My Lords, this is not a new issue. It has been going for several hundred years. But what surprises me—perhaps it should not—is how many members of the public are not aware that we cannot vote in general elections. They say, “I am surprised, I thought you could vote”. I know that the public are not generally excited by this issue and there are no demonstrations in Parliament Square supporting my Bill—or even opposing it. Nevertheless, it is a matter of some importance.
Many eminent people in history have argued that Members of this House should be able to vote in parliamentary elections. I will take just one: Benjamin Disraeli. In 1868, during the debate on the Electoral Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Bill, the Hansard record—which was not verbatim at the time—said:
“The Members of that House were now taxed by the Votes of the House of Commons, and therefore he could not understand why a Peer of the Realm should not have a right of voting for Members of Parliament and taking part just as another individual in the general business of a free country like this, with the view of protecting his property and guarding his own interests”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/07/1868; col. 1383.]
Perhaps there is not much more to be said. I am indebted to the House of Lords Library for its note on this issue, which saved me hours of research.
Let me say at the outset that this measure has nothing at all to do with Lords reform as we normally speak of it. It is an entirely separate matter and it is quite wrong to link the two. It is a single issue and does not represent the beginning of a slippery slope. I can assure your Lordships of that and I made sure that in the Long Title of the Bill that is the case.
Over my years in this House, I have often heard three arguments against change. One is, “We have always done it this way so why alter it? It has been good enough for the past 150 years so why change it?”. Secondly, there is the argument that this is the thin end of the wedge and dreadful things will inevitably follow if we take such a dangerous step. The third argument is that we should not make haste on an important issue. Of course, I reject all these arguments and I think that most of your Lordships will do so as well.
During the debates in October 2011 on the Steel Bill, one Member of this House—he is present today but I shall spare his blushes—urged caution in moving too quickly on a very important matter. I realise that 1868 is only yesterday but even so, we can be too cautious when it comes to change.
After talking informally to Members of this House, the argument against being able to vote at parliamentary elections appears to be that we are in such a privileged position in being able to amend and influence legislation that we have no need to vote at general elections. I find this a very strange argument. We are the only second Chamber in the world whose Members are not entitled to vote in elections for the first Chamber. About 190 countries have a second Chamber, according to the records. Even in Washington there is no problem: members of the Senate have the right to vote and it has caused no problems whatever.
In any case, logic ought to play some part in this. We try to argue logically. We can vote in local elections, in European elections and indeed in referenda. Surely it is only sensible and logical that we should be allowed to vote in parliamentary elections.
I have said we can vote in referenda. Indeed, of course, Members of the House of Commons are entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Furthermore, the prohibition on voting in parliamentary elections does not even apply to all Members of this House—I think we all know who I am talking about. The Lords spiritual have the right to vote, though they sometimes do not avail themselves of it. It would not be compulsory to vote; all I am saying is that we should be on the same basis as the Lords spiritual. The present position lacks logic and is unsustainable.
I have heard a further argument against the change, which has been used in previous debates, that legislation concerning the House of Lords should not be introduced in small packages; in other words, do not change anything until you can change everything. Until recently that was the position of the Deputy Prime Minister but I think he has moved away from that. It is absurd to say that we can only change everything—a sort of big bang theory. In practice, and we know this, it is usually better to argue for changes on an incremental basis rather than adopt an all or nothing approach. In any case, the only change I am suggesting is a vote. I repeat that this is not linked to any other suggestions about reform of the House of Lords.
Is my noble friend not missing the main argument, that it is easy to distinguish the Scottish Parliament, local elections and so on because we in the House of Lords have no say in those, whereas we do have a say in this House in national decisions?
Of course, that would also apply to the Commons but the point is surely this: it is not a matter of influencing legislation, which we do and are very privileged to be able to do, but of being able to have some small voice in deciding who will be the next Government of this country.
I understand what the noble Baroness is saying, but my point is not illogical. People have argued in this House that we should not make this change without changing a lot of other things. I have argued that that is not right; I have argued that we need to change only this one thing in order to achieve the aim that I am talking about. I should repeat that this proposal is not linked to any other reforms of the House. A single change should not be conditional on changing everything else.
I admit that I feel emotional about the issue; perhaps that is an unusual sentiment to express here. To me, the right to vote is an enormous privilege, but it is also a crucial aspect of democracy. People have died for the right to vote in our history—the Suffragettes. This is not on a level with the right to vote for women, but it is still a point of principle.
