Clause 4 — Effect of ceasing to be a member

– in the House of Commons at 11:45 am on 28th February 2014.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 21, page 3, line 44, at end insert—

‘(9) A person who ceases to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with sections 1 and 2 of this Act may not be elected to the House of Commons during the course of the next two Parliaments.

(10) A person who ceases to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with this Act remains entitled to all the other privileges state degree style title and honour of peerage.’.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

Amendments 19 and 21 aim to deal with the issue of Members of the House of Lords going from the Lords to the Commons. As the Bill was initially drafted and as we debated it on Second Reading, it would have been possible to have a revolving door or ping-pong back and forth, depending which phrase is preferred. It would have been possible for someone to leave the Commons, go to the Lords, leave the Lords, come back to the Commons and go back to the Lords again. I am glad to say that that was amended in Committee, which has at least to some degree ameliorated the situation. But there is a problem with the House of Lords being changed into a place that can be used as a way of preparing people for political life before bringing them to the Commons. As more and more professional politicians come through—I know this is a matter of concern to the electorate—people can have the following career path: becoming special advisers, going to the Lords and then coming to the Commons, without any real pause in-between. As the Bill stands, it would be possible to resign a seat in the Lords immediately before the close of nominations for the House of Commons at a general election

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

There is already some precedent for somebody leaving the House of Lords, going straight to the House of Commons and then back to the House of Lords. I think I am right in saying that Alec Douglas-Home did exactly that in 1963 and was elected in Scotland to a seat that he represented for a number years and then became a life peer.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. There is indeed a precedent, which I was well aware of, and it is not just the late Lord Home of the Hirsel; Lord Hailsham did exactly the same. Both of them resigned their peerage for the 1963 Conservative leadership contest, at which point Tory leaders emerged from the magic circle—a very satisfactory way of doing it, but it now done in a more modern way, and I am glad to say that all Conservative Members have an equal vote in our leadership elections. I cannot quite remember how the trade unions sort it out in the Labour party, but I know that they have a lot of fun with it.

There is indeed a precedent, but the hon. Gentleman will remember that when the ability to disclaim peerages was introduced, a limited time was provided when all peers could disclaim their peerage, regardless of when they had received it. Thereafter, peers who disclaimed their peerage had a limited time in which to do so after inheriting their peerage. It was all done so that Tony Benn, the then Viscount Stansgate, could get back into the House of Commons to be elected for Bristol. That was done to provide for an extraordinary circumstance where people had no choice but to be peers. They had become peers by the wonderful accident of birth that had raised them to such a status, which took them into the House of Lords and forced them to leave the House of Commons, whereas the precedent had already been set in relation to Lord Curzon and George V that the Prime Minister had to come from the House of Commons. Therefore, to allow the widest choice of candidates for that leadership election, peers were able to resign their peerages and come into the Commons. However, people becoming leaders of the party in that way is very different from it becoming a standard part of the career progression of a politician to go to the Lords first and then come to the Commons. The first should not be seen as a stepping stone to the other.

It is also a problem in relation to our constituency work, because it would not be inconceivable that an election result in a marginal seat could see a Member of Parliament defeated, that his party might so value his or her services that they put them into the House of Lords, from which he has the ability to campaign for the marginal seat for the next five years, before resigning his seat in the House of Lords to come back to the House of Commons.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Again, that situation already exists. We have had a number of cases of Members of the House of Lords being elected to the Scottish Parliament, but it has not led to widespread problems.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

The devolved Parliaments are different, because the simple logistics of needing to be in Edinburgh or Cardiff and also in the House of Lords make it much harder to work on that basis than between these two Houses, where the role, the position, the place of activity are so very similar. It is perfectly reasonable to foresee someone who has just lost a seat spending five years as a Lord preparing to campaign for it again. As it becomes clearer, and parties are well aware of this, that to win seats we have all modelled ourselves on the Liberal Democrats—I say that with not a single one present in the House now. We have worked out that to win marginal constituencies—[Interruption.] I was not aware that there was anyone that I could see in the Galleries.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that we make no mention of the Galleries, only this Chamber.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

That is why I did not see anybody in them, Mr Deputy Speaker. Although, there is, as you know, the right to speak from the Gallery in the event that the House is full. Sadly, it is not full today.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

I can help the hon. Gentleman a little more. It is also up to the Chair to decide who speaks, and on this occasion I have decided to hear a little more from Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I am very grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I will let you into a secret: one of my ambitions is to speak from the Galleries one day. I think that it was last done in the 1950s.

