That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, just a year ago I introduced a Bill with exactly the same objective as the one I am proposing today. Regrettably, despite very strong support from all parts of the House, the Bill was blocked in Committee by a small number of Peers. My motive in reintroducing the Bill is unchanged: the by-election system, which provides for the continuation—effectively in perpetuity—of a block of 90 hereditary Peers is absurd and indefensible. In the 12 months since the last Bill, there have been significant developments that make the case for scrapping the by-elections even more compelling.
Let us remind ourselves briefly how the system works. There are 90 elected places. If a vacancy occurs among the 15 hereditary Peers who were originally officeholders—that is, Deputy Speakers—the electorate consist of all 803 Members of the House. The remaining 75 hereditaries are distributed among three party groups and the Cross-Benchers. The electorate for each by-election then consist of the hereditary Peers who are members of the group where the vacancy has arisen. As a reminder, the numbers are as follows: for a Conservative vacancy, 48 hereditary Peers can vote; for a Cross-Bencher, it is 30; for a Lib Dem, three; and for Labour, three.
Try explaining that nonsense to members of the public as a mechanism for recruiting people to serve in Parliament; I guarantee their jaws will hit the floor. It makes the d’Hondt system look simple, and given that the system is so manifestly absurd, is it any wonder that it results in the most absurd by-elections? I cannot resist repeating the example I gave last year of a Lib Dem by-election following the death of Eric Lubbock—the first person, I might add, who raised the issue of trying to scrap these by-elections. It was held in April 2016, when the number of candidates was 11 and the electorate was three. By way of comparison, before the Great Reform Act 1832, even Old Sarum had an electorate of seven. In comparison with the Lib Dem by-election, that is a metropolis.
I can hear Members asking: “But your Bill failed last year, so why waste parliamentary time again?”.
Well, I will give the answer—and I hope that Members will give their answers during their speeches as well. Even in the 12 months since the last Bill, there have been a number of developments, all of which make the case for ending the by-elections stronger, and the case for retaining them inexorably weaker—so much so that any neutral observer would surely conclude that it is not so much a matter of whether the by-elections will cease, but when.
The debates on the Bill last year, and the discussions that surrounded them, have shown beyond doubt that there is overwhelming support in this House for the reform that I am proposing. Support has come from Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Cross-Benchers—including a very large number of hereditaries themselves, who have come to me and, understandably, find it difficult to speak on this subject. I would love to know what the actual numbers were among the hereditaries of those in favour and those against the change. When the opinion of the House was tested in Committee—of course, on a Friday, when Divisions are rare—the first vote on the principle of the Bill resulted in a defeat for its opponents by a majority of 93. There can be no reasonable doubt that the number of Members of this House who are resolutely opposed to this Bill is minuscule.
The weakness of the Bill’s opponents could not be better illustrated than by the tactics they employed in Committee. In the three months last year between Second Reading and Committee stage, just six amendments were tabled. Then, lo and behold, on the day before the debate, inspiration and creativity overwhelmed two Members of this House: the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, tabled 50 amendments overnight. My Lords, we all know what that is about: a tiny number of Members knowing they were in a hopeless minority in the House and knowing that they could not win by votes so they had better win by tricks. Fifty overnight amendments—if you are going to wreck a Bill, do it a bit more subtly.
This time, my appeal to anyone who is thinking of trying these tactics is to please think again. They do neither noble Lords’ nor the House’s reputation any good. They should win by the arguments and in the Division Lobbies, not by tricks. It is the opinion of the House that should prevail, not the opinion of one or two of its Members.
I also say to anyone who is thinking of wrecking the Bill this time to please think of the adverse publicity for our House that that will attract. I will give three examples from the media since then:
“Hereditary Peers Set To Ambush Bill Aimed At Scrapping Their 'Laughable' By-Elections”.
Another headline is:
“‘An embarrassment to our politics!’ Fury as Lords prepare to elect new hereditary peer”.
Finally, we have:
“Tory aristocrat joins Parliament for life by winning 143 votes in a ‘Blackadder’ by-election”.
I am the last person on the planet to argue that we should change a good policy because of some bad newspaper headlines, but it is noticeable that there is absolutely nobody, apart from a handful of people in this House, who is prepared to defend these by-elections. The argument for their continuation is friendless, and surely that is because simply there are no such good arguments.
I challenge anyone today who is thinking of opposing my Bill to not give us a history lesson. Instead, come clean and explain to us, in 2017, what added value the by-elections provide to our parliamentary system. Tell us precisely why we continue to replace the 90 hereditary Peers. Tell us what the distinctive characteristics of the 198 people on the Register of Hereditary Peers are that mean that we need to provide them with a reserved place in our legislature? Once elected, what is special about their parliamentary talents that distinguishes them from other Members of the House? To make it personal, what is the justification for the heir of a hereditary Peer in this House having a one in 200 chance of becoming a member of the legislature while for everyone else in the country, that chance is something like one in 90,000? Tell us, here and now, 18 years after the House of Lords Act 1999, what it is about these by-elections that enhances and enriches our parliamentary democracy. If they cannot answer these questions, surely it is time to call it a day and stop playing King Canute.
There have been significant developments in the last 12 months that have strengthened the case for my Bill. Among them has been the evidence provided by yet more by-elections. For those of us in favour of scrapping them, the by-elections are the gift that keeps on giving. There have been two such elections this year. The first, on 21 March, was for a hereditary Peer to be elected by the whole House. The second, on 18 July, was for a Cross-Bench Peer, when only hereditary Cross-Benchers could vote. It is the first of these two by-elections that provides the richest vein for satire. This, remember, was an election for a place in our Parliament—or rather, a parliamentary by-election. The figure for the electorate was 803 and the number of votes cast was 436, meaning that the turnout was 43%. By way of comparison, it is worth noting that in the general election in June, the lowest turnout in all 650 constituencies was Glasgow North East, with 53%. The propensity to vote in a House of Lords by-election, where voters need only walk down the corridor from their offices and put a ballot paper in a box in the Committee room, is 10% lower than the parliamentary constituency with the lowest turnout. That, to me, provides pretty clear evidence that the majority of Members of this House feel no great attachment to the practice of re-electing hereditary Peers.
Then there was the little matter of the ballot itself. No fewer than 27 candidates put themselves forward, 19 of whom got fewer than 10 votes. Under the alternative vote system there were 25—yes, 25—rounds of balloting before the winner was declared. What is more, the same person led in all 25 ballots, so if the voting system had been first past the post, the same result would have been achieved with a lot less trouble. I just thought I would point that out. There was a 43% turnout, 27 candidates, 25 ballots, and only hereditaries could stand. In 1999 when the original Act was passed, surely no one could have intended that 18 years later we would still have that system of recruiting people to our Parliament, and with no prospect of an end in sight.
The other matter is the very important Motion that this House passed last year, moving that,
“this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved.”
As a result of that debate, the Lord Speaker established a committee under the noble Lord, Lord Burns, to consider the issue. The committee is due to report in October. What has that to do, you may well ask, with my Bill to end the by-elections? The answer is that if we are to reduce the size of the Lords to around 600 Members so that it is smaller than the Commons, surely we will have to amend the legislation that preserves in aspic 90 places for hereditary Peers. If we reduce the size of this House without changing the law on the hereditary bloc, the proportion of hereditaries would rise from 11% to 15%. For us to embark on an important modernising measure to reduce our size with the result of significantly increasing the proportion of hereditaries really would be a case of Alice in Wonderland.
I should point out that we are not the only ones looking for ways to reduce our size and of the way in which that might involve the hereditaries. Since I introduced my Bill last year, the size of the Lords and the issue of the hereditary Peers have been discussed several times in the Commons, in a Select Committee inquiry, a Private Members’ Bill, a Westminster Hall debate and a 10-minute rule Bill. Most recently, on Wednesday this week, the Commons gave the First Reading to a Bill introduced by my right honourable friend David Hanson, which is scheduled for Second Reading in April. The Bill would end the right of all hereditaries to sit in the Lords with effect from 31 December 2019. Surely the initiative for sensible reforms of this House should come from this House. With the help of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, we have had a number of very good reforms in recent years and I believe that with the Lord Speaker’s committee due to report next month, there will be more to come. We should reform ourselves, not wait for someone else to do it for us.
I submit that the case for ending the by-elections has strengthened inexorably since I introduced my Bill 12 months ago. We now have the opportunity in this House to initiate a simple sensible reform that would hurt no one and cost nothing. My Bill was first in the ballot and we are at the start of a two-year parliamentary Session, so parliamentary time should be no obstacle to the passage of a simple two-clause Bill. The case is overwhelming, the time is right, so let us do it. I beg to move.
My Lords, as a hereditary Peer I have a brief say at the beginning of this debate. We have a long day of three debates and a large number of speakers ahead of us. I remind the House that there is an advisory speaking time of five minutes for this debate and I urge speakers to adhere to that.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has said, this Bill is very similar, if not identical, to the one he introduced about a year ago, which eventually did not pass. I am afraid that my position on this Bill is very much the same as it was on the last one, so I apologise if what I now say is something of a repetition of what I said last year.
All this goes back to the House of Lords Act 1999. At that time, your Lordships’ House was some 1,200-strong: split roughly half and half between hereditary Peers and life Peers. The Bill of that year, as originally introduced, simply removed all hereditary Peers from your Lordships’ House without any qualification. That proposed Bill inevitably met serious opposition in your Lordships’ House. Indeed, given the political numbers of that time, doubtless the Opposition could have rejected the Bill outright. However, Lord Weatherill, assisted by Lord Cranborne—now the Marquess of Salisbury—and my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, was able to persuade the then Government that a deal needed to be done, which it was, to the effect that 92 hereditary Peers would remain, topped up as necessary through by-elections until such time as House of Lords reform was complete.
