on a number of recommendations made in the report published in 2011 by Lord Hunt of Wirral and a cross-party group of peers. As has been said, the Bill is modest, but it has an important aim of protecting and enhancing the reputation of Parliament. In short, it deals with people who do not show up and people who are crooks. Clause 1, in particular, gives a proper mechanism for those who no longer wish to serve as Members of the House of Lords to step down.
My hon. Friend has just said that the Bill deals with people who do not turn up, but it would not, would it, unless they voluntarily chose to retire? They need only turn up occasionally to be excluded from the Bill’s provisions.
I will come to that point later, if my hon. Friend will allow me.
Repeated experiences, recently and stretching well back into the past century, show that small reform has more chance of being passed, and of being effective. I believe there is general consensus in this place and the other place that some reform is required, and I am pleased that a number of proposals that we are discussing were supported yesterday by the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which my hon. Friend Mr Chope, and indeed our newly elected Deputy Speaker, are members.
There are 785 active noble Lords in the other place—considerably more than 10 years ago. It is not the right time to go into the ideal size of membership of the other place; that is a topic for another Bill and another day. But going to the nub of this Bill, clause 1 suggests that there is scope for a mechanism for effectively leaving the other place. As has been said, for the past two years there has been an informal voluntary retirement scheme, which involves peers being given permanent leave of absence, but not many people have taken that up. It was suggested that the lack of incentive to retire is stopping people.
I believe that providing a leaving payment or use of facilities for life would seem rather contrary to many people in the country. The European Parliament offers such benefits for former MEPs, but I suspect that that would not wash here. Judging by the reaction in the Chamber, the incentive suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and, I believe, my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, that they should receive a hereditary peerage, although one up in the hierarchy, as it were, would lead to excessive head-shaking—and not up and down.
There is a lot of merit in the suggestion of a leaving ceremony. We already see such ceremonies in other forms of government, although perhaps not in this place, where people are recognised for the service they have given to their constituents as councillors, and there is something to commend that for people from the other place who wish to permanently finish their service there.
In short, clause 1 provides the mechanism for noble Lords to leave Parliament once and for all. I understand that one peer, from Suffolk—the county I represent—Lord Phillips of Sudbury, decided to leave in 2006 and came back in 2009. I am sure he has been a very helpful Member of the other place, although not always voting with our Government.
Clause 2 provides that noble Lords not attending the other place during a Session lasting over six months, and not having leave of absence for the Session, would cease to be a Member. I believe it deals with people who do not show up—one thing that brings the other place into disrepute. As a parallel example, a non-executive director of UK plc who failed to show up to any meetings would be likely to be turfed out at the next annual general meeting. I would expect them to be turfed out if they showed up but did not ask a single question or utter a statement. That is important for the good repute of the other place.
Non-attendance is also contrary to the obligations of a Member of the other place as set out in the terms of the writ of summons. In exchange for the honour of a peerage bestowed by the Crown, noble Members have certain duties to carry out. They agree that they will be personally present in Parliament to “treat” and “give counsel” to the sovereign. Looking beyond that perhaps archaic language, I believe that the settlement of the writ remains valid, and that when noble Lords take up their writ, they should be expected to honour it. When candidates for Parliament sign up to be elected, it is expected that we will have obligations: we will vote. The Government and other Members are seeking mechanisms to recall Members of Parliament in certain circumstances. I believe it is important that anyone who becomes a Member of the House of Lords should expect to attend and contribute either their expertise or the crown of silver wisdom that one gets after a few advanced years.
My hon. Friend may not wish to. I am a bit surprised that he does not wish to criticise him; I expect he did when he was in this House. I do think it was a disgrace that Lord Heseltine decided not to grace the Lords with his presence for so long. I am strongly opposed to the concept of Buggins’s turns—that just because a person has filled a particular post, they should expect to get a peerage. That is wrong.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because I think she is being unfair to some peers. There was a period, prior to the creation of working peerages, when people were raised to the peerage purely as an honour, and when that honour was given, there was no expectation that they would be day-to-day politicians. In more recent years that has changed and peerages have been almost entirely working peerages, but to change it for those who got it as an honour, and expect them to be day-to-day working politicians, would be unreasonable.
I understand what my hon. Friend says, and I am not suggesting that I expect everyone who has the privilege of being a Member of the Lords to be there every day, but they should be there to help by using their general expertise, which is often what they were appointed for. I disagree with the concept that just because someone served in a particular post, they should automatically become a Member of the Lords. That tradition has recently been broken, because the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has always become a peer until recently. That is welcome, because we should not assume that one aspect of noble service automatically leads to another. That has also been the case with Cabinet Ministers, not all of whom have been raised to the peerage.
My hon. Friend is making a profoundly utilitarian point, with which I disagree. I think it was rather beautiful that there was a convention that former Prime Ministers used to get earldoms. Why not? I think it is rather lovely that we may have in our legislature Earl Lloyd-George or another great name from the past. What is wrong with that? What harm does it do?
Order. I think we are straying a little. We are debating not how people get into the House of Lords but how they might leave it. Perhaps we could return to that.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—you are right. People have to get there before the Bill can even apply, but I will stray no further in response to interventions.
According to the figures available from the House of Lords Journal Office, there are 14 noble Lords who have not attended a single debate, Division or Committee during this Session and are not on the ineligible list of Lords who have a leave of absence. It is difficult to work out the numbers for previous Sessions, but I understand that the figures are between 10 and 20. Perhaps some of those noble Lords would attend more frequently if the Bill were passed, but the numbers are low enough for that not to be much of a problem.
We should make it clear that the Bill is not a step on the road to a professional second Chamber. The threshold for attendance is set deliberately low, so that we do not undermine the important strength of the other place, which is the experience and expertise of noble Lords from many walks of life. Clause 2 would end the situation whereby somebody can remain a Member of the other place and be able to vote on the most serious matters of state without setting foot in the Chamber for months, years or even decades. I understand that the Clerk of the Parliaments now writes to noble Lords who attend infrequently inviting them to take a leave of absence, so they are able to retire informally. That has led to a few more taking that route proactively, and I am sure I read today that by failing to reply to the Clerk of the Parliaments, four peers are now automatically being given a leave of absence.
Two categories of peer are not covered in the Bill, and we might need a bit of clarification—that is for my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire to decide. One is noble Lords who are currently disqualified from attending the other place because they are members of the judiciary. They includes judges who were appointed Lords of Appeal in Ordinary under the old system prior to the establishment of the Supreme Court. They are currently disqualified from sitting, but only while working as judges. Indeed, the noble Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers has come back.
