Hereditary Peers’ By-elections - Motion on Standing Orders

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:02 pm on 7th September 2020.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 2:02 pm, 7th September 2020

I thank the Lord Speaker. I hope that we should not infer from what the Senior Deputy Speaker has just said that we are going to return on 1 January; I sincerely hope that that will not be the first sitting day.

To be serious, perhaps I may say at the outset that while I welcome this opportunity, I am increasingly convinced that we need to up our act in this Chamber. It is disgraceful that so few Members are allowed to sit in here. It would be very easy to have at least three Peers on this Bench, or to have one on each of certain other Benches. Depriving Members of your Lordships’ House of the opportunity to participate properly in debate is a disgrace and I hope sincerely that those who have charge over these things will look imaginatively at what can be done. Of course we have to remain safe, but nobody can have ultimate safety. We must have a viable Chamber that can hold the Government to account and debate more expeditiously—as it could if more of us were here—the great issues of the day.

I do not oppose this measure but I feel that it would be more sensible to heed what the Lord Speaker has said about the numbers in this House and to delay further by-elections indefinitely—perhaps until a proper and definitive decision has been made on the Grocott Bill. I am sorry not to see my friend the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his place. It is very important to underline that the continued participation in this House of any existing life Peer is not and must not be threatened by that Bill. We have valued colleagues and I hope that they will be here for a very long time, but by-elections that sometimes produce more candidates than electors, a point which has often been made, do not enhance the reputation of your Lordships’ House.

We need to look carefully at how we admit Members to your Lordships’ House. Today we have welcomed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, and I am only sorry that his supporters had to stand at a distance from him. If ever there is proper social distancing in this House, it is when a new Peer is introduced, so it is farcical that the right reverend Prelate’s two supporting Bishops had to stand on the steps of the Throne. As we begin to introduce new Peers over the next two or three weeks, I hope that there will be a sensible arrangement whereby the supporters are able to support. I hope that they will be able to be robed, but if not, at least the Peer being introduced should be robed and the others should be here. I hope very much that the Lord Speaker will be able to use his considerable persuasive powers to ensure that that happens.

We do believe that too many are coming in, but each one will be courteously and individually welcomed, as is always the case and as it should be. However, we have an underlying problem with numbers, and the sooner that the full House can have another proper debate on the Burns report and on the wise words of our Lord Speaker, the better. I hope sincerely that we will soon reach a stage where, if someone is given a peerage, he or she does not automatically come in immediately. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester came in because he has been waiting for a considerable time. There is a finite limit on the number of Lords Spiritual, at 26, which includes the two archbishops and the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester. The others have to wait their turn. I believe that we can take an example from that.

I also believe that Prime Ministers should be able to give a peerage without a seat in the House of Lords, because the Prime Minister himself has created an extra problem for your Lordships’ House. All of these things should be looked at together in the round. It would be a good idea if the Lord Speaker asked the noble Lord, Lord Burns, to bring an updated report before your Lordships’ House in order to re-emphasise some of the existing recommendations and perhaps introduce new ones, and for us as a proper House of Lords to debate. The Government should then listen to what the Lords have said.

It is entirely possible for your Lordships’ House to refuse to admit somebody. A peerage has been given but we do not have to sanction immediate entry. There is precedent going back to the reign of Queen Victoria, when she tried to create a life Peer—in 1862, I think. I am not suggesting that we invite a confrontation by doing that immediately, but that in the interests of the House we have to do two things: first, to demonstrate that we are a proper, functioning House—which we are not at the moment—and secondly, to try to ensure a membership that is more in line with the other place.