The then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, declared that agreement to be,
“binding in honour on those who gave their assent to it”.—[Official Report, 30/3/99; col. 205.]
Your Lordships may ask what was meant by “complete” House of Lords reform. I would say that the Bill introduced back in 2012 by the then coalition Government was indeed just that. Had that Bill reached the statute book, it would have been the end of the 1999 agreement. Unfortunately, that Bill did not pass through the other place and no further attempts of that nature have been made since.
There is now talk of further reform, for example along the lines proposed by my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Norton, which I would not necessarily oppose—not in principle, anyway. In addition to these ideas, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has pointed out, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is now chairing a Speaker’s Committee to examine the size of the House, which will surely have a bearing on the matter. I regret that that Committee does not include a hereditary Peer; but the noble Lord was good enough to agree that I and a couple of my hereditary colleagues could give evidence to his Committee, which we did. We look forward to his report.
My Lords, I have noticed that the most ardent defenders of the status quo are certain noble Lords whose hereditary peerages are of the least antiquity. Is that because they hope that the effluxion of time will clothe them as legislators in some flimsy legitimacy?
I would have to reflect on that question before I answered it.
My Lords, against the background I have described, I have to say that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is inappropriate and untimely. I shall do my best to persuade your Lordships accordingly.
My Lords, I shall begin by making it clear that there is nothing ad hominem about this debate. We are extremely fortunate to have hereditary Peers providing expertise on development, aid, science, transport, the environment, learning, health, defence, law and business, among many other fields. Those Peers also regularly contribute to a host of other issues that come before the House, more often than not with a particular kind of disinterest that makes their contributions all the more valuable.
Today, we are discussing the principle of maintaining the 90 or so hereditary peers in perpetuity by means of elections. We have heard the argument that it was a promise made at the end of the last century that must be honoured until full-scale stage two House of Lords reform takes place. That argument becomes weaker by the day. Over the last decade and more, the House has changed significantly by means of incremental agreements; now, we will possibly be discussing a degree of enforced voluntary retirement to reduce our numbers. We already have the power to debar those convicted of serious criminal offences—changes that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. The circumstances whereby this odd situation arose are well-known: it was a deal in the interests of getting the main elements of the House of Lords reform Bill passed in 1999. The crucial amendment was tabled by the late, and much lamented, Lord Weatherill, who himself subsequently proposed a Private Member’s Bill to end hereditary by-elections.
In 2007, a survey of Peers resulted in 71% agreeing that hereditary by-elections should cease; yet support in the Chamber for the subsequent Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill—CRAG—was notable by its absence, thereby allowing a small group of Peers to talk it out. The view that any legislation now would be a breach of faith, if not contrived, is certainly not put forward with the best interests of the House in mind.
Phasing out hereditary by-elections is never going to be an easy fix, but there are some legitimate concerns, one of which is the potential imbalance between the two main parties, were there to be a cessation of by-elections. Another is that we, as a Chamber, might be spurning unique experience or expertise by abolishing by-elections. Surely there could be a system whereby hereditary Peers wishing to sit in the Lords could apply, like others, to be Members based on criteria such as expertise and willingness to contribute regularly. That system could be weighted to reflect a more equitable balance between the parties.
I know that a hustings system, which helps to select hereditary peers who offer expertise, is now routine, but it is still the operation of a hereditary principle. That is what sits uncomfortably with the image of the House of Lords that most of us wish to promote—that of a spare, experienced and expert body of people, carrying out a vital scrutinising role and thereby acting as a constant check on Government powers.
It is too easy for critics, of whom there are many, to lob brickbats at us: we are unelected; we are too many; we are unrepresentative; we are elitist. It is this latter charge that we could relatively easily dispense with. In the past few years, a number of mechanisms have been employed to derail efforts to confront the hereditary issue. These have included what cannot be called other than filibustering, and of course the continuing heavy reliance on the commitment made before the passing of the 1999 Act. Perhaps a further factor might be the unwillingness of many in this Chamber to state publicly their belief that the practice of by-elections should now be phased out.
A rational, thought-through argument upholding the hereditary principle has yet, in my view, to be articulated. I therefore hope that this Bill will continue its passage through this House, and an accommodation will be reached that reiterates the value of the hereditary Peers we are fortunate to have but recognises—perhaps sadly—that the principle must now come to an end.
My Lords, “It feels like ‘Groundhog Day’,” is an expression that is bound to be used as we debate this issue again. I certainly feel like Bill Murray, who played the weatherman in that film who finds himself inexplicably living the same day over and over again. As the US Congressman Mo Udall once famously commented, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it”. I expect to hear the same arguments over and over again, as little has changed since last December, when the House clearly expressed the view of its Members that a Bill such as this should be allowed to make progress and be considered by the House of Commons.
On 9 December last year, the amendment aimed at blocking the progress of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was defeated in this House, as he said, by 95 votes to 26, with 78% of us voting to make progress on the Bill. My first point is simply that every speech made on this subject, on every side of the debate, references respect for this House. Therefore, the will of the House should now be respected and we must put an end to the practice of holding by-elections to maintain a substantial hereditary presence in the House indefinitely, long after those hereditary Peers chosen to remain in 1999 have passed away.
My second point is that almost every Peer who speaks in this Chamber says that we must also respect the primacy of the House of Commons, yet a small number of Peers seek to block the House of Commons from being allowed even to debate the Bill. The principle of it has already been voted on by the elected House: the principle of ending the by-elections to top up the number of hereditary Peers was voted on by MPs in January 2010, when they supported the measure as it was proposed in the then Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. They did so overwhelmingly, by 318 votes to 142. The House of Commons has already voted in support of exactly what is in this Bill, by a majority of 176, or by 66% to 34%—again, an overwhelming majority.
Those who are defending the rights of hereditary Peers to vote to elect more hereditary Peers to be a part of this legislature, should perhaps take note of the previous votes of this place and the other place on this very issue. They should allow this Bill to go forward to the Commons, without further filibuster bringing about further damage to the reputation of this House.
Thirdly and finally, I want to challenge those suggesting that a deal seen as a temporary measure, and secured by the votes of both Houses in 1999, must be binding for all time. Some noble Lords regard those votes as being irrevocable, but I believe that those same noble Lords also subscribe to the principle that one Parliament cannot bind any successor Parliament; for if it could, what would be the point of our meeting to consider much of the legislation that we do consider, if an issue has been decided in the previous Parliament, let alone one five Parliaments ago?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he think it significant, as the previous speaker said, that Lord Weatherill himself tried to change this situation later?
I am grateful for that intervention; that is a highly significant point. It is very clear that some of those most involved in the negotiations of 1999 would not favour our being where we are today, and would favour this Bill making progress. The argument that we cannot discuss this issue or make progress, because of an agreement in 1999, is absurd in terms of parliamentary democracy.
What, for example, would be the point of our debating the EU withdrawal Bill, if the European Communities Act 1972 had been binding on successor Parliaments? Would the noble Lords fighting to preserve hereditary by-elections also be arguing that we cannot consider leaving the EU, because of votes by both Houses ratifying a treaty 45 years ago and subsequently confirmed by the 1975 referendum? I suspect they will not make that argument.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was, like me, appointed to this House on the whim of his party leader. Does he really think that is more legitimate than being elected from a body of hereditary Peers?
The noble Lord considers it a whim—I suspect many other noble Lords would disagree. There are at least some criteria by which people who are elected leaders of political parties make appointments. A hundred years after the attempts to reform the House of Lords before the First World War, when it was announced by the then Liberal Government that we would end the hereditary principle to replace it with the popular one, I do not think we can justify continuing to maintain the hereditary presence in any way. It seems that we must let this Bill proceed and we must vote for a minor, but important, reform to improve the credibility of our Parliament.
My Lords, I rise to support the Bill, moved so ably and wittily by my noble friend Lord Grocott. I want to start by asking a question that many people outside this House are asking: what is the House of Lords for? What is our purpose? Some Members opposite, no doubt including the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, think that it is for wise men—particularly men, reluctantly accepting women now—to advise the Commons, to offer our wisdom, but ultimately accept our impotence. I do not believe that is how the second Chamber of a bicameral system should operate. It is entirely ridiculous. We have no authority whatsoever. We have no legitimacy whatsoever. Ultimately, this place has to be reformed. I am glad that my party—the Labour Party—is in favour of an indirectly elected senate of the nations and regions. On other occasions I will argue the case in favour of that.
Meanwhile, as we acknowledge in the Labour group in the Lords, and indeed other people have acknowledged, there is a need for reforming our existing structure. We have set up a committee to look at the size of the House. I am not sure that it is the wisest thing to have as chair someone who, though a very distinguished former civil servant, is not one of the best attenders of the House, to see how we actually operate. But there we are; we have that.
Meanwhile, one of the things that I hope will be looked at is ending the participation of all the hereditary Peers, as well as ending the by-elections. Those who should legitimately sit here or who now have a place to offer some wisdom or advice in the House could become life Peers, on the clear understanding that they are, like most of us who have been appointed, working Peers. We should see the second Chamber as based on the concept of working Peers.
Working Peers, however, need some assistance. I was sitting in my office the other day in Millbank House, and the telephone rang. Naturally, I answered it, and someone from a large company asked, “Could I speak to Lord Foulkes’s diary secretary?”. I said, “Yes, you are speaking to Lord Foulkes’s diary secretary”, and I fixed myself an appointment. We do not have diary secretaries; most of us do not even have secretaries.
I had some correspondence with the Clerk of the Parliaments recently, just the other day, suggesting that he might second one of the members of his extensive staff to help me. He thought I was joking, but I am not. People outside this House genuinely believe that, like MPs, we have three or four people working for us: doing our research; making our appointments; dealing with correspondence—I said this in my letter—and emails and phone calls; dealing with invitations; arranging our travel; and dealing with our committee papers, for those of us who are active on committees.
