I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 209433 relating to a referendum on the abolition of the House of Lords.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. As I normally do, I will read the text of the petition for the Official Report:
“Give the electorate a referendum on the abolition of the House of Lords. The House of Lords is a place of patronage where unelected and unaccountable individuals hold a disproportionate amount of influence and power which can be used to frustrate the elected representatives of the people”.
As of a couple of hours ago, 169,215 people had signed the petition. The timing of the debate is apt because at the other end of Parliament, the Lords are currently exercising an incredible amount of influence and power over the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, as they debate the amendments that have been rejected by this place. We will see what comes back to us later.
I congratulate the petitioner, Rob McBride, who is in the Gallery today with his wife. I just had a snatched conversation with him—I hope to catch up with him after the debate—about what motivated him to start the petition. I was told it was purely the argument, applicable before the EU withdrawal Bill came to the Lords, that in this day and age there is no place for appointed members of a legislative body. I hope to talk about the options, and about the discussions that we have had, that the Lords themselves have had, and that I have had with a number of university and school students regarding the issues and practicalities of Lords reform.
I suspect that many of the 169,000 people who followed Rob’s lead and signed the petition were specifically motivated by the Lords’ consideration of the EU withdrawal Bill, because many signatures came quickly after it. I suspect that a lot of people were concerned about how the Lords had started to overstep their remit—a view I share. I believe that some of the amendments to the Bill sent to the Commons, such as those relating to the European economic area and the customs union, were not in the scope of the original Bill; such matters are properly considered in other legislation, not least the Trade Bill, which is coming before us again in a few weeks’ time. However, considering and voting on provisions such as so-called Henry VIII clauses is well within the Lords’ remit. That may be uncomfortable for the Government and for Members who, like me, voted to leave the EU and want to get on with it, but the House of Lords exists not for my comfort or for the Government’s, but to scrutinise legislation and to return it to the Commons, hopefully in a better state.
That the House of Lords has overstepped the mark in throwing back certain amendments is evidenced by some of the comments made during the debate. Lord Bilimoria said, when considering amendment 49, that
“Thanks to this amendment, Parliament would have the ability to stop the train crash that is Brexit.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 April 2018; Vol. 790, c. 1854.]
It is not appropriate for the upper House to thwart the will of the people and to get us to consider what are effectively wrecking amendments to a Bill that was clearly in our manifesto and that we need to get passed in a timely fashion if we are to leave the EU in an orderly way. Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb said in the same debate that she had intended to vote for an amendment, but the speeches in favour of it had turned her against it, as there was clearly “more of an agenda” than just allowing more oversight of the process.
Oversight of the process is what the House of Lords is for. The Lords do many different things, but in the Chamber itself about 40% of their work involves scrutiny—debating, asking questions, and responding to ministerial statements and such things. The other 60% of their time is spent improving draft legislation, primary legislation and statutory instruments. From speaking to a number of Members of the House of Lords, it is clear to me that they spend a lot of time on, and take a lot of interest in, statutory instruments—probably more so than the Commons does, where we typically rely on a Government majority to get them through. The Lords take their role of scrutiny and adding their expert view very seriously.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that regardless of the legislation being considered, in a country that I would hope considers itself to be a democracy, it is an affront that we have more than 800 unelected peers, with 13 new appointments recently, while we face the prospect of the democratic Chamber being further reduced?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I will talk about the need to reduce numbers later. I will also talk about the practicalities of whether we have an elected or appointed upper Chamber, how we could reform an appointed Chamber, and the need for an upper Chamber in the first place. Should we go unicameral as New Zealand has? I will consider whether there is scope for doing that.
We have unicameral Chambers in Scotland and Wales. We may or may not have issues with the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, but it all seems to work perfectly well.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. A unicameral system can work perfectly well and I have no doubt that we would survive quite happily with such a system, but the House of Lords can, and often—though not always—does offer something that is related to its composition: one advantage of having an appointed system is that we can bring in experts who can add expertise that we do not necessarily have in the Commons.
To give some examples, from the world of science we have the brain pioneer Baroness Greenfield, fertility expert Lord Winston, and Lord Darzi. From business, we have the former chief executive of HSBC Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, Lord Rose from Marks & Spencer, and Lord Sugar. For social policy challenges, we have Baroness Newlove, Baroness Lawrence and Lord Bird, the creator of The Big Issue. When it comes to culture, we have Lord Bragg and the former head of the BBC, Lord Hall. We also have both the Lords Palumbo: one was chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain; the younger, Lord Palumbo of Southwark, was the founder of the Ministry of Sound. We have sporting people, such as Baroness Grey-Thompson; people from public services such as Lord Dannatt, who adds military expertise, and Lord Hogan-Howe, a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
We also have people from the security services, philanthropists, human rights campaigners, religious leaders—beyond the obvious statutory role of the bishops—legal experts, academics and, of course, former Members of this place, who at least have an understanding of the parliamentary process and can help to get business through. Perhaps we can cover that in a bit more detail later.
The hon. Gentleman makes the argument that many Members of the House of Lords have considerable expertise in certain areas of policy and that that benefits the apparatus of Government, but surely those people could be drawn in to advise the Government in many other ways, such as through setting up expert panels or simply having Government advisers. They do not have to be part of the legislature for the Government to benefit from their advice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that interesting point, but I am describing the existing situation, which nobody would create. We had hereditary peers in the House of Lords right up until the ’90s. The first level of reform went through under Tony Blair, but nothing was really put in its place. We are in that halfway house at the moment.
I would not want the hon. Gentleman inadvertently to mislead the House. Perhaps he will put on the record the fact that there are still 92 hereditary peers.
Forgive me. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I will come to that point later in my speech. I was talking about when there were solely hereditary peers. I thank him very much for allowing me to correct the record.
The House of Lords clearly needs to do more, however it is composed, to ensure it is representative of the country, not just by reflecting public political opinion, expressed in general election results, but by having more women and people from ethnic backgrounds. It is interesting to note, however, that both leaders of the two main parties in the Lords are female, and that all three leaders of the main parties are younger than their counterparts in this place. Funnily enough, the House of Lords has done its bit for gender equality by electing its first male Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler. It has a good record of supporting women in the most senior positions, but clearly there is more it can do.
The work of Lords is not just the legislation debated in the Chamber, but its Committee work. Its Select Committees are formed differently from ours: while ours tend to reflect Departments, its Committee’s tend to be more cross-cutting. The Science and Technology Committee, for example, makes the most of the House of Lords’ expertise. Essentially, the House of Lords does things that the House of Commons does less of because the time available, and our different political imperatives and priorities, drive us in different ways. However, it should not go beyond its remit, as it clearly has on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
A lot of checks have been introduced over the past 100 years. The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 prevent the House of Lords from blocking legislation and money resolutions. It can hold up Bills for up to a year, but the Government can reintroduce them without seeking the House of Lords’ consent at the beginning of the next parliamentary session. Having some tension is no bad thing, but there have to be limits, and the House of Lords has overstepped the limits in this instance.
The Salisbury convention would normally kick in for a measure such as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, because, like our pledge to leave the customs union and the single market, it was clearly in our 2017 manifesto. However, that only prevents the Bill from becoming law in this parliamentary session. There is obviously a timescale issue with the EU withdrawal Bill, because we will leave the EU at the end of March next year, so we have to get the Bill through in plenty of time to ensure we leave in an orderly way. If it is held up for too long or changed beyond recognition, that will affect our negotiating position now and our capacity to leave the EU in an orderly way next March.
We are in the rather strange and unusual situation of having a two-year parliamentary Session. If we had stuck to the normal protocol of having a one-year Parliament, the Parliament Act could have applied and the blockage could have been removed in time for us to leave the EU in March next year. The Government are at fault for having this extended Session, which has rendered the Parliament Act rather difficult to deploy.
