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My Lords, in April this year a by-election took place in Westminster. It was a by-election for a seat in Parliament so I suppose we should call it a parliamentary by-election. There were seven candidates contesting the seat; the electorate was three. On
My short Bill has the simple objective of ending this by-election procedure once and for all. As the House will know, I am not the first person who has tried to address this problem. I pay particular tribute to Lord Avebury, who introduced a Bill in 2006 which tried to do precisely what I am trying to do today. It is deeply ironic that it was his sad death which led to the hereditary Peers by-election that I have just described. How have we arrived at a situation where we are obliged to hold by-elections to fill vacancies for hereditary Peers? The answer lies in the provisions of the House of Lords Act 1999. The Act was passed before the great majority of noble Lords in the House today—including me—had even become Members. It is therefore worth reminding ourselves of the details.
The Act’s principal objective could not have been clearer. Section 1 states that:
“No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage”.
However, Section 2 provides for certain exemptions to the general principle of removing all the hereditaries: 92 are exempt; two of them, the holders of the offices of Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain, continue as before. Of the remaining 90, 75 were to be elected on a party-political basis. The electors for this are the hereditary Peers who are members of the party in which the vacancy has arisen. So, in the by-election referred to earlier, caused by the death of a Liberal Democrat, there being precisely three Liberal Democrat hereditary Peers, the electorate was three. You know it makes sense.
It may be asked why on earth there were any exemptions at all to the clearly enunciated objective—which virtually everyone now accepts—in Section 1 of the Act, which abolishes the hereditary principle as a qualification for Members of the Lords. There are two main explanations. The first was simple, practical political arithmetic. In 1997 the Labour Government had a clear manifesto commitment to remove all hereditaries from the Lords. The Government had a huge overall majority—418 Labour MPs, 165 Conservatives—of 186. Those were the days. In the Lords, the position was very different. There were 1,210 Peers, just 193 of whom were Government supporters taking the Labour Whip. The Official Opposition, the Conservatives, had 484 members. What is more, 750 Peers were hereditaries who, not surprisingly, were not for the most part too struck on the Bill. From the Government’s point of view there was real anxiety that, unless some concession was made to the overwhelming opposition to the Bill in the Lords, there would be total disruption of the Government’s legislative programme.
The second reason for retaining some hereditaries was that their presence would somehow put pressure on the Government to fulfil their commitment to wholesale reform of the second Chamber. As soon as this reform was achieved, the remaining hereditaries would be removed. So the 1999 Act was to be a forerunner to a much more comprehensive reform and the remaining hereditaries, and any consequential by-elections, would be a temporary expedient. As my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine, the then Lord Chancellor—who I am pleased to see is in his seat—said at the time,
“the Government with their great popular majority and their manifesto pledge would not tolerate 10 per cent. of the hereditary peerage remaining for long”.—[
That pledge was made 17 years ago. A clause in the 1999 Act, which should have long ago become redundant, has to all intents and purposes become part of our constitution.
When Lord Avebury introduced his Bill to abolish by-elections in 2006, he noted with some incredulity that there had already been eight by-elections. I can update the House: there have now been 28. These have resulted in 30 Peers arriving by this method—two of the by-elections returned two members. So one-third of the hereditary Peers in this House have arrived, over a 17-year period, by a mechanism that was described as a temporary expedient. At this rate, it will not be long before a hereditary Peer is elected who was not even born when the original temporary measure was introduced.
There is one further characteristic of the by-election system as it has evolved in practice that makes it completely unacceptable in a modern Parliament. Following the 1999 Act, among the hereditary Peers who remained, just five were women. Since then, four have been replaced, all of them by men, leaving just one female hereditary Peer. That is one out of a grand total of 92. You might say that this may change in subsequent by-elections: no, it will not. In order to stand in by-elections, hereditary Peers who are not Members of the House have to be listed on the Register of Hereditary Peers. I have checked the most recent copy. The current list has 199 names; just one of them is a woman. Therefore, for the foreseeable future the overwhelming likelihood is that any vacancies will be filled by men. The 1999 Act, in its application over 17 years, has to all intents and purposes resulted in 92 positions in the House of Lords being designated men only. This cannot go on; it is indefensible. Who is to blame for a temporary expedient becoming in practice a permanent arrangement? Those who want to retain the present by-election system have an answer: they blame the Government—all Governments, successive Governments over a 17-year period—for failing to enact a fully comprehensive reform of the Lords. Surely the answer to that has to be that successive Governments have tried; my word, they have tried.
The Labour Government over a period of 11 years made numerous attempts at reform, including a royal commission—the Wakeham commission—a Green Paper, three White Papers and, finally, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which would have removed the hereditaries but the clauses were lost in the run-up to the 2010 general election.
Under the coalition Government, we had a White Paper with a draft Bill in 2011. This was followed by a Joint Committee of the two Houses. Then we had the House of Lords Reform Bill, which received its Second Reading before being withdrawn in 2012 because, according to the Deputy Prime Minister, there was no cross-party consensus on reform. There still is not. So we have failed attempts by Labour, then failed attempts by the coalition and now we have a Conservative Government who have repeatedly made plain that there will be no comprehensive Lords reform Bill in this Parliament. It is clear, therefore, that unless some action is taken the hereditary by-elections will continue at least until 2020, by which time a temporary measure will have been in operation for almost a quarter of a century.
To those, therefore, who argue that the by-elections must continue until there is comprehensive Lords reform, the answer is simple: successive Governments have tried and failed, but what also has failed is the argument that the remaining hereditary Peers would somehow guarantee swift movement towards a fully reformed House. To those who say that commitments to the by-elections made in 1999 must continue today, the answer is surely that one of our fundamental constitutional principles is that no Parliament can bind its successor. We have had three Prime Ministers since the original Act and four general elections. In the Commons today, no fewer than 528 Members had not been elected at the time of the 1999 Act. In the Lords, out of 839 Members, 519 of us were not here in 1999. To claim that a grand total of 1,047 people covering both Houses of our Parliament should be inexorably bound by a decision made before they were even Members not only defies a constitutional principle, it defies common sense.
My Bill deals with the problem of the by-elections but does not affect in any way whatever the rights of any hereditary Peer in this House today. Under my Bill, they would continue to play the important part that they do in exactly the same way life Peers do. Indeed, in most respects, hereditary Peers in this House are completely indistinguishable from any other Peer, apart from the absurd anomaly of their being able to pass on their peerage to another of their number when they die or retire.
The by-election system is way past its sell-by date. My Bill would scrap it in two simple clauses. For this House to take the lead and pass it would enhance our reputation and improve our Parliament. Its passage would hurt no one and cost nothing. I commend it to the House.
For the record only and not necessarily as an all-encompassing defence, does the noble Lord wish to consider that the Cross Benches have a rigorous selection process to replace one of their own, representing quality, availability and specialists in their subject?
My Lords, I think that was more of a mini-speech than an intervention. Of course, I have tremendous respect for the Cross Benches, but the basic principle must remain—namely, that for a group of hereditary Peers to replicate themselves ad infinitum in a by-election situation which I hope I have described as being completely unacceptable, is no longer defensible.
My Lords, I do not intend to detain your Lordships very long but the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and the rest of your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with the Bill that he proposes, and very much hope that it will not reach the statute book. The reason is simple: when the 1999 Act came before your Lordships, it was not going to pass through your Lordships’ House unless either the Parliament Act was used or your Lordships acquiesced in its passage, which they did not do until the deal that was negotiated came into being.
When the Bill first arrived in your Lordships’ House, there was no provision for by-elections at all; it sought just to remove every single hereditary Peer there and then without any provision for any exceptions except the two statutory exceptions to which the noble Lord referred. An undertaking was then given in the terms the noble Lord described—namely, that there would be 90 hereditary Peers plus the two exceptions, who would be topped up by by-elections as necessary, together with the 15 who are elected by all Members of your Lordships’ House. That undertaking was given to secure the passage of that Bill. It was an undertaking, in the words of the noble and learned Lord of the time,
“binding in honour on all those”,—[
My Lords, we should all be grateful to my noble friend Lord Grocott. He has a deep understanding of Parliament and cares deeply that Parliament should be fit to perform its role in today’s political circumstances. A proudly party-political parliamentarian, he also has a rare ability to speak for this House as a whole, to understand what noble Lords are concerned about and to articulate their views and feelings. Therefore, when my noble friend says that we should end the system of hereditary by-elections for membership of your Lordships’ House and that the time has come to do that, he must be right.
