My Lords, this is the third time in four years that I have introduced a Bill to end the hereditary Peers by-elections. From my point of view, of course, there are certain advantages in reintroducing the same Bill: it saves all the bother of having to write a brand-new speech, although there will be some variance. I must say how nice it is to see so many hereditary Peers here to speak in the debate—I think it is 10 out of the total of 30 or so who are speaking. I gently remind them—the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is speaking first, so he can set the example—that it is quite clear from item 11(b) in the rules of conduct of this House that when Members have an interest, they should declare it before they speak. They quite clearly have an interest, so perhaps they can remember that.
On all the previous occasions, I have seen this Bill filibustered by a tiny number of Members of this House. I persist in trying to get it passed, knowing that there is overwhelming support in all parts of the Chamber—Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Cross Bench—for getting it on to the statute book. I include many hereditaries who have wished me luck this week in getting the Bill through, because—unlike a minority of their friends—they can see the sense in doing that.
Given that this process has been going on for so long, and that new Members have arrived and long-standing Members may not have caught up with recent developments, it may be helpful for me to take stock of this whole by-election saga: what has happened so far and what needs to be done. For our new listeners, here goes.
There are 92 hereditary Peers in this House, 90 of whom—when they die, retire or are expelled, though none have been—are replaced by a system of by-elections. The number 90 is constant, fixed in law by the 1999 House of Lords Act. Of the 90, 75 are elected on a party basis from the four groupings in this House. For a Conservative vacancy, the electorate consists of the Conservative hereditary Peers in the House; there are 46 at the moment. For a Cross-Bench vacancy, the electorate is 29; for Labour it is four and for the Liberal Democrats three. With such small numbers, the by-elections for these two parties are particularly absurd. There was a quite farcical by-election for a Liberal Democrat vacancy in April 2016, which many Members of the House will be familiar with, when there were more than twice as many candidates as voters—seven candidates and three voters. Six of the candidates received no votes at all and, with a 100% turnout, the winner got all three. The cost of the by-election was £100 for each vote counted, a total of £300. I would be quite happy to have done it for a mere £150. I can update the House on costs, which have escalated following a recent tendering process. The new prices for the by-elections are as follows: for a Conservative or Cross-Bench election, the cost to the House is £600; for a Labour or Liberal Democrat one, it is £570. So the Labour and Liberal Democrat hereditaries provide better value for money.
I invite any Peer in today’s debate who opposes my Bill to explain what it is that they most admire about an election with an electorate of three; but it gets worse. Earlier, I mentioned that 75 of the 90 are elected by party groups. The remaining 15 are elected by the whole House—811 of us. To explain, the 1999 Act reserved 15 hereditary places to enable those hereditary Peers who were Deputy Speakers at the time to remain in the House. Not surprisingly, however, after 20 years most of the original 15 are no longer Deputy Speakers and anyone who wins under one of these by-elections is not expected to be a Deputy Speaker. To summarise, in these Deputy Speaker by-elections, the departing Member does not have to be a Deputy Speaker and the person replacing him does not have to be one either: you know it makes sense.
There have been seven by-elections since the Second Reading of my previous Bill in September 2017. They are, in essence, parliamentary by-elections—they provide us with a new Member of Parliament—but not in terms that we would normally understand. Sadly, the media are not present to capture the drama of the count: “one”, “two”, “three”. The votes for each candidate are not announced by the returning officer and the winning candidate does not have the chance to thank his supporters. I think we all know why: the more light that shines on this system, the more ludicrous it is shown to be. I make no apology for saying, yet again, that in order to be a candidate for these by-elections, you have to be a hereditary Peer who has notified the Clerk of the Parliaments of your interest in standing for any vacancy that might arise. There are 216 names on the current register of hereditary Peers; 215 of them are men. It has been said so often that it loses its impact, but I will say it again: 215 of the 216 are men. Anyone opposing my Bill today needs to explain to the House why he or she thinks that is acceptable in the 21st century.
To summarise: there are 90 places in the House of Lords exclusively reserved, by law, for people who have inherited titles, and for which any vacancies are effectively for men only.
The main argument—I sometimes think almost the only argument from opponents of my Bill who want the by-elections to continue—is that during the discussions on the 1999 Act, the Government indicated that the 90 hereditaries would remain until there was comprehensive reform of the Lords. That argument carries no weight whatever, because of the absolutely fundamental principle of our constitution that no Government can bind their successors. If Governments could bind their successors, there would not be much point in holding general elections.
Another equally weak argument I have heard advanced and may hear again today is that because the hereditaries are not appointed by party leaders, they bring a uniquely independent perspective and judgment to our proceedings. Demonstrably, they do not. Apart from the Cross-Benchers, of course, the hereditaries are elected by the political parties and almost without exception they vote with their parties in any Divisions, just like the rest of us. So here we are, 21 years after the House of Lords Act, with a so-called temporary measure still in operation, while in the meantime, 37 new hereditary Peers have arrived in the House, all of them men, and the size of the House continues to grow.
That brings me to the Burns committee. As the House knows, the committee was established by the Lord Speaker in order to recommend ways to reduce the size of the House. The basic formula that the Burns committee recommended was to reduce the size gradually by ensuring that for every two departures, there should be one replacement. This put the hereditary Peers yet again in a privileged position because by law, whenever a vacancy occurs, a by-election has to take place to ensure that the number remains at 90. For the hereditaries it is one for one, while for the rest of us it is one for two. The effect is that as the overall numbers reduce, the proportion of hereditaries increases. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, will be speaking later in the debate and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
Most people would surely think that the by-election system is indefensible, but unfortunately it continues to be defended by a small number of Members of this House. I have tried to abolish these by-elections with two previous Private Member’s Bills, first in 2016 and then in 2017. On both occasions, the Bill ran out of time thanks to dozens of wrecking amendments, nearly all of them tabled by two Peers who I am pleased to see are in their places: the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. Whenever votes have taken place at previous Committee stages, the majorities in favour of the Bill have been huge. One particular amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, was defeated by 127 votes to two. Both my previous Bills were lost, not by votes or by argument, but by procedural tricks.
On one occasion, 50 wrecking amendments were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the day before the Committee stage was due to begin. Both previous Bills ended in what were frankly embarrassing and chaotic scenes on the Floor of the House, so I think it is time for these two noble Lords to reflect on their tactics. They are clearly opposed to this Bill in principle and if that is the case, they both know what they should do. They certainly ought to because they have both been here since they were 21 and have a combined length of service of 108 years. What they should do is vote against the Second Reading. That is the mechanism by which you defeat a Bill to which you are irreconcilably opposed, not by procedural games on the Floor of the House.
I will put another challenge to them and indeed to any other Peer who agrees with them: if you think that by-elections with three electors and seven candidates that are for men only are an important part of our constitution, do not talk among yourselves, as I know you do. Take your case to the public. Have an outreach programme to schools and colleges explaining the benefits of the men-only system. Of course, they will not do this because they know that they cannot defend the system. The public would be as incredulous about it as are the overwhelming majority of Members of this House. By the way, the Lords is not getting too much favourable coverage in the media at the moment. I am sorry to say that noble Lords defending the by-elections today are inevitably making matters worse.
That brings me, finally and crucially, to the position of the Government. For my two previous Bills, the Government, while not opposing them outright, have said that now is not the right time. In September 2016, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, said that it was not the right time because the Government were busy
“implementing the result of the EU referendum.”—[
In 2017, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who I am very pleased to see will be speaking later, thought that it was not the right time because the Government were waiting to hear the findings of the Burns committee. Both those reasons for delay are behind us.
So, I appeal to the Minister: we waited patiently for these two objections to be met, and now the way is clear for the Government to give the Bill a green light. I beg you, please do not say that now is not the right time because we are waiting for the report of the constitution, democracy and rights commission. The commission has not even been set up yet and we all know that it will take years, during which time we will have yet more of these wretched by-elections. By the way, I make one confident prediction about this commission, whatever its membership or terms of reference: whenever it comes up with its final report, it will not have a paragraph saying, “As we look to the future development of our democracy, we are unanimous in our belief in the importance of preserving the system of by-elections for hereditary Peers”.
I have brought this simple Bill back for a third time because I know that I have the overwhelming support of the House. I also know that, if any of the Bill’s opponents were to take the case for continuing with this system to the country, anywhere in the UK, they would be laughed out of court. These by-elections are indefensible, ludicrous, laughable, embarrassing, ridiculous, farcical and absurd. Those few Peers who continue to support them are defending the indefensible. The by-elections are way past their sell-by date. This Bill gets rid of them and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I return the compliments of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and welcome so many life Peers to this debate. Many of them were not here in 1998 when we discussed the amendments which introduced the by-elections at that time, which have lasted for so long. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, suggested that I might have an interest. I assure him that if there is a by-election upon my death, I will have no interest in it whatever.
I oppose the Bill for three main reasons. The first is the implication of the Bill that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, did not mention. If this Bill is passed, it creates a wholly appointed House, with no checks or balances on who comes here. It is against the policy of all the main parties, and has been over the course of the past 20 years, to have a wholly appointed House. As a result of that, the second reason that I oppose the Bill is that the House of Lords Appointment Commission, excellent and extremely well run though it might be, is not a creature of statute—quite the opposite. It was created on the whim of a past Prime Minister. It can be removed tomorrow or next week. It has very few powers—in fact I think that it has no powers at all—and can judge applications to the House of Lords only on the basis of propriety.
The noble Lord simply did not mention what would happen and the way that new people would become Members of the House. I very much hope that he will accept an amendment to create an independent and statutory House of Lords appointments commission that can vet Members of this House properly, if, as he and many of his colleagues would like to see, we are to have a wholly appointed House. Having spent a lifetime on elections, I would have thought that they had had enough of them. Those of us who have been elected here rather like them.
The third reason is that it does not tackle some of the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, mentioned. There is nothing on the size of the House and there is nothing on age; there is nothing on so many of the real issues that are alive in the public mind. Just over 20 years ago, we reduced the size of this House by nearly 50%. There is no reason why, by the end of this year, we could not reduce this House down to 600 Members, as at the beginning of this century. It could be done relatively quickly using exactly the same method. This Bill could be a very effective vehicle for providing that.