The other category of peers that is not covered—I am surprised that the other place chose this system—is those who are temporarily suspended because they have chosen to serve in another Parliament with the back-up plan of returning to the mother of Parliaments when elected democracy no longer suits them, or more likely, when the electors think they no longer suit them. If we pass the Bill, it might stimulate a practice of people resigning for good when they choose to leave the other place to serve the electorate directly.
I welcome clause 3, on the expulsion of noble Lords convicted of a serious offence. There is no doubt that it causes consternation for the membership of peers to go unchallenged despite their being sent to prison. No Member of this place or the other place should be above the law, and the view is reasonably held that we as legislators should be held to an even higher standard. The clause would make that happen.
It certainly makes sense to align the rules with those in the Commons, so that those given a sentence of a year or more should be forced to leave the Lords. In this Parliament, a Member of this House voluntary resigned before being convicted of a crime, although they were given a sentence of less than a year. Some noble Lords have been given similar sentences, and clause 1 would provide them with the opportunity to step down rather than perhaps simply not attending again. That is a common-sense, even overdue, measure that will bring the Lords into line with the long-established practices of this House and improve the reputation of Parliament as a whole.
To sum up, the Bill provides several reforming measures that are important, and indeed perhaps even necessary, because of the failures of past attempts at reform. It is important that we do what we can to enhance the reputation of Parliament. Allowing peers to resign or retire, if they wish to do so, with dignity is a common-sense move. The provisions on serious offences are also a way of enhancing the reputation and perception of Parliament. The measures relating to people who do not turn up to share the wisdom for which they were first appointed also take a sensible approach. I hope that there is consensus in the House, and that we make progress with the Bill today.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend Dan Byles on bringing forward the Bill.
I only hope that it does not meet the fate of other Bills that have entered this famous Bermuda triangle. I am completely in favour of reform of the House of Lords; I would support an all-elected Chamber. Strangely enough, though, had I been here in the late 1990s, when the Blair Government made their reforms, I would have opposed virtually every proposal.
It is perhaps strange for someone who considers themselves a traditional Conservative to want this sort of reform. My hon. Friend Mr Nuttall mentioned that he was against reform, full stop. I am sure that he did not quite mean that, and that he supports the education and welfare reforms, and all the other wonderful things that the Government are bringing forward.
Much has been said about the talented people on the House of Lords Benches, and indeed they are talented. My hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh mentioned the issue of geographical spread; it is certainly more likely that a distinguished surgeon from Kensington will find themselves on the red Benches than a distinguished surgeon from Cleethorpes or Gainsborough.
As I am speaking to a packed House—about 2% of this House’s membership is here—it is perhaps unfair to criticise those in the other place for non-attendance, but it is a fair assumption that if a person is appointed to the legislature, whether as an honour or because they are distinguished in a particular field, they should make a significant contribution. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough on this issue; 10-yearly appearances would be spreading things a little bit too thinly.
Let me turn to the measures on conviction of serious offences. I should tread carefully here, because a Member of the upper House who formerly represented Cleethorpes has spent some time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. I hope that is not a precedent for those who follow him. It is reasonable to say that those convicted of criminal offences should be barred from the upper House. The electorate would expect that. There is an argument about prisoners’ votes, and there is perhaps a connection with that issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough spoke about the slowness of constitutional change. That is, to some extent, a virtue, but there are limits to how slow change should be. We have been considering change in one form or another for more than a century, so it would not be unreasonable for us to move forward rather rapidly. I support the Bill. I hope that there is more reform to come, and that we do not have to wait another century for radical reform of the upper House.
May I join everybody in thanking my hon. Friend Dan Byles for bringing forward the Bill? I add particular thanks for his great courtesy in discussing it with me before today, and informing me of some of the intentions behind it; I am enormously grateful for that. Madam Deputy Speaker, may I thank you for allowing me to catch your eye? I sat in my seat for the whole of the two days of discussion on the House of Lords Reform Bill, but Mr Speaker and the Deputy Speakers were like the deaf adder who stopped up her ear and charmed I ever so wisely, so I was unable to be called in that debate. But there is a great joy about Fridays, when there is less in the habit of deaf adders and more ability to speak about these great issues.
I begin by speaking on and complaining, criticising and carping about the process that is being used for a constitutional Bill. As I understand it, the Government have no intention of allowing time for this Bill to go into a Committee of the whole House and I will, therefore, if Second Reading goes through, move in accordance with
This Bill may be accused of being a tidying-up measure. It may be said to be a matter of HR, but the question of who has the right to determine legislation is at the heart of our constitution and to put the Bill through using a process that does not give it the scrutiny of the whole House—the ability of every Member to attend the Committee—seems to be wrong. It might be being done just to save the blushes of the Lord President of the Council, who was not enormously successful with his previous effort, but it is disappointing that the Government are supporting the Bill but not allowing it sufficient time and the proper scrutiny that it needs.
As we have discovered in the course of this debate, there are some issues that need clarifying. They may, to some extent, be pedantic points, but the history of constitutional change is that it is often the technicalities—the pedantic points—that leave the greatest problems for the future; they are the unintended consequences or the change in the constitutional arrangements that was not intended.
The Bill tries to deal with problems that are not exactly new. I managed to find a reference in 1298 to the difficulty of getting Members to attend this House, rather than the other place. In those days a surety was required to ensure that Members turned up. The sheriff of Sussex required that the two deputies of Chichester should have surety and they simply ignored him. Some deputies from Bedfordshire were bound over in eight oxen and four draught horses. Now, some hundreds of years later, instead of demanding oxen and horses as surety for peers to turn up, we are going to say that they should be excluded.
On the face of it, that does not sound unreasonable. Surely, if someone is a member of a legislature, they should want to be actively involved, but can we not think of circumstances where that may not apply—where there may be good reason for non-attendance? What if a peer—if we go back to the second world war; this did happen—were to be a prisoner of war and were absent from the House for the whole period of that war? Think of peers who were captured at Dunkirk and were not able to come back until 1945. There is no exception under the Bill that would have allowed them to resume their peerage. There is for criminals, but there is none, as far as I can see, for those who are absent.
My hon. Friend is aware that the Lord Speaker can certify leave of absence. The Bill does not state that that peer must turn up in person to request it.
That makes the whole process arbitrary. If there is no requirement to apply for the leave of absence, that is tantamount to saying that if the Lord Speaker’s chum is absent, the Lord Speaker will give her chum a certificate, but if it is somebody that the Lord Speaker does not like, such a certificate will not be given. So we are saying that the Lord Speaker will determine who sits in the House of Lords. That cannot be right.
To be clear, the Lord Speaker can issue leave of absence only in accordance with the Standing Orders of the House. Perhaps my hon. Friend’s beef should be with whether being interned overseas by the enemy of Her Majesty is currently in the Standing Orders of the House of Lords and whether it might be put there, rather than with the Bill. If there is a legitimate reason for a peer to be absent, that should be reflected in the Standing Orders of the other place. That would enable a certificate to be issued.