To return to my point, it has been established that the best way to win marginal seats is to select candidates early and have them working in the constituencies for a long time in the run-up to a general election. That presents difficulties, however, because candidates have to earn a living, need to find the resources to finance their campaign and have to put other parts of their life on hold. If they can do that from the House of Lords, that is an enormous advantage. It gives them an income of sorts and it gives them status, which they can use to intervene in constituency affairs—a local council or Government body will take a letter from a peer just as seriously as a letter from a Member of the House of Commons. There is the risk of setting up an MP and an unelected peer to fight for a constituency for five years, with the peer simply standing down before the election to put himself forward and conceivably take the seat and go back to being a Member of the House of Commons. That seems to me to be fundamentally undesirable.

Members may say that the risk is slim and that that will never happen, but we are becoming a more professional political class. There is certainly evidence that length of campaigning in constituencies helps. There is currently a very good proposal from “ConservativeHome” to provide candidates with funds to help them with that. How much easier it would be if there was a nice, cosy billet in the House of Lords from which it could be done. Admittedly, that could not be done again, because the peer would have burnt all his bridges in relation to returning to the House of Lords, but that is not too bad, because they would still have got 15 years out of the system: one Parliament as an MP, one as a peer and, if they are clever, another as an MP. It begins to look like a means of forming a political career.

If that system becomes a means of forming a political career, it also becomes—I return to what I said earlier—a means of the parties asserting more control over their lordships’ House. A key thing about being in their lordships’ House is that there really are no further baubles the Government can offer. There are very few carrots and no sticks. That encourages independence of mind. It encourages peers, once they get there, to be more rigorous in considering the merits of the issues before them and to act in the proper way of a revising Chamber. The more possible it is for Governments to encourage, coerce and persuade peers to stick tightly to the party line, the less use their lordships’ House will serve, because it will be unable to do its job as a revising Chamber effectively.

Even if the risk is relatively slim and the numbers involved will not necessarily be huge, it seems to me that some sort of stop ought to be placed on that and that people go to the Lords knowing that they have accepted it for life, as we have already discussed, and that it disbars them from the House of Commons. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that people should face the consequences of decisions they have freely made. That is where it is different from hereditary peers and disclaiming, because a hereditary peerage is not a decision freely made; it is an accident of birth. However, any life peer has received a letter from the Prime Minister saying, “Do you want to be a life peer?”, has had letters patent issued by the sovereign and has had to pay Garter King of Arms to draw up the paperwork. They have had to do something to get that noble status. They know, because they have been told, that it excludes them from the House of Commons, by their voluntary choice.

Some argue that that is against their human rights, which is an absolutely ridiculous understanding of human rights. I know that it has been argued that it is against their human rights to stop them coming back to the House of Commons, but they are the ones who chose to be ineligible for the House of Commons. Surely with rights go responsibilities, and surely people must face the consequences of their actions.

I think that the failure to include that exclusion in the Bill is a mistake. It is something that ought to be remedied, because it could lead to problems in future. It could damage the standing of the House of Lords. It could easily be misused by a powerful political party, because obviously the party in government is more able to decide who the working peers will be, and therefore to use it for its marginal seats, to the detriment of opposition parties. No party is in government for ever, so it is always worth all sides bearing those difficulties in mind. It also fundamentally takes away from someone the consequences of their actions, which I think is wrong. I think that people should bear those consequences, and once they have been elevated they should not be allowed to sink back down, at least for a period.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:00 pm, 28th February 2014

I shall be brief. I had not planned to speak, but I was so interested by the arguments put forward by Jacob Rees-Mogg that I want to challenge some of his assumptions.

