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My Lords, of course, actually, it is the second time that I have had the privilege of putting an identical Bill before the House. Indeed, the last time was only six months ago. But for the intervention of a general election, I am sure it would have made substantial progress.
First, I thank some of my predecessors who tabled if not an identical Bill, then one very closely reflecting the same thrust. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is in his place, as is the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and I say a sincere thank you to both of them for the contribution they have made to this cause. We will eventually be successful at some point.
I should like to go back in history just a little because there is a historical dimension to this, which is why we find ourselves in the position we are in. I took the name “Naseby” simply because I was the Member of Parliament for Northampton. Obviously, I could not take “Northampton” because we already have an Earl of that name. I had been involved in the Civil War commemorations, and in particular for the Battle of Naseby itself. All of the wounded from that battle came into my constituency, and therefore it seemed appropriate for me to take the name. That battle on
I suspect that at the time, Peers were viewed with a degree of suspicion by those in the other place, which is why some restrictions were put on the upper House. I shall quote a number of aspects of that—not at great length, noble Lords will be pleased to hear. The principle that Peers cannot vote in elections to the House of Commons has a long history and the Library has kindly prepared some data. At least between 1699 and 1998, the House of Commons would pass a Sessional Order at the beginning of each Session to the effect that no Peer had any right to elect a Member of Parliament. Then of course we have the well-known case of Earl Beauchamp v Madresfield in 1872. We began to see some progress around that time, and again I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who dug out the quote from Benjamin Disraeli, who said that he sought support for extending the right to vote in general elections to Peers because they were taxed by votes cast in the House of Commons.
Things do slowly move forward; that is the principle of life in this great Parliament. In 1999—I was here then, as were a number of other noble Lords—it was held in common law that it was the status of being a Peer that precluded one from being able to vote. Since 1999 and the House of Lords Act, it is the fact of being a Member of the Second Chamber that prevents one from voting. Under the terms of the 1999 Act, hereditary Peers who are excluded from membership of the House are able to vote and, as we know, Members of the House of Lords can vote in all other elections.
More recently, we had the disqualification updated again. The House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which is not very long ago, and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 extended the right to vote in general elections to Peers who ceased to be Members of the House in a way other than under the 1999 Act, for example through retirement, non-attendance, conviction of a serious offence or expulsion. So I conclude from all that that this is a pathway and that we are making slow progress. I am 83. We do not yet have a retirement age here. To the best of my knowledge, I am fit and well, so I am going to take another look at this particular objective which I share with a number of other noble Lords—and indeed perhaps I may say that I share it with a large number of Members of Parliament in the other place as well.
My basic tenet is still the same: all of us here give leadership in our own communities. There must be very few Members of this House who do not provide leadership in the community in which they live. The very word “Lord” gives us a passport to that. However, we are denied a view about our own elected Member of Parliament. We cannot stand in front of them and say, “I am supporting you … or you.” We have to stay quiet. We are denied the right to vote on a manifesto for the political party that we might support—a manifesto that will affect our family and children. Is that not part of our human rights? Only through a general election do the electorate have the opportunity to vote on different spending plans. Yes, we are in the upper House, but we have no voice on these issues, particularly as we do not debate taxation matters and only very rarely do we vote on statutory instruments of a monetary nature. And yet in the society we are in today, money and expenditure are absolutely vital to our everyday lives, as they are in any democracy. We all know the clarion call, do we not? We learned it as schoolboys: no taxation without representation. But about 800 men and women are denied that opportunity to vote in our democracy. The only other people who are denied it are certain categories of criminals, and that of course I find irksome.
In the recent election, 47.56 million people had the absolute right to vote—except for the 800 that we are—and 67.3% of them people took advantage of it. The following is interesting, but if I am honest, I only discovered it yesterday when I looked at a breakdown of voting. There is a category of “anonymous voters” and nationally there are just over 2,500 of them. If we are worried about our names appearing somewhere because we voted, perhaps we could join those 2,500 anonymous votes. I say that just as an aside.
However, matters have shifted since the last election. Here, but with great care, I will draw a parallel with the monarchy and what has been happening there in relation to politics. We know that the Queen by dint of time does not vote—but she can vote. We know that members of the inner circle of the Royal Family are encouraged not to vote—but they can vote. In fact, we do not really know if they vote or not, but all other members of the Royal Family can. There is something of a parallel with our position today, and I am grateful to a lady called Helen Thompson for what she has written in the New Statesmen—colleagues may be interested to note that I read it. The following was written in the
“The prorogation crisis last September showed the obvious dangers in blurring the line between the monarch’s passive role and democratic politics. By asking the Queen to perform an act that would inevitably be subject to legal challenge, the Prime Minister condemned her to act politically. That the High Court of Justice for England and Wales, an appellate panel of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom could not agree on the legality of the use of royal powers, or the relevance of Boris Johnson’s motives, demonstrated how hard consensus is on constitutional matters involving the Crown, once a political crisis requires them to be scrutinised.”
Well, I would suggest to colleagues that there is no political crisis yet, but I draw a parallel to a degree with the slow passage of the Bill of my friend the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to remove by-elections for hereditary Peers. This whole process has been exceedingly undemocratic, but the last couple of Governments have shilly-shallied around it and delayed it. It is a small but significant measure, as is the measure before your Lordships this morning.
As it happens, the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was number one in the ballot. This Bill was number two. Colleagues will know that I have a great interest in Sri Lanka, where they have a phrase, “auspicious”. I think that this was an auspicious happening that may well be beneficial to both parties in the end.
My Government now have more than four years to get on and look at this Bill and at the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. We have on our side the same young man, who is my research assistant—although I shall not use the same quotes I used last time. These are a few of the reasons he thinks this Bill should go through. He says in a note to me:
“Another reason used to defend this appalling law was the scepticism around reform. This came in two main forms, one being that it was a sort of ‘slippery slope’ to further reforms, and the second was that in 2013 it was not the right time to do such a reform. Well, rather simply there is no evidence for there to be further reforms following this one. It is a single bill, on a single issue, so this line of argument is discounted. Finally, in response to the other side of the reform argument, we are now seven years down the line”.