These are obviously unusual circumstances for all manner of reasons. Brexit and the two-year Session are incredibly unusual. I have talked a lot about the fact that, in my view, the Lords have overstepped their remit. The petitioner is not talking about the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, so I will park that after this point. We need to look at the Bill as a whole. The Lords may be thwarting the Government now, but it depends on how the process finishes. If we can get the Bill into the form originally intended after consideration of Lords amendments on Wednesday and Third Reading, even if it has been amended, which is exactly what the Lords are there to do, as long as it has not been amended beyond recognition and its original remit—there will have been a lot of tension—we will have got there in the end. A lot of the things we do in this place may look odd or arcane to people, but they tend to have a way of working. That is done not just in the Chamber, but through the usual channels and debate and discussion outside the Chamber.
The reforms have been only half completed. The possibility of having an elected Chamber has been mentioned. That is one option. Do we abolish? Do we go elected? Do we have a hybrid system with a mix of elected and appointed peers, or do we keep it the same? I do not think anybody is saying we should keep it exactly the same. We went through the process of looking at an elected House of Lords before my time in this place, and nobody could agree on the detail. Although there was a lot of sympathy for having at least an elected element of the House of Lords, no one could say what percentage it should be and how long the terms should be. That is one reason why it did not go through. It will take a lot of parliamentary time—I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about this—if that proposal were to come back to us. What could we agree on and coalesce around?
The hon. Gentleman is describing the various reforms to the House of Lords over the years, and I think he would agree that the process has stalled somewhat in recent years. All those reforms were motivated by people who wished to see the Lords become more accountable and were concerned that people were in a position to make laws that apply to citizens without being accountable. Does he agree that it is rather ironic that citizens are petitioning the House of Commons asking for reform, and that the Government are doing nothing to reform it and will not make time available, yet the House of Lords is arguing for reform because its crisis of legitimacy has become so acute?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The nub of the problem is this: what kind of reform do we want to achieve? Hon. Members who were here under the coalition Government talked about having an elected House of Lords, but they could not agree on one simple solution. The Lords are talking about reform, and I will cover that point in a second.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) talked about hereditary peers. The daft thing is that, with the 92 who are left, it is a halfway house. I understand why people are concerned about the House of Lords and either want to change it or question its legitimacy. In 2016, we had a ridiculous situation when there was a by-election for one of the Members of the House of Lords. A Lib Dem peer, Lord Avebury, died, and seven hereditary peers from around the country were put up for election, but the electorate was only three. How daft is it to have an electorate that is half the size of the field of candidates? It makes a mockery of the process, so we clearly need to look at the situation.
The Government have already gone some way towards trying to lay a path to change. The House of Lords Reform Act 2014 allowed Members, for the first time, to retire or resign permanently. Those who do not attend or are convicted of a serious offence that carries a prison sentence of a year or more cease to be Members. That was not the case before. Again, it is a bit daft and I am glad it was sorted out.
The House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 enabled a suspension running beyond the end of a Parliament to be imposed on a Member, and allowed the House of Lords to expel Members. As part of that process, University of Strathclyde politics students came here, and we discussed the issue with them. Just this morning, pupils of Steyning Grammar School came to do a tour of this place, and went to the education centre—a fantastic resource. Instead of just having a question and answer session with a Member, we sat down and started to look at the options for reform, including abolition. Interestingly, both sets of students unanimously agreed that we should not abolish the House of Lords or elect it. They said we should carry on with appointed peers, but with significant change.
The students looked at the House of Lords and asked why people would be motivated to sign such a petition. They felt that it was because of a lack of understanding: the House of Lords sounds old-fashioned and undemocratic, lacks visibility, is not diverse or reflective of society—people could not relate to it—and it seems to be comprised largely of politicians for life, in effect, with Members moving from one end of the building to the other. Hereditary peers were also a concern. Those students, however, still believed it to be an important institution, which does more scrutiny with a lot of expertise—peers expert in their field and with nothing to lose—so they did not believe that it should be abolished.
How should the House of Lords be reformed? The Strathclyde students said that the bishops should be removed and talked about whether to remove political affiliation—to go totally Cross Bench—but they could not agree how. Again, we come back to the question of how to reform the House of Lords. The students wanted stronger emphasis on post-legislative scrutiny, with Committees looking at laws a year later or so to see whether they are working.
The Steyning Grammar School group had a similar discussion. One student did not believe that we should even reduce the numbers. She made an interesting point: the larger size allows for more diversity and a wider range of opinions. We have talked about how there is not enough diversity in that place, but there is scope. Not everyone turns up for every debate, so there are plenty of opportunities to speak for black and minority ethnic Members or women Members, depending on the subject matter—they are being drawn from a bigger pool.
Everything comes back to what reforms are possible and what reforms are being looked at by the Lords themselves in the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House—the Burns Committee. The Committee has come up with some interesting ideas. It, too, believes that the House is too big—we are talking about 800 Members, which makes it one of the biggest legislative bodies in the world—and recommends that membership should be reduced to and capped at 600 Members, which would bring it into line with this place should the boundary reviews go through later in the year.
The Committee also recommended linking composition of the House of Lords to general election results. It would reduce membership to 600 in just over a decade through a natural system—an accelerated “two out, one in” programme—with new Members appointed for a 15-year term. No party would be allowed an absolute political majority, and a minimum of 20% of seats would be reserved for independent Cross-Bench Members, largely appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The students to whom I was speaking all felt that patronage should be reduced if not removed, so an independent commission should have far greater say in membership of that place.
Political appointments, if there are any, should be shared between the parties. The Burns Committee believes that those should be in line with the result of the previous general election, defined as an average of the party share of the national share and the seats won in this place. That formula and the 15-year term would together ensure that the composition of the House of Lords reflected the country over the medium term.
If consensus can be achieved in the House of Lords, I hope that that would start to bring that place into a semblance of order, though it would not be enough for some, such as those present who have been arguing for election or the petitioner who is arguing for abolition. However, people might start to relate to the House of Lords and see it use the expertise that the Lords undoubtedly have, concentrating on things that need to be done. Given that, we need to understand the concern that the Lords must still, quid pro quo, stay within its existing remit. We should never lose sight of the fact that what matters ultimately is the contribution of peers to the scrutiny and improvement of legislation, and the difference that they can make when doing that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
Many Members will be familiar with the Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election. The winning candidate, S. Baldric of the Adder party, stood to represent a constituency whose population consisted of three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin and a small hen in its late 40s. The candidate went on to surprise everyone by achieving 16,472 votes. I am of course referring to the plot of an episode of “Blackadder the Third”.
All very amusing, but that scenario is only slightly less absurd than the one referred to in the opening comments of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully): the election on 19 April 2016 of Viscount Thurso of Ulbster, who was one of seven candidates before an electorate of three. I am pleased to report that on that occasion at least the turnout was 100%. It gets worse, because despite being elected by only three people, Viscount Thurso actually boasts one of the largest democratic mandates among the 780 Members of the other place.
If that was the plot of a comedy series, we would laugh; if that was the situation in another country, our media would sneer; but that is what apparently passes for democracy in the United Kingdom in the 21st century. The situation is one that successive Governments have chosen to allow, and the response of the Government to the petition that we are debating shows that things are unlikely to change. They said:
“Whilst comprehensive reform is not a priority, the Government will also continue to work to ensure that the House of Lords remains relevant and effective by addressing issues such as its size.”
