With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 3, page 1, line 2, after ‘peer’, insert ‘and has been a peer for 10 years and is over the age of 65’.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 7, leave out ‘a witness’ and insert ‘two witnesses, both of whom must be peers of the same degree’.
Amendment 6, page 1, line 10, at end insert ‘after the date specified in 2(a) above’.
Amendment 7, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘(5) This section does not apply to unelected hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords’.
Amendment 8, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) An hereditary peer who retires or otherwise resigns in accordance with this section shall be deemed to have died allowing any heir to be eligible to be elected.’.
Amendment 9, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) A life peer who retires or otherwise resigns in accordance with this section will upon petition to the Queen be raised to the state degree style dignity title and honour of viscount.’.
With hindsight, how fortunate it is that we are not sitting in private to discuss these important matters, which will be of interest to the nation at large, concerning retirement or resignation from the House of Lords.
Amendment 2 would simply add a line to clause 1 to the effect that a peer may not resign until they have been a peer for a minimum of 10 years. If somebody accepts a great honour from the Crown, it seems to me that they have an obligation to live up to that honour. Circumstances might change and require a different lifestyle that makes it impossible for them to attend the House, but to enter lightly into the receipt of a peerage—that great honour bestowed by our sovereign of being a legislator in the second House of Parliament—and then to give it up after a day or two or, conceivably, even after a minute, seems improper.
People enter into a life peerage, and understand that they have done so for life, hence the name. It is amazing how often an obvious point about something is made in its title. There is no obfuscation in the title “life peer”. It is not a temporary peerage, a Parliament peerage or a dated peerage, but a life peerage. One of the glories of the House of Lords is that it represents age. It is not full of scribbling youths, but has people of mature years, of wisdom, of grey beards, and even of grey flowing locks, which shows how much they have learnt and experienced over the years.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The return of the hereditary peerage is the sort of reform that would improve the quality of the House considerably. I do think that there are opportunities for reform but, as I said on Second Reading—I had better not go through this all again, Mr Speaker—I have concerns about this process for reforming the second Chamber. I think that reform ought to have been proposed in a Government Bill and considered in a Committee of the whole House.
Although the Bill is simple, it would fundamentally change the nature of the House of Lords. Removing the absolute certainty that a peerage is for life would allow people appointed to the House to remain there for a term. That change in structure would allow Governments that are not necessarily as benign as this one—I will talk about this further in relation to some of my other amendments—to ensure that peers are in the House for only a certain period, and possibly to get them post-dated cheques for when they might resign. I think that that reform should have been handled differently, but there are certainly reforms that could be made to the House of Lords.
Amendment 2 ties in with amendment 3. The point of amendment 3 is to insert a minimum age for retirement, whereby no peer under 65 could retire. Being a peer—a legislator in the upper House—should not be a marker in somebody’s career. It should not be a point on their CV so that when they apply for jobs in merchant banks, or wherever, they can say “I was a peer for 10 years”. People who take it on should commit to do so for an extended period, so that if a peer is raised to that rank, style and dignity at the age of 40, there will be an expectation that the major part of their future life and career will be a commitment to serve the House—this country—in the second Chamber.
These two amendments, in essence, offer the House the choice of saying that there ought to be a minimum period and that it ought to be longer than a single Parliament. Ten years obviously equates to two Parliaments under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. That gets away from the risk that people might use the House of Lords as a means of advancing their political career in relation to the Commons, a point to which we will return in a subsequent group of amendments. The amendments are about expecting people to follow through on the commitment they have given, so that when their letters patent are issued they will be doing this for life.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. My preference is for amendment 3, as it would ensure that people retired from Parliament when they were coming to the end of their working career. It is wrong for people to use membership of the House of Lords as a point on their CV. It is not an internship that people do for a little while to get a bit of work experience before taking on another job. It is such an exciting and great honour to have—why would these people wish to give it up? I recall that when Disraeli went to the House of Lords, he said that he was not dead
“but in the Elysian fields.”
Who, having entered the Elysian fields, wants to come back down to earth? It seems extraordinary in the first place that anyone would want to leave those glorious red Benches and the gilt around the throne—the magnificence that the House of Lords shows to the world—and trot out into the humdrum life in front of them. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Dan Byles asks whether this is a job application. I am by no means grand enough to enter their lordships’ House. I like representing the British people—vox populi, vox Dei—through this illustrious Chamber rather than in their lordships’ noble House. Given the question of why anybody would want to leave, they ought to live up to the commitment they have made. Ten years seems reasonable; I would have been happy with 15 or 20 years.
