asked Her Majesty's Government:
How many hereditary Peers who lost the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords on the enactment of the House of Lords Act are on the electoral register in the Kensington and Chelsea parliamentary constituency but were not entitled to vote in the recent by-election.
My Lords, we understand from the electoral registration officer of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea that there are 166 Peers on the electoral register in Kensington and Chelsea. Sadly, he does not know how many of them are no longer entitled to sit in your Lordships' House.
My Lords, while I confess to some disappointment in that reply, is it not reasonable to assume that a considerable proportion of them were indeed noble Lords who are no longer entitled to sit and vote in your Lordships' House? Does that not make a mockery of the assurances given by different Ministers during the passage of the House of Lords Bill?
My Lords, I am quite happy to agree with the noble Lord's first point, that it is reasonable to assume that many of the hereditary Peers formerly entitled to sit in your Lordships' House are indeed on the register in Kensington and Chelsea. However, I cannot support his second point. The issue was raised during debates on the reform of the House of Lords. We gave an assurance at the time that the situation would be recognised. There is no question in our minds that it will be. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, fully accepted the position as stated during the course of those debates. He accepted that former hereditary Peers would be able to come on to the register next year. Indeed, he said,
"I am more relaxed about Kensington and Chelsea".--[Official Report, 26/10/99; col. 267.]
My Lords, is it not extraordinary, first, that the returning officer did not have the ability to turn up a public document which was freely available to him to establish the answer to the question that he was being asked?
Secondly, is it not the fact that when your Lordships discussed the matter of the possible disenfranchisement of some noble Lords, the Government gave it to be completely understood that that would not happen because powers were given to the Secretary of State to bring into force a statutory instrument; an order? I apologise if I am mistaken in that recollection, but I understand from the noises behind me that I am not alone in that regard.
My Lords, the remarks were made by the noble Lord in reply to my noble and learned friend Lord Williams. He made it clear that he was,
"grateful for the assurances that the regulations will come forward in time to enable those of your Lordships who will not be here to be included on the registers to vote in parliamentary elections from February".--[Official Report, 26/10/99; col. 267.]
We were absolutely clear at that time that the date would be from February. The noble Lord continued,
"I am more relaxed about Kensington and Chelsea".
I am sure that he assumed that there would be a comfortable majority in Kensington and Chelsea. Unless the noble Lord, Lord Elton, knows something more than I do about the 166 Peers on the electoral register, my guess is that they would probably have been, in the majority, supporters of his own party.
We are quite clear about the issue and we intend to bring forward an order shortly to regularise the special position of hereditary Peers. They will be on the register from 16th February next year.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that his answers have been uncharacteristically shoddy this afternoon? The fact is that, as the Minister correctly said in his reply earlier, those hereditary Peers are already on the register. The question is not a new one; it was raised six or seven months ago. Why have the Government been so slow in coming forward with an order simply to remove the bar on those Peers who are already on the electoral register from being able to vote in the by-election?
My Lords, I believe that I have made it plain that it was always the understanding that they would be on the register from 16th February next year.
My Lords, I appreciate that they are on the register already to vote in European and local elections. We fully intend to bring forward an order in the fastest time possible to enable them to qualify to vote in general elections and by-elections. We were well aware of the issue back in May this year. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made the position plain. He said at the time that we accepted that it would be too long to wait until 2001 to go on to the register. We shall expedite the matter as quickly as possible. We did not control the timetable of the calling of the Kensington and Chelsea by-election. It was not our business at all.
My Lords, they would not have been able to vote because they were not qualified to do so. The House of Lords Bill received Royal Assent on 11th November. There was not time in the intervening period to process that order. We accept that there is an anomaly to be corrected and it will be corrected in time for the next electoral register. I am sure that Members of your Lordships' House will share our concern to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote at the next General Election does so. I welcome the support that we hope to receive from the Benches opposite when we bring forward our legislation to ensure that homeless people may vote. I hope that noble Lords opposite will afford them the same generosity of spirit.