In most general elections, I have campaigned actively in a number of constituencies. It is quite frustrating that, having spent my days knocking on doors and trying to get Labour colleagues elected to the House of Commons, when it comes to vote, I cannot take part. Sometimes, if the general election coincides with local elections, I can get one ballot paper but not the other.
Yes, my Lords, I was aware of it, but one has to arrive at a balance. Should I have said, “No, I am not prepared to accept the privilege of being here because I cannot vote in general elections”? My feeling is that it is better to get here and try to achieve the changes by using the arguments. I think that that applies to many of us. Even the noble Lord, I am sure, is not ecstatically happy about every aspect of our procedures here, but that did not stop him coming here and he is a very welcome Member of this House, even though I occasionally disagree with him.
How solicitous does my noble friend think returning officers and clerks in polling stations are about enforcing this position? Every time I have gone to vote in a local election that has coincided with a parliamentary vote, the returning officer has seemed oblivious to the fact and I have had to tell them, “Please don’t give me a vote for the parliamentary election because it is illegal”.
My Lords, I did not realise that a debate about a simple matter was going to be quite so wide, but I welcome the contributions that have been made. No, it is not easy for returning officers. Sometimes, when we fill in our form to register to vote, it is not easy to indicate that one is a Member of this House and therefore one is limited. One can indicate that one is from a Commonwealth country, from Ireland or whatever it is, and one’s age, but one cannot indicate that one is a Member of this House. When I have been to vote either they have known somehow, or I have not tried to cheat the system, so I felt that the best way is to change the law rather than to put myself on the wrong side of it.
The issue is very simple, and I do not want to take up more time. Of course, it is an enormous privilege to serve in this House and to influence legislation—that is why I was very honoured when I became a Member of this House—but I still find it sad not to be able to influence, just in a small way, who will be our Government after the election. I believe that the change that I am arguing for is inevitable in the longer term, but I would like to see it happen now. I put this Bill forward not as an idle gesture or a bit of political rhetoric; I put it forward because I seriously believe that it has a chance of becoming law. Of course, there will be difficulties in the Commons about getting this Bill through, but I shall do some lobbying there if this House passes it. I believe that it has a chance of becoming law and I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the Bill. I do so with just a degree of reluctance. Reference has been made already to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro, who spoke so clearly at Prayers. I listened, as I always do, and he said to us, “Laying aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections”. I have to say, I have a partial affection for voting.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I do not want to overegg this pudding, but there are three features to this issue. First, there have been 10 general elections that I have been able to vote in, between 1964 and 1997, and I voted in them all—I voted for myself in half of them. There have been three general elections since then that I have not been able to vote in. Many of us in this House get thoroughly involved in elections. In our campaigning, we come across many people who say that they will not waste their time by voting because it does no good—all that sort of thing. It really goes against the grain that those folk have this precious vote and will not use it but we are denied that opportunity.
Secondly, I could have seen the point 102 years ago that perhaps we should not have the vote. But, of course, before 1911, the House had the full panoply of powers. Therefore, it could have been argued that, if you were in Parliament, you should not have a vote because you were there of right. But then in 1911, those who served before us were stopped and we have continued not having influence on money Bills—and we know how cross people in this House get when they cannot take part in debates on money Bills. Therefore, the very serious point is that we should be able to influence those who are able to take part in money Bills, which we are not able so to do.
Thirdly and finally, if this Bill were passed, there would be a good dividend, because I think that the 739 Peers who would get the vote in addition to the Bishops would use it. Therefore, the Bill would be well worth passing and I thoroughly support it.
My Lords, I admire my noble friend Lord Dubs for many reasons, and one of them is his persistence in bringing this issue to your Lordships’ House. I also congratulate him on the pithiness of the drafting of the Bill. Successive Governments could have learnt a lot from him on that.
I am sympathetic to the democratic instincts that lie behind the Bill—so well articulated by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. I understand the frustrations that they both feel, after lifetimes of distinguished campaigning, that they now cannot use their votes in parliamentary elections. The Government’s defence of the current position does not seem to be coherent, as articulated by the Deputy Prime Minister in his letter to Hywel Francis of 25 January 2011. He states that there is no case for the Lords to elect representatives as they are able to sit in Parliament any way. If that is a coherent argument, it is not clear to me why it does not apply equally to Members of the other place because, in the Deputy Prime Minister's words, they too “sit in Parliament anyway”. As the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said, the argument about money Bills is archaic now. The Deputy Prime Minister’s words suggest an after-the-fact justification of an archaic provision which has little place in a modern democracy.
