Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 3, page 1, line 2, after ‘peer’, insert
‘and has been a peer for 10 years and is over the age of 65’.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 7, leave out ‘a witness’ and insert
‘two witnesses, both of whom must be peers of the same degree’.
Amendment 6, page 1, line 10, at end insert
‘after the date specified in 2(a) above’.
Amendment 7, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘(5) This section does not apply to unelected hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords’.
Amendment 8, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) An hereditary peer who retires or otherwise resigns in accordance with this section shall be deemed to have died allowing any heir to be eligible to be elected.’.
Amendment 9, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) A life peer who retires or otherwise resigns in accordance with this section will upon petition to the Queen be raised to the state degree style dignity title and honour of viscount.’.
With hindsight, how fortunate it is that we are not sitting in private to discuss these important matters, which will be of interest to the nation at large, concerning retirement or resignation from the House of Lords.
Amendment 2 would simply add a line to clause 1 to the effect that a peer may not resign until they have been a peer for a minimum of 10 years. If somebody accepts a great honour from the Crown, it seems to me that they have an obligation to live up to that honour. Circumstances might change and require a different lifestyle that makes it impossible for them to attend the House, but to enter lightly into the receipt of a peerage—that great honour bestowed by our sovereign of being a legislator in the second House of Parliament—and then to give it up after a day or two or, conceivably, even after a minute, seems improper.
People enter into a life peerage, and understand that they have done so for life, hence the name. It is amazing how often an obvious point about something is made in its title. There is no obfuscation in the title “life peer”. It is not a temporary peerage, a Parliament peerage or a dated peerage, but a life peerage. One of the glories of the House of Lords is that it represents age. It is not full of scribbling youths, but has people of mature years, of wisdom, of grey beards, and even of grey flowing locks, which shows how much they have learnt and experienced over the years.
I was here for Second Reading, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and must recommend him to the BBC as a panellist on “Just a Minute”—he would be absolutely superb. In the light of his speech on Second Reading and his contribution this morning, which clearly will be enlightening, may I ask whether he opposes any kind of reform of the House of Lords?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The return of the hereditary peerage is the sort of reform that would improve the quality of the House considerably. I do think that there are opportunities for reform but, as I said on Second Reading—I had better not go through this all again, Mr Speaker—I have concerns about this process for reforming the second Chamber. I think that reform ought to have been proposed in a Government Bill and considered in a Committee of the whole House.
Although the Bill is simple, it would fundamentally change the nature of the House of Lords. Removing the absolute certainty that a peerage is for life would allow people appointed to the House to remain there for a term. That change in structure would allow Governments that are not necessarily as benign as this one—I will talk about this further in relation to some of my other amendments—to ensure that peers are in the House for only a certain period, and possibly to get them post-dated cheques for when they might resign. I think that that reform should have been handled differently, but there are certainly reforms that could be made to the House of Lords.
Amendment 2 ties in with amendment 3. The point of amendment 3 is to insert a minimum age for retirement, whereby no peer under 65 could retire. Being a peer—a legislator in the upper House—should not be a marker in somebody’s career. It should not be a point on their CV so that when they apply for jobs in merchant banks, or wherever, they can say “I was a peer for 10 years.” People who take it on should commit to do so for an extended period, so that if a peer is raised to that rank, style and dignity at the age of 40, there will be an expectation that the major part of their future life and career will be a commitment to serve the House—this country—in the second Chamber.
These two amendments, in essence, offer the House the choice of saying that there ought to be a minimum period and that it ought to be longer than a single Parliament. Ten years obviously equates to two Parliaments under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. That gets away from the risk that people might use the House of Lords as a means of advancing their political career in relation to the Commons, a point to which we will return in a subsequent group of amendments. The amendments are about expecting people to follow through on the commitment they have given, so that when their letters patent are issued they will be doing this for life.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. My preference is for amendment 3, as it would ensure that people retired from Parliament when they were coming to the end of their working career. It is wrong for people to use membership of the House of Lords as a point on their CV. It is not an internship that people do for a little while to get a bit of work experience before taking on another job. It is such an exciting and great honour to have—why would these people wish to give it up? I recall that when Disraeli went to the House of Lords, he said that he was not dead
“but in the Elysian fields.”
Who, having entered the Elysian fields, wants to come back down to earth? It seems extraordinary in the first place that anyone would want to leave those glorious red Benches and the gilt around the throne—the magnificence that the House of Lords shows to the world—and trot out into the humdrum life in front of them. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) asks whether this is a job application. I am by no means grand enough to enter their lordships’ House. I like representing the British people—vox populi, vox Dei—through this illustrious Chamber rather than in their lordships’ noble House. Given the question of why anybody would want to leave, they ought to live up to the commitment they have made. Ten years seems reasonable; I would have been happy with 15 or 20 years.
Moreover, crucially, when Ministers go into the House of Lords they may want to be there only while they are in ministerial office. That is not a proper way of treating the constitution. Ministers who go into the House of Lords ought to stay there for an extended period to show a commitment to the legislature, not just to being appointees of the Executive who are here today, gone tomorrow. These amendments are important and would improve the Bill. Had we been debating them in a Committee of the whole House, it is likely that some of these changes would have been made.
Amendment 4 is about the witnessing of the peer’s statement that he wishes to retire or resign. The statement may be witnessed by anybody, but I think that it should be witnessed by two people, both of whom must be peers of the same degree. Is that because I think that lots of fraudulent certificates will be issued by random people wandering around signing things and pretending to be witnesses to statements that peers have not made? No, I do not think that, but these resignations are essentially proceedings in Parliament, and they should be a formal parliamentary proceeding registered by people who are also Members of Parliament. This would be a safeguard to ensure that somebody did not resign in a light moment and then regret it, or have the statement signed in their office and send it in having been pushed into doing it by offers of who knows what—perhaps an offer of becoming a European commissioner or something grand and fancy such as that, although I know that there is a special way for such people to stay in the House of Lords with a formal leave of absence. We should ensure that the grave and important decision to leave the upper Chamber is made properly and thoughtfully and that there is a formal process by which to register that decision.
That ties in with amendment 6, which says:
“after the date specified in 2(a) above”.
The problem with reading out amendments without reading out the relevant part of the Bill is that they sound rather obscure, so it may be sensible to explain. The Bill says that if somebody signs a form resigning from the House of Lords, that notice is irrevocable from the point at which it has been signed, even if it is a long-post-dated cheque. So if a peer entered the House of Lords and said that he intended to resign in eight years’ time, the document would be irrevocable, even though all sorts of things may change. That person would then be ineligible to be a peer again in future. I think that that is a mistake. There should be an ability to withdraw the notice prior to its becoming effective; otherwise, appointments to the House of Lords are opened up to abuse.
I have heard former Leaders of the House of Lords—noble Lords themselves—talk about what happens when people ask for peerages. It may shock you, Mr Speaker, that people ask for peerages. I would have thought it was an enormous impertinence for anybody to say to the Prime Minister or to the Leader of the House of Lords that they would like a peerage, but people do. Apparently, they knock on their doors to ask to be given a peerage; they queue up outside their offices as though they were waiting for an omnibus. When they do so—I really have heard Leaders of the House of Lords make speeches along these lines—they say anything that the people dishing the peerage out may wish to hear. They say, “I’ll always vote with the Government line, I’ll never disobey, I’ll do what I’m told”, and so on and so forth.
Sadly, I have heard Leaders of the House of Lords talk only in general terms—they have not named names—so the hon. Gentleman cannot lead me down that route, and if I did I might be out of order because saying anything critical of a noble peer is against the forms of this House, and neither would I wish to do so.
There is the risk that peers, before they are appointed—therefore, of course, they are not yet peers—are in the position of asking for something that they want that is in the Government’s gift, and the Government want to have some leverage over them to ensure that they behave in the way the Government want when they are appointed. One of the glories of the House of Lords is that once people are there, they are independent because they are there for life. That preserves them from the terrors of the Whips. We in this House live in daily terror of the fierce power the Whips have whereby they may do all sorts of extraordinary things to us with any amount of instruments of torture that are maintained in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster, but in their lordships’ House those instruments are ineffective—they have rusted away because the peers are there for life. That is a great protection for them. If somebody could give a post-dated cheque—if someone could say, “I will leave the House a few years after going in”—that protection would begin to ebb away. But if they had the power to rescind the notice, whatever they said at the point at which they were grubbing round for the peerage, they would be able to withdraw it, and the independence of being a peer for life would be maintained.
This flexibility ought to be added to the Bill because it would allow peers to maintain that which is the essence of the success of our revising Chamber. What makes the House of Lords successful, and different from this House, is that because peers are not standing for re-election and do not need to be readopted by their parties, and because very few of them are Ministers, there are many fewer baubles that may be offered to them to maintain party discipline.
Party discipline is very important. It is important that a Government are able to get their business through, but party discipline in a revising Chamber is unhelpful, because instead of doing its job of revising it tends simply to go along with what is asked of it by the party managers. That is damaging both ways: it is damaging if Governments do it, because it means that they are not necessarily putting through Bills that have had the wisdom and benefit of the proper revising process, and it is equally bad when Oppositions do it simply to oppose what the Government are doing. We have seen that on a number of occasions in the House of Lords when, out of party loyalty, rather than according to the argument, the will of the House of Commons has been thwarted.
To overcome that, the great benefit that their lordships have is their independence, which is dependent on the structure of their appointment, namely that they are there for life and cannot be removed. Anything that undermines that needs to be done with the greatest caution and have as many safeguards built into it as possible, so that people do not become pressurised to leave at a point they would not choose, because if that happens they would be fundamentally less independent.
My amendment 7 is perhaps a little obscure, for which I apologise. It occurred to me that the Bill as drafted has forgotten about the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal. It is extraordinary that anyone could ever forget about them. I think about them most days, at considerable length, and the many onerous duties they have. Anyone who paid attention to the visit of Mrs Merkel yesterday will have noticed that the event was held at the other end of this Palace by permission of the Lord Great Chamberlain, who has a role in Parliament. He is an hereditary office holder—it is one of the few hereditary offices in this country—of a most interesting kind, because the office is shared between families according to reign. I believe the Cholmondeleys had it for two reigns out of three, and two other families share it in the third reign.
The problem with the Bill is that it could lead to the Lord Great Chamberlain retiring from his role in Parliament but not retiring from his great office of state. We could reach the ridiculous position where the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal would remain the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal but would not be Members of their lordships’ House. That would inadvertently and specifically contradict one of the aims of the House of Lords Reform Act 1999, which took away hereditary peers, namely that of keeping 90 plus two. The two were specifically kept because of their hereditary constitutional role and it was felt suitable that they should remain in the House of Lords. I would be sorry to see something that Parliament deliberately decided when reforming the House of Lords in the late 1990s being accidentally removed, because if the Earl Marshal decides to retire from his public duties when he becomes an elderly man—which in due course of time he undoubtedly will—he will not be able to retire as Earl Marshal.
The amendment covers something that has been overlooked with regard to those great offices of state. It would be a shame if the House of Lords were not adorned in this way. As I said earlier, it is such a wonderful and elegant Chamber, but to remain wonderful and elegant it needs to have these fantastic, historic posts. The Earl Marshal is such an important figure in our history. His predecessors were present at so many of the great battles in which Britain—or England, more accurately—fought. He is a noble, historic figure. We do not want to lose him inadvertently from their lordships’ House, and likewise the Lord Great Chamberlain.
I think it would be an error for some of the organisation of this Palace to be done by someone of the highest rank and in the name of the Queen who was not a Member of either House. I do not think it would be quite as bad as the suggestion sometimes made that Mr Speaker should have a specific seat—which is a dangerous idea because it would take him away from the fundamental part of this House and the position he holds—but it would be heading in the same direction. My amendment would put that right.
My amendment 8 would maintain the hereditary principle, so I expect fierce opposition to it from Labour Members. The hereditary principle is established with the remaining 90 hereditary peers, and those who are outside the 90 are eligible for election. Perhaps the Minister will tell me whether it is still possible for a writ of acceleration to promote the holder of a lower title to be eligible for election as an hereditary peer. He will remember that the now Marquess of Salisbury took his seat by writ of acceleration rather than by being given a life peerage. I am unaware of what the precise form would be.