Then there is dealing with the ever-increasing demands of Black Rod—who is not my favourite person in this House—for security. We have to inform security about every visit, which I can understand as far as security is concerned, but it does impose additional burdens on us. How do we deal with it? We have absolutely no one to help us. It is ridiculous in the 21st century.
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. Can he tell the House whether he would like to employ anybody to write his speeches?
I was going to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, as my noble friend, but I am not sure whether I should. The speeches would certainly be much better than they are at the moment. But he is right. I had two speeches yesterday in Grand Committee—one on St Helena and the other on Brexit—and here I am speaking today. If we want to participate we have to do research, do the work and try and think of—
Something original to say—
Something witty to say in our speeches. My noble friend Lord Grocott has some help to do that, although most of it is his own work. Turning to the Bill—
Previous speakers have gone on even longer. Turning to the Bill, I will just say that I strongly support it. It is a step—just the first step—towards reform. Indeed, it is the first step towards sanity.
My Lords, the noble Lord has got a whole series of different complaints which are not relevant to this debate off his chest, and I hope he feels better for it, but I hope he will forgive me if I do not follow him exactly in what he had to say.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has based his case, as he often does—I beg your pardon, as he always does I think—on logic. That is his habit, but logic is not the only guide to our constitution. From a practical point of view, I believe that the House has gained from having hereditary Peers and from the system of electing new ones to replace those who pass on. We all know of the valuable service of individual hereditary Peers, some of whom came back of course as life Peers—I see the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, the holder of one of the most distinguished and longest peerages in the House, who sits here as a life Peer, in his place. All of us could list a whole number of hereditary Peers by name who play a great part in this House—the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, emphasised this in her speech. As we have been reminded, and as many of us recall, the system created in 1999 was expected to be temporary. But as we also all know, in the British constitution, when temporary expedients work, they tend to last. This one has lasted, in my view because it has produced Members who make valuable contributions to the House.
But whatever one’s point of view on that, a central point of the argument or the criticism made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others is that in some cases when a hereditary Peer dies, there are only three electors under Standing Order 10(2). If the House wishes, we can change that without legislation. It is enshrined solely in the House of Lords Standing Orders. The legislation requires there to be by-elections but does not specify the electors for a by-election or some of the other arrangements. That is all in Standing Order 10. We can amend that Standing Order, so that, for example, all vacancies are filled by election under Standing Order 10(3), with the whole House voting instead of just the appropriate hereditary Peers as now for many vacancies—that is, elections conducted under Standing Order 10(2). That would of course increase the electorate substantially. If we were to do that, it would be important that the excellent Carter convention, which preserves the proportions of the different party groups, should continue under such a proposal. That could be included, if we wished, in the changes to the Standing Order to bring this about.
This plan is entirely within the authority of this House and would not involve the Commons, nor the legislative procedures inevitably involved in the wider proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. It would involve no expenditure of government or other time in the House of Commons and very little in this House—the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and I have reason to know about the difficulties with parliamentary time and its allocation by government. As I say, this would take very little time in this Session, in which, although it is a long one, parliamentary time is going to be extremely scarce.
My Lords, I regret the introduction of the Bill, but not as much as I regret the fact that we have not had a further Bill, after the 1999 Bill, to reform this House. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and I are on the same sheet of paper when we think what the future of the House should be. We hope that something will happen fairly soon, and it will considerably improve the House.
No, I listened to the noble Lord for 12 minutes and I only have five.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, intervened on the Farriers (Registration) Bill on 26 April this year, and your Lordships can find what he said in cols. 1392-93. That was a Bill that I had taken forward, and he was basically asking whether I would afford the same courtesy to this Bill of his, which was due to come forward, as the House was affording to mine by not putting down an amendment. As a result of that intervention I got a number of emails from people asking: “Is this really how the House of Lords works? Is it, ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back and we’ll get the legislation through’?”. My response was very firm in saying, “No, that is not the way I operate”, and I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that I will be putting down amendments.
I commend the noble Lord for his consistency in bringing forward this Bill and I hope he will commend me too for my consistency, along with that of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne. Whether it be the Steel Bill, the Hayman Bill or the Grocott Bill, we have been utterly consistent in our opposition to this particular proposal. The reason is that the agreement back in 1999 was hugely important. It resulted in a compromise that many people did not like but, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine Lairg, the then Lord Chancellor—whom I am delighted to see in his place again today—said, compromises are not necessarily totally acceptable but they are the practical way forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said in his speech that the agreement was binding for all time. That is absolute rubbish; that was not the compromise at all. The compromise was that it was binding in honour for those who voted for it until such time as there was further reform. I believe that the longer the by-elections take place, the more impetus there will be for a major reform of this House. It might take longer than 20 or even 25 years, but if the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, succeeds, we will turn ourselves into a totally appointed Chamber, very keen to defend that position. I think that that is quite wrong for the British constitution in this day and age.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, whom I also call a friend, said that it was principle. I say to her that it was not; it was a commitment binding in honour, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, said so twice in two separate paragraphs. That is the reason for my objection to the Bill and I will continue, as I have done in the past, to oppose it.
My Lords, I support the Bill. The House should be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for pursuing the subject, because these by-elections are doing severe damage to the reputation of this House. We do important work here—scrutinising legislation and in committees—and by and large we do that work very well. However, the credibility of this House is undermined by the farce, and it is a farce, that membership can be won in a by-election in which a handful of electors vote for candidates whose eligibility depends on the accident of birth. The by-elections are quite simply an embarrassment to this House.
We should also bear in mind a point that has not yet been mentioned in this debate. Hereditary peerages, with very limited exceptions, can descend only through the male line. Only one of the hereditary Peers in this House is a woman: my esteemed colleague on the Cross Benches, the noble Countess, Lady Mar. Her title is an exception to the no-women rule, as most Scottish peerages can pass to a daughter if there are no sons. The noble Countess has been one of the 92 since 1999 but no woman has been elected in a by-election since 1999, and there is only one woman on the register of nearly 200 hereditary Peers who have put themselves forward to be considered at future by-elections. I simply cannot understand how it can be consistent with basic principles of equality for this House to maintain by-elections when eligibility as a candidate is effectively excluded for women. This is relevant to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Epsom, as to whether by-elections are a less satisfactory means of becoming a Member of this House than appointment by the Prime Minister. Yes, by-elections are less satisfactory for many reasons, but one of them is that the appointment procedure does not effectively exclude women.
The main argument that appears to be advanced in opposition to the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, is a historical one. The deal was done in 1999. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard: there is no other area of law and practice where Parliament feels itself bound by what its predecessor did. Why should the approach adopted by Parliament a generation ago bind this one? This House in 2017 is no more bound by what was decided in 1999 on hereditary Peers than it is by decisions taken in 1999 on the economy or foreign policy.
The only other argument that has been advanced this morning is that advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, who says that hereditary Peers have individually been valuable Members of this House. No doubt they have, but there will be nothing to prevent the leaders of the political parties or indeed the House of Lords Appointments Commission putting forward the names of hereditary Peers for membership of this House if their individual qualities make that appropriate.
The Bill raises a clear issue of principle on which the House will need to take a view. I echo the hope expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that noble Lords who do not support the Bill will resist any temptation to table a series of amendments that will unnecessarily take up time and may prevent the Bill making progress. Let us instead have a full debate in Committee on the only issue raised by the Bill: should these by-elections be retained or abolished?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, introduced the Bill with his customary wit and made an extremely good case. It is one with which I find myself in substantial agreement. He was slightly unfair on himself, though, because he did not stress two things that he stressed last year when he introduced a similar Bill. First, he talked about 90; his Bill in no way touches upon the two hereditary offices of state, the Lord Great Chamberlain or the Earl Marshal. He has deliberately excluded them for constitutional reasons, and I think that is very sensible. Secondly, he did not spell out as clearly as he did last year that no single hereditary Peer sitting in your Lordships’ House at the moment is threatened by the Bill. This is not an expulsion Bill; it is merely a Bill that says in future we should not have these by-elections. I believe the case he has made, and which has just been echoed persuasively by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is one that should carry your Lordships’ House.
I believe it is a great pity if two or three, in a House that has a number of 803, seek to block what quite evidently is, or was last year, the will of the majority. I echo those calls that have been made to my noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Caithness: please do not filibuster, particularly at a time when this House has potentially the most important task that it has had for over a century. We are going to have legislation brought before us on which the individual and collective wisdom of this House could have real influence without in any way challenging the acknowledged supremacy of the other place, so do not let us be involved in protracted navel-gazing. If there is a broad consensus for the Bill, let it go through.
I address my next remarks to my noble friend on the Government Front Bench. He may well say at the end of the Bill that the Government have no intention of giving it time. Indeed I suspect that is what he will say, although he will say it extremely elegantly. If the Government will not allow the Bill to pass then it will not pass; the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, knows that as well as we all do. However, there is something that the Government could and should speed forward. This has already been touched on by my noble friend Lord Cope, and it is a point that I myself have made many times in the past. What brings the House most into disrepute in this area is the ludicrous size of the electorate. We had 11 candidates and three voters, and a similar thing would apply if we had a vacancy on the Labour Benches. That makes no sense. It is impossible to defend. No one with an ounce of logic in his brain could begin to defend it. So let us, at least as a short-term measure, turn the whole House into the electorate when there is a vacancy. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, dealt wittily with the fact that 43% was 10% less than the poll in the lowest polling constituency in the recent general election. Nevertheless, if there are 800 voters and 400 or 500 of them vote, that is infinitely preferable to the farcical spectacle that we have at the moment.