I also think that a serious constitutional Bill which amends how people arrive in this House should not be a Private Member’s Bill; it should be a government Bill. I do not know, but I expect it is extremely unlikely that the Government will support the Bill, and therefore it has no prospect of becoming law in this Session. I hope the noble Lord will think again, or accept some of the amendments that are put down.
I want to spend a moment or two thinking about why we are still here, after 21 years, and remind the House of the origin of this problem. Liberal Democrats were not involved in the Labour-Conservative Front Bench stitch-up in 1999. The so-called Weatherill amendment which created these by-elections was a purely temporary measure to make some progress with the then Government’s plans to reduce the size of the Lords by taking out the majority of hereditary Peers.
At that time, my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, on our behalf, made absolutely clear that we could go along with the proposal only along the lines of the 1911 declaration that there would be, in due course, further and substantial reform. Since then, I have been involved in all the efforts to secure reform on that basis, first with the Joint Committee which failed to secure agreement between the two Houses, then I convened a cross-party group of MPs with Messrs Clarke, Cook, Wright and Young to publish proposals in 2003, and then, with many others, I fed into the cross-party process led by Jack Straw which published the compromise proposals in the Labour Government’s 2008 White Paper. In turn, that package was largely adopted by the coalition Government for their reform Bill in 2011, which was exhaustively scrutinised by a Joint Committee and emerged improved but not undermined, despite the best efforts of a minority of Peers on both sides of this House.
The coalition Cabinet, of which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was a very distinguished and active member on this issue, gave the revised Bill its full support. That Bill received a huge majority for its Second Reading in the Commons in July 2012: 338, made up of a clear majority of Conservative MPs, an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs and unanimous support from the Liberal Democrats.
That Bill was then the victim of a squalid party game, with the Labour leadership cosying up with the Tory reactionary rebels to deny the Government any programme Motion for its further examination. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who then played a crucial role in the Commons, may be able to cast further light on what exactly prevented reform.
My point is that successive election manifestos from all the major parties have promised to make good that 1999 commitment to fulfil the promise of 1911 to proceed with substantial reform. Had they made good their promises, and stuck to their principles in 2012, there would be no need for the Bill today.
However, as has already been pointed out, we all know that the immediate prospect of government legislation to return to the agreed 2012 package to drag the House into the 21st century is remote indeed. Further, as has already been said, the artificial distortion of the representation in the House caused by by-elections—when we should be doing everything we can to reduce our overall size, along the lines of the Burns report—adds urgency to this problem.
So much has already been said; it will be said again today. Substantial majorities here have regularly indicated their desire to make progress. Surely the time has come to pass this Bill and to challenge Members in the other place to live up to their promises too.
My Lords, I am speaking in this debate because I am asked from time to time whether the reform in this Bill would help to meet the proposals made by the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House. I chair that committee, which continues to meet. We met again this week to review our position on this Bill. As a committee, we agreed that, since the Lord Speaker asked us to come up with non-legislative solutions, it is not within our remit to take an official position on the Bill. However, I can say that we as individuals do not oppose the Bill and some of us, including myself, are in favour of it.
For me, the decisive issue is that it is unreasonable that some positions in this House should be filled by candidates from such a narrow hereditary group. We accept that some talented people have joined the House through this route, but they could have come through the normal processes of party recommendations and HOLAC appointments. We acknowledge that the effect of the Bill is small and does not address wider questions about the future of this House, but it follows in the footsteps of the 2014 and 2015 Private Members’ Bills that made small but crucial improvements to the House. In my view, this Bill falls into that category.
Last autumn, the figures for appointments and leavers were not too far away from the committee’s targets in aggregate, even though the balance between the parties strayed somewhat from our suggestion. But now, it appears that any restraint seems to be at risk. The change in Prime Minister produced a resignation list and we understand that, following the early general election, a dissolution list is forthcoming. Taken together, they are in danger of undoing all the progress that was being made on reducing the size of the House.
Relevant to this Bill, the long-term solution to our problem of size is hindered, as was said, by the continued existence of hereditary by-elections. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out, hereditary Peers are not subject to the two-out, one-in formula, which the committee argued should guide the reduction in the size of the House. They are replaced one-for-one. Secondly, over the longer term, by-elections inhibit the rebalancing of the House; as political trends change, the allocation of the hereditary spaces in the House between the parties is set in stone. As we warned in our first report, by-elections use up some of the Conservative and Cross-Bench notional allocation of appointments, which could otherwise go to life Peers. I note that, during the last short Parliament, between 2017 and 2019, there were only three HOLAC appointments to the Cross Benches, yet there were three by-election appointments to the Cross Benches during the same period.
Amid this renewed concern about the size of the House, I close by emphasising that the most important question for me is not how quickly we reach our target size but how we stop it constantly growing, while also refreshing and rebalancing the membership. The underlying problem is that life membership means that only about 20 to 25 of our Members leave each year. The committee suggested non-renewable terms of 15 years for new Members to provide more scope for appointments. Without changes like this, it will be impossible to refresh and rebalance the membership as political trends change without seeing the size of the House creeping ever closer to the 1,000 Members that we mentioned in our report.
Our committee will continue to seek progress in this area and scrutinise the performance of the groups towards the departure targets. Meanwhile, my position, along with that of many others, is that we should welcome this albeit minor Bill and the valuable improvements contained within it.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Grocott on his tenacity and humour. I shall try to be brief because this is, in the old joke, déjà vu all over again. I have spoken on the previous attempts to bring about this change and heard the same arguments; they stand up just as they did on previous occasions. On the endearing desire of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to extend the Bill so that it brings about greater changes, my noble friend has brought a very simple Bill precisely because the more complex this gets, the less likely it is to pass and the more controversy it would create. We understand why the noble Lord and those supporting him would wish to complicate the matter rather than keeping it as simple as possible. The question is very simple: is the present system acceptable or defendable? Clearly, as my noble friend spelled out, it is not.
I accept entirely that, unlike most of the Conservative Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, belongs to a party that has always wanted to abolish the House of Lords as it is at the moment and replace it with a senate. We have to accept that he is right that they were not involved in the “stitch-up”—to use his words—in 1999. Instead, they waited until they were truly stitched up in 2010 by joining the coalition. I was proud to vote against the Second Reading of the Clegg Bill in the other place and see the timetable Motion defeated, because that Bill was a nonsense. It was a constitutional outrage and did not stand up to either intellectual or practical scrutiny.
Today, I support the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on the points he made and reinforce what my noble friend Lord Grocott said about the one-out, one-in policy and the absurdity of the situation. I also want to reinforce one other point. I thank the Lord Speaker for his letter in the Times on Wednesday in relation to the restoration and renewal programme and decant. With both the Burns proposals and the decant, a large number of people would take the opportunity to retire because of the disruption, and it would be the Conservative Benches which would face the greatest problem in retaining the 90 hereditary Peers and the present system of by-elections, because people would leave indiscriminately—it would fall where it fell. Because of the large and disproportionate number of hereditary Peers compared with life Peers on the Conservative Benches, those Benches would be disproportionately inconvenienced at the very least.
I put it seriously to the Government that they will get themselves in a real mess if they do not accept this Bill and the way in which it very carefully and over time reduces the disparity and disproportionality of those who come here because their grandparents or great-grandparents were responsible for supporting a particular king or queen at a moment in time, or were granted land and privileges. We have only the privilege of being here for life and I am proud of that.
My Lords, I start by recognising that there is of course room for more than one perspective and view on this matter, particularly against the background of the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, about which we have just heard.
I am not aware of the interest that the noble Lord wishes me to declare, but I have been here a long time. That said, the problem which the Bill addresses relates to the number of Members in the House, which the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has been working on. On a single day back in 1999, 700 hereditary Peers had to leave the House. Since then, their numbers have remained firmly fixed. Meanwhile, the number of life Peers has significantly increased.
Be that as it may, the essence of the case against this Bill relates to the undertaking given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, then the Lord Chancellor, who gave a clear undertaking that the position of the 92 hereditary Peers provided for in the 1999 Act would remain untouched until, in his words, House of Lords reform was complete. No time limit was given to that undertaking. In 2012, as we have already heard, the coalition Government introduced in the other place a comprehensive House of Lords reform Bill creating a mostly elected House of Lords, which sadly never emerged. I would not have opposed that Bill in principle, although there were a few questions relating, for example, to the number of Bishops who ought to remain.
I have referred to the present number of life Peers. I would not in principle oppose legislation as described by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, to provide for a statutory independent committee to select new life Peers rather than leaving it in the hands of the Prime Minister as at present. I could of course be persuaded that the hereditary Peers should then leave. In the meantime, I believe that the present arrangement should remain in place and I therefore hope that this Bill will not reach the statute book.
On one detailed point, the Bill as now proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, does not include provision for the two statutory hereditary Peers, namely the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal, to which he has previously agreed, as I recall. I hope that that can be corrected if the Bill is to proceed.
I remain opposed to piecemeal reform and therefore to this Bill. I hope that comprehensive reform can come to the House in due course, which I shall not oppose. In the meantime, let us leave the hereditary Peers as they are.
Before the timer starts on the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, could we clarify what the Companion says about an interest? My understanding is that, if a child, cousin, niece or nephew of mine were to benefit from a Bill, I would be obliged to declare an interest. I assume, therefore, that anyone whose relative—whether second cousin or third nephew—would benefit from this Bill should declare that as an interest.
My Lords, that would depend on whether they were going to put their names forward to stand. I do not have a clue what my successor will do, so I do not declare an interest. I would be dead and well out of it, thank goodness.
My first happy duty is to wish a happy birthday to the noble Lord, Lord Burns; I regret that he has to spend his birthday debating this Bill yet again. This is not the same Bill that we discussed on Report the last time it was before us. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott—inadvertently, I am sure—has not included the amendment of mine that he accepted. I am sure he will wish to do that at a later stage and we will get back to the Bill that we were properly discussing.