The amendment tries to make that take effect in the event that an hereditary peer resigns his seat. The title could maintain its representation in Parliament, which is something that has usually been protected by allowing the peerage title to leave the House of Lords only when the peer dies. I think that this is sensible from the point of view of widening and keeping refreshed the pool from which the 90 can be elected. The right to sit in the House of Lords and to be among those elected hereditaries should pass along a clear and defined route, and if the top of the root is cut off, its stalk should be allowed to flower. It might not flower, because it might not be elected in one of the by-elections to the House of Lords, but the possibility of flowering should at least be there. I will avoid further horticultural metaphors, because I am not particularly good at them.
My final amendment 9 provides a carrot. This Bill has a lot of sticks with which to beat their lordships over their noble heads. I hope they will wear their coronets to protect them against the sticks with they will be beaten to get them out of the House of Lords. I wanted to provide a carrot and I think it is a nice, juicy carrot. The amendment proposes that a life peer, on petition to Her Majesty, will be raised to
“the state degree style dignity title and honour of viscount.”
What is the purpose of that? I hope I will not be besieged by noble viscounts who think that I would lower the tone of their fine estate by allowing all sorts of other people to enter into it, but it is only a very limited number of enormously distinguished people who would be allowed to do so. It would be a reward for leaving the House of Lords, making way for others to fill their places and making sure that it does not get overfilled.
I did think of tabling an amendment saying that any peer—hereditary or life—who resigned would be raised by one degree in the peerage, but I did not think that would work, because I could not see where the dukes would go. It is not possible to make a duke a royal duke—that requires a blood relationship to the Crown—so I decided not to go that far. I apologise to the marquesses, who were all getting very excited at the possibility of going up to a dukedom and raising the honour of their family.
I think that a viscountcy is appropriate for a life peerage, because it is one step up in the peerage and it is also hereditary rather than for life. That would be a fine thing for families to have. It would also, importantly, continue the tradition of creating hereditary peerages, which I am in favour of, not because they can sit in the House of Lords, but because if we want to allow people throughout society to rise and advance themselves, the highest posts in the land should be open to everybody. By freezing the hereditary peerage we create a tighter class structure than when that peerage is open. Instead of saying, “Unless you got your title before the last ones were given in 1983, you can only have a life peerage”, we could say that a grocer’s daughter who became Prime Minister, for example, could become an earl, or a countess in the case of that lady.
It would be wonderful to allow that degree of social mobility. If social mobility is a good thing—I think most Members in this House think it is—people should be able to rise to the top. A viscount is not quite the top, but it is jolly near the top. It would give a real incentive to peers, particularly those with a sense of history and an interest in their family line. Most peers are likely to be in that category. If the amendment was agreed, it would be fascinating to see whether, on balance, socialist peers or Conservative peers were keenest to get an hereditary peerage by stepping aside. One might be quite surprised by how many die-hard socialists suddenly wanted to improve the decoration of their coronet and to raise their status.
What do I want from my first set of amendments? They aim to safeguard what is important about the House of Lords, and to ensure that it is an institution of the utmost regard, seniority and distinction, rather than something that somebody can enter lightly. I accept that people will ask, “What if somebody falls ill and cannot carry out their duties?” If somebody falls ill, they can leave the House of Lords in other ways—by not turning up, which we will come to in a later set of amendments, or they can get a leave of absence from their lordships’ House until they are better. If we always take the most difficult cases, we will end up creating loopholes that allow dangerous and not fully thought-through constitutional changes.
The amendments are all about protecting the status, stature and seriousness of the House of Lords, as well as about requiring people to stick to what they have said they will do. I have remarkably little sympathy with those who, having accepted an honour, think for no very good reason—a change of circumstance or business interest is not a very good reason—that it is more convenient to give up their peerage. That is a fundamentally bad idea.
In the past 20 years, there has been a change from peerages being dished out as honours to their being dished out to legislators. It used to be that a peer’s legislating role was the secondary aspect of an honour granted for the performance of some great public service. Most peers are now appointed as working peers: they are there to do a job as legislators and, as they have accepted, to do it for life. To allow them to leave after five years—or after any period of less than 10 years—or under the age of 65 would be an error.
I will not dwell on the matter of witnesses, which is a mere technicality, but posts in the Lords that will remain important regardless of whether or not their holders are in the Lords ought to have been included in the Bill.
This debate is about considering resignation as we might have done had we been able, as we ought to have been, to look at it in the Committee of the whole House. It is about ensuring that bits of the Bill are not there accidentally, but have at least been considered by this House, even if the House is not of my mind upon them, and about ensuring that any changes do not lead to unintended consequences which, because of how the Bill has come through, we have not had the opportunity to consider in full.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on his speech. As ever, it was a pleasure to listen to him, particularly because of his ability to recall what Disraeli said as though he had been there at the time. I disagree profoundly with most of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, including the extraordinary one that a restoration of the hereditary peerage could assist in improving social mobility, a debate to which we may return on a future occasion.
I want to focus on the hon. Gentleman’s amendments 2 and 3. One reason why the Bill was introduced by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and why it is supported by the Opposition is the ever-growing membership of the other place. The amendments propose to create a minimum period of 10 years before a Member of the other place can resign.
The hon. Gentleman for North East Somerset said that there was a risk that someone granted a peerage and membership of the other place might resign after a day or two, or even a minute or two, but I must say that that is very unlikely. The likelier scenarios of a Member wishing to resign before the age of 65 or before being a Member for 10 years are exactly the circumstances mentioned by the hon. Gentleman towards the end of his speech—illness, or a change in family or work circumstances. On balance, it makes sense to retain the flexibility to allow Members of the other place to resign for such reasons.
In the middle of his speech, the hon. Gentleman very entertainingly described people queuing to ask for peerages —in other words, the numbers of people now desperate to get into the other place. Yet his amendments 2 and 3 assume that many Members will, once appointed, suddenly be desperate to get out of it. I am not convinced that that is very likely. He has certainly made an intelligent case for his amendments, but he has not persuaded me to support them, and I therefore urge the House to oppose them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for the way he expressed his concerns about the Bill, and for tabling the amendments, because that has given us the opportunity to discuss some very important issues. It is crucial to get such a Bill right, and I am pleased that we can discuss the amendments, but I urge the House to resist supporting them for the reasons that I shall give.
Amendments 2 and 3 would require peers to serve a minimum of 10 years before they can retire or resign, and amendment 3 would also impose an age restriction of 65. We all hope that Members of the House of Lords will want to undertake an active and lengthy role in the House, but my Bill introduces a straightforward, honourable statutory provision that allows those who no longer feel able to serve in the House to resign.
Other hon. Members have already mentioned the reasons why Members may think that they are unable to serve in the House. I do not want to go over the subject again, but on Second Reading we discussed at length the very real distress that some noble Members feel when, because of personal circumstances, they are unable to give the full service that they themselves think membership of the Lords deserves. It would be unfair to remove for non-attendance a Member who had been in the House for less than 10 years, but suffered a terrible health problem or had become a full-time carer for a family member. Such a Member would seem to have been naughty, rather than to have been allowed to make a dignified and honourable resignation. It is not therefore appropriate to prevent somebody from resigning if they make the difficult decision to do so, even though they have not served for a minimum period. Peers may wish to resign for a variety of very personal reasons, and I believe that it would be arbitrary and unfair to put in place such a limitation.
Amendment 4 would require two fellow peers to witness a resigning peer’s notice. The normal legal practice is for most documents to be witnessed by one person, and I do not see how a fellow peer is better equipped to witness a notice than any responsible individual. I note that the disclaimer of an hereditary peerage under the Peerage Act 1963 requires only one signature, which I am sure my hon. Friend pondered at length before he tabled his amendment.
My understanding of the Bill is that the witness would be a responsible person in the same manner as for other legal documents, which usually means a Member of Parliament, a doctor and so on. I do not believe that the Bill needs additional safeguards to ensure the effectiveness of resignation notices. Many very important legal documents and other matters involving this House take such an approach, and there is no reason for a stricter requirement on this matter.
Amendment 6 would confirm that once resignation has taken effect, it cannot be rescinded. I am a little hazy, but that implies that peers could change their mind until the resignation takes effect. Submitting a signed and properly witnessed notice is a significant step, and peers would be fully aware of the effect of doing so. It would not be right to enable peers to submit such a notice lightly, safe in the knowledge that they could withdraw it up until it takes effect. My Bill aims to be straightforward and simple, and adding such a nuance would over-complicate it.
The Bill simply states that the notice must
“specify a date from which the resignation is to take effect”.
That could be any date in the future. There is no requirement that it be no more than a month or six months from the date of the notice being issued. That leaves a period in which it is perfectly reasonable to think that circumstances could change such that the notice might be withdrawn.
I now understand my hon. Friend’s concern better, but I still disagree. For the reasons that he has given, I believe it is a serious step for a Member to take the decision to leave. One change that we made in Committee was to say that a Member who decides to retire or resign may not subsequently be reappointed to the House of Lords. We did that for the very reasons that he has given. Sitting in the House of Lords is a lifetime commitment and it should not be the norm to leave. One should not leave with the expectation that one may simply waltz back in later. When a Member decides to submit a notice stating that they wish to leave, it would not be helpful if they could think, “I can always change my mind before it comes into effect.” Perhaps my hon. Friend and I must agree to disagree on that issue.
Amendment 7 would exempt unelected hereditary peers from disqualification under the Bill. The two peers who would be exempted from disqualification, the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord Marshal, undertake various ceremonial duties in the House of Lords. I do not believe that either officer should retain their seat in the House of Lords if they wish to resign or if they are convicted of a criminal offence. I am of the view that it would not be possible for those officers to undertake their duties in the House and elsewhere if they were in custody for more than a year. I am confident that if that situation arose, the Government, in conjunction with the Palace, would put in place appropriate and effective measures to ensure that the functions of the officer were executed properly while they were in custody. I do not believe that Members of the House of Lords should be able to retain their seats if they are safely convicted of a serious criminal offence. I certainly do not believe that peers should enjoy the privilege of being exempt from that. I therefore do not support amendment 7, although I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset felt the need to raise and discuss the issue.
Amendments 8 and 9 would allow the heir of a retiring hereditary peer to take part in the by-election caused by their parent’s retirement and elevate the retiring peer to the status of viscount. It would be entirely wrong for this Bill to change the current position whereby heirs are not given an automatic right to enter the House of Lords. I would not want to support such a controversial amendment, because the Bill seeks to make straightforward and sensible changes to the membership of the House of Lords. However, this is a fascinating debate that might take place in other circumstances. Under the Bill, departing peers will retain their peerage. I therefore do not agree that those who retire should be elevated automatically to viscount status, nor that they should be entitled to any additional honour simply because they have been a Member of the House of Lords, so I do not support amendments 8 and 9.
The amendments that have been tabled for today’s debate and in Committee have demonstrated that, as I said on Second Reading, the Bill would have benefited from being dealt with as a constitutional Bill, as I believe it is, and debated on the Floor of the House at every stage. Nevertheless, we are where we are and I rise to support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg).
Having said that, amendments 2 and 3 are alternatives, so I express my preference for amendment 3. I do so because the average age of a peer, as of August last year, was 70 so most peers are over the age of 65 and would meet that qualification. As my hon. Friend said in proposing the amendment, when someone is appointed as a life peer, it is reasonable to assume that they will take on that responsibility for the rest of their life. It is therefore entirely reasonable to expect them not to want to retire during the first 10 years—a fairly modest period that is equivalent to two fixed-term Parliaments.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), the promoter of the Bill, said about the situations that might arise. I accept that there might be occasions when, sadly, someone wishes to leave the other place because they have caring responsibilities. However, my hon. Friend will be aware that there is already a voluntary retirement scheme in the other place, which allows Members to write to the Clerk of the Parliaments to indicate their wish permanently to retire. Indeed, some Members of the other House have taken advantage of that scheme, so methods already exist that enable Members to leave the other House before 10 years have elapsed.