Now is as good a time as any, and he sees no reason why anything should be put in the way to prevent this Bill going forward. That is from Alex Wilkins, and I thank him for the work he has done on that.
We now know that the vast majority of the electorate are on our side. How do we know that? A good number of us have been out on the doorstep recently, and people are amazed. Those who know me say, “You don’t have a vote, Michael?” Those who have forgotten that I am here now say, “You don’t have a vote, Mr Morris?” I say, “No.” No one out there understands it—which is incredible in itself, is it not?
We have lots of friends across the world, and many of us visit other parliaments. In every single second chamber anywhere else in the world, they all have a vote. We are the only Parliament in the whole world where those in the upper House do not have a vote in the key general election.
I am all for tradition—I dress fairly traditionally—but we know the electorate do not understand it; I have just said that. To recap for the benefit of the Front Bench, I am not necessarily saying this morning that the tradition that we do not vote on money Bills should be removed. What I am saying is that we should have the right to vote in a general election. This is a short, small, targeted Bill. In my judgment it deserves to make progress through the House. As I said near the beginning, I have talked to many friends in the other place and believe there is substantial support there for the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on obtaining a place in the ballot, particularly the number two slot. I hope it is a good sign that we can make progress in this Parliament to get this Bill approved. I echo his congratulations to those who, over generations, have sought to return to us the ability to vote in general elections—including my noble friend Lord Dubs, who is here this morning.
I have shared the experience of people’s incredulity, as the noble Lord has just expressed, that we do not have the right to vote in a general election. In the last general election, for some of us on this side it might have been an interesting cop-out when people on the doorstep asked us what we were going to do. Of course, it was not. I speak for myself in saying that, were I able to vote, I would have voted Labour—I just want to make that absolutely clear.
I do not intend to delay the House too long, because there are many speakers on this Bill and the subsequent one. The fundamental issue that the noble Lord has raised is that the basic right of any citizen is the right to vote. It has been fought for over generations. The extension of the franchise way beyond what it was in 1699 enabled people who had fought for that right to exercise it. To take it away from those who are ennobled is a historic anachronism that does not bear thinking about.
I tried to examine what arguments have been put in the past. The history of the anachronism does not stand up to scrutiny, nor does the argument—quite a bizarre debate has been had in this House in the past about our right to vote in general elections—that we can represent ourselves. Let us leave aside that before sittings in both Houses, we have Prayers that enjoin us not to look after our own personal interests, and just consider the practicalities of whether people represent themselves in this House. We legislate for the country in a way that enables people to open up the issues and debate. We do not legislate or sit on Select Committees in any sense on our own behalf. I have never heard anyone raise a Question such as: “My child”—or, more appropriately in this House, grandchild—“hasn’t got into the school they put as their first choice. What is the Minister going to do about it?” Frankly, it is a non-starter. No one is ever arguing for their own personal rights or raising their own personal representation in this House. They are seeking to do a job—a duty, an obligation—on behalf of the people as a whole.
I hope that, in the reply today, we set aside any of this kind of nonsense and address the central issue: should any citizen have their right to vote withdrawn? There are exceptions, although very few: those who have committed a felony and are in prison, and those who, through incapability, have been described as unable to exercise a meaningful vote. But being ennobled does not fall into either of those categories. As described by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, if you commit a serious criminal offence or are expelled from this House under the 2014 and 2015 Acts, you regain your right to vote. If you are suspended, you have the right to vote. I wonder whether we are exercising the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in the way originally intended when it was brought in nine years ago. People who really care, as we this morning all care, might get themselves suspended as a general election arises, vote and then return. This is the kind of nonsense we have now got ourselves into. Therefore, recent legislative changes should result in changes in practice in this House to restore our democratic rights.
I have one further thought. If we believe that playing our part in the legislative process and in our scrutiny in any way justifies taking away a democratic right, that could lead to a debate in the country about the role of this House which could take us down very dangerous avenues indeed. Common sense should prevail. This is a simple Bill, as the noble Lord said, with a simple purpose: restoring to those who sit in this House a right that other people take for granted. How can we enjoin them to exercise that right and plead with them to uphold a right that has been fought for over generations, and then have that right withheld from us? How could the Government, who consider themselves to be democratic, actually deny us that right by voting down this Bill? I entirely support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and I hope that this House will do so as well.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who speaks on this issue with a powerful voice, as he does on so many issues. I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Naseby on bringing forward this Bill again. A similar Bill was debated on
I have just reread the speech my noble friend made last year. As noble Lords would expect, it was delivered in the most mellifluous and elegant way. But even that could not disguise the shallowness of the Government’s arguments. How could we quarrel, he argued, with the principle enunciated in 1699, which he quoted from the Commons Journal of that year:
“That no Peer of this Kingdom hath any Right to give his vote”?
If that was good enough for us 300 years ago then surely, he implied, it is good enough today. He went on. The principle was justified by the
“ancient, immemorial law of England.”—[
Here the Minister was quoting admiringly the Lord Chief Justice in 1858. And then, lest we had forgotten, he prayed in aid cases and judgments from 1872. It is a strange line of reasoning which asserts that if that is what the law said in 1699, 1858 and 1872, then that is what the law should say in 2020.
In my speech last year, I said that I supported this Bill for many reasons, but for one fundamental reason, which is taxation. I argued that while everyone in this House pays tax—income tax, VAT, excise duties and no doubt many others—we have no say whatever on taxation. That is decided by Members of the House of Commons, for whom we cannot vote.