But the Bill does not say that. If it is a matter for the Standing Orders of the House, that is a completely different kettle of fish.
The Bill is clear that peers must attend the House unless they have leave of absence, and it has to be assumed that leave of absence must be applied for and is not arbitrary, but there might be circumstances in which peers cannot apply for leave of absence. It is possible to envisage circumstances in which they might not wish to apply for leave of absence but, for sensible political motives, do not want to attend the House. For example, if a Government obtained a majority in this House on a very small minority of votes in a general election, which is not impossible, and then used the Parliament Act aggressively to overrule the House of Lords, a peer or group of peers might say that democracy had been abused and that they would not attend until after another general election. Would they then be excluded for making what might be a perfectly valid political point?
In this House we have the Sinn Fein Members, as my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley mentioned earlier. It is hard to see them accepting peerages in the first place, but let us imagine that as a result of the peace process a member of Sinn Fein accepted a peerage. If they then decided that the peace process were not going the way they wanted and that they had gone too far and had to withdraw from the House, would we then take the constitutional step of expelling them, or would we say that it would be better for them to remain? The difficulty with that, and the reason I am not in favour of the clause, goes back to the point my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire made about that being done through the Standing Orders of the House. Attendance or non-attendance is a matter for each House to decide for itself; it should not be determined in legislation.
I will come later to the Titles Deprivation Act 1917, which is how those enemies of the King were expelled—I believe that they were a couple of royal dukes and one other rather more obscure peer who had got caught up with the Austrian army.
The House of Lords does not have the right to expel its Members, unlike the House of Commons, and for good reason. The House of Commons has that power, and always used to use it in relation to those who went to prison, but Members who are expelled can immediately stand for re-election, so the expulsion can be tested by the electorate. That seems to me to be an important safeguard.
The relatively modern Representation of the People Act 1981, which allows for the automatic expulsion of MPs imprisoned for more than a year, was intended to deal with an immediate political problem relating to the hunger strikers. As Members will remember, Bobby Sands was elected while on hunger strike in prison. It was enormously politically awkward for the Government that Members of Parliament were dying on hunger strike, so a law was rushed through to debar automatically people from standing for election to this House if they were in prison. That undermined the right of this House to regulate its own business. It was a bad emergency Act carried out for a political purpose, rather than a high constitutional one.
The House of Lords has never been able to expel Members, although it can suspend them and still retains a vestigial right to imprison them during the course of a Session. The reason is that it was always thought that it would enhance the powers of the Crown too greatly if it, by using a majority that it could cobble together through its patronage in the House, could remove obstreperous Members. The only way to remove peers was by a specific Act of attainder—as Members will recall, such Acts were used against people such as Stafford, who was expelled from the House and his titles struck down—or by bringing an action against a Member for treason. His titles would technically cease just before his execution; they would go with the Act of Parliament or the impeachment for treason. So there is a process to expel peers, but the reason it is very long and difficult is the fear that the prerogative power and the patronage of the Crown would be used to determine the membership of an upper House.
That is the historical context on why peers can only be suspended and not expelled. The Lords does have that power to suspend, in accordance with its Standing Orders. Much preferable to the clause on removal for non-attendance would be entirely to delegate that to the Standing Orders of the House of Lords, whereby a peer who was absent for a certain period would have to make a submission to return, would have to explain the reason for the absence, and would be suspended for the rest of the Parliament if those explanations were not satisfactory to the Lords. That would allow for the flexibility that would be needed in the case of a prisoner of war, somebody who was kidnapped, or somebody who was imprisoned in a foreign country. One can envisage that, say, in the case of a peer who had been involved with the Greenpeace demonstration in Russia, found guilty of piracy and sentenced to 15 years in prison, the House of Lords might want to waive proceedings on the absence ground even if it had already done so on the criminality ground.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I have been pondering whether, if a noble Lord were convicted and sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment overseas and the Lords decided that that was an exceptional circumstance and not to remove them, the absence clause would accidentally catch them. That might need to be discussed further in Committee.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is conceivable that the peer in prison would be able to apply for leave of absence, but it is also possible that such facilities would not be made available. It would depend on the country in which he was imprisoned. The absence and attendance point is really a matter for the House of Lords under its Standing Orders. The Lords can deal with it perfectly adequately, and there are disadvantages to legislation.
The main disadvantage to legislation on the internal workings of either House is that it brings in the courts, contrary to the Bill of Rights, which is absolutely clear that no court is allowed to second-guess any decision or activity of the proceedings of either House. What is not clear is what counts as a proceeding. That has been discussed in the courts, leading to the Act of Parliament in the middle of the 19th century that allowed parliamentary publications to be covered by the exemption because there was a doubt as to whether privilege extended to what was in Hansard and therefore whether we might be free to say things in this Chamber but nobody was then free to report what we had said. That was clarified by an Act of Parliament to make it clear that even if Hansard is not a proceeding in this House, it is still covered by privilege. The courts are entitled to investigate areas that may not be proceedings or to determine whether something is a proceeding.
The courts intervening in the legislature involves a fundamental constitutional principle. We have always tried to avoid it, because it delegates ultimate control of the political nation to an unelected judiciary away from the democratic arms of the state that are here in Parliament assembled. I accept that the House of Lords is not democratically elected, but it comes with the certificate, in effect, of the House of Commons and is controlled through the Parliament Acts, whereas the judges are not. It also used to be the case that if either Chamber were interfered with by the courts, the ultimate arbiter of the proceedings in either House would be the House of Lords, which was the highest court.
Those who were arrested and charged with offences during the expenses scandal tried to use this argument and the judges struck it down. Were they right to do so?
My hon. Friend makes a helpful point. That is the nub of the matter: the courts can determine what is a proceeding in Parliament, and although proceedings in Parliament are exempt it is arguable that a certificate issued by the Lord Speaker is not a proceeding in Parliament and that it is, therefore, challengeable in spite of the wording of the Bill, which was questioned earlier, that the certificate
“shall not be questioned in a court of law.”
That has been tried before. I remember the then Home Secretary, now Lord Howard, introducing a Bill that said that a certain something could not be reviewed by the courts, but the courts did so and said that it was unconstitutional. We now have great difficulties in passing laws that deny the European Court of Human Rights and our own domestic courts access to determining things. Even if legislation says something, an appeal to a European court may overrule it. That is why it is important to try to keep as much as possible within the proceedings of the House, because those clearly and definitively cannot be challenged.
As I have said, the absence issue is ancient. Lots of people, when appointed or elected to Parliament, end up not wanting to come, and that has been true for centuries. They would rather stay in their constituencies. As has already been asked, where is everybody today? This House has procedures and mechanisms that we could use—they are ancient and, because of the whipping system, have tended to be allowed to lie waste in recent centuries—if we wanted to enforce attendance, which, in previous times, prior to the whipping system, we were much stricter about.