My noble friend draws the House’s attention to the requirement to complete some unfinished business. What he proposes—the end of the system of hereditary by-elections—is but one part of a series of reforms that have been identified and articulated under the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, over some 10 years or more by the effective second Chamber group, a group of some 300 parliamentarians of both Houses and all parties. The measure my noble friend proposes has been part of the programme of the effective second Chamber group and as such commands broad consent and support across the House. As the agenda of the effective second Chamber group moves forward—it has already moved some way—it can well be argued that it would amount to a fully comprehensive reform of your Lordships’ House. Members of that group of 300 parliamentarians are all profoundly convinced that it would not be for the good of Parliament and our democracy for there to be an elected second Chamber, and by the same token they therefore attach particular importance to ensuring that the reforms needed to bring this institution up to date, making it fit for purpose in today’s world, matter very much and must be pressed forward.
At the time, in 1998 and 1999, I was of the view that the manner in which the hereditary Peers were to be removed from Parliament was, shall we say, somewhat brusque, and I had no objection at all to the arrangement that was made that 92 of them should continue to serve as Members of your Lordships’ House. Of course, that was partly in recognition of the excellent work that so many of them do. A number of hereditary Peers are to speak in your Lordships’ debate today. I listened, as always, with respect and interest to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and we look forward to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Elton and Lord Mancroft. All are fine servants of your Lordships’ House and of Parliament. However, when I listened to the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, I found that he did not address the question that my noble friend had posed: what conceivable justification can there be in 2016 for the continuation of the hereditary principle in the legislature? He referred to a deal that had been made 17 years ago but, as my noble friend said, Parliament cannot be held hostage to a deal made by our ancestors, so to speak. If we are to have an appointed House, it had better be a fully appointed House, and those who serve in it should be appointed for their experience, their expertise and the skills they can bring to the work of the legislature.
My noble friend is not Jacobinical; he is no Robespierre; he does not propose that aristocrats should be despatched to the guillotine. If the measure he has put before your Lordships’ House is to be passed by Parliament, no hereditary Peers will be found suspended from the lampposts in Parliament Square. The process he proposes is entirely painless. It shows respect to the existing hereditary Peers who serve in Parliament and it would enable them to continue to serve until such time as they cease to wish to do so. That is a reasonable way to approach things.
I cannot conceive that any justification can be made for the continuation of the presence of hereditary Peers beyond the period of their service and their lives. When, sadly, each of them ceases to be a Member of your Lordships’ House, they should not be followed by another hereditary Peer elected in a parliamentary by-election. Lest hereditary Peers think I am prejudiced in this matter, I can also see no justification for the continuation of life peerages—people being appointed for life to serve in the legislature. None of us ought to carry on into our dotage. That is a story for another day, however, and for the next Bill that my noble friend introduces.
My Lords, in one respect this is a splendid occasion in that we are, perhaps for the first time, fairly effectively to demonstrate to the public that we are deeply unhappy with the state of the House of Lords and the constitution as it is. I say that as an elected—or excepted, as we call it—hereditary Peer. The easy thing would then be to sit down and say, “Carry on”, but I cannot because I have to explain why I am here.
I joined this House in 1973, when there was already a large majority of hereditary Peers. I recall that my father joined it in 1934, when there was only a handful of Labour Peers. In 1946, I remember my father walking in the fields and saying that having fought two general elections in the Labour cause and sat on those Benches since 1934, he had seen everything the Labour Party had wanted to put in place achieved and he was now going to move to the Cross Benches. That was the way the House worked in those days and we were part of that system back in 1999. It had changed very much; there was an influx of life Peers who brought a breath of fresh air and were very welcome but, like us, they were secure in their tenure.
I have next to explain why I decided to stand for election in 1999, when I was just the right age for retirement. It would have fitted with my game plan for life; I would now have written several books, which your Lordships would not have read, and painted many pictures, which some of your Lordships would have admired, none of which I have done. There were two reasons for that decision. One was that I enjoyed it very much and was able to make a contribution, but the other was that I had looked at history and seen how the Crown had been taking power out of Parliament ever since 1215. We say that it is ridiculous that this interim measure has gone on for 17 years, but 17 years out of a century is not much and out of 800 years it is insignificant—it is temporary. Why is it necessary to keep it? It is because of the success the power of the Crown has so far had in gaining power from Parliament. That is a long story, which I will not go into, and most noble Lords will know some of it. However, the upshot is that I found the justification for my decision in 2005—I made a note because my memory is not very good—with the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which your Lordships will remember.
The Bill came up from the Commons with a clause in it that said the Home Secretary of the day, having talked to one chief officer of the police, could lock up whom he liked—or at least someone whose name he put on a piece of paper—for three months, or 90 days, with no access to any redress, no habeas corpus and no judicial review. That was so offensive to the Prime Minister’s own party that, although he had a paper majority of over 100, he got it through the House of Commons repeatedly with a majority of 14. In this House, it was defeated successively with increasing majorities, largely supported by either the votes or the absence of people appointed by Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister. We met at 2.30 pm on a Thursday and rose at 7.31 pm on the Friday, at which point we stopped the measure. That is what I came here to do. Why was that possible, and what was the difference between the Houses? One House was made up of people who were elected and, crucially, could be deselected, and who were paid salaries suitable for a career. This House was not elected and its Members could not be deselected or sacked, and they were not paid. We did not even have the, I must say, very generous attendance allowance that we now have. I will not go into that; it is a pity but we have it and I enjoy it.
I see indelibly in my mind that the understanding was that, until the great change came in, we were here—I do not think my noble friend made this absolutely clear—to see that the next House of Lords was at least as well able to call the Government to account each year, asking them to explain themselves and with their ill-doings dragged before the public, whichever party was in power. The great machine of government is not just a thin veneer of ambitious politicians in Cabinet and their supporters; it has its own ethos, moving through history as the means of governing this country. When I was a Minister of State, I heard civil servants wax very impatient, saying that they did not see the purpose of various pieces of legislation being brought before your Lordships because we all knew that they would work and would be perfectly effective, so it was a great waste of time and money. That was heard in some parts of the Civil Service, and they were key parts—it needs only a few people to air that view. It is always agreeable to reduce the difficulty of getting the Government’s will done.
I am here to stand up in front of that juggernaut and to try to make the country and your Lordships understand that, whatever we have, the people who come here to replace us—and I am very happy that they should—must have what the Americans call “tenure”. They must be secure for a great slab of time and must not be employable immediately afterwards in well-rewarded occupations. Those are the touchstones, and anything less is not acceptable.
Therefore, I cannot support the Bill. I entirely share the enthusiasm of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for reform, making us up to date and efficient and perhaps more in touch with the public. I have no interest, because I do not expect to survive if this Parliament lasts its full term, and I do not expect to serve in the next one. As the noble Lord said, it is painless for me anyway; it is my son who will be disappointed. He will check me in what I say, as I think he has no ambitions in that direction.
Therefore, entirely for the good of the government of this country, I ask your Lordships to wait until we have a proper measure that has more impact on this House. I have gone on for too long but I cannot resist saying a final word to your Lordships, although I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has already mentioned it. The majority in this House in 1999—by a majority of 250—were hereditary Peers. With their opposition the Bill could not have got through had the 92 places not been put on to the statute book. It was bought on those terms. I was elected by those people who agreed to that arrangement, so I am also here to represent their views. Those views are patriotic and selfless because those people are not involved at all.
My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for introducing this Bill. It is a short Bill and, as I shall argue, a fairly modest one in terms of what we need to do to address the membership of this House, not least in terms of how Members leave and, most importantly of all, how they are appointed to this House.
I have previously spoken in support of what this Bill seeks to achieve. It comprises one part of the original House of Lords Reform Bill, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. That is a relevant point to which I shall return.
The case for closing off the by-election option for hereditary Peers has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. It is difficult to defend the process, although not impossible, in that it is a process independent of party leaders. It brings in some able and independent-minded people. The hereditary Peers who are in the House are able, hard-working and effective Members. However, that has to be offset by how the process of them becoming Members is seen. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, it is essentially past its sell-by date in terms of public acceptance.