Your Lordships’ House, unreformed as it remains, also has, in my view, no place in a modern democracy. It is for that reason that, with considerable regret, I feel unable to support my noble friend’s Bill at this time. It seems to me that this is the wrong time to bring forward such a measure when there are so many more compelling reforms that still need to be made to your Lordships’ House. Some, including me, still want to see the membership of your Lordships’ House determined by election, but I recognise that I am in a minority in this place on that issue. However, there is far more widespread support in your Lordships’ House for reforms which fall short of election but which are still important and urgently needed. I think that most Members of your Lordships’ House would agree, for example, that there should be provisions for expulsion after conviction for criminal offences, and for retirement and resignation, among other things.
Such measures are needed to enhance the democratic credibility of your Lordships’ House but, regrettably, there is still no sign of them being implemented. I think that they should take priority over this Bill. I think that the public would find it hard to understand why we are giving greater priority to something which primarily benefits the Members of this House rather than measures which improve the democratic credibility of your Lordships’ House and the way that it serves the public.
I am not opposed to incremental change, and I agree with all the arguments in favour of it that my noble friend put forward. It is not an argument against incremental change. It is an argument about the order in which such incremental change should take place. If my noble friend were to bring forward this proposal again in the context of further reforms of your Lordships’ House, I would then be happy to support it.
My Lords, since universal suffrage was introduced, I thought, pace the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that everybody knew that the only adults barred from voting in general elections were, as they used to be known, convicts, lunatics and Peers—in modern parlance, prisoners, mental patients and the Members, Peers temporal, of this House. Mental patients, unless also convicted offenders, in fact obtained the vote in 2000—subject, theoretically, to having the requisite mental capacity. Some prisoners, at least, will, I hope—assuming that Her Majesty’s Government sufficiently respect the rule of law and their now clearly established obligations under international law—shortly get the vote.
I take this opportunity to say that, personally, I would give all prisoners the vote by post, regardless of their crimes and regardless of the length of their sentences. It is surely in all our interests as part of the process of their rehabilitation to instil in them, so far as may be, a sense of civic responsibility—to give them a stake in the lawful governance of this country. I should perhaps point out that even those with the longest sentences may well have children or other dependants whose education and general well-being they have a legitimate interest in promoting. I speak as the judge who, in 2001, was responsible for bringing a final end to the attempts by Mr Hirst and other prisoners to establish in our domestic courts the right to vote. Refusing them leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal, I said that it was for Parliament, if Parliament thought fit, to abolish or narrow the ban on prisoner voting. I ended my very brief judgment in that case thus. I said:
“Politically I am not unsympathetic to the applicants’ cause. Jurisprudentially, however, I regard it as doomed”.
That ruling opened the prisoners’ way to Strasbourg, where the court eventually showed that I was wrong jurisprudentially. A few years later, Strasbourg held a blanket ban to be impermissible and, twice since, the Grand Chamber has confirmed that position.
In the present context, that may be thought to be something of a digression. I return, therefore, to the Members of this House, because we remain disenfranchised. It is perhaps difficult to suppose that Strasbourg will too readily be coming to our help. The rationale for our becoming disenfranchised is, I have always understood—I think this in common with the noble Lord, Lord Anderson—that even when Parliament is prorogued, Members of this House remain members of a central legislative body, unlike Members of Parliament, who have to submit themselves to re-election if they wish to continue. I share with other noble Lords real scepticism as to whether that actually provides any sound or sufficient basis on which to deny us the chance to influence by our vote the composition of the House of Commons as the primary legislative Chamber. Others will no doubt make that argument more effectively than I can.
Rather, I want to focus on a narrower but, I suggest, altogether more obvious grievance that a few of us—admittedly, only a very few—have with regard to the present arrangements. Here I speak as someone who, for two and a half years, was, electorally speaking, in an even worse position than any other noble Lord participating in this debate. Not only was I, in common with all temporal Members of the House, disqualified by virtue of that post from voting at elections for the House of Commons, but, in addition, by virtue of my appointment as a justice of the Supreme Court, as long as I continued in that office, I was disqualified even from speaking or voting in your Lordships’ House. Accordingly, from October 2009 when, as Law Lords, we were banished across the square and recreated there as a new Supreme Court, until my retirement in April last year, on age grounds at 75 when I reached, in the words of the late Lord Bridge of Harwich, “statutory senility”—fortunately not a concept which applies in my present surroundings—I had no vote and no voice in national political life at all.