The House of Lords, of course, has a much weaker whipping system as well as Cross Benchers, who, inevitably, are particularly likely not to turn up on every occasion, because they are not payroll politicians. They are not there to provide a majority for either side or to try to disrupt business as Opposition peers; they are there to contribute what they know. Cross Benchers, modest Lords and Ladies that they are, realise that they do not know everything about everything, unlike Members of this House, who, I am glad to say, do know everything about everything, at least most of the time. Therefore, maintaining flexibility and trying to solve a long-standing historical problem that does not have much of a solution would be best left to their lordships.
Does my hon. Friend accept that another issue is that often Cross Benchers may attend but not actually vote and that, because the definition of voting is attendance, they might be caught out by the provision if they choose not to take sides in a particular debate?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right. Given the looser whipping system, Cross Benchers do not necessarily know when the votes will take place. I have heard from some Cross Benchers that they feel that the votes are often deliberately scheduled for the point at which most of them will have gone home, because the party Whips prefer to keep the votes mainly among themselves, rather than have too many pesky Cross Benchers interfering, but that is anecdotal and may not represent the situation fairly. Others may want to dispute it. I agree that the position of Cross Benchers is particular and that voting certainly does not mean attendance. It is a different requirement. Indeed, activity in the Lords can mean different things: it can take place in general discussion, in Committee or on the Floor. I think that that is a matter for the Lords to determine for themselves internally, not for legislation, because legislation is ultimately justiciable, and then the courts get involved.
On the retirement or resignation issue, I raised one of my concerns in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, namely the ping-ponging of people from this House to the House of Lords and back again. I can foresee a circumstance in which a body of entirely professional politicians—people who have never done any work outside the political arena—stand for Parliament in a marginal seat and win one election but lose the next, upon which the party bosses put them in the House of Lords and then the week before the next election they stand down in order to stand for election in their former constituency.
That would be disadvantageous for a number of reasons. First, it would increase the patronage of the party leaders because they would be able to provide a steady stream of income for loyalists. Members of this House who are in marginal seats would be under great pressure always to vote along party lines, because they would see that they were at risk of losing their seat, but that there was a nice billet on the red Benches if they behaved themselves.
I am not entirely sure that they do. Many Members of Parliament think that it is much better to be in this place and that the baubles of the other place—the strawberry leaves that one might get on one’s coronet if one wandered into the other place—are not sufficient compensation for moving on from this Chamber. I sympathise with that view. Strawberry leaves are wonderful, but better to be here without them than to be on the red Benches with them.
If it were possible to lose an election, be selected immediately for the constituency that one had just vacated, fight the campaign for five years as a peer of the realm, with all the advantages of expenses, envelopes and stamps, resign the week before nominations and then get back in again, that would be deeply unsatisfactory. It would be an improper way of using the constitution.
If people are to retire from the House of Lords, they should retire from politics. They ought not to be allowed back into the House of Commons. If they were allowed to come back, there should be an extended period of quarantine before they could do so. We should bring back the rabies rules: if somebody has been in the House of Lords, they should be kept safely out of the House of Commons for several years before we risk being bitten by them on their return.
It is important to consider what peers have committed themselves to. They know, when they are raised to the peerage, that it is an honour for life, but that that honour comes with certain disadvantages. The major two disadvantages are that they cannot vote in general elections and they cannot stand for Parliament. People do not have to accept a peerage. The Queen does not go around commandeering people and saying, “You’re going to the Lords, whether you like it or no!” They have agree to it, they have to go and see Garter, they have to discuss their title, and they have to pay for their letters patent to be drawn up so that they may be called “most trusty and well-beloved” subjects of Her Majesty and all those sorts of glorious things that we all like to be called. When they accept that honour, they ought to recognise that they have committed to give that service for the rest of their life. If ill health, old age or infirmity means that they are not able to attend, they still cannot take back the benefits that they sacrificed to take on the honour.
Retirement is a dubious principle at best, because people know what they are accepting. I also worry that it is ageist. I know that I do not often speak about equalities in this House—that is done by others more eloquently than I can do it. However, I believe that age discrimination is something about which this society should be increasingly concerned. That is partly because we have an ageing society, mixed with a peculiar cult of youth. I have never really subscribed to the cult of youth personally, as hon. Members will well understand. However, there has been a tendency in recent years to have younger political leaders and for older people to retire from the House of Commons at relatively young ages.
The last political area in this nation where age is really represented is the House of Lords. The bishops retire at 70 in the Anglican Church and at 75 if they are Catholics. Judges retire at 70. We are not quite being run by schoolchildren, but the youth of today are taking over. Where are the octogenarians and nonagenarians? They are in the House of Lords. That is a good thing because they represent many people in this nation. I know that it amuses hon. Members when I talk about nonagenarians, but we have a large number of them in society and many of them make a significant contribution to society and are actively involved in their communities and families. I am not sure that many nonagenarians are still working, but certainly many octogenarians are, and surely they should be represented. If there is one place where we can keep them, it is the House of Lords because there is no retirement age.
I send my greetings and felicitations to that splendid gentleman and I hope that he continues for another eight years, so that he may reach his century. It proves my point: across society people are working to older ages, but legislation in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s has tended to impose tighter retirement ages, except in the House of Lords. I would not like the Bill to be used as a back-door way of introducing a retirement age. I accept that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire is sensible of that point, and that the Bill provides for retirement or resignation.
I dislike resignation, because if people sign up to a duty, they should not just walk away from it. That is lightweight and improper, and I find it hard to believe that any peer of the realm who has taken on that grave responsibility and high honour should then think that it is right to swan off and leave the House of Lords. They have taken their honour from their sovereign.
I am interested to hear that it is not right just to swan off, but given that the writ suggests that people should be present in Parliament to give advice to the sovereign, does my hon. Friend agree that those people should turn up every now and again?
I am all in favour of people turning up, but I made the point that there are valid reasons for not turning up as well as spurious ones. Of course there will be idle peers. It is even conceivable—although not in this current Parliament—that there have been idle Members of the House of Commons. You rightly look deeply shocked at that thought, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it must have happened on occasions. That does not mean that we should go around expelling Members of either House without knowing the full reasons for their actions, and it should be done under the auspices of the House. This House, through its Committees, has the ability to expel Members if it feels that is the suitable course of action. I cannot recall any example of a Member of this House being expelled for idleness. Some have been expelled for criminality, for treason or for libel, but I cannot think of one who has ever been expelled for idleness in the hundreds of years of the existence of the House. Penalties and fines have been introduced for non-attendance, but not expulsion, and it would be excessive to legislate for the House of Lords to expel for non-attendance when we are not willing to take it on ourselves.