This is a constitutionally important Bill because it fundamentally changes the nature of our constitution. It makes this House a totally appointed Chamber—appointed at the whim of the Prime Minister. The House of Commons has never voted for that—quite the reverse. It has voted for an elected Chamber. It is only this House that has voted to remain a totally appointed Chamber.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his typically funny, witty and amusing speech, was of course his usual inaccurate and incomplete self.
He said that I was irreconcilably opposed to the Bill. I am not at all. He mentioned the Burns report. I have stated on the Floor during our debates that, once the Burns report is implemented, I will fully support the Bill. I added that I agree that the number of hereditary Peers should reduce, to reflect where we are now rather than go back to the number in 1999 before the life Peers were appointed—when, of course, it was a higher proportion. So, to say that I am irreconcilably opposed is quite wrong. In fact, he and I agree on the principle of the Bill. I do not want to see hereditary Peers in this Chamber. That is where the noble Lord and I diverge. He does not want to see hereditary Peers in the Chamber because he wants a totally appointed Chamber—a nice cabal, a resting home for former MPs, which 30% of this House are. He wants a nice, cosy place. I want an elected second Chamber, and surely that is what we should have.
I supported the Liberals’ Bill, brought forward by the Government they joined from 2010 to 2015. Sadly, there are three great legacies of the Liberals’ involvement in government: one is their U-turn on student loans; the second is that too many Liberal life Peers were appointed; and the third is that they ducked out of changing the constitution when they had the perfect chance to do so and would have got a lot of support for it. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was perfectly right to say that Labour played a part in that, and due credit must be given to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for his role in influencing Labour in that. It is clear that the noble Lord does not want transparency: he wants this House to carry on in its old muddled, unelected way.
There are so many more important issues, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde mentioned, that the press has picked up on. Of course the press reports were inaccurate—they were bound to be; they normally are with regard to this House—but there was a fundamental element of truth in them that should be picked up on. This House needs to address far more than the question before us again.
My Lords, this House is often under attack and now is no exception. There is not much that we can do in the way of self-reform to improve our image and reputation, but the Bill provides a real opportunity for just that. Let us show by passing it that we at least are trying to modernise, reform and improve our House. If others then choose to thwart our efforts, that will be seen to be where the blame lies, not with us. That, I suggest, is the answer to those who say that this should be a government Bill.
Before turning to what seems the most basic unanswerable argument in favour of the Bill, I shall repeat what I have said on other occasions. I am one of those who greatly admire our existing hereditaries. Man for man, pace my noble friend Lady Mar, who is of course the only female hereditary Peer, they contribute at least as much as those, like me, who are appointed here. They undoubtedly match us in commitment, expertise and independence of mind and spirit. But, and this is the big but, the main point is that the fundamental objection to continuing to replace them is that the whole system amounts to nothing short of what I, and maybe others, have called an assisted places scheme. It is a scheme whereby a privileged class—namely, the group of 200 or so hereditary prospective candidates—are candidates for 90 places when they fall free. Indeed, they are to be elected by a further privileged class, generally the hereditaries already here, or usually just those few in the group where a vacancy arises. I suggest that this objection is altogether more fundamental than, and indeed subsumes, certain other sound objections to the scheme, which in addition is manifestly both racist and sexist. In short, this system favours a very tiny privileged—as we presume, well-born—group within an overall population of millions who would otherwise be available as candidates. Why should these many others not be at least as good candidates for these places?
To those such as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who suggest that at least this scheme ensures that we are not a wholly appointed House, and the fact that 90 are elected provides us with a certain democratic mandate, I say simply: come off it. Is it really to be suggested that those who object to our having no democratic legitimacy—in short, who want an all-elected Chamber—will say, “Oh well, now that you tell us and we understand that you have 90 elected Members who are hereditaries, that’s fine”? Surely that is nonsense.
There is another central objection: that it runs counter to much of the underlying thinking in the report of my noble friend Lord Burns. However, those matters have been dealt with and I shall not return to them. Of course, if it continues it will narrow the choice available to the party leaders of the relevant groups as to who they can appoint on the two-out, one-in—or, eventually, one-out, one-in—system. It is therefore damaging to the party leaders, too.
I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I am slightly confused; does he think that hereditary Peers should come here automatically, like Supreme Court judges? The noble Countess, Lady Mar, is the single hereditary Peeress and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is the single lady Supreme Court judge. Is that what he is suggesting?
I am not suggesting anything of the sort. Former Supreme Court justices are not routinely appointed here; they are merely, just as the rest of the population is and as the hereditaries should be, candidates for appointment. That is how it should work.
My Lords, with so many speakers I hesitated to speak at this Second Reading, but in the 2016-17 Session and the 2017-19 Session I was in a position to sit through much of the debate on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. This Bill closely resembles it, but I thank him for the courteous way in which he worked to ensure that the debate on the Bill and the previous Bills, on such a passionate subject, was done in a spirit of co-operation, which I know he has extended to my successor as Chief Whip.
I think the House will wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on his success in coming so close to the top of the ballot on three occasions. With such good fortune, he should be at Cheltenham, not here today. I expect he will say that the gods are shining on a righteous cause and his Bill addresses an important aspect of making this House fit for purpose. I am not inclined to disagree with that point, but his Bill addresses only one aspect of reforming this House. As someone who cares very much about this place, I do not want to see bits and pieces change. I believe that our role as a scrutinising House that can lend its experience to government is more important than ever, particularly as the Government now enjoy a substantial majority in another place.
Hereditary Peers are found in all corners of this House, as has been pointed out. It will not have escaped noble Lords’ notice that my successor as Government Chief Whip is a hereditary Peer. He joins my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who will be replying to this debate, and the Deputy Chief Whip. Hereditary Peers have always played an important part on these Benches, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my noble friend Lord Bethell, who is very important in bringing news of the virus outbreak to the House, is a hereditary Peer, as is my noble friend Lord Younger. Wherever we look, we find hereditary Peers. As has been pointed out, the Cross Benches also make a great contribution to this House.
While it is difficult to justify the presence of hereditary Peers in this House, they continue to play an important part in its character. We may need all the building blocks we have, if we are to make this House constitutionally effective. It is not just the membership of hereditary Peers that needs to be considered in the changes we shall have to make.
It is a pleasure to follow my former boss my noble friend Lord Taylor, who in previous Parliaments generously allowed extra time for discussion on such a Bill. I believe I am the only noble Lord, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who has sat through every single minute of previous discussions of his Bills in the past four and a half years. This was not a voluntary decision; I did so in my capacity as government spokesman on the Bill, a job discharged today by my noble friend Lord Howe, clutching a folder that bears my fingerprints. But I am now liberated to express my own view, rather than the Government’s—and when I did that, I confess to stretching to its limits collective ministerial responsibility by toning down some of the passages hostile to the Bill in my brief.
First, to those who criticise the Government for not being more supportive of the Bill, I refer to Hansard of
“I do not believe it can be argued that the Bill could be considered to meet the terms of that pledge.”—[Official Report, 30/11/07; col. 1479.]
It would be tactless for me to say that the Government Chief Whip at that time, who would have had a decisive say on the Government’s attitude to the Bill, was none other than the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Having just wound him up, I support his Bill but the decision is a balanced one. It is unsurprising that Conservative Peers attach more weight to the pledge given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, than Labour Peers. It was a commitment sought by our former leader, Viscount Cranborne, and reluctantly conceded via the Weatherill amendment by the then Labour Government. It actually means more to us than it did to them and we have more to lose.
Secondly, by-elections in my party are unlike by-elections in the other parties, particularly the Lib Dems, which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, likes to use to reinforce his case. The recent Lib Dem by-election was indeed something straight from “Iolanthe” but in my party’s case the by-elections are serious, with many strong candidates. Those who win tend to do more heavy lifting in your Lordships’ House than the life Peers—a point made by my noble friend Lord Taylor. As with the original 92, these are noble Lords who want to be here to work and they have to convince an electorate that they will do so.
However, I find the reasons the other way more compelling. The Irvine pledge was meant to be a short-term fix before the second stage of Lords reform. I remember being reassured, when I was shadow leader in the other place, that the first round of elections for a reformed second Chamber would take place by 2001. What was meant to be a short-term fix has become a long-term anomaly. The position is also clearly discriminatory against women and has no place in a modern legislature. Finally, I believe the House does itself no favours by using ingenious methods to obstruct the clear will of the majority. I was frankly embarrassed at having to listen to some of the arguments adduced by my noble friends and, in fairness to them, I suspect that they were embarrassed as well. We should have no more delaying tactics this time; the Bill has been examined ad nauseam. This is an incremental reform, like other Private Members’ Bills, which does not preclude other reforms should the time come for them. I support the Bill, and we should get on with it.
My Lords, it is a great honour to follow my noble friend Lord Young but, alas, on this issue, I am afraid that I take a different view. I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has again seen fit to introduce his petty little Bill, even though he did it in a most charming and entertaining way. It is clear that he has an obsession with this matter and his dogged determination to bring it up again and again does the reputation of your Lordships’ House no good, especially at this time, when the public think we should be discussing other matters. While I have great respect for the noble Lord and admire his courage in sometimes adopting a position at odds with the official position of his party, I believe that on this issue he is beginning to sound like an old vinyl gramophone record with the needle stuck in the groove.
I am still opposed to the Bill because it seeks to unpick the basis on which your Lordships’ House accepted the 1999 reforms. My noble friend Lord Salisbury said at the time:
“I shall once again trespass on your Lordships’ patience by reminding the House of what I saw as the purpose of the agreement I came to with the noble and learned Lord and the Prime Minister. The purpose was to try to pour some sand into the Government’s shoe. It would be an irritation to them. Those of us who suspected—no doubt entirely wrongly—that the Government all along wanted to stick at a stage one nominated House saw it as an incentive to ensure that that intention never materialised.”—[Official Report, 22/6/1999; cols. 789-90.]
The danger that the House will stick at a stage 1 nominated House is as great today as it was in 1999. The minor changes to the methods of appointment to your Lordships’ House since 1999 do not in any way even begin to represent what stage 2 was intended to mean; neither do they in any way resemble what was meant in 1911 by
“a Second Chamber constituted on a popular … basis.”