I well recall, at the time of the Constitutional Reform Act in 2005, pointing that out to the then Permanent Secretary of the Lord Chancellor’s Department. I said that, having lost our say in Parliament, we should now have the vote restored to us at general elections. I was assured that a team of lawyers would immediately be put on the case to overcome that obvious legislative oversight. It never was corrected and there remain five members of the Supreme Court who are still totally disenfranchised. The other seven members of the court are of course not yet Members of this House, although I hope that they will become so when, one by one, they eventually come to retire. They presently enjoy courtesy titles only and therefore can vote at general elections whereas the five most senior members of the court, including the president and vice-president, cannot. That, I suggest, is a bizarre situation indeed.
Whatever the outcome of the wider issue today, that anomaly surely must now be corrected. I wonder whether that possibly provides a peg upon which to hang a wider benefit for all Members of the House, because surely that requires legislative change. Certainly, my preference, in common with most, although I recognise not all, of your Lordships, would be that the wider grievance, too, should now be corrected.
My Lords, I support the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Dubs. Ever since I became a Member of your Lordships’ House, I have asked myself why we are not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. In fact, the first Question that I asked, on 17 January 2001, was precisely this: that on the grounds of human rights and equality of treatment, we ought to be able to vote. The debate that took place following that Question makes interesting reading, because many of the points being made today seem to rehearse some of those made at that time.
Generally, there seem to be two arguments as to why we cannot vote. One is that it is an established practice, reference being made to immemorial law and common-law practice. The other has to do with the fact that we are already here, present and in person, and therefore do not need to be represented. I find both arguments somewhat flimsy. Let me take them one by one.
On the first argument, how did this become an established practice? It is not a law or something to which the House of Lords ever consented. It was a House of Commons resolution passed in 1699. If one looks at the debate surrounding the passage of that resolution, it is clear that in those days of rotten boroughs the Commons were very concerned that the Lords should not be able to influence local elections. It was designed to stop us interfering in the election. The Lords never agreed, were never consulted and were never involved. That resolution is not sacrosanct because it has been amended, first in the Peerage Act 1963 and then in the House of Lords Act 1999. Under the resolution of 1699, no Peer could vote. That was changed in 1963 so that Peers could vote, provided that they were not Members of the House of Lords—and for years, hereditary Peers have been able to vote without any kind of objection, legal or otherwise, so that practice is not sacrosanct. It has been changed and if it could be changed once, it could be changed again provided we are convinced that there is a reason to do so.
I want to argue that there is a reason to do so. That leads me to the second defence of this practice, which is that we are here in person. When I asked that question on 17 January 2001, I was told by my noble friend Lord Bassam that, since we are already here in person and are entitled to voice our feelings and express our views, to allow us to vote in the election would be to give us a unique privilege which is not given to others. I found that argument unpersuasive but during Question Time we are not at liberty to pursue the debate any further. I want to do that now.
I am sorry. May I just finish this argument? When we are told that we are here in person and therefore need not be represented by the parliamentary election, we are making an important assumption: that the two Houses have equal powers. If they do not have equal powers, that argument collapses. If the Commons could do certain things that this House cannot do, then the fact that we are here in person does not give me a unique privilege if I should be entitled to vote for the other place. For example, the Commons can make and unmake Governments. It has the power to impose taxes and deal with money Bills, which we do not have. Equally importantly, under the Salisbury convention, if a particular measure of a Government or political party has been approved by the majority, the party concerned has a right to enact it—irrespective of what we think.
I am suggesting that the Commons has far greater power, and rightly so as it is the pre-eminent body. If it is the pre-eminent body then our simply being here in person but unable to vote deprives us of the opportunity to do many of the things that the Commons does and which we cannot. I therefore suggest that not being allowed to vote deprives us of the equality of treatment to which all citizens are entitled. I will give way. I just wanted to make sure that I made that point straight.
As a Member of the other place for 23 years, I was both here in person and proud to vote for myself in every general election. Is it not the case that House of Lords Members are disadvantaged, and would be allowed to vote in future for someone other than themselves?
If we were allowed to stand, we could certainly vote for ourselves too. Logically, the argument that we are here in person and therefore should not be allowed to vote because we do not need to be represented is a flawed one. Once you undermine that argument, there seems to be no logical basis for us not being allowed to vote.