I support the Bill and hope that it will pass but, if it does not, I hope that at the very least the Government will heed what my noble friend Lord Cope and I have said: we must do away with these tiny electorates. Let no one talk about precedents as things that bind for ever. I should love to hear the views of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, on this, and perhaps one day we will get them, but I remember the pledge made by Winston Churchill that he would restore the university seats. He said it; he meant it; he did not do it. It is time to move on.
My Lords, when I was elected one of the 90 in 1999, I never supposed that I would still be here 18 years later, because we were promised at that time—at least, I think it was a promise—that there would be further stages of reform. There was one attempt by the coalition Government, which failed in the House of Commons. There was no attempt in the following 11 years of the Labour Government to bring any further reform forward. As for the matter of the hereditary by-elections, which is the subject of the Bill, as has been said, they were the result of a deal done among those involved at the time. They do not have to go on for ever, because if we get a second stage of reform they will stop.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others who have said that some of the by-elections have been curious, to say the least. At least on our side of the House, we have a reasonable-sized electorate of about 50, and we have elected some very capable people, one of whom is sitting at this moment on the Government Front Bench, but I take the point that my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Cope have made that there could be a better way of dealing with the size of the electorate.
I am delighted that the Lord Speaker has set up a committee on the size of the House, which has been referred to. The real problem of the House in the public perception is its size. It is worth reminding noble Lords that when the hereditaries were effectively abolished in 1999, the total size of the House was 666. It has now grown to just over 800, and there can be no more stark example of that, I fear, than the Lib Dems, who in 1999 had 54 Members. They now have nearly double that number. In 1999, they had 46 MPs; they now have 12. I hope that the committee, which I think is to report next month, will have something to say about how we deal with the size of the House. If it makes any recommendations concerning the hereditaries or the hereditary by-elections, we will have to see what it says, but if they are part of a more extensive proposal I would be inclined to go along with whatever is suggested. I do not know whether it will make any recommendations about hereditaries—we will have to see—but the timing of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is slightly unfortunate given the imminent publication of the report. At least it will be out before we get to the next stage of the Bill and, for what it is worth, I assure the noble Lord that I will not be part of any filibustering attempt, if one is to be made.
My Lords, I only wish that other noble Lords were prepared to give that same assurance. We might then indeed make some progress. As the wags say, this is déjà vu all over again. I was surprised when my noble friend Lord Grocott told me earlier that it is only the second time that he has introduced this Bill, as it seems to have recurred a number of times. I looked at what I said last time and, to my surprise, I adopt all I said at that time.
In my view, the case for the Bill is overwhelming. The status quo is indefensible—but of course, that does not stop a handful of noble Lords from opposing it. To choose members of the legislature simply by accident of birth is surely absurd, as absurd as going on to the top deck of an omnibus and choosing men—as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, it is only men. It would perhaps be better to go into the dining room of the Athenaeum and choose just the men who happened to be there. I make no comment on the quality of the existing hereditaries, save to say that I am very impressed by them, but we do not know whether the sons of those same hereditaries will be as competent and as diligent as them.
Surely the effect of an election is that you sort out the best candidates.
I am not wholly sure that that is always the position in the House of Commons, and, given the smallness of the electorate, it is unlikely to be the case in the House of Lords.
It is rumoured that there is in Whitehall an official book—a number of Members of your Lordships’ House have been officials—from which civil servants draw when they wish to block an initiative and prevent necessary change. There are many devices set out in this book. One is, “This is not the appropriate time”. If not now, when? Another is, “This is not the appropriate vehicle”. If not, what is the appropriate vehicle? Then there is, “There should only be a comprehensive package of reform”. How comprehensive is comprehensive? Clearly, only incremental steps are feasible in practice. “We agree in principle, but the drafting is deficient”. Well, accept the principle of the Bill. “A deal was done”. Are we to say that the deal was cast in stone for all time, whatever happens? Surely, the drafters did not imagine that 18 years on, we would still be in the same position.
I look forward eagerly to hearing what particular devices the Minister will draw on in his reply from the same litany of excuses for inaction—perhaps it will be a whole mixture of these—but the best argument which has been used, the only one of any substance, is that a committee is sitting whose recommendations we await. I hope that the remit of the Lord Speaker’s committee is sufficiently wide to include the hereditaries. However, if it is not, as my noble friend Lord Grocott pointed out, the 90 hereditary Members who are here would increase their numbers proportionally, and therefore the whole position would be even more anomalous. Perhaps we can be enlightened on that.
We know that the Lord Speaker’s committee will make its recommendation next month, but generally we do not know what the Government’s position is on the Bill, save that almost certainly they will oppose it. We know we have had the threat that a certain very limited number of Members will move amendments and presumably filibuster with the object of killing the Bill, and that should not be so. We go around the world trying to teach colleagues in other countries about democracy. Surely, this is an area in which we are mightily deficient, and we should change it as soon as practicable. I support the Bill.
My Lords, I speak as an elected hereditary Peer. I was elected not by my party but by the whole House. In fact, the election in which I stood was won by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and Lord Strabolgi and I tied for second place. Therefore, I regard myself as having some species of such electoral legitimacy as is available to people in my position. I accept that no Parliament can bind its successor; all types of Members of this House should agree with that. At least Members who have previously been Members of the other place will agree that elected people should be bound in honour to keep to what they were elected on, and to stick to their manifesto—a controversial point.
One thing that has not been mentioned in this whole debate is the really big issue between this House and the other House. The increasingly important feature of our constitution is that the second Chamber, whatever it is, must be independent of the other and in a position to criticise, warn and to a certain extent delay. That is our function, and our power to exercise it has been eroded over time to the extent that, when we had the great dispute over statutory instruments in the last Parliament, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, argued that it was the other place that must control things without interference from this place. I very much regret that, although I warned him before the Division that he was going counter to the Cunningham committee’s catalogue of the conventions between the two Houses, I slavishly voted with him—but thereafter I was adamant.
Why did I say that I would stay here? I said that I would stay to ensure that, whatever the final decision made about reforming this House, it would not reduce beyond the point to which it already has been reduced the power of this House vis-a-vis the other place. So, while I do not regard myself as statutorily or conventionally bound by the decision of this House in an earlier iteration, I regard myself as bound by my undertaking not only to your Lordships who are still here—I do not mean still alive—but to all those who, voluntarily and with some complaint, gave up their rights as hereditary Peers so that this country might modernise itself. The duty of persons such as myself is to assist in getting root-and-branch reform of any root or branch of this House that needs changing.
It has been suggested that my noble friend Lord Young may say that this Bill is not the right vehicle for reform, and I entirely agree—but I think that it could be changed, which would be quicker than bringing in a new Bill. If it cannot be, I am entirely on the side of my noble friends Lord Hamilton and Lord Cope, but, if it can be, I think it should be. Five desiderata were agreed by the Cormack/Norton group, the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, when last year it brought out a paper. I shall not recite them now because I shall run over my five minutes, and I have also run out of voice. But if the noble Lord’s Bill were to have them incorporated, I would support it. If he does not feel able to do that, I have a Bill in the pipeline and I shall be happy to offer it to your Lordships as a means of getting some really workable and desirable reforms to take us out of the ridiculous area we are now in.
My Lords, I, too, begin by applauding the hard work of hereditary Peers in this House, such as my noble friend Lord Howe, which is exemplary. This is the first time I have spoken on this issue, but the current system undermines the credibility of all the hard work which your Lordships undertake on behalf of the British public.
In January this year, Her Majesty’s Government outlined their argument in response to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that suspending these by-elections would result in a change to a wholly appointed House, but I struggle to understand how that argument can be raised against this reform. Can Her Majesty’s Government really be saying that the public wish the hereditary principle to be part of the selection criteria for their representatives in the second Chamber and would want it retained—otherwise the evil of a wholly appointed House would befall us?
Your Lordships’ House and Her Majesty’s Government are here to serve the public, and I have seen nothing to suggest that Her Majesty’s Government have consulted the public or have their views or interests as the basis for at best their technical opposition to this Bill. In fact, I think that the reverse is true: there is a very strong anti-establishment and anti-elite sense in sections of the UK public, and having part of the legislature selected by birth or entitlement in its literal sense is an anathema in the 21st century. Can my noble friend prove that the public think otherwise? If the Government are not prepared to consult, they should drop their opposition to the Bill.
However, more important to me than the objection to the selection criteria for a role in a 21st century legislature is the gender and racial discrimination that the current system of selection embodies. I join wholeheartedly with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in relation to gender discrimination. Although peerages are exempt from the equalities legislation, for the mother of Parliaments to have a gender discriminatory element in its selection is unjustifiable. As a Member recently selected for the CPA UK executive, I believe that it is contradictory to the millions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money spent through the CPA, the IPU, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, DfID and the FCO on parliamentary capacity building, when I have to hide sections of the selection criteria from visiting delegations as I am so embarrassed and would not want them to follow this example.
For the record, I do not vote in these elections when no woman is on the ballot paper; should a woman be on the ballot paper, I will consider all candidates on merit.
Further, and perhaps more controversially, no information is held by the Journal Office on the racial profile of this closed group of potential Members of your Lordships’ House. I rely merely on the news report from 2013 of the future first black Marchioness of Bath to say that the group is currently entirely white.
I recognise that this discrimination is de facto—in fact—not de jure. There is no evidence that there is any racial discriminatory element in any letters patent. However, de facto it will take at least 50 years to change both the electors and the candidates for election to your Lordships’ House. Imagine the party groups, the Appointments Commission, or the Bishops recruiting on such a basis. If Her Majesty’s Government are seriously saying to this House that moving to a fully appointed House is such a radical reform which they cannot support or give time to, and that this is more important than selecting from a whites-only group, then I am speechless.