I have argued the case before that closing off the by-election option does not prevent able hereditary Peers being appointed to this House. Following the enactment of the House of Lords Act 1999, more Labour hereditary Peers were brought back as life Peers than were returned as elected hereditary Peers. However, the procedure creates problems on this side of the House. I have previously made the point that for Conservative hereditary Peers the by-election is as much a block as it is an opportunity, since in practice it prevents able Peers coming in until such time as there is a death or retirement. They are not considered for life peerages but, instead, are left to take their chances when a by-election occurs.
I think therefore that some of the worries expressed about this Bill are misplaced. I would, though, have liked to have seen the Bill as part of a wider reform Bill. That was the point of the Steel Bill. There was a linkage between the provisions. Putting the independent Appointments Commission on a statutory basis would enable its independence to be protected. There is a route by which Peers can be brought into the House independent of party patronage—through the Appointments Commission—but that route needs some statutory underpinnings.
I also see the Bill as part of a wider process of addressing not just the size of the House but the process of appointment. The Bill covers both elements in that it closes off one method of joining the House and, in time, will result in a reduction in the number of hereditary Peers in the House, indeed logically and ultimately leaving only two—the two who are Members ex officio.
I would like us to go further and address not just hereditary Peers but life Peers joining the House. An Ipsos MORI poll in 2007 asked people what factors were most important in determining the legitimacy of the House of Lords. Having some Members elected by the public came some way down the list, at five out of seven. At the top of the list was “trust in the appointments process”. Excluding don’t knows, 76% of respondents rated that as very important and 19% as fairly important. Second on the list was that,
“the House considers legislation carefully and in detail”.
Therefore, we need to address the input side of membership. We have already achieved the enactment of a Private Member’s measure, the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, to enable Peers to retire—more than 50 have now done so—but, as Peers retire, new ones are created. We need not only to reduce numbers but to ensure a more rigorous appointments process, giving the Appointments Commission the power to vet all nominees for suitability—ensuring that they meet a high-quality threshold, as well as reflecting the diversity of the United Kingdom.
This Bill therefore is not the answer but, rather, part of the answer. I hope that the House will agree to its Second Reading and indeed its other stages, and that the Government will recognise its merits and seek to facilitate its passage.
“I don’t think we can justify a situation where you have over 800 peers at the same time as you’re bringing down the Commons to 600 MPs”.
In my view, this Bill is the logical next step towards reducing the size of the House of Lords. It should be easier to agree than many measures that have been considered, because it involves no compulsory redundancies.
It is thanks to the endeavours of my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that we passed a measure of reform in the last Parliament, enabling, as he said, 50 Members of the House to retire since then. But it is a great shame that the other measures proposed in what became known as the Steel Bill were blocked. This was particularly so after the failure to agree properly a programme of reform under the last Government’s measures, despite the House of Lords Reform Bill being passed at Second Reading in the House of Commons by 462 votes to 124. The problem with securing further progress on that Bill was that Labour Party Members believed, possibly correctly, that blocking it was their only hope of blocking the Boundary Commission proposals in the last Parliament, while, on the other hand, David Cameron and the Conservatives appeared to realise only too late that failure to secure progress on Lords reform would indeed be used to justify the Liberal Democrats blocking the Boundary Commission proposals at that point.
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in terms of the technicalities of what was in the coalition agreement of 2010. However, it was argued and voted on overwhelmingly by this House and the other place in 2013 that there were many reasons why the Boundary Commission proposals should not go ahead at that point; one of which was the failure to make progress on Lords reform. Reducing the size of the House of Commons from 650 MPs to 600 MPs was not appropriate when we did not reform the House of Lords and make government more accountable in that way.
So now we have to look again at the other measures that were proposed in the Steel Bill, including the ending of by-elections to replace hereditary Peers. Parliamentary by-elections to elect MPs have been a major feature of my political life. However, I cringe with embarrassment at the holding of by-elections in this place in which, as few as three Members of your Lordships’ House, who initially inherited their positions here based perhaps upon what their ancestors did centuries ago, choose to elect someone to help formulate the laws of the land from a shortlist of as few as three other people who can be considered by virtue also of what their ancestors may have done.
All of us enjoy showing family, friends and guests around the House; particularly, I would suggest, those from overseas. Some of them come from established democracies and some of them come from places struggling to establish democratic principles. But none of them can understand the archaic way in which we are still choosing some of the people to sit in the second Chamber of our Parliament—supposedly the mother of parliaments. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, not a single woman has ever been elected in this way, as most hereditary peerages descend down the male line.
A year ago, the Guardian published a letter from me saying:
“The election by hereditary peers of the ninth Duke of Wellington (Report,
“the farcical process we have in this House of holding by-elections to elect hereditary Peers brings the House into disrepute. These by-elections have little more resemblance to democracy than the campaign run by Lord Blackadder when he ran the by-election campaign to elect Baldrick in the rotten borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold, where Blackadder was the only elector”.—[
I was wrong, of course, to describe Edmund Blackadder at that point as a Lord; he was merely a voter in that incarnation—albeit the only voter. In that series, Baldrick was later appointed to the House of Lords by Prince George. But if they had both been appointed in real life, their descendants might now be standing as rival candidates, hatching cunning plans to win by-elections in order to get back into this place.
My Lords, the noble Lord is amusing the House tremendously but he is talking about a work of fiction. I know that the Liberal Democrats have difficulty distinguishing the difference between fact and fiction, but if the noble Lord could stick to fact, I think that the House would find it very helpful.
My Lords, having tried to describe to visitors the current system of electing hereditary Members to this place, I know that they think that is a work of fiction.
More seriously, it is now 106 years since the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith promised that the hereditary principle should be replaced by the popular principle in determining the composition of this House. That was agreed then by both Houses. However, having listened a few moments ago to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I was reminded of the view that perhaps only in this House could over 100 years be considered too short a time in which to consider such a principle. But not for me and my party. And we certainly consider that the 17 years since the Weatherill amendment introduced as a temporary measure the concept of by-elections to top-up the number of hereditary peers has been too long. We on these Benches did not agree with that amendment in the first place and would preferred to have seen the Parliament Act used, if necessary, and so we are not bound by any such agreement.
We recognise that some of those who are here by virtue of the hereditary principle continue to make a significant contribution to the work of this House and to government. This Bill does not threaten their position in any way. We also believe that passing the Bill will do little good in terms of limiting the size of the House if the system of prime ministerial and party leader appointments continues in the way that it has done in recent years.
We were promised a further phase of reform following that of 1999—the year I joined this House. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, the Labour Government’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill 2010 promised to end the practice of holding by-elections to keep up the numbers of hereditary peers. But that provision was sadly removed during the so-called wash-up period immediately prior to the 2010 general election. The ending of such wash-up periods when elections are called outside a fixed-term cycle was, in my view, a good reason for passing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
The history of debates in this House about the future of by-elections for hereditary peers has not been a happy one. Let us put an end to them now by passing this Bill and bringing an end to a process which does no credit to this House, to Parliament generally or to British democracy.
My Lords, I am delighted to welcome the Bill, which has been introduced this morning very ably and succinctly by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. He is a regular attender at the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber meetings, which I have the honour of chairing and to which the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, referred. For a long time we have felt that this House does need significant reform. But we all believe very strongly in an appointed, non-elected second Chamber; one that will not challenge what I call the unambiguous democratic mandate of the House of Commons.
When something becomes ridiculous, it can no longer command respect. I cannot help but look back to the days when I used teach 19th-century history and, in order to emphasise the need for the Great Reform Act 1832, one always cited the rotten boroughs, the rottenest of which was Old Sarum—which, ironically, is not a million miles from Avebury, from which the late Lord, or his forebear, took his title. The late Lord Avebury was a great servant of this House. Sarum was a rotten borough, electing two Members of Parliament with a tiny handful of electors, and, only a little while ago, Lord Avebury’s sad death led to that completely ridiculous election to which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, referred.
I did not go along with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, but he referred to the election of my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, who is already making a significant contribution to this House. Again, the votes came to about 30, of which he got 21.
We have to address matters that make us look faintly ridiculous. I want to see the time—I hope it will not be long distant—when the wishes and views of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber come to pass and we address the issues of the numbers in and appointments to this House and deal with the issues encompassed in the first Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. That Bill was significantly watered down—it had to be because there was no appetite for it—and my noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Caithness took a prominent part in ensuring that the part of the Steel Bill that referred to the hereditary by-elections should be removed. In order to get something through, those of us who had been involved in drawing up that Bill and helping the noble Lord, Lord Steel, agreed that we would get through the retirement provision and divest the Bill of all other provisions. That retirement provision has already brought some benefit to your Lordships’ House and will doubtless bring further benefit in the future.
