Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:02 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 2:02 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, it is not too unkind to say that, after 11 years in office, this Conservative Government do not have the greatest of records on constitutional reform. First, let us remember that, in 2011, they gave us the shameful Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, which resulted from a deal between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and proposed a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Secondly, also in 2011, we had another constitutional stitch-up, again with no pre-legislative scrutiny—namely the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This had the principal aim of giving the coalition Government a guaranteed five years in office.

I am happy to say that we got rid of the constituencies Act last year. Now this year, in the Queen’s Speech, we are told that we will get rid of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act as well. I cannot resist saying that the Government would have saved themselves a lot of time and trouble if, back in 2014, they had supported my Private Member’s Bill: the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (Repeal) Bill. At least it gives me the pleasure of uttering my favourite parliamentary phrase: I told you so.

As the House knows, a Joint Committee of the two Houses was appointed last November to review the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and scrutinise the draft government Bill to replace it. It was clear to many of us on the committee that the shambolic 2017-19 Parliament was, at least in part, due to the malign consequences of the 2011 Act. First, it gave a Government virtual security of tenure, even when losing on their major flagship policy by huge majorities. That would have been unthinkable prior to 2011. Secondly, it allowed that absurd period at the end of 2019, when a Government who had clearly lost the confidence of the Commons were unable to call a general election because of the two-thirds majority required by the Act.

While I welcome the Government’s plan to solve a problem in the Commons, albeit a self-inflicted one, I deplore their failure to address clear problems that we have here in the Lords. I will mention just two. The first is the size of the House. In his excellent all-party 2017 report the noble Lord, Lord Burns, said that the Lords, at 800-plus, was too big and should be reduced to 600 Members. This could be achieved without legislation but would require the active support of the Prime Minister. There is no point in reducing our numbers voluntarily if the Prime Minister simply replaces everyone who dies or retires. The lesson is simple: we cannot limit our size without legislation. I am very pleased that our new Lord Speaker is committed to raising this directly with the Prime Minister. In so doing, he can be assured of the support of the vast majority of Members of this House.

There is another piece of legislation required. In the next three months, this House will hold no fewer than six by-elections at which only those hereditary Peers who are on the register of such Peers are entitled to stand. At present, there are 209 names on the register; all but one are men. Yesterday, the House published an official notice on the by-elections to replace hereditary Peers. It ought to be compulsory reading for this House and preferably for a wider audience. It proves that satire is not dead. Please read it: Gilbert and Sullivan live on.

The first of the six elections will take place on 17 June—put that date in your diary. The result will be announced in this House, and three new Conservative hereditary Peers will then arrive, having been elected by 43 Conservative hereditary Peers already in the House. It is a great election; the first three all win. I wish that system had operated in the various general elections that I have lost. That is the system. It gets worse, but I do not have time to deal with it.

Three times in the past five years, I have tried to scrap these by-elections in Private Members’ Bills. I am delighted that I have come 11th in the ballot this year, so the House will have the pleasure of listening to the same speech, which I am slowly improving over the years, to deal with the problem. But my attempt to scrap the system has been thwarted every time, as the Government have refused to back it. Is it too much to hope that, in this Session of Parliament, the Government either introduce a Bill of their own or support my Private Member’s Bill, so that we get rid of this nonsense once and for all? The Procedure Committee might even help by suspending by-elections in the meantime, as they have the power to.

On two constitutional issues affecting the Commons, the Government have seen the error of their ways. But in the Lords, even where there is consensus on the size of the House and on elections, they have done nothing. Is it too much to ask the Minister to reassure the House that he understands the need for reform here and that he will represent us faithfully, by making this known to his colleagues in Government?