Moreover, crucially, when Ministers go into the House of Lords they may want to be there only while they are in ministerial office. That is not a proper way of treating the constitution. Ministers who go into the House of Lords ought to stay there for an extended period to show a commitment to the legislature, not just to being appointees of the Executive who are here today, gone tomorrow. These amendments are important and would improve the Bill. Had we been debating them in a Committee of the whole House, it is likely that some of these changes would have been made.
Amendment 4 is about the witnessing of the peer’s statement that he wishes to retire or resign. The statement may be witnessed by anybody, but I think that it should be witnessed by two people, both of whom must be peers of the same degree. Is that because I think that lots of fraudulent certificates will be issued by random people wandering around signing things and pretending to be witnesses to statements that peers have not made? No, I do not think that, but these resignations are essentially proceedings in Parliament, and they should be a formal parliamentary proceeding registered by people who are also Members of Parliament. This would be a safeguard to ensure that somebody did not resign in a light moment and then regret it, or have the statement signed in their office and send it in having been pushed into doing it by offers of who knows what—perhaps an offer of becoming a European commissioner or something grand and fancy such as that, although I know that there is a special way for such people to stay in the House of Lords with a formal leave of absence. We should ensure that the grave and important decision to leave the upper Chamber is made properly and thoughtfully and that there is a formal process by which to register that decision.
That ties in with amendment 6, which says:
“after the date specified in 2(a) above”.
The problem with reading out amendments without reading out the relevant part of the Bill is that they sound rather obscure, so it may be sensible to explain. The Bill says that if somebody signs a form resigning from the House of Lords, that notice is irrevocable from the point at which it has been signed, even if it is a long-post-dated cheque. So if a peer entered the House of Lords and said that he intended to resign in eight years’ time, the document would be irrevocable, even though all sorts of things may change. That person would then be ineligible to be a peer again in future. I think that that is a mistake. There should be an ability to withdraw the notice prior to its becoming effective; otherwise, appointments to the House of Lords are opened up to abuse.
I have heard former Leaders of the House of Lords—noble Lords themselves—talk about what happens when people ask for peerages. It may shock you, Mr Speaker, that people ask for peerages. I would have thought it was an enormous impertinence for anybody to say to the Prime Minister or to the Leader of the House of Lords that they would like a peerage, but people do. Apparently, they knock on their doors to ask to be given a peerage; they queue up outside their offices as though they were waiting for an omnibus. When they do so—I really have heard Leaders of the House of Lords make speeches along these lines—they say anything that the people dishing the peerage out may wish to hear. They say, “I’ll always vote with the Government line, I’ll never disobey, I’ll do what I’m told”, and so on and so forth.
Sadly, I have heard Leaders of the House of Lords talk only in general terms—they have not named names—so the hon. Gentleman cannot lead me down that route, and if I did I might be out of order because saying anything critical of a noble peer is against the forms of this House, and neither would I wish to do so.
There is the risk that peers, before they are appointed—therefore, of course, they are not yet peers—are in the position of asking for something that they want that is in the Government’s gift, and the Government want to have some leverage over them to ensure that they behave in the way the Government want when they are appointed. One of the glories of the House of Lords is that once people are there, they are independent because they are there for life. That preserves them from the terrors of the Whips. We in this House live in daily terror of the fierce power the Whips have whereby they may do all sorts of extraordinary things to us with any amount of instruments of torture that are maintained in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster, but in their lordships’ House those instruments are ineffective—they have rusted away because the peers are there for life. That is a great protection for them. If somebody could give a post-dated cheque—if someone could say, “I will leave the House a few years after going in”—that protection would begin to ebb away. But if they had the power to rescind the notice, whatever they said at the point at which they were grubbing round for the peerage, they would be able to withdraw it, and the independence of being a peer for life would be maintained.
This flexibility ought to be added to the Bill because it would allow peers to maintain that which is the essence of the success of our revising Chamber. What makes the House of Lords successful, and different from this House, is that because peers are not standing for re-election and do not need to be readopted by their parties, and because very few of them are Ministers, there are many fewer baubles that may be offered to them to maintain party discipline.
Party discipline is very important. It is important that a Government are able to get their business through, but party discipline in a revising Chamber is unhelpful, because instead of doing its job of revising it tends simply to along with what is asked of it by the party managers. That is damaging both ways: it is damaging if Governments do it, because it means that they are not necessarily putting through Bills that have had the wisdom and benefit of the proper revising process, and it is equally bad when Oppositions do it simply to oppose what the Government are doing. We have seen that on a number of occasions in the House of Lords when, out of party loyalty, rather than according to the argument, the will of the House of Commons has been thwarted.