Amendment 4 relates to witnesses. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire said that he would expect a witness to be a doctor or a solicitor. I submit that unless the Bill states that a specific qualification is expected of a witness, a court will not impose such a restriction. A court might expect a witness to be an adult, although even that is debatable, but it would place no other special requirement on who could or should be a witness.
I think that, as a minimum, the witness should know the peer in question. The great advantage of amendment 4 is that, by specifying that the notice must be witnessed by two other peers, one could reasonably expect that they would know the peer who has signed the document. The reason we specify in legislation that a document must be witnessed is so that, if the document is questioned, a court can be reassured that the person who signed it did so of their own free will and was of sound mind. A witness could give evidence as to the person’s state of mind when they signed the document.
As the Bill is drafted, the peer could get anyone they wanted to witness the document. The problem with witnesses is that, when a document is called into question, it is very often because there is some doubt about the intention of the person who signed it. Usually that is because there has been foul play and somebody has put forward a document that is not what it purports to be. In such a case, if there is a squiggle from the witness, how can the person who made that squiggle of a signature be called to give evidence?
The idea that there would be an illegible squiggle and that nobody would know whose it was is a bit fanciful. There are not many other legal documents for which we set out in primary legislation a requirement to include a name, address, social security number and so on. It needs to be properly witnessed, but I am not convinced that a big problem with the Bill will be that we will end up with false witnesses and people trying to squeeze out other peers. I accept the spirit in which my hon. Friend makes his point, but it is not likely to be a particularly major problem.
On whether a peer might be of sound mind when making the statement, we are talking about people who at the moment are entitled to vote on legislation for this country. I do not think we should call into question whether they might be able to indicate legitimately that they wish to resign or retire.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, but the Bill’s draftsmen included a requirement for a witness so they must have intended that witness to have a purpose, so what is that purpose? Surely the purpose of the witness, if there is a purpose, must be to give evidence to a court as to the identity of the person who executed the document, and about their state of mind and their position when they signed it. I accept that it may be the will of the House that such evidence can be given properly by someone without their having a special qualification. However, given the importance of such a document in the constitutional affairs of this country, I would have thought it reasonable to require witnesses at the very least to have some form of legal training in order to assess these matters and properly give evidence in court.
Leaving that aside, the amendment would go some way to dealing with the matter. Two peers would indeed be able to give good evidence to a court about the identity of the person who signed the document, and state that the person was who they purported to be, but whenever a witness is required to sign a document, there should be a requirement—as an absolute minimum—not just to sign it but to state legibly their full name and present address. They can then be found if necessary, and contacted to give evidence to a court about the circumstances in which that document was signed.
Amendment 7 demonstrates the great dangers in tinkering with the unwritten British constitution. I often describe the constitution as a delicate flower, and when we start to unpick it and tinker with one aspect of it, unintended consequences inevitably flow from the proposed changes. We saw that some years ago when it was proposed that the office of Lord Chancellor be abolished. It suddenly became apparent, after a relatively short time, that it was not quite that simple, and the office remains to this day. For that reason, I support the remaining amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, and I commend them to the House.
It is a pleasure to respond to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). He is in the happy difficulty that his contributions undermine his arguments. He purports that it is necessary to have wisdom, learning and erudition, or to be possessed of a grey beard, or at least flowing grey locks. I do not know whether he would fit his own description of a scribbling youth, but he is a youthful Member of the House, yet every time he speaks he does so with a depth of wisdom, learning and reflection on these matters that rather undermines his case. However, it is a delight to have him move these amendments this morning. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) for his skill in steering the Bill to this stage of proceedings, which is relatively unusual for a private Member’s Bill, especially in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) brought the usual stringent scrutiny to these matters that we always count on him for, and it is right for these issues to be closely examined.
Amendments 2 and 3 would require a peer to serve 10 years in the House before they can retire, and amendment 3 adds an age requirement of 65. I completely understand and agree with the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset to ensure that noble Lords in the upper Chamber play a full and lengthy role—indeed, the term “life peerage” is, as he correctly pointed out, significant in that respect. Peers should not come into Parliament for the legislative equivalent of a weekend break; they are here to serve the country for the remainder of their life, and I am concerned that they should take their commitment to the House seriously.
The purpose of clause 1 is to ensure a mechanism that entitles peers, who take seriously their responsibilities, to act with honesty and honour by reflecting the circumstances in which they may no longer find it possible to answer the summons, and to discharge that responsibility. My hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset and for Bury North were right to point out that mechanisms such as leave of absence or simply not turning up are available to people who find themselves unable to attend and respond to the summons, but the essence of the Bill is to recognise that, in some circumstances, such mechanisms are deficient and do not provide an accurate reflection of reality. For some people, a leave of absence is not temporary but involves, in effect, a permanent inability to perform the duties that are entailed in membership of the upper House.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire said, such circumstances can be deeply personal or the result of poor health that is unlikely to improve. Members of the other place could be in the service of others, or have family circumstances that require them to move away permanently. To recognise that, there should not be any device; a straightforward declaration that someone’s service is no longer possible to be discharged is right and appropriate.
The Government’s view is that an arbitrary 10-year period during which resignation or retirement could not be tendered is inappropriate and could cause distress to peers who find themselves in the circumstances that I have described during that initial 10 years. Like the shadow Minister, I do not believe that it is likely that a great flood of Members will avail themselves of this option in the first 10 years, but it may be appropriate and necessary in some circumstances.
Amendment 4 would require two fellow peers to witness a peer’s notice of resignation. Admirably, the Bill is as simple as it is possible to be in its drafting and its promotion by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. To have a signature witnessed seems a proportionate requirement of the legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North is a scourge of the Government on over-regulating, gold-plating or other excesses in legislation, but his support for the amendment takes him in a different direction. There is no particular reason to suppose that the witness chosen by a peer should be suspected of incompetence so that they require another witness to witness the witness to the signature. In fact, it is possible to see an infinite regress, with further witnesses being necessary in case the reliability of the earlier witnesses is not sufficiently established. It would be disproportionate, and Occam’s razor should be applied to this theoretical problem, so that we take the simpler solution.
I do not think it has been suggested that the second peer is witnessing the signature of the first peer: it is simply that both peers are witnessing the event. It is not a continuum of peers. We are not trying to suggest that the second witnessing peer authenticates the first witnessing peer. Both of them are simply witnessing the first peer. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would care to comment on the point that I made about including the address and printed name of the witnesses, because that would be very useful.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, but the need for the second witness—if they are to have any purpose at all—must be something to do with the first witness not being sufficient. If one witness is not sufficient, why should two witnesses be sufficient? We could be drawn in that direction.
In order to witness a document, it is necessary that the witness—through the case law that has been established—should be identifiable. They will need to disclose their identity, and that means that they should be capable of being found if recourse to them is needed in the event of any proceedings or challenge. So there is no requirement for any additional safeguard in this case.
Amendment 6 would ensure that, once a resignation has taken effect, it cannot be rescinded, the implication being that circumstances might change—as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset pointed out—and the peer might want to change his mind about resignation. While I have great sympathy for the thought behind the amendment, it raises a difficult and troublesome possibility. It would introduce the threat of resignation. It would be possible for a peer in dispute with, say, the Government of the day or the leadership of the House of Lords, to postdate a resignation in the knowledge that they had the ability to withdraw it at any point. It is always a good principle in life, whether in this House or beyond, that if someone threatens to resign, they should have in mind carrying out that threat. The ability to deploy the threat of resignation without the consequence of following it through could introduce a degree of brinksmanship into proceedings that I know my hon. Friend in particular would be keen to avoid.
It is right that providing a written and witnessed notice of resignation should be taken very seriously. It is not something that should be considered lightly, and peers should undertake it in full knowledge of the implications. It is not right that someone should be able to go back on that notice of resignation, even if it has not taken effect.
Two very eminent peers would be exempted from disqualification under the amendment—the Lord Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal—both of whom carry out important official duties in the House of Lords. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said in moving his amendment—and as my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire also mentioned—the Lord Chamberlain is the senior official of the royal household and represents the involvement of the household and Her Majesty in the organisation of the affairs of Parliament. It is a very important channel of communication between the sovereign and the House of Lords. The Earl Marshal is the eighth great officer of state and is responsible for several ceremonial duties, including the organisation of coronations, state funerals and the state opening of Parliament. The importance of those duties is such that the Government do not believe that either officeholder requires a seat in the House of Lords in order to discharge them, for the very good reason that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset mentioned—they are not, as individuals, immune from prosecution at the moment. It is almost impossible to contemplate the eventuality, but it is possible in theory that they could be incarcerated, and it is inconceivable that arrangements could not be made for a coronation or state opening of Parliament during such terrible circumstances. It is not necessary to have the clarification that my hon. Friend suggests.
The amendment would merely exempt the officeholders from the ability to retire or resign. If they cannot resign as Lord Chamberlain and Earl Marshal, it makes no sense for them to be able to resign as Members of the House of Lords. I was trying to bring the two together.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but it is relevant that they should be subject to the same procedures as would apply under the Bill to every Member of the House of Lords, whether through resignation—and the same circumstances might apply to them in wishing to resign—or through being convicted of a serious criminal offence. The points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire made in response to that capture the essence of the argument. It is not appropriate to permit peers on the basis on which they hold their seats to remain in the House if they are convicted of a serious criminal offence or if they want to exercise—they are under no obligation to do so—the opportunity to retire.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset raised a question about whether a writ of advancement should be available in the case of hereditary peers. There is no reason why a writ of advancement should not be available, but it is worth noting that if a hereditary peer disclaims his or her peerage under the Peerage Act 1963, there is no advancement for his or her heir while the disclaiming peer is still alive.
Amendments 8 and 9 would ensure that the heir of a retiring hereditary peer could participate in the by-election caused by his or her parent’s retirement. My hon. Friend’s ingenious suggestion of an improvement in social mobility by elevating a retiring peer to the status of a viscount is also contained in the amendments. I have some difficulty with the amendments, as I am sure my hon. Friend would imagine. The name of our venerable upper chamber is the House of Lords, not the house of heirs. It would be wrong to break with the tradition of hundreds of years to allow heirs to enter the Chamber just because their father or mother had retired from their role in the House.
My hon. Friend made it clear that he recognised the difference between attendance and membership of the House of Lords and the peerage. His amendment, however, would introduce a novel constitutional concept of the kind that he is generally inclined to view with a certain degree of scepticism. I think that, just like any hereditary peer who, extraordinarily, continues to enjoy a right to sit in the legislature, those heirs should wait until they have been elevated to the peerage as their forefathers did.
As for the question of the elevation of retiring peers to the status of viscount, I do not see the need to provide for such a possibility, given that we are talking about membership of the House of Lords rather than about the peerage itself. As I said earlier, my hon. Friend has advanced an ingenious argument for social mobility. He has anticipated the objection that the ratcheting up to the level of royal dukedoms might cause a problem for Her Majesty. In any event, I should have thought that before embarking on such an approach, one would need to be assured of the consent of Her Majesty, as the fount of all honour and dignity, and to have discussed the issues with Garter King of Arms. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has done those things.
I fully appreciate the attention that my hon. Friends have given to both the Bill and the amendments, but I do not think that any of the amendments is necessary to safeguard the purposes of the Bill from unintended consequences, and—as I hope I have been able to demonstrate—in many instances they would have unintended consequences of their own that would damage the Bill. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment.
I have listened enormously carefully to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and my right hon. Friend the Minister. I have the impression that the mood of the House is against my proposals, and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Conviction of serious offence
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 12, page 2, line 24, leave out ‘it is irrelevant’.
Amendment 13, page 2, line 25, after ‘(a)’, insert ‘it is irrelevant’.
Amendment 14, page 2, line 27, after ‘(b)’, insert ‘it is irrelevant’.
