House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:05 am on 8th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 10:05 am, 8th September 2017

Well, I will give the answer—and I hope that Members will give their answers during their speeches as well. Even in the 12 months since the last Bill, there have been a number of developments, all of which make the case for ending the by-elections stronger, and the case for retaining them inexorably weaker—so much so that any neutral observer would surely conclude that it is not so much a matter of whether the by-elections will cease, but when.

The debates on the Bill last year, and the discussions that surrounded them, have shown beyond doubt that there is overwhelming support in this House for the reform that I am proposing. Support has come from Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Cross-Benchers—including a very large number of hereditaries themselves, who have come to me and, understandably, find it difficult to speak on this subject. I would love to know what the actual numbers were among the hereditaries of those in favour and those against the change. When the opinion of the House was tested in Committee—of course, on a Friday, when Divisions are rare—the first vote on the principle of the Bill resulted in a defeat for its opponents by a majority of 93. There can be no reasonable doubt that the number of Members of this House who are resolutely opposed to this Bill is minuscule.

The weakness of the Bill’s opponents could not be better illustrated than by the tactics they employed in Committee. In the three months last year between Second Reading and Committee stage, just six amendments were tabled. Then, lo and behold, on the day before the debate, inspiration and creativity overwhelmed two Members of this House: the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, tabled 50 amendments overnight. My Lords, we all know what that is about: a tiny number of Members knowing they were in a hopeless minority in the House and knowing that they could not win by votes so they had better win by tricks. Fifty overnight amendments—if you are going to wreck a Bill, do it a bit more subtly.

This time, my appeal to anyone who is thinking of trying these tactics is to please think again. They do neither noble Lords’ nor the House’s reputation any good. They should win by the arguments and in the Division Lobbies, not by tricks. It is the opinion of the House that should prevail, not the opinion of one or two of its Members.

I also say to anyone who is thinking of wrecking the Bill this time to please think of the adverse publicity for our House that that will attract. I will give three examples from the media since then:

Hereditary Peers Set To Ambush Bill Aimed At Scrapping Their 'Laughable' By-Elections”.

Another headline is:

“‘An embarrassment to our politics!’ Fury as Lords prepare to elect new hereditary peer”.

Finally, we have:

Tory aristocrat joins Parliament for life by winning 143 votes in a ‘Blackadder’ by-election”.

I am the last person on the planet to argue that we should change a good policy because of some bad newspaper headlines, but it is noticeable that there is absolutely nobody, apart from a handful of people in this House, who is prepared to defend these by-elections. The argument for their continuation is friendless, and surely that is because simply there are no such good arguments.

I challenge anyone today who is thinking of opposing my Bill to not give us a history lesson. Instead, come clean and explain to us, in 2017, what added value the by-elections provide to our parliamentary system. Tell us precisely why we continue to replace the 90 hereditary Peers. Tell us what the distinctive characteristics of the 198 people on the Register of Hereditary Peers are that mean that we need to provide them with a reserved place in our legislature? Once elected, what is special about their parliamentary talents that distinguishes them from other Members of the House? To make it personal, what is the justification for the heir of a hereditary Peer in this House having a one in 200 chance of becoming a member of the legislature while for everyone else in the country, that chance is something like one in 90,000? Tell us, here and now, 18 years after the House of Lords Act 1999, what it is about these by-elections that enhances and enriches our parliamentary democracy. If they cannot answer these questions, surely it is time to call it a day and stop playing King Canute.

There have been significant developments in the last 12 months that have strengthened the case for my Bill. Among them has been the evidence provided by yet more by-elections. For those of us in favour of scrapping them, the by-elections are the gift that keeps on giving. There have been two such elections this year. The first, on 21 March, was for a hereditary Peer to be elected by the whole House. The second, on 18 July, was for a Cross-Bench Peer, when only hereditary Cross-Benchers could vote. It is the first of these two by-elections that provides the richest vein for satire. This, remember, was an election for a place in our Parliament—or rather, a parliamentary by-election. The figure for the electorate was 803 and the number of votes cast was 436, meaning that the turnout was 43%. By way of comparison, it is worth noting that in the general election in June, the lowest turnout in all 650 constituencies was Glasgow North East, with 53%. The propensity to vote in a House of Lords by-election, where voters need only walk down the corridor from their offices and put a ballot paper in a box in the Committee room, is 10% lower than the parliamentary constituency with the lowest turnout. That, to me, provides pretty clear evidence that the majority of Members of this House feel no great attachment to the practice of re-electing hereditary Peers.

Then there was the little matter of the ballot itself. No fewer than 27 candidates put themselves forward, 19 of whom got fewer than 10 votes. Under the alternative vote system there were 25—yes, 25—rounds of balloting before the winner was declared. What is more, the same person led in all 25 ballots, so if the voting system had been first past the post, the same result would have been achieved with a lot less trouble. I just thought I would point that out. There was a 43% turnout, 27 candidates, 25 ballots, and only hereditaries could stand. In 1999 when the original Act was passed, surely no one could have intended that 18 years later we would still have that system of recruiting people to our Parliament, and with no prospect of an end in sight.

The other matter is the very important Motion that this House passed last year, moving that,

“this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved.”

As a result of that debate, the Lord Speaker established a committee under the noble Lord, Lord Burns, to consider the issue. The committee is due to report in October. What has that to do, you may well ask, with my Bill to end the by-elections? The answer is that if we are to reduce the size of the Lords to around 600 Members so that it is smaller than the Commons, surely we will have to amend the legislation that preserves in aspic 90 places for hereditary Peers. If we reduce the size of this House without changing the law on the hereditary bloc, the proportion of hereditaries would rise from 11% to 15%. For us to embark on an important modernising measure to reduce our size with the result of significantly increasing the proportion of hereditaries really would be a case of Alice in Wonderland.

I should point out that we are not the only ones looking for ways to reduce our size and of the way in which that might involve the hereditaries. Since I introduced my Bill last year, the size of the Lords and the issue of the hereditary Peers have been discussed several times in the Commons, in a Select Committee inquiry, a Private Members’ Bill, a Westminster Hall debate and a 10-minute rule Bill. Most recently, on Wednesday this week, the Commons gave the First Reading to a Bill introduced by my right honourable friend David Hanson, which is scheduled for Second Reading in April. The Bill would end the right of all hereditaries to sit in the Lords with effect from 31 December 2019. Surely the initiative for sensible reforms of this House should come from this House. With the help of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, we have had a number of very good reforms in recent years and I believe that with the Lord Speaker’s committee due to report next month, there will be more to come. We should reform ourselves, not wait for someone else to do it for us.

I submit that the case for ending the by-elections has strengthened inexorably since I introduced my Bill 12 months ago. We now have the opportunity in this House to initiate a simple sensible reform that would hurt no one and cost nothing. My Bill was first in the ballot and we are at the start of a two-year parliamentary Session, so parliamentary time should be no obstacle to the passage of a simple two-clause Bill. The case is overwhelming, the time is right, so let us do it. I beg to move.