As I said earlier, we already have a system whereby Members of the House of Lords can serve simultaneously in both the Lords and the Scottish Parliament. Lord Steel served ably for four years not just as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, but as its Presiding Officer while serving in and on occasion, I think, attending the House of Lords. Lord Watson, who was previously an MP, took a life peerage in 1997 and then stood successfully for election to the Scottish Parliament in a constituency in Glasgow in 1999. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock went from the House of Commons to the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament and maintained his very active role in both the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament at the same time.

There is no suggestion in any of those cases that being a Member of the House of Lords gave an unfair advantage to those three noble Lords while they were campaigning for election to the Scottish Parliament. Lord Steel in particular was and is still a huge figure in Scottish politics, deeply respected for his 30-odd years’ service to the people of the Borders. That was why Lord Steel was successful when he stood for election on the list in the Lothians region of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

I fear that on this rare occasion the hon. Member for North East Somerset sees mischief where none will exist. He was right to mention Lord Hailsham and the issue with Alec Douglas-Home. I read Alan Clark’s diaries a few months ago, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has done. He will recall that at one point Baroness Thatcher was considering the merits of Lord Young as a possible successor. It is utterly inconceivable in the 21st century, never mind the 20th century, for a peer to become Prime Minister. That would be unacceptable to the electorate, and possibly even constitutionally these days there would be questions about the validity of that role.

The danger with the argument that the hon. Gentleman makes with some sincerity is that it would close down the possibility that someone may go into the House of Lords and then emerge as a serious contender for high office, though perhaps not the highest office, but if they wished to be Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer, for example, it might be felt more appropriate for them to be a Member of this House. We have a slightly quirky situation at present, and that was true also under the Labour Government when the First Secretary of State was a Member of the House of Lords and a junior Minister had to answer in this House. Personally, I hope we will look at that again. Putting in an artificial bar—

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

The proposal would not put in an artificial bar but maintain the status quo, because currently a specific Act of Parliament would be required for a life peer to come into this House. Lord Young could not have been Margaret Thatcher’s successor without an Act of Parliament allowing him to disclaim his peerage.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this door has been opened by the Bill, and I recognise that he is trying to shut it. That was my point in talking about putting in an artificial bar. I hope that the Minister will clearly set out how the Government intend to respond to this issue. I think that the hon. Gentleman is seeing a mischief where there is not one. I hope that when he responds he will reflect on what the two Front Benchers have said.

Photo of Dan Byles Dan Byles Conservative, North Warwickshire

Amendments 19 and 21 would prevent a peer who resigns or is disqualified through non-attendance from being elected to the House of Commons during the course of the next two Parliaments, thereby making provision for a cooling-off period. I think we all agree that would not want the House of Lords to become a training ground for a seat in the House of Commons and thereafter provide an opportunity to ping-pong between the Houses. As my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg said, my Bill does not allow departing peers to return to the House of Lords, so the ponging is gone, and perhaps we are now just discussing the pinging.

I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s concerns, but the likelihood of many of them becoming reality are quite slim. On the first group of amendments, he spoke with great eloquence about how desperate many people are to get into the House of Lords. In my experience and, I think, that of most people in the House, people are very keen to go in that direction but there is not necessarily quite such a large queue waiting to come in this direction. When I have discussed this with colleagues, they have looked at me and said, “Why on earth would somebody want to go from the Lords to the Commons? Most of our colleagues seem to be trying to go the other way.”

On the potential power given to party leaderships, I am not convinced that the party leadership—in our party, anyway—has quite as much control over the candidate selection process as my hon. Friend seems to give them credit for. Whenever the party leadership tries to impose a favoured candidate on a safe seat, the fact that they are known to be the Conservative central office-favoured candidate can at times be the kiss of death with regard to the local association, which usually likes to exert its independence when it come to selecting candidates.

My hon. Friend’s argument needs to be weighed strongly against the very serious issue of barring a British citizen from seeking election to the House of Commons. I take his point when he says that someone will have made this decision when they chose to go into the House of Lords, but it is very large step to say to them, “You, as a British citizen, are one of a small group of people who, through dint of your previous job, are not permitted to seek election to the House of Commons.” We have traditionally prevented people from seeking election to the House of Commons only for very narrow reasons, and I am wary of the amendment for that reason. I am not aware of any widespread desire among parliamentarians to ping-pong backwards and forwards—or ping, at least—and I very much doubt that the party leaderships of all three parties would seek to use that as a method of grooming candidates in future.