How did the Minister try to justify the anomaly that Members of this House who pay taxes are not allowed to vote for the MPs who impose taxes? He said that taxation is
“not connected to democratic representation in the UK”, and, as if to prove the point, he said:
“An American or Japanese citizen of voting age who works and pays taxes in the UK does not have the right to vote in parliamentary elections”.—[Official Report, 19/7/19; col. 486.]
Well, of course they do not, for the rather obvious reason that they are not UK citizens. Members of this House are UK citizens, so that argument just does not stand up. By the way, the so-called principle that a Member of the legislature, because they are a lawmaker, should not be allowed to vote for an MP, does not apply to MPs. A sitting MP who, for example, is a registered elector in a seat that he or she does not represent is entitled to vote in a parliamentary by-election in that constituency. If Members of the Commons have the right to vote in parliamentary elections while they are MPs, why should Members of the Lords not have that right?
When he replies, will my noble friend the Minister tell the House what it is about this Bill—you could not wish for a more modest Bill, as my noble friend Lord Naseby said—that worries the Government? What is the worst thing that could happen if Peers were given the vote? What is the downside? What is the danger? What precisely are the terrible consequences that would flow if this Bill were to pass?
The truth is that there are no robust arguments against giving Members of this House the vote. The only argument that the Government have left is that they are opposed to piecemeal reform, and no doubt we will hear that this proposal would best be done as part of a wider and more comprehensive reform of the House of Lords. But if we had set our face against piecemeal reforms we would never have had life Peers or women Peers. It would be much better if the Government stopped trying to argue the unarguable and were a little more honest with the House and just said to my noble friend Lord Naseby, “You’ve made a good case. Logic is on your side. Let’s talk.”
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, whose forensic examination of the case was quite flawless. However, I shall argue that this should not, perhaps, be seen as our highest priority.
The Bill proposes a very modest measure of constitutional reform. It is at the opposite end of the scale from the Great Reform Act 1832, the second Reform Act 1867, the third reform Act 1884 and the Representation of the People Acts of 1918, 1928 and 1969. Over 150 years, those Acts extended the franchise for elections from about 214,000 people—about 3% of the population—to the 47.6 million people who were registered to vote in the general election last December. That figure did not include the approximately 800 Members of the House of Lords, which is why we are here today.
In moving the Second Reading of an identical Bill here last July, the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, made much of the fact that the House of Commons has primacy in legislation, has total control over financial matters, and that its membership effectively decides who forms the Government. If Members of this House have no say in the membership of the House of Commons, then we have no say in who forms the Government of the country, and that cannot be right.
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, also said, and repeated today, that out of nearly 200 countries with second Chambers, ours is the only one in the world that does not allow its Members to vote at general elections. Recent legislation has confirmed that we are disfranchised in this way, and in replying to the debate last July the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, cited the House of Lords Act 1999 in particular. But when I voted as a new Member of this House for that Act, it was on the basis that it was to be only an interim measure before a second and more fundamental phase of reform. That reform did not happen under Tony Blair and we are still waiting for it because of the failure of the other place to agree a timetable Motion for the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012. That was despite that Bill achieving its Second Reading by a massive 462 to 124 votes of MPs. The process of reform is therefore very frustrating.
It is 109 years since Asquith was Prime Minister and the Parliament Act 1911 promised to replace the hereditary principle with the popular one. It has not happened yet, so those of us who believe in the value added by a second Chamber and that lawmakers would have greater legitimacy if they were chosen by voters must argue for piecemeal reform until we can get what we consider to be real reform.
What this Bill proposes would be a tiny step in a process of incremental reform, but it is not one that we should be making our priority. People will say that it would be inconsistent if we were to demand the right for us to vote for MPs, while voters have no right to elect Members of this House.
There are also other more important issues of democratic legitimacy to address and which must have greater priority than this proposal to add Peers to the voting registers for electing MPs. There are, for example, around 9 million people not on the electoral registers who should be included or who are not correctly registered. The failure properly to include such a large number of people distorts election results and constituency boundaries. We should also be giving more consideration to the uncertain fate of the 3 million EU citizens presently living in the UK. There would be no better way of guaranteeing the promises made to respect their rights than to give them the right to elect MPs in the same way that they have been able to vote for local councillors and members of the devolved Assemblies. You do not need to be a UK citizen to vote in our general elections. More than 300,000 Irish citizens and nearly 1.2 million qualifying Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK are eligible to vote in our general elections. As we continue to debate our future relationship in Europe, we should ensure that the 3 million EU citizens resident here should be able to help choose our MPs.
The Bill addresses an inconsistency in electoral law, but before we think about our own voting rights while we are already Members of this Parliament, we should consider properly the growing inconsistency in the age for inclusion on the voting registers. In Scotland, you can now vote in Scottish Parliament and local elections at the first election after your 16th birthday. In Wales you can now vote from 16 for the Welsh Assembly, and you will soon also be able to vote in local elections there. At the very least we must consider all these issues before we consider letting us vote in a general election which is not due until May 2025.
Finally, I refer, as other noble Lords have, to the excellent speech by the excellent former Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. I am sorry he is no longer in his place. In response to the gracious Speech on January 8 he spoke about the proposed commission on the constitution, democracy and rights and how it is supposed to examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. He said that
“it will have to sit for a very long time and cover a wide range of subjects, including the royal prerogative, judicial review, party funding, the voting system, the future of the union, the ECHR, the role of House of Lords, the freedom of the press, franchise for 16 year-olds and appointments to the judiciary, to mention but a few.”—[
I suggest that the proposal in this Bill should be considered together with those issues. I hope that in his reply to the debate the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will tell us more about how this commission will be established, its timescale and whether it will consider the issue in this Bill.
My Lords, three weeks ago, on
I wonder what those who oppose this Bill say about these judges? Do they say that it is merely an anomaly—possibly a regrettable anomaly, but do not worry about it? I suggest that these anomalies are symptomatic of the deeper illogicality of denying us the vote in general elections. In fact, not all Members are denied the vote; one must recollect that it is only temporal Peers. The Bishops continue to have a vote in general elections. Is that perhaps just another anomaly?
