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Clause 4 — Effect of ceasing to be a member

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:27 pm on 28th February 2014.

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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.