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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 12:01 pm on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 12:01 pm, 13th March 2020

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, makes a powerful case for fundamental reform of the House of Lords, which has been the objective of my party since at least 1911. But today, and on other occasions, listening to our debates on this subject gives a feeling akin to being made to watch “Groundhog Day” repeatedly. We see the same pattern of events and hear the same dialogue every time we discuss what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, referred to correctly as ending the farcical process of by-elections to elect more hereditary Peers. This simple principle has clearly been shown several times to have overwhelming support from the House, but the passage of such a measure has been continuously frustrated by a small minority of Members, acting to defy the clear will of the majority of the House and to prevent the other place considering again what it has also approved overwhelmingly in the past.

Several noble Lords have suggested today that we should be discussing other things, which they consider more important. Perhaps they might have words with two of their noble colleagues who, during previous attempts to pass such a Bill, have tabled hundreds of amendments. Almost a year ago, I highlighted how the time of the House was being wasted, as we had at that stage,

“spent five days considering a one-page Bill consisting of just 231 words, which takes less than two minutes to read”.—[Official Report, 15/3/19; col. 1228.]

In Committee on the last identical Bill, 11 pages of mostly repetitive and irrelevant amendments were tabled. They were mostly never moved, but any that were suffered overwhelming defeats whenever our opinion was tested. On Report, we were then subjected to 23 pages of amendments of the same kind, and with the same outcomes.

This House wants the Bill to pass and to let the Commons consider it. We have again heard some nonsense today about a gentlemen’s agreement in 1999 on a short-term measure, conceded under duress, made to avoid a veto being exercised by a largely hereditary House over a first stage of reform in this place. This was the year I came into the House. I remember how life Peers were sometimes referred to then as the “day boys”, while hereditary Peers were termed “boarders”. Times have changed, and so should we.

As has been said several times, no agreement or decision of any Parliament can bind future Parliaments. If it could, there would be little point in holding elections as previous Parliaments would have decided all the major issues. It is the so-called Weatherill amendment that we are debating getting rid of. He himself later sought to change what was only ever seen as a temporary arrangement. More than 20 years must be considered too long to be temporary.

Many noble Lords have rightly said today that some very good Members of the House have come here after these by-elections, but others have pointed out that in the absence of elections such Members could still have been appointed by the parties or on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The principle must be that their ancestry should never have played any part in the process. As we have emphasised in previous debates, no current Member of this House loses out as a result of this modest measure.

The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, referred to the anachronism in a democratic society of the hereditary monarchy, but the fundamental difference must be that even with a hereditary monarchy we do not have monarchs speaking, voting and deciding on the legislature, yet hereditary Peers are able to decide on these things in this way. This should not be the case in future. Phasing out is a gentle way of reforming things.

There is no democratic case to be made for a system of government in which you can inherit your chance to be part of a legislature, perhaps based on the whim of a monarch many centuries ago putting you in a pool of people eligible to stand for these farcical by-elections—a pool that is 99% male, as other noble Lords have said. Let us show that we can move beyond the 19th century. If noble Lords are against the Bill, vote against it—but do not try to filibuster it to prevent the House being able to express its will.