I argue that it is extremely difficult for the House of Lords to be relevant as long as it remains unelected. The fact that 169,000 people have signed the petition that we are debating shows that we cannot continue to kick the issue down the road or into the long grass. This historical aberration has to change.
We are told that, despite the lack of democratic accountability, the Lords at least do a good job—although there might be mixed views on the Government Benches about that at the moment. That is indeed true of some Lords. I have worked closely with many Members of the other place and have been extremely impressed by their contribution. However, I see no reason why, with such ability, they would not have a good chance of being able to continue to serve in public life were they to subject themselves to the will of the people.
Some in the other Chamber, sadly, are much less assiduous. In an age when the electorate is often criticised for its apathy, I was astonished to find that the record turnout for a vote in the House of Lords in recent times was only 3% higher than the turnout at the last general election. Even at their absolute best, one in five Members of the other place does not cast a vote. Furthermore, that exceptional turnout I just referred to is very much out of the ordinary. On average, only between half and two thirds of the upper House attend, and many Members have not spoken or voted in a considerable time. That they can do so without any apparent accountability is an affront to democracy and an insult to the public.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but does he recall that when reform crashed and burned under the coalition Government, it did so because of the suggestion—almost insistence—of an elected element? That was all about the primacy of the House of Commons, so what was actually going on was reform of the Commons, because it was argued that at the moment that anyone in the House of Lords was elected, such Members had as much legitimacy as those of us in the Commons. The blockages and delays that we are experiencing now would therefore only become more profound, and would have some justification. That is why the reform proposal failed.
I appreciate that, but it does not make the existing system any more acceptable. The problem that successive Governments have found with the House of Lords, and the trap that they and we all fall into, is that we obsess about how we shall make the system work, rather than saying as a statement of principle that we do not believe that an unelected Chamber in this country is an acceptable way to proceed. We should state as a starting point that we want abolition, then if we agree we should have a period of time in which to work out exactly what we want instead.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman who is talking about the credibility gap—people cogitating and reflecting on legislation when they have no democratic accountability. Does he agree that the credibility of the Lords is further undermined by the fact that they pay no tax on their House of Lords earnings or allowances?
I was not aware of that. In the past, some people have had issues to do with their involvement in making donations to political parties or with paying their taxes. It is absolutely right that someone resident in this country and taking part in the democratic process should be subject to the same rules as every other citizen.
We are told that expertise and knowledge is in such abundance among Members of the other place that radical reform would pose a risk to the ability of Parliament to scrutinise legislation. The truth, however, is that out of the 13 most recent nominations, seven were former Members of Parliament, one a former general secretary of the Labour party and one a former deputy chairman of the Conservative party. Indeed, since the Life Peerages Act 1958, a third of the 1,452 peers created have been former MPs who were therefore relieved of the bothersome inconvenience of having to obtain the consent of the electorate before being allowed to continue in public life. Many more nominees were councillors, party donors or staff. Of the Members appointed since May 2010, half are either former MPs or former local councillors, and a further fifth are former special advisers or party employees.
It appears that there is very little difference between the qualifications and types of people in the two Houses. In response to the argument about expertise, what is it about earning the legitimacy of the popular vote that precludes a person from having expertise on a particular subject? The House of Commons has plenty of experts from all walks of life. The fact that they have to face elections does not seem to prevent them from coming here in the first place.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, because I think of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who was a breast surgeon for 33 years. She makes an enormous contribution to the House of Commons in health questions and in health legislation, but she still had to go to the electorate of Central Ayrshire on two occasions. I back the hon. Gentleman’s argument that we have people here from various professional backgrounds, but there is no reason why the House of Lords cannot be subject to elections like the rest of us.
I share a brief with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire; I think Members from all sides of the House recognise and value her expertise. Indeed, there are a number of medical professionals in the House who continue to practise, with up-to-date, relevant experience, which is really important.
I am not claiming that there are no valuable elements of the current House of Lords; there are many talented Members who demonstrate very high levels of integrity, expertise and independence. However, we make a mistake if we assume that these characteristics are naturally imbued in the upper Chamber because of the way in which the Members are appointed. That argument will always fail if we watch for opportunities for indolence, as opposed to every decision that we do not agree with.
Appointment does not guarantee effective independence and expertise any more than an election would preclude those qualities. Crucially, all the positive qualities of the other place are fatally compromised by the lack of democratic accountability. We are saying to the public, “We trust you to decide our future relationship with Europe; we trust you to elect MPs, councillors, police and crime commissioners and mayors, but we do not think you are up to the job of electing an upper House.”
We have heard a lot about how the Lords’ actions during the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill may have changed some Members’ opinions about the way in which the other place operates. I do not have any truck with that, just as I have no truck with people who have become converts to the House of Lords because of the way in which they have recently operated. Just because the Lords vote in a way on a particular occasion that suits someone’s political view does not negate the overall democratic deficit that its continued existence in its current form represents. Let us not allow the day-to-day decisions and the painfully slow incremental reform to cloud the big picture: the House of Lords belongs to a bygone era of privilege, establishment and a closed political world, when we are becoming a much more open society. The time has come to end this relic of an earlier age and bring our democracy into the 21st century.
During the early part of the 19th century, the power in this country began to shift away from those whose right to make legislation was inherited through an accident of birth, who generally sat in the House of Lords. Instead, it began slowly and imperfectly to go towards those who had won the support of the public in some way and who, therefore, were more likely—although not necessarily—to have gained their position through ability and hard work. They, of course, sat in the House of Commons.
At that time, as we both know, Mr Walker, the old Tory party started to disappear. Historians say that the last Tory Prime Minister was the Duke of Wellington—I will come back his successor in a minute. Those old Tories began to be replaced by people such as Peel and Disraeli. It is sad that one of Wellington’s descendants is among those who seem to have forgotten the lessons of history and the importance of the Parliament Acts in our constitution. They are hell-bent on overturning the result of the referendum and the 2017 election, in which 90% of the public voted for the two major political parties that stood on an explicit manifesto commitment to withdraw Britain from the European Union.
The House of Lords is an unelected body that still contains nearly 100 people who sit there, interfering in the legislation of this country, simply because of an accident of birth. That is outrageous. The House of Lords is also unanswerable to the people and is unrepresentative. We heard earlier about the fact that there is not enough representation of women or ethnic minorities in the House of Lords. There is also not enough representation of people with different political views.
As democrats, how can we explain and defend the fact that nobody from the UK Independence party has ever been appointed to the Lords, despite the fact that millions of people have voted for that party in successive elections for the European Parliament and in general elections? Even at the last election, where the two major political parties took UKIP’s major policy of pulling out of the EU, it still got nearly 2% in the vote. Where are its Members in the House of Lords? I have never voted UKIP and I would never advise anyone to do so, but I am a democrat and I recognise the rights of millions of people who have supported that political party. Members of that party have earned the right to be there. It is ridiculous that the Duke of Wellington is able to interfere in legislation that affects this country, but Nigel Farage, who was the leader of a major political party that has had a major impact on this country, is not invited to sit in the House of Lords. He has a far greater moral right to be there than the Duke of Wellington.
As I said earlier, I joined not the Tory party of Wellington, but that of Peel and Disraeli, and later of Churchill and Mrs Thatcher. When I look at history, I see that the belief in free trade united all those people over the centuries. That belief brought Peel to get rid of the corn laws in the 1830s and it is why Winston Churchill in the early part of the 20th century, before he became known for saving us from the blight of fascism, was best known for his sterling defence of free trade and his opposition to locking Britain into a trading arrangement with countries with which we were said to have some sort of historical relationship. Those people all embodied a belief that people should reach their position on merit, achievement and hard work, not simply through an accident of birth.