Amendment 15, page 2, line 28, leave out from ‘Kingdom’ to the end of line 29 and insert ‘or Ireland’.
Amendment 16, page 2, line 29, at end insert—
‘(c) It is irrelevant subject to a resolution of the House of Lords whether any of the offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention occurs in any Commonwealth Realm.
(d) It is irrelevant subject to a unanimous resolution of the House of Lords whether any of the offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention occurs in any Commonwealth country.
(e) No offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention that takes place in any non-Commonwealth country is relevant under this Act.’.
Amendment 17, page 2, line 37, after ‘appeal’, insert ‘or is pardoned’.
Amendment 18, page 3, line 8, leave out ‘subsection (9) and insert—
‘(9) This section does not apply to unelected hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords.’.
Amendment 23, page 3, line 8, leave out subsection (9) and insert—
‘(9) A certificate under subsection (2) in respect of a conviction outside the United Kingdom may be issued only if the House of Lords resolves that subsection (1) should apply; and where the House does so resolve the Lord Speaker must issue the certificate.’.
I am in august company today. It is excellent to be in the presence of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), a fine example of the Conservative workers party if ever I saw one. However, I must chide him very gently about one matter, about which I have already spoken to him.
Both the hon. Gentleman and I serve on the Procedure Committee. The House recently resolved that, whenever reasonable, Members should publish explanatory statements. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) has published such a statement, but I have not, because, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset knows, the Procedure Committee said that it was not necessary to publish one when what a Member was trying to achieve was so blindingly obvious. However, I must gently tell the hon. Gentleman that it took me several attempts to understand exactly what his amendments would do, and that an explanatory statement would therefore have been useful.
I am shocked that the hon. Gentleman is so slow on the uptake. I always thought that he was one of the faster thinkers on the Opposition Benches. If he waits for a few moments, however, and if you are kind enough to call me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will explain all.
I am most grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Let me begin by saying something about my amendment 1. The origin of the requirement—in this place, and, indeed, in the United Kingdom’s other Parliaments and Assemblies—for someone to have been given a jail sentence of more than a year to be disqualified is almost accidental. The hon. Member for North East Somerset will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that until the 1960s there were two classes of criminal acts, felonies and misdemeanours. I think that it was Roy Jenkins who, as Home Secretary, abolished the distinction. Until then, someone who was convicted of a felony would automatically be disqualified from serving in the House of Commons. Thankfully, it had been a long time since any Member had been sent to prison, so the rule had fallen into desuetude, and, at the time when the classes of felony and misdemeanour were scrapped, it did not occur to anyone to introduce a provision for that purpose.
Let us now fast-forward to 1981, and the election of Bobby Sands as a member of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. His election understandably prompted a great deal of public outrage, and the Government of day, Mrs Thatcher’s Government, introduced a law providing for the disqualification of anyone who had been given a sentence of more than a year. That would have caught Bobby Sands, and the other terrorists who were on hunger strike in the Maze prison. Again, no one really thought about it at the time. As far as I can ascertain after having consulted the records from the period, there was not a great deal of consideration about whether a year and a day was a particularly suitable target. The provision was designed to capture a very specific group of people; it met that test, and it was therefore passed.
As I think all Members know, there is a long and noble tradition of the right to protest, and, in particular, to engage in political protest. Anyone who visits the Tea Room will see a painting hanging at the Labour end of the room. If Government Members wish to pop down to our end to have a look at it, they are more than welcome to do so. It depicts one of the great protesters and pamphleteers of the 18th century, who was regularly incarcerated for speaking out against the Government. It is an important principle that we should maintain the right to speak against the Government, and that there should be protections against politically motivated arrests and imprisonments. We would not want someone who was simply sent to jail to be disqualified. Many of my constituents have talked to me about this issue, for reasons that I shall explain shortly.
While I strongly disagree with the views of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on fracking and, funnily enough, on many other issues, I respect her right to engage in political protest and to be arrested, and, if she were convicted and sentenced to a few days, it would be absolutely wrong for her then to be disqualified from serving in the House of Commons. The voters in Brighton, Pavilion should have the chance to do that in 14 months’ time.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman has shown that his knowledge is superior to mine. He is absolutely right. My point was that such people would be denied the right to be a Member of Parliament for a period.
There is, of course, a huge difference between the length of a sentence that would be received by someone who had engaged in political protest and the length of the sentences that have been received in some of the cases that we have—regrettably—seen in recent years, in this Parliament and in other United Kingdom Parliaments and Assemblies. There was, for instance, the outrageous case of Chris Huhne, who perjured himself, and Opposition Members in the House of Commons as well as Conservatives in the other place have been jailed in connection with expenses. I think that there was a great deal of genuine public revulsion at the idea that politicians in either House, or indeed in any House, would be convicted of serious crimes and go to prison, but would not necessarily have to resign their seats or be disqualified.
The case that made me such a champion of reform in this regard arose in the Scottish Parliament, in my own constituency of Dunfermline. The local nationalist MSP, Mr Bill Walker, was convicted last August of 22 accounts of domestic abuse and one charge of breaking a frying pan over his stepdaughter’s head—which serves to demonstrate the scale of the violence he was showing to a group of women over a 20 or 30-year period. I praise the Sunday Herald, which did so much to bring this story to light. Owing to the way in which the Scottish courts work, the maximum sentence that Bill Walker could receive—and did receive—was one year, so he was not automatically disqualified from serving in the Scottish Parliament, and if he had been a Member of the House of Commons, he would not have been automatically disqualified from serving in this House.
I welcome the recent statement from the Leader of the House that he is interested in starting a dialogue about the rules of the House of Commons and I hope the Minister will set out the Government’s broader thinking about the rules of disqualification and whether or not we need to look at this again.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that looked into these matters. It was happy with the proposal as it stands, and there was no suggestion that the period should be six months. Would he like to comment on that?
Indeed, and I have had a brief chat with the Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). As I recall, the report that the hon. Gentleman is referring to addressed the broader context of the recall of MPs, and from what I can ascertain from the newspapers, I think it is fair to say that that option is now off the table. If we were having a broader debate about recall, I could see the argument for keeping the period at a year and a day.
I was referring to the previous look at the issue in the Committee’s recall report.
Sometimes in our debates on a Friday Members say “We haven’t had many letters about this,” but I can truly say that I have had a large amount of correspondence on the issue of what is an appropriate disqualification period. On this occasion, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Committee Chairman. I think there is genuine public disquiet at the idea that someone can receive what is frankly quite a lengthy jail sentence yet continue to serve in Parliament, creating laws.
There is an obvious question which I am sure will be posed to me: why do I propose to make the situation for the House of Lords different from that for the House of Commons? If a Member of the House of Commons receives a jail sentence—of nine months, let us say—and tries to tough it out, the electorate still has an opportunity at the next general election to remove them from office. As things currently stand, however, in the House of Lords there is no term limit and therefore no other mechanism for recall. I believe there is merit in exploring whether the period set should be shorter, because the people of Britain do not have an opportunity to remove a Member of the House of Lords who tries to tough it out.
Regrettably, a small number of Members of the House of Lords, on both sides of the political divide, have gone to prison in recent years, and each time it happened there was genuine anger and people said, “Why is there nothing we can do to remove them?” I hope that today we will tease out the Government’s thinking on whether these rules are appropriate and whether there is merit in asking, “Due to the unique nature of the House of Lords—there is no democratic mechanism—should there be the same procedure?”
Turning to the broader issue, it appears that the hon. Members for North Warwickshire and for North East Somerset take slightly different approaches. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire has, I think, managed to achieve all that the hon. Member for North East Somerset wants, but does it in a single amendment. Far be it for me to get in the middle of an argument in the workers party about what is the correct approach, but it seems to me that this is a debate about whether it is appropriate to have to take a positive step following a conviction in a foreign court or whether our starting point should be that we regard foreign courts as having sensible judicial processes and only in exceptional circumstances would we seek not to abide by their recommendations. I hope that this is a rare technical argument.
I have to say that I have more sympathy with the original view of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire. I would find it slightly disconcerting if our starting point were, “We don’t believe a court in Germany, or in Canada or Australia, has due legal process.” Of course there are countries around the world that do not have the same legal history as us, but I have more sympathy with the view put forward originally by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire than I do with the view proposed by the hon. Member for North East Somerset. I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for North Warwickshire shortly, and I am sure the Minister will set out the Government’s thinking.
May I again congratulate the hon. Member for North Warwickshire on introducing this Bill? There appears to be some noble interest in our debate today, and it is perhaps worth placing on the record the fact that the Bill is supported on both sides of the House. Lord Steel deserves a great deal of credit for championing the issue in recent years. It is possibly not as contentious as legislation he previously introduced when he was a Member of this House, but it is certainly an important Bill and I hope it makes it through both Houses and becomes law.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for introducing his amendment, because we should regularly revisit and discuss what the correct length of time should be. I took the trouble to look up in Hansard what was said in 1981 when the Representation of the People Act was debated. Lord Belstead made it clear that it was a pretty arbitrary decision to pick 12 months. He said that the Government did not
“rely exclusively on the precedent of 12 months in the 1870 Act. We felt—I admit this quite openly—that it would be more likely than not that persons in the category of those who had received sentences of more than 12 months had committed graver offences and that no injustice would be done by imposing a disqualification.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 1981; Vol. 422, c. 143.]
However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the idea that we should have different limits for the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament and so on. He has certainly made an eloquent case that we should perhaps routinely reassess the level across the board, but I do not think that at present more stringent rules should be imposed on the House of Lords than we have in this place. For that reason, I am afraid I will not be supporting the hon. Gentleman’s amendment.
Turning to some of the other amendments in the group, Amendments 12 to 14 are drafting amendments that remove the words “it is irrelevant” from the start of the subsection in question, but then include them twice within the body of the subsection. They are, in my view, unnecessary.
Amendments 15 and 16 deal with convictions in the United Kingdom and abroad. This has been a controversial issue. Amendment 15 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction of a serious offence in the United Kingdom or Ireland automatic. Amendment 16 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction of a serious offence in any Commonwealth realm subject to a resolution of the House of Lords, and in any Commonwealth country subject to a unanimous resolution of the House. It would prevent peers from being removed from the House if they were convicted of a serious offence outside the United Kingdom, Ireland or any Commonwealth realm or country. I believe that I have interpreted that correctly.
The purpose of my Bill is to make straightforward, small-scale changes to the membership of the House of Lords, and I purposely avoided over-complicating the clauses. To make such small distinctions between countries is unnecessary and not something that I believe many of our colleagues would support.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my disquiet that we could be creating an artificial divide by saying that Commonwealth countries have a more robust judicial system than, say, European countries or the United States? I believe that the Foreign Office is troubled by the judicial process in some Commonwealth countries.
I would agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. My heart entirely understands the distinction in the amendments between the Commonwealth and elsewhere, but my head says that it is difficult to justify the suggestion that countries such as Germany and France, for example, should be put into a different category from some members of the Commonwealth.
I presume that the amendment that would make the application of the provision automatic in the case of convictions in the Republic of Ireland is designed to emulate more closely the Representation of the People Act 1981. However, we all know that that legislation was enacted during the troubles in order to deal with the unique circumstances of that time, and incorporating the same provision in my Bill is therefore unnecessary.
In addition, I object to the assertion that it is permissible for a peer to commit a serious crime anywhere other than in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth, and not to face sanction here for it. Allowing peers to do so and to retain their seats would damage the reputation of the House of Lords, and my Bill seeks to achieve the opposite. I believe that peers who are fairly convicted of offences that are regarded as serious within the United Kingdom should be disqualified if the House so resolves, which is why I am tabling my own amendment to that effect. I will speak to that amendment in a moment.
Amendment 17 would put a duty on the Lord Speaker to issue an additional certificate if a peer were pardoned following conviction for a serious offence to confirm that fact. The impact of a free pardon is that the person is cleared from all consequences of the offence and from all statutory or other disqualifications following conviction. If a peer who has been disqualified on the ground of a conviction for a serious offence is then pardoned, the effect of that would be to remove the disqualification. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.