We then had the further incremental reform in the Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in the previous Session or the Session before, which enables your Lordships’ House to expel Members who have behaved in a way which is incompatible with the standards and dignity of this House.
Incremental reform is good and this Bill is yet another episode of it. The best thing about the Bill is that it does not challenge the position or the continued participation of those of our colleagues who are hereditary Peers, many of whom, including my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, make a significant contribution. My noble friend Lord Trefgarne chairs an important committee of your Lordships’ House. He can continue doing that. His position is in no danger or jeopardy if this Bill is passed.
The only thing I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is that we need to separate the 90 from the two. We live in a hereditary monarchy and we have two hereditary officers of state who attend your Lordships’ House to perform their official functions. Neither of them play a part in debates because they do not believe that that is their duty. They should be separated and the Bill should concentrate on the 90, the future of each one of whom—whether here since the passage of the 1999 Act, like my noble friend Lord Elton, or who joined subsequently as a result of a by-election—is secure in your Lordships’ House until the individual Peer decides to retire or, sadly, dies.
We have already, in effect, abolished the hereditary principle because none of those men or women will be succeeded by a son or a daughter. The preposterous by-election system to which we have referred—with its tiny handful of electors and, in the case of the most recent, with significantly more candidates than electors—needs to go. I sincerely hope that the work of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, supported, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, by some 300 Members of both Houses, will continue—and we are determined to continue—to bring other suggestions for reform before your Lordships’ House.
We hope soon to concentrate on the issue of numbers. We believe passionately that there should be a cap on numbers and that this House should not be larger than the other place. We believe that no party political group—those receiving the whip of a political party—should ever be able to have an overall majority in your Lordships’ House. We believe that there should always be 20%, at least, of Cross-Bench Peers. These are our principles. This is what we stand for. I hope that we will move in that direction very soon indeed.
Perhaps my noble friend will allow me to make it clear that I entirely subscribe to all those beliefs. I am merely saying that until they are achieved, we are here to see that nothing less powerful succeeds.
I am sorry to disagree with my noble friend on this small issue because he is a most valuable member of the campaign. He regularly attends our meetings and speaks in support of many of the things to which I have just referred. However, in his speech, it was as if it was the hereditary Peers who were securing the independence of the House of Lords. They play a valuable part in it but that is taking it a bit too far. Of course, his own position is entirely secure. He can remain in your Lordships’ House until he retires or is summoned by his Maker. There is no danger to his position or to anyone else’s.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has introduced a modest measure. My noble friend Lord Norton made a brief but precise speech. He, of course, acts as the convenor of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. We formed it together in 2001 because we wanted to see off attempts to replace your Lordships’ House with a pale imitation of the House of Commons and a Chamber which could only, if it were elected, have within it the seeds for gridlock and the frustration of the constitutional will of this country.
We strongly believe in the function of scrutiny, which your Lordships’ House performs with great effectiveness. We have within it people with vastly varied expertise and experience who can bring to debates on issues of foreign affairs and others a new perspective, far different from the other end of the Corridor, but which never challenges the supremacy of the elected House.
That is our belief. I hope it is shared by most noble Lords and that the House will see the modest measure introduced today by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, as a step in the right direction.
My Lords, I rise to speak with the huge experience of 10 months in this House, although I worked with the House of Lords for some five years when I was the Deputy Chief Whip. I speak with some temerity, particularly after the speech of my noble friend Lord Norton and other noble Lords who are involved in the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber who are doing a great job. I agree with much of what the campaign says, which is to the effect that incremental reform or evolution is better than revolution. Perhaps I may compliment the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—I hope that he will not take this the wrong way—on his speech, which was witty and extremely well argued, and it is difficult to disagree with much of what he said. Nevertheless, I do not support the Bill.
I should say by way of a starter that the great British public are not sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for this Bill to pass. They are not particularly concerned about Lords reform. What they want is effective government and effective legislation. That requires greater scrutiny than this one particular Bill. So the question I want to pose to anyone who supports the Bill or is looking at Lords reform is this: what is the problem that we are trying to solve? It is not the quirky, let us call it, election of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who deserves very much to come back here and take his place. However, if the Liberal Democrats did not like the election procedure, they could perhaps have not had a by-election. I do not know what the exact rules are, but presumably if no one had voted, no one would have been elected. The problem is not that quirky by-election or the hereditaries, who in my experience both before and now as a Member of the House of Lords certainly work as well and as hard as many, if not most, life Peers. They pull their weight, if I can put it like that. The problem is not the Bishops, although I rarely agree with the heads of my Church about some of their pronouncements. The problem, as my noble friend Lord Cormack just said, is that there are too many people in the House; what is actually the problem is that there are too many life Peers.
All of us in this House have a vested interest because we do not want to leave the place. I have been here for only 10 months and I would rather not be kicked out next month. The House is something that we believe to be of value and which we enjoy, and it is quite comfortable. But if one were to ask the British public and if they were to get concerned, they would say, “Why should one be appointed to a House for life and live out one’s days here?”, because one does become less effective after a time. If we are lucky, we will live to a ripe old age, but that does not mean that, when one reaches that ripe old age, one should still be in a position to assist with the legislation of this country. I suggest that the retirement system that we have already heard about is a step in the right direction, but I have to say that there should probably be a mandatory retirement age. Perhaps there could be a mechanism whereby someone who remains particularly active can remain here. He is not in his place, but I do not think that my noble friend Lord Lawson will mind if I name him; he was my predecessor in Blaby. Although he has been in this place for almost 25 years and is past 80 years of age, he remains active. We also need to look at time limiting life peerages so that they do not last for life after all. We should all be able to contribute, but sometimes other people should be able to come in and contribute as well. Again, perhaps there could be a mechanism for those who make a major contribution to remain.
As everyone in the Chamber knows, there are in this House some really outstanding people with great expertise and others who have somewhat less. I am not going to name anyone as I look around the Chamber, but some very distinguished former Cabinet Ministers are here, as well as some distinguished former trades union leaders. There are quite a lot of people with whom I served in the House of Commons. We can judge for ourselves whether we are distinguished or not. I was a medium-ranking Minister, but I suspect that why I was sent to this House is not unconnected to the fact that I was heavily involved with David Cameron’s campaign. As I recall, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was Prime Minister Blair’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. We are here for all sorts of reasons. We will not delve into them, but we know that there are other people who could be quite good for this place as well. Perhaps we should not be entirely selfish and think that after 12, 17 or 22 years, as a matter of course we should become time limited.
A limit on the number of appointments was raised, and I absolutely and wholeheartedly support that. This place is too big, so limiting the number of appointments will lead inevitably to the numbers shrinking. I think that a certain number could be allowed in each year and that it should not be exceeded. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, asked what conceivable justification can there be for holding by-elections. I would say that many people, whether discussing the issue in school debates or whatever, would ask what conceivable justification can there be for having an appointed House of Lords. I support a House of Lords that is appointed because I think that in general it can, and does, do a very good job. On hereditary matters, an argument often made 20 years ago was this: if one gets rid of the hereditary principle completely, one must ask why we have a hereditary monarchy, which by the way I support entirely.
I have detained the House for long enough, but I shall end by trying to answer the question which I think was put by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott: who is to blame for this unusual by-election system? The noble Lord was there at the time, but as I recall I think it was Tony Blair.
My Lords, the answer to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, about who is to blame is this: Jack Weatherill, and I will explain why. Perhaps I may start by saying that I support my noble friend’s Bill and I congratulate him on it. It is a step in the right direction in terms of reforming your Lordships’ House. It provides for reform by small steps, which is the way I think that most Members and the Government would like to progress. We are committed to achieving most of what the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, has just been talking about.
It is clear that the election of hereditary Peers has become ridiculous. My noble friend gave an example where seven candidates stood and three electors voted for the recent vacancy on the Liberal Democrat Benches. We can overcome most things, but we cannot overcome ridicule, especially as how appointments to this House are made is a major public concern, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out.
I served on the Government Front Bench when the 1999 Bill was being debated, so I am pretty ancient. I clearly remember that the election of 90 hereditary Peers was seen as a compromise. It was a temporary arrangement that was negotiated by Jack Weatherill—a former Speaker of the House of Commons—as a way of overcoming the huge number of hereditary Peers who at the time could block or delay any legislation in this House. That was the purpose of the negotiation.