I do not want to argue the merits of the hereditary system or to say that if we were inventing a new second Chamber, we would design a House as currently constituted. I do not accept that it was clearly understood in 1999 that 92 hereditary Peers would be allowed to wither on the vine. I thought it most likely that no agreement on stage 2 would be quickly forthcoming and therefore it was likely that 92 hereditaries would continue to sit for some considerable time.
My objection to the Bill is simply because it breaches the conditions upon which the hereditary Peers—who enjoy no more or less democratic legitimacy than the life Peers—accepted the stage 1 reform carried out in 1999. All your Lordships are entirely lacking in democratic legitimacy. That does not mean that your Lordships’ House lacks all legitimacy. Legitimacy derives from other concepts also, including history and geography. The democratic legitimacy in another place rightly and naturally gives it the right to decide what shall be the law of the land.
It is of course true that the by-election procedures, especially in respect of Labour and Liberal Democrat vacancies, may seem to many ridiculous. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the Government should move quickly to propose a change to the Standing Orders which would enfranchise all life Peers so that they would also be entitled to vote in future by-elections for vacancies in their respective party blocs?
My Lords, we have a paradox here. I have been here since before the Lords reform Act was passed, so I was present at the creation of this anomaly. We have hereditary Peers arguing for democracy—for elected Peers—and we, the life Peers, are defending appointed Peers. That is an anomalous situation, so perhaps one of the hereditary Peers might table an amendment to my noble friend’s Bill to propose that, instead of what he proposes, we should remove all appointed life Peers. We would then have only 92 popularly elected Peers, which would solve the problem of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, at one stroke; instead of having 800 Peers, we will have only 92. That is perhaps an amendment I would vote for.
However, having been here at that time, I always thought that we were removing 750 hereditary Peers and keeping 90, but that the electorate in future replacement would remain exactly those 750 individuals who were alive then. As that electorate dwindles, nobody should be qualified to run for a vacancy. Those 750 were originally the electorate; if they have passed away, the election passes away. No child of an original hereditary Peer should be qualified to either vote or run in these by-elections. That is the original conservative spirit of this arrangement.
I hope that, among the 50 or 60 amendments that will be proposed by the side opposite, the two I propose will be adopted—first, that all appointed Peers are to be abolished or removed; and, secondly, that by-elections should be only from the survivors of the original 750 and nobody else.
My Lords, I am delighted to participate in today’s debate and mention my interest as a hereditary Peer, elevated by way of an election of the whole House a little over 12 months ago. It will not be much of a surprise that I do not support the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I am very pleased that my noble friend Lord Howe will preside over this debate. I hope he does not find the experience as torturous as that of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. The Deputy Leader has served for almost 30 years continuously on the Front Benches—an admirable record. He too happens to be a hereditary Peer.
As we know, the House of Lords Act 1999, which introduced the hereditary by-elections, was always intended to be a short-term measure prior to the adoption of an elected or partially elected House. The system of by-elections for the 92 Peers would remain in situ pending overall reform. One unfortunate consequence of this Bill is that the act of eliminating the by-elections would remove the incentive for the overall substantive reform that was the Act’s primary intention.
The House of Lords represents a laudable amalgam of society, albeit at the highest level: representatives from industry, the professions, the Church, the financial and legal sectors and the arts—the best that this country has to offer. The hereditary Peers bring something different to the party—among other things, the maintenance of heritage and the upholding of duty and historical responsibilities not necessarily of their choosing.
Across the House, hereditaries punch above their weight—a point illustrated by my noble friend Lord Taylor and by their significant representation on the Government Front Bench. I believe their presence adds a dimension to the House that is invaluable and unique to this country.
By approving this Bill, we would head down the road towards a House that is all appointed, and by stealth. Such a Chamber runs the risk of overflowing with former politicians, ex-political staff, party donors and cronies. The public arguably have more issues with such political patronage than with the continuation of these by-elections. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who I notice is not in the Chamber today but often has pertinent things to say about this, made a convincing point in Committee on a similar Bill last year, when he said that appointed Peers and hereditaries are all “equally illegitimate”. The validity of this comment has recently been emphasised by the lengthy time currently being taken by the Appointments Commission to confirm the suitability of the new batch of appointed Peers. This does little to improve the legitimacy of the House.
I believe that this proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is playing to the wrong gallery. The public at large do not support Peers spending considerable time and money debating this. They are looking for more fundamental measures: legislation that would implement the intentions of the 1999 Act and increase the legitimacy and reduce the size of the House. I certainly support comprehensive reform, whereby we move towards a fully elected House. I do not accept a fully appointed House. This Bill is not an appropriate vehicle for reform and does not have my support.
We are told that this Bill is a simple tidying-up measure, part of the process of modernising the House. That is largely what my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham suggested. It is nothing of the kind. The Bill is simply unfinished business for old Labour.
When your Lordships look at the Bill, the first question we should ask is: what problem is solved by it? What injustice is it seeking to correct? The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that by-elections of hereditary Peers are an embarrassment, among other things. I must say I find it hard to believe that a doughty old warrior like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—who is respected and held in great affection across this House—is quite so easily embarrassed. What I think is an embarrassment is the presence in this House of 94 Liberal Democrat Peers, which is an indefensible constitutional outrage, a disproportionate representation in this House of a party that has been overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate.
The percentage of Liberal Democrat Peers in this House is precisely the same as our last election result. If we had proportionality in the House of Commons, we would have rather more Members there too.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for clarifying that, but it goes beyond that. There is no getting away from the fact that his party has been rejected by the electorate.
I am becoming bored by the facile comparison of this House with the Chinese National People’s Congress, with its membership of almost 3,000. The problem with the National People’s Congress is not its size, any more than that is the problem with this House. The problem with the National People’s Congress is that it is an assembly of party appointees, reflecting the views of the establishment of the day, and that is increasingly what is happening here. This House of Lords is the only second Chamber in the world that is being used as a retirement home for Members of its first Chamber, whose seats are needed by leaders’ acolytes who have little to contribute to this House.
My noble friend Lord Cormack, who I was going to say I am delighted to see in his place, but who has obviously slipped out for technical reasons, frequently reminds us—indeed, he never tires of telling us—that this is a House of experts. The primary activity of this House is not expertise in obscure subjects—fascinating although that is for all of us to listen to—it is the scrutiny and revision of legislation. Members of the House of Commons do minimal scrutiny of legislation so acquire little expertise in that particular skill. What the House of Commons does do is adversarial party-political banter, an activity increasingly despised by the electorate and a new and unwelcome feature of your Lordships’ House, but which Members who make the trip from the green to the red carpet bring with them, to the frustration of the rest of us.
The supporters of the Bill would have us believe that it is a small measure, an incremental and sensible reform, but on the Clapham omnibus and in the newspapers, there is no clamour about hereditary Peers’ by-elections. There is increasing outrage at the possibility of appointments of candidates such as John Bercow and Tom Watson, who by any reasonable measure should not even be considered.
The deal done in 1999, which has been referred to so many times this morning and will be referred to again, was that hereditary Peers would remain here until substantive reform took place. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, argues that, although no such reform has taken place, after 21 years, it is time to dispense with that deal for no substantive reason except the passage of time. Back then, it was argued that the House of Lords was working reasonably well: “It wasn’t broke: why fix it?”. Now, after the constitutional and political chaos of the past year, no one could reasonably argue that this House is working well. Why, therefore, at this stage, enact a measure of no practical value that removes the incentive for a larger and now much-needed reform which I think most people would support?
My Lords, there are two possible approaches to reform of any of our institutions. One is to ask: does it work in practice? The other is to ask: does it work in theory? The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for whom I have enormous respect, and other supporters of the Bill, tend to take the theoretical approach. They argue that the hereditary element of your Lordships’ House cannot be justified on abstract principles of democracy, equality, fairness, gender balance or whatever. So it must go, and abolishing by-elections will mean that the hereditary element will duly wither away. However, the whole of your Lordships’ House, indeed of our whole constitution, from monarchy to common law, falls foul of those abstract principles and, by the same logic, they too would have to be replaced.
Our constitution was never designed according to abstract principles. It is the product of human action, not design—“Like Topsy It Just Growed”. It grew by trial and error; it incorporates the wisdom of experience; what survives has done so because it works. The test we should apply before reforming our institutions should always be: does it work in practice? If it ain’t broke, don’t mend it. If there are practical problems then focus on them, taking care not to damage what works well. Long before I came here, I discovered that this House does work well in practice and the hereditary element plays a valuable part in making it do so. This is a revising Chamber; its sole power is to make the other place think again. As a Minister, it often asked me to think again, by amending legislation that I sent here. My first response was always: “How dare they?”, but I cannot recall a single occasion on which I did not accept, at least in spirit, the suggestions incorporated in those amendments.
I also found that the best Ministers assigned to my department were hereditaries; it turned out that way. They were often younger than life Peers, since the Grim Reaper had taken their parent early, but they were well prepared, having known all their lives that they might find themselves here one day. They often brought a more balanced approach than those who reach here after climbing the greasy pole of politics or some other profession. It would be bizarre if those who rail against the unelected nature of this place were to abolish the sole elected element within it. It would be perverse if noble Lords who owe their place to patronage were to remove the only Members of this House who are beholden to no one for being here. There may be a case for widening the franchise in the by-elections to all Members of each party group in this House—I think there is—but if we accept the theoretical case put forward today to abolish the hereditaries, we accept a mode of reasoning which could fatefully strike at the existence of this House itself.
My Lords, I join in the congratulations on my noble friend Lord Grocott. Remarkably, he has struck lucky; this is the third time the House has debated this Bill. I do not know whether he participates in the National Lottery but, given his luck, I would like to share the stake money with him. If we won £67 million, we might not have to sit through too many debates like this morning’s.
The Bill is not about hereditary Peers or getting rid of them. Why would we seek to deprive ourselves of the oratory of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, the prejudices of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, or indeed the connections of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness? They will still be here if this Bill is passed, and why not? The Bill is about the English class system. Whether the hereditaries express the view publicly or not, they think that, because they are here as a result of the active loins of their forefathers, they are somehow better than those of us who have come from the other end of the building.