I do not pretend that this is a first-order issue. If and when we get the commission on the constitution that is promised—or do I mean threatened?—it will not be item one on the agenda. No doubt there will be an awful lot of issues, such as those the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, outlined, including the voting age, but this is no occasion to debate all those wider issues. We are here concerned to try to eliminate finally one absurd lingering anomaly. Of course, we retain our seats from one Parliament to another and, if not disqualified like our serving judges, we play some part in the legislative process, most usefully perhaps in the scrutiny and revision of Bills that come from the other place, but we all accept—nobody doubts—that the real power lies there. It has the democratic mandate and its policies, particularly the manifesto promises of an elected Government, rule, and rightly so. As has been pointed out, money Bills—taxation—are for it alone. The old adage “no taxation without representation” is waved aside as an historical accident.
What, then, are the arguments? The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, demolished those based on history and tradition. If ever it was justifiable to deny Members of this House the vote, it is impossible to see that it is so now. Can it really be regarded as a privilege of our membership here? I suggest that it is conspicuously elitist. It is implicitly suggested that we are just above all that sort of thing—that we are too important to need a vote and should let the democratic burden fall on lesser folk.
I suggest that, although, as I said, we are not dealing with a first-order issue today, there is a genuine point of principle here. Universal suffrage is the badge and symbol of a healthy democracy. It would help the public to recognise that fact if, finally, it were accepted that your Lordships should indeed have not only the benefit but the responsibility of the vote, thereby playing their part in the democratic process of electing the all-powerful other place.
My Lords, I cannot quite believe that we are having this debate and wasting Parliament’s time on such a monumentally inconsequential reform. However, I at least congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on producing what I think, in my 15 years in this House, is the most minor change to the statute book of any that I have yet been a party to. By my calculation, there are 794 Members of the House of Lords and the total electorate of the nation is 45,775,800. That means that the noble Lord’s Bill would add 0.00173% to the electorate. If we were able to give an hour or two of debate to every issue in the country that could make a 0.00173% improvement to the relevant public policy of the country, we would sit continuously. Maybe we would do some good but we certainly would not give so much scrutiny to this issue.
Indeed, I was trying to work out whether it would make any difference at all to any constituency. It is just possible that it might have done, although I fear perhaps not in Northamptonshire. However, I note that in Kensington, where many noble Lords live, there was a majority in the 2017 election of only 20. So maybe, if the Bill had become law, in one constituency in the nation in one election in history, it might have made a difference. Perhaps all those who are residents of Kensington should be allowed to cast their vote retrospectively in the 2017 election and we might have a different Member of Parliament. Otherwise, it will not make any difference. As Ernest Bevin famously said on another occasion:
“If you open that Pandora’s Box, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out”.
This Bill is not of any great consequence—I could not really care whether it passes. Maybe in Northamptonshire people stop the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, in the street and ask why this great scandal of him not having the vote is allowed to perpetuate. However, I admit to your Lordships that no one has ever said that to me. Far more often, they have said, “Why are you there at all?” What on earth is the argument for the noble Lord, for the noble Earl, Lord Howe—
Who forced my noble friend Lord Blunkett not to have a vote in a general election? He accepted the peerage and, by virtue of that, he does not have a vote. The reason that the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, does not have a vote is not that some great constitutional outrage is taking place but because he chose to become Lord Naseby. None of us is forced to be here, because we no longer have hereditary succession without the right not to accept the peerage. Everyone is here by choice. The argument made by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, whom we hold in great respect, and an argument that I assume the noble Earl will make again from the Front Bench—that in our democracy everyone should have a voice, which I argue noble Lords have by virtue of participation in this Chamber—is completely correct. If people want to vote for the other House, they should not come here. The idea that somehow there is a parallel with other Chambers in other countries is completely false, because this is the only second Chamber in the world, apart from China, in which people are here simply by virtue of who they are rather than by virtue of any representative credentials whatever.
As I said, I do not think that the Bill would make any difference one way or the other, apart from to the 794 of us here, but it raises principles. The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, said that incremental reform is a good thing. I am in favour of incremental reform that improves things. The reforms that he mentioned—the introduction of life Peers, for example—improved the working of this House significantly, but this Bill will not of itself improve anything at all. It deals with what is arguably an anomaly or arguably not an anomaly—it depends how you look at it—but it would do nothing whatever to improve the operation of the constitution. Indeed, it would do nothing to address any of the issues that were very well put by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, concerning the working of our democracy. He raised very timely issues such as the right to vote at the age of 16. We should spend the time of this House debating issues such as that, not minor issues of this kind.
As we are being forced to have this debate, perhaps I may make two points.
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, has tabled the Bill and we are doing him the justice of debating it, although, as I said, I think that it is entirely inconsequential. My first point concerns our contribution. We are all here by virtue of being individuals who have been given peerages. I speak as someone who wrote a book on the subject of the operation of the House of Lords in the late 19th century when it was under the almost dictatorial control of Lord Salisbury—the portrait of him addressing the House of Lords on the rejection of the Irish home rule Bill faces the Bishops’ Bar. One striking and extraordinary thing about the House of Lords as an institution is how little the operations of this House have changed to enable Peers to make an impact.
In most areas of public policy that matter to this country where we could have an impact, we have zero impact because we have no committee system. We have been here for about eight centuries and have had time to put this right but the only developed committee of this House is our European Union Committee. It is arguable whether over 45 years it made any difference to our membership of the European Union but, unfortunately, it has had no impact at all on most areas of public policy. I was a Minister for five years in this House—indeed, I was a Secretary of State for one year—but never in that entire time did I appear before a Select Committee of the House of Lords because there was no Select Committee of the House of Lords to appear before. I appeared monthly before the relevant Select Committee in the House of Commons, which conducted very good scrutiny, but the great potential in this place, where there were many experts in all fields, was completely neglected.