The noble Viscount is quite right: he did facilitate the process rather than negotiate it. I thank him for pointing that out.
Some 15 of the 90 hereditary Peers were appointed by virtue of being former or at the time current Deputy Speakers. The purpose and usefulness of the procedure has obviously served us well, but it has now expired. The Deputy Speakers have served their time and an elected House is a long way off. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is absolutely right to point out that the two additional hereditary Peers were agreed purely for ceremonial purposes.
I agree with other noble Lords that the Bill being put forward by my noble friend deals fairly with the current hereditaries. Of course many have made an important and distinguished contribution to the House. They are eligible to become life Peers and some have already done so. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elton. This Bill provides the House, hereditary Peers and the country with the certainty that he is looking for. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that it would be a useful and sensible step along the way to reducing our numbers, but that is a separate matter and is one for a separate Bill. But again, this is something about which many noble Lords are agreed. Most of us are committed to step-by-step reform, of which the Steel Bill was one example. This is another one, and I think that the Government should support it.
My Lords, I have studiously resisted the temptation to take part in debates about reform of this House for all the 30 years I have sat here. My noble friend Lord Robathan commented on age. Despite having been here 30 years, I think, looking around the Chamber, I am possibly the youngest speaker in the debate—the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, might be slightly younger—and possibly even the youngest person in the House today, so maybe my 30 years have been wasted, I do not know. I am driven to break my Trappist vow of silence because I am completely fascinated to know what motivates the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to drag this hoary old potato out of the depths of the mud and give it another trip around the park.
Clearly, as your Lordships have been discussing, the primary concern relating to the House of Lords today—as the noble Lord the Lord Speaker, who has just left the Woolsack, so helpfully reminded us earlier this week—is numbers. The measure before us makes no meaningful impact on numbers. If the argument is that the by-elections were originally intended, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, quite rightly said, as a temporary measure, that no one at the time imagined they would continue for 17 years and therefore it is time to get rid of them, that is a reasonable point, but not in isolation.
The 1999 Act in its entirety was only a temporary measure—the first part of a two-stage reform. But as your Lordships all know better than most, that second stage has never come because the Executive and the legislature cannot agree a solution that does not disadvantage either of them. So if you are one of those who has come to the conclusion that continuing election of replacement hereditary Peers has passed a time when it is valid, if it ever was—some obviously do not think it was—then it is difficult too not to conclude that the entire 1999 Act is in need of replacement also. That is the position I have reached. The agreement reached in 1999 was not, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, suggested, binding on Parliament. Of course you cannot bind Parliament, but it was an agreement between people representing two of the main parties in Parliament. As such, for what it is worth, that agreement still stands. But as I said, I have reached the conclusion that the entire 1999 Act needs complete change.
There are two phrases I hear repeatedly in this House. The first is that the National Health Service is the envy of the world and the second is that the House of Lords is doing an absolutely marvellous job. I have to tell your Lordships that while the National Health Service may well have been the envy of the world, I do not hear that envy expressed on my travels as often as it used to be. As a Member of this wonderful House—it is a wonderful House—for 30 years, and a student of it at my father’s knee since I was old enough to learn and understand, I have come to the reluctant but growing conclusion that we do not really do our job as well as we used to either.
Our scrutiny of legislation is noticeably less effective than it used to be—as, indeed, are the Bills we are forced to scrutinise. That is in part because of the excessive use of Grand Committees, which discourages noble Lords without direct interest in a particular Bill from participating either in Grand Committee or when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House, where their participation is so often an important part of the process. The amount of time we spend each Session revisiting issues that were legislated upon the year before is, of course, primarily evidence of the Government’s legislative incompetence, but I am afraid it is also evidence of our failure to scrutinise as effectively as we used to.
Our set-piece debates on the great issues of the day used to attract worldwide attention. Believe it or not, I have at home an old scrapbook full of press reports of debates in which I made rather indifferent contributions when I was just a lad, if your Lordships can imagine such a thing. I even have one that was reported in the New York Times. That would not happen today. Our debates now seem increasingly to be a string of overlong, repetitive and unrelated statements, bearing precious little relevance to the preceding speeches, thus not constituting a true debate at all. Too often they bring little new insight to the subject being debated, and are consequently rarely reported, and ignored by commentators and Governments alike—sad, but true. While the hereditary peerage has and had many faults, by its nature it was able to bring a degree of independence to debates that is lacking in a House increasingly dominated by a professional, and thus often self-interested, political class in one form or another.
One of the unintended consequences of the 1999 Act was that, while the standing of the political class as a whole has deteriorated in the public esteem, the hereditary peerage, oddly enough, is enjoying an unexpected revival in its reputational fortunes, which I, for one, am enjoying—and do not deserve, probably. We may not have been right, and we may often have been wrong. We may not have been particularly liked—I do not think we were particularly disliked—but it was and is widely assumed that we tell the truth, whereas today’s political establishment is simply not trusted. One of the most unpleasant features of the recent referendum debate was the patent rubbish spouted on both sides.
So the size of this House is a problem that the Bill does not address. It is not the rate at which Members leave this House that is the problem, but rather the manner in which they arrive. Accelerating by a few years the departure of a few hereditary Peers who are bound to leave at some point no more solves the problem than does the option of retirement, sensible though that is for reasons of humanity. If your Lordships find the concept of hereditary legislators so democratically offensive, as the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Rennard, and one or two others clearly do, then is the flooding of the Liberal Democrat Benches since the end of the coalition Government and the arrival of 16 new colleagues at the whim of an outgoing Prime Minister any less democratically offensive? Though we all understand the reasons for both, none of that can be acceptable in the 21st century. Yet, the Liberal party and the rest of the House appear to have accepted it.
I am happy to declare an interest here; I am a beneficiary of Stanley Baldwin’s Resignation Honours, but that was 80 years and three generations ago. It may well have worked then—obviously I think it did—but the world has changed since 1937.
The Life Peerages Act 1958 breathed new air into this House. It worked in part because no amount of patronage could swamp the sheer number of hereditary Peers, which thus acted as a deterrent to any Prime Minister who attempted to do so. With the departure of 90% of hereditary Peers, the Life Peerage Act itself, or more specifically the untrammelled power of appointment it contains, became the problem because it constitutes power without responsibility or accountability.
To provide a revising Chamber suitable for today—as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, pleaded for and with whom I agree—to work in the new Palace to which those whom the grim reaper has not removed will return in 2028, this House needs root-and-branch reform. What manner that reform may take will take interminable debates in this House for many days, weeks and years to come, but not, I hope, today.
My concern is that by tinkering at the edges, slowly removing, at God’s pace, the 10% of the membership of this House that, by the way, has collectively the best record of participation whichever way you like to measure it, the Bill makes any major reform much less likely. Although I am extremely happy to acknowledge the very good intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I am afraid that the Bill is nothing more than an enabling Bill, by which I mean it enables the Executive, the other place and the political establishment the luxury of not having to give serious thought to Lords reform for yet another Session, the second of this Parliament. That may be very comfortable for some Members of this House, including me, but it is not in the interests of the body politic or the British people. For that reason, and that reason alone, I cannot support the Bill.
My Lords, I note an element of nostalgia in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for the snows of yesteryear when people paid attention to speeches in this House and the other place. The fact that there are other offensive elements in our constitution surely is not an argument against removing one of them. This is a very modest Bill. The by-elections and the retention of the hereditary Peers were meant as a temporary expedient. Some appear to argue that what was devised as a temporary expedient should now become a permanent part of our constitution.
I begin, as others have done, by congratulating my noble friend Lord Grocott. Clearly, he believes in the politics of small steps. He recognises that there is no prospect of a big bang in respect of House of Lords reform so he suggests a modest, little bang as the only realistic way of moving forward with it at this stage. The removal of hereditary Peers by this simple and painless method requires only a short Bill; therefore, only a short speech is appropriate. I shall not follow my normal practice of making three points—like a sermon—but will make only two points.
First, it is surely impossible plausibly and with conviction to defend the status quo. I heard the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, say that there should be no change unless there is a comprehensive change. That is almost the ultimate argument of reaction. I heard the noble Lord, Lord Elton, whom I consider a friend, make a point in relation to the blocking of the terrorism Bill put forward by the Government in 2005 but I am not sure how that was relevant to the position of by-elections for hereditary Peers. Had he argued, for example, after looking through the Division lists, that the Bill would not have been blocked had it not been for hereditary Peers, that might have been the start of an argument, but I am not sure it is relevant. Perhaps he can enlighten me.
