Moved by Lord Dubs
153: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—“Members of the House of Lords: voting at elections to the House of Commons (1) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a member of the House of Lords is not disqualified by virtue of that position from voting at elections to the House of Commons.(2) This section comes into force 24 months after the day on which this Act is passed.(3) This section extends to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I speak to Amendment 153 standing in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. On his behalf, I express his regret that he is not able to be here today. He is away on urgent matters, but I am sure he will be here at later stages of the Bill if we need to debate this again.
There is a very simple proposition in this amendment: that Members of this House should be entitled to vote. That is an argument that has gone on for many years. Indeed, I traced it back to 1699, thanks to the excellent report from the House of Lords Library, but it may have started even earlier. They have done a good job. They produced that report when I put forward a Private Member’s Bill on this subject. It passed this House, but I will come on to what happened to it when it got to the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, also put forward a Bill, but his was talked out. He and I are united in our wish to see progress on this matter.
The situation is anomalous. Part of the debate on this amendment has been covered in that on the previous amendments. I could have extracted some quotations in support of this if I had been quick enough to write them down. Members of this House can vote in local elections. We can vote for the devolved Administrations. We can vote in referenda. Previously, we could vote in European elections. It seems anomalous that there is one election in which we cannot vote. It is quite difficult for local government returning officers to know that we are not entitled to vote when they prepare the electoral list, as we are there for other things. I have never quite understood how they discover that we are Members of this House—they are clever people. At any rate, mistakes are sometimes made. Historically, Members of this House have voted and then there has been a bit of a row about it, because they were on the voting list and were not excluded from voting in parliamentary elections. It is an anomaly.
It is also an anomaly that Members on the Bishops’ Benches can vote. Though they may not exercise their right to vote for other reasons, they certainly have it. If we look abroad, United States Senators can vote for Congress, which seems fairly parallel to the position we are in. Indeed, according to that excellent House of Lords Library report, of the 189 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United Kingdom is the only country in which members of the second chamber cannot vote in general elections for the first chamber. We are the only country, yet some of the arguments against must apply elsewhere.
I agree that most of the British population are not aware of this. Indeed, when I talk to friends, I have to remind them that I am not allowed to vote when it comes up in conversation. I am fully aware that the masses who sometimes demonstrate in Parliament Square are not going to assemble there to support our right to vote. However, not every change in this country has to be the subject of enormous demos, much as I enjoy some of the demos and have been on them—that was a debate we had on the police Bill, and it is not appropriate today. The fact is that this is still an anomaly.
In preparing for today’s debate, I had to remind myself of some of the arguments against. There was a debate in 1936. It was introduced by a predecessor of a Member of this House, Lord Hailsham, and the proposal for reform was put forward by Lord Ponsonby, whose son is now in this House, so there is a tradition in this. They had a much longer debate than we will have today, I trust, for the sake of the Front Benches on both sides. The then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, said in talking about reform that
“it is not a wise thing to attempt to deal with a problem of this character piecemeal because, inevitably, you would get questions the answers to which might affect the attitude which your Lordships would take with regard to one particular proposal and the attitude you were going presently to take with regard to some other proposal on the other side of the picture.”
That is quite a complicated sentence, but I think it means he is against piecemeal reform. It is arguments against piecemeal reform that have bedevilled discussion on this.
I do not understand the argument why opposing piecemeal reform is a good thing. In our British tradition, pretty well all reforms are piecemeal, even from people who are on the political extremes. We normally progress piecemeal; we do things stage by stage. The argument that everything should be done in one go seems rather weak. I cannot resist quoting from the reply by the previous Lord Ponsonby. Admittedly, the proposition at that time was twofold: that we should have the right to vote; and that Members of this House should be entitled to stand in House of Commons elections. I would not suggest that at all, and most of the debate was about that second point: Members of the Lords being able to stand in House of Commons elections. Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede made this comment:
“It is perfectly absurd to say that this is a matter of the reform of the House of Lords or reform of the House of Commons. It is, if I may respectfully say so, an old trick of the noble and learned Viscount”— that is, Lord Hailsham—
“to use a magnifying glass in order to make a mole-heap into a mountain and then all the more easily to destroy it.”—[
I liked that phrase, so I had to bring it in somewhere into our debate today.