The way that we organise our business has changed very little since the 19th century. All the changes that have taken place in the House of Commons in the last 50 years have passed us by. We have no proper departmental Question Time; we still have the haphazard business dating back to the mid-19th century of individual Peers tabling Questions that are entirely random, depending on their interests; and there is no proper Question Time. The way that we consider Bills has not changed, including the extremely cumbersome Committee stage process, which is entirely unintelligible to people outside. In particular, the fact that it takes place in the Chamber is a very great occupation of the time of the Chamber that could be spent on other matters. The size of the House has increased but our procedures have not changed at all. We do not really have debates which, by the standards of the House of Commons, constitute debates. We simply divide whatever time there is, no matter the number of speakers, which often means that we have literally four or five minutes in which to speak. For the most part, we read speeches that are reported in Hansard, and there is almost no give and take in debates.
We have not undertaken all the incremental changes of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, referred to. We are a fossilised, atrophied institution that massively plays below its own weight and it needs reform, if we were capable of that. However, the bigger issue that I hope the noble Earl will tell us about is the wider context of reform, which might lead to the replacement of this House, as should surely happen in due course.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for pointing that out, but he has raised the issue of reform of the House of Lords. He presented this as an issue of reform, so it is perfectly reasonable for those of us who have other ideas about reform to raise those too.
Can the noble Earl tell us about the commission on the wider reform of the constitution? That could be an opportunity for substantial reforms of the House of Lords. When will the commission be set up? Will it be a cross-party commission? What will its terms of reference be? Over what timescale will it deliberate? Those are hugely important issues that I think should engage us, and anything that the noble Earl can tell us on that score will be very welcome.
I make one final point: I had not realised—it is fascinating—why the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, took his title. It was after the Battle of Naseby in 1645 between the parliamentarians and the royalists, which he said was a great advance in the move towards democracy. But of course it was Oliver Cromwell, in his very first act after the execution of Charles I, who abolished the House of Lords as dangerous and useless. Maybe it is time for us to look more widely at the legacy of the Civil War.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, although on this occasion, despite the rhetorical flourishes, I did not find myself in agreement with much of what he said.
Similarly, on the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I do not understand the argument along lines of: “Let’s not do this—it’s only incremental. It’s far better that we wait and do everything together.” Thank goodness we do not use that argument when looking at improvements in the health service. Thank goodness that argument did not prevail when Disraeli was bringing in an extension of votes. Thank goodness it did not prevail when votes for women was an issue. I just do not follow that argument. If I may say so, I regard it as “Lib Demery” at its worst. There are many times when the Liberal Democrats come up with very constructive proposals, but to say, “Let’s not do this because it does not achieve everything we want” is not an argument that I follow, or that people outside this place will understand.
I seek to do justice to my noble friend Lord Naseby: he has brought forward a very specific Bill, and we should focus on a very specific issue. The Bill does improve things. Yes, there is an argument of special pleading—how could there not be? I agree very much with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, that there are more important issues to address. There always will be, but that is surely not a reason for neglecting this issue and failing to do something constructive. There is no possible argument against extending the vote to this small group of people. It is not about making a difference to an election in Kensington or anywhere else; it is about the right of individuals to have a vote. Yes, it is true that we came here voluntarily, but that does not mean that we cannot have an opinion. I do not follow that argument; it does not make much sense. The question is, is it right to extend the vote to this small group of people? Of course it is.
We often hear the argument that we remain Members of the Houses of Parliament, so we should not have this vote. What is all that about? If we remain Members here, why do we have to be sworn in in every Parliament? That is something I have never understood. Even if we do remain Members, why should we not have a vote? In every other respect, we are just normal citizens. Many of us will know—it was probably something in our mothers’ milk—about the Chartists, who fought for the right to vote; about colonial rights; about extending the vote in Zimbabwe and South Africa; about votes for women.
I feel very strongly at election time that I am denied a vote. Yes, we campaign, but why on earth should we not have a vote as well? This is one small piece of legislation on which surely everyone can unite, and it can be passed into law. I do not understand why that cannot be. Yes, there will always be more important issues—I am sure that is true—but, laser-like, this hits one small group of people. We have votes elsewhere, so the argument that we should not vote because we are part of Parliament does not work. We have votes in local elections and referendums; we have votes in European elections—or used to. Why on earth should we not have this vote? It is a small reform that needs to be carried.
Yes, there will always be more important issues, but this is not about making a small difference in by-elections here or elections there; it is about a fundamental right that we as British people have always signalled, throughout the world, as being central. Whether it was the “wind of change” on the continent of Africa or elsewhere in the world; civil rights in the US; the sight of people queuing up to cast their vote when Obama was standing for President—this is something we should take pride in. It may seem a small thing, but it is fundamental. While it is denied, it represents a rustle through the reeds at Runnymede. For goodness’ sake, let us pass this small piece of legislation. I thank my noble friend Lord Naseby for bringing it forward.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on his persistence in bringing this legislation before us for the second time, and my noble friend Lord Blunkett for having previously tried to get it through. I commend the Library on its excellent briefing, which saved me doing a lot of homework. It is all there to quote from.
My Bill got a little further than some of the others; it got to the Commons. I will remind your Lordships of what happened, and I shall be critical of the procedures in the Commons; I think that I am allowed to do that. The normal practice is that, after the Bill is called, it takes one anonymous voice in the Commons to shout “Object”, and that kills it. I knew that this was liable to happen, so I wrote to all the Members of the Commons who had a reputation for shouting “Object”. I pointed out that my Bill was modest, did not affect them, had the support of this House and was well worth backing. I sat in the Gallery and a voice said, “Object”. It is quite undemocratic that one voice can do it, without one knowing who the MP is or what he or she represents. I was quite puzzled, but that is what killed it.