Peers should of course obey their writ of summons and the Lords could introduce Standing Orders to cover that, but resignation would be improper. Having taken on a lifetime promise, people should not abrogate it willy-nilly. Retirement would be sad, because the Lords is the last representation in society of the elderly, and they are an increasingly important part of our society and deserve to be represented in the political nation. One of the great things about the Lords is that those of us who are little younger can wander over there and see some of the infirmities of age that are becoming such common issues across the nation. It helps bring those to the centre of the political debate and informs legislation on disability. The older people in the House of Lords have a deeper understanding of such issues than perhaps we do. That is valuable and I would strongly oppose any move to compulsory retirement. I would be cautious about clause 1 because it would open the way to that, and indeed that is what some of the promoters of earlier Bills probably wanted to see. Some people want a compulsory retirement age for peers.
Clause 3 is eminently sensible. It is a lacuna in our system that someone can serve a prison sentence and still be a Member of the House of Lords. They cannot invoke their privilege to attend the House of Lords when they are serving their prison sentences, but the day they are out they can come in.
One little point worth making is that I have checked two of, I believe, three peers in this situation, Lord Archer and Lord Black, neither of whom have participated in the House of Lords at any point since their convictions. There is, therefore, already a self-denying ordinance, which is attractive because our constitution works as much by convention as it does by statute law. We should not undermine the importance of that.
I have no objection to and indeed would be in favour of a more formalised rule. Having said that, the nub of the problem with a peer going to prison is as much to do with the title as with the ability to be in Parliament. I suggest that most people are not aware of the reasons why a knighthood can be removed and a peerage cannot be removed when somebody goes to prison. Equally, I would not like to make it easy to remove a peerage. It needs to be a difficult process because of a peer’s position as a legislator and the desire not to allow malign Governments, which do occur from time to time, to abuse a power that has been introduced for a very good reason. I would therefore like to see a different approach based on the Titles Deprivation Act 1917.
The 1917 Act—it is fascinating that we were three years into the war before we decided to do anything about this—set out the circumstances under which somebody could be reported to a Committee of the Privy Council for their peerage and title to be removed, which were that they had to be residing in an enemy country or fighting for the enemy in the current war. That had the advantage of essentially being a judicial process. I would argue that the deprivation of titles ought to be more a judicial than a directly internal matter. It is taking away not just something from a proceeding in Parliament; it is taking away an honour that it is used outside Parliament, is relevant outside Parliament and, in the case of an hereditary peerage, cascades down through the generations. This would allow, and I think the 1917 Act sets out a very good formula for doing it, the two members of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council required to be on the Committee to consider whether somebody’s offence was serious enough that they should be deprived of their title, and therefore the rights and honours that go with it.
I am listening with fascination to my hon. Friend, who is making some very interesting points. On his last point, is he not in danger of slightly contradicting his earlier point about allowing courts to interfere in this place? I understand the distinction he has made in saying that the removal of a peerage is about much more than just sitting in the legislature, but it does include sitting in the House of Lords. Under his proposed method, the courts would make a decision that would lead directly to a peer being removed from the House of Lords.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would say it was analogous to an election court, where, if election fraud or misbehaviour during a general election was shown, a court would determine whether the seat had been won in a valid manner, because it is a second degree from the court’s action. The court’s action, or the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council’s action, would be to remove the title, and it would follow from that that there would a removal from the House of Lords. I feel it would also allow a proper flexibility to consider the circumstances and would not, as was brought up by another hon. Member, mean that a judge, in passing sentence, would know that a 365 day sentence disbarred and a 364 day sentence did not, and that this must add to the weight of sentence. What if the situation were that a judge, in handing down a sentence, said, “If you were Joe Bloggs, I would give you a year in prison, but because you are Lord Bloggs you will receive an additional punishment on top of a year in prison. Therefore, I am going to remit part of the sentence.” What then? How would the Act apply to that? It would have been a year, but it is discounted. There are issues relating to suspended sentences.
We ought to be careful about unintended consequences. I am particularly concerned about the ability of foreign courts’ judgments to be recognised and to disbar people from peerages. I assume this is done in relation to Lord Black of Crossharbour and that his conviction in the
United States is viewed as having tainted him in such a way that his peerage should be removed. I have great doubts about the judicial process used against Lord Black of Crossharbour, whom it is not my intention to defend particularly. Somebody he worked with was threatened with judicial, criminal action that would, if he had been found guilty, have led to an exceptionally long sentence, but which, if he turned evidence against Lord Black, would give him three weeks in a country club; and he took the latter option, as we might all have done.
That is how American justice and plea bargaining works. Even if they think they are innocent, people are under such pressure to accept the low sentence they would get with a plea bargain and the consequences of protesting their innocence are so great, that they find there is an injustice against them automatically. Worse than that, the prosecutors use them effectively to bribe witnesses into saying that the other chap, who is not co-operating, did it. By protesting their innocence, the other chap—Lord Black, in this case—risks a very long sentence that we should not take any notice of in this country. Indeed, I think it is restrained of him not to use his vote in the House of Lords. I would not think it improper of him, because he has not been found guilty of any offence in this country.
Hon. Members might think that view is very little Englander, but I happen to believe that the standards of justice in the United Kingdom are higher than those in other countries. That does not mean to say that all other countries are unjust, but other countries’ systems have injustices within them, and this issue of plea bargaining in the United States is one that is particularly egregious. But it is not just the United States, which is a close ally and has a common-law system, a system that we understand; the system on the continent is not one that we understand or are used to as Britons. It has the Napoleonic code. As Geoffrey Boycott so memorably said when he was in front of a French court, it is all in French—of all the audacities! They have different sentencing processes as well, so a crime that in this country might be viewed as a relatively modest offence could be seen as a very serious one in a foreign country or could relate to things that in this country are entirely legal. For example, in some countries, homosexuality is still illegal and is persecuted strongly. Are we to say that a peer caught out in those circumstances should be disbarred from the House?
I accept that there is the exceptionalism, but that is the wrong way around. If somebody has been through a British court and had judgment against them, that is a perfectly rational basis for determining their membership of a British Parliament, but if some foreign court has found against them, it does not seem to me to raise the same issues. Some foreign courts are willing to try people in absentia; others—the Italian courts come to mind—are extraordinarily political in how they approach prosecutions and sentencing. In that respect, I have some sympathy with Mr Berlusconi, whom I think was persecuted by extremely left-wing judges who wanted to use a legal mechanism to get him out of office, which they succeeded in doing. I will not stand up for his moral conduct, however; that is a different matter entirely, and a direction in which we do not want to go.
