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House of Lords: Abolition — [Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 18th June 2018.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 4:30 pm, 18th June 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 209433 relating to a referendum on the abolition of the House of Lords.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. As I normally do, I will read the text of the petition for the Official Report:

“Give the electorate a referendum on the abolition of the House of Lords. The House of Lords is a place of patronage where unelected and unaccountable individuals hold a disproportionate amount of influence and power which can be used to frustrate the elected representatives of the people”.

As of a couple of hours ago, 169,215 people had signed the petition. The timing of the debate is apt because at the other end of Parliament, the Lords are currently exercising an incredible amount of influence and power over the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, as they debate the amendments that have been rejected by this place. We will see what comes back to us later.

I congratulate the petitioner, Rob McBride, who is in the Gallery today with his wife. I just had a snatched conversation with him—I hope to catch up with him after the debate—about what motivated him to start the petition. I was told it was purely the argument, applicable before the EU withdrawal Bill came to the Lords, that in this day and age there is no place for appointed members of a legislative body. I hope to talk about the options, and about the discussions that we have had, that the Lords themselves have had, and that I have had with a number of university and school students regarding the issues and practicalities of Lords reform.

I suspect that many of the 169,000 people who followed Rob’s lead and signed the petition were specifically motivated by the Lords’ consideration of the EU withdrawal Bill, because many signatures came quickly after it. I suspect that a lot of people were concerned about how the Lords had started to overstep their remit—a view I share. I believe that some of the amendments to the Bill sent to the Commons, such as those relating to the European economic area and the customs union, were not in the scope of the original Bill; such matters are properly considered in other legislation, not least the Trade Bill, which is coming before us again in a few weeks’ time. However, considering and voting on provisions such as so-called Henry VIII clauses is well within the Lords’ remit. That may be uncomfortable for the Government and for Members who, like me, voted to leave the EU and want to get on with it, but the House of Lords exists not for my comfort or for the Government’s, but to scrutinise legislation and to return it to the Commons, hopefully in a better state.

That the House of Lords has overstepped the mark in throwing back certain amendments is evidenced by some of the comments made during the debate. Lord Bilimoria said, when considering amendment 49, that

“Thanks to this amendment, Parliament would have the ability to stop the train crash that is Brexit.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 April 2018;
Vol. 790, c. 1854.]

It is not appropriate for the upper House to thwart the will of the people and to get us to consider what are effectively wrecking amendments to a Bill that was clearly in our manifesto and that we need to get passed in a timely fashion if we are to leave the EU in an orderly way. Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb said in the same debate that she had intended to vote for an amendment, but the speeches in favour of it had turned her against it, as there was clearly “more of an agenda” than just allowing more oversight of the process.

Oversight of the process is what the House of Lords is for. The Lords do many different things, but in the Chamber itself about 40% of their work involves scrutiny—debating, asking questions, and responding to ministerial statements and such things. The other 60% of their time is spent improving draft legislation, primary legislation and statutory instruments. From speaking to a number of Members of the House of Lords, it is clear to me that they spend a lot of time on, and take a lot of interest in, statutory instruments—probably more so than the Commons does, where we typically rely on a Government majority to get them through. The Lords take their role of scrutiny and adding their expert view very seriously.