Amendment 21 says that any peer who resigned or was disqualified would retain their peerage. That principle is already inherent in the Bill, which does not provide for peerages to be lost, and the amendment is therefore unnecessary. I urge the House not to support the amendments.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I oppose the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, although I recognise the sentiments he expresses about undue campaigning and not allowing political advantage to be conferred on people who try to get selected to this place by virtue of their being a parliamentarian already.

I disagree with Thomas Docherty on the grounds that we already know of many Members of the European Parliament who have sought to come to this place having been very proactive in parts of their constituencies. I am thinking of a particular gentleman who is no longer a Member of this House but was very assiduous in parts of his region where he ultimately got selected as the candidate and was then elected to this House. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is right to highlight the issue, but I am concerned that he may have given the idea to our political parties, rather than dissuaded them. I do not think it is necessary to put it into legislation. If there is ever a case of the procedure being abused, that would be the appropriate point at which to revisit the issue, in another Parliament.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Jacob Rees-Mogg has raised a serious issue and I have given it a lot of thought. It has been pointed out to me by experts on this matter outside the House that previous proposals for reform of the other place have included some sort of cooling-off period and that it should, therefore, be considered as part of the Bill.

When the hon. Gentleman moved his earlier amendments, he discussed the risk of this becoming a standard part of career progression, which is a fair point. However, we also have to balance that risk with the arguments made by other hon. Members during this debate. The decisive argument that leads me not to support the amendments is that made just now by the promoter of the Bill, Dan Byles, namely that I cannot defend the principle of barring a UK citizen from standing for election simply on the basis of their previous occupation.

I accept that there is a risk, albeit a relatively slim one, of the system being abused. On the other hand, there could be some advantage to people who have experience of the other place standing for this place. I think it is fair to say that, whatever our different views about the composition of the other place and the method of appointment and lack of election to it, it is often better than we are at the scrutiny and of Bills. If a small number of people with experience of scrutiny and revision in the other place came to this place, that might not be such a bad thing. On balance—this is a finely balanced argument—I come down against the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North East Somerset and hope that he will withdraw it.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am disappointed that the House has lost the opportunity today to hear the unmistakable and authoritative tones of my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg coming from the Gallery. It could only have lent even greater authority to his declarations. We shall look forward to it happening at another time, with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The issue has had a good airing in this short debate. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern that we should not risk losing the very important role that their lordships play in being a source of dispassionate expertise and advice to this place, and we all admire their robust independence and scrutiny, even if, on occasion, Ministers find themselves on the wrong end of it. That is their role and they discharge it very well.

We do not want to see the House of Lords become a nursery for the Commons where young hopefuls start their careers before being transplanted to this Chamber at some point. However, as Stephen Twigg and my hon. Friend Dr Coffey have said, this is a balanced argument. My hon. Friend Dan Byles has sought always to gather those measures of reform that command the greatest possible consensus. This is not the last word on House of Lords reform and some of the principles that even this short debate has thrown up are very serious and have consequence, such as whether it is right to restrict someone who is not a Member of Parliament from standing for Parliament. That debate of some constitutional consequence needs to be approached carefully and to happen in the context of other debates that will no doubt take place in the years ahead about further reform of the House of Lords.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset was gracious enough to acknowledge, the Bill is different from the one first introduced, so it cannot be subject to ping-pong in the way that would have been permitted for the original Bill. We have given a great deal of thought to this matter and those covered in previous discussions. When Lord Steel promoted his Bill in the other place, it made progress and was accepted by their lordships, who were content for it to proceed without what might be called the cooling-off period. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has been influenced by, and has consciously modelled his Bill on, proposals that have already attracted a degree of support and consensus, following considerable scrutiny in the other place. To depart from the established consensus in the other place might be perilous for a private Member’s Bill on such a subject.