Russia has arrested these Greenpeace protesters for piracy, and piracy is an extremely serious crime. I understand that it carries a 15-year prison sentence. It is highly unlikely that the UK would have treated those people in that way. Now, I cannot imagine that peers would go hurling themselves about in boats in that fashion; it is far too energetic and not a sufficiently noble activity, and the ermine might get in the way—not to mention that their coronets would be falling into the sea as they climbed up the oil rig—but it is not inconceivable that a peer might be caught out in such circumstances.
On a further point, we are seeing in the affair over European opt-ins and opt-outs the EU’s increasing efforts to create a body of criminal law across the EU. I must confess that I would oppose the Bill even more strongly if I thought that the EU would be able to determine the membership of either Chamber. Part of the expression of our nation’s liberty is our free ability to decide who rules us, and that free ability comes through these two Houses of Parliament, in which no foreign court should ever be given an automatic say. It would be different if someone were found guilty of an offence here but, as I have said, the Titles Deprivation Act 1917 provides a clearer, more suitable model that does not risk bringing the proceedings of the House under the eyes of the courts, because it would be the title of the peerage itself—the honour—that was in question, not the proceedings.
That leads me to my last point, which relates to clause 5. Subsection (2) states:
“A certificate may be issued on the Lord Speaker’s own initiative.”
We should be very careful about this, on two grounds. As I understand it—I am sure hon. Members will correct me if I am wrong—there are two instances in which the Speaker of the House of Commons may issue certificates. The first is under the terms of the Parliament Act 1911, to enable a Bill to be passed without the assent of the House of Lords. The second is under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, following the passing of a vote of no confidence in the Government to enable an election to be held.
Proposals to involve Speakers in tendentious political matters should always be a matter of concern to us. Speakers in the Commons have a long-established history of being independent arbiters of the businesses of this House. Actually, it is not that long. They have been independent for only about 150 years; before that, they were much more party political. The Lord Speaker is an innovation, a post created to replace that of the Lord Chancellor, and it is a very different role from that of the Speaker here. It does not involve keeping order or calling speakers. The Lord Speaker is a more ceremonial post, created to ensure that the House may legitimately sit. The Lord Speaker does not order the business. The House of Lords is self-regulating, rather than regulated by a Speaker.
When the post was introduced, the Lords were extremely concerned that the Lord Speaker might model him or herself—it has been “herself” so far—entirely on the Speaker of the House of Commons and might interfere in a way that is necessary only in a lower and less orderly Chamber. Of course, such interference is unnecessary when you are in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, when we are all beautifully behaved, particularly on Fridays when everyone arrives with their shoes nicely polished. The better-behaved House of Lords resented the idea that it would need a Speaker of that kind, and I would be concerned about raising the profile of the Lord Speaker, contrary to what was promised when the lord speakership was introduced. I would also be concerned about the risk of bringing the Lord Speaker into the political arena and giving them a role that might not be purely administrative.
It is interesting to note that in the House of Lords Act 1999, the responsibility for issuing certificates was given to the Clerk of the Parliaments. That indicated that it was a purely administrative activity, but the power given to the Lord Speaker in this Bill would appear to involve judgment. Judgment begets politicisation, and it also begets challenge in the courts. I repeat what I said earlier about the risk of legislating in a way that would bring the right of the House to govern its own affairs into conflict with the courts. We do not want to get into that position, because the ability of either House to operate independently is essential to the free flowing of our democracy. Once the House of Lords’ procedures had been intervened on by the courts, it would not be long before the same happened to our procedures. A precedent would have been set. The more we use the ancient right of either House to regulate itself, and the less we legislate and involve the courts, the better it will be.
The Bill is genuinely good in parts, and I am very sympathetic to the idea of excluding criminals from Parliament. I am not unsympathetic to imposing some kind of sanction on people who do not turn up. I am, however, against the bits on retirement and resignation. One of the bits that I am in favour of ought to be achieved through the procedures of the House; the other bit ought to be done through a different form of legislation.
I shall conclude where I began by being strongly critical of the Government’s treatment of this first-class constitutional Bill.
Does my hon. Friend think this should actually be a Government Bill? Were he to push for a Division on the basis of his notion that it should be a Government Bill and be taken on the Floor of the House, my hon. Friend Dan Byles would have to ensure there were 35 Members voting. That underlines the fragility of private Members’ Bills.
I think constitutional Bills ought to be given the proper time and that requires them to be Government Bills, because Government controls the timetable in the House. It seems to me that the only reason why this is not a Government Bill and has not therefore been thought through more carefully is to save the blushes of the Lord President of the Council, who said he would not support a future House of Lords reform Bill after not getting his way last year. I think we will see from the Division Lobbies when we put the motion to have a Committee of the whole House where the Government’s heart is in this.
I think the Government ought to be clear about their view and intentions. If they support this Bill, it deserves a Committee of the whole House. It deserves to be debated thoroughly and properly clause by clause. It deserves to be considered by the many constitutional experts this House has—who are not here on a quiet
Friday—so they have full time to table amendments and to ensure it is scrutinised thoroughly and the best Bill is passed.
I will greatly regret it if the Government do not allow that to happen because there are good parts of this Bill on which everybody could agree. Presuming you allow the Division I shall ask for, Mr Deputy Speaker, ere long we will see whether the Government will allow a Committee of the whole House.
It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg. His remarks should persuade anybody who has any doubts about the desirability of having this constitutional measure debated on the Floor of the House in a Committee of the whole House of the wisdom of that course of action, because this is a serious constitutional Bill. In the absence of a written constitution, it is this House and the other place that have to look after our constitution, and why should all Members of this House not be able to consider in detail the provisions and implications of this Bill, which could be done if there was a Committee of the whole House?
One of the advantages of the Government supporting any motion in relation to
One of my roles in life at the moment is to be the representative of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the Venice Commission, which looks at written constitutions. Last week in Venice we were looking at the proposed Tunisian constitution, and the time before we were looking at the amendments to the Hungarian constitution. One of the problems with those written constitutions is their rigidity. We are fortunate in having an unwritten constitution, which is inherently flexible. Long may that continue to be so. That is why it is essential that, before making changes to our constitution, which we can do by a bare majority in both Houses, those changes should have been properly thought through in the way my hon. Friend is encouraging us to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dan Byles on introducing this Bill. It is a pity that he was not able to incorporate in it some of my ideas in the House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill, which is also on today’s Order Paper. Some of my Bill’s provisions dealing with retirement are perfectly apposite to his Bill. If his Bill reaches a Committee of the whole House, some ideas from my Bill may well be taken forward by him in the form of new clauses or amendments. I am grateful that my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh made specific reference to his view that we should have a maximum number of peers and that it should be 650, which is exactly what is contained in clause 1 of my Bill.