The point is that the actual arguments against have been mainly opposition to piecemeal reform, the argument that we should not cherry pick, as if cherry picking was some reprehensible human activity. The second argument is that we already have influence on legislation. Of course we do; so do American Senators. The point in an election is to influence who are to be the Government of the day. Legislation comes later. It is because we do not have the right to influence who will be the Government of the day that I propose this amendment. The Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote some time ago, when there was a coalition Government, to the then Deputy Prime Minister, who again used the piecemeal argument as one reason not to do it.
I shall be brief. I remember that one or two people sitting here today objected to my Private Member’s Bill that passed this House. I know who they are, and I can see them, but perhaps they have changed their minds. I speak like a right reverend Prelate: I like repenting sinners, and perhaps they are repenting sinners by now. My Private Member’s Bill passed here about nine years ago, but it then had to go to the House of Commons. There is a procedure in the House of Commons—not a very healthy one; most of your Lordships will know it. If a Bill from here goes to the Commons and is called, if one voice says “Object!”, it kills it. No argument needs to be put forward; indeed, the identity of the objector is kept secret, it is not revealed.
I wrote to several MPs who I knew tended to object as a matter of course and asked them not to. I was in the Gallery watching, and I do not know who shouted “Object!”, but somebody did. I have reason to believe that the objection was not Back-Bench but government-inspired, on the argument that the coalition Government did not want piecemeal reform, they wanted to wait until there was reform to everything.
This is such a basic proposition that nobody in their right mind can really object to it. The constitution will not be undermined. We will not change the structure or powers of the Lords. All we are doing is giving us as individuals the right to vote. Many of us canvass and campaign in elections but then, come election day, I have asked people to vote but we are not able to vote.
As a token of my seriousness, the original version of my amendment said that it should be enacted within 12 months. I thought that was pretty difficult for returning officers and local government to get the voting lists right, so I have made one change and it now says that it should be brought into being in 24 months. This is a serious proposition; I urge your Lordships to support it.
My Lords, I generally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He makes some extremely powerful speeches in this House and when he is talking about refugees, I am generally 100% behind him. But I do oppose this amendment, and I oppose it for one simple reason that I will put before your Lordships very briefly: we do not have the vote because we are permanent Members of Parliament. It is as simple as that. United States Senators are not permanent members of the Senate: they come up for re-election on a rotating basis every six years. We do not.
There is another argument to be had. I am personally—and your Lordships know this—in favour of a non-elected second Chamber. I am in favour of that for many reasons, including the gridlock that would inevitably emerge if there were two elected Chambers. But that is not what we are debating this afternoon. We are permanent Members, we are here, and it is for that reason and that reason only that we do not vote for the other House: because we have this permanent responsibility. Whatever the result of the next general election—in 2024, 2023 or whenever it happens—we will still come back here. That is the reason why it is illogical and unnecessary to argue that we should have a vote in general elections. It would make absolutely no difference to the result, because even if everybody in your Lordships’ House cast a vote around the country, you are talking about significantly fewer than 1,000 votes—I wish we were talking of no more than 600 but that, again, is another issue.
So, I hope we can move on quickly and stick with the Bill in this particular phase as it is. Like others, I send my warm good wishes for the speedy recovery of my noble friend Lord True, and I assure my noble friend Lord Howe that he has my total support on this issue.
My Lords, I came into this Chamber absolutely not caring about the outcome of this—I was waiting for subsequent groups. But actually, having heard both speeches, I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. In spite of all the respect and affection I have for the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I cannot see that what he said makes any difference at all. So what if we are permanent? We come and go, we do not always survive very long here, we can retire or die, so I do not see the relevance of what he is saying. And, of course, he pointed out that if we all voted it would not make any difference. We all have our views and we all vote in other ways in other elections, so I salute the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for his thorough examination of this problem and I completely support him. I had never given it a thought before—I had not minded about not voting, but now I do.