To overcome that, the great benefit that their lordships have is their independence, which is dependent on the structure of their appointment, namely that they are there for life and cannot be removed. Anything that undermines that needs to be done with the greatest caution and have as many safeguards built into it as possible, so that people do not become pressurised to leave at a point they would not choose, because if that happens they would be fundamentally less independent.
My amendment 7 is perhaps a little obscure, for which I apologise. It occurred to me that the Bill as drafted has forgotten about the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal. It is extraordinary that anyone could ever forget about them. I think about them most days, at considerable length, and the many onerous duties they have. Anyone who paid attention to the visit of Mrs Merkel yesterday will have noticed that the event was held at the other end of this Palace by permission of the Lord Great Chamberlain, who has a role in Parliament. He is an hereditary office holder—it is one of the few hereditary offices in this country—of a most interesting kind, because the office is shared between families according to reign. I believe the Cholmondeleys had it for two reigns out of three, and two other families share it in the third reign.
The problem with the Bill is that it could lead to the Lord Great Chamberlain retiring from his role in Parliament but not retiring from his great office of state. We could reach the ridiculous position where the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal would remain the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal but would not be Members of their lordships’ House. That would inadvertently and specifically contradict one of the aims of the House of Lords Reform Act 1999, which took away hereditary peers, namely that of keeping 90 plus two. The two were specifically kept because of their hereditary constitutional role and it was felt suitable that they should remain in the House of Lords. I would be sorry to see something that Parliament deliberately decided when reforming the House of Lords in the late 1990s being accidentally removed, because if the Earl Marshal decides to retire from his public duties when he becomes an elderly man—which in due course of time he undoubtedly will—he will not be able to retire as Earl Marshal.
The amendment covers something that has been overlooked with regard to those great offices of state. It would be a shame if the House of Lords were not adorned in this way. As I said earlier, it is such a wonderful and elegant Chamber, but to remain wonderful and elegant it needs to have these fantastic, historic posts. The Earl Marshal is such an important figure in our history. His predecessors were present at so many of the great battles in which Britain—or England, more accurately—fought. He is a noble, historic figure. We do not want to lose him inadvertently from their lordships’ House, and likewise the Lord Great Chamberlain.
I think it would be an error for some of the organisation of this Palace to be done by someone of the highest rank and in the name of the Queen who was not a Member of either House. I do not think it would be quite as bad as the suggestion sometimes made that Mr Speaker should have a specific seat—which is a dangerous idea because it would take him away from the fundamental part of this House and the position he holds—but it would be heading in the same direction. My amendment would put that right.
My amendment 8 would maintain the hereditary principle, so I expect fierce opposition to it from Labour Members. The hereditary principle is established with the remaining 90 hereditary peers, and those who are outside the 90 are eligible for election. Perhaps the Minister will tell me whether it is still possible for a writ of acceleration to promote the holder of a lower title to be eligible for election as an hereditary peer. He will remember that the now Marquess of Salisbury took his seat by writ of acceleration rather than by being given a life peerage. I am unaware of what the precise form would be.
The amendment tries to make that take effect in the event that an hereditary peer resigns his seat. The title could maintain its representation in Parliament, which is something that has usually been protected by allowing the peerage title to leave the House of Lords only when the peer dies. I think that this is sensible from the point of view of widening and keeping refreshed the pool from which the 90 can be elected. The right to sit in the House of Lords and to be among those elected hereditaries should pass along a clear and defined route, and if the top of the root is cut off, its stalk should be allowed to flower. It might not flower, because it might not be elected in one of the by-elections to the House of Lords, but the possibility of flowering should at least be there. I will avoid further horticultural metaphors, because I am not particularly good at them.
My final amendment 9 provides a carrot. This Bill has a lot of sticks with which to beat their lordships over their noble heads. I hope they will wear their coronets to protect them against the sticks with they will be beaten to get them out of the House of Lords. I wanted to provide a carrot and I think it is a nice, juicy carrot. The amendment proposes that a life peer, on petition to Her Majesty, will be raised to
“the state degree style dignity title and honour of viscount.”
What is the purpose of that? I hope I will not be besieged by noble viscounts who think that I would lower the tone of their fine estate by allowing all sorts of other people to enter into it, but it is only a very limited number of enormously distinguished people who would be allowed to do so. It would be a reward for leaving the House of Lords, making way for others to fill their places and making sure that it does not get overfilled.