My Bill sets out a retirement process for peers on a different basis from that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, but it does, as I mentioned in an intervention, deal with the issue of incentives for retirement. Clause 5 of my Bill refers to the ability to convert, whereby the title of someone seeking to retire becomes a hereditary one on retirement. That would provide an incentive, not an expensive one, and it would address the issue of a lack of incentive and of compensation, which seems to be very much at the forefront of my hon. Friend’s Bill.
As has come out in the debate, clause 4 of the Bill, which deals with the effect of ceasing to be a Member, is silent on the issue of any costs. Would, for example, severance payments be made? Could we ensure that there was no guarantee of, or no entitlement to, severance payments? I imagine that the issue of whether money should be paid out of central funds to compensate people who cease to be Members would be a matter for the other place. However, that should be specifically excluded from the provisions of this Bill, so that in no circumstances could a Bill which made provision for retirement from the House of Lords be an additional and significant charge on public funds.
As we recall, the Prime Minister has been very hot on the issue of reducing the cost of politics, although he was not able to reduce the numbers in this House because of the duplicitous way in which the minority Government party and the Liberal Democrat leader behaved. Meanwhile, however, the Prime Minister has been increasing significantly the numbers in the other place, and that has added significantly to the cost of politics. So, the cost of politics, far from being reduced, is going up substantially. On the way back to this House yesterday, I was looking at the Daily Mail, which was forecasting that yet another tranche of new peers is going to be appointed very soon—perhaps the Minister wishes to intervene on that point. That will increase their number even beyond what we have now.
I do not know whether one reason for the visits to China by the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London was to see the Chinese second Chamber, which is the world’s largest. Our House of Lords is exceeded in size only by the Parliament of the Chinese Republic. Having regard to the relatively modest population in this country compared with that of China, I am not sure that we should be pleased that we have a Chamber of Parliament that is second in size only to that in the Republic of China. The case for reducing the number of people in the House of Lords through having a maximum number is very strong. Having said that, I am not sure that the way that the Bill goes about it is right in its present form.
Clause 1 refers to the issue of retirement or resignation. Essentially, those words have the same meaning. The long title of the Bill makes provision for retirement from the House of Lords; it does not refer to resignation. Obviously, those who were looking at the drafting of the Bill realised that the term “resignation” effectively came within the concept of retirement. The use of the word “resignation” rather than “retirement” is an issue of semantics rather than of substance.
However, I am concerned that clause 1 does not make it clear whether, and if so how, it applies to their lordships spiritual and to hereditary peers. At the moment, it seems to apply to all peers, but I am not sure it would be appropriate for the Bill to introduce rules relating to the retirement or resignation of their lordships spiritual or to hereditary peers. However, that is not spelt out in the Bill.
I am concerned also, in clause 2, about the issue of non-attendance. There are many ways of defining non-attendance and the Bill sets out some of them, but as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset made very clear, one may well be a Member of the other place but not choose to attend. For example, at the moment Baroness Ashton finds herself too preoccupied with trying to rule us from Brussels to be able to attend the other place. One might argue that, in that case, it would be a good idea if she was forced to resign, or indeed expelled, from that place, but that is a separate argument and it is not covered by the Bill. However, there is a wide range of reasons why someone might wish not to attend the other House.
Many of the witnesses who attended the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee discussions on these issues made the point that the relative number of people who would wish to retire at the moment is very modest, so because most of those who would wish to retire do not attend anyway, the provisions relating to retirement would have no significant impact on the numbers in the House of Lords. Those who are currently not attending would be faced under clause 2 with the threat that if they carried on not attending, they would be deprived of their membership, so those people might be given a perverse incentive to start attending. The Clerk of the Parliaments has said that the biggest problem with the other place is not the people who do not turn up, but the fact that so many people do turn up, with the pressure on resources.
Clause 2 is misconceived. It deals with a presentational point. Their lordships seem to think that if there is a suggestion that some people are not very regular attenders, that causes reputational damage to their lordships’ House. But as we have discussed, there may be any number of reasons why those people choose not to attend, and if, in any event, under the provisions of the Bill, they could receive a certificate from the Lord Speaker to the effect that, notwithstanding their lack of attendance, they could still carry on as Members of the other place, that undermines that provision of the Bill.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee took all that evidence, and we produced a report. Some people—even the Minister on the Front Bench today—said that they were wholly in support of everything that is in the Bill. I think that is going a bit far. Sadly, I was not able to be present at the meeting at which the Committee examined the final report and considered possible amendments. If I had been able to contribute at that stage, I certainly would have tabled some amendments.
Having said that, the report accepts that there is a case for dealing with some of the issues covered in the Bill. The strongest case relates to clause 3, on people who have committed offences, because it would bring the Lords in line with what happens in this House to a greater extent. Even on that clause, however, I have some concerns.
As soon as somebody was convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to a year or more of imprisonment, he would automatically cease to be a Member of the other place. That would apply even before any appeals process had been exhausted. Someone might be convicted in the Crown court and wish to appeal against the sentence, but before the appeal they would lose their position in the other place.
If one wants to go along with the idea of clause 3, it would be much fairer to provide that a person ceased to be Member of the other place after they had been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in excess of one year, but also after all their rights of appeal had been exhausted. That would still not cover someone seeking an appeal in future through the administrative process by which people can have their convictions reviewed, but the provision in clause 3 should apply only after the right of immediate appeal against a sentence has been utilised and proved unsuccessful, or after the person in question has chosen not to use it.
I agree wholeheartedly with what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said about convictions having to be from courts in the United Kingdom. Criminal legal services operate in contrasting ways in different countries, and if we are to deprive people of the right to be Members of our legislature, we should say that a conviction by a court overseas has no effect. We should not leave it to the Lord Speaker to issue a certificate on that issue.
As we heard in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the previous Lord Speaker, Baroness Hayman, and some others of their lordships, are keen to extend the provisions of the Bill into the area of expulsion of Lords who are guilty of conduct that brings their House into disrepute. The previous Lord Speaker, along with the noble Lord Goodlad and one or two other witnesses, told us that that would be a good idea. However, the points that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset made show that we must be extremely nervous about what the impact would be if their lordships tried to extend the range of conduct—misdemeanours as well as criminal law offences—that they considered sufficient to deprive somebody of being able to be a Member of the Lords. Even in this House, we do not have the power to expel Members who have not been convicted by the criminal courts, and it is not sensible to give such powers to the other place.
Does my hon. Friend think that clause 3(2) is unnecessary, and that the Bill could manage just as easily without any requirement for the Lord Speaker to issue a certificate? The Bill could simply say that if someone was convicted, they would cease to be a Member of the House of Lords, and still retain the provision in clause 3(6).
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This is another issue on which there might be amendments. I am concerned about how the Bill will proceed, assuming that it gets its Second Reading today, because if it does not go to a Committee of the whole House, it is quite likely that there will be so many amendments that people will want to move and debate that the Bill could end up taking up all the time available for discussion on Fridays; that is another good reason why it should go to a Committee of the whole House.
