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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:06 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 10:06 am, 13th March 2020

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.”—[Official Report, 9/9/16; col. 1249.]

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.