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has frequently said in this debate that he deplores the behaviour of those noble Lords who have spent some time in the other place. Indeed, when the Bill was debated on
“There is nothing wrong with Members of Parliament individually”.
I am not sure whether I fall into the “nothing wrong” category, but I will plough on, and that
“I even have a few friends who were MPs”—
I certainly do not fall into that category, regrettably—
“and they are certainly suited to the House of Commons. However, in your Lordships’ House, and in too great a number, they are an absolute menace: first, because, by their very nature, they want to do things and change things when they would be far better employed just paying attention.”—[
Well I paid attention to him this morning, of course.
My Lords, when I came in here, I had a bet with one of my noble friends about which dinosaur would first emerge from the primordial ooze. I am delighted to say that the noble Lord, Lord Snape, has risen first and has made every point that I would have made in his place. I am so grateful. I was given only three minutes, and he has used an extra minute for me.
The noble Lord should use the very phrase that I used about him and his colleagues the last time this was debated. One can only imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, who is the third Baron Mancroft, perhaps developed his view at the knee of his grandfather, the first baron, who served in your Lordships’ House when there were around 1,200 Members. Remarkably, in those days, the press never talked about how big this place was—perhaps because few Members ever turned up. One can imagine the conversation between the infant third Baron Mancroft and his grandfather about life back in the 1930s, when his grandfather was ennobled: the morning train to the House arriving around lunchtime, perhaps an early livener in the bar before lunch with the children, with a couple of glasses of Bucks Fizz and a bottle of Chateau Collapso, and a few hours on the red Benches listening to a debate, then a glass in Boodles on the way to the train, and home for supper. That was the life.
No, I cannot give way again. I have no time at all thanks to giving way to the noble Lord.
The view that somehow these people are superior to the rest of us is one that they cherish. They cannot get over the fact that some of us are capable of making speeches without reading them from copious notes. Let us say the noble Lord, Lord Reay, was elected by the whole House; I am glad I did not vote for him. His reading ability is not to be challenged, but his technique perhaps shows some flaws. I wish my noble friend’s Bill well. After listening to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, I am only sorry I did not bring forward an amendment that would remove the hereditaries entirely. This place would be better off without them.
My Lords, unfortunately I have to follow that. Inevitably, on the third time round, there has been a lot of repetition of arguments. Like other noble Lords, I do not think I can avoid doing so.
The main point I wish to make is that I do not accept the need for the Bill or the principle behind it. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, describing his intentions and his justification for presenting his Bill for the third time, but I remain unconvinced, in spite of the amusing and perhaps justified ridicule he brought to the by-election process. Certainly in recently years, in the world outside Westminster, I have heard criticism of the House of Commons but only complements for the House of Lords.
Talking of democracy, my starting point is with the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta; the first step in the whole process of democracy in the face of a system of absolute monarchy. I believe that the hereditary principle as it has survived in the House of Lords is part of the history and tradition of this United Kingdom, and that includes its application to our Head of State.
Of my 30-odd years in your Lordships’ House, 15 of them were when it was a mix of hereditaries and life Peers, and just over 15 years have been since the passing of the so-called reform Bill in 1999. I am bound to say that the present composition of your Lordships’ House is no more effective and efficient, in spite of the huge majority of life Peers, and that the hereditary Peers show just as much diligence and expertise as their life Peer colleagues. I am pleased to be able to say that we still have a Duke of Wellington, a Lord Cromwell, an Earl of Home and, sparing his blushes, an Earl Howe in your Lordships’ House. They set an example of public duty, as well as continuity, and a sense of living history.
The passing of this Bill would call into question the very name of the House of Lords. Without the real thing, the concept of creating life Peers would become a nonsense. By all means let us get on with the real reform: let us have an elected House of Lords. I voted in favour of a fully elected, or a majority elected, upper House back in 1999, and I have to say that most of those who voted in the Content Lobby then were hereditary Peers, led by the late Lord Carrington and including, as I recollect, my noble friend Lord Trefgarne.
All this is to say that the remaining small group of hereditaries in your Lordships’ House bring with them a certain independence, and certainly expertise, continuity and a necessary link with the past. I for one am delighted to see the successors of former noble Lords arrive here and play a full part in the work of your Lordships’ House, as well as bringing youth and energy. I believe that this Bill is pointless.
My Lords, rather like my noble friend who has just spoken, despite the humorous way in which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, introduced his Bill, I remain curious about its true motives. Is it really that the elections to replace Labour and Liberal hereditaries with such tiny electorates seem to him to be ridiculous or farcical? That is superficially an easy, and perhaps even a populist, case to make, and the noble Lord seems to make much of it. Like my noble friends Lord Trenchard and Lord Lilley, I would be perfectly content for the election process to be widened to include all active Members of the relevant parties and the Cross Benches. Perhaps that would go some way towards meeting the concerns of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood.
In almost 43 years in your Lordships’ House, I have learned that change is inevitable. The removal of most of the hereditary Peers in 1999 was a substantial constitutional upheaval, and I will always remember the comment of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde that the Prime Minister, Blair, had
“taken a knife and scored a giant gash across the face of history.”—[
Those are striking words.
Apart from changing the face of the House, has that Act altered politics or policy? Not much, I would argue, but evidently it makes some feel better that what they considered to be an unfair, largely hereditary membership should now be subordinated to an exclusively and equally unfair appointed one—a point made by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde just now.
What would the gradual disposal of this small group of hereditary Peers, retained at the time of the 1999 Act under a solemn and binding agreement in a constitutional Bill to remain until full reform of the House of Lords could be achieved, actually achieve? If the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, gets his way, what is really going to change, other than satisfaction for him in passing his Bill?
At the time of the 1999 Act, the retention of 92 hereditary Peers was described by the Government of the day—his Government—as modest, and the term “transitional” was undefined. Those excepted from that Act have brought to this place diverse experience and often unique specialist knowledge, as well as an historical inbuilt sense of duty to, among other things, maintain the way the upper House of Parliament works. Those who stand for election now are given considerable scrutiny at the hustings. We do not seem to have many hustings for the appointment of life Peers—now, there is a thought.
Hereditary Peers in the House basically remain independent in spirit, as we have just heard, and with an inherited sense of duty they generally feel no overriding sense of ambition. They are part-time parliamentarians, contributing on subjects of which they have direct experience and knowledge, and they do not look for advancement. If advancement comes, they might accept it, but I doubt whether any of them would compromise their strongly held personal views for political reasons or for gain. In the main, they do not need to, and that is very much one of the peculiar historic strengths of this House.
If there is to be a constitutional review, why is the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, introducing his private Bill now? Are there not more important and relevant aspirations he has in mind to try to help the people of this country? Would it not be wiser for him to contribute to that review, where much broader counsel can be brought to bear, rather than tinker with one small element of our residual constitutional and parliamentary history which actually works well, does no harm and helps to safeguard a part of our historic legacy, as my noble friend Lady Hooper has just said?
If the noble Lord believes that the current by-elections for hereditary Peers make a mockery of this House, or cause embarrassment, he should look to the huge numbers appointed on all sides of the House, at a time of increasing pressure to reduce our numbers, and help call a halt to it. That is where the real embarrassment lies.
My Lords, I am delighted to speak after my noble friend Lord Young, because I thought I might be the only person on these Benches who supports what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, had to say. Listening to much of this debate, one would imagine that he was proposing revolution. He is actually proposing something that was described to me by a leading Labour Member of the other place as “a bit mild; if we win the election, we’ll have them all out by Christmas”. What is being proposed will take about 40 years to achieve. I am simply surprised. I say to my noble friend Lord Mancroft that I am probably the last person he would wish to see here: I am a former Member of the European Parliament; I spent 40 years in Brussels; I still have kind things to say about and great admiration for David Cameron; and, just in case I needed finally sinking, I served on the Greater London Council—though not under the leadership of Mr Livingstone, I should say.
Let us move on: this House has always been subject to piecemeal reform. The 1911 Act begins by saying that it is pending a final review of the House. If we look at the antics that went on under David Lloyd George, there were then changes that restrained somewhat the power of Prime Ministers to sell places in this Chamber. If we look at the Macmillan reforms of the late-1950s and the Blair reforms, they could be said to be part of a pattern: a gradual evolution—very much a British thing. If we look at the period since 1999, I would counsel that the idea of an elected Chamber has in fact fallen in estimation. I have been to a lot of schools—I was part of the schools programme—and there was very little support for an elected Chamber when it was explained that it would mean another set of elections, the Members would all need salaries and staff and, instead of having one MP, you would have two people floating round your area. Where I live, the city of Cambridge, bigger constituencies would mean one Labour Member and one Conservative Member, so all you would end up with is fighting. On top of that, the people who elected you would expect you to be much more partisan than we have to be. I am delighted to hear support for an elected Chamber, but I am not sure it is completely thought through.
I see the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, as very much incremental. They would take years to come to fruition. I accept that one advantage of by-elections for hereditary Peers is that we tend to get the cream of the crop; we get the best of the hereditary Peers in here. But many of them would qualify anyway for appointment by a Prime Minister. No one is saying that a hereditary Peer cannot then be appointed at a future time. I hope that we can move forward and pass this Bill. If we cannot pass a Bill like this, let us forget the words about being a “self-regulating House”. We are more like the Polish Sejm of the early 18th century, where anyone could object to legislation and nothing happened at all. If we want to move forward, we have to take a progressive and intelligent view of the need to reform this House.
My Lords, what has changed since the late 1990s? I suggest that two things have. The first is science. Out there is an army of people like my good wife, who are busy taking the DNA of people like me and putting it on the internet to discover who we are and who our ancestors are. Without giving away too many secrets, I can say that there is no great certainty, even in the maternal line, but when it comes to the paternal line, I am discovering people related to me who do not seem to fit into a family tree.