I conclude with a disclaimer. I disagree with the noble Lord Grocott. The retention of this system is not just about a handful of Members of your Lordships’ House who may attempt to filibuster—though I would like to be put to the test on outlasting them—but the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government who, in our constitutional system, control the legislative agenda. Peers overwhelmingly do not want it, MPs would not support it, and so the gender and racially biased system remains at the behest of Her Majesty’s Government. Why a Government led by a Prime Minister who cares passionately about racial and gender injustice lacks the political will to sort this out is hard to explain.
Sadly, it took 50 years from when women could become MPs for them to enter this House as life Peers, in 1958, and it was not until 1963 that female hereditary Peers could be admitted. The Government found legislative time for a voluntary retirement age, for expulsion of criminal Peers, and for women Bishops—I am happy to see one in her place—to jump the queue. Next year, we celebrate a century of women in Parliament as MPs; surely Her Majesty’s Government will have acted by then.
My Lords, I am in favour of reform of the methods of getting into the House of Lords, but this Bill will ensure that we have an appointed House of Lords within a generation or shortly after. This has not been the clearly expressed intention of the House of Commons whenever it has voted on this issue. That is my major stumbling block because I, like many others, think that lawmakers must have democratic legitimacy and therefore be elected. This is not satisfied by an appointed House.
The trouble is that there are Members of both Houses who think that the other place might lose its primacy if we end up having an elected, or majority elected, House over here. That is why they want to see an appointed House, even if it is via the back door as is happening here. The composition of an appointed Chamber will inevitably be heavily influenced by the Civil Service, which will end up drawing up the guidance for the appointments body and, probably, determining the membership of it.
The next challenge is that the Prime Minister is actually the head of the executive branch—the Civil Service. He or she may also sit in the House of Commons as the leader of the majority party, but these two roles should not be confused. It is democratically indefensible that this person should be able to exert immense influence on the membership of one of the Chambers of the legislature whose purpose is to pass laws which are there to control their own Executive. That is not a good idea in any way at all. If we want greater democratic authority, and we should, we should first remove the Prime Minister’s powers of appointment via the honours system and then we can see how a replacement appointments system works in real life. If we like it, then the hereditary Peers could retire.
I had thought that most Members of both Houses of Parliament would be believers in a two-chamber democracy with checks and balances, but I now realise that a lot of people are either Commons supremacists or they think that central state control is not a problem. However, that is not why we are in Parliament.
I agree that the by-elections process is flawed, and we should consider the thoughtful ideas put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for reform of the Standing Orders. We could also alter the balance of places between the parties based, say, on the total number of votes cast for each party at the last election, while preserving the 20% of independents through the Appointments Commission. All of this would be possible without primary legislation.
By the way, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, might be amused that I am sitting here because of my mother who sat before me: I am a Scottish Peer. The Queen sits on that Throne as Queen: the royals can also do this because of James VI—I think you call him James I.
Our small proportion of hereditary Peers was put here with a purpose: to ensure further democratic—I remember those words being used—reform of the House of Lords. It is my duty to try and see that. The fact that it is taking a long time for the other place to come up with an acceptable reform is not our fault, but until they do we hereditary Peers must stay or it will not happen. I will vote for a satisfactory, sensible, sane solution which encapsulates democracy at its core. This Bill is not that and is a dangerous step in the wrong direction.
My Lords, there are two main premises to this Bill. The first is that the hereditary Peers’ by-election is a ludicrous and, to some, embarrassing measure that is past its sell-by date, and the second is that this is one small piece of incremental reform that your Lordships can enact without too much fuss, to modernise the House, and show the world how relevant we are. It is true that the by-elections are a bit odd, and may look even odder to outsiders, but they are no more half-baked than some of the other reforms that the Blair Government made such a mess of. There are lots of oddities in our constitution, but it is important not to look at them in isolation, but in the round, as a whole.
The more I look at your Lordships’ House in the whole, the more I have to conclude, reluctantly, because I am fond of it as it is, and even fonder of it as it was, that it does not work as well as it could. Sitting through our interminable debates on reform of this House, I have heard so many speakers tell the House and themselves what a very good job we do. Sadly, I am afraid that I do not agree. We do not do a bad job, but it is not as good a job as we could do or used to do. Our general and Back-Bench debates, which were often of such extraordinary quality and depth that they really were listened to around the world, and influenced thinking and policy-making at the other end of the Corridor and beyond, are now all too often pretty turgid stuff. Overlong speakers’ lists result in speeches so short that they are almost meaningless or, worse still, a series of individual statements, bearing little relation to previous speeches, and often followed by a ministerial wind-up on what often appears to be a completely different subject.
Does the noble Lord agree with me that it would be appropriate for Members to pay attention to the Companion, which states that speeches should not be read?
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his comments, as I always am. I will pass them on to all noble Lords who may be tempted to read. Sadly, I am so blind I cannot really read any of it at all.
It is Questions that should not be read, not speeches.
My Lords, I do not wish to get involved in that debate. The one initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is much more interesting.
Nowadays we also have unedifying and tetchy Questions—the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, may know a little bit about that—which seek and elicit little information of any use to anybody, but serve only to allow the usual suspects to grandstand, and junior Ministers to practise repeating the same bland, Civil Service jargon.
More importantly, it is difficult to conclude that we revise legislation as well as we used to, with a never-ending stream of Second Reading speeches in Committee, and too many important matters decided on Report on the Whip, without any reference to constructive input from the Back Benches. This is not, as some suggest and have suggested again today, because the House is too big. As we all know, it is actually rather smaller than it was 50 years ago. It is not a problem of quantity, but rather of quality. That is not directly because the number of hereditary Peers was reduced—by 90% on paper, or 45% in practice—but is a consequence of their departure en bloc. If the existence in the House of 92 Peers who owe their seats to their birth is an anomaly, it is not actually an outrage. I do not find that most people around the country are particularly horrified or embarrassed by it; they do not really think about it very much. What is an outrage—a genuine constitutional outrage—however, is that the Prime Minister who has the majority, or at least the control, of the other House, retains virtually sole power of appointment to it. That is a matter worth shouting about.
The red top newspapers complain that this House is an old people’s home. They are not far wrong although they do not seem to have worked out that that is because your Lordships’ House has increasingly become a retirement home for Members of another place since the Life Peerages Act was introduced in 1958. In the old days when this House had 1,200 Members, 10% were retired Members of Parliament. Now we have 800 Members, of whom 25% are former Members of Parliament. There is nothing wrong with Members of Parliament individually—I even have a few friends who were MPs—and they are perfectly suited to the House of Commons. However, in your Lordships’ House, and in too great a number, they are an absolute menace: first, because, by their very nature, they want to do things and change things when they would be far better employed just paying attention, and, secondly because they think that being a Member of this House is a full-time job, so they turn up all day, every day and think that they ought to speak in every debate even when they have nothing original to say. That is why this House appears to the uneducated outside observer to be full to overflowing.
This House is often—erroneously in my view—referred to as a House of expertise. Of course, it is not. What it was when I first came here was a House of Members with a wide range of experience and independence of mind and attitude. That is why the Whips could not dominate it as they do the House of Commons. Where you have a group of experienced and independent-minded people, you will inevitably find that they have one or two areas of expertise, and that is what the casual observer saw and often remarked upon.
Members of Parliament by their very nature, after years of subservience to the Whip, are less comfortable with exercising their free will, which is so frowned upon at the other end of the Corridor. Their skill is not in revising legislation because, unfortunately, the House of Commons no longer deals with legislation, but rather in adversarial party politics, which is what we do not do here, or at least used not to. That is why the conduct of business has become so unruly and discourteous, aping the manners of another House.
I accept that MPs find this House more comfortable but it is not about their comfort or indeed my pleasure. It is therefore essential for the health of our system of parliamentary democracy that this House corrects and completes the reform that has led to this disastrous state of affairs. Some argue that incremental reform is better than none at all but it is clear to me that, whether deliberate or accidental, incremental reform of the type that this Bill seeks to achieve would make proper wholesale reform much less likely. That is not in the interests of this House, of Parliament or of the British people. I will therefore oppose this Bill.
My Lords, as an elected hereditary Peer who voted for the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999, I feel bound to oppose this Bill for the same reasons as put forward by my noble friend Lord Elton and others. I have the highest regard for the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, but regret that he insists on bringing this matter up again at this time. I repeat what I said when we last debated this matter only last December—namely, I do not believe that the public view the presence in this place of 92 Peers by succession as any more offensive than the presence of around 700 Peers who sit here by appointment. Furthermore, I do not think it is correct to argue that the hereditaries who sit in your Lordships’ House have any less legitimacy than the life Peers. It is now very competitive to enter this House if you happen to be a hereditary Peer. I think the last by-election on the Deputy Speakers’ list worked very well. Noble Lords were able to interview the candidates at a hustings before casting their votes. They certainly do not get the chance to do so in the case of Peers who are appointed to this House.
Furthermore, the hereditaries who sit in your Lordships’ House are generally younger than life Peers, at least when they take their seats. They are more geographically representative and I believe that their link with history and tradition adds to their legitimacy. It is a good thing that prime ministerial patronage and nomination by party leaders are not the only way by which people may become Members of your Lordships’ House.
Following those arguments, does the noble Viscount think that we should have more hereditary Peers?
My Lords, as I mentioned, I voted for the passage of the House of Lords Act as a reasonable compromise and I believe in incremental reform, but the reform agreed was that 92 hereditaries would remain pending substantive reform of your Lordships’ House, which was understood by all to mean the adoption of an elected or partially elected House.
There is one area where I would support changes to the present system of by-elections. I see no reason why Deputy Speaker by-elections are open to all Peers whereas vacancies in the party blocs are chosen only by the surviving hereditaries. I would support the widening of the franchise of all by-elections to include the life Peers in each party bloc. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out that it may be seen as absurd to elect a legislator with an electorate of three or four and this change would correct that. It is most surprising that he did not mention the firm and binding agreement reached at the time of the passage of the House of Lords Act in 1999. If your Lordships were to agree to pass this Bill, it would be a very clear breach of that agreement.