There are of course other arguments: that one should not make a piecemeal change, as it should be part of a larger change. Well, larger changes are made up of small changes and unless you start by taking the first step somewhere, you would not be able to cover the journey. We are also being told that this is not the time. When is the right time? Who decides that and by what criteria? If, for the past 250 years, we have been saying “Let’s change this”, given that I asked that Question in 2001 and my noble friend Lord Dubs has introduced this Bill, there is already a feeling of momentum—a groundswell of opinion—that if citizenship consists in being able to have a say in shaping the Government of the country, we are not citizens if we do not have that say. Symbolic as it is, that simple point is of great significance and I strongly urge the House, as and when the time comes, to vote for the Bill.
My Lords, does the noble Lord not accept that Parliament consists of two Houses: a House of Lords where Peers are appointed for life and a House of Commons where Members are elected until the next election, which is up to five years ahead? Does he not accept that we are already Members of Parliament? That is the difference between us and Members of the House of Commons.
The noble Baroness makes a fascinating point but there are two simple answers. She says that we are already Members of Parliament. Technically, I am but I cannot say that I am an MP. “Parliament” is used in two senses, one in the narrow sense of the House of Commons and one in the wider sense of both Houses. More importantly, if we say that we are Members of Parliament the point I would make is that membership seems to be a matter of degree. To be a Member of the House of Commons means that one can do lots of things, whereas a Member of the House of Lords cannot do certain things, such as censuring or removing the Government, or dealing with matters of taxation and so on. Therefore this abstract equality that is being emphasised—that we are all Members of Parliament alike—conceals a fallacy.
My Lords, I am speaking in the gap, with permission. My noble friend made a significant point: we in this House are indeed all Members of Parliament. We are Members of the second Chamber and we have our own particular role and responsibilities. If we are allowed to vote, should we be allowed to stand for election to another place? I do not believe that we should. While I have the greatest possible personal admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and while I disagree profoundly with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for whom of course I also have admiration, I agree with him on this point. This measure should not commend itself to your Lordships’ House. We are an undying House—the current situation is that we are here for life—so we are part of Parliament. Although the next general election will be the first in my adult lifetime that I have not voted in, or indeed voted for myself in, I will still accept the privilege, look with reluctance at those going to the polling booths and with little reluctance at those who are knocking at doors, and know full well that, God willing, I will come back at the beginning of the new Parliament.
I understand the motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I also understand the frustration of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, although I must say that I was moved by his touching faith that a team of lawyers could come to a speedy conclusion on anything, but I find myself in disagreement with someone else for whom I have great regard. The essence of debate is that one can disagree, and I disagree profoundly with this minor measure. I will certainly seek to move amendments at future stages if the Bill is given a Second Reading today.
My Lords, has the noble Lord taken on board the very strong argument that has been put before the House today that we are clearly not Members of Parliament pari passu with the other place? To take the most obvious point, at the next general election a great deal will revolve around the conduct and direction of the economy, the comprehensive spending review and the proposals that affect our citizens so grievously in this time of great austerity, and yet this House has no power to affect that position. We will have influence, perhaps, and will debate the issue to a limited extent, but power we do not have. Yet that is the most cardinal of election decisions on which the nation will vote. That inequality is why there is a strong argument that we should have the right to vote in general elections.
There might be, according to the noble Lord, but I just do not agree with him. I could argue that Members of Parliament in the other place also have very little power. We need a rebalancing of the powers within our parliamentary system so that we do not have an overweening Executive. To paraphrase Dunning’s Motion, “The power of the Executive has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished”. We can play our part in that by the influence that we wield in this place. Influence can be tantamount to power when we have the sort of people that we have in this place, with their great knowledge of economic affairs. I rest my case.
My Lords, I think we owe my noble friend Lord Dubs thanks not just for his Bill but, I have to say, for this educational and entertaining Friday morning. I congratulate him on the Bill. I am somewhat aghast that my very dear long-standing noble friend is so keen to add nearly 300 government supporters to the electoral roll as against a mere 217 from the Labour side, which is a 3:2 majority. That just goes to show what a very fair-minded and honourable man he is. As the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, suggested, his proposal would no doubt help national turnout and raise the batting average, because we as a group tend to be rather dutiful and have an excellent record on voting.
Before turning to the Bill, I will take 20 seconds somewhat belatedly to wish the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, a happy 75th birthday. I also wish the NHS a happy 65th birthday. It was 5 July 1948 when that great institution came into existence, which for mining families like mine in south Wales made an enormous difference to their lives.