I did think of tabling an amendment saying that any peer—hereditary or life—who resigned would be raised by one degree in the peerage, but I did not think that would work, because I could not see where the dukes would go. It is not possible to make a duke a royal duke—that requires a blood relationship to the Crown—so I decided not to go that far. I apologise to the marquesses, who were all getting very excited at the possibility of going up to a dukedom and raising the honour of their family.
I think that a viscountcy is appropriate for a life peerage, because it is one step up in the peerage and it is also hereditary rather than for life. That would be a fine thing for families to have. It would also, importantly, continue the tradition of creating hereditary peerages, which I am in favour of, not because they can sit in the House of Lords, but because if we want to allow people throughout society to rise and advance themselves, the highest posts in the land should be open to everybody. By freezing the hereditary peerage we create a tighter class structure than when that peerage is open. Instead of saying, “Unless you got your title before the last ones were given in 1983, you can only have a life peerage”, we could say that a grocer’s daughter who became Prime Minister, for example, could become an earl, or a countess in the case of that lady.
It would be wonderful to allow that degree of social mobility. If social mobility is a good thing—I think most Members in this House think it is—people should be able to rise to the top. A viscount is not quite the top, but it is jolly near the top. It would give a real incentive to peers, particularly those with a sense of history and an interest in their family line. Most peers are likely to be in that category. If the amendment was agreed, it would be fascinating to see whether, on balance, socialist peers or Conservative peers were keenest to get an hereditary peerage by stepping aside. One might be quite surprised by how many die-hard socialists suddenly wanted to improve the decoration of their coronet and to raise their status.
What do I want from my first set of amendments? They aim to safeguard what is important about the House of Lords, and to ensure that it is an institution of the utmost regard, seniority and distinction, rather than something that somebody can enter lightly. I accept that people will ask, “What if somebody falls ill and cannot carry out their duties?” If somebody falls ill, they can leave the House of Lords in other ways—by not turning up, which we will come to in a later set of amendments, or they can get a leave of absence from their lordships’ House until they are better. If we always take the most difficult cases, we will end up creating loopholes that allow dangerous and not fully thought-through constitutional changes.
The amendments are all about protecting the status, stature and seriousness of the House of Lords, as well as about requiring people to stick to what they have said they will do. I have remarkably little sympathy with those who, having accepted an honour, think for no very good reason—a change of circumstance or business interest is not a very good reason—that it is more convenient to give up their peerage. That is a fundamentally bad idea.
In the past 20 years, there has been a change from peerages being dished out as honours to their being dished out to legislators. It used to be that a peer’s legislating role was the secondary aspect of an honour granted for the performance of some great public service. Most peers are now appointed as working peers: they are there to do a job as legislators and, as they have accepted, to do it for life. To allow them to leave after five years—or after any period of less than 10 years—or under the age of 65 would be an error.
I will not dwell on the matter of witnesses, which is a mere technicality, but posts in the Lords that will remain important regardless of whether or not their holders are in the Lords ought to have been included in the Bill.
This debate is about considering resignation as we might have done had we been able, as we ought to have been, to look at it in the Committee of the whole House. It is about ensuring that bits of the Bill are not there accidentally, but have at least been considered by this House, even if the House is not of my mind upon them, and about ensuring that any changes do not lead to unintended consequences which, because of how the Bill has come through, we have not had the opportunity to consider in full.
I congratulate Jacob Rees-Mogg on his speech. As ever, it was a pleasure to listen to him, particularly because of his ability to recall what Disraeli said as though he had been there at the time. I disagree profoundly with most of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, including the extraordinary one that a restoration of the hereditary peerage could assist in improving social mobility, a debate to which we may return on a future occasion.
I want to focus on the hon. Gentleman’s amendments 2 and 3. One reason why the Bill was introduced by Dan Byles and why it is supported by the Opposition is the ever-growing membership of the other place. The amendments propose to create a minimum period of 10 years before a Member of the other place can resign.
The hon. Gentleman for North East Somerset said that there was a risk that someone granted a peerage and membership of the other place might resign after a day or two, or even a minute or two, but I must say that that is very unlikely. The likelier scenarios of a Member wishing to resign before the age of 65 or before being a Member for 10 years are exactly the circumstances mentioned by the hon. Gentleman towards the end of his speech—illness, or a change in family or work circumstances. On balance, it makes sense to retain the flexibility to allow Members of the other place to resign for such reasons.
