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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:53 pm on 18th June 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 4:53 pm, 18th June 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

Many Members will be familiar with the Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election. The winning candidate, S. Baldric of the Adder party, stood to represent a constituency whose population consisted of three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin and a small hen in its late 40s. The candidate went on to surprise everyone by achieving 16,472 votes. I am of course referring to the plot of an episode of “Blackadder the Third”.

All very amusing, but that scenario is only slightly less absurd than the one referred to in the opening comments of Paul Scully: the election on 19 April 2016 of Viscount Thurso of Ulbster, who was one of seven candidates before an electorate of three. I am pleased to report that on that occasion at least the turnout was 100%. It gets worse, because despite being elected by only three people, Viscount Thurso actually boasts one of the largest democratic mandates among the 780 Members of the other place.

If that was the plot of a comedy series, we would laugh; if that was the situation in another country, our media would sneer; but that is what apparently passes for democracy in the United Kingdom in the 21st century. The situation is one that successive Governments have chosen to allow, and the response of the Government to the petition that we are debating shows that things are unlikely to change. They said:

“Whilst comprehensive reform is not a priority, the Government will also continue to work to ensure that the House of Lords remains relevant and effective by addressing issues such as its size.”

I argue that it is extremely difficult for the House of Lords to be relevant as long as it remains unelected. The fact that 169,000 people have signed the petition that we are debating shows that we cannot continue to kick the issue down the road or into the long grass. This historical aberration has to change.

We are told that, despite the lack of democratic accountability, the Lords at least do a good job—although there might be mixed views on the Government Benches about that at the moment. That is indeed true of some Lords. I have worked closely with many Members of the other place and have been extremely impressed by their contribution. However, I see no reason why, with such ability, they would not have a good chance of being able to continue to serve in public life were they to subject themselves to the will of the people.

Some in the other Chamber, sadly, are much less assiduous. In an age when the electorate is often criticised for its apathy, I was astonished to find that the record turnout for a vote in the House of Lords in recent times was only 3% higher than the turnout at the last general election. Even at their absolute best, one in five Members of the other place does not cast a vote. Furthermore, that exceptional turnout I just referred to is very much out of the ordinary. On average, only between half and two thirds of the upper House attend, and many Members have not spoken or voted in a considerable time. That they can do so without any apparent accountability is an affront to democracy and an insult to the public.