Amendment 23 has been tabled in my name, and I have given a great deal of thought to this matter. I believe that anyone convicted of murder or any serious offence, whether in Bolton, Belgium or Brunei, should be subject to disqualification from the House of Lords. However, we all agree that criminal justice systems in different countries vary, and of course other jurisdictions sometimes try people in very different circumstances from those in which they would be tried in the United Kingdom. In addition, some countries impose lengthy sentences on individuals for actions that might be deemed to be minor offences, or not offences at all, in this country.
I have listened carefully to those who spoke on this issue on Second Reading and I have given the matter a great deal of consideration. I have also looked carefully at what happens in this House, where only sentencing and imprisonment that takes place in the UK and Ireland result in automatic disqualification. Of course, this House has the inherent power to disqualify whomsoever it chooses and can therefore choose to consider foreign convictions on a case-by-case basis and subsequently disqualify a Member. It seems to me that the House of Lords should be given the same opportunity.
My amendment 23 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction for a serious offence abroad non-automatic. Instead, the House of Lords would need to resolve that the penalty should apply in each case. This would provide a sensible mechanism by which noble Lords could assure themselves that the conviction and sentencing were safe and met British perceptions of justice before disqualifying Members. I will therefore be pressing this amendment and I urge the House to support it.
I rise to speak to the amendment, but, on reflection, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wonder whether it might be more appropriate for the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) to speak first, followed by the two Front-Bench speakers. I am happy to do it in that order.
North East Somerset, in the great county of Somerset, is always ready. We are on alert for whatever might come. I am fortunate in that my constituency is not under water, so it is perhaps easier for me to be alert than those in the rest of the county at the moment.
The real problem with the exclusion of peers for criminal offences is that, in 1948, they gave up the right to try themselves for felonies. That had been an ancient, historic right that they had used from time to time; we perhaps know it best from “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. The last case, in 1935, involved Lord de Clifford, who was found guilty of manslaughter following a motoring accident. Their lordships judged him not to have been guilty, on the ground that the other driver had been going too fast.
A previous case, in 1901, involved Earl Russell, who was found guilty of bigamy and sentenced to three months in prison. He was found guilty because he had got divorced in Nevada, and their lordships did not think that Nevada was a proper place in which to get a divorce. They decided that it was not valid, and that he was therefore a bigamist. That leads me to my suggestion that we do not always take the views of foreign courts into account, and that they do not necessarily have standing in the United Kingdom. Poor old Earl Russell was known to his contemporaries as the wicked Earl. I am allowed to say that, Mr Deputy Speaker, because he is not still alive. I am allowed to say disrespectful things about wicked earls who are no longer with us.
I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am also rather troubled, because that means that I can be rude about hereditaries who are not in the House of Lords. That would be deeply upsetting, however, and I would be shocked if I did such a thing. Anyway, the point about Nevada was that a judgment made there was not considered to be authoritative.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is inconceivable that anyone would ever want to be rude about the royal family.
So, Nevada was not taken seriously and Earl Russell was found guilty of bigamy. My amendments distinguish between the jurisdictions of a variety of foreign countries, and with good reason. The reason for including Ireland along with the United Kingdom is that it matches the form used for exclusion from the House of Commons, and there seems to be a logic in maintaining that. It is also set down in statute that we recognise the unique relationship that the United Kingdom continues to have with Ireland. Irish citizens are the only ones other than Commonwealth citizens who are always allowed to vote in United Kingdom elections, and travel from the Republic of Ireland to the United Kingdom does not require a passport. Ireland is not viewed as a foreign country in the same way as other countries are.
The Commonwealth realms are either serious nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada that have a legal form based on ours and that follow the legal traditions of the United Kingdom which they inherited from us, or they are smaller nations, nine of which have the Privy Council as their court of appeal. We can therefore say that any conviction within the Commonwealth realms will be of such standing that we can recognise it because it has been made in a nation with which we have the friendliest relations and the tightest of historical links.
I am seeking enlightenment. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned “realms” a couple of times. If a Member of the House of Commons or the House of Lords were convicted of a crime in one of the Crown dependencies or the British overseas territories, would they automatically be disqualified? I truly do not know the answer to that question.
They are not included in my amendment, although it would obviously be possible to amend the Bill to bring the Crown dependencies in. I am talking about the Commonwealth realms, which are the independent nations in the Commonwealth of which Her Majesty is still head of state. Nine of those nations have appeal to the Privy Council, which is their final court of appeal. They therefore have a standard of justice in which we can have confidence, because it is a standard that we ourselves implement.
I am listening carefully. The hon. Gentleman has made an assertion a couple of times, both directly and in the round, that we have confidence in the Commonwealth judiciary. Without causing an incident by naming the countries, I am sure we can think of a number of Commonwealth countries where the judiciary, perhaps at a state level rather than at federal or national level, is less than it could be. Does he accept that is a concern?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. At the moment, I am talking about the Commonwealth realms and he himself said in his own speech that it would be peculiar if we did not trust the judicial system of Canada. I happen to share that view; there is no particular difficulty with Canadian justice. When we come to some of the smaller Commonwealth realms, they have appeal to the Privy Council and that is the safeguard—that it becomes essentially a British form of justice. In the end, a peer would be able to appeal to a court based in this country. It is actually based in the Middlesex Guildhall; if you have a good arm, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a stone’s throw away from this palace.
With the Commonwealth realms, it is reasonable that the House of Lords should be able to recognise a conviction in one of them and it would then be able, by an ordinary vote, to expel the peer from the Lords. That seems a perfectly reasonable approach, because one can have confidence in the justice that would be meted out in those realms. In relation to other Commonwealth countries, expulsion would require the unanimous agreement of the House of Lords. That is because there are certainly Commonwealth countries where one would have some concern about the standard of justice that applied and would worry that having an automatic acceptance, or even a simple majority acceptance, of their judgments would not necessarily be helpful.
That relates to my broader question about other foreign courts. There are some Commonwealth countries where one can be imprisoned for a year for some quite extraordinary things. I do not know whether you knew, Mr Deputy Speaker, but if you should go on your travels to Singapore representing the Houses of Parliament, which would be a worthy trip for you to make, although Singapore is a great and civilised country—I am one of Lee Kuan Yew’s foremost admirers—it is illegal to connect to an unsecured wi-fi hot spot. It is classed as
“unauthorised use of computer service”,
it is punishable, for both Singapore nationals and tourists, by a fine of up to 10,000 Singapore dollars and/or imprisonment for up to three years. In 2006, a man called Garyl Tan Jia Luo received 18 months’ probation, nine months’ curfew, 80 hours of community service and an 18-month internet ban for use of an unsecured wi-fi hot spot.
Let us think of some young peer who travels to Singapore and accidentally connects to the wi-fi because he wants to read Hansard to find out what has been going on in their lordships’ house or attend to other matters of public business. If he is caught by the Singaporean police and if we accept judgments of foreign courts he could get three years in prison and be disqualified from the House of Lords.
I am slightly troubled by the hon. Gentleman’s argument, because he seems to be saying that we have a right to look at other countries’ laws and say, “We think that’s a silly law.” Quite a lot of the world’s people drive on the wrong side of the road, but we respect their right to do so when we go to their countries. Should not that young lord have respected the rights and laws of that land, and made himself familiar with them before he travelled there?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman visits Singapore; he will remember that people there drive on the correct side of the road. They know how to do things there. It is a wonderful country.
Breaking obscure laws that it is unreasonable to expect people to have knowledge of ought not to exclude people from the House of Lords. Uganda has been in the news recently for its stringent laws against homosexuality. Are we really to say that peers who end up in Uganda and get into trouble with the law there should be banned from the House of Lords? They could get a life sentence. Is that really a way of deciding who is in a legislature of the United Kingdom? What happens if a lord displays a flag in Kiribati? Someone who displays a flag in Kiribati or wears a uniform in connection with a political object can be sentenced to a year in prison. Lords would suddenly be excluded for doing all sorts of minor things that in this country would not be an offence.
Rather splendidly, in Swaziland it is illegal for any female under 19 to shake the hands of a man; I do not know what the punishment for that is. Under the Bill, a peer could be convicted, regardless of when the offence took place. A 90-year-old peeress, who as a 19-year-old girl had shaken hands with a gentleman in Swaziland, could suddenly be deported to Swaziland, put in jug for a year and excluded from the House of Lords.
There is a tremendously serious point in this. It is that around the world there are hundreds of countries. I have a list of them: Afghanistan; Albania; Algeria; American Samoa; Andorra; Angola; Anguilla; Antigua and Barbuda; Argentina; Armenia; Aruba; Australia; Austria; and Azerbaijan. That just gets us to—
Mr Deputy Speaker, I think you are a mind reader. I was going to read out only the As, so your intervention came at absolutely the right moment to help me to continue.
We know remarkably little about many of those countries. We have not carefully considered their legal systems. What is the law in American Samoa? What offences could lead to somebody being sentenced to a year in prison? If a peer went there on a parliamentary delegation, would they randomly find that they had committed some offence? What if somebody has a gin and tonic in Saudi Arabia? They may get lashed, but—
It is listed as a country. [Interruption.] But then Wales is a country and it is also part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman’s pedantry is taking him down a blind alley, if I may say so.
There are also great countries—countries that we respect—that have a legal system about which we have doubts. I will mention two of the friendliest and most civilised countries that the United Kingdom has dealings with: the United States of America and Italy.
In the United States of America, the noble Lord Black was basically told that he could either plead guilty or face decades in prison if he was found guilty. There was a charge sheet against him as long as your arm, and there was a witness to give evidence against him. The witness was told, “If you plead guilty and turn the equivalent of Queen’s evidence, then we will give you a few weeks in a country club.” That approach to plea bargaining ought to raise serious concerns. In this country, it would not be allowed. There is not the possibility to say to somebody giving evidence, “We will give you something very cosy if you help us to find somebody guilty”, and guilty not just of an offence but a whole string of offences with huge sentences, and all in proportion to what was being alleged, so that people are bullied into pleading guilty. The reason that America does that is that it has so many constitutional safeguards to provide for a fair trial that it is consequently very difficult to get convictions. Plea bargaining is therefore used as a means of getting the result that was sought in the first place, but which the protections in place would have made it hard to get. That form of justice should not determine who sits in the House of Lords.
In the example of Italy, we see cases, and reports of cases come to us, of people being found guilty, not guilty and guilty again. In a British sense, that is not justice; it does not observe the requirements of double jeopardy. I know that in exceptional circumstances those requirements can be got round in this country, but as a general rule the oppressive state cannot charge and recharge somebody once they have been found not guilty. Many foreign countries are also willing to try people in absentia, so one does not even have the ability to defend oneself against the charge.
Therefore, it seems to me that when we in this country are deciding how our Houses of Parliament should be designed and who shall have entitlement to sit in them, foreign courts are not a valid place to determine membership. That is the right of our sovereign and of the British people; it is not the right of courts outside this country. Consequently, I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), which turns things round.
The hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) may correct me if I get this wrong, but where someone does not attend for a parliamentary Session—a whole year—they are deemed to have been disqualified from serving in the House of Lords. Someone who has been detained at the pleasure of the Italian Government for two or three years will not have been able to attend the House of Lords and will surely be disqualified on that basis.
Let me clarify this. That was a flaw in the original drafting of the Bill, but in Committee we introduced a provision whereby the House of Lords has the right to vote to disregard the clause removing peers through being absent in certain circumstances, to deal with exactly the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises.
Indeed, on Second Reading we discussed what would happen to a prisoner of war and whether they would automatically be disqualified—the answer is, obviously, no. It would almost certainly be possible for somebody held in a prison of a vaguely civilised nation to apply to take leave of absence. So, on both counts—either in the special circumstances or on the leave of absence issue—the peer would not be forced to resign.