We have already had references to whether change should be incremental, piecemeal or done all in one go. My understanding, or slight suspicion—as I turn aggressively to the Lib Dem Benches—is that it was Nick Clegg who did not want any incremental change to the Lords; he wanted all or nothing. I cannot prove it, but I have some circumstantial evidence which might help. Certainly, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, when he wound up the debate here on behalf of the coalition, said:
“On Lords reform, we have to look at a package.”—[Official Report, 5/7/13; col. 1421.]
On that basis, he argued that the Government should resist this “small, partial proposal”. That is why I think the Lib Dems had a key part to play in stopping us having a vote in the elections that followed. As has already been said, we have had the right to vote in local elections, the European Parliament and referenda. The Lords Spiritual, of course, are allowed to vote—whether they exercise that right I do not know. Using the analogy of the United States, American senators can vote in elections for the House of Representatives. All these are good arguments for doing it.
My noble friend Lord Adonis spent 10 minutes—10 minutes—telling us that we are wasting our time. I agree with him that this is not the most important issue. I helped in about eight different elections in eight different constituencies. I was out almost every day in the last election, knocking on doors and getting my knuckles ripped off in letterboxes as I put leaflets through—all things that I am sure my noble friend did too. Did he?
Of course, nobody asked me about the right to vote in the Lords. There are no demonstrations in Parliament Square or people marching down Whitehall backing this Bill. They are not saying, “What do we Want? Votes for the Lords! When do we want them? Now!” Of course they are not, but quite a few issues are matters of principle. We do not have to stir up public demos; this just happens to be the right and proper thing to. I feel personally hurt when I tramp the streets trying to get other people to vote and then find myself denied that basic right. I find it personally painful every time there is an election. My own views do not matter much in the scheme of things, but that is how I feel. We pay our taxes. What we surely want to do by voting is to have some influence on who the Government will be. Once the Government are elected, we can influence legislation. I think we can do a better job, as my noble friend Lord Adonis suggested, but we can talk about that another day. It is just that I would like to have some influence on who the Government will be, not just on the legislation that follows, but I have no chance to do that at all. I can influence my local authority, and previously I could influence the European Parliament, but not the Government. Surely that is a basic and simple right, and it will happen sooner or later.
I actually feel sorry for Ministers who have to answer because, in my brief two or three years as a Minister, I found it difficult when my heart was not in the argument that I was putting forward.
That does happen, as my noble friend will know. It is quite difficult. There must be boxes in government departments saying yes or no, but then there is a little box that says, “Too difficult for us to deal with; we can’t think of any arguments to resist this”. This issue is in that category. I say to the noble Earl who is going to answer for the Government that nearly always, his heart is in it and he talks with total sincerity, but I doubt whether he will do that on this occasion.
My Lords, I make no apology for saying that I feel personally deprived. That is the feeling that I get from other noble Lords: we all feel personally deprived. I cannot say that I have had a burning desire to vote in every general election, but in the two most recent elections I wanted to vote because some very big issues were presented to us. However, we had no vote.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said that no one has asked him whether he has a vote. It is not that people come up to you and ask, but when you talk to them it comes out and they are absolutely taken aback that we have no vote. It is not that they think, “Oh well, you shouldn’t have a vote because you have a place in Parliament”; they ask, “Why do you not have a vote? Are you not capable of voting sensibly? Have you committed some terrible crime? Are you too mentally disabled to vote?” It is just ridiculous to think that we have to look back to previous centuries, to the Lords who have brought us to this stage. I totally support this little matter being looked at carefully.
There is really no logic to why a mere 900 people cannot vote. It is not as if we are 9 million, or even 9,000. We cannot change anything in the election. Most of us would probably vote for the sitting MP in our area—if that MP was good enough, that is, otherwise we would not—or along party lines. We all have our own views on who we would vote for. It is not as though 900 votes would go to one person and make a difference in their life. My sitting MP is Theresa May and, if I had the vote, I should certainly vote for her because she is extremely popular and a good constituency MP. That is how it goes. It is not as though we are going to change the world. Nine hundred people cannot change the world in any way. I do not know what we could do to change the world; if anyone has an idea, please let me know because I will join them.
Seriously speaking, to my way of thinking, it is completely illogical that we do not have a vote. A lot has been said about various Acts of Parliament from 100, 200 or 300 years ago. As has been said, if we had not made changes, where would we have been with those Acts? We would not have functioned at all. In any case, if life Peers had not come, there would be no House of Lords. I think it would have started by removing the life Peers and then removing the women. The best way to start would be with a new House of Lords.
I totally support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, which says that we should get the vote.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on securing a place so high up in the Private Members’ Bill ballot and on his Second Reading today. At the outset I should say that I support what the Bill proposes, though it is a very small measure, affecting, I think, only the 800 or so people who are Members of this House. As many noble Lords have said, there are always many more pressing matters that we could deal with in this House. All of us on different sides would say that the issues we discuss every day in the House are not always the ones that we want to discuss at that time.
Although I accept that we are in a privileged position in this House, that in itself is not an argument for denying us a vote in a general election. I am well aware that successive Governments of all colours have proposed this measure in the past. As we have learned today, Peers have been prevented from voting in general elections since 1699 by the passing of Sessional Orders, and since 1999 by the passing of the House of Lords Act.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Blunkett: I would have voted Labour in the election if I had had a vote, but I did not vote Labour because of course I was not allowed to. I will vote Labour in May when I vote for Sadiq Khan in the Mayor of London elections, and I look forward to that very much. However, to suggest that we somehow represent ourselves—we might hear that argument in a moment—and that that is a reason not to give us a vote, is a complete nonsense.