As a Conservative, I say that the Lords is an anachronism long overdue for reform. The hereditaries are an insult to 21st-century democracy. To any Ministers who are listening, I say that now is the time for a reformed and representative House of Lords, with Members who are there by merit and not by birth. Now is the time for us, as Conservatives, to remember that we are at our best when we seize the opportunity to reform, instead of waiting for others to do it. We will wait a long time for their lordships to grasp it. Let us do it know, rather than face the wrath of our electors.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am pleased to say that I agree almost entirely with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), but I come at the issue from a completely different perspective. We may come to the same conclusion, but we have different reasons for wanting the abolition of the House of Lords.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here in 2003—he may have avoided that—when we had the vote on the future of the House of Lords. A White Paper offered seven options, all seven of which the House of Commons voted down. We do not have a terribly good track record of addressing the issue. We looked again in 2007—I think the hon. Gentleman was with us then—and made some progress. Surprisingly, the Commons came to an agreement that we wanted our Parliament to be bicameral, with an elected upper Chamber and that hereditaries would be abolished. Sadly, the Government fell in 2010, and for the last eight years we do not seem to have made much progress.
It is about time we revisited the issue, because it is pretty obvious that this petition strikes a chord. People do not sign in such numbers—169,000 and mounting as we speak—unless they feel quite strongly about an issue. The petition may have been brought on by Brexit and people’s antagonism towards the Lords for the way it has performed, but the debate goes much deeper than that. As someone with an awful lot of friends in the Lords—I may have fewer after this speech—I think it is time that we looked at what we want to be done, not just by the Lords but by the Commons.
I think I voted in favour of an elected chamber last time around, but I now believe we must abolish the Lords. Why have I come around in favour of abolition? Quite simply, it is because I do not believe we will ever do anything unless we abolish the Lords. We would have to put something in its place, but we must start with the nihilistic approach, if I can put it like that, of getting rid of what exists. We cannot carry on in the way we have been going. The latest attempt at reform by the Lord Speaker’s Committee demonstrates why we cannot let the House of Lords reform itself. The proposal is minimalistic and unacceptable, and I am sure it will never get through the Commons, so I do not know why it was even brought forward.
I agree that we need to abolish the Lords and start again, but we have seen that we need a bicameral Parliament. The Lord Speaker’s Committee has broad agreement in the Lords, so it should be seen as a starting point. If we made a radical proposal, the Lords themselves would vote it down and we would not get any further. To quote Voltaire, I do not think we should let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need a proposal that can get through both Houses.
That may be true, but I am an idealist, and I believe that we ought to seek out the best solution. Otherwise, we will always end up compromising—although compromises may well have to be allowed along the way.
Let me concentrate for a moment on the Commons. I have always argued that one of the problems with the Commons is that we pass too much bad legislation and we rely on the Lords to get it right through scrutiny and revision. If we got it right in the first place, we would not necessarily need another Chamber to do that. Again, that may be idealistic, but I feel strongly that the Commons must do its job better. There are all sorts of reasons why we cannot do our job satisfactorily: we are all too busy, so we all multi-task too much. We have Westminster Hall as a second debating chamber, which is great—those of us who argued for it thought it would open up debate for Back Benchers—but we are now criticised all the time by the public for never being in the main Chamber, and no one ever listens to our debates. We have to try to box and cox—we must realise that there is no perfect solution, but that there are solutions we can help along the way.
One of the reasons I would get rid of the Lords is that we have a fundamental problem with this building, which we will have to vacate sometime soon. Now is the time to look at what sort of structure we want. It would be daft to have that debate after we came back into the new building—it will be new, because it will in effect be rebuilt from the bottom up—whatever form it takes. It would be sensible to have it now and to establish what the second Chamber should look like, if we want one.
The one thing I disagree with the petitioners about is their assertion that the decision should be handled by a referendum. Anyone who read what I said last week will know that I do not agree with referendums being used for anything at the moment, given what happened with Brexit. It is about time Parliament reasserted its authority and decided what it wants to do. We would then face the consequences, because the electorate would either vote for us or not. As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), I am not happy with what the Lord Speaker’s Committee has come forward with, which seems like a temporary solution—an aberration—when we need a radical overhaul of the way our Chambers operate.
If I do not want the second Chamber to continue as it is, how do I see it operating, and how do I see that situation being arrived at? Its role should be to scrutinise and to take an overview of legislation. The Lords does that well at the moment, but I do not want a second Chamber that in effect replicates the Commons. I was told many times while Labour was in Government, “The Commons won’t agree to this, but don’t worry—we can get it through in the Lords.” That always made me look pretty stupid, because I would argue the case in the Commons and lose, only for that decision to be overturned in the Lords, where common sense prevailed. That may seem a jolly good reason for having the Lords, but I think it is a negation of what should happen in the Commons. We should take authority, debate and deliberate on things and then pass legislation, but we should do a better job of that.
I am not in favour of an elected second Chamber. I would make it a selectorate, keep it to about 200 people and allow those people to be representative of different ethnic groups, regions and interests. How would that be arrived at? I think Select Committees should interview appropriate people. I do not know whether hon. Members remember the people’s peers. I think we created about six and then the whole idea died a death. That was a daft idea—it was one of new Labour’s, “Let’s share it with the people,” compromises—but in a sense it is about time the Commons decided who is an appropriate Member of the second Chamber. I would make those Members’ period in office time-limited, and they should rotate so there is always some expertise but people move through. People should apply for the role, as they do in other walks of life, and Select Committees are the obvious bodies to interview them. Again, that would put the onus on Members of the Commons.
I am basically saying that we should take the politics out of the second Chamber. That may be idealistic, but I want expertise in that Chamber. I want people who know about science and the arts—people who know about the finer details of legislation, including the law, religion and so on—but who will not challenge the Commons. That is the problem—in effect, we have two Chambers challenging each other. We see that in the attrition over Brexit, but it has happened time after time, because traditionally the Lords has championed opposition to the Government. In normal circumstances—this is not the case at the moment with a hung Parliament—the Government believe they can get their legislation through. Abolishing the Lords would put the onus on the Commons to get that legislation right. If it did not, the Government would pay the consequences.
In conclusion, I feel that this is the right time to have this debate, so I welcome the petition, although I do not want a referendum—I want the issue to be decided by Parliament. That may be where the Lords comes in with its blocking role, but that is for it to decide. It would lose its credibility completely if it were seen to stand in the way of efforts to evolve what I think is the proper bicameral arrangement, in which one element of Parliament is democratically accountable and the other provides expertise and helps the process of the elected people.
My final point is that whatever money we save from the House of Lords should be given to MPs—not in pay but to run our offices. We are all overwhelmed with constituency work. That work gives us our grounding, and it is why we are different. We know what is going on in our constituencies because our constituents tell us. The problem is that we need additional resources to do a decent job, but our resources are capped. I would therefore put the money we saved from the Lords into running our offices, which would allow us more time to do our job in the Commons as we should.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
Let me start in a way that might portray me as a lawyer who is interested only in the detail of things. I am sorry for taking that position, but I do so to pick up on something said by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). The issue, as it is described in the e-petition, falls into two parts. There is a bit about the House of Lords, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) spoke about in detail—I will come back to that—but the petition also calls for a referendum on the subject.
I am surprised that no reference has been made to the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is a non-EU body, completely separate from that. It was set up in 1949 and is made up of a whole number of organisations. One such organisation is the Venice Commission: the European Commission for Democracy through Law. I suspect it is another body full of lawyers, but it does come up with interesting material. In 2005, the Venice Commission first came up with an analysis of how referendums should be conducted. That work is being continued by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), who is in the process of producing a booklet setting that out. If I may say so, one problem right at the beginning is with how our referendum on our membership of the European Union fits into that; she has some difficulty with that.