We should protect our own constitutional rights zealously. We should not allow other places to interfere in how we run our business. The right way to go about it is set out in amendment 23, which achieves what I was aiming to achieve and is pithier. It does not give any special status to the Commonwealth realms, which I was giving not particularly out of a sentimental attachment to them, but more because of the ability to appeal to the Privy Council and the safeguards that builds in. It ought to be the right of the House of Lords to expel people—this House has that right and it is unfortunate that the House of Lords does not. It would be a good power for it to have as part of regulating its own affairs. It has the power to imprison peers but it does not have the power to expel them. However, it should use that expulsion power only if it wants to do so; it should not be forced to do it because a foreign court has told it that it has to.
I was discussing the systems in America and Italy, great nations with which we have the friendliest relations. However, we do not understand—we are not party to—their legal systems. A British person accused in a foreign country is often at a disadvantage to a national accused in that country because they are not in sympathy with the systems that will be used against them. Therefore, having this protection whereby it must be an active decision of the Lords to expel somebody convicted in a foreign country will protect the peer arrested in Kiribati for waving a flag or in Uganda for being homosexual or in Singapore for using the internet unlawfully. It is absolutely right that a judgment can be made as to whether in our terms, under our law and under our rules a peer has done something so serious and manifestly wrong that that right of peerage to sit in the House of Lords should be removed or curtailed. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has introduced amendment 23, which has saved me from speaking at much greater length on this important subject.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on, and thank him for, discussing his concerns about this issue on Second Reading. We have subsequently had the opportunity to reflect on and consider the matter, and we see that he has made a powerful and persuasive case. I was going to mention the anti-gay laws in Uganda to which he referred. Tragically, similar laws have recently been passed in another Commonwealth country, Nigeria. So simply to rely upon the laws and legal systems of other countries is not sufficient and not proper in determining our own constitutional arrangements. As he says, even in countries that have advanced legal systems and are our close allies, such as the United States and Italy, there are concerns in certain cases. So he was absolutely right to raise this matter on Second Reading and I warmly welcome the fact that the promoter of the Bill has responded with amendment 23, which intelligently addresses the concerns that have been raised. It says that Parliament automatically will seek to protect peers but has the option of disqualifying. That reverses the original provision and it is an intelligent way of responding to the serious and proper concerns that the hon. Member for North East Somerset has raised, both on Second Reading and again today.
I wish briefly to comment on the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who also spoke about this issue in Committee. He rightly reminded the House today of the public revulsion at some of the crimes that have been committed, referring to the case of a particular MSP, the crimes of people from all sides of this House and also of some in the other place. He made an interesting argument about why there could be a disparity between the 12-month limit here and a lower six-month limit in the other place because Members in this place are subject to re-election. That argument interests me and it is food for thought as this debate moves forward. My instinct is the same as that of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), which is that if we are to look to a lower limit, it would be preferable if we had a lower limit across the board. Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has said that we should open a dialogue on this issue as it relates to the rules of the House of Commons.
My immediate recollection is that even where Members of Parliament have been convicted of serious offences and sentenced for a period of less than 12 months they do, generally speaking, resign. That has certainly been the case in relation to recent issues that arose from the expenses scandal. The only case I can think of in recent history where MPs did resume their seats—I stand to be corrected on this by Members from either side of the House—was where they were briefly sent to prison for not paying the poll tax. I cannot think of any other recent cases where a Member of Parliament has been imprisoned for a period of less than 12 months and resumed their seat having come out of prison. There is a case for us to examine the matter, but I do not think that this Bill is the right vehicle for us to do so. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend, who has raised an important issue, will not press his amendment to a vote.
I am delighted to give the Government’s response to this important set of amendments. We are very sympathetic to the reasoning behind amendment 1 from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), but what his Front-Bench colleague the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has said pertains: any changes to our procedures in the House of Commons in terms of the length of imprisonment that would trigger disqualification and expulsion are a matter for this House rather than this Bill. I can confirm what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said about the Leader of the House having indicated that he is open to cross-party discussions to consider these matters. In Committee the hon. Gentleman was right to raise the situation of the Scottish Parliament, which is of course beyond the scope of this House. The Secretary of State for Scotland has given an undertaking, equivalent to that given by the Leader of the House, to engage with the Scottish Government and the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament to discuss the position pertaining to Scotland, which I know has particularly exercised the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.
The thrust of the Bill is to bring the rules in the House of Lords broadly into line with those of the House of Commons, and that is done for a reasonable purpose. There are lots of issues that this Bill could have taken on—there are lots of outstanding areas of contention about the reform of the House of Lords—but my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) is to be commended for navigating a sure course between various possibilities that might distract the Bill and prevent its entering into safe harbour. This issue is one such possibility, so the arguments as to whether the limit should be more or less than 12 months is for another time. His proposal would bring the other place into line with this House.
I welcome the spirit in which the Minister has set out the Government’s case. Does he think that, as has been put to me by a number of organisations, we perhaps sometimes focus on the length of the tariff rather than the type of offence? Would the Government consider that as part of the broader discussion about what the appropriate tariffs for disqualification are?
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that this is a matter for the House. The Leader of the House has agreed that discussions can be initiated on this, and it is not for me to prescribe the content of those discussions. However, as the suggestion was that they should be cross-party, the hon. Gentleman has at least had the opportunity through his own party to raise that matter.
In amendments 12 to 14, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) proposes moving the words “It is irrelevant” from the start of subsection (3) to the body of the subsection. He always has an eye to elegance on paper as well as in verbal communication. I dare say that it was the aesthetics of the drafting that caught his eye.
Let me save my right hon. Friend some trouble. My amendments were merely to make sense of the changes to the Commonwealth realms and the Commonwealth to move the words from the introduction to the body of the subsection; otherwise, the subsequent amendment would not work.
I understand the point now. I did think it was a rather more syntactical point, but I stand corrected. As I took it from my hon. Friend’s speech that he had been persuaded by the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire and that he was content with the simpler expression of the same intention, his amendments would not be required if my hon. Friend’s amendment were made. As my hon. Friend has indicated that he is content with the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, I hope that he will consider it reasonable not to discuss his proposed equivalents in great detail.
Amendment 17 on pardons adds a duty on the Lord Speaker to issue a further certificate if a Member is pardoned, following the conviction of a serious offence. The effect of a free pardon is that the person is cleared from all consequences of the offence, and from all statutory or other disqualifications following on from the conviction, although it does not remove the conviction itself. On that basis, if a peer who has been disqualified was then pardoned, the effect of the pardon would be the removal of the disqualification, and it would be odd if it were removed in the case of a successful appeal but not of a free pardon.
I understand and I am grateful for the clarification.
On amendment 23 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire and the point about foreign convictions, the mood of the House is to acknowledge that criminal justice systems do vary from our own. Of course it is right to respect the differences, but it is equally true that in some cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has ably drawn attention to, what is illegal in one country may jar quite violently with a British sense of justice. The issue of homosexuality has been mentioned in this debate, and, regrettably, it is currently illegal to be homosexual in at least 77 countries. Under the Bill as it stands, someone convicted of homosexuality in one of those countries and sentenced to more than a year in prison would automatically lose their place in the House of Lords. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said that we should start with a presumption of upholding the authority of overseas courts. However, it would be monstrous, even though the Bill would allow their Lordships to overturn the penalty by dint of special circumstances, for even a temporary disqualification of someone convicted of practising homosexuality in one of those countries and for them to need to apply for relief from the consequence in the House of Lords. That would be a very retrograde step, and we should not for a moment countenance such a temporary disqualification.
The Minister is being persuasive. Does he not accept that in the House of Commons, under our rules in the Representation of the People Act 1981, we do not have a right to wait for an appeal? A Member is automatically disqualified once the judge has passed sentence, and that is for more than a year and a day. It is occasionally possible in the UK that our courts get it wrong, so why is he supporting a different rule for an overseas court than we have in a UK court?
The hon. Gentleman points out something that can, on occasion, be a source of regret in the procedures of this House. It does not follow from that that we should introduce the greater possibility in the other place through this Bill. I do not think that we should contemplate that.
Is it not the case that we cannot allow an appeal when it refers to this House, because the vacancy has to be filled, whereas in the other House there is no limit on the numbers? We have to have every constituency represented, and we could not have two Members of Parliament, which could happen if someone who was excluded was brought back.
My hon. Friend is quite right to explain the differences between the two Houses. That is why it is right to focus on the fact that this is a Bill that proposes changes to the House of Lords. The Houses are not identical in every respect, but my hon. Friend has been careful in restricting his Bill to the House of Lords and to its procedures there.
It is right that their Lordships should review the circumstance in which a Member was convicted abroad in order to satisfy themselves that the offence is recognised as being serious in the United Kingdom and that the circumstances of the conviction are fair. I know that a number of Members raised this issue on Second Reading, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire for the diligent and sensible way he has managed to find an amendment that is elegant and to the point, and the Government are pleased to lend their support to it.
I have listened carefully to the arguments, some of which have been most persuasive. Given the assurances that the Government are open to the whole issue and the fact that I do not want to hold up this Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: 23, page 3, line 8, leave out subsection (9) and insert—
‘(9) A certificate under subsection (2) in respect of a conviction outside the United Kingdom may be issued only if the House of Lords resolves that subsection (1) should apply; and where the House does so resolve the Lord Speaker must issue the certificate.’.—(Dan Byles.)
Effect of ceasing to be a member
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 21, page 3, line 44, at end insert—
‘(9) A person who ceases to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with sections 1 and 2 of this Act may not be elected to the House of Commons during the course of the next two Parliaments.
(10) A person who ceases to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with this Act remains entitled to all the other privileges state degree style title and honour of peerage.’.
Amendments 19 and 21 aim to deal with the issue of Members of the House of Lords going from the Lords to the Commons. As the Bill was initially drafted and as we debated it on Second Reading, it would have been possible to have a revolving door or ping-pong back and forth, depending which phrase is preferred. It would have been possible for someone to leave the Commons, go to the Lords, leave the Lords, come back to the Commons and go back to the Lords again. I am glad to say that that was amended in Committee, which has at least to some degree ameliorated the situation. But there is a problem with the House of Lords being changed into a place that can be used as a way of preparing people for political life before bringing them to the Commons. As more and more professional politicians come through—I know this is a matter of concern to the electorate—people can have the following career path: becoming special advisers, going to the Lords and then coming to the Commons, without any real pause in between. As the Bill stands, it would be possible to resign a seat in the Lords immediately before the close of nominations for the House of Commons at a general election—
Thomas Docherty: There is already some precedent for somebody leaving the House of Lords, going straight to the House of Commons and then back to the House of Lords. I think I am right in saying that Alec Douglas-Home did exactly that in 1963 and was elected in Scotland to a seat that he represented for a number years and then became a life peer.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. There is indeed a precedent, which I was well aware of, and it is not just the late Lord Home of the Hirsel; Lord Hailsham did exactly the same. Both of them resigned their peerage for the 1963 Conservative leadership contest, at which point Tory leaders emerged from the magic circle—a very satisfactory way of doing it, but it is now done in a more modern way, and I am glad to say that all Conservative Members have an equal vote in our leadership elections. I cannot quite remember how the trade unions sort it out in the Labour party, but I know that they have a lot of fun with it.
There is indeed a precedent, but the hon. Gentleman will remember that when the ability to disclaim peerages was introduced, a limited time was provided when all peers could disclaim their peerage, regardless of when they had received it. Thereafter, peers who disclaimed their peerage had a limited time in which to do so after inheriting their peerage. It was all done so that Tony Benn, the then Viscount Stansgate, could get back into the House of Commons to be elected for Bristol. That was done to provide for an extraordinary circumstance where people had no choice but to be peers. They had become peers by the wonderful accident of birth that had raised them to such a status, which took them into the House of Lords and forced them to leave the House of Commons, whereas the precedent had already been set in relation to Lord Curzon and George V that the Prime Minister had to come from the House of Commons. Therefore, to allow the widest choice of candidates for that leadership election, peers were able to resign their peerages and come into the Commons. However, people becoming leaders of the party in that way is very different from it becoming a standard part of the career progression of a politician to go to the Lords first and then come to the Commons. The first should not be seen as a stepping stone to the other.
