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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:11 pm on 8th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 12:11 pm, 8th September 2017

I saw no arguments in favour of the by-elections, apart from the one that I really want to put to rest now, which the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, repeats time and again about this compromise reached in 1999 which resulted in the 92 hereditary Peers remaining. The noble Lord, Lord True, referred to the fact that I was involved to some extent in that because I was working in Downing Street at the time. I remind him of what I still feel was breath-taking about what happened then. A Labour Government, elected on the clearest possible manifesto commitment to end the hereditary principle as a basis for being in the second Chamber—a Labour Government with a record post-war majority of more than 150—brought that proposal to this House. It was made clear in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and others that the Bill, with a huge majority and manifesto commitment, would not be allowed to pass unless major concessions were made, of which these 92 Peers are the result. That was not normal parliamentary procedure resulting in this binding agreement; it was blackmail. That is the only argument that has been put forward to continue with these by-elections. It is a history lesson that ought to be written according to what actually happened.

The only other argument I have picked up is that, somehow or other, the hereditary Peers here provide a constant incentive towards swift movement towards a fully comprehensive elected House. The noble Lord, Lord Young, is in a better position than me because he was there longer: there were loads of debates in the other place on an elected House, but I never heard anyone say that we need to do this because the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Elton, or the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, are insisting that it happens. By definition it simply has not worked. Those Members who want a fully elected House, of which I am not one, have not been able for various reasons to deliver it, so this incentive that allegedly is there clearly is not working. We should remember that as well.

The only really helpful, constructive attempt to move forward on this, other than what I think is the only sensible way to proceed, which is my Bill unamended—although I always listen to what the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Cormack, and others, have to say—is that there should be an election of the whole House whenever a vacancy occurs rather than these absurd party by-elections with minuscule electorates. I partly answered it in my opening remarks. Even when that happens, less than half the House participates. I always regarded it as a waste of time and I am clearly not the only one. That does not enhance the quality of the democracy, and—this is an even more substantial point made brilliantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge—it does not alter the fundamental flaw that, on the register of hereditary Peers as it stands, there are 198 names, 197 of whom are men. Changing the Standing Orders and having an electorate comprising the whole House would not alter that fundamental problem any more than it would alter the fundamental problem of why on earth the only people entitled to stand should be the heirs of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, or the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, although we hope their heirs do not materialise for a long period yet in their new titles. Why should their heirs have an assisted places scheme to get into the House of Lords?

We all think our arguments are pretty convincing. I think the argument I and many of my noble friends put forward are absolutely overwhelming, so let us get on with it.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.