In the middle of his speech, the hon. Gentleman very entertainingly described people queuing to ask for peerages —in other words, the numbers of people now desperate to get into the other place. Yet, his amendments 2 and 3 assume that many Members will, once appointed, suddenly be desperate to get out of it. I am not convinced that that is very likely. He has certainly made an intelligent case for his amendments, but he has not persuaded me to support them, and I therefore urge the House to oppose them.
I thank my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg for the way he expressed his concerns about the Bill, and for tabling the amendments, because that has given us the opportunity to discuss some very important issues. It is crucial to get such a Bill right, and I am pleased that we can discuss the amendments, but I urge the House to resist supporting them for the reasons that I shall give.
Amendments 2 and 3 would require peers to serve a minimum of 10 years before they can retire or resign, and amendment 3 would also impose an age restriction of 65. We all hope that Members of the House of Lords will want to undertake an active and lengthy role in the House, but my Bill introduces a straightforward, honourable statutory provision that allows those who no longer feel able to serve in the House to resign.
Other hon. Members have already mentioned the reasons why Members may think that they are unable to serve in the House. I do not want to go over the subject again, but on Second Reading we discussed at length the very real distress that some noble Members feel when, because of personal circumstances, they are unable to give the full service that they themselves think membership of the Lords deserves. It would be unfair to remove for non-attendance a Member who had been in the House for less than 10 years, but suffered a terrible health problem or had become a full-time carer for a family member. Such a Member would seem to have been naughty, rather than to have been allowed to make a dignified and honourable resignation. It is not therefore appropriate to prevent somebody from resigning if they make the difficult decision to do so, even though they have not served for a minimum period. Peers may wish to resign for a variety of very personal reasons, and I believe that it would be arbitrary and unfair to put in place such a limitation.
Amendment 4 would require two fellow peers to witness a resigning peer’s notice. The normal legal practice is for most documents to be witnessed by one person, and I do not see how a fellow peer is better equipped to witness a notice than any responsible individual. I note that the disclaimer of an hereditary peerage under the Peerage Act 1963 requires only one signature, which I am sure my hon. Friend pondered at length before he tabled his amendment.
My understanding of the Bill is that the witness would be a responsible person in the same manner as for other legal documents, which usually means a Member of Parliament, a doctor and so on. I do not believe that the Bill needs additional safeguards to ensure the effectiveness of resignation notices. Many very important legal documents and other matters involving this House take such an approach, and there is no reason for a stricter requirement on this matter.
Amendment 6 would confirm that once resignation has taken effect, it cannot be rescinded. I am a little hazy, but that implies that peers could change their mind until the resignation takes effect. Submitting a signed and properly witnessed notice is a significant step, and peers would be fully aware of the effect of doing so. It would not be right to enable peers to submit such a notice lightly, safe in the knowledge that they could withdraw it up until it takes effect. My Bill aims to be straightforward and simple, and adding such a nuance would over-complicate it.
The Bill simply states that the notice must
“specify a date from which the resignation is to take effect”.
That could be any date in the future. There is no requirement that it be no more than a month or six months from the date of the notice being issued. That leaves a period in which it is perfectly reasonable to think that circumstances could change such that the notice might be withdrawn.
I now understand my hon. Friend’s concern better, but I still disagree. For the reasons that he has given, I believe it is a serious step for a Member to take the decision to leave. One change that we made in Committee was to say that a Member who decides to retire or resign may not subsequently be reappointed to the House of Lords. We did that for the very reasons that he has given. Sitting in the House of Lords is a lifetime commitment and it should not be the norm to leave. One should not leave with the expectation that one may simply waltz back in later. When a Member decides to submit a notice stating that they wish to leave, it would not be helpful if they could think, “I can always change my mind before it comes into effect.” Perhaps my hon. Friend and I must agree to disagree on that issue.
Amendment 7 would exempt unelected hereditary peers from disqualification under the Bill. The two peers who would be exempted from disqualification, the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord Marshal, undertake various ceremonial duties in the House of Lords. I do not believe that either officer should retain their seat in the House of Lords if they wish to resign or if they are convicted of a criminal offence. I am of the view that it would not be possible for those officers to undertake their duties in the House and elsewhere if they were in custody for more than a year. I am confident that if that situation arose, the Government, in conjunction with the Palace, would put in place appropriate and effective measures to ensure that the functions of the officer were executed properly while they were in custody. I do not believe that Members of the House of Lords should be able to retain their seats if they are safely convicted of a serious criminal offence. I certainly do not believe that peers should enjoy the privilege of being exempt from that. I therefore do not support amendment 7, although I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset felt the need to raise and discuss the issue.