I agree with the comment that preventing someone from running for elected office is a serious sanction. Given the safeguards made to avoid ping-pong between the Houses, it is not necessary for the Bill to forbid someone from doing so. I concede that this House and the other place may want to come back to the matter and, provided that the Bill is fortunate enough to receive

Royal Assent, perhaps to make a judgment based on the experience of how it works in practice. I am sure that there will be other opportunities to discuss it in the years ahead.

Let me just mention amendment 21, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. As has been said, it would clarify that any peer who resigns or is disqualified retains his or her peerage. It may help if I repeat from the Dispatch Box what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. The Government’s view is that that is already implicit in the Bill, which states that a peerage cannot be lost in such a way. I am happy to confirm that to provide clarity and certainty.

Given the reasons that I have set out, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is inclined not to press his amendments.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset 12:15 pm, 28th February 2014

I have listened very carefully to the speeches in this debate. I am very reassured by the Minister’s commitment that the matter will be reviewed if it turns out to be a problem: if my fears turn out to be real, it will be looked at, and if they turn out not to be, it will not matter. I am also reassured that the honorifics that go with a peerage will clearly remain. I do not want to risk the Bill by pushing my amendments to a Division, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

Queen’s consent signified.

Photo of Dan Byles Dan Byles Conservative, North Warwickshire 12:18 pm, 28th February 2014

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank the hon. Members, some of whom are in the Chamber, who participated in Committee for their careful consideration of and full support for each clause. I do not intend to repeat the very full debate we have just had on Report. The advantage of discussing a wide range of amendments is that we have already explored several of the clauses, so I need not go over them again. I thank colleagues for their considered and thoughtful interventions, and for agreeing to my amendment 23, which will make the Bill a better one.

I am delighted that Members of all political parties have come together to consider the provisions of the Bill carefully and to lend their support throughout its parliamentary stages. The Bill seeks to implement the urgent, housekeeping reforms that the upper Chamber welcomed during the passage of Lord Steel’s Bill. Those include a statutory resignation provision, so that peers may leave the House if they no longer feel able to serve or if they wish to retire; a mechanism for the removal of persistent non-attendees who fail to fulfil their important duties to the House; and a system to remove peers who commit serious criminal offences, thereby safeguarding the reputation of the House of Lords.

It is plain that both Houses embrace those sensible reforms, which Members have long agreed the House of Lords requires. The debate over how reform of the upper Chamber should be achieved has thwarted earlier attempts at reform and has led to these essential and highly reasonable reforms not being implemented. I appreciate that the wider debate about reform will continue and that colleagues hold different views on the need or otherwise for longer-term, substantial reform of the membership of the upper Chamber. I remind Members that the Bill does not prevent those debates from continuing, but focuses on the extremely overdue reforms that we all agree are crucial.

I am confident that, following its considered examination by colleagues, the Bill is in excellent shape to be progressed to the upper Chamber. I therefore urge Members to continue to assist in its safe passage today and to give those in the upper Chamber this vital opportunity to reform themselves.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:21 pm, 28th February 2014

I, too, will be brief because there are other important Bills that will come before us shortly.

I thank Dan Byles for bringing the Bill forward. It is an impressive Bill, in that it has not only generated a lot of debate, but made sufficient progress in a packed legislative programme to head down to the House of Lords. I hope that, because of the work that has been done here, the House of Lords will not feel the need to spend too long on it and it will become law before the end of the Session.

If the hon. Member for North Warwickshire is the father of the Bill, it is probably worth stressing that Lord Steel is its godfather. Like many godfathers, he is no doubt taking an interest in what we are doing and watching over us in some way. I hope that the whole House will join me in thanking him for his work on the Bill over the years.

I believe in reform of the House of Lords. I hope that this is not the last Bill on the subject. Whether or not Members support an elected or partially elected House of Lords, I think that it is recognised across this House—indeed, it is recognised in the House of Lords itself—that it is absurd to have more than 800 peers and for that number to be growing quickly. I hope that the Bill will have an impact on that, but I also hope that Front Benchers are committed to having another look at the composition and operation of the House of Lords.

I thank the Clerks who have done such a fantastic job, in particular Kate Emms, and all the House officials who have worked with Jacob Rees-Mogg, myself and other Members who have tabled amendments.