I should not sit down before commenting on what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said about the potentially ageist nature of the reference to retirement in the legislation. I have the privilege of representing the constituency with the largest proportion of residents aged over 65; the proportion is just over 35%. Obviously, that means that a much higher proportion than that are able to vote in elections, because those under 18 are excluded from doing so. I therefore have a particular reason for saying that it is important that the older generation be properly represented in this House and the other place.
Quite a lot of people see it as their objective in life to try to bring in, directly or indirectly, a restriction on the age until which people can participate in our democracy in a representative capacity. We should be hostile to those moves. That is another reason why I have always been against the idea of a retirement scheme for their lordships that is based just on age. The proposal in the House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill, to which I referred earlier, would not require people to retire based on their age; retirement would relate to the date when they first became Members, which can be a completely different kettle of fish.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire said, the Bill is, on any view, a modest measure, but many modest measures have been brought before the House. Some of the Bills in my name further down the Order Paper are very modest measures—two clauses at most—but that does not mean that they will find favour with the Government Front Benchers.
Order. Just to help, if the hon. Gentleman were to finish speaking now, we might be able to get to those modest measures.
I am not that naive; there are two Bills after this one before we get to any of mine. The Government have already indicated that, although the House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill has received the Queen’s consent, that does not mean that it has their support. I live in hope, but as I said to my hon. Friend Graham Evans, who is in charge of the next Bill to be discussed, nobody’s performance or career in this House should be judged on how many private Members’ Bills they have been able to get on the statute book.
I am not sure about that, in those blunt terms. It is often not clear how a Bill is stopped in its tracks. We know that the House of Lords Reform Bill was stopped in its tracks not by dealing with the issues of substance, but by a procedural device in relation to the programme motion. It may well be that when a vote is called shortly, I hope, on the proposal from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, we will see how many Members are here who wish to participate.
We can test it in due course.
The Bill, albeit modest, would need a great deal of change before it would be worthy to go on to the statute book. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire on introducing it. This debate sends out a warning shot to those in the other place that if they send to this House Bills relating to their own House which they want us to endorse, we will not do so unless we have had a chance to consider them fully.
With the leave of the House, I should like to sum up. I was not aware before I moved Second Reading that I would be rowing into the Bermuda triangle, as I was told earlier. It has been noted that I have in the past rowed across the Atlantic ocean in a wooden rowing boat in 101 days, so I like to think that if any of us can navigate our way through this particular Bermuda triangle, I will have as good a crack at it as anybody.
I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate for their thoughtful contributions. One of the features of Friday sittings is that those who come to take part are often the most knowledgeable about these matters and therefore perhaps make the most helpful contributions. I have listened carefully to many of their contributions, and I thank them for the positive tone. Everybody has been gracious about the purpose behind the Bill. I do not detect that any of those who intervened with legitimate concerns and issues have done so with the intention of undermining or killing the Bill. They are genuinely raising points that they feel will make the Bill better and I thank them for that.
It remains my intention to find the best path forward to achieve the measures in the Bill. I remind the House that these are measures that, in one form or another, the Lords have voted on and called for. No Bill starts out perfect. I very much hope that the Bill will progress to Committee and that I will be able to learn the lessons of much that has been discussed here today, table some sensible amendments in Committee to put at ease the minds of colleagues who have spoken, and enable them to support the Bill as it moves forward.
I want to respond to one or two points that were made. Rather than respond in an intervention, I have made a note of them. I am conscious of the ping-pong concern of my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, which is an interesting point. It is probably not an easy point to get around. Unless one were to bar former peers from standing again for the House of Commons, which would remove for life a right that every other non-peer in the nation has, I do not think there is an easy solution. I would be interested to look into whether a time bar solution could be achieved and would be legal.
The ageist point is interesting too. Between my hon. Friend Mr Chope and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, I am between a rock and a hard place. Apparently, to resign is sordid and nasty and one should not even consider resigning from the House of Lords, yet to retire is ageist, so quite what the right word is I do not know. I come back to my perhaps naive plea earlier that we should be grown-ups about what we are seeking to achieve without being too pedantic about the wording.
Sorry. He said that no Member of Parliament was ever removed for idleness, but an idle Member of Parliament must face the electorate, whereas there is no such sanction for an idle peer. My hon. Friend is in danger of being slightly inconsistent. On the one hand he upholds passionately the honour and privilege it is to receive the writ of summons and the need not to give it up lightly, yet on the other hand the idea that a peer can choose to turn up only once a Session seems to be acceptable to him.
I am very sensitive to that view and understand it. We face an interesting dilemma. I would like the Lords to be able to regulate themselves much more in those ways, yet there are constraints on what they can do in that respect, and they have asked us for those measures previously by passing them in their own House and then sending them to us. Once again, we are between a rock and a hard place on the best way to proceed.
I am also very conscious of the concern my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall expressed about the possibility that we might end up seeing financial inducements and what they might look like. The Bill certainly makes no argument in favour of that.
I take issue with the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made that the non-attendance issue is purely about presentation. He seemed to suggesting, “One can already have a leave of absence, and that does not cost anything, so what does it matter?” Actually, the status of a peer who is on leave of absence is a very grey area. They could be on leave of absence for 10 years and then come back, so can they be replaced? What if we ended up with half of all peers being on leave of absence? We could not replace them with new working peers because we would not know if any of them were ever going to come back. I understand his point, but I do not think that it is purely about presentation, because there are also practical implications. We need to know whether someone is a Member of the House of Lords or not and whether they are going to be taking part in business.
I have a great deal of sympathy with that view. Again, so as not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, I did not include something on that in the measure. We might get on to my hon. Friend’s Bill later today, when we can discuss that point.
I will mention the foreign courts issue briefly, because it has been raised a number of times. I have discussed it prior to today with a number of hon. Members. I am very sensitive to the question of whether a conviction in a foreign court should deprive a peer of the realm of their place in the House of Lords. I do not think that it is as clear cut as saying, “Let’s simply make it UK courts.” It would be very difficult if a peer was convicted of an offence in Australia and New Zealand, or somewhere that has a relatively unimpeachable judicial system that compares to our own, and sentenced to two years imprisonment, if that offence would warrant a two-year sentence here. There would be no way to remove them, whereas they would have been removed if they had been convicted and sentenced for the same offence in the UK. Again, I am open to discussing whether the wording in the Bill is exactly right and seeing whether there is a better way of doing that. I am sensitive to people’s concerns about the foreign courts issue and have heard them loud and clear.
I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and colleagues and sincerely hope that they will be able to support the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Order. It is absolutely not a point of order. I thought that it might have been something relevant.