Amendments 8 and 9 would allow the heir of a retiring hereditary peer to take part in the by-election caused by their parent’s retirement and elevate the retiring peer to the status of viscount. It would be entirely wrong for this Bill to change the current position whereby e not given an automatic right to enter the House of Lords. I would not want to support such a controversial amendment, because the Bill seeks to make straightforward and sensible changes to the membership of the House of Lords. However, this is a fascinating debate that might take place in other circumstances. Under the Bill, departing peers will retain their peerage. I therefore do not agree that those who retire should be elevated automatically to viscount status, nor that they should be entitled to any additional honour simply because they have been a Member of the House of Lords, so I do not support amendments 8 and 9.
The amendments that have been tabled for today’s debate and in Committee have demonstrated that, as I said on Second Reading, the Bill would have benefited from being dealt with as a constitutional Bill, as I believe it is, and debated on the Floor of the House at every stage. Nevertheless, we are where we are and I rise to support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Having said that, amendments 2 and 3 are alternatives, so I express my preference for amendment 3. I do so because the average age of a peer, as of August last year, was 70 so most peers are over the age of 65 and would meet that qualification. As my hon. Friend said in proposing the amendment, when someone is appointed as a life peer, it is reasonable to assume that they will take on that responsibility for the rest of their life. It is therefore entirely reasonable to expect them not to want to retire during the first 10 years—a fairly modest period that is equivalent to two fixed-term Parliaments.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend Dan Byles, the promoter of the Bill, said about the situations that might arise. I accept that there might be occasions when, sadly, someone wishes to leave the other place because they have caring responsibilities. However, my hon. Friend will be aware that there is already a voluntary retirement scheme in the other place, which allows Members to write to the Clerk of the Parliaments to indicate their wish permanently to retire. Indeed, some Members of the other House have taken advantage of that scheme, so methods already exist that enable Members to leave the other House before 10 years have elapsed.
Amendment 4 relates to witnesses. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire said that he would expect a witness to be a doctor or a solicitor. I submit that unless the Bill states that a specific qualification is expected of a witness, a court will not impose such a restriction. A court might expect a witness to be an adult, although even that is debatable, but it would place no other special requirement on who could or should be a witness.
I think that, as a minimum, the witness should know the peer in question. The great advantage of amendment 4 is that, by specifying that the notice must be witnessed by two other peers, one could reasonably expect that they would know the peer who has signed the document. The reason we specify in legislation that a document must be witnessed is so that, if the document is questioned, a court can be reassured that the person who signed it did so of their own free will and was of sound mind. A witness could give evidence as to the person’s state of mind when they signed the document.
As the Bill is drafted, the peer could get anyone they wanted to witness the document. The problem with witnesses is that, when a document is called into question, it is very often because there is some doubt about the intention of the person who signed it. Usually that is because there has been foul play and somebody has put forward a document that is not what it purports to be. In such a case, if there is a squiggle from the witness, how can the person who made that squiggle of a signature be called to give evidence?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Without being able to find the witness and ascertain who they are, the existence of their signature is not much help to a court.
The idea that there would be an illegible squiggle and that nobody would know whose it was is a bit fanciful. There are not many other legal documents for which we set out in primary legislation a requirement to include a name, address, social security number and so on. It needs to be properly witnessed, but I am not convinced that a big problem with the Bill will be that we will end up with false witnesses and people trying to squeeze out other peers. I accept the spirit in which my hon. Friend makes his point, but it is not likely to be a particularly major problem.
On whether a peer might be of sound mind when making the statement, we are talking about people who at the moment are entitled to vote on legislation for this country. I do not think we should call into question whether they might be able to indicate legitimately that they wish to resign or retire.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, but the Bill’s draftsmen included a requirement for a witness so they must have intended that witness to have a purpose, so what is that purpose? Surely the purpose of the witness, if there is a purpose, must be to give evidence to a court as to the identity of the person who executed the document, and about their state of mind and their position when they signed it. I accept that it may be the will of the House that such evidence can be given properly by someone without their having a special qualification. However, given the importance of such a document in the constitutional affairs of this country, I would have thought it reasonable to require witnesses at the very least to have some form of legal training in order to assess these matters and properly give evidence in court.
Leaving that aside, my hon. Friend’s amendment would go some way to dealing with the matter. Two peers would indeed be able to give good evidence to a court about the identity of the person who signed the document, and state that the person was who they purported to be, but whenever a witness is required to sign a document, there should be a requirement—as an absolute minimum—not just to sign it but to state legibly their full name and present address. They can then be found if necessary, and contacted to give evidence to a court about the circumstances in which that document was signed.