I am sorry I did not make myself clear. I was arguing that we were put here, trusted to see that excessive power was not given to Governments. That is exactly what we did and what this House did. We were entrusted, among other people, with the job of seeing that what succeeded the old system should not be less able to challenge Governments than the new, and the need for that was demonstrated in 2005.
But that element of trust on behalf of the British people is surely for all of us and not in any way restricted to hereditary Peers, although I accept that it is perhaps rather odd that the hereditary Peers provide the only element of election for membership of this House.
As my noble friend Lord Grocott very plausibly and convincingly said, the Bill will allow the current hereditary membership to wither on the vine by allowing current Peers to remain Members for the rest of their days or until they choose to retire. It ensures that their successors to be Members of the House of Lords must be subject to the same criteria and procedures as the rest of us. There is no particular wisdom that can pass from one hereditary Peer to his son—why should there be? They should be dealt with and regarded in the same way as all the rest of our population. Hence we are talking about the removal of a nostalgic vestige of the old regime, which was agreed for tactical reasons in 1999.
Secondly, there is of course a case for wider reform. This is supported by the recent remarks of the Lord Speaker. I say in passing that the current Lord Speaker has started well and I hope he will continue to make comments on matters of interest of this nature. He states that the number of Members of this House should be cut to below 600, no greater than the number of Members of Parliament. Presumably he would want it to be capped at that figure and not to be increased by successive Members of Parliament. I invite Members to look at the recent appointments in the resignation honours of Mr Cameron and see the way in which No. 10 has been honoured so massively, and contrast that with what Mr Blair did in refusing to have resignation honours, when there were a number of people in No. 10 who were eminently worthy of coming to this House. I think of Jonathan Powell, for example, who facilitated the agreement in Northern Ireland and made a great contribution to this country. But Mr Blair said, I think correctly, that it was not appropriate to have such a resignation honours list.
I apologise to the noble Lord and to the House. The noble Lord might be giving the case for reversing the whole process of entry into this House. Perhaps the selection process ought to be under scrutiny and elected by Members of this House rather than by appointment—forget the whole system of appointment.
That is an interesting point but perhaps an argument for another day. I revert to what I was saying about the numbers in this House, which are getting quite impossible. I note also the argument of my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, who has argued persuasively for separating honours from the peerage, as many categories of worthy recipients of honours would not wish to participate in the work of this House. Of course, many procedures for reducing the numbers have been canvassed. Some argue for one for one—one out, one in—but that would not in itself reduce the numbers. The voluntary principle for retirement has had only a marginal effect, with 52 retirements since 2014. Perhaps that number might be increased, dare I say, with some form of financial inducement—a bronze handshake—but that is another argument. A retirement age has been mooted, with Members forced to retire at the end of the Parliament in which they reach the age of 80.
Clearly, more radical culling has to take place if the aspirations of our Lord Speaker are to be met. Ultimately I would like to see this House more representative of the United Kingdom as a whole, perhaps with regional assemblies putting forward their own lists, away from No. 10. But if the numbers are allowed to rise inexorably, when this House returns in 2028—or when we move, as is suggested, some time after 2020—the Queen Elizabeth II Centre will not be large enough to accommodate us. We shall have to look elsewhere, perhaps even to Wembley Stadium, to accommodate the numbers.
I declare my friendship for the noble Lord as well. If he persists in pursuing issues that are not part of this Bill, I suggest that he considers the Bill coming up, I believe, on
I shall certainly follow the noble Lord’s invitation to look at that Bill as it appears. Still, that debate is for another day. Can the Government say how close that day is? Do they envisage any reform at all, even the modest reform that would include the matter now before us, during this Parliament? The sanction for this House is surely that if we do not seek consensual proposals, even if incremental, even if the politics of small steps, the Government may be forced by public opinion to tackle the current anomalies and absurdities, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, called ridiculous, such as is done in this Bill.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for his clear and very reasonable introduction to his Bill. Although I concede that in time there is almost an inevitability about this, I do not support it at this time. It is true that the by-elections were intended to be temporary but so was the whole arrangement for the House of Lords in 1911, so that is not a good argument. I support my noble friend Lord Robathan’s comments about the public view. When I go to speak at various places, I find that many of the people who I speak to have not heard of the by-elections and are interested in the process. It takes some time to complete that explanation, and often their eyes start to glaze over, but I do not believe that the process is widely ridiculed by the public at large.
This House faces many problems, particularly regarding our numbers and appointments. The abolition of the by-elections to replace the 90 would do almost nothing to solve the problems. This situation is not the fault of the House or of any noble Lord, in whichever part of it they sit or for how long they have done so. It is the fault of the Government in the first year of this Parliament and during the period of coalition government.
The House of Lords has an ethos established originally by the hereditary peerage and carried on by the life Peers who followed them. Its way of working—observing conventions; compromise; courtesy; and a less partisan approach—has been recognised as of value to the legislative process but it is threatened by the sheer weight of numbers and an increasing urgency on the part of the Government to have their business as quickly as possible. The problems of numbers will not be solved easily. We will no doubt return to possible solutions shortly; suffice it to say that I am concerned about the ideas which have been mooted to cap overall numbers and that the membership should somehow reflect the votes cast at the next general election. This change would, in my view, lead to a further weakening of the independence of the House and its Members, and create a Chamber much more in tune with whichever party formed the Government and were hence a stronger Executive. A solution to the numbers problem would be espoused by the Government for rather different reasons from those which motivated the House in putting them forward.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Norton about the need to establish a statutory Appointments Commission. Its creation, with agreed guidelines and oversight over appointment and numbers would preserve the Cross-Bench position and the position that there should be no overall majority. For me, that is becoming a condition precedent to any further changes that we might put forward in this House.
I recognise and pay tribute to the work of the group led by my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Norton. I accept, and apologise for this fact, that I have not been as regular an attender as I should. We should all be careful of what we wish for. We can all be victims in changed circumstances of the solutions we have put forward to solve problems which we thought would involve other people. We should be careful of drastic measures implemented over a very short time, and brought forward with the best of intentions, but which might have unforeseen and unintended consequences for the House and for Parliament. We would have done that to solve a problem not of our making but made by the previous Executive, who were incredibly careless of the nature, working and constitutional role of the House.
We do not know the scale of legislation which Brexit will bring; we do know that it will require vigorous scrutiny and time. I suggest that, in the eyes of the public, time spent on our composition will not be well spent. Of course noble Lords may say that I am advocating inaction. I recognise the problem but do not believe that we should take action without some signs from the Government that they share and understand our concern.
I advocate restraint by this new Government in the creation of further Members. I hope that my noble friend Lady Chisholm, who is on the Front Bench, will take that message to her colleagues. I advocate recognition that if this House is to continue to be an appointed House, as I hope it will, the creation of a statutory Appointments Commission is essential. If the by-elections continue, maybe candidates should be subject to that process before being approved to stand. Lastly, I advocate leadership within the House from all quarters of all parties, of the kind which in previous years led to the Salisbury/Addison convention and to the agreement between the then Viscount Cranborne—now the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, over the House of Lords reform Bill. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, we do not need the gradual sacrifice of the hereditary Peers’ contribution to what is already an increasingly partisan House and constant contemplation of ourselves, rather than the vital work which this House does and which I hope it will continue to do.
My Lords, I rise in the gap to make a couple of quick points because I remember the entire debate around the passing of the 1999 Bill very well. In fact, I sat on the Cross-Bench group which produced some thoughts in response to the legislation. It could not be a representative Cross-Bench group but a significant number of us thought that it produced some useful contribution to the debate.
The major point that I remember from the 1998 debate was about further democratic reform of the House of Lords. Those key words—further democratic reform—form what we were left here to ensure. It was constantly referred to then because it soon became apparent that there was an argument between the democrats, who believed that the House of Lords should be elected, and the Commons supremacists, who were terrified of losing the greater power of the House of Commons. It is interesting that five ex-MPs have spoken today in this debate, if not all speaking the same way. I have the honour to serve as one of the hereditary Peers who were elected to stay here and ensure that further democratic reform. That is my basic position, which is why I cannot possibly support the Bill.
There is almost a touching naiveté about the second Chamber group believing that, if we have this incremental reform, there will be an incentive for proper reform in the future. All it will do is to erode slowly bits and pieces of the powers of this House. We will lose our effectiveness to challenge the Executive and Government of the day, as we have to do. We saw this in the rows about secondary legislation the other day, where it was suggested that the House of Lords should have its power to do anything about that removed, so there is this gradual erosion.