I have no interest to declare and I confess that I do not anticipate having one because my antecedents appear to be the peasantry of Ireland, Scotland and England. But on my wife and my children’s side, it is rather more interesting. There is a possibility that we might discover an unknown connection—there may well be great castles, estates and titles due to our family, but held by somebody else’s. I am not proposing DNA testing before any hereditary peerage election, although I suspect that plenty in the other place would vote for that. But that is a change and at some stage, there will be big court actions. I hope that we will not have to self-isolate, but should we be away for a couple of weeks, my rucksack is packed for wild camping, self-isolating in the great estates of the Highlands so that I can size them up for my son, should that connection be found and that court action ever take place. That is a real change—not one that has hit yet, but it will come.
There is a second change: a political one. I confess that I did not listen to your Lordships’ great debates on this issue previously, but I did listen to many of the debates on Brexit. Whatever your views on the issue were and are, I make this observation: it was clear that, like a majority in the House of Commons, the majority of your Lordships did not fully grasp the mood of the country—and, indeed, found the election result a surprise, although it was no surprise to me. Again, that it was such a surprise shows a failure to grasp the mood out there. It is called populism.
I warn this place that, although this is not an issue on the doorstep, there will one day be a Prime Minister—perhaps sooner than one envisages—who, in a time of crisis, chooses to be populist. There is no easier item to pursue on a populist agenda that occupies the House of Commons than removing or replacing all or part of this place. The danger is that, if this place does not modernise, when we leave this building, we will not come back—that we will be no more during that period, because the Commons and the Prime Minister of the day find it expedient to make that populist, political, easy choice. The loss there will be democracy, rather than a measured, thought-out set of changes. It is modernise or die for this place. I therefore support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.
My Lords, that is remarkably difficult speech to follow. I always assumed that I was the son of a Conservative politician but, who knows, following a DNA test I could be the son of a Labour politician. For all one knows, after a test, I could come into this Chamber and meet, perhaps, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, and say, “Hello Daddy”.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. Anyway, back to the matter in hand. The case against this Bill is stronger than ever. The fundamental reason why is this Government’s commitment to a constitutional convention, as set out in the party manifesto published prior to the election. It is always worth reminding noble Lords opposite that the hereditary Peers are still here not because of the Conservative Party but because of the Labour Government who introduced that legislation. Following that reform, what did the Labour Government do? They did absolutely nothing. They could have moved on to the second stage, but they did not.
The hereditary Peers were described as the grit in the oyster to remind and force a future Government to come up with proper reform. Proper reform is long overdue, and I am delighted to be that grit, if it brings forward constitutional reform. I understand why noble Lords opposite enjoy this Bill because it is getting rid of an anomaly. There are plenty of anomalies in this House. But what is important is, whatever way we get here, we should all be heard in the same way and all have an equal right to participate.
I could support this Bill if it cut down the over-representation of the Liberal Democrats, introduced a mandatory retirement age or even introduced a statutory appointments commission. But it does not. When the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, comes to sum up, perhaps he can reply to the suggestion from my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. I also find somewhat disquieting the speeches from this side of the House from those who worry that, if we give up by-elections, that will be reform done and dusted and we can all remain here. I really hope that that is not the case. We want proper reform.
Every party manifesto in the last election came forward with proposals for reform. The Labour leadership wanted abolition and the creation of a senate. Even more extraordinarily, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, wants to hand out peerages to his most left-wing colleagues who actually want total abolition of the second Chamber, and certainly abolition of the House of Lords.
I will not put forward any plans for reform today because there is a debate in a couple of weeks. But it should include cutting numbers and perhaps a broader representation of faiths. But whether this House is elected or appointed, it must represent the four nations of this union, maybe in slightly different ways. One cannot justify a second Chamber that represents only England.
As usual, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that some of us have been here too long, perhaps 40 years. I find that somewhat insulting because I believe that whether you have been here 40 years, four years, four weeks or four minutes, everyone should be heard in the same way and that we all have the right to participate. Criticising those who have been here longer should not be done.
We are at the start of a Session and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is lucky to have achieved time for this Bill early on, so we will have plenty of time to debate all the amendments, Report and Third Reading. We will therefore not have the spectacle of what happened last time when the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, moved a closure Motion on my noble friend Lord Strathclyde when he had just moved an amendment.
I urge noble Lords not to be led astray by the dulcet tones of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, however charming they may be, and look forward to a constitutional convention where we can examine the composition and role of this House as well as look perhaps to boundary reform—a painful subject for noble Lords opposite. I do not welcome this Bill, but I will not block it and I will seek to amend it.
My Lords, much as I like and admire the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I hope that he will forgive me for disagreeing with him on this occasion. One thing that I have always admired about this country is its stability based on an ancient monarchy, ancient Parliament and ancient traditions. Since the Civil War, this country has known instinctively how to find the right balance between preserving tradition and allowing evolution. Contrast and compare that with the two countries from which my parents come: France and Russia. Since the revolution in 1789, the French have experimented with two empires, a monarchy and five republics to find the secret of stability. I would argue that they were still searching for it. In one short century, Russia demolished an empire and got rid of the aristocracy, replacing it with a communist tyranny. It is now an autocracy disguised as a democracy.
I am not being flippant, but I see that, in each of these countries, the constitutional baby has been thrown out with the bathwater several times, often in circumstances of extreme violence. In Britain, in times of great change, we have managed to keep the baby and successfully replace the bathwater without having to resort to violence. There is a lesson to be learned here. I am well aware that, for many people, Lords reform is long overdue. Many have spoken about it today. However, there is a difference between modernising an ancient regime and extinguishing centuries of tradition. Change, often masquerading as progressive politics, does not always produce improvement, particularly when there is no consensus on what shape that change should take and how it might affect our long-held values as a consequence.
Removing all hereditary Peers would fundamentally change the nature of your Lordships’ House. Their numbers have already been reduced to barely 11% and there is no reason to cull them into oblivion. Why should their presence be considered more objectionable than that of, say, those Peers who have been politically appointed? I may not have been a Member of this House for very long, but one thing I have observed is the quality of the hereditaries’ contributions, their grasp of a wide range of subjects and the variety of their expertise and experience. At a time when levelling up between north and south is a major plank of the Government’s strategy, we should recognise that the hereditaries are less urban as a group than any other group of Peers in this House. One issue often raised is the absence of female hereditary Peers. That needs to be addressed, there is no doubt, but surely this is not a matter for this Bill.
While we can all agree that change is needed, it should not be done in this way. It would be pure constitutional vandalism simply to wrench out of our ranks one small group which contributes so positively to our proceedings, out of proportion to their number. If this were to happen, I very much fear that we would find ourselves on a slippery slope at the bottom of which we would find a republic waiting for us. The last time we tried that, almost 400 years ago, was certainly not a happy experience.
My Lords, the noble Baroness set out a certain veneration for our constitution broadening down from precedent to precedent. However, surely the great virtue of our constitution has been that those who have had power have known when to yield it. There has also been a readiness to change when change is needed and not to seek to oppose any reform in a reactionary way until it becomes a tradition.
I also have an interest to declare. I am a Welsh peasant and would wish for my eldest son—for whom, like any good father, I have much admiration—to come to this place, but he should not do so except on his own merit. The problem is that we have a lottery of sons and only sons coming here—in a time when women quite properly have a greater and greater voice—simply because of what happened to their fathers in the past. Some obviously come here themselves on merit; others because their ancestors completed deeds of daring before the monarch; and others because they paid the right sum of money to Maundy Gregory for Liberal Party funds. I cannot recall any Liberal opposition to that at the time. Clearly, there are great differences in backgrounds.
We have been through this course on many occasions, including the two Second Readings which my noble friend Lord Grocott has brought forward. I congratulate him on his persistence. We are probably in a position where everything that can be said has been said, but I have not yet said it, so here it goes.
My first point is one of procedure. We have a position where obviously the great majority of people in this House—certainly as measured by the votes we have had in the past—are in favour of this incremental and piecemeal reform. But it has not happened, because a relatively small minority put roadblocks in the way of the Bill. Given the filibusters and flooding of the Order Paper with innumerable amendments that we have had in past, the powers that be should look at our own procedures to see whether there is any way of stopping merited reforms going forward. As a lapsed lawyer, the only argument of any merit that I can see against this Bill is that there was a degree of compromise in the deal done 20 years ago, but surely we have moved on massively since then. The context is different; it is a context of modernisation and where, as some well argue, the best should not be the enemy of the good.
What is it that sets apart the sons of hereditary Peers as different from the sons of other Peers? Is it superior intellect? That may or may not be the case. Is it some background that myself and others do not have? Is it other forms of merit—some contribution to the benefit of this country as a whole? That may be, but then, like the rest of us, they can be appointed on their own merits, rather than as a result of any merits of their fathers. I very much accept that our own hereditaries play a disproportionate part; that point was made very well indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach. In future, however, a place in this Chamber should not arise from the merits or otherwise of Peers’ fathers but because of their own merits; it should be by proper selection and not by the terms of a lottery.
My Lords, I am in agreement with my noble friend Lord Trefgarne that this Bill is a breach of a promise given in 1999. On
“Just suppose that that House goes on for a very long time and the party opposite get fed up with it. If it wanted to get rid of those 92 before stage two came, and it hit on the idea of … giving them all life peerages … I believe that it would be a breach of the Weatherill agreement. Does the noble and learned Lord agree?”
The Lord Chancellor replied:
“I say quite clearly that … the position of the excepted Peers shall be addressed in phase two reform legislation.”—[Official Report, 22/6/99; cols. 798-800.]
I also remind the House of the importance of the then Labour Lord Chancellor’s words on
“The amendment reflects a compromise negotiated between Privy Councillors on Privy Council terms and binding in honour on all those who have come to give it their assent.”—[Official Report, 30/3/99; col. 207.]
To the hereditary peerage, it was a vital part of the 1999 Act and a condition for letting it have satisfactory progress through the House.
Nothing could be clearer than the former Lord Chancellor’s words; that is why I believe that the Bill does indeed breach the Weatherill agreement and the House of Lords Act 1999. I also believe as a matter of principle that such major constitutional reform should be implemented only by government legislation. I cannot understand why this area of the House needs reform when the by-elections have produced such capable replacements to the 90, such as like the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester, Lord De Mauley, Lord Ashton of Hyde, and Lord Bethell, the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, and the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, all of whom are, or have been, on the Front Bench of their respective parties. It would seem more urgent to reform the life Peers system, which of course the Burns report proposes. The hereditary Peers are a strong link with the past, a golden thread that goes back to the first separate sitting of the House in 1544. Until relatively recently, in House of Lords terms, the House was entirely hereditary. By-elections provide a way into this House in a way that is not dependent on prime ministerial patronage.