The Venice Commission likes to consider whether there is a national tradition of referendums. If we look just across the water to Ireland and its recent referendum on abortion, we see in that country there is a formal need for a referendum to change the constitution. We do not have such a requirement in British law to change our constitution. We must hang on to that as our starting point for where we are going.
The approach taken by the former Prime Minister in saying that any constitutional issues should be subject to a referendum was a haphazard and chaotic one. It was not thought through in its entirety or in the level of detail I would have expected from him. We are where we are with that, and I do not suggest that we rerun the EU referendum—anything but—but we cannot simply go on piling constitutional referendums on top of each other until we have our house in order.
The petition was inevitably influenced by the House of Lords’ reaction to Brexit. Many hon. Members have commented on how that House has overreached itself in proposing certain amendments. There is, however, a conflict with the Venice Commission’s guidance on how a referendum should be conducted and the aftermath of such a referendum, and we must bear that in mind so we do not make the same mistake again. For the reasons more succinctly stated by the hon. Member for Stroud, I do not like referendums either, and I would not recommend one for this sort of activity. It is something we need to do ourselves.
The Lord Speaker’s Committee is a starting point. It is clearly not the finishing point. Additional work needs to be undertaken and time pressure is needed to come up with something that will reform the House of Lords. The difficulty with that is that, for reasons everyone will know, it is not a priority for the Government to undertake a large constitutional reform of the House of Lords at this stage. We simply have to live with that.
I repeat that, as we are a member of the Council of Europe and have been since 1949, why do we not ever use its material, produced all the way through with Members of this House, in our deliberations? It is as if we cut ourselves completely off from it and pretend it does not exist. The arguments that we should do this ourselves are valid, and I am pleased to recommend them to the Minister.
I came here with no intention of making a speech, but I was reminded by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) of those days back in 2011 and 2012 when the coalition was in office and House of Lords reform was debated in the main Chamber in Government time. It was frustrating that there were numerous reforms with which we all agreed and would have proceeded had our partners in the coalition not been so wedded at the time to the concept of an elected second Chamber that nothing else mattered. The entire reform programme fell pretty well as a result of that intransigence.
I was amused, as I always am, by the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). I agreed with some elements but not with others. I took it—I hope I am not misquoting him—that he gave a pre-refusal should he be offered the honour of a place in the House of Lords when his long, illustrious political career in the Commons comes to an end. He can always intervene and tell me if I am wrong, but if that is the case, it is one less to worry about.
As I mentioned in an intervention, this debate is about the primacy of the House of Commons. All those years ago those measures fell because we could not find a way around the fact that, if we wanted the Commons to be a proper representation of public opinion and public feeling and not to be compromised, it had to have primacy. This is an argument not against House of Lords reform, but against having elected elements in it, and particularly some of the crazy schemes for two seven-year terms or whatever. The moment there is any suggestion of an elected element to the upper House, the Commons would suffer as a consequence.
It seemed we could not get around the idea that we were considering not abolition or reform of the House of Lords but wholesale constitutional reform of Parliament, and of the Commons in particular. It struck me then, and it strikes me now, that if as a result of the mood of the electorate we had a substantial Government majority in the Commons matched in the House of Lords, checks and balances would be significantly reduced, and the ability of the Lords to review, improve and scrutinise legislation—sometimes aggressively—would be somewhat reduced.
We should not be too pompous about some of the arguments we are getting from the House of Lords at the moment. It is important that the Government’s position on Brexit is challenged, however uncomfortable that might be. It is a little early to write off the House of Lords—in my view it is an anachronism worthy of abolition—before the process has ended.
The hon. Gentleman is basically saying there would be a problem with which House would be the most legitimate at any given point if both were elected. Will he speculate on why so many countries across the world manage to have a bicameral structure with two elected houses without that problem arising? If he thinks that problem is fundamental to the structure of Parliament, should we not first exhaust the possibility of a unicameral legislature before deciding whether and what type of revising Chamber we might wish to have?
The hon. Gentleman is right. This is not about dismissing other potential reforms. I am simply making observations about why, back in 2011 and 2012, when we had the opportunity and momentum and there was spirit behind the proposals, they failed. They failed because they spooked Members of the House of Commons, who thought their primacy was in danger of being compromised. Unsurprisingly, they also spooked Members of the House of Lords, who felt that they would have to face the vulgarity of an election from time to time. We have to be pragmatic, and my point is about pragmatism. If we want to proceed, it is no good quoting what may be the case in other countries, however bona fide their examples may be; we must get the proposals through both Houses of Parliament. I am interested in exploring ways in which we can legitimately do that and make progress.
The other point I would make in response to the intervention of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) is that if we can dip our toe in the reforming water and find that it is actually okay, other reforms will follow. Part of the situation is a fear of anything different. I suspect that if we can make the process evolutionary rather than revolutionary, many of the reforms we have talked about that have so far apparently been impossible will become a little easier. I am not attempting to dismiss the hon. Gentleman’s comments. They are legitimate, but we must look at them in the context of the history of numerous attempts in the past 10 or 20 years to address the problem, most of which have been unsuccessful so far.
As I was attempting to explain, the Brexit situation stimulated interest in House of Lords reform. I have no particular fear of the Lords making uncomfortable observations about the direction in which the Government are going, but I would take a different view if it became obvious that the Lords intention was to frustrate the will of the elected Chamber. Those two things are different and we are not there yet. We might be there in a matter of days, but we are not there yet, and therefore we are unable to pass or should be cautious about passing sentence today.
The hon. Member for Stroud hinted at reforms that could bring about progress. I am entirely sympathetic to a reduction in numbers—not so much for the Commons, in case the Minister is listening, but for the House of Lords. I completely understand that. He also mentioned expertise. I agree with pretty well all of his contribution, although I suspect that if we went down a different route it might cost money rather than saving it. The positions might have to be salaried if an appointments panel simply advertises vacancies and selects people—if we create a second Chamber that is properly diverse and representative, it could come at a salaried price.
Thirdly, there may be opportunities to look again at the Parliament Act 1949. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who opened the debate, pointed out, that has its drawbacks because it was created at a time when the present circumstances were not anticipated. Perhaps revisiting it with a view to ensuring that the Commons can get its way in a rather more timely fashion might be one way in which to start making sensible progress. We need a pragmatic approach to reform. Otherwise we shall find, as we often have so frustratingly in the past, that no progress can be made because someone somewhere will lose out. If we continue to make proposals that are not politically digestible, we will have this debate again in a few years’ time.
It is as ever a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship, Mr Walker. I look forward to doing so again on Wednesday next week. I commend the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for opening the debate, and thank the 116 constituents of the centre of the universe that is Glasgow East who signed the petition. I left huge amounts of space in my notes for summing up the contributions made in the debate. Petitions debates in Westminster Hall are normally stuffed, and sometimes Members cannot get a seat. I am quite struck by how empty it is this afternoon. I am sure it is nothing to do with the fact that quite a lot of MPs are conscious that when they leave this place they can go and park their backsides on the red leather. Perhaps there is an issue of self-interest. I do not know; I am only speculating.
There is something rather ironic. I was saying to the staff in my constituency office that I will conclude this week with a visit to a care home in my constituency on Friday. I thought it was remarkable that I would be able to talk this afternoon about another care home—the House of Lords. Anyone who watched the programme “Meet the Lords” will have heard people talking about it as the most exclusive day care unit in central London. To say that the noble Lord Palmer, who took part in the documentary, is a bit of a character would be putting it mildly. He has a 110-room mansion and was complaining about how little pay he gets at just £300 a day tax-free.