I shall finish with a couple of quick points. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said that an heir cannot be appointed to the House of Lords as a life Peer. They can; I do not think that there is any bar on an eldest son or daughter being appointed.
If there is not, that is good. I thought that there was not.
It amused me that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred to the election of the hereditary Peers not meeting a democratic standard. I am pleased that he approves of democratic standards and will therefore approve of only further democratic reform of the House of Lords, not an appointed House. I also noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, suggested that if we were to go down the route of getting to the House of Lords that many other people use, you basically have to be useful to a Prime Minister. I am not sure whether that is the right way to get here. However, I was glad to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, approves of an elected House.
The point of all this comes down to what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, which was absolutely key: that we are watching control of the legislature by the Executive gradually creeping in. He may not have used those exact words but that is what it is. We watch this whenever Ministers in the House of Commons, who are heads of executive departments, think that they are more powerful and important as that than as Members of Parliament, controlling themselves as members of the legislature. We forget that at our peril. The real problem with an appointed House is: who will control and appoint the Appointments Commission? That is the key to the problem because if the Executive get control of it, they will have control of both Houses.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating and educative debate for me, having heard from at least two of the people who contributed to that early 1999 agreement which we are debating. It is a great pleasure to congratulate my noble friend Lord Grocott on his Bill, and particularly on his introduction of it. On behalf of the Opposition, I give it the very warmest of welcomes. There are a thousand reasons for supporting it, not least the 1,000 sons of earlier honoured men who have in the past taken their seats here, not because of their own attributes, but because of those of their forebears. Today, there are none such in that the hereditaries now here, although they do indeed have to have honoured forebears, had also to be elected, or selected, by their peers in order to take or retain their seats.
Despite the fact that hereditaries are now elected, I am certain that in the 21st century there can be few who think that in future our legislators should be chosen by virtue of the deeds of their grandfathers—sometimes their great-grandfathers or great-great-grandfathers—rather than for what they themselves bring to the House. As has been said, the overwhelming majority of today’s hereditaries have shown their value to the House, and many would be here anyway as life Peers, given their accomplishments, so the time has come, not to say farewell to any of them, but simply to say that when they leave us, due to retirement or a higher calling, they should not be replaced.
The question asked was interesting because they would not necessarily—or at least it would be very unlikely—be replaced by their own son but by the son of another hereditary Peer. There would be a by-election and it would be someone else’s son who would select them, even though their son would be eligible to be put into the mix.
A number of speakers have said that we are too big and that our size must be reduced. Sadly, that plea fell on the very deaf ears of the former Prime Minister but as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and my noble friend Lord Anderson reminded us, that plea has now been repeated by the Lord Speaker, who referred to the shame of the unelected House being larger than the democratically elected one. We see that trend is continuing as the Government seem intent on further reducing the size of the other House while increasing the size of this one. That has led to Charles Walker, the chair of the Procedure Committee in the other place, saying that the planned reduction of 50 MPs is unjustified,
“while the Lords continues to gorge itself on new arrivals”.—[
That view was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. Of course, it is not we who are gorging ourselves; someone else is feeding the beak.
As my noble friend Lord Anderson and, in another way, my noble friend Lady Smith said, a seat in this noble House is a job, not an honour. We should do everything possible to make that clear to the Prime Minister as well as to the public. Surely as part of that call for a reduction in size, we should do something about this ourselves by taking this very modest measure to very slightly and slowly reduce our numbers.
Peers on this side of the House and other noble Lords who have spoken today would prefer greater changes discussed via a constitutional convention rather than by piecemeal measures, but the Government have obviously turned their face from this approach, so we believe the current Bill is appropriate. It is a tidy and measured reasonable step. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, it is incremental, and my noble friend Lord Haskel said that it is a small step to help this House more fully reflect today’s politics and today’s population.
We have heard different views. Some people say that incremental change is the way that this country works best, but others say that incremental change is the last thing we want. I guess I am with the conservatives. I like those small incremental stages, so I will take this Bill.
As my noble friend Lord Anderson said, we will, I assume, be moving to the QEII Centre. Surely we should not be asking the taxpayer to fund the move of more than 800 of us to that new venue. This is surely the time for us to take this small step.
I shall speak briefly on two further things. The first is the conversation—if I may put it that way—that took place between the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the role of this House as an independent voice against the Government. It is for that reason that I—and I think I am probably standing to the side of the Front Bench—do not support an elected House. My reason for supporting an appointed House is the one the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, enunciated, although as I think I heard from behind me, I think that all life Peers take that responsibility very seriously. It is not just the hereditaries.
As the first woman in today’s debate, I shall make a little plea about women because it is not, on the whole, us who appear this way. The Minister has far more noble blood in her veins than I have, but I am certain that she is delighted that she is here because of her own abilities rather than because of anything else, and that is the way I hope anyone should take their seat here.
We wish this Bill well. We hope very much that the Government are not going to have a knee-jerk reaction and say, “It’s not the time. We’ve got Brexit and other things. It’s just not a priority”. If they say that, change will never happen, so I urge them to think very carefully and give time to allow this Bill to proceed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for introducing this Bill which, as always in this House, has provoked an interesting and engaging debate with speeches from many of your Lordships. He has a long association with the arguments surrounding further reform of your Lordships’ House, and the whole House recognises his particular expertise.
Before the noble Lord sums up the debate, I will endeavour to respond from the Government’s perspective to as many as possible of the points and questions raised. Before I start, I shall answer the point made by my noble friend Lord Norton. He suggested that the Government should put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory footing. Importantly, we feel that the Appointments Commission is rightly independent of government and vets all appointments made to this House.
I say from the outset that the Government recognise greatly the value of this House. Your Lordships play a vital role in the workings of the House and the scrutiny of legislation. We are committed to ensuring that the House continues to work well, and I therefore welcome the opportunity to debate this matter. As mentioned by several noble Lords today, in the previous Parliament the Government introduced the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012, which sought wide-scale reform. Like the Bill introduced today by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the Bill made provision to remove hereditary Peers and introduce an elected element into the upper House. As we all remember, that Bill was withdrawn when it became clear that its timetabling Motions could not be agreed to in the other place, not, I emphasise, from a lack of commitment from the Government, but from a lack of overall agreement as to what shape reform should take. It is with that experience in mind that we have focused our efforts on looking for incremental steps for change, and have made clear that comprehensive reform of this House is not a priority in this Parliament.
Turning back to the Bill, the role of hereditary Peers goes to the heart of questions about our composition. Any change to their status would fundamentally change the nature of your Lordships’ House, and so as a Government we would consider any change to be bound up in those broader discussions about comprehensive reform. As my noble friend Lord Bowness mentioned, at this juncture, with the Government’s focus on delivering prosperity across the UK, I submit that there are therefore other, more pressing constitutional reforms currently under way on which we should focus our attention. These include delivering on the promise to devolve more powers to Wales and, importantly, implementing the result of the EU referendum on
However, that does not mean we should not continue to work to make sure your Lordships’ House continues to work well, or to look for ways in which we might do our work more effectively. As our manifesto makes clear, we agree that we cannot grow indefinitely. So where there are ideas for incremental change that can improve how we work, and which can command consensus, we would welcome working with noble Lords to take them forward.
As a House, we have a good story to tell in this regard. With government support, as has been mentioned, Bills were taken through by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, to enable Peers to retire for the first time and to enable the House to expel Members where their conduct falls well below the standards that the public have a right to expect. While I am glad to say we have not had to use the latter power, we have seen a remarkable cultural change on retirement, with 52 Peers having permanently retired from this House. As the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned, this has enabled life Peers not to go on into their dotage.
The House of Lords Act 1999 (Amendment) Bill before the House today makes provision to remove the by-election system that currently allows hereditary Peers to be elected to this place. While those existing hereditary Peers would remain Members of this House, the Bill makes provision to prevent any future hereditary Peers taking a seat, though it makes no provision to exclude from its scope holders of two of the great offices of state, who currently sit as Members of this House: the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain.
The nub of the debate today is that by removing hereditaries from this House over time, many of whom play an important role in our work, we would become de facto an appointed Chamber. That would be a very significant step and would clearly need to form part of a broader consideration of the role of the House, as was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne, Lord Elton, Lord Norton and Lord Mancroft. As I have noted, I do not feel that now is the time to embark on that particular journey, given the many challenges that we presently face.