My Lords, I am sure we all hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, lasts for a long time in this House. She is a great asset to this place, particularly given the brevity and pointedness of her speeches. I have to say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Cormack, because there is no doubt that he is constitutionally absolutely correct—and he has the better argument.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, hit firmly on one point in his speech: in the registration document which we all have to fill in to vote in local elections and so forth, often, there is no category for “Lord”, “Lady” or “Baroness”. I do not know what other Members’ experience has been, but I had some difficulty, living in Hammersmith and Fulham, filling this in. I rang up the registration office and said, “I can’t vote in national elections—are you aware of this?” They said, “There is no category on the computer that allows for this, so we will have to put you down and just rely on your native honesty that you do not actually vote”. Well, I can assure the House that I am an honest person, as are all its Members. None the less, there is a discrepancy and a difficulty here, and I hope the Minister can draw it to the attention of others.
In the six general elections since I have been a Member of this House, I have always found people to be very surprised that I was unable to cast a vote in them, even though I campaigned in all of them. They find it ironic that I have been campaigning for my party, and its predecessor the Liberal Party, for some 49 years, but I now no longer have a say on who will be the Prime Minister of the country.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I am not an opponent of piecemeal reform of this House; I am actually rather in favour of radical reform, and quickly. However, if we had objected to piecemeal reform, this place would be the same as it was in the 19th century. All the progress on reform of your Lordships’ House has been piecemeal, and this amendment would also be an example of piecemeal reform. The principle of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was debated extensively when it formed the basis of two recent Private Members’ Bills, and there was a clear logic to the proposition. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 ensured that Peers lost the power of an absolute veto on legislation, or to determine any financial measure. As Peers, we have no opportunity to vote at a general election to help decide who becomes Prime Minister. Therefore, in those debates on the Private Members’ Bills, I supported the principle of Peers being able to vote in general elections, but I also emphasised that it is not my party’s immediate priority. There are many measures in this Bill which may have considerable impact on future elections, but this is not one of them. As the noble Lord, Lord Horam, pointed out, if membership of the House were evenly distributed across 650 constituencies, there would, on average, be one extra voter on top of some 73,000 others. Therefore, it would be unlikely to make a great deal of difference to the election outcome—although it was of course Churchill who said that “one vote is enough”.
The issue we are debating is really one of principle. As an issue of principle, it is ironic, in my view and that of my party, for any Peer to argue for their right to vote in general elections without also arguing for the right of our country’s voters to have a say in who becomes a Member of this House. There are other priorities. Before we argue for our right to vote in general elections, we must address the problem of 9 million people being missing from or incorrectly recorded on the electoral registers. Our last debate showed that there is a real need to address major inconsistences in the right to be included in our electoral registers. For these reasons, we support this amendment but, while it is logical, it is not our priority.
My Lords, one of the things which today’s debate has proved is that logic has never been the basis of enfranchisement in this country or of its constitution. The constitution is what it is because of the way it has developed. As far as the logic is concerned, let me try this. The weight of my vote to elect someone to the House of Commons may, theoretically, be one in 73,000, but in rejecting government legislation it is one in 800—or, given how many noble Lords are present, one in 400. When I was asked to come here, I had a choice. I could have said, “No, I am not coming to this place because I would lose my right to vote”. I chose to come here and that is a very big sacrifice because, as noble Lords have said, we are here for life. Of the 193 upper Houses to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred, not one is unelected, although maybe a few people in them are unelected. However, we are unelected and, therefore, we are here.
They follow us, which is quite nice; they are part of the Empire. I would rather that we be removed from here and replaced by elected Members—this is the futile movement for which I have fought all these years. However, the privilege of being legislators for life is so great that we must make a small sacrifice for it. Not being able to vote at a general election is one such small sacrifice.
My Lords, I did not speak on the Bill on Second Reading, because I was not able to be present, although I have followed debates very closely on a number of issues. I would like to ask the Minister a couple of questions on this issue. My noble friend Lord Dubs, in his persuasive speech, certainly convinced me that it needs to be looked at in the light of two things in particular. First, he mentioned that Bishops were able to vote, which I was surprised at. That means Bishops who are Members of this House can vote in parliamentary elections.