It is also a problem in relation to our constituency work, because it would not be inconceivable that an election result in a marginal seat could see a Member of Parliament defeated, and that his party might so value his or her services that they put them into the House of Lords, from which he has the ability to campaign for the marginal seat for the next five years, before resigning his seat in the House of Lords to come back to the House of Commons.
The devolved Parliaments are different, because the simple logistics of needing to be in Edinburgh or Cardiff and also in the House of Lords make it much harder to work on that basis than between these two Houses, where the role, the position, the place of activity are so very similar. It is perfectly reasonable to foresee someone who has just lost a seat spending five years as a Lord preparing to campaign for it again. As it becomes clearer, and parties are well aware of this, that to win seats we have all modelled ourselves on the Liberal Democrats—I say that with not a single one present in the House now—we have worked out that to win marginal constituencies—[Interruption.] I was not aware that there was anyone that I could see in the Galleries.
I am very grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I will let you into a secret: one of my ambitions is to speak from the Galleries one day. I think that it was last done in the 1950s.
To return to my point, it has been established that the best way to win marginal seats is to select candidates early and have them working in the constituencies for a long time in the run-up to a general election. That presents difficulties, however, because candidates have to earn a living, need to find the resources to finance their campaign and have to put other parts of their life on hold. If they can do that from the House of Lords, that is an enormous advantage. It gives them an income of sorts and it gives them status, which they can use to intervene in constituency affairs—a local council or Government body will take a letter from a peer just as seriously as a letter from a Member of the House of Commons. There is the risk of setting up an MP and an unelected peer to fight for a constituency for five years, with the peer simply standing down before the election to put himself forward and conceivably take the seat and go back to being a Member of the House of Commons. That seems to me to be fundamentally undesirable.
Members may say that the risk is slim and that that will never happen, but we are becoming a more professional political class. There is certainly evidence that length of campaigning in constituencies helps. There is currently a very good proposal from “ConservativeHome” to provide candidates with funds to help them with that. How much easier it would be if there was a nice, cosy billet in the House of Lords from which it could be done. Admittedly, that could not be done again, because the peer would have burnt all his bridges in relation to returning to the House of Lords, but that is not too bad, because they would still have got 15 years out of the system: one Parliament as an MP, one as a peer and, if they are clever, another as an MP. It begins to look like a means of forming a political career.
If that system becomes a means of forming a political career, it also becomes—I return to what I said earlier—a means of the parties asserting more control over their lordships’ House. A key thing about being in their lordships’ House is that there really are no further baubles the Government can offer. There are very few carrots and no sticks. That encourages independence of mind. It encourages peers, once they get there, to be more rigorous in considering the merits of the issues before them and to act in the proper way of a revising Chamber. The more possible it is for Governments to encourage, coerce and persuade peers to stick tightly to the party line, the less use their lordships’ House will serve, because it will be unable to do its job as a revising Chamber effectively.
Even if the risk is relatively slim and the numbers involved will not necessarily be huge, it seems to me that some sort of stop ought to be placed on that and that people go to the Lords knowing that they have accepted it for life, as we have already discussed, and that it disbars them from the House of Commons. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that people should face the consequences of decisions they have freely made. That is where it is different from hereditary peers and disclaiming, because a hereditary peerage is not a decision freely made; it is an accident of birth. However, any life peer has received a letter from the Prime Minister saying, “Do you want to be a life peer?”, has had letters patent issued by the sovereign and has had to pay Garter King of Arms to draw up the paperwork. They have had to do something to get that noble status. They know, because they have been told, that it excludes them from the House of Commons, by their voluntary choice.
Some argue that that is against their human rights, which is an absolutely ridiculous understanding of human rights. I know that it has been argued that it is against their human rights to stop them coming back to the House of Commons, but they are the ones who chose to be ineligible for the House of Commons. Surely with rights go responsibilities, and surely people must face the consequences of their actions.
I think that the failure to include that exclusion in the Bill is a mistake. It is something that ought to be remedied, because it could lead to problems in future. It could damage the standing of the House of Lords. It could easily be misused by a powerful political party, because obviously the party in government is more able to decide who the working peers will be, and therefore to use it for its marginal seats, to the detriment of opposition parties. No party is in government for ever, so it is always worth all sides bearing those difficulties in mind. It also fundamentally takes away from someone the consequences of their actions, which I think is wrong. I think that people should bear those consequences, and once they have been elevated they should not be allowed to sink back down, at least for a period.
I shall be brief. I had not planned to speak, but I was so interested by the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that I want to challenge some of his assumptions.
As I said earlier, we already have a system whereby Members of the House of Lords can serve simultaneously in both the Lords and the Scottish Parliament. Lord Steel served ably for four years not just as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, but as its Presiding Officer while serving in and on occasion, I think, attending the House of Lords. Lord Watson, who was previously an MP, took a life peerage in 1997 and then stood successfully for election to the Scottish Parliament in a constituency in Glasgow in 1999. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock went from the House of Commons to the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament and maintained his very active role in both the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament at the same time.
There is no suggestion in any of those cases that being a Member of the House of Lords gave an unfair advantage to those three noble Lords while they were campaigning for election to the Scottish Parliament. Lord Steel in particular was and is still a huge figure in Scottish politics, deeply respected for his 30-odd years’ service to the people of the Borders. That was why Lord Steel was successful when he stood for election on the list in the Lothians region of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
I fear that on this rare occasion the hon. Member for North East Somerset sees mischief where none will exist. He was right to mention Lord Hailsham and the issue with Alec Douglas-Home. I read Alan Clark’s diaries a few months ago, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has done. He will recall that at one point Baroness Thatcher was considering the merits of Lord Young as a possible successor. It is utterly inconceivable in the 21st century, never mind the 20th century, for a peer to become Prime Minister. That would be unacceptable to the electorate, and possibly even constitutionally these days there would be questions about the validity of that role.
The danger with the argument that the hon. Gentleman makes with some sincerity is that it would close down the possibility that someone may go into the House of Lords and then emerge as a serious contender for high office, though perhaps not the highest office, but if they wished to be Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer, for example, it might be felt more appropriate for them to be a Member of this House. We have a slightly quirky situation at present, and that was true also under the Labour Government when the First Secretary of State was a Member of the House of Lords and a junior Minister had to answer in this House. Personally, I hope we will look at that again. Putting in an artificial bar—
The proposal would not put in an artificial bar but maintain the status quo, because currently a specific Act of Parliament would be required for a life peer to come into this House. Lord Young could not have been Margaret Thatcher’s successor without an Act of Parliament allowing him to disclaim his peerage.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this door has been opened by the Bill, and I recognise that he is trying to shut it. That was my point in talking about putting in an artificial bar. I hope that the Minister will clearly set out how the Government intend to respond to this issue. I think that the hon. Gentleman is seeing a mischief where there is not one. I hope that when he responds he will reflect on what the two Front Benchers have said.
Amendments 19 and 21 would prevent a peer who resigns or is disqualified through non-attendance from being elected to the House of Commons during the course of the next two Parliaments, thereby making provision for a cooling-off period. I think we all agree that we would not want the House of Lords to become a training ground for a seat in the House of Commons and thereafter provide an opportunity to ping-pong between the Houses. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said, my Bill does not allow departing peers to return to the House of Lords, so the ponging is gone, and perhaps we are now just discussing the pinging.
I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s concerns, but the likelihood of many of them becoming reality are quite slim. On the first group of amendments, he spoke with great eloquence about how desperate many people are to get into the House of Lords. In my experience and, I think, that of most people in the House, people are very keen to go in that direction but there is not necessarily quite such a large queue waiting to come in this direction. When I have discussed this with colleagues, they have looked at me and said, “Why on earth would somebody want to go from the Lords to the Commons? Most of our colleagues seem to be trying to go the other way.”
On the potential power given to party leaderships, I am not convinced that the party leadership—in our party, anyway—has quite as much control over the candidate selection process as my hon. Friend seems to give them credit for. Whenever the party leadership tries to impose a favoured candidate on a safe seat, the fact that they are known to be the Conservative central office-favoured candidate can at times be the kiss of death with regard to the local association, which usually likes to exert its independence when it come to selecting candidates.
My hon. Friend’s argument needs to be weighed strongly against the very serious issue of barring a British citizen from seeking election to the House of Commons. I take his point when he says that someone will have made this decision when they chose to go into the House of Lords, but it is very large step to say to them, “You, as a British citizen, are one of a small group of people who, through dint of your previous job, are not permitted to seek election to the House of Commons.” We have traditionally prevented people from seeking election to the House of Commons only for very narrow reasons, and I am wary of the amendment for that reason. I am not aware of any widespread desire among parliamentarians to ping-pong backwards and forwards—or ping, at least—and I very much doubt that the party leaderships of all three parties would seek to use that as a method of grooming candidates in future.
Amendment 21 says that any peer who resigned or was disqualified would retain their peerage. That principle is already inherent in the Bill, which does not provide for peerages to be lost, and the amendment is therefore unnecessary. I urge the House not to support the amendments.
I oppose the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), although I recognise the sentiments he expresses about undue campaigning and not allowing political advantage to be conferred on people who try to get selected to this place by virtue of their being a parliamentarian already.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on the grounds that we already know of many Members of the European Parliament who have sought to come to this place having been very proactive in parts of their constituencies. I am thinking of a particular gentleman who is no longer a Member of this House but was very assiduous in parts of his region where he ultimately got selected as the candidate and was then elected to this House. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is right to highlight the issue, but I am concerned that he may have given the idea to our political parties, rather than dissuaded them. I do not think it is necessary to put it into legislation. If there is ever a case of the procedure being abused, that would be the appropriate point at which to revisit the issue, in another Parliament.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has raised a serious issue and I have given it a lot of thought. It has been pointed out to me by experts on this matter outside the House that previous proposals for reform of the other place have included some sort of cooling-off period and that it should, therefore, be considered as part of the Bill.
When the hon. Gentleman moved his earlier amendments, he discussed the risk of this becoming a standard part of career progression, which is a fair point. However, we also have to balance that risk with the arguments made by other hon. Members during this debate. The decisive argument that leads me not to support the amendments is that made just now by the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), namely that I cannot defend the principle of barring a UK citizen from standing for election simply on the basis of their previous occupation.
I accept that there is a risk, albeit a relatively slim one, of the system being abused. On the other hand, there could be some advantage to people who have experience of the other place standing for this place. I think it is fair to say that, whatever our different views about the composition of the other place and the method of appointment and lack of election to it, it is often better than we are at the scrutiny of Bills. If a small number of people with experience of scrutiny and revision in the other place came to this place, that might not be such a bad thing. On balance—this is a finely balanced argument—I come down against the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North East Somerset and hope that he will withdraw it.
I am disappointed that the House has lost the opportunity today to hear the unmistakable and authoritative tones of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) coming from the Gallery. It could only have lent even greater authority to his declarations. We shall look forward to it happening at another time, with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The issue has had a good airing in this short debate. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern that we should not risk losing the very important role that their lordships play in being a source of dispassionate expertise and advice to this place, and we all admire their robust independence and scrutiny, even if, on occasion, Ministers find themselves on the wrong end of it. That is their role and they discharge it very well.
We do not want to see the House of Lords become a nursery for the Commons where young hopefuls start their careers before being transplanted to this Chamber at some point. However, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) have said, this is a balanced argument. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) has sought always to gather those measures of reform that command the greatest possible consensus. This is not the last word on House of Lords reform and some of the principles that even this short debate has thrown up are very serious and have consequences, such as whether it is right to restrict someone who is not a Member of Parliament from standing for Parliament. That debate of some constitutional consequence needs to be approached carefully and to happen in the context of other debates that will no doubt take place in the years ahead about further reform of the House of Lords.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset was gracious enough to acknowledge, the Bill is different from the one first introduced, so it cannot be subject to ping-pong in the way that would have been permitted for the original Bill. We have given a great deal of thought to this matter and those covered in previous discussions. When Lord Steel promoted his Bill in the other place, it made progress and was accepted by their lordships, who were content for it to proceed without what might be called the cooling-off period. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has been influenced by, and has consciously modelled his Bill on, proposals that have already attracted a degree of support and consensus, following considerable scrutiny in the other place. To depart from the established consensus in the other place might be perilous for a private Member’s Bill on such a subject.