In introducing his Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that nobody thought in 1999 that the by-election system would still be operating in 2017. However, nobody thought in 1999 that by 2017 no substantive reform to your Lordships’ House would have taken place. The noble Lord said that a small number of Peers had blocked the passage of this measure effectively in perpetuity. That reveals that he thinks that the present system will continue in perpetuity, and that the House as presently constituted will never be replaced by a wholly or partly elected House. He observed that if the membership of your Lordships’ House remains at 92 but the total membership is reduced to 600 as a result of the adoption of any recommendations which may be made by the Lord Speaker’s commission, it would mean that the proportion of hereditaries entitled to sit would increase from 11.5% to 15%. However, he omitted to observe that immediately after the House of Lords Act 1999, the proportion of hereditary Peers was 13.75%, and that this proportion has progressively declined as the size of your Lordships’ House has increased.
If your Lordships’ House should adopt a scheme for reducing its size to around 600, which involved the retention of a slate of Peers from which certain Members would be selected to sit and vote, I would be most happy for the 92 to remain as members of the larger slate rather than for all of them to be entitled to sit and vote. I believe that the best way to protect the reputation of the House, especially at this time, would be for the noble Lord to withdraw his Bill. I shall certainly continue to oppose its passage.
My Lords, I join noble Lords on both sides of the House in congratulating my noble friend on bringing forward this Bill once again. As a personal friend of his for almost 50 years—I hope that I can refer to myself in such terms—I think that he is in grave danger of getting his fingers burned for the second time. Given the speeches we have heard from the other side of the House, it is apparent that there will be substantial opposition to the Bill, and that that will be conducted in the same deplorable way as it was a year ago.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on her speech. I fear that she will not have endeared herself to most of her colleagues, particularly the hereditaries, but I applaud her courage none the less. I think that there are three female speakers out of 20-plus speakers in this debate, which illustrates the point she sought to make about your Lordships’ House.
I marginally commend some of the speeches made by hereditary Peers. All of them have managed to fan my fading embers of class warfare, particularly my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who does this on a regular basis. They always manage to do that when they speak in your Lordships’ House. Listening to them reminds me why I joined the Labour Party all those years ago. We heard a wonderful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, who sought to take this House back to not the last century but the one before, I would have thought. It is somewhat unwise, if I might have the temerity to say this to the noble Lord, to refer to speeches in the present-day House of Lords as predetermined, turgid and boring when you are reading every word yourself. One is inclined to think that that is indeed the pot calling the kettle black. As for the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, I had the privilege of hearing him speak on this matter on two occasions. Again, to proffer some advice as a former railwayman, he ought to get out more. If he spoke to one or two more people about the composition of this House, they might well edge away at best, and at worst resort to violence. So I urge him to be careful.
We are time-constrained, and much of what I wanted to say has been said. However, I return first to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who, unaccountably, failed to respond to the rather mischievous intervention from my noble friend Lord Howarth. I referred to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, as an arriviste some time ago, because his hereditary title does not compare in length, for example, to that of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. I have long since up trying to convince the noble Earl in these debates of the sensible nature of the Bill, but I returned, more in hope than expectation, to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, because he has been here a long time. He plays an important role; I have watched him going around the building on numerous occasions—a word here, an elbow there, nudging and fixing, and he does it extremely well. But it does not entitle him to permanent membership of your Lordships’ House. Nor does he justify the preposterous electoral system that has been so rightly condemned on both sides in this debate.
I do not want to write the response of the noble Lord, Lord Young, for him, but we all know what it will be. As my noble friend Lord Anderson indicated, some degree of sympathy will be expressed for the Bill. He will congratulate my noble friend Lord Grocott on his lucid and witty manner in moving it. He will say that the Government are not particularly against it— but of course they will not be for it. Of course, he is a former Chief Whip. I never attained those heights; I was, I must admit, a Whip in the other place—one of these deplorable characters so rightly condemned by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft— but both I and he know that the advice which, as Chief Whip, he would have given to any Prime Minister when it came to Lords reform would be, “Don’t touch it with a bargepole”. If the Blair Government, with a majority of whatever it was—300—could get rid of only 92 hereditary Peers, there is not much hope that this lot will reform your Lordships’ House given the current political situation in the other House. I am sure that in his lucid, emollient and always listenable way, the noble Lord, Lord Young, will sympathise with the Bill but will tell us that the Government cannot do it.
As for long-term reform of your Lordships’ House, the first time I heard that discussed was in a Labour Party meeting 50 years ago, and it has not been reformed very much since. I am not a gambler, but I would wager a few pounds that it will not be reformed in any significant sense in the lifetime of any of us who are participating in this debate today. So all speed to the Bill as far as my noble friend is concerned, but I fear that like the man who put the candle out twice, he will get his fingers burnt a second time.
My Lords, I am too polite to return the noble Lord’s words to him, but his entertaining speech rather reminded me of why I joined the Conservative Party. I do have a beef, which is that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, came first in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills and I came 60th out of 61. Therefore I am a little vexed that he has used this privilege of coming out top to rehash last year’s mashed potatoes—the Bill that failed. The garnish is different but the effect is the same. I am a member of the Procedure Committee of your Lordships’ House but I do not speak as a member. However, we might, in looking at the ballot system, see that it does not privilege someone who had a Bill the previous Session to bring it back in the following Session. Perhaps, as we have been told by many noble Lords in this debate, opportunity should be spread a little wider.
The noble Lord Bill has several defects. First, in my judgment—many have spoken on this—it removes the incentive for agreement on final reform that was deliberately left in the statutes of this land in 1999. The 1999 agreement secured the programme of the Labour Government, in which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was PPS to the Prime Minister. Perhaps he knew something about it. Under that agreement, hundreds of our Members left. However, the basis of it was that they would remain and be replaced, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, as “a guarantee” that a final reform of the House would be agreed. That agreement was, as the noble and learned Lord said,
“binding in honour on all those”,—[Official Report, 30/3/1999; col. 207.]
who came to subscribe to it. As one who played a part in negotiating the details of it, I feel so bound and I oppose the Bill.
I am always interested to listen to my noble friend Lady D’Souza when she speaks on matters that affect the reputation of the House. However, I strongly reject her statement that this sense of honour is any sense contrived. It is not contrived, and many people hold it firmly. I also disagree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, which was a typical lawyer’s point—a correct point—that of course Parliament is not bound: the law can be changed by Parliament. But there is a world beyond the square mile around the Inns of Court, and in politics it is sometimes not what you can do but what you should do. This agreement should not be repudiated.
I agreed with the speech made by my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley, which I thought was extremely interesting, as did many others in the House, and a matter that might be looked at. The original reason for the strange colleges is because, I recall, it was pressed for by the Government. The Labour Party was concerned that Labour Peers would not be elected. That would not be the case, and it could be re-examined.
My second objection to the Bill is that it would create an all-appointed House by stealth. That has never been put before the British people at any general election this century and it should not be accomplished by a Private Member’s Bill in the Lords. Others have spoken on that. The third matter is that the Bill is partisan in its effect. It would strike disproportionately at the Conservative Party, and quite fast. Some 26 Conservative elected hereditary Peers are over 70, nine are over 75, five over 80, and five over 85. They would no longer be replaced. When I raised this with the noble Lord last year, he said that that could be dealt with by appointing another couple of dozen Conservative life Peers. That is not a tune we hear some very much from the Benches opposite, nor would it be welcomed by the House. Will the noble Baroness on the Opposition Front Bench say whether that would happen—would Labour support Conservative life Peers to replace hereditaries that went?
The final defect of the Bill is a glaring one, which is that it attacks the speck of dust—the by-election system—but spectacularly fails to tackle the most glaring defect in numbers in this House: the massive overrepresentation of Liberal Democrat Peers, who are sworn to use their unelected position to foil the will of the British people in the referendum. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, agrees with me on that. If only he had used his luck in the ballot to introduce a Bill to deal with that, they might have cheered him on in Tory Telford, where the candidate wearing the rosette of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, lost her deposit with a reasonable 900 votes. The threat of obstructionism by those Benches over there is a major and present constitutional danger to what the people of Telford voted for by a majority of 24,000. Hereditary by-elections are not. I oppose the Bill.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, very sincerely on his persistence and on his success in the lottery—or raffle or lucky dip. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord True, has just said, it is not a ballot in the true sense; it is yet another curious anomaly that we should perhaps deal with on another occasion. I and my colleagues will be pleased to give constructive support to the Bill and, with the unusual two-year Session that we have, hope that it will make progress to the other House and achieve cross-party endorsement there.
The noble Lord gave a very clear account of the Bill’s purpose, which I do not need to repeat. However, it is surely necessary to provide some historic context to dispel some misrepresentations, some of them mentioned again today.
The invention of hereditary Peers’ by-elections was the product of the so-called Weatherill amendment in May 1999. In effect, this was grasped by the then Labour Government and the Conservative Opposition in your Lordships’ House as a short cut to try to prevent last-ditch filibustering over the former’s limited reforms of the composition of this House. It was a simple agreement between the two parties, with no involvement by the Liberal Democrats. I do not think that there was even any participation—formally, at least—by the Cross-Benchers, despite its very considerable significance for their Benches. Cynics could describe it as a two-party stitch-up.
The then Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers, my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, challenged the need for that amendment in the debate on 11 May 1999 as follows:
“There are many noble Lords who could make a valuable contribution to a post-Royal Commission House, if that turns out to be not wholly elected. But their future should be as life Peers, not as residual elected representatives of the hereditary peerage”.