I commend the Bill to the House. It is an excellent piece of work. I urge the other place not to spend too long rehashing these issues, because it is important that the Bill gets on to the statute book before the end of the Session.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 12:24 pm, 28th February 2014

I rise to commend the Bill to the House and to our noble Friends in the other place.

The Bill makes a sensible reform. I was pleased to be invited by my hon. Friend Dan Byles to help prepare and bring in the Bill, and to serve on the Public Bill Committee.

When a previous version of the Bill was discussed, it did not get past Second Reading, even though it had a significant majority at that point. A number of issues have been raised through amendments today and in Committee. I thank, in particular, my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is one of the great champions of constitutional propriety, but who also recognises the need for appropriate reform.

I sincerely hope that the other House passes the Bill without undue delay.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset 12:25 pm, 28th February 2014

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, the rule has a caveat that the House must be full for someone to speak from the Galleries, and sadly that is not the case today.

I thank my hon. Friend Dr Coffey for her incredibly generous comments, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Dan Byles on piloting this Bill. I am surprised that I find myself supporting a reform Bill of any kind, as I am normally with Lord Palmerston: “Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough already?” My hon. Friend has piloted this Bill with incredibly courtesy, efficiency, and a willingness to listen to the points that have been raised. Although I think all its proceedings should have been on the Floor of the House, it is a rare event for a Back-Bench Member to pass a constitutional Bill and it requires a good deal of patience and perhaps responsiveness.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would agree that Dan Byles is much more successful at such things than the Deputy Prime Minister appears to be.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

For once, I will praise the Lord President of the Council, because to be fair to him—my right hon. Friend!—having not been able to get through a massive reform of the House of Lords that would have had enormous constitutional implications, he has shown good grace in not sulking in his den and trying to obstruct this reform. This Bill allows transitions to take place which, although minor in themselves, are actually quite fundamental. A life peerage is now no longer for life, the problem of peers committing offences is dealt with at last—which in some ways is long overdue—the House of Lords is now able to expel peers, and non-attendance has a sanction. I think those reforms make the upper House stronger. That is not to say that I do not have minor qualms about some of the detail, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has been incredibly successful in piloting the Bill, and has done so in such a way that even those of us who are accused of being Neanderthal about constitutional matters are on his side.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 12:27 pm, 28th February 2014

I start by joining the congratulations to Dan Byles on his Bill and his success in reaching Third Reading, and I reaffirm the Opposition’s support for the Bill. In many ways, as he said, this is a housekeeping Bill: it is modest, but important and sensible nevertheless. Without this Bill, we face a real risk of heading towards an upper House with as many as 1,000 Members. That is more than can fit into the other place for a popular debate—surely a farcical position to be in.

Clause 1 is a sensible step that allows peers to retire or resign. As the shadow Attorney-General said on Second Reading, a peerage should not be a life sentence. It remains remarkable that one cannot retire from the House of Lords, and gives an impression of the other place as a members’ club, rather than a serious place of democratic scrutiny. The option of resignation will be useful in a number of different scenarios, such as when a Lord is ill, as was said earlier, or unable to keep up their attendance. To have peers who do not or cannot play their role in the parliamentary process, but who nevertheless remain entitled or expected to do so, surely devalues our democratic process, and I am pleased that the Bill will change that.

Clause 2 provides that a Member of the House of Lords who is a peer and does not attend the House during a Session will cease to be a Member of the House at the beginning of the following Session. The public are understandably frustrated when they wonder why Members of the Lords remain ennobled and able to vote in the Lords when they are never present to undertake that role. The measures in the Bill ensure that that will no longer be the case. To be a member of the House of Lords should not merely be a line on one’s CV or a hobby, but a serious role that requires attendance.

Clause 3 means that a Member of the Lords who is convicted of a serious offence ceases to be a Member. Again, that is a sensible measure to ensure that we protect the legitimacy of the other place. The public would be very concerned if convicted criminals, guilty of serious offences, were still able to play an active part in our lawmaking and democratic process, and I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire was successful in his amendment to clause 3 which, rightly, offers further protections for peers who may be incorrectly convicted abroad under foreign jurisdictions.