The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, made a number of important points. He demolished the arguments against this very well and I congratulate him on that. I agree particularly with the point about taxation. It is a fact that we here all pay our taxes but have no way of affecting that at all, and that is not right. He also made the point that just because something was deemed right in 1699, or on the other dates he mentioned, that is not a reason why it is right today. By that measure, we would not have life Peers today and I certainly would never have made it into this House from the Aylesbury estate at Elephant and Castle. Things need to change, and we should look to change them progressively.
It is a fair point that the 800 of us would probably have had no effect at all on the result of the general election, not even in one constituency. We may have had an effect in one in 2017, but I do not think there was a single constituency that would have been affected this time. Certainly, in the constituency that I live in, Lewisham Deptford, votes from me and my wife would have had no effect at all.
There are other important things which have huge implications and we should look at in the future. My noble friend Lord Adonis made some very valid points about things that need to change in how this Chamber operates and how we do things outside the Chamber. Those need to be looked at by the Government in the future.
Other issues were raised, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, which are very important but not in the scope of the Bill, so we cannot get them in. One point that he mentioned was people’s right to vote at the age of 16 or 17. In Scotland, people have the right to vote at that age in the Scottish Parliament and local authority elections and in referendums. People now have the right to vote in Welsh Assembly elections at that age and will shortly get it for local elections. The Scottish Parliament led the way in this and the Welsh Assembly followed. At some point, the Government will equalise this right to vote at the age of 16 across the whole of the United Kingdom. The sooner they do that, the better. It is much better if the Government get up and do it, rather than dragging their feet and avoiding the inevitable outcome—equalising the voting age at 16 across the whole of the United Kingdom.
The other matter—again, I believe this will not be in the scope of the Bill and so cannot be addressed—is the completeness and accuracy of the register. It is certainly not complete or accurate at present. This has been shown by many studies and research from several bodies. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred to the Electoral Commission, which found that up to 9.4 million people are either not registered to vote or are registered incorrectly, with major errors. This is wrong and the Government should put it right for the very reason of having an accurate and complete register.
Not being on the register affects many other things, particularly your credit rating, which then has a huge effect if you want to get finance. You might be refused finance altogether, or the more attractive deals might not be available to you, because one major way of identifying you is not there. It can also affect things such as being able to rent a property, because your identity cannot be verified effectively. This is very important.
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, said that the Government now have four years in power, which is one of the advantages, I suppose. The Government have quite a long period in which they are under no threat in the House of Commons and can do what they want. They should use that time to address a number of issues regarding elections and how we conduct ourselves in them. These include the right to vote, as I mentioned, fake news, democracy, the threat to our democracy from digital advances, the use of data, the role of the Electoral Commission, the threat to democracy from foreign Governments and many others. I hope the Government will use these four years to address those very important matters, which need to be looked at.
I have one more point. The other implication of the electoral register being wrong is that our boundaries are wrong. Whether the Government stay with 650 seats in the House of Commons or make it 600, if millions of people are not registered to vote, the boundaries are wrong. We need to get that right as well. Getting the boundaries right is very important and we need to get people properly to register to vote.
In conclusion, I suggest one possible reform to the work of this Chamber, which the noble Earl might take back to the Government Chief Whip, who is no longer in his place. We will give the Bill its Second Reading shortly and then move that it goes to a Committee of the whole House. That will carry on. We have 30 or 40 Private Members’ Bills, which will all go to Committees of the whole House. They will sit here and that is as far as most of them will ever go. Government Bills sometimes go to a Grand Committee. I have checked with the Clerk of the Parliaments and we could move this to a Grand Committee. If we did that, we would get more Bills through this House. There are many good Private Members’ Bills that do not challenge government policy but propose good, sensible things and, if we looked at that, we could get more Bills through this House and off to the other place. That is one of many reforms that we could make.
I leave my comments there and I wish the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, well.
My Lords, I hope my noble friend Lord Naseby will allow me to congratulate him on his success in the Private Members’ Bills ballot and on securing this opportunity to raise the question of the voting right of Peers. He deserves enormous credit for bringing this House back to an issue about which I know he feels strongly. As we have heard today, it is an issue with which a number of your Lordships are in considerable empathy.
As my noble friend made clear, the Bill seeks to change the current position, whereby Peers who are Members of this House are not entitled to vote at elections to the House of Commons. The arguments for that change have been succinctly laid out for us, by my noble friend and many other noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown.
There is, however, a long-standing rationale for the current position and I would like to draw on this in setting out the Government’s view of the matter. It is a view which I anticipate will come as no surprise to my noble friend or the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. Peers who are Members of this House are already able to represent themselves in Parliament. They do not, therefore, require others to represent their interests, unlike members of the general public. That is the function of Members of the House of Commons: to represent those who cannot be present in Parliament to represent themselves. I therefore have some reservations, if I can put it as mildly as that, about my noble friend’s proposal to extend the franchise to Members of this House. But I appreciate that any issue on democratic participation is worth raising and discussing, and I therefore repeat my thanks to him for giving us this opportunity.
The principle that bars Peers from voting in elections to the House of Commons dates back, as has been said, to a 1699 House of Commons Journal entry. I say to my noble friend Lord Sherbourne that that may be an ancient provision but its rationale applies with equal force today. It is based on the premise I have already set out: that Peers who are Members of this House are already able to adequately represent themselves in Parliament. Parliament of course consists of the three estates of the sovereign, the Lords and the Commons. The Lords sit in their own right. The Commons is elected to represent the general public in Parliament. I do not believe that there is a strong case—there are arguments—for Members of this House to be able to vote to elect representatives to the House of Commons, since they are able to sit in Parliament anyway as their own representatives. This principle has long been established in common law.
