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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 11:14 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Lilley Lord Lilley Conservative 11:14 am, 13th March 2020

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.