Nevertheless, it remains the view on the Labour Benches that these changes do not go far enough. They should not be seen as the end of the road, but merely as the next stage of reform. The upper Chamber is in need of much more radical reform and indeed this Chamber has voted for that both in this Parliament and the previous one. There are only two countries in the world—the other being Lesotho—in which the upper House combines non-elected Members with Members selected by birthright and patronage. It is an institution that has eight times as many Members over the age of 90 as it does under the age of 40, but it plays a central role in our democracy—despite having no democratic mandate.

Beyond democratic legitimacy, there are practical considerations. The Bill will help to tidy up the Lords, and is therefore welcome, but the problem will keep coming back. After each general election, new Governments will always seek to reflect the balance of the vote at the election in the composition of the Lords, creating a further pressure that means we still risk having 1,000 Members in the other place. Disqualifying convicted criminals and allowing peers to resign is tidying up a molehill when there is a mountain of reform still needed. Nevertheless, the Bill is an important step in the right direction and I reaffirm our congratulations to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire and commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 12:32 pm, 28th February 2014

I echo the plaudits that are no doubt ringing in the ears of my hon. Friend Dan Byles for the way in which he has successfully—I hope, although it is subject to the will of the House—piloted his Bill through its stages. I commend him on his bravery in taking forward—as my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg said—an important constitutional Bill as a private Member’s Bill. It is a brave Member of Parliament who, when he comes high up in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, chooses House of Lords reform. It is not the most obvious choice, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire made it and has piloted his Bill in an exemplary manner.

Part of my hon. Friend’s achievement is to have worked tirelessly to consult and listen to respected voices, many of whom have spoken in the debate today, so that both the formulation of his propositions, and the amendments to them, have been able to establish a degree of support on both sides of the House. I hope that that will also be the case in the House of Lords.

I also wish to put on record my thanks to the Members who participated in Committee on 15 January, considering a large number of amendments that were made without any Divisions. The Bill is not the last word on reform, and there will doubtless be more debate to come. I echo the words of other hon. Members in paying tribute to the officials and the Clerks who guided my hon. Friend in the drafting of the Bill and dealing with some of the questions that arose. It is a tribute to their wisdom and advice that we have been able to make the progress that we have.

I hope that the other place will accept the strong and positive endorsement of the House for the Bill. While discussions on the wider membership and structure of the Lords will continue, the Bill is useful. The three elements that it will introduce—a statutory resignation process, a disqualification mechanism on conviction of a serious offence and removal for those who persistently fail to attend the House without reasonable excuse or leave of absence—are steps in the right direction. It is right that a conscientious peer who has played a full and active role in the House of Lords, but feels in all conscience that they can no longer maintain that level of commitment, should be entitled to an honourable release from that commitment. The Bill, very sensibly, will provide for that.

I also think it consistent with the enormous privilege that comes with a peerage—to which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has repeatedly drawn attention—to provide for those who do not attend the House of Lords or take their duty to it seriously to be permanently removed from their seats. I think that allowing persistent non-attenders who do not play a role in the work of the House to keep their seats damages the reputation of those who are diligent, and who contribute their time, effort, energy and learning to the debates that take place there.

It is vital for all Members of the legislature to uphold the highest standards of integrity. Allowing peers who commit serious criminal offences to keep their seats in the House of Lords can only harm its reputation and undermine its important work, and it is right for Members who fall foul of the rules to be permanently removed. Indeed, our colleagues on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee who considered the Bill noted that every witness who had given evidence during its inquiry into House of Lords reform had supported a provision to remove Members who committed serious criminal offences.

For those reasons, the Government fully support the important and reasonable measures that the Bill seeks to implement. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire for giving the House an opportunity to consider them, and for the way in which he allowed the debate to be conducted. Following careful and detailed consideration, not just today but in Committee and on Second Reading, the House of Commons has given the Bill full and good consideration, and I think that we are sending it to the House of Lords in a good state. I hope that it will be possible to build on the work of Lord Steel—who, similarly, took great pains to ensure that his own Bill received a degree of scrutiny and support—and that the union between that heritage and my hon. Friend’s Bill will enable it to make good progress in the other place. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.