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House of Lords: Right to Vote

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will introduce legislation before the next general election to enable Members of the House to have the right to vote in a general election.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept the principle of no taxation without representation and will she perhaps join me in a little tea party to discuss this further? Will she also confirm that the basis for Members of this House being denied the right to vote in general elections stems not from statute but from a resolution passed by the House of Commons in 1699?

My Lords, I can think of nothing nicer than a tea party with my noble friend, and I accept immediately that invitation. I would not try to second-guess his knowledge of the history of the resolution of 1699, but I would just say that the White Paper on House of Lords reform recommended that Members of the reformed House of Lords should be able to vote in all elections.

My Lords, surely Members of this House are their own representatives in Parliament, so why would they want to vote for a representative in Parliament?

My Lords, Members of the House may not be aware that those on the Bishops’ Benches can vote in general elections. We are here only in a spiritual capacity; that is why we retire. However, the last known instance of a Bishop voting was when Archbishop Runcie could not resist the opportunity to vote against Mrs Thatcher. He was found out and apologised thereafter. Does the Minister agree that the fact that we have exercised this restraint over the years indicates that to have the vote might in its own way undermine the authority of the House?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises an important point. However, as part of the package of measures that noble Lords are deliberating on both in the committee that is meeting my right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons and in other ways, it is something that we should debate and seriously consider.

My Lords, while many of us might be glad to be able to vote like our fellow citizens in elections to the House of Commons, many of us would not wish to vote in another general election to the second Chamber because we take the view that it would not be in the interests of democracy and good governance that there should be an elected second Chamber in this country. Will the Government take full account of this view, which is widely held on all sides of this House as well as among growing numbers of people in the House of Commons and in the country?

My Lords, the vote in the other place demonstrated that the views of the other place were firmly either for 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected. Noble Lords need no reminding of the measure of that vote or indeed, as my noble friend said, of the vote in your Lordships’ House. The next stage is for us to consider the implications of these votes and reach, if we possibly can, consensus between the two Houses.

My Lords, as the Government are anxious to maintain the primacy of another place, does the noble Baroness not see that there is an argument that as citizens we should have some right to influence the composition of the Chamber that has primacy?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely good point, and I pay tribute to the work that he has done over many years on constitutional reform. Indeed, many noble Lords personally and privately feel very strongly that it is important to be able to exercise rights as citizens.

My Lords, which is likely to come first: votes for convicted prisoners or votes for Members of this House?

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, the Government have been consulting on the first stage of a consultation process to deal with the question of allowing convicted prisoners to vote. The case of Hirst v UK was heard in the European Court. Noble Lords will shortly see the results of that first consultation and at that point will be able to gauge whether my noble friend is right.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is no connection whatever between the question of the composition of this House, which is an important issue, and whether Members of the second Chamber should be able to vote in elections for the first Chamber? Can she name any other democracy, regardless of the composition of its upper Chamber—whether elected, as in many, or appointed, as in Canada—where the Members cannot vote in elections for the first Chamber?

My Lords, I know of no other jurisdiction. That does not mean that none exists. I have looked at something like 60 or 70 other jurisdictions—out of personal interest, sadly—to see what happens in second Chambers. I agree that they are separate issues, but noble Lords will accept that whenever we have debated the separate issues of the role and membership of your Lordships’ House, we quickly get into broader issues of composition, powers, conventions and so on.

My Lords, would the problem of being taxed without representation be solved by the Lords being given powers properly to scrutinise and vote on money Bills? They are extremely complex and could well be improved by proper scrutiny in the second Chamber.

My Lords, whether it is appropriate for the second Chamber to do so, and, if so, in what way, has been discussed and debated in the committee. We will await those deliberations.

My Lords, one problem today is that a number of eligible voters are not voting. Could the Minister not suggest that the Peers who want to vote request that those people vote and canvass for that?

My Lords, it is important that those who are part of our democracy exercise their right to democracy. We have debated this question many times in your Lordships’ House and are all in agreement that voting is important.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that the House of Commons and some Members of this House have voted for a 100 per cent elected second Chamber. In that case, would she not agree that, in matters of finance and taxation, the House of Commons would find it necessary to share power with the second Chamber, which of course it does not at the moment?

My Lords, this is all part of the broader debate about the role of the second Chamber, the role of your Lordships’ House, the relationship between the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House, and so on. They are important deliberations to have, but we must do so on the basis of the committee’s work and the statements that will come from my right honourable friend.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the argument for dealing with our right to vote should be dealt with separately from the main legislation? That stems from the fact, if I am right in my historical assessment, that it does not require legislation to give us a vote, but a simple resolution of the House of Commons.

My Lords, I am not taking issue with my noble friend’s analysis, but with the fact that in any of the debates in which I have participated in your Lordships’ House on any aspect of the relationship between your Lordships’ House, another place, the country and the democracy, one quickly finds oneself in a debate on broader issues. Trying to think more constructively and strategically about those issues eventually takes us to a better place.