None the less, while they are Members of this House, it seems rather odd that they are allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, leads me on to the second point, which is that we are able these days to take retirement from the House of Lords, and many people have done that. I am sorry that I do not know the answer to this, but is it possible for those who are no longer active Members, and are not able to speak or vote in the House, to vote in parliamentary elections? If not, that is surely an anomaly that needs correcting. The Government should look at this issue again, in the light not only of the speech by my noble friend Lord Dubs but of the anomalies that exist and seem odd in the current situation.
My Lords, I support the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Rennard. I am not going to repeat the arguments; I support them, and the House has heard them. This anomaly can be dealt with without opening the Pandora’s box of reform of the House of Lords. I spoke in support of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and I heard the then Minister’s answer. I do not want to be too presumptuous, but I think I can hear the Minister’s response already, with all the same arguments rolled out. I simply ask him one question: what is the practical downside of accepting this amendment? What is the danger? What is the risk?
My Lords, I also apologise for not speaking on Second Reading; I was unable to. I was not planning on speaking in this debate, but the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised the point of some of us being here permanently. I have been here a mere 30 years, but I cannot actually see the fact that I have been here 30 years as a legislator making that much difference to the country. I would love to say that being a Back-Bench Liberal Democrat is the bedrock of our whole system, but I cannot really put that forward. When I came here, it was the mantra that only Lords, lunatics and criminals could not vote, but that is no longer the case—though it depends on what bracket you put us in.
I have one question for the Minister. I am standing as a candidate in the local election, and my wife is standing as the agent for the Liberal Democrats in Islington. The complexity of the forms you have to fill in, with the understanding of the minutiae and detail, is incredibly difficult. What is the cost to the country of us being taken off the electoral register? Everybody has to be trained; it has to go through the whole system; it has to be part of the process. The cost is not insignificant for 800 people to be treated in a different category. Of course, it goes into a number of different areas. If the Minister could give us an indication of just how much our privilege of being taken off the register, so we can carry on with this view that we are a permanent part of the process, would cost, and whether that is worth it, I would be very interested.
My Lords, I have a question—and I did not come in to speak either. Since I have been a Member of this House, which is 20 years, there is at least one Member—I think only one—who was here when I arrived, subsequently got elected to the other place and is now back here. Yes, he is here today. At the time that he left this place and got elected to the other place, was he able to vote in the election he stood in? I am not sure what his status would have been.
My Lords, we talk about piecemeal reform, and changes to this House have not necessarily been a result of legislative change or even reform. I have mentioned in previous debates the excellent book by Antonia Fraser about the debate on the Great Reform Act 1832. What I found most fascinating was that most Members of the House of Commons were sons of aristocrats and were put there by their fathers to have proper training to come into the House of Lords. Of course that was in the days when the powers of this House were great, as noble Lords have mentioned.
What recently shocked me even more—and I have cited this too—were the diaries of “Chips” Channon, who, when he was writing pre-war, leading up to the 1938 Munich debacle, mentioned that most of his friends in the House of Commons were sons of aristocrats who eventually ended up in this House. I hope things have changed. Constitutionally, things have radically changed, quite rightly, in the powers of this House, which can no longer challenge the democratic mandate of the House of Commons. The question is not simply about whether we are here for life or not; it is about what we do here. Even where we have particular circumstances of power, I am one of those people who would not use it to challenge the democratically elected House of Commons.
My noble friend made a very powerful case, and the point that struck me was that not many people in the public out there are aware that we have not got the vote. I remember campaigning in the 2017 election and a young, radical activist stopped me and asked if I had voted yet. When I explained I could not vote for Jeremy Corbyn, she nearly issued an internal disciplinary notice. Once I had explained, I was eventually forgiven. But I think it is a point worth making that most people assume that everyone in this country has a free and fair democratic right to vote, and it just seems ridiculous that we do not.
My Lords, this amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who is joined on the Marshalled List by my noble friend Lord Naseby, brings us to a topic on which each of them has tested government policy on a number of occasions in the past, including, as I recall and as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned, through my noble friend’s Private Member’s Bill in 2019. On the latter occasion, my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham set out the Government’s response, and I therefore hope it will not come as a shock to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that my response today bears an uncanny resemblance to the one given to the House previously.