Also in connection with the Burns report, I note part of the Government’s then response to the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s examination of it, which says:
“The Government does not however accept the Committee’s recommendation that the Prime Minister must now commit to a specific cap on numbers, and absolutely limiting appointments in line with the formula proposed.”
Thus a key element of the Burns report is deemed to be invalid, and the major reform that was promised at stage 2 is just not there. True to that response, it is rumoured that the new Government are proposing 40 new Peers to the House, which totally goes against the Burns report. This is not reform. Why, therefore, should the hereditary element in these circumstances accept a long-term diminution of their numbers?
Reform should include a review of our powers, especially with regard to Finance Bills and statutory instruments, which we should be allowed to amend. We are also promised a constitutional rights and democracy commission, and I believe that we should wait for what this produces before acting on any Private Member’s Bill.
Conservatives have hinted at wanting to reform the House of Lords, but it is not clear how at this stage. It is likely that the new Government will specifically reaffirm the supremacy of the Commons over the Lords in a new Act of Parliament and possibly even revisit the Lords’ power of delay—something that Theresa May threatened during her prime ministership when the Lords refused to pass her Brexit legislation straightaway.
In summary, I believe that significant constitutional legislation to implement phase 2 of Lords reform should be brought forward by the Government rather than by a Private Member’s Bill.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the general issue of Lords reform. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, both on his amusing and excellent speech in introducing the Bill and on his courage and integrity over the last four years, when he has been a bit of a lone voice on the Benches over there.
However, I am afraid that I will not support his Bill because, while this House has many problems that surely need sorting out, I do not think that what we can call the “quaint” hereditary by-election system is a priority. Above all else, the problem with this House is numbers. We all agree that there are far too many of us. I think there are too many Bishops; I would shrink them to about 12. I think there are too many hereditaries; I would cut them in about half, and I think we could do that now with a self-denying ordinance on by-elections.
However, I support the hereditary principle—for instance, a hereditary monarchy—and heredity is part of all of us. Continuity is good. Although I may occasionally disagree with him, I like the continuity of having a descendant of the iron Duke of Wellington here. The British, I remind everyone in this House, like tradition. The hereditaries got their titles through all sorts of ways, especially in the 20th century with Lloyd George and so on. There are some excellent and valuable Members, and some less so. I believe it was Barbara Castle who allegedly said, “Is it better to be appointed to a peerage by Charles II or by Harold Wilson?”
That brings me to the majority of us—life Peers. Again, some are valuable contributors and some less so, but how did we all get here? We agree that there are far too many of us. There are lots of superannuated Members of Parliament like me: Cabinet Ministers, other Ministers and some who never did anything very much down the other end. There are distinguished public servants, lawyers, judges and academics. There are trade unionists and donors to all three main parties. There are party hacks and political advisers. There are some who have been rewarded for changing party allegiance, and some for being friends or sharing a flat with a Prime Minister in the past.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was an excellent PPS to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. There were some who were put here for fighting, and losing, four or five elections to the Commons; that applies especially to one party. There are some who were obstructions and sent here to get them out of the way, or to put somebody else in a job. There were some mistakes: I said to David Cameron once, “Why on earth have you made X a Peer?” and he said, verbatim, “It was a mistake.” There is even one Peer who was deselected by a local party and threatened to stand as an independent if not given a peerage. Are we life Peers uniquely better qualified or more able, so that we should be here rather than the hereditaries or anybody outside the House? The term “for public or political service” covers a multitude of sins. Is appointment by Boris Johnson or Tony Blair better than by Charles II or Queen Victoria?
However, we need reform and the Burns report wisely recommended a time limit. That is a good start. Personally, I would have 12 years—perhaps 17 years, 19 years or 21 years—and some method of extending it for especially valuable contributors. But it has to be retrospective, covering every one of us in this Chamber, and I would include the hereditaries. I support the overarching reform of the House, but not this piecemeal legislation. Might I suggest that we all need to show self-awareness in how fortunate and privileged we are to be here, while remembering about glass-houses and throwing stones? On that note, I have heard it said in this Chamber that this system of by-elections brings the House into disrepute. I would gently point out that what brings greater disrepute on the House is the occasional lurid tabloid headlines about individuals showing predatory, sexual and disgraceful behaviour to young ladies. I think we know who we are talking about.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, makes a powerful case for fundamental reform of the House of Lords, which has been the objective of my party since at least 1911. But today, and on other occasions, listening to our debates on this subject gives a feeling akin to being made to watch “Groundhog Day” repeatedly. We see the same pattern of events and hear the same dialogue every time we discuss what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, referred to correctly as ending the farcical process of by-elections to elect more hereditary Peers. This simple principle has clearly been shown several times to have overwhelming support from the House, but the passage of such a measure has been continuously frustrated by a small minority of Members, acting to defy the clear will of the majority of the House and to prevent the other place considering again what it has also approved overwhelmingly in the past.
Several noble Lords have suggested today that we should be discussing other things, which they consider more important. Perhaps they might have words with two of their noble colleagues who, during previous attempts to pass such a Bill, have tabled hundreds of amendments. Almost a year ago, I highlighted how the time of the House was being wasted, as we had at that stage,
“spent five days considering a one-page Bill consisting of just 231 words, which takes less than two minutes to read”.—[
In Committee on the last identical Bill, 11 pages of mostly repetitive and irrelevant amendments were tabled. They were mostly never moved, but any that were suffered overwhelming defeats whenever our opinion was tested. On Report, we were then subjected to 23 pages of amendments of the same kind, and with the same outcomes.
This House wants the Bill to pass and to let the Commons consider it. We have again heard some nonsense today about a gentlemen’s agreement in 1999 on a short-term measure, conceded under duress, made to avoid a veto being exercised by a largely hereditary House over a first stage of reform in this place. This was the year I came into the House. I remember how life Peers were sometimes referred to then as the “day boys”, while hereditary Peers were termed “boarders”. Times have changed, and so should we.
As has been said several times, no agreement or decision of any Parliament can bind future Parliaments. If it could, there would be little point in holding elections as previous Parliaments would have decided all the major issues. It is the so-called Weatherill amendment that we are debating getting rid of. He himself later sought to change what was only ever seen as a temporary arrangement. More than 20 years must be considered too long to be temporary.
Many noble Lords have rightly said today that some very good Members of the House have come here after these by-elections, but others have pointed out that in the absence of elections such Members could still have been appointed by the parties or on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The principle must be that their ancestry should never have played any part in the process. As we have emphasised in previous debates, no current Member of this House loses out as a result of this modest measure.
The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, referred to the anachronism in a democratic society of the hereditary monarchy, but the fundamental difference must be that even with a hereditary monarchy we do not have monarchs speaking, voting and deciding on the legislature, yet hereditary Peers are able to decide on these things in this way. This should not be the case in future. Phasing out is a gentle way of reforming things.
There is no democratic case to be made for a system of government in which you can inherit your chance to be part of a legislature, perhaps based on the whim of a monarch many centuries ago putting you in a pool of people eligible to stand for these farcical by-elections—a pool that is 99% male, as other noble Lords have said. Let us show that we can move beyond the 19th century. If noble Lords are against the Bill, vote against it—but do not try to filibuster it to prevent the House being able to express its will.
My Lords, for the third time it is my pleasure to give a warm welcome to the measure. Like the noble Lord, Lord Young, I have sat through all the previous ones. Indeed, the last time I spoke in your Lordships’ House on an earlier version was almost exactly a year ago today. It was on
As we have heard, the system has brought in yet more white, male hereditary Peers at a time when we need, first, to reduce the size of the House—as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and others—and, secondly, to increase its diversity in gender, ethnicity and background. I use the word “background” but my noble friend Lord Snape said it as it is and called it “class”. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, described the current system as racist and sexist. I am sorry to be only woman to speak today in favour of the Bill, but I know that if there is a vote my sisters will be with me.
Mention has been made of HOLAC’s role. I point out that it has no role in scrutinising the hereditaries who come to this House. Indeed, its role at the moment of carefully sifting the possible list—shall we say?—of additions here shows what a good job it is doing.
About a decade ago, there was a survey of the then Members. At that stage, 70% of them thought that the by-elections should end. It is clear from last year that the percentage would be much higher today. Even in this debate, which is perhaps atypical of people outside, only eight hereditaries and five life Peers spoke against the Bill. I think a vote would show much more overwhelming support for the Grocott measure.
My Lords, to emphasise a point just made by the noble Baroness, some of us have not spoken because we feel that we have repeated ourselves so many times that it would be pointless to do so. There does not mean that if there were a vote, we would not be vociferous.
Then we shall use the “et al” for those of us on our side. I thank the noble Lord for that.
It is bad enough that we outnumber the democratically elected House, but to do so with 90 of our Members being here by virtue of their grandfathers or great-grandfathers—or, in some cases, going even further back—is surely a source of shame to a 21st-century legislature.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord True, is not responding on the Bill—I think he is the follow-on act—because he was honest enough to admit that much of the resistance to previous attempts was to further the Conservative interest. The figures bear that out, with 10 times as many Conservative as Labour Peers embroiled in this insular scheme.
I should have thought that, with a majority of 80 in the other place, the Government could have grasped the nettle safe in the knowledge that its working majority could not be threatened by any pesky Lords. Indeed, despite the almost completely—but not quite—persuasive words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, who welcomed this Private Member’s Bill because it was us doing it ourselves, nevertheless, I come down on the same side as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde: this should be a government Bill. That is perhaps for different reasons, but we both arrive there. In the light of the duty on all public bodies—that must include the Government—to promote equality, the Government should have seized on this issue and enabled the House to enter the 20th, let alone the 21st, century by getting rid of a very discriminatory part of our constitution.