The Labour Party has traditionally held the view that Peers are stopped from voting in general elections because, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned, they are very well represented in Parliament, albeit by themselves, and that any such change should take place within the context of a proper and fully reformed form of your Lordships’ House. That, of course, is something that we still await. The Government’s clumsy attempt to reform this House without proper consultation—no proper thought about the role of the House, the respective powers of the two Houses, the 15-year term of office or the ban for those who had political aspirations in another place—means that serious reform has been put not on to the back burner but into a rather deep, cold fridge. Worse, in a way, is that the truculence of Mr Clegg over the burying of his half-baked ideas means that he and the Government will not countenance some necessary, albeit more gradual but we believe essential, modernisation of your Lordships’ House. I speak of course of the excellent work undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and now by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in her House of Lords Reform Bill, which she presented in May.
Surely the priority, as my noble friend Lord Wills has said, and which even Mr Clegg should be able to understand, is some rather immediate changes. The first, which I had been completely unaware of until about 15 minutes ago, is to give five Supreme Court judges their vote. The second is to enable erring Peers to be waved off from your Lordships’ House and to find a sensible way of fostering the retirement of those who have served their country well but now wish to step aside. Perhaps offering them the opportunity to vote in the general election is the carrot that we have been seeking.
Of course, if we were granted a vote at a general election and a Peer were subsequently imprisoned and thus lost their seat here, and if the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, had not come through, they would get their vote and immediately lose it as the prison doors swung shut behind them. Still, that seems to be a matter for another day.
My noble friend Lord Dubs is of course not without friends. Some of them are here today, some of them are in the past, as he mentioned. Benjamin Disraeli in 1868 is an example, although whether that was just to dish the Whigs is not recorded in the history books. In 1936 there was Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, the grandfather of today’s Member of your Lordships’ House and father of my former and much missed boss. Prior to joining your Lordships’ House, the Hon. Tom Pon, as he was known, including to the noble Lord, Lord Roper, was general secretary of the Fabian Society when I was assistant general secretary. That Lord Ponsonby, remembered, I am sure, by many in your Lordships’ House today, succeeded in his other wish, which was for hereditary Peers to be able to forgo their seat here and thus to be able to stand for the Commons. However, voting in general elections remains on the to-do list.
We are going to be very interested to hear the Minister’s views today on this matter. It was of course raised by my noble friend during consideration of the Parliamentary Voting System and constituencies Bill on 8 December 2010. The other Lib Dem Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, responding on that occasion to my noble friend Lord Dubs, said:
“I encouraged the noble Lord keep on with his campaign. As they say where I come from, a nod is as good as a wink”.—[Official Report, 8/12/10; col. 290.]
We know where the noble Lord, Lord McNally, comes from, other than Blackpool. He was of course assistant general section secretary of the Fabian Society, again when Lord Ponsonby was general secretary. Presumably it remains his policy, along with that of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and the Liberal Democrat party, that all Members of your Lordships’ House and not simply the spiritual Members should be able to vote in general elections, just as they can in the elections for the Scottish and European Parliaments, as we have been reminded, the London and Welsh Assemblies and local government and in various referendums, although I have yet to hear from the other place whether we are to have an in/out referendum on Europe.
For our part, we are very content for this Bill to get its Second Reading today, but we would much prefer action on the composition of the House—by which I do not mean the Government stuffing it more—that deals with its size and retirements or expulsions. Alas we must await government action on that. Perhaps in responding, the Minister could give us some indication of his Government’s current thinking about this House, apart from any immediate enlargement. We await his words with interest.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said to me in the corridor the other day, “I hope you won’t disappoint me”. I am very sorry to say that I have to disappoint him on a number of grounds. In his opening speech, he said that this measure has nothing to do with Lords reform, so it is a non-Lords-reform Lords reform, if I understand what he is putting forward. Of course it has a great deal to do with Lords reform. It is one of many small items that we might consider if we go to a smaller package of Lords reform in what is being discussed within Her Majesty’s Government and outside as “a number of housekeeping measures” for both Houses that might be introduced next Session.
For the best of reasons, the noble Lord wishes to cherry-pick one of the changes that would carry through on Lords reform without accepting some of the others. I say this particularly because he remarked that Bishops in the House of Lords can vote without remarking that that is because they do not have permanent membership of your Lordships’ House. They retire at 70, well before the onset of statutory senility. Had the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, linked regaining the right to vote with a statutory retirement age, the Government might perhaps, I think, have looked on this rather more, although it would be very interesting to know what retirement age noble Lords would have accepted—whether it would have been 70, 75, 80, 85 or perhaps 95.