Of course the bar on the voting rights of Peers in regard to general elections is not absolute; it applies only to Peers who are Members of this House. Hereditary Peers who do not sit in this House are able to vote in general elections, as are noble Lords who have retired or otherwise left the House under the provisions of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. The basic principle has therefore been reinforced recently in statute, not simply in common law, as my noble friend reminded us. There is nothing to prevent noble Lords who sit in this House from being heard in the House of Commons. If a Member of this House wishes to pursue an issue as a constituent, such as in the example cited by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, there is nothing barring them from raising it with their local MP. Noble Lords can also use their position to ask Parliamentary Questions and introduce legislation.
To address briefly a point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, Supreme Court judges are able to vote in general elections. However, when those judges who are eligible to sit in the House of Lords return to the House, it is then that they are no longer able to vote in general elections. Bishops in your Lordships’ House can vote because they do not have permanent membership of it.
Can the Minister deal with the specific cases I raised of the President of the Supreme Court and the Lord Chief Justice, who are Members of this House but disqualified? They have no vote here and do not have a parliamentary vote. Would he not at least accept that that is a most regrettable anomaly? What he just said as to how other members of the courts have the parliamentary vote is true, but it does not apply if they are Members of this House.
The noble and learned Lord has raised a very interesting constitutional point. It is so interesting that I think it is appropriate for me to write to him about it, and copy that to noble Lords who have spoken. As noble Lords who have stood where I am standing will be aware, there is a point at which the brief in front of a Minister runs dry. That is the case in this instance, but I reserve the right to produce some arguments.
Another issue raised was about the well-worn principle that there should be no taxation without representation. My noble friend Lord Young’s comments on that issue in the debate on
The reason why Members of the House of Lords cannot vote on Finance Bills goes back a long way. The financial primacy of the Commons dates back many centuries and was formalised by two Commons resolutions in the late 17th century. The first, from 1671, states
“that in all aids given to the King by the Commons, the rate or tax ought not to be altered by the Lords.”
That is quoted in Erskine May. The second resolution is more detailed, from 1678—I would love to read it out, because the language is wonderful. Noble Lords suggested that this is an anomaly or even an affront, but none of it prevents this House debating money Bills or tabling debates on a financial matter.
As many noble Lords have pointed out, Peers who are Members of this House can also vote, where appropriate, in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly; in local government elections; in police and crime commissioner elections; and in both national and local referendums. The difference in those instances, I say in particular to my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, is that those are forums or offices in which Peers do not have an automatic right to represent themselves.
Noble Lords therefore have a say in local, devolved and national decision-making. Enfranchising noble Lords to vote in general elections would give Peers two ways of being represented in Parliament—it would give them double leverage as citizens. My noble friend Lord Sherbourne suggested that there is no possible downside to such a change. The Government believe, on the contrary, that conferring such an exceptional privilege cannot be right.
I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and others to say something about the commitment in the Conservative manifesto to review the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts in a constitution, democracy and rights commission. I wish I could provide him with further and better particulars on this commitment at this juncture, but, as I have said on two occasions recently, it is still too soon for me to do so. The scope of the commission will be announced in due course. However, I can tell him that the aim of the commission will be to develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. I hope I need not say, although I will, that we will continue to promote the UK’s interests and its values, including freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law. It is clear, I hope, to most noble Lords that careful consideration is needed on the composition and focus of the commission.
In light of all that I have said, I must end with a disappointing message to my noble friend. Even if the Government supported the principle behind this Bill, and I hope that I have set out clearly our reservations about it, they do not think that spending further parliamentary time on it is justified when other, more pressing electoral reforms—reforms which the Government are working hard to bring into being—have been so widely called for.
I have just been looking at the Companion. The Minister said that we do not need any representation because we represent ourselves in Parliament—I accept that we are Members of Parliament in a sense—but the Companion and the Code of Conduct talk about acting on personal honour and in the public interest rather than out of private interest. There may be some conflict there. I do not want the Minister to comment on that now, but perhaps he can have a look at it and respond to us in a letter.
My Lords, I would be glad to look at those passages in the Companion. I simply observe that they do not relate to our right to sit in this Parliament; they are much more about how we should behave when we come here.
My Lords, I want to place on the record my sincere thanks to all noble Lords who have contributed today. Nine of them have been in favour of the Bill, with one against—I exclude the Government from that analysis—so that is, roughly speaking, 700 Members of the House broadly in support, which is most encouraging. It is interesting that, quite rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett—who knows far more about the union world than I do—voiced the view that, if you suspend yourself just before a general election, you could then vote in it, then remove your suspension and come back again. If there are any anomalies, that is one of them.
I have listened to all colleagues who have spoken in support. I pay particular tribute to the analysis of the wind-up last time—I think that ship is now heavily holed and firmly sinking. So I thank my noble friend Lord Sherbourne. My noble friend Lord Brown has also raised something that has certainly caused damage on the ship. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that he may not have weighed it up; I do not know his history previously and whether he has been elected before or not. I certainly fought six elections and, when I was asked and given the privilege to come to this place, I was aware that I would lose my right to vote. I weighed up whether the greater responsibility was to come to take my place here in the upper House and to contribute the experience and knowledge that I have of certain aspects of life—was that more important than my having the vote in a general election? That is a personal decision, and one I took freely. It does not alter the fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said—along with the others of us who campaigned hard—that it is a bad feeling when you look around, particularly in the last few days of an election, and are encouraging everybody else to vote when you know that you cannot vote yourself.
I take heart from this morning. I now realise, as I have been here long enough—23 years—that when the Government, my Government, are facing difficulty, they ask my noble friend Lord Howe to come to the Front Bench. This is no second-rate wind-up; this is the most senior Member of the Government in the upper House having to turn out on a Friday to refute this particular Bill. He has already said from the Dispatch Box that he has to look at one or two things. I thank him for the trouble that he has taken this morning; I appreciate it very much. I also thank the Chief Whip for co-operating. I fervently hope that the Bill will have a Second Reading. I am slightly terrier-like—I think the House knows that—and I believe that we will succeed. I am only 83; I hope that we will get there before I am 90. Anyway, enough of that. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.