It is a modest measure and would make change only very slowly, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made clear. It would not lead to a wholly appointed House; it would take some 40 years for us to get there, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, alleged. It may be two or three years before there was any change at all if the Bill was passed. It would not affect any of our existing Members, whom we look forward to hearing from, I hope, for many, many years. Indeed, many, perhaps all of them, deserve to be here in their own right, on their own accomplishments, as will be demonstrated by a shining example, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, shortly. However, I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, who I think suggested that there are hereditaries who, if not born to rule in this place, were bred to it. I find that an extraordinary idea.
The purpose of our House is to make laws. It is to act as a check and a challenge to the Government and to provide a forum of independent expertise. The credibility of the House and what we do is undermined by how membership can be achieved through a very strange system of by-elections, producing a self-perpetuating selection of new Members, chosen by a tiny electorate from a tiny grouping. Let us move on this. Let us waste no more time.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on his success in the Private Members’ Bill ballot. His persistence in bringing the Bill before the House is admirable and shows his dedication to reform in this area. As noble Lords are well aware, the matter in question is the removal of by-elections held when a sitting hereditary Peer vacates their seat. As a sitting hereditary Peer, I declare my posthumous, if entirely non-presumptive, interest.
Stopping these elections would, over time, end the ability of noble Lords to sit in this House by virtue of a hereditary peerage alone. Noble Lords have heard a great many views today, as in previous years, in relation to the proposal in the Bill, so I do not intend to repeat in full the detailed arguments made by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham when he provided the Government’s response to the previous iteration of the Bill. I do, however, wish to stress firmly that the Government continue to believe that this House has a key role in scrutinising the Executive and being a revising Chamber. It is important that the way this House is constituted reflects both that role and the primacy of the House of Commons.
The proposed removal of hereditary Peers through the Bill, albeit over time, would constitute a major reform to the composition of the Lords as it would become a de facto appointed Chamber. Furthermore, as this and previous debates have demonstrated, there is no clear consensus in favour of the Bill. Those observations are by way of a preface to saying that, while we welcome discussion on matters relating to the role and functions of the House of Lords, we have reservations about the Bill.
As noble Lords will be aware, there have been previous proposals to end the practice of hereditary by-elections and, indeed, to remove hereditary Peers from the House altogether, since the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999. From the Wakeham commission to the numerous Labour Government White Papers, and from the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 to the coalition Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill, this issue has been considered and debated at great length. There have also been several efforts by noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to end the by-elections through Private Members’ Bills. For all the merit in debating the matter before the House today, I fear that perhaps the main thing we have learned is that opinions on this issue are divided and, judging by noble Lords’ contributions today, look likely to remain so for a while.
The Government recognise that Members of this House play a vital role in scrutinising the Executive and enabling the House of Lords to be what it is—an effective revising Chamber. It is worth pointing out, as many noble Lords already have, that hereditary Members have played, and continue to play, an enormous role in the work of this House through their committee memberships and contributions in the Chamber.
I will expand briefly on the subject of House of Lords reform. Legislation passed in recent years, such as the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 have shown that consensual reform is possible. The work of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House has also demonstrated that change can be achieved without the need for legislation. However, I draw a distinction between the reforms brought about by the 2014 and 2015 Acts, which were, in essence, incremental changes, and the reforms proposed in this Bill, which are altogether larger and more far-reaching. Such reforms should be considered carefully and—I emphasise—holistically.
As a Government, we recognise the vital work that this House does while also respecting the primacy of the other place. Equally, though, I highlight that the Conservative manifesto committed to reviewing the role of the House of Lords. We will announce our plans for that review in due course, but meanwhile I gently suggest that that commitment by the Government provides a fresh context to the matters now before us.
Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for continuing to raise this issue and I extend my thanks to all those who have participated in today’s debate. I conclude, however, by making clear the Government’s position, which is that reform needs to be considered carefully, not brought forward piecemeal. This is especially the case where, as here, there is no clear consensus. It is for these reasons that, on behalf of the Government, I feel bound to express reservations about the Bill.
My Lords, that was a pretty depressing conclusion to our debate. I have heard that argument many times and I am particularly disappointed that it has fallen to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to read out the Government’s brief. He is always there taking the bullets when a very difficult job has to be done—in this case, defending the indefensible. He did it as well as anyone could; he adorns any group of hereditary Peers. I have not made, and will not make, any criticism whatever of hereditary Peers in general terms. There are many hereditary Peers who I do not think make a very good contribution, but there are many life Peers who I do not think make a very good contribution. Indeed, the very weak case presented by a number of hereditaries today was that, somehow, hereditary Peers, in their performance in this House, are fundamentally different from any other group in the Chamber.
Will my noble friend produce a pamphlet highlighting some of the contributions made today? They seemed to suggest that genetics and the virility of our grandparents are reasons for being in this place that are not only equivalent to the reasons why others are here, but are actually superior, in essence, to the reasons why Members are elected to the other place.
I just say amen to my noble friend. I thank him for his earlier contribution and his steadfast support for the Bill. It is not long before we reach levels of absurdity in trying to defend the continuation of the present system. I thought my noble friend Lord Snape was pretty effective.
My Lords, having sat through this entire debate, I am not sure that anybody has made a case for the continuation of the hereditary peerage. I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is going on about: the only people who have been talking about DNA or the so-called superiority of hereditary Peers over life Peers have been members of the Labour Party. This is all utter nonsense. Nobody has tried to make that case. The hereditary peerage came to an effective end after the general election of 1997. We are talking about a by-product, as some of my colleagues said, of the failure of the Government to then come forward with stage 2 reform. That is what this debate is about; it is not about the continuation of the hereditary peerage.
My Lords, I have to say that I do not think the second speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was an improvement on his first. He should read the speech—he could not have been listening very carefully—of his noble friend Lord Mancroft, who made precisely the point about the particular skills and insights of hereditary Peers that are denied to the rest of us.
My Lords, I was not making that point. I made no points about the prominence of the hereditary peerage and I echo the comments of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. This debate is not about the hereditary peerage at all; it is about the future of this House, with or without hereditary Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who has a very good case to make, damages his case by making remarks like that.
My Lords, the people who have been damaging their case are all the hereditary Peers—with the exception of the noble Earl, Lord Howe—who made contributions today. They have been particularly depressing in their unanimity, but they are also unrepresentative of the rest of the hereditary Peers, who are not here, because, as I said, there are many who wished this Bill well for the future.
We heard from nine hereditaries: Messrs Strathclyde, Trefgarne, Caithness, Trenchard, Reay, Mancroft, Glenarthur, Astor and Northbrook. I mention their names because they failed to do what the Companion requires, which is to declare an express, clear interest. Time is short, but I am being persuaded that I really ought to read out the extract from the document itself, the text to which we all adhere. The section headed “Rules of Conduct” on page 65 states:
“In order to assist in openness and accountability, Members shall … declare when speaking in the House or communicating with ministers or public servants any interest which is a relevant interest in the context of the debate or the matter under discussion.”
That is game, set, match and tournament. According to the rules of this House, they should have declared their interest.
I know perfectly well that the noble Lord, Lord Reay, declared an interest in having fought a by-election. I readily concede that that is precisely what he said. He went on to say one or two other things which I do not think I have the time to deal with.
What is especially depressing about this is that, if this House cannot even agree to the Bill, please do not give us any nonsense about it being committed to any form of reform of this Chamber. This is the most understated, simple, obvious, straightforward, incremental reform—all the ticks that any constitutional conservative might wish to adhere to. They are all there, but this reform is being rejected by—I have to say—the hereditaries and one or two riders alongside them. I find that very depressing indeed. I also find it—and I do not say this lightly—without total honesty. I do not think the arguments of noble Lords opposing this Bill carry any weight. They say that this has to be a government Bill. I see no evidence in any of their histories that they have campaigned for a full government Bill on comprehensive reform of the second Chamber at any stage in their political careers—many of them very long indeed—except for occasionally referring to it as a kind of fig leaf for opposing my incremental reform. None of them addressed the blatant unacceptability of the “white men only” category. Perhaps they can explain to me why they were right not to mention it. I did not think they would; it is very wise to keep your head down when in doubt. That has been the character of the opposition to the Bill.
The contributions from across the board were very heartening. There were contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, and others on the Liberal Democrats Benches; from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, to whom I am very grateful; and from many colleagues on this side whom I could easily mention. I thought the contribution from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, was very good. I shall mention just two or three significant contributions. One was made by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I am most grateful to him. His committee was set up by the House when we decided that we must reduce our numbers and that his committee was the right one to look into it on behalf of the Lord Speaker. It is a well-respected committee. I understand why it cannot recommend proposals that would require legislation, as mine would—all very simple—but for him to say that he could personally see the case for it was heartening.
I must also thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, who made a brave speech. He never conceded his personal opinion to me while he was the Minister responding, but you did not need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out what it was. His contribution was very telling. I was going to say that I look forward to the day when the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has the freedom of the Back Benches, but I do not really look forward to that. I am sure that when he does, he will modify the position he has adopted. He would not be the first person who had to express views from the Dispatch Box that differed from those they held in private; even Chief Whips are occasionally involved in things that mean they would rather not look in the mirror. I would be interested to hear the noble Earl, as and when that day comes. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, for his contribution; although he did not come out in support of the Bill directly, he gave his usual measured performance, with the skill that is customary for former Chief Whips.
I have found that sometimes, the only way to deal with this is with satire. This system is so ridiculous that I find it amazing that so many people can defend it with a straight face. Sadly, there are a number here who do so.
That brings me, finally, to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe. He said that we cannot proceed—I hope I am not traducing him—because there is no agreement across the Chamber on this issue. If that were a principle of Parliament, we would never do anything. We would certainly have never had the 1911 or 1949 Parliament Acts, or the 1999 House of Lords Act. There is never a consensus for these kinds of things. All we have in this House is a view that is some 15 to one in favour of the Bill. That is not consensus, I agree—I am working on the remaining two or three—but it is an overwhelming majority. This House has spoken on three occasions now; it really is time that the phoney, self-serving arguments against the Bill are seen for what they are, and that we give this Bill a Second Reading, Committee stage, Report and get it on the statute book.
Bill read a second time.