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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 10:45 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct 10:45 am, 13th March 2020

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.