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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 11:53 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Northbrook Lord Northbrook Conservative 11:53 am, 13th March 2020

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 22 June that year, my noble friend Lord Denham asked the following question to the Lord Chancellor:

“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 30 March 1999:

“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.