I did not know anything of this Lord Palmer chap, so I thought, “I’ll go and look him up.” I thought it would be helpful for the House, because we do not get the opportunity to talk about this often.
“Adrian Bailie Nottage Palmer, 4th Baron Palmer…is an aristocrat and landowner in Scotland. Lord Palmer succeeded his uncle in the peerage in 1990, and is now one of the ninety hereditary peers elected to remain in the House of Lords after the passing of the House of Lords Act 1999; he sits as a crossbencher.”
I am sure he is a perfectly affable chap, and in “Meet the Lords” he certain seems like an eccentric individual. However, the point is that he has never been subject to election and sits in that place as a hereditary peer.
My position on this matter will come as no surprise, as a Scottish National party politician. I am happy to outline our position on the House of Lords. We think that it should be abolished. We have nothing to do with it—on that we are whiter than white. In our 50 years of continued parliamentary representation in this place we have never taken up a peerage despite being offered them. I am glad to say that we are not here to play the Westminster game. I am disappointed that other parties take part in it. What a shambles it is: the only larger legislature in the world is the Chinese National People’s Congress, with a total 2,987 seats. Our comrades in ermine along the corridor in the other place have 800. In comparing those numbers, we may note that China’s population is 1.4 billion, and it has 2,987 Members in the National People’s Congress. We, a country of just 66 million, have 800 of them stuffed into that absolute circus. It makes a mockery of the system.
I have spoken before, including in a Committee attended by the Minister, about my time working with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. When I do that work, I find it somewhat embarrassing, because to appear on behalf of an organisation with that name implies that this is a place of democracy. In fact, the Palace of Westminster is a place of limited democracy. A couple of weeks ago the Labour and Government Chief Whips had to issue notices to Members of the other place urging them not to fall asleep. What kind of message does that send out when I go from Westminster to Tunisia or Uganda to talk about the merits of democracy? What an embarrassment that such things happen here.
I commend to the House a wonderful book by the late Robin Cook, “Point of Departure”, in which I read a fantastic quote a number of years ago. Robin Cook wrestled with House of Lords reform. He said:
“At least we all agreed that the present half-reformed state of the Lords was unsupportable. Britain now shares with Lesotho the unenviable distinction of being the only two countries in which hereditary chieftains still retain the right to pass laws for the rest of the nation. As Foreign Secretary I had spoken in support of open government at a Europe-Africa Summit. I was rebuked by the President of an African country, which might generously be described as a guided democracy, who objected that he could not be blamed for failing to introduce full democracy after only fifty years of independence, when Britain had failed to get rid of the hereditary principle after 500 years of Parliament.”
It is remarkable. This guy is now dead and we still have hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Something else that makes a mockery of the system is the fact that we still have clerics legislating—the 26 bishops, or Lords Spiritual. The only other country that has clerics who legislate is Iran. I shall let it sink in that we are part of that.
The Minister, the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and I of course have a long-standing engagement on Wednesday mornings to consider a motion to adjourn the Committee on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill. That Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), is intended to protect the House from the Government’s plans to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600.
The Government talk a good game about cutting the cost of politics, yet they continue to stuff people into the House of Lords. We have Lords such as—I hesitate to use the word “noble”—Lord Hanningfield, who was caught in his routine of clocking in and clocking out, wandering into the Palace of Westminster for a couple of minutes, signing on and getting his £300 a day tax free. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who has come up with the excellent idea of somehow changing the rules and being able to track how long Members of the House of Lords are actually in the building. It certainly seems that some of them walk in and walk back out only a couple of minutes later. At the moment we have no way of tracking that, which makes a mockery of the system.
I pride myself on the fact that I start every parliamentary week by going out in my constituency and door knocking. I did the same thing before I got my half-past 12 flight to London this afternoon. I was out in the Calvay area of my constituency, an area where there are certain amounts of deprivation. My constituents in Calvay look at that place, the House of Lords, and wonder how those folk represent them.
The information brought forward by the Electoral Reform Society shows that something like 85% of peers coalesce around this little south-eastern part of England. We do not have Members of the House of Lords who represent all parts of the United Kingdom and can bring their expertise. It seems to be people from this small corner. Where are our tenement Lords? Where are the apprentice Lords? Where are the Lords from a manual labour background? It seems to me—I say this with respect to the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell)—that it is all people from the professions of law and accountancy.
We then come to the issue of corruption, donors and cash for votes, whether that is the Democratic Unionist party in the House of Commons being bought off with £1 billion to go and vote with the Government, or the fact that in the past we have seen people offered peerages for donations to political parties. That also brings the place into disrepute.
There is also the question of rewards for failure. I think of the case of the constituency of Perth and North Perthshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) won his seat by, I think, 26 votes, defeating the Conservative candidate, a gentleman called Ian Duncan who was a Member of the European Parliament. My hon. Friend rightly took up his seat in the House of Commons, and does a very diligent job as Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee and shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons.
His opponent, now Lord Duncan of Springbank, sits in the other place. Having received no votes—indeed, having been rejected at the ballot box just over a year ago—he was stuffed into the House of Lords. He was not just stuffed in there as someone to scrutinise legislation; he is now a Government Minister. We have a bizarre spectacle: of all the fine new Scottish Tory MPs, none was considered worthy to become the junior Scotland Office Minister. Instead it was left to Lord Duncan of Springbank, unelected, to fly the flag for the Scotland Office as a junior Minister.
We owe a duty of care to some of our colleagues in the House of Lords. I know that it is not the convention in this House to talk out of school and that it is a bit of an old boys’ club. However, I make no apology for saying that, on Tuesday 27 March, two or three of my hon. Friends and I were going out for a run after parliamentary business had concluded. The Lords were sitting late that night because they were considering the Nuclear Safeguards Bill. As my hon. Friends and I were getting our running gear on, we found an elderly gentleman lost in the Members’ Lobby in the House of Commons, where our cloakroom is. He was confused as to where he was. He did not know what day of the week it was. One thing we noticed was the little red and white pass he wore.
That gentleman did not realise that he was on completely the wrong side of the building. He did not know what day of the week it was, let alone what clause or schedule of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill was being considered. I understand that Governments of various colours, on a day when there is a tight vote, will try to get their people in here, but there is something incredibly serious about bringing somebody in here who does not have the mental faculties that they require to know not only what day of the week it is, but what kind of legislation they are scrutinising. That is the kind of thing that happens in here. I know it is uncomfortable for everybody in here to talk about, but we all know it happens—people are wheeled in here who do not know what day of the week it is but are somehow scrutinising legislation.
I make my final point with a degree of regret. I hold the hon. Member for City of Chester and his Labour colleagues in high esteem, but there is a challenge to the Labour party. The Labour party has talked in the past under the regime of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about taking a principled approach to the House of Lords, but we now have these ermine comrades, the Lord Momentums. Recently, in the last round of appointments, the former general secretary of the British Labour party, Martha Osamor, was appointed to the House of Lords with another, Pauline Bryan. There is a challenge. If we are all serious about halting the shambles that is the House of Lords, we must all be signed up.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one of the conditions of those appointments was that they would agree to vote for an abolition of the House of Lords if such a vote arose?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I think the Liberal Democrats had a similar position as well, but I am afraid that an appointment to the House of Lords is like a political drug. Once someone starts doing it, they will just keep going. The idea that somehow these political parties will be self-regulating on this question is not one I take very seriously.
The House of Lords makes a mockery of British democracy. We can come here and have a discussion about reform or abolition—the latter is certainly my preferred option—but in my view the sooner Scotland has nothing to do with the House of Lords and the Palace of Westminster, the better.
