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Elections: Members of the House of Lords

Volume 708: debated on Monday 23 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will extend the right to vote in general elections to Members of the House of Lords.

My Lords, the Government’s White Paper on House of Lords reform proposed that Members of a reformed second Chamber should be able to vote in elections to both the House of Commons and to the reformed second Chamber. The proposals would enable all members of the peerage and new Members of the second Chamber to vote in all elections.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, although it suggests that nothing will happen very soon. Can he confirm that, as the result of a decision by the European Court of Human Rights, the Government are now working out how to give the right to vote to prisoners in our jails? If that is the case, would it not be invidious if prisoners were to have the vote—I welcome the fact that they are to have it—but we were debarred from voting until some time in the distant future?

My Lords, if it was the distant future it might be invidious, but the White Paper makes it clear that the proposal for constitutional change is that after the next election, each party having published its own views on this matter in its manifesto, a Bill will be brought before Parliament that will include in it the right of Members of this House to vote. That is something that we would all like to see.

My Lords, does not the Question refer to the situation at the present time? Does the Minister agree that it would be quite extraordinary if we, who already have a vote in Parliament, were to claim the right to have someone represent us here?

My Lords, the position is as it is at the present time. In repeating myself for the third time already, with a reformed House of Lords, which we hope to see quite early in a new Parliament, that position would then be altered. For my part, I have to say that I very much welcome the prospect of voting in a general election.

My Lords, shall I try again? Can the noble Lord tell the House what was the basic rationale that caused Peers to be disenfranchised side by side with felons, enemy aliens and lunatics, and does that rationale still hold water?

My Lords, I thought that that question might arise, and here is the answer. Parliament consists of three estates: the Sovereign, the Lords and the Commons. The Lords sit in their own right while Members of the Commons are elected by the remainder of the estate of commoners to represent them in Parliament. There was therefore no case for the Lords to vote to elect representatives since they were able to sit in Parliament anyway. Further, even if they had voted, they did not belong to the estate from which the Commons was elected and which it represented. I should add that the great American president, Thomas Jefferson, had another view on why the Commons passed this declaration in 1699, but I shall not trouble the House with it today.

My Lords, the Minister’s expression of hope for reform of our Chamber may be shared by many, but surely the Government are in a position to assert their intention to rectify this individual wrong. Although Jefferson announced his views a long time ago, Senators in the United States can vote for Congressmen today and have been able to do so for some time. Surely we can take a leaf out of that book.

My Lords, on the whole, we do not believe that bits of legislation around the House of Lords should be introduced in small packages. There may be an exception to be had given recent allegations concerning disciplinary matters but, on the whole, our view remains the same. Comprehensive reform of this House, including the subject of the Question today, would, without support from all parties, risk throwing away what the parties have done so far to reach agreement. We intend to put a comprehensive package of reform to the electorate as a manifesto commitment at the next election. I think and hope that the House is with us in believing that it is much better to do this than to rush through full-scale reform without agreement or time to develop well considered proposals.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the rationale that he gave in response to the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, on why Members of this House should not have a vote in elections to the House of Commons is entirely unconvincing? Is not the question of whether this House is to be appointed or elected irrelevant? If there is no good reason why Members of this House should not be able to vote, and if, as my noble friend suggested, there is to be early legislation on certain reforms of the House, will he ensure that this matter is dealt with in that legislation?

My Lords, I said that there might be legislation, not that there would be. We do not think that this issue should be part of what will, if there is legislation, be around disciplinary matters alone.

My Lords, is it not extraordinary that the Government should devote their time to this issue when there are so many others to be resolved? The electors outside this House will be amazed that the Government are devoting so much attention to it in the midst of the financial incompetence and economic problems that the Government have wished upon us.

My Lords, I have been trying to say that we have not been devoting much time to the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Dubs.

My Lords, I ask the Minister for advice on a personal dilemma. I am a former elected Member of the House of Commons, a Member of this House and, of course, an elected Member of the National Assembly for Wales. I can vote in National Assembly elections and council elections and yet am still debarred from influencing what goes on down the Corridor. How soon am I to be delivered from this conundrum?

My Lords, I come back to what I said at the start: if, after the next election, a Bill to reform this House can be passed through Parliament, the noble Lord can rest fairly assured that one of the provisions of that Bill will be that he will be able to vote at the general election after next.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the allegation of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that the Government are financially incompetent and have wished our current economic woes upon us is spectacularly inaccurate?

My Lords, I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said. I do not think that, for once, he mentioned the Government. I was going to congratulate him on his statesmanship in not doing so, but if he did mean to have a go at the Government, he is quite wrong.