Amendment 7 demonstrates the great dangers that in tinkering with the unwritten British constitution. I often describe the constitution as a delicate flower, and when we start to unpick it and tinker with one aspect of it, unintended consequences inevitably flow from the proposed changes. We saw that some years ago when it was proposed that the office of Lord Chancellor be abolished. It suddenly became apparent, after a relatively short time, that it was not quite that simple, and the office remains to this day. For that reason, I support the remaining amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, and I commend them to the House.
It is a pleasure to respond to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg. He is in the happy difficulty that his contributions undermine his arguments. He purports that it is necessary to have wisdom, learning and erudition, or to be possessed of a grey beard, or at least flowing grey locks. I do not know whether he would fit his own description of a scribbling youth, but he is a youthful Member of the House, yet every time he speaks he does so with a depth of wisdom, learning and reflection on these matters that rather undermines his case. However, it is a delight to have him move these amendments this morning. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Dan Byles for his skill in steering the Bill to this stage of proceedings, which is relatively unusual for a private Member’s Bill, especially in this area. My hon. Friend Mr Nuttall brought the usual stringent scrutiny to these matters that we always count on him for, and it is right for these issues to be closely examined.
Amendments 2 and 3 would require a peer to serve 10 years in the House before they can retire, and amendment 3 adds an age requirement of 65. I completely understand and agree with the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset to ensure that noble Lords in the upper Chamber play a full and lengthy role—indeed, the term “life peerage” is, as he correctly pointed out, significant in that respect. Peers should not come into Parliament for the legislative equivalent of a weekend break; they are here to serve the country for the remainder of their life, and I am concerned that they should take their commitment to the House seriously.
The purpose of clause 1 is to ensure a mechanism that entitles peers, who take seriously their responsibilities, to act with honesty and honour by reflecting the circumstances in which they may no longer find it possible to answer the summons, and to discharge that responsibility. My hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset and for Bury North were right to point out that mechanisms such as leave of absence or simply not turning up are available to people who find themselves unable to attend and respond to the summons, but the essence of the Bill is to recognise that, in some circumstances, such mechanisms are deficient and do not provide an accurate reflection of reality. For some people, a leave of absence is not temporary but involves, in effect, a permanent inability to perform the duties that are entailed in membership of the upper House.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire said, such circumstances can be deeply personal or the result of poor health that is unlikely to improve. Members of the other place could be in the service of others, or have family circumstances that require them to move away permanently. To recognise that, there should not be any device; a straightforward declaration that someone’s service is no longer possible to be discharged is right and appropriate.
The Government’s view is that an arbitrary 10-year period during which resignation or retirement could not be tendered is inappropriate and could cause distress to peers who find themselves in the circumstances that I have described during that initial 10 years. Like the shadow Minister, I do not believe that it is likely that a great flood of Members will avail themselves of this option in the first 10 years, but it may be appropriate and necessary in some circumstances.
Amendment 4 would require two fellow peers to witness a peer’s notice of resignation. Admirably, the Bill is as simple as it is possible to be in its drafting and its promotion by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. To have a signature witnessed seems a proportionate requirement of the legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North is a scourge of the Government on over-regulating, gold-plating or other excesses in legislation, but his support for the amendment takes him in a different direction. There is no particular reason to suppose that the witness chosen by a peer should be suspected of incompetence so that they require another witness to witness the witness to the signature. In fact, it is possible to see an infinite regress, with further witnesses being necessary in case the reliability of the earlier witnesses is not sufficiently established. It would be disproportionate, and Occam’s razor should be applied to this theoretical problem, so that we take the simpler solution.
I do not think it has been suggested that the second peer is witnessing the signature of the first peer: it is simply that both peers are witnessing the event. It is not a continuum of peers. We are not trying to suggest that the second witnessing peer authenticates the first witnessing peer. Both of them are simply witnessing the first peer. Perhaps right my hon. Friend would care to comment on the point that I made about including the address and printed name of the witnesses, because that would be very useful.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, but the need for the second witness—if they are to have any purpose at all—must be something to do with the first witness not being sufficient. If one witness is not sufficient, why should two witnesses be sufficient? We could be drawn in that direction.
In order to witness a document, it is necessary that the witness—through the case law that has been established—should be identifiable. They will need to disclose their identity, and that means that they should be capable of being found if recourse to them is needed in the event of any proceedings or challenge. So there is no requirement for any additional safeguard in this case.