I agree with the comment that preventing someone from running for elected office is a serious sanction. Given the safeguards made to avoid ping-pong between the Houses, it is not necessary for the Bill to forbid someone from doing so. I concede that this House and the other place may want to come back to the matter and, provided that the Bill is fortunate enough to receive Royal Assent, perhaps to make a judgment based on the experience of how it works in practice. I am sure that there will be other opportunities to discuss it in the years ahead.
Let me just mention amendment 21, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. As has been said, it would clarify that any peer who resigns or is disqualified retains his or her peerage. It may help if I repeat from the Dispatch Box what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. The Government’s view is that that is already implicit in the Bill, which states that a peerage cannot be lost in such a way. I am happy to confirm that to provide clarity and certainty.
Given the reasons that I have set out, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is inclined not to press his amendments.
I have listened very carefully to the speeches in this debate. I am very reassured by the Minister’s commitment that the matter will be reviewed if it turns out to be a problem: if my fears turn out to be real, it will be looked at, and if they turn out not to be, it will not matter. I am also reassured that the honorifics that go with a peerage will clearly remain. I do not want to risk the Bill by pushing my amendments to a Division, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Queen’s consent signified.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank the hon. Members, some of whom are in the Chamber, who participated in Committee for their careful consideration of and full support for each clause. I do not intend to repeat the very full debate we have just had on Report. The advantage of discussing a wide range of amendments is that we have already explored several of the clauses, so I need not go over them again. I thank colleagues for their considered and thoughtful interventions, and for agreeing to my amendment 23, which will make the Bill a better one.
I am delighted that Members of all political parties have come together to consider the provisions of the Bill carefully and to lend their support throughout its parliamentary stages. The Bill seeks to implement the urgent, housekeeping reforms that the upper Chamber welcomed during the passage of Lord Steel’s Bill. Those include a statutory resignation provision, so that peers may leave the House if they no longer feel able to serve or if they wish to retire; a mechanism for the removal of persistent non-attendees who fail to fulfil their important duties to the House; and a system to remove peers who commit serious criminal offences, thereby safeguarding the reputation of the House of Lords.
It is plain that both Houses embrace those sensible reforms, which Members have long agreed the House of Lords requires. The debate over how reform of the upper Chamber should be achieved has thwarted earlier attempts at reform and has led to these essential and highly reasonable reforms not being implemented. I appreciate that the wider debate about reform will continue and that colleagues hold different views on the need or otherwise for longer-term, substantial reform of the membership of the upper Chamber. I remind Members that the Bill does not prevent those debates from continuing, but focuses on the extremely overdue reforms that we all agree are crucial.
I am confident that, following its considered examination by colleagues, the Bill is in excellent shape to be progressed to the upper Chamber. I therefore urge Members to continue to assist in its safe passage today and to give those in the upper Chamber this vital opportunity to reform themselves.
I, too, will be brief because there are other important Bills that will come before us shortly.
I thank the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) for bringing the Bill forward. It is an impressive Bill, in that it has not only generated a lot of debate, but made sufficient progress in a packed legislative programme to head down to the House of Lords. I hope that, because of the work that has been done here, the House of Lords will not feel the need to spend too long on it and it will become law before the end of the Session.
If the hon. Member for North Warwickshire is the father of the Bill, it is probably worth stressing that Lord Steel is its godfather. Like many godfathers, he is no doubt taking an interest in what we are doing and watching over us in some way. I hope that the whole House will join me in thanking him for his work on the Bill over the years.
I believe in reform of the House of Lords. I hope that this is not the last Bill on the subject. Whether or not Members support an elected or partially elected House of Lords, I think that it is recognised across this House—indeed, it is recognised in the House of Lords itself—that it is absurd to have more than 800 peers and for that number to be growing quickly. I hope that the Bill will have an impact on that, but I also hope that Front Benchers are committed to having another look at the composition and operation of the House of Lords.
I thank the Clerks who have done such a fantastic job, in particular Kate Emms, and all the House officials who have worked with the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), myself and other Members who have tabled amendments.
I commend the Bill to the House. It is an excellent piece of work. I urge the other place not to spend too long rehashing these issues, because it is important that the Bill gets on to the statute book before the end of the Session.
I rise to commend the Bill to the House and to our noble Friends in the other place.
The Bill makes a sensible reform. I was pleased to be invited by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) to help prepare and bring in the Bill, and to serve on the Public Bill Committee.
When a previous version of the Bill was discussed, it did not get past Second Reading, even though it had a significant majority at that point. A number of issues have been raised through amendments today and in Committee. I thank, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who is one of the great champions of constitutional propriety, but who also recognises the need for appropriate reform.
I sincerely hope that the other House passes the Bill without undue delay.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, the rule has a caveat that the House must be full for someone to speak from the Galleries, and sadly that is not the case today.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) for her incredibly generous comments, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) on piloting this Bill. I am surprised that I find myself supporting a reform Bill of any kind, as I am normally with Lord Palmerston: “Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough already?” My hon. Friend has piloted this Bill with incredible courtesy, efficiency, and a willingness to listen to the points that have been raised. Although I think all its proceedings should have been on the Floor of the House, it is a rare event for a Back-Bench Member to pass a constitutional Bill and it requires a good deal of patience and perhaps responsiveness.
For once, I will praise the Lord President of the Council, because to be fair to him—my right hon. Friend!—having not been able to get through a massive reform of the House of Lords that would have had enormous constitutional implications, he has shown good grace in not sulking in his den and trying to obstruct this reform. This Bill allows transitions to take place which, although minor in themselves, are actually quite fundamental. A life peerage is now no longer for life, the problem of peers committing offences is dealt with at last—which in some ways is long overdue—the House of Lords is now able to expel peers, and non-attendance has a sanction. I think those reforms make the upper House stronger. That is not to say that I do not have minor qualms about some of the detail, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has been incredibly successful in piloting the Bill, and has done so in such a way that even those of us who are accused of being Neanderthal about constitutional matters are on his side.
I start by joining the congratulations to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) on his Bill and his success in reaching Third Reading, and I reaffirm the Opposition’s support for the Bill. In many ways, as he said, this is a housekeeping Bill: it is modest, but important and sensible nevertheless. Without this Bill, we face a real risk of heading towards an upper House with as many as 1,000 Members. That is more than can fit into the other place for a popular debate—surely a farcical position to be in.
Clause 1 is a sensible step that allows peers to retire or resign. As the shadow Attorney-General said on Second Reading, a peerage should not be a life sentence. It remains remarkable that one cannot retire from the House of Lords, and gives an impression of the other place as a members’ club, rather than a serious place of democratic scrutiny. The option of resignation will be useful in a number of different scenarios, such as when a Lord is ill, as was said earlier, or unable to keep up their attendance. To have peers who do not or cannot play their role in the parliamentary process, but who nevertheless remain entitled or expected to do so, surely devalues our democratic process, and I am pleased that the Bill will change that.
Clause 2 provides that a Member of the House of Lords who is a peer and does not attend the House during a Session will cease to be a Member of the House at the beginning of the following Session. The public are understandably frustrated when they wonder why Members of the Lords remain ennobled and able to vote in the Lords when they are never present to undertake that role. The measures in the Bill ensure that that will no longer be the case. To be a member of the House of Lords should not merely be a line on one’s CV or a hobby, but a serious role that requires attendance.
Clause 3 means that a Member of the Lords who is convicted of a serious offence ceases to be a Member. Again, that is a sensible measure to ensure that we protect the legitimacy of the other place. The public would be very concerned if convicted criminals, guilty of serious offences, were still able to play an active part in our lawmaking and democratic process, and I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire was successful in his amendment to clause 3 which, rightly, offers further protections for peers who may be incorrectly convicted abroad under foreign jurisdictions.
Nevertheless, it remains the view on the Labour Benches that these changes do not go far enough. They should not be seen as the end of the road, but merely as the next stage of reform. The upper Chamber is in need of much more radical reform and indeed this Chamber has voted for that both in this Parliament and the previous one. There are only two countries in the world—the other being Lesotho—in which the upper House combines non-elected Members with Members selected by birthright and patronage. It is an institution that has eight times as many Members over the age of 90 as it does under the age of 40, but it plays a central role in our democracy—despite having no democratic mandate.
Beyond democratic legitimacy, there are practical considerations. The Bill will help to tidy up the Lords, and is therefore welcome, but the problem will keep coming back. After each general election, new Governments will always seek to reflect the balance of the vote at the election in the composition of the Lords, creating a further pressure that means we still risk having 1,000 Members in the other place. Disqualifying convicted criminals and allowing peers to resign is tidying up a molehill when there is a mountain of reform still needed. Nevertheless, the Bill is an important step in the right direction and I reaffirm our congratulations to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire and commend the Bill to the House.
I echo the plaudits that are no doubt ringing in the ears of my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) for the way in which he has successfully—I hope, although it is subject to the will of the House—piloted his Bill through its stages. I commend him on his bravery in taking forward—as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said—an important constitutional Bill as a private Member’s Bill. It is a brave Member of Parliament who, when he comes high up in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, chooses House of Lords reform. It is not the most obvious choice, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire made it and has piloted his Bill in an exemplary manner.
Part of my hon. Friend’s achievement is to have worked tirelessly to consult and listen to respected voices, many of whom have spoken in the debate today, so that both the formulation of his propositions, and the amendments to them, have been able to establish a degree of support on both sides of the House. I hope that that will also be the case in the House of Lords.
I also wish to put on record my thanks to the Members who participated in Committee on 15 January, considering a large number of amendments that were made without any Divisions. The Bill is not the last word on reform, and there will doubtless be more debate to come. I echo the words of other hon. Members in paying tribute to the officials and the Clerks who guided my hon. Friend in the drafting of the Bill and dealing with some of the questions that arose. It is a tribute to their wisdom and advice that we have been able to make the progress that we have.
I hope that the other place will accept the strong and positive endorsement of the House for the Bill. While discussions on the wider membership and structure of the Lords will continue, the Bill is useful. The three elements that it will introduce—a statutory resignation process, a disqualification mechanism on conviction of a serious offence and removal for those who persistently fail to attend the House without reasonable excuse or leave of absence—are steps in the right direction. It is right that a conscientious peer who has played a full and active role in the House of Lords, but feels in all conscience that they can no longer maintain that level of commitment, should be entitled to an honourable release from that commitment. The Bill, very sensibly, will provide for that.
I also think it consistent with the enormous privilege that comes with a peerage—to which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has repeatedly drawn attention—to provide for those who do not attend the House of Lords or take their duty to it seriously to be permanently removed from their seats. I think that allowing persistent non-attenders who do not play a role in the work of the House to keep their seats damages the reputation of those who are diligent, and who contribute their time, effort, energy and learning to the debates that take place there.
It is vital for all Members of the legislature to uphold the highest standards of integrity. Allowing peers who commit serious criminal offences to keep their seats in the House of Lords can only harm its reputation and undermine its important work, and it is right for Members who fall foul of the rules to be permanently removed. Indeed, our colleagues on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee who considered the Bill noted that every witness who had given evidence during its inquiry into House of Lords reform had supported a provision to remove Members who committed serious criminal offences.
For those reasons, the Government fully support the important and reasonable measures that the Bill seeks to implement. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire for giving the House an opportunity to consider them, and for the way in which he allowed the debate to be conducted. Following careful and detailed consideration, not just today but in Committee and on Second Reading, the House of Commons has given the Bill full and good consideration, and I think that we are sending it to the House of Lords in a good state. I hope that it will be possible to build on the work of Lord Steel—who, similarly, took great pains to ensure that his own Bill received a degree of scrutiny and support—and that the union between that heritage and my hon. Friend’s Bill will enable it to make good progress in the other place. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.