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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 11:26 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Glenarthur Lord Glenarthur Conservative 11:26 am, 13th March 2020

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.”—[Official Report,26/10/99; col. 279.]

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.