In summing up my remarks, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for pursuing this important constitutional matter, and to those here today for their insightful contributions to this debate. While we see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our second Chamber, it is not a priority for this Parliament. As he may have gathered from my remarks, I must express reservations about the Bill. As I have mentioned, and perhaps this answers the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, the Government do not believe that now is the time for comprehensive reform, given the priorities elsewhere—not least, implementing the result of the EU referendum.
My Lords, I have been listening to the whole of this debate with interest. My noble friend talks about incremental changes but then says, “Oh gosh, we’ve got a lot of other important things to deal with, such as Brexit”. I cannot understand why this modest Bill, which would take very little of Parliament’s time, should in any way compromise the other major changes. I do not understand why the Government should resist this tiny but important and sensible Bill.
I thank my noble friend for that interjection, I think. However, we feel that this should be part of a larger reform, when that comes, but this is not the time to do that. On the other hand, the new Leader—
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but perhaps she could explain why this Bill, which is small and incremental, is different from the other small and incremental Bills that the Government supported in the last Parliament, presumably because they were small and incremental, as she has already said?
It just would change the whole position of the House, and this is not the time to do that. What we want to do is to keep talking about this problem.
Let me finish. The new Leader looks forward to working with Peers to support incremental reform that commands consensus across the House. We feel that that is the way forward at the moment.
I have just heard from a noble Lord that I have just arrived. I do not know whether he means in this House three years ago, before he did, or in this debate. I have sat through the debate from the start.
If, as the Minister said from the Dispatch Box, we will be talking about this problem, could that discussion be informed by the Government saying what areas they would not consider core to the composition of the House in order for us to decide where we could make some of these incremental reforms?
I think I have said all I am going to say on the matter in my speech. We are not taking forward reforms during this Parliament. However, as I said, the new Leader looks forward to working with Peers to support incremental reform that commands consensus across the House. Once again, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today.
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I—without reopening this debate or asking her to agree—at least confirm that she will convey to her colleagues in government at the very highest levels the concerns, expressed both by those who are in favour of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and those who are against it, about the numbers being appointed by the Government? Whether they agree or disagree, will she at least convey those concerns and the fact that we believe the Government have a part to play in solving that problem?
I assure my noble friend that after every debate in this House that I take part in I go back to whichever department I am speaking for and ensure that all the points that have been made are taken in. I will certainly do that today.
My Lords, I apologise very much for interrupting my noble friend again; she is doing a splendid job. When she passes on the message about your Lordships’ concern about the quantity of new Members of this House, could she at the same time pass on our concerns about their quality?
I think my noble friend has already done that because his remarks will be in Hansard. I am sure they will take note.
Before my noble friend sits down, I have not spoken in this debate but I echo the comments made by other noble Lords that we believe this House is already far too large and should be reduced rapidly.
My Lords, I am grateful for those interventions at the end: they will enable me to be shorter in my summing up. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for making the point that I was not intending to derail the Government’s whole legislative programme. I think it would take about 10 minutes to get the Bill through were it not for—I say this with respect to them—a very small number of Members in this House, who were understandably overrepresented in today’s debate, who still feel that we should continue with hereditary by-elections. That is despite the fact that there is universal agreement—there I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, and so many others who spoke—for the Lord Speaker’s initiative to reduce the number of Members in the House. It has got to a ridiculous size, but that was not the main subject of today’s debate, although I say in passing that unless my Bill were passed, one way that we could not reduce the number of Members of this House would be by removing a hereditary Peer, because the mechanism exists for their immediate replacement by a by-election. I hope that that, at least, will be recognised.
I am very grateful to the many Members on both sides of the House who spoke, particularly those who take the whole issue of incremental reform very seriously through the reformed second Chamber group, many of whom spoke—all, I think, in favour of the Bill. I am sorry: one, perhaps two, did not. I have no doubt that in the House as a whole there is overwhelming support for this measure. I hope that when we proceed to Committee, as I hope we will, those who still feel strongly against it will respect the overwhelming support which, I submit, exists across the House to see the system changed.
I tried in my opening speech to address the fundamental principle that to refer to what was said and done in 1999 is no basis for moving forward in any respect. The good faith of Governments—I do not include myself in this, because I am not in favour of an elected House—Labour, coalition and even Conservative Governments, to move towards a fully elected House has proved impossible. They have tried and they have failed. To use that—because Governments have failed to introduce the second phase—as a reason for continuing with by-elections in perpetuity is disingenuous. If you say the by-elections can go when there is fully comprehensive reform, just tell us how you are going to deliver that reform, or we can only conclude that you are not committed to the removal of the by-elections.
The noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Elton, stated what I should think from their perspective is quite an uncomfortable truth—I address this to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, as well. Why was the Act passed with these exemptions by a Labour Government? I can give first-hand information on this because I was working in No. 10 at the time. It was because the Government knew that unless they made those concessions, their whole legislative programme would be wrecked, probably over two years. When Hansard is checked tomorrow, we will see that that fact was relayed accurately by the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Elton. That is not a basis on which to have reached either the compromise in the Act or any undertakings that were given. The Act was to that extent passed under duress.
Any reasonable person must look at it now and ask: was it a sensible compromise? Should the by-elections continue in perpetuity? No one has offered an end date. None of the speakers who opposed the Bill has put an end date.
So many noble Lords made excellent points, particularly on the size of the House, with which I very much agree. My noble friend Lord Howard mentioned that and emphasised the importance of incremental change. I always want to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has to say on these issues and I am very grateful to him for his support, and for that of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. There is cross-party support. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made the point that we need to remember how we look to the outside world.
Of course the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, is right. If I go to the Labour Club over the weekend, as I may well do, for my pint, people will not be saying: “What are you doing about by-elections in the House of Lords?”. They will not be saying much about Lords reform. They will not be saying much about a large number of the things that we talk about in this House, but that does not mean that they are not important, it just means that most people are not political obsessives as, to a degree, we must all be, or else we would not be here. They get on with their lives, make intelligent decisions on a wide range of subjects, including referendums and general elections from time to time, although not always. If we judged whether to legislate on something based on whether people are angsty about it in the streets, we could have very long recesses in this place, because there would not be a vast amount for us to do.
The original Act was passed under duress—that is the only way I can describe it. I say particularly to the hereditary Peers that I have been very careful in the Bill and in my remarks to re-emphasise time and again that it is no threat to existing hereditaries. I do nothing other than acclaim the work that so many of them do. My point is that they are pretty indistinguishable from everyone else in the House. I have been here a little while, but I have to think, “Are they hereditary?”—or, rather, I do not think about it, it is not of great significance to me. We do not know, and certainly no one watching from the Galleries would have the faintest idea. I reject very strongly what the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft—and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Elton—said: that somehow it was the hereditaries who uniquely held Governments to account. That has not been my experience at all: they do it in much the same way as everyone else. I am sorry if I have provoked the noble Lord.
I said no such thing. I said that we were put here by those who did not trust the system to deliver the reform that would maintain this House’s functions of scrutiny and challenge the Government of the day—not that we were the only people who did that but that we were to see that if other people opposed that, we would be the opposition to that opposition.
I am not sure that I fully understood that. I repeat that we are all Members of the House of Lords who come here by various different mechanisms. Judge us as individuals and by our contributions, not by whether we are life Peers, hereditary Peers, Bishops, Law Lords or whatever. Hereditaries have no unique characteristic which makes them more valuable to the House than any other group within it.
This is a plea more than anything else, I suppose, because I know perfectly well how it would be possible to cause great difficulty to the Bill. I know that many hereditary Peers support the Bill. One said to me before I came into the Chamber that it was a little wearing that, somehow, if you were a hereditary Peer in this House, you felt yourself to be in the firing line and that it was always a subject for discussion and debate. If the Bill was passed, that would cease. It would make all the remaining hereditary Peers indistinguishable for all practical purposes from other Members of the House. It would cease to be a debating point—it is a pretty artificial one in any event, apart from this business of by-elections to make sure that the system continues in perpetuity.
I am sorry that at the moment, the Government feel that there are more pressing matters—I agree with them, but a few hours is all that is needed to sort this out and make us look a better House in this small respect than we do at present. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Hayter for her support for the Bill as a whole. I hope that the House will give it a fair wind both at Second Reading and in the Committee that I hope will follow.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.