Even more relevant to today’s debate, he went on to express serious scepticism about the claims that these fudged provisions would be strictly temporary. With his proverbial prescience, he said:
“The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, referred to them as ‘temporary provisions’. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor made it plain today, using strong words, that this would last only through the transitional House and that the transitional House would be brought to an end in the next Parliament”.
I underline those words. He continued:
“However, if I were a betting man I would lay long odds that if Amendment No. 31 is carried, there will still be hereditary Peers in this House in 10 years ’ time and possibly for much longer”.—[Official Report, 11/5/1999; cols. 1098-1100.]
This two-party fix was intended to last for perhaps 18 months; it is long past its sell-by date 18 years later.
I have some sympathy with the objections of some of the remaining hereditary Peers—if they do not regard it as an insult, perhaps I could refer to them as the “remainers” in this context. They were, after all, given explicit assurances by very senior government Ministers, supported by the Conservative Opposition, that this curious anomaly would stay only until the proposed full, comprehensive, democratic reform was implemented. I refer to the argument put forward, not least by my noble friend Lord Rennard and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about the notion of “binding” agreements being totally irrelevant. In that context, it was an intention of the then Ministers that in the following Parliament further reform would take place. It was not, in the same sense, a binding resolution on this or indeed the other House that every succeeding Parliament would have to fulfil those obligations. In that sense, I think that that “binding” suggestion was illegitimate.
However, the Blair Government failed to deliver on their various manifesto promises in that respect and, as has been mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was a very distinguished member of that Government. Therefore, he must also acknowledge that, if the coalition Government’s proposals of 2012 for Lords reform, backed by all parties, had been followed through, this anachronism would have been removed and there would be no necessity for his further attacks today.
Sadly, despite the best efforts of the then Sir George Young—now the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham —that Bill failed, even with a record 338 majority in the Commons for its Second Reading. It was not defeated, despite some post-truth claims, not least in this House. It was actually supported by majorities in all three major parties, but the Labour Front Bench decided to play silly party games with Conservative rebels, refusing to agree to any timetabling of its Committee stages.
There are some Members—and they have been vocal today—who are still clearly awaiting that wholesale reform. I have always been committed to a major reform with cross-party support, so I understand their position. However, those purist supporters who are awaiting wholesale reform, and are using that as an excuse not to make any incremental changes to the way in which this House is composed, seem to be taking a completely ludicrous position in an Alice in Wonderland world. Taking the view that maintaining this absurd anachronism helps to gain and maintain support for full democratic change is an illusion as well. I do not believe that that tactic holds water any longer.
Clearly, the overloaded agenda of Brexit ahead of us means that Parliament will not have time to process anything comparable to the cross-party proposals of 2012.
I do not believe that any tweaking, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, would be accepted by the electorate. I do not think that the public would see that as a real improvement and I do not think that we in this House would feel comfortable with such a minor change.
However, I believe that the continuation of this now totally discredited and outdated stitch-up does nothing to enhance the reputation of the House of Lords. It is surely time for it to go. In particular, I hope that the Minister was listening very carefully to his noble friend Lady Berridge. It is a clear priority for the Government to take an initiative in this respect and give full support to the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, not least in regard to gender and ethnic equality. I support the Bill.
For a second time, it is my pleasure to congratulate my noble friend on the Bill and to give it a very warm welcome.
Of course, I was not here and I did not vote for that deal in the last century, and I have to tell the House that I do not feel bound by it. As I said this time last year, there are hundreds of reasons for supporting this Bill, not least the hundreds of male sons of earlier honoured men who over time have taken their seats here, not because of their own attributes but because of those of their forebears. Surely in 2017 there can be no one outside of the hereditaries themselves who thinks that our legislators should be chosen by the deeds of their grandfathers, their great-grandfathers or their great-great-grandfathers—very rarely their grandmothers.
It is true that the hereditaries in the House today have shown their value, and many—probably most, if not all—could well be here as life Peers, given their own accomplishments. So this Bill is not to say farewell to them, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, but simply to say that when they leave us—by retirement or through a higher calling perhaps—they should not be replaced.
Everyone agrees that this Chamber is too big and should be reduced in size—a size which far outnumbers the democratically elected House. I say to the noble Lord, Lord True, that the recent flood of Conservatives who have already been put here more than makes good for any fall-off there may be if the hereditaries are not replaced. However, I am grateful to him for confessing that it is the Conservative interest, not democracy, that leads some to resist the Bill.
I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that I accept what he said about the independence and expertise of your Lordships’ House, but surely he should be arguing for more Members of the Cross Benches and fewer of the political appointments, rather than continuing to appoint Peers by who their father, grandfather or whatever was.
So surely it is time to take forward this very modest measure. My noble friend is making only a very slow and slight attempt to reduce our numbers, but it is surely right to do that.
It is true that we would prefer greater changes, discussed by a constitutional convention rather than in piecemeal measures, but in the absence of that approach, surely this Bill is appropriate. It is tidy, measured and reasonable and it might even be well drafted.
The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who I think is not in his place, asked whether the whim of the Prime Minister to appoint us is better than hereditary by-elections. But I have to say: we are an appointed House. That was probably the whim of a former Prime Minister who first appointed the forebears of the hereditaries who are here today. I hesitate to say this in the presence of one of the Bishops who is a Member of this House, but I do not think that those Peers were touched by God to be here. It was the whim of the Prime Minister of the day who appointed them. So, in that sense, it is an appointed House.
Does the noble Baroness subscribe to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that our births were accidental, in which case it is not a matter of appointment but of chance?
Well, we are all here by that way.
This is an appointed House: it just depends on the century in which the Prime Minister made the appointment.
It is absolutely clear that those of us who are here should bring to the House our own attributes and experience rather than those of our ancestors, proud though I am of my grandfather who was a miner and my other grandfather who was a baker. Their own geographical spread and attributes contributed to this country. But I should be here not because of them—and I do not believe that it is—but because of what I hope I have done by myself.
As a number of noble Lords have said, if we are to earn the respect of the public for our work, having just 16 people electing someone who is perhaps 12th in line to their title to sit in this House, is not the PR that we would like for the work that we do.
Can the noble Baroness deal with the point made by my noble friend Lord True? Should this Bill go through, will the Opposition recognise the effect that that would have on the political balance and therefore be prepared to see those hereditaries appointed as Conservatives in order to maintain that balance? If she gave that undertaking, it would make it much easier for some of us.
I have answered that. I said a few moments ago that it has already been done because of the number of new Peers that David Cameron appointed. As Prime Minister he appointed more new Peers than the previous five Prime Ministers did in total. Virtually all of them were appointed to that side of the House, and we have had one. So, in a sense, I have already answered the point—because it has already happened.
Of the 32 by-elections that have taken place, which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, mentioned, the total number of votes cast was just under 6,000. That is under 200 votes per seat. All 32 Members elected were white men, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge. The most significant contribution today was the challenge to the Government that, because of their broader remit, it is part of their responsibility to do something about this. That is a challenge that we wholeheartedly endorse.
We wish the Bill well. Last year, the Government used the slightly weasel words that they were sympathetic to any reform but that it should only be part of a broader review. But as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, because of Brexit we will have very little time to do very much more, and the result of the election removes any such possibility. So we should accept this modest, incremental and reasonable Bill.
I am grateful for the last intervention because of the acknowledgement that it is the Conservatives who are most worried about this because they will lose some of their seats, which I do not think we have heard before. But change will be very gradual. I look round the Chamber and see some of the hereditary Peers who I am sure will have many more years with us, and we look forward to their contributions. But the Minister must rise to the challenge of his noble friend Lady Berridge. This matter is not simply for this House but for the Government to see whether they want to continue a system where white men have a privileged way of finding their way into the Parliament of this country.
My Lords, it is good to start this season of Private Members’ Bills with a traditional number—one that we are all familiar with. I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for his rendition of it today. The noble Lord has consistently shown a passionate commitment to this issue which is admired, even by those who, we have heard this morning, are in disagreement with him. Before the noble Lord sums up the debate, I will try to respond to some of the points made and questions raised from the Government’s perspective, and am grateful to all who have taken part.
The Government are committed to ensuring that this House continues to fulfil its constitutional role as a revising and scrutinising Chamber, a role that it carries out so effectively. As a newcomer to your Lordships’ House and a migrant from the other place—and therefore to be regarded with some suspicion by my noble friend Lord Mancroft—I am even more impressed than I was before at the way this House discharges its responsibilities, scrutinising legislation and holding Government to account, while respecting the primacy of the other place. As a departmental Minister answering questions in another place, I would reckon to know more about the subject in question than my interrogators. In your Lordships’ House, with its wealth of expertise, it is exactly the opposite, with a dramatic reversal of the terms of trade at the Dispatch Box. The Government’s position on Lords reform generally was set out in their manifesto. We do not consider comprehensive reform of this House to be a priority during this Parliament, and I will return in a moment to the question whether this Bill is comprehensive.
As noble Lords know only too well, the Bill before us today seeks to end the practice of hereditary by-elections which began under the Labour Government’s reforms of 1999, when the majority of the hereditary Peers were removed. Since then, as we have heard today, there have been numerous proposals to end this practice. Indeed, the Labour Government never intended any by-elections to occur. I recall, as shadow Leader in another place, being assured that elections to a reformed upper House with no hereditaries would take place before the 2001 election. The Wakeham commission, as part of its comprehensive package of reform, recommended that excepted hereditary Peers should cease to be Members of this House, and the Labour Government repeated that proposal in numerous White Papers.
As we have heard, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 tried, and failed, to remove by-elections. In the subsequent Parliament, I was the Minister in charge of the coalition Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill, which would also have removed hereditary Peers altogether, and which failed to make progress for the reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. We also had the numerous efforts by noble Lords through Private Members’ Bills to end the by-elections, including Lord Weatherill, Lord Avebury, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and now, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. But thus far, none of these proposals has succeeded in achieving a consensus across this House. Against this background of collective failure of Governments and Back-Benchers, one can but admire the courage of the noble Lord in having another crack.