What a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who did great credit to both the petition and the Petitions Committee in leading this debate. He managed to present the arguments, and as well as giving some of his personal views, which he is entitled to do, in a fair and balanced way, he talked about the advantages of Lords reform and of a Lords with external expertise and experience. He used a phrase that particularly struck me—“the House of Lords does things that the House of Commons does less of”—suggesting that there is a complementary function.
The hon. Gentleman also outlined different options for reform, which I found interesting. There can be an academic as well as a political debate about how we proceed. Do we have an elected, an appointed or a hybrid Chamber? He suggested that one of the blocks to reform is lack of consensus on what to replace the House of Lords with, and I suggest that we have seen that in today’s debate. There is no real consensus on how we proceed, which is one of the reasons why we are not proceeding at all.
Is there not a real danger that the legitimacy of the Lords will continue to decline? My concern is that if it does, it will drag down the whole of Parliament and therefore this House as well. I was particularly interested in the responses the hon. Gentleman spoke about, from students at the University of Strathclyde and—was it Stelling grammar school?
Steyning Grammar School. They talked about the lack of diversity in the Lords and a view that it was simply a job for life for politicians. Again, there is a danger, based on the position the hon. Gentleman outlined, that the nation is changing faster than we in Parliament are, and that we are not keeping up with changing attitudes in the nation. That is further evidence that the House of Lords is becoming further and further out of touch with the attitudes of the younger generation, which it does not reflect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked of a “closed political world” from a different century, and there is a very real danger that that is the case. He also quoted “Blackadder the Third” and the Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election, which brought a smile to my face; but again there is a danger that life imitates art and that the relevance and credibility of the whole of Parliament, not just their Lordships’ House, is damaged. We are told that one in five Members of the Lords do not vote. My hon. Friend, who is also my constituency next-door neighbour, said that we should not assume, simply because someone is appointed, that gives them expertise. He is absolutely right about that.
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) gave us an excellent and intriguing history lesson, particularly on the changing nature of the Conservative party over the years. Sadly, he did not bring us bang up to date on where he feels the Conservative party is at the moment. He made a great point about seizing the moment and shaping the change the he wants to see. I hope he will forgive me if I do him a disservice, but he did not actually talk about the type of change that he would like, although in his typical fashion he was very forthright in his views.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) gave a considered speech about what we want the Lords to do and offered a considered view of where we in this House might be going astray, which threw an additional element into the debate. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) began by warning of the dangers of sounding like a lawyer. The ears of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston pricked up, because he is a lawyer. However, the hon. Member for Henley did not sound like one when adding a different element to the debate on the question of how we should organise constitutional change and manage referendums.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said he was amused by the hon. Member for Monmouth and talked about the importance of the primacy of the Commons. Again, that is an additional complication, but it is a relevant consideration when discussing reform. It is probably one reason why reform has no happened so far, because we cannot decide how it should affect our own House, let alone how it should affect the other House. I will come on to Brexit—the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire discussed our having to wait and see how the Lords behaves over the ping-pong process this week and whether it will accept the decisions of the Commons.
However, it is clear that there is a crisis of legitimacy concerning the House of Lords and how it is composed. Even if we do not feel that so acutely here, there are members of the public—169,000 of them and counting—for whom the House of Lords no longer represents a legitimate part of the legislature. The question is how we go forward.
I express some concern about the nature of the debate. It is timely, and it has come about, I believe, because an awful lot of people out there believe—potentially incorrectly; it goes back to the point by the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire about our seeing in due course—that their lordships intend somehow to block Brexit, or at least the quickest and hardest Brexit possible.
Even today, in its current composition, the Lords has a constitutional role as a revising Chamber and to offer a pause to consider bad legislation. I find it ironic that some hon. Members—none of whom are here, I hasten to add—are happy to block private Member’s Bills in this place, such as those concerning free hospital car parking for carers or the long-term sick or, dare I say it, an urgently needed law to ban the revolting practice of upskirting, using the lame excuse that they do not like legislation that has not been debated and thought through, and they use parliamentary mechanisms to stop any debate at all on such measures.
However, when the House of Lords debates thoroughly a matter dear to those hon. Members’ hearts and asks us to pause to give time for more consideration, those hon. Members are all of a sudden up in arms at there having been too much debate and call for the abolition of the Lords. They cannot have it both ways. Debate is good and reflection on legislation is good, but when it comes to debate on Brexit, those hon. Members believe such debate blocks the so-called will of the people. I remind the House that Brexit is not necessarily the will of the people but the will of a slim majority of voters. I am concerned that, rather than wanting a detailed discussion about the type of democracy and the type of legislature that we want, many of the petition’s signatories—I cannot presume to know why all of them have chosen to sign it—signed it simply through frustration over Brexit.
Attacking the Lords is part of a broader strategy that we have seen in some of our newspapers of attacking and undermining any institution that they believe might be getting in their way. Before calling the snap 2017 general election, the Prime Minister attacked the other place, describing peers as “opponents” of the Government who had
“vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
We have seen hon. Members in this House attack the integrity and impartiality of the civil service, we have seen the senior judiciary being attacked and Conservative Members have been attacked in certain newspapers as traitors for standing up and voting according to their convictions.
Moving away slightly from the subject of the debate, if we really want a fairer, more open and democratic political discourse, we might start with challenging the unelected, unaccountable and uncontrolled power of those national newspapers and their billionaire owners, whose opinions taint our politics so much, long before we deal with the House of Lords. However, that is another debate for another day.
I welcome the notable conversion of Government Members to looking at the need to address the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords. For hundreds of years, the Conservative party had an in-built majority in the Lords—the hon. Member for Monmouth talked about its changing composition—but I do not recall hearing any complaints from Conservative Members during that time. However, with the abolition of most of the hereditary peers, which is an anachronism that I still find very hard to explain to foreign visitors, that in-built majority ceased to exist.
My noble Friend Baroness Smith recently reminded the other place:
“Challenge and scrutiny are not new. They were not invented by this Opposition.”
She meant the Labour Opposition. When the Labour party was in government, the then Conservative Opposition
“could boast well over 500 government defeats, including 145 during the 2005-10 Labour Government and 245 during the 2001-05 Labour Government, which had an elected majority of 167”
in this House. She continued:
“Those many defeats included a government Bill at Second Reading, two fatal SIs and a number of key national security measures that involved ping-pong late into the night.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 January 2016; Vol. 768, c. 278-279.]
It is only since 2010 that Conservative Members have shown any concern about the composition of the Lords, but their response has been to pack it with more life peers than any preceding Government. David Cameron appointed more peers per year, and at a faster rate, than any other Prime Minister since 1958, when life peerages were introduced, with more from the Government party and fewer from Opposition parties. Indeed, on the weekend of the royal wedding, the Prime Minister sneaked out an announcement appointing nine Tory peers, following her predecessor’s legacy by appointing only three Labour peers. All of that is at the same time, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned, as the Government intend to press ahead with plans to cut the number of elected Members by 50. It seems incongruous that we are not considering Lords reform but we are considering cutting the size of the elected Chamber.
Let me be clear: Labour believes that the second Chamber should be democratically elected. However, the first step must be to reduce the number of peers, with a good start being to remove the remaining hereditary peers—particularly along the lines suggested in the private Member’s Bill tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), which remains on the Order Paper. Indeed, my right hon. Friend reminds me that all but one of the hereditary peers currently sitting in the House of Lords are male; only one is female. If we are to tackle diversity, that should be a basic starting point.
