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 Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 2:02 pm, 7th September 2020

We are clearly a long way from being back to normal. I endorse everything said by my noble friend Lord Cormack, because we need to get back to normal. We could get many more people in this Chamber, but we also need some willpower behind the need to get back to normal. A certain lassitude and reluctance to get things done seems to have descended on us. We certainly should not be having by-elections until we get back to normal. The Procedure and Privileges Committee will meet in December, I believe—certainly before this new Motion expires on New Year’s Eve. The middle of a vacation does not, in any case, seem a very good date for it to expire, particularly since the Deputy Lord Speaker may, in the tradition of his country, be somewhat busy on New Year’s Eve.

I would like the Procedure and Privileges Committee to look at the need for these by-elections and whether we should make time for the Grocott Bill to be heard. I listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, had to say, but the Grocott Bill will not remove a single Peer from this House: it allows them to die away, over the course of half a century. Some would say that that is an extremely generous way to treat them, but it has nothing to do with the Conservative Party.

We have to start standing up for ourselves. My noble friend Lord Cormack made reference to the Library and the rule brought in when Queen Victoria created a life Peer, and that was turned down. It goes back a lot further than that, however. I read the Library report, but there was also something in the New Statesman and I asked the Library for an account of what had happened in relation to life Peers. I read a debate from around 1860, I think, and I can inform the House that life peerages go back to the reign of Henry III, in the 13th century.

There have been regular life peerages. They used to end them by chopping off the heads of the Lords when they fell from favour. This is no longer recommended procedure, but I have had advice from an extraordinarily senior source to the effect that the sovereign creates but the House sits, and we would be within our powers to amend our Standing Orders to create a queue for Peers waiting to take their seats, as my noble friend Lord Cormack suggested. The size of the House would be determined and there would be a Burns-style distribution, based perhaps on previous elections or other criteria: there would be an allocation to each party.

At the moment I often look at the ranks of the Labour Party—my former party—and I feel a bit sorry for them, because they could do with strengthening, frankly. Democracy in this House relies on having a strong Opposition, not just strong Conservative Benches; it needs to be much wider than that.

I would therefore like to see this Motion passed and the noble Lord, Lord Burns—or, if he thinks it is a poisoned chalice, someone else—to look, in the way suggested, at the means by which this House can implement the desires it endorsed at the time of the Burns report. We have weapons in our armoury that could be used. Although it saddens me to say so, I do not think that the present Prime Minister will follow our advice unless there is some strength behind it—the ability to say, “No, you cannot do that” and the powers to stop it. Otherwise, we will be ridden roughshod over. I therefore support the Motion. I ask the Procedure and Privileges Committee to consider coming back to this House before the end of December with its thoughts, and that this House look at limiting our numbers, getting a legislative or rule-based way of doing it, and saying to the Government, “Fine, you create, but we will admit”.