It is clear from today’s debate that many noble Lords here today wish to see the end of by-elections. Those who have been following the debate can see the balance of views. I was particularly struck by the point made by my noble friend Lady Berridge, and a consequence of the current arrangement is a system that is very difficult to defend in equality terms. As I think my noble friend explained, there is in fact an exemption from the Equality Act 2010 for this arrangement, but that does not make it any easier to defend. But while the balance of argument in terms of numbers has been in favour of the Bill, we have also heard some strongly held beliefs that while the issue of comprehensive reform remains unsettled, the excepted hereditary Peers should remain— an argument put forward by my noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Caithness.
We continue to support incremental reforms that achieve this and command consensus across the House, and I shall return in a moment to the question of whether the Bill is incremental. For example, as evidence of our support for incremental reforms under the terms of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, 68 Members of your Lordships’ House have retired and a further six have ceased to be Members by virtue of their non-attendance. I had the privilege of steering through the other place the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, which provides this House with a power to expel Members in cases of serious misconduct. Those changes have been important in gradually changing the culture of the House. Moreover, looking ahead, it is in that spirit that we should proceed.
The Bill before us today makes provision to stop any hereditary Peers from taking a seat in this House in the future, while the existing hereditaries will remain. Over time, as has been said by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, this House would de facto become an appointed Chamber save for the Lords Spiritual. Some noble Lords have argued that this is not incremental as we move to that position. My noble friend Lord True also pointed out that over time, the Bill would affect the party balance in the House as one party has significantly more hereditary Peers than the others. This consequence could be avoided, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth suggested, by appointing Peers to compensate, but that would negate one of the objectives of the Bill, which is to reduce our numbers.
I am most grateful, as I think are other noble Lords, for the intervention of my noble friend Lord Cope. He is absolutely right to point out that it is our Standing Orders rather than primary legislation which make provision for the by-elections, and that we do not need primary legislation to change them. A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, suggested that we might look at that depending on the progress of this Bill. The opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on the process of by-elections, could almost have come out of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, “Iolanthe”. However, some of the suggestions put forward during this debate for extending the franchise might overcome the size of the electorate.
In passing, perhaps I may touch on a point brought up by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and others about the role played by hereditary Peers in the work of the House. The vast majority attend regularly and participate in our proceedings. Today, nearly half of those who are Members of this House by virtue of hereditary peerage are active as Government Ministers or members of committees. Looking at my own party, the ministerial ranks are fortified both by the initial 92 hereditaries such as my noble friend Lord Courtown and by by-election victors such as my noble friend Lord Younger.
I was also struck by the argument put forward by a number of noble Lords that the 92 were the grit in the oyster, and that those who are elected feel an obligation to stay until the comprehensive reform that was part of the initial deal is secured. My noble friends Lord Trenchard, Lord Elton and Lord Mancroft, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, all made the point that they feel an obligation to honour the agreement that was entered into and which was discussed at some length during the debate.
Since we last debated this subject, there has been an important initiative which to my mind constitutes a decisive reason for pausing this Bill, regardless of one’s views as to whether it is incremental or comprehensive. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that I wrote that sentence myself; I did not take it out of a Civil Service file. But I was struck by a point made by my noble friend Lord Brabazon that I will come on to in a moment. During the last Parliament the Lord Speaker established a cross-party committee specifically to address the size of the Lords, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I would like to dissociate myself from the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who cast doubt on the suitability of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, as the chairman of that committee. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, has already done a great service to this House by chairing a committee in which it has been difficult to come to a conclusion. Noble Lords may remember the Trade Union Political Funds and Political Party Funding Committee which was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. It enabled us to make progress with that legislation. I should say to the House that I would rather that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, was chairing this committee than the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.
So would I.
The committee has been asked to examine practical and politically viable options for reducing the size of this House, so that progress might be made on the issue, and to provide advice to the Lord Speaker on the potential next steps. I am sure that within the remit was the issue of the hereditaries; it certainly was if the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, gave evidence. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the committee have since worked tirelessly on this issue, looking at reform measures to reduce our size as a whole. My noble friend Lord Brabazon reminded us that this was a priority. The committee is going to report in October and the Government look forward to its recommendations. I have no idea what they are going to be, but it cannot be right, in advance of publication and debate on those proposals, to single out one possible element which may or may not be in the recommendations and launch it down the legislative slipway. Consideration of this Bill is therefore premature by singling out as it does one potential reform which does little to address the size of the House. We should await the findings of the committee rather than seeking to pre-empt them, and proceed on that basis.
On a more consensual note, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said in his peroration. We should sort this out ourselves before someone else sorts it out for us. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for pursuing this important constitutional matter and to those here today for their insightful contributions to the debate. Finally, I would urge noble Lords to engage with the work of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee to see if we can find a consensus on the best way forward, because ultimately it should be for this House, working in a spirit of partnership, to address the issue.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate and massively grateful to those who have supported my position.
I do not know whether to take the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Young, as a clear rejection or as a possible consideration at a later date, and I am sure that that degree of ambiguity was fully intended by him in his remarks. However, I just want to emphasise that this Bill is not about reducing the size of the House. That would be a small net benefit of this Bill, but that is certainly not its objective—if it was, it would be a pretty poor tool.
In the 17 or 18 years since the passage of the original Bill, 32 new hereditary Peers have arrived, not by any means all of whom have replaced Conservative Peers. The inference of the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord True, was that this Bill would somehow lead to a massacre of Conservative Peers. It would be a very slow process of attrition and I think it would be about another 40 years before the job was done which, having myself been here for a little while now, is about the pace at which this House likes to move.
What has been noticeable about the debate, and I shall read it carefully to make sure that my initial impressions are correct, is that the challenge that I put out during my opening speech, which was to hear some positive arguments for the by-elections in terms of how they enhance the House, has not been answered. Of course good people have come here by means of the by-elections—that is not in dispute any more than is the fact that good Bishops have come, as well as good life Peers. But as for by-elections being a mechanism for putting people into a House of Parliament in the 21st century, no one has offered any positive arguments in favour of retaining the system apart from, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, who was clearly nostalgic. I understand his nostalgia for a time when virtually everyone here was hereditary and of course most of them voted Conservative. I can understand why that would appeal to him. He described some wonderful debates to us.
My Lords, I was not displaying nostalgia; I was reflecting upon the very real fact that the nature of the way the hereditary Peers operated was that, because they were hereditary, they had a degree of independence which was extremely desirable. I was reflecting on that point and it is not a nostalgic one at all. The fact is that the composition of this House today has by its very nature lost to a significant degree its independence from the existing political establishment, to the detriment of both this House and of Parliament.
I advise the noble Lord to stop digging. This wondrous independence and spirit of quality and intellectual debate invariably resulted in a House that always supported Conservative Governments and caused no end of trouble to Labour Governments. I will leave that one there.
I could not improve on my good friend Lord Snape. He has lost none of it in 50 years; he really can turn it on when he needs to. I was always deeply respectful of him. He reports the fact that I was his Chief Whip, but he was my Whip in the 1970s, when he reportedly put next to my name “WWWW”, which meant, “Works well when watched”.
Will my noble friend accept the perception of my views at that time? He has come along very well since.
I saw no arguments in favour of the by-elections, apart from the one that I really want to put to rest now, which the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, repeats time and again about this compromise reached in 1999 which resulted in the 92 hereditary Peers remaining. The noble Lord, Lord True, referred to the fact that I was involved to some extent in that because I was working in Downing Street at the time. I remind him of what I still feel was breath-taking about what happened then. A Labour Government, elected on the clearest possible manifesto commitment to end the hereditary principle as a basis for being in the second Chamber—a Labour Government with a record post-war majority of more than 150—brought that proposal to this House. It was made clear in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and others that the Bill, with a huge majority and manifesto commitment, would not be allowed to pass unless major concessions were made, of which these 92 Peers are the result. That was not normal parliamentary procedure resulting in this binding agreement; it was blackmail. That is the only argument that has been put forward to continue with these by-elections. It is a history lesson that ought to be written according to what actually happened.
The only other argument I have picked up is that, somehow or other, the hereditary Peers here provide a constant incentive towards swift movement towards a fully comprehensive elected House. The noble Lord, Lord Young, is in a better position than me because he was there longer: there were loads of debates in the other place on an elected House, but I never heard anyone say that we need to do this because the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Elton, or the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, are insisting that it happens. By definition it simply has not worked. Those Members who want a fully elected House, of which I am not one, have not been able for various reasons to deliver it, so this incentive that allegedly is there clearly is not working. We should remember that as well.
The only really helpful, constructive attempt to move forward on this, other than what I think is the only sensible way to proceed, which is my Bill unamended—although I always listen to what the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Cormack, and others, have to say—is that there should be an election of the whole House whenever a vacancy occurs rather than these absurd party by-elections with minuscule electorates. I partly answered it in my opening remarks. Even when that happens, less than half the House participates. I always regarded it as a waste of time and I am clearly not the only one. That does not enhance the quality of the democracy, and—this is an even more substantial point made brilliantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge—it does not alter the fundamental flaw that, on the register of hereditary Peers as it stands, there are 198 names, 197 of whom are men. Changing the Standing Orders and having an electorate comprising the whole House would not alter that fundamental problem any more than it would alter the fundamental problem of why on earth the only people entitled to stand should be the heirs of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, or the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, although we hope their heirs do not materialise for a long period yet in their new titles. Why should their heirs have an assisted places scheme to get into the House of Lords?
We all think our arguments are pretty convincing. I think the argument I and many of my noble friends put forward are absolutely overwhelming, so let us get on with it.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.