I understand and respect the case that noble Lords have articulated on this issue. However, I am afraid it is not a case I can accept, and the reason is clear and straightforward and was well articulated by my noble friend Lord Cormack. Noble Lords will be aware that although, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly said, the role of this House has changed over time, our place in Parliament still gives us a position of influence not held by other citizens. My noble friend Lord Sherbourne asked what the downside would be of accepting the amendment. Enfranchising noble Lords to vote in general elections would give Peers two ways of being represented in Parliament. Members of this House have an opportunity to debate and vote on legislation. To provide a vote for Peers in UK parliamentary elections would undermine the principle that all citizens are equally represented in politics.
In our democracy, everyone should have a voice, but the Government’s view is that Peers who are Members of this House have that by virtue of their participation in this Chamber. That principle has been upheld for more than 300 years, including by the courts. It has not altered over successive Governments: in fact, in the debate on his Private Member’s Bill nearly three years ago, my noble friend Lord Young reminded the House that, as recently as 1999, Section 3 of the House of Lords Act explicitly enfranchised hereditary Peers who are not Members of this House and disfranchised Peers who are.
The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked whether Peers who have retired from this House have the right to vote. My understanding is that they do, because they ceased to be parliamentary Peers at that point.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about the cost of taking parliamentary Peers off the register. I doubt that that cost has been computed by anybody—of course, there must be a cost—but it is a very considerable privilege that we as Peers have, and I for one would argue that it is not unreasonable for that privilege to carry a public cost.
I think the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was that a distinction must be made on the register between different types of election, and that that carries a cost; he can correct me if I am wrong in assuming that.
This House is a respected voice that adds depth and, I hope, wisdom to our legislative process. It allows us, as its Members, full participation in the life of the nation. The Government therefore have considerable reservations about this proposed new clause, and I ask the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I never thought that so many different sorts of opinions would come out of the woodwork. It has been absolutely fascinating. The arguments have been somewhat different from the last two or three times we debated this issue. I just want to comment on them briefly.
As regards the voting list—this is a technical point—my understand is that there is no obvious way in which when we register we can declare that we are Members of this House. Somehow, in some local authorities, the polling clerks are aware of it but, in others, they are not. I am always mystified by that; it is not clear. I have known of people who have not been debarred from voting and could have gone to vote—they did not do so but they could have—simply because it was not obvious to the polling clerks that they were Members of this House.
On my noble friend Lady Quin’s comment about Members of Parliament, again, it is purely a technicality that they cease to be Members of Parliament during the period of an election campaign. Nobody knows about it except for a few nerds like us—sorry, nerds like me. It just means that they are technically not MPs. However, for all practical purposes, of course they are; they still get representations made to them, constituency casework and so on. Even during the election campaign, they cannot just say, “No, I’m not prepared to do it.”
The noble Lord cannot get away with that. When Parliament is dissolved, as distinct from being prorogued, the House of Commons does not exist and everyone must seek election or re-election to it. As the noble Lord knows only too well, there are occasions when Members of Parliament lose their seats—so of course it is right that they should have a vote for somebody in Parliament when there is no House of Commons. He is really not giving the argument the justice it deserves.
Well, we are getting into the realm of pub quiz questions. I am perfectly aware of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made. My argument is that the public are not aware of it. It is a distinction that I did not know about until the first time I was trying to get re-elected in the Commons; I had no idea. I bet that 99.9% of the public would think that this is an amazing anomaly and would not attach very much weight to the argument, although I am perfectly aware of it. All I am saying is that, sometimes, these are very technical points. They do not take away from the fact that this is an anomaly where we, as individuals who in every other respect are members of a democracy and can vote, cannot vote in general elections.
This may have been the case for 300 years, but we unearth a lot of issues that we have had for hundreds of years and do not necessarily always go along with them. We change them from time to time. Women used not to have the right to vote. It was a tremendous victory when the suffragettes won the right to vote. So I would not use the argument that it has been like this for 300 years and therefore we are not going to change it.
I would like to come back to this on Report but, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 153 withdrawn.