The argument for noble Lords not having the right to vote has partly been that we are permanent Members of your Lordships’ House. I recall that when we were discussing the major House of Lords Reform Bill last year a number of Labour Peers—and I am looking at one or two of them—were arguing in the corridors that they sit in the Lords by royal summons and by right of the sovereign’s appointment and that means that they are not entitled to retire. That is part of our medieval, fundamentally illogical constitution, which is part of what we are here for.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, talked about citizenship. Of course, in the British constitution under which we all sit here in this wonderfully illogical House, we are subjects of the Crown. It is the Crown that appoints us, so it is as subjects that we sit here. That is one of the many reasons why the citizenship debates in Britain still have a degree of weakness because we have not quite worked out what that splendidly republican concept “citizenship” should mean for all of us.
The noble Lord also advanced the argument that logic should play some part in this. If we were to redesign the British constitution on logical grounds, we would have a very different British constitution. Some noble Lords will have noted that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and other noble Lords signed a letter in the Times the other day which was a passionate defence of the tradition of common law and its conventions and traditions against the threat of logical, rational, Roman law from across the channel, institutionalised in Brussels and Strasbourg. There is a sense that there is an existential threat to our tradition of Englishness through the logical, rational principles of Roman law which come from across the channel, although many people do not recognise that they are also there in Scotland. So many people who talk about the defence of distinctive British institutions appear to forget that Scotland is a central part of the United Kingdom.
If we are to introduce common sense rather than common law, we are moving into a fairly radical change in the way the British constitution works.
The Minister referred to the fact that we are already Members of Parliament. Does he accept that in certain areas defined by law this is a unicameral system in that we are excluded from areas of activity that are for the Commons? Throughout history, there have been quite a lot of battles about no taxation without representation. That is an area in this House that could be looked at. I suspect that if my noble friend began the argument a different way, your Lordships’ Chamber would be packed and the Press Gallery would be full, because he could have argued that given that we have no say on taxation, and therefore do not have representation, we should not be taxed. I think that would incite the public much more.
My noble friend could instead argue that we regain equality of powers with the House of Commons. That would have Members of the House of Commons up in the Gallery. The noble Lord is, I think, being a little less clear than is his usual practice.
My Lords, I do not accept that we are in any sense a unicameral Parliament. This is one of the more influential second Chambers around the world. The fact that we are now definitely the second Chamber and that there are areas in which we have very much less influence than the House of Commons is one of the things that makes this clearly a second Chamber, but some of the other second Chambers, as I note, very definitely have less influence over the breadth of legislation.
I would be grateful if after the debate on the Second Reading, which I hope will be granted, the Minister would write to me giving examples of where this Chamber has insisted to the point of the House of Commons backing down on legislation over the past few years.
I am happy to promise to write to the noble Baroness on that. I think the record is that a full 40% of amendments moved in this House are accepted by the Government, but I will check the figure and come back to her.
I do not wish to detain the House for too long. I have made the point that the permanence of Lords membership has to be linked with the right to vote. On Lords reform, we have to look at a package. Last year, we presented a large-scale package to the House, and the House, for many diverse reasons, did not like it. The Government are considering whether to present a more modest housekeeping package.
Having sat through several two-day debates, I think the House has made its opinion relatively clear. I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who laboured extremely conscientiously and at considerable length to produce a package which this House would like. Certainly, the sense of the House was, I think, not particularly favourable towards the Government’s proposals. I will leave it at that.
Again, I am sorry to have to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We will of course be returning to this issue. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that as she was speaking I thought of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, has on many occasions used the doctrine of mandate against me: that once a party has in its manifesto a clear commitment, it has the right and duty to carry it through. I think the Labour Party’s manifestos over the past three or four elections have called for an elected second Chamber. I was disappointed that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, went a little behind that.
Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him one question. Given what he has said—and I will deal with that in more detail when I wind up—will he give one small undertaking? Assuming that the Bill gets through this House and goes to the Commons, will he undertake that the Government will not use their strength to block the Bill but will give it free passage and let the Commons decide on its merits?
My Lords, I cannot give that commitment immediately. We would clearly have to consider that. Private Members’ Bills make their way, sometimes with the Government’s blessing and occasionally without, first through one House and then the other. Let us see how we go on this.