Amendment 6 would ensure that, once a resignation has taken effect, it cannot be rescinded, the implication being that circumstances might change—as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset pointed out—and the peer might want to change his mind about resignation. While I have great sympathy for the thought behind the amendment, it raises a difficult and troublesome possibility. It would introduce the threat of resignation. It would be possible for a peer in dispute with, say, the Government of the day or the leadership of the House of Lords, to postdate a resignation in the knowledge that they had the ability to withdraw it at any point. It is always a good principle in life, whether in this House or beyond, that if someone threatens to resign, they should have in mind carrying out that threat. The ability to deploy the threat of resignation without the consequence of following it through could introduce a degree of brinksmanship into proceedings that I know my hon. Friend in particular would be keen to avoid.
It is right that providing a written and witnessed notice of resignation should be taken very seriously. It is not something that should be considered lightly, and peers should undertake it in full knowledge of the implications. It is not right that someone should be able to go back on that notice of resignation, even if it has not taken effect.
Two very eminent peers would be exempted from disqualification under the amendment—the Lord Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal—both of whom carry out important official duties in the House of Lords. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said in moving his amendment—and as my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire also mentioned—the Lord Chamberlain is the senior official of the royal household and represents the involvement of the household and Her Majesty in the organisation of the affairs of Parliament. It is a very important channel of communication between the sovereign and the House of Lords. The Earl Marshal is the eighth great officer of state and is responsible for several ceremonial duties, including the organisation of coronations, state funerals and the state opening of Parliament. The importance of those duties is such that the Government do not believe that either officeholder requires a seat in the House of Lords in order to discharge them, for the very good reason that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset mentioned—they are not, as individuals, immune from prosecution at the moment. It is almost impossible to contemplate the eventuality, but it is possible in theory that they could be incarcerated, and it is inconceivable that arrangements could not be made for a coronation or state opening of Parliament during such terrible circumstances. It is not necessary to have the clarification that my hon. Friend suggests.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but it is relevant that they should be subject to the same procedures as would apply under the Bill to every Member of the House of Lords, whether through resignation—and the same circumstances might apply to them in wishing to resign—or through being convicted of a serious criminal offence. The points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire made in response to that capture the essence of the argument. It is not appropriate to permit peers on the basis on which they hold their seats to remain in the House if they are convicted of a serious criminal offence or if they want to exercise—they are under no obligation to do so—the opportunity to retire.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset raised a question about whether a writ of advancement should be available in the case of hereditary peers. There is no reason why a writ of advancement should not be available, but it is worth noting that if a hereditary peer disclaims his or her peerage under the Peerage Act 1963, there is no advancement for his or her heir while the disclaiming peer is still alive.
Amendments 8 and 9 would ensure that the heir of a retiring hereditary peer could participate in the by-election caused by his or her parent’s retirement. My hon. Friend’s ingenious suggestion of an improvement in social mobility by elevating a retiring peer to the status of a viscount is also contained in the amendments. I have some difficulty with the amendments, as I am sure my hon. Friend would imagine. The name of our venerable upper chamber is the House of Lords, not the house of heirs. It would be wrong to break with the tradition of hundreds of years to allow heirs to enter the Chamber just because their father or mother had retired from their role in the House.
My hon. Friend made it clear that he recognised the difference between attendance and membership of the House of Lords and the peerage. His amendment, however, would introduce a novel constitutional concept of the kind that he is generally inclined to view with a certain degree of scepticism. I think that, just like any hereditary peer who, extraordinarily, continues to enjoy a right to sit in the legislature, those heirs should wait until they have been elevated to the peerage as their forefathers did.
As for the question of the elevation of retiring peers to the status of viscount, I do not see the need to provide for such a possibility, given that we are talking about membership of the House of Lords rather than about the peerage itself. As I said earlier, my hon. Friend has advanced an ingenious argument for social mobility. He has anticipated the objection that the ratcheting up to the level of royal dukedoms might cause a problem for Her Majesty. In any event, I should have thought that before embarking on such an approach, one would need to be assured of the consent of Her Majesty, as the fount of all honour and dignity, and to have discussed the issues with Garter King of Arms. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has done those things.
I fully appreciate the attention that my hon. Friends have given to both the Bill and the amendments, but I do not think that any of the amendments is necessary to safeguard the purposes of the Bill from unintended consequences, and—as I hope I have been able to demonstrate—in many instances they would have unintended consequences of their own that would damage the Bill. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment.
I have listened enormously carefully to what has been said by my hon. Friend Dan Byles, Stephen Twigg and my right hon. Friend the Minister. I have the impression that the mood of the House is against my proposals, and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.