There can surely be no continued justification for having hereditary Members of our legislature. The Opposition have proposed a constitutional convention to decide the best way forward for the second Chamber. We support the Burns proposals, which seem entirely sensible, as a start. Above all, we want a solution that is workable, democratic and fair, and which is generally thought through, rather than what I fear is a knee-jerk reaction to the Lords doing its constitutional role of offering our House the chance to think again, particularly on the Brexit issue before us at the moment. If we care about good legislation, we should be grateful for the chance to think again and should not be intimidated by national newspaper owners. However, we have to ask whether an appointed Chamber—let us not even mention a semi-hereditary Chamber—is suitable to be part of a democratic Parliament in the 21st century.
This subject is not going away. I commend to this House the idea of a constitutional convention so that we can get over the disagreements that are blocking the way forward and finally decide how to reform the House of Lords. I urge hon. Members to get behind the idea and get on with the discussion, so that we can get on with the reform.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, as it was earlier to serve under that of Mr Walker. I thank hon. Members for their contributions to this important debate. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Stroud (Dr Drew), my hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and, of course, the Front Benchers: the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). I continue to welcome listening to those colleagues with whom I seem to trot this territory fairly regularly, and it gets better every single time.
I am also grateful, of course, to those who signed the e-petition that brought us here. I want particularly to put that on the record, because when a debate has been triggered by an e-petition—in this case, one that has been signed by a large number of people—it is important that we note that in the debate. After all, we are democrats, and we are here today to talk about a democratic matter. We must carefully consider and give due respect to the issues raised by those who have asked us to serve in this place.
Let me state very simply the Government’s position on this matter. We do not think that a referendum on the composition of the House of Lords is the right way forward at this time. That is not something that the Government support, in part because there are many other priorities for the Government and for parliamentary time at this time. I think that all hon. Members know that. When we consider the extent of the parliamentary business that we need to complete to secure a controlled and stable exit from the European Union—not including other things that we wish to do on domestic subjects—it is clear that we need to deal in priorities. I want to be honest about that early in my contribution to the debate.
It is also important to note that although the request in the petition is for a referendum as the specific manner of achieving the reform, the Government are not prepared to agree to that at this time. We note that referendums are costly and time-consuming. As evidenced by today’s debate, House of Lords reform continues to be a subject on which there is no consensus. I welcome that point being made from the Opposition Front Bench. Throughout this afternoon’s debate, as well as in many other places and sources, it has been demonstrated that, to say the least, there is no obvious binary-design question that could be put in a referendum, so we do not think that this is a suitable matter for a referendum at this time.
Let me turn instead to some other points made on this topic. Mrs Moon, you will recall the House of Lords (Amendment) Bill of 2012, which sought broad reform, including a predominantly elected second Chamber. That Bill was withdrawn when it became clear that even its timetabling motions could not be agreed in the House of Lords by Members of that House. That was due not to a lack of commitment from the Government of the day, but from a lack of overall agreement on what shape reform should take, so we are back to the point that there is no single clear design proposal.
Hon. Members here today should be in no doubt that the Government will ensure that the House of Lords continues to fulfil its vital constitutional role. It has an important role in scrutinising and revising legislation, and its Members bring valuable experience and expertise to the matters that it considers. Where reforms to the House of Lords, within that constitutional role, could command consensus, we would be willing to work with peers to take those measures forward—indeed, we have already done that. The Government have a track record of working with both Houses to introduce focused and important reforms.
With Government support, the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 enabled peers for the first time to retire permanently and, crucially, it provided for peers to be disqualified if they do not attend or are convicted of serious offences. We supported the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, which provided the Lords with the power to expel Members in cases of serious misconduct. To bring things right up to date, we are pleased that 84 peers have taken advantage of the retirement provisions and that retirement is becoming part of the culture of the House of Lords.
The Minister will recall the point in my speech about Members of the House of Lords who perhaps do not still have all their faculties. The Government have spoken about provisions that have been put in place to allow people to retire; what provisions are in place to ensure that people in the House of Lords are actually still able to do their job?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I focus on the point that we are trying to bring about a culture of retirement. It is perhaps for a person to recognise for themselves if they are no longer able to do that role. I welcome the sensitive way in which the hon. Gentleman brought that topic up in the debate. It is an important matter, but to have a culture of retirement is a very sound starting point for being able to look at any such issues.
Going ahead from here, the Government are clear that we want to work constructively with hon. Members and peers—Members of both Houses—to look at pragmatic ideas for reducing the size of the House of Lords. That is why we welcome the work of the Lord Speaker’s Committee, chaired by Lord Burns. As hon. Members will be aware, in 2016 the House of Lords passed a motion that its size should be reduced and that there should be consideration of how to do that. The Lord Speaker therefore established the Committee to identify
“practical and politically viable options”
for reducing the size of the House that would not require primary legislation. This is about being able to get something done, which I hear hon. Members calling for today and, I think, quite wisely; we should look at those things that can be done simply and in a way that commands consensus.
The Committee went on to make recommendations for reducing the size of the House of Lords, and peers were clearly very supportive of those measures when they were debated in December last year. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to the Lord Speaker with an offer in good faith to continue the restraint that she has already shown in making appointments to that House. I place it on the record that even with the latest, small number of appointments—only 13—the House is smaller now than when she first took office. It is important for that fact to be clearly on the record. The Lord Speaker will consider the next steps by reconstituting the Committee, and the Government will be very happy to look at anything further that it has to say.
I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion to allow the representative of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), to have the final word in today’s debate, but first I return to the point that I think it is clear, from hon. Members’ contributions to the debate, which were very thoughtful and wide-ranging, as well as from many other sources, whether that be newspaper articles, public discourse or, of course, those members of the public who have come here today to be part of this petition—I again thank them for that—that there remains a range of views, of design options and of advantages and disadvantages that could be considered as part of this question, but there is not an obvious single way forward. Therefore, I simply reiterate the point that I made earlier. The Government are committed to ensuring that the House of Lords continues to fulfil its constitutional role as a revising and scrutinising chamber, but it must respect the primacy of the elected Chamber, which is the House of Commons. We stand ready to work with parliamentarians from both Chambers on measures that command consensus.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second part of the debate, Mrs Moon. It has been a very constructive debate, with wide-ranging views. People have not held back and have raised very pertinent issues, and there are plenty of things for us to take away. I therefore thank all hon. Members for their contributions today.
The whole point of the Petitions Committee and the petitions system is that we get to speak in this place on issues that the petitioners and people want us to talk about, rather than what we want to talk about. I hope that the original petitioner and the other 169,000 people who have signed the petition feel that their issues have been aired, but this is the start of a process; it is not a single event. We always say that when we talk about petitions: it is always the start of a campaign, not the end of one. I therefore thank Robert McBride for starting the petition, and I hope that we do not get away from the viewpoint from which Mr McBride started the petition, which was not through the prism of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, although I am sure that many people signed it on that basis. He started it because of his sense about, the pure angle of, the democratic validity of the House of Lords. I hope that although I gave him a fair hearing, I did not come down on his side, but I think he did carry a majority of this Chamber—people wanting to abolish or seriously go further with reform. It is clear, however, that there was no clear agreement about how we should do it. It is a complicated matter. We therefore need plenty more discussion and debate whatever form it takes to get a clear path for everyone to agree to before we move to legislation.
Fourteen out of 88 sitting days in the House of Commons were consumed by the House of Lords reform debate in 2012—that is before considering the time taken in the other place—yet it was ultimately unsuccessful and did not result in any change. We have to ensure that we can get it right.
Let us start with what we can achieve. The Burns Committee is going a long way towards doing that. I understand the sentiment of this place and the various sentiments expressed across the Chamber. That will, hopefully, be the start of a direction of reform of the House of Lords, so that people feel that they can relate to the other place and have this as a proper, democratically functioning bicameral system.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 209433 relating to a referendum on the abolition of the House of Lords.