My Lords, it has been an interesting Friday morning. The debate has been good tempered, but has extended well beyond the very narrow purpose of the Bill. I suppose, if one says anything about the future of the House, one can get into a debate about everything to do with the future of this House, which is something I have tried to resist.
I will comment briefly on one or two of the contributions. My noble friend Lord Wills argued that this change should be part of a wider package of changes, and that I should add it to another Bill. That is, of course, exactly what I did when the Steel Bill went through. I did precisely what he said before I had the benefit of his advice and it was rejected on the grounds that it would make the passage of the Steel Bill too difficult and my proposal should stand on its own. I am getting conflicting advice on that. I did what he suggested some time ago and it did not work, which is why I am doing it this way.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, rightly put forward an argument of which I was not aware, about members of the Supreme Court. It is yet another instance of where we are in an entirely illogical position. In arguing for a little bit of logic, I do not think that I am being out of order. My noble friend Lord Parekh gave us a good historical sweep and was the first—apart from Disraeli—to talk about money Bills.
I have very high regard indeed for the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—I have known him for a long time—but I am not sure that the slippery-slope argument is a good one. It has been used by opponents of change since the beginning of time.
In that case, I misunderstood; I thought that the noble Lord was using the argument himself. However, I very much agree about the power of the Executive and that it is up to both Houses to contain the power of the Executive—so I am with him on that, even if we have a difference of opinion about the Bill itself.
I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Hayter was supportive of the Bill. I pay tribute to her long political experience, with the Fabian Society and elsewhere. She said something about the 5 July anniversary of the start of the National Health Service. If I may trespass on the time of the House, I was in hospital on that day, in Stockport Royal Infirmary. I was quite ill, and I was the only child in the ward. In those days, when the consultant came around, one had either to stand or lie to attention because that was the discipline. A consultant and his big team came along and looked at me, and I asked, “Are we having a party?”. He looked at me as if to say, “How dare you speak before I have spoken to you?”, and then said, “Why?”. I said, “Well the hospital is ours today. We should have a party”. He gave me a dirty look and walked on. I felt that I had made my contribution to the health service at that time. I apologise for digressing a little but, but other noble Lords have digressed as well.
Finally, I did not think that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, would disappoint me quite as much as he did. Without wishing to be impertinent in any way, I feel that his heart was not in it. I think that, in his heart, he knows that I am right and he is wrong. It showed. I know what it is like being a government Minister. One has to defend things that are sometimes difficult; I have done it myself, although never quite to the extent that the noble Lord has done it today.
On the cherry-picking argument, and this is nothing to do with the Bill, I understand that if we were to move to an elected second Chamber, of course we would have to deal with issues like the primacy of the Commons, methods of election and so on. It would be a whole package of measures, as was evidenced in the Government’s Bill that did not get anywhere. However, if we had the vote in parliamentary elections, nothing would change in this House except that we would have the right to vote. It would not affect the way in which we operate, it would not affect our legitimacy and it would not affect our debates or anything else. It stands entirely on its own, so as to the argument that I was cherry-picking: if there are only cherries on the tree, that is all that one can do. That is not a valid argument.
This issue stands entirely on its own. It need not, should not and does not have any connection with any other aspects of Lords reform. We might throw it into a wider Bill on Lords reform, as I have tried to do, but I would argue that we should get on with it. Let us make this change. I believe that there is overwhelming support in this House and in the Commons for this. Of course, the difficulty is that it only takes one government whip to say, “Object” on a Friday, and that has killed the Bill. That is the problem in the Commons. If the Commons was allowed by the Government to have a go at this, I believe it would overwhelmingly support it, as I believe that this House would overwhelmingly support it. However, the difficulty with Private Members’ Bills is that they can be too easily blocked in an undemocratic manner.
Give me time. I have got it down here to comment on. If I had put forward a Bill saying the statutory retirement age from this House is 75 or 80, of course many Members of this House would have got incredibly excited about it, which would have diverted attention away from my purpose. It would have made it, as a Private Member’s Bill, totally unmanageable. The Minister knows that; I know that; we all know that. It just would not have got through. The point about a Private Member’s Bill is to keep it very simple if it is to have any chance of getting through. Once it gets complicated it has no chance. That is why I have brought it forward in this way.
Finally, the Minister disparaged the idea of logic. The position at the moment is inherently illogical. It is illogical by any standard, and I urge the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.