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General Elections: Peers’ Exclusion from Voting

Volume 760: debated on Monday 23 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to review the exclusion of life Peers from voting at general elections.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to review in this Parliament the long-established legal incapacity that prevents Peers who are Members of the House of Lords voting in a general election.

Is this not extraordinary when society is calling for votes at 16 and for felons; when every single Member who is a life Peer in your Lordships’ House has already voted in a general election; and when not one of the 189 upper Houses in the IPU precludes Members from voting? Has not the time come for my noble friend to recognise that it is time for a change? The claim that a Member of the House of Lords already has a voice in Parliament, and that therefore it is right to deprive him or her of having that voice heard through an elected representative in the Commons, no longer has validity as we do not have a voice on money Bills—the very central feature of our democracy, epitomised by “no taxation without representation”.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, is a Conservative and has taken very Conservative views on the reform of this House. I would have hoped that he would therefore agree with the statement of Lord Campbell, as Lord Chief Justice in 1858, that by,

“an ancient, immemorial law of England … Peers sat in their own right in their own House, and had no privilege whatsoever to vote for Members to sit in the other House of Parliament”.—[Official Report, 5/7/1858; col. 928.]

My Lords, I cannot believe that the Minister is saying things that he actually believes. Will he concede that this House passed a Bill to give us the right to vote in elections which was blocked by some dissident Whips or other people at the far end for no good reason, and that it is offensive that, when the voters of Britain have a chance to express their views, we are not allowed to? Surely, it is time for the Minister to say that if he had a chance and was Minister for long enough, he would do it.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I would very much like to introduce a more rational and modern approach to the second Chamber, but we will have to do that in an overall way. There are many anomalies in our voting system. The position in which citizens of the Irish Republic and the Commonwealth can vote in British parliamentary elections is also quite extraordinary, but has a long tradition behind it.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for asserting his Conservative instincts in answering this Question. Would we not be better employed in seeking to persuade all those who do have the vote that it is their civic duty to use it?

My Lords, I have spent considerable time over recent weekends and when visiting universities and colleges doing exactly that, and I hope all other Members of this House do the same.

Thank you. Does the Minister recall that the coalition agreement says that membership of this place should reflect of the share of the vote at the last general election? If the Liberal Democrats poll the 8% that they currently have in the polls, there will be only two ways to resolve the position after the next election—either by creating 450 new political Peers or by half the current Liberal Democrat membership seeking retirement. Which would he recommend and, if the latter, would he lead by example?

My Lords, I note that so far there are 11 names of current Peers on the list of those who have expressed their intention to retire at the end of this Parliament: they include no Members from the Labour Benches.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, whatever the arguments justifying the banning of Members of this House generally from voting in general elections may be, there can be no justification in respect of those who are disqualified? I speak on behalf of five erstwhile colleagues of mine in the Supreme Court who, when they were exiled across the Square, lost their vote and their voice here. They are totally disfranchised, and so too is the Lord Chief Justice. Can the Minister justify that?

I would have to look closely at the 1999 Act to be assured that they remain disqualified. I was not aware of that.

My Lords, do not the questions that we have heard in the past few minutes demonstrate exactly why we need complete reform of the arrangements for your Lordships’ House, to ensure that we have an effective bicameral system appropriate for the 21st century?

My Lords, there is a very strong case for substantial constitutional reform. I fear—as I hope others may fear—that there may be a low turnout and an indecisive result at the election. That may at last push us towards a larger scheme of constitutional reform.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that sometimes it is better not to change things? One hundred and five years ago today, their Lordships of the Admiralty decided to issue a second typewriter to each battleship. Then we had 38 battleships; today we have hardly any ships and thousands of word processors.

My Lords, the first reference I have to Peers not voting comes from an Act of the reign of King Henry VI, but I regret to say that I have not been up the Tower to check that it is there.

My Lords, has the Minister observed that the Question refers to life Peers? Why did it not include hereditary Peers? Have we no rights in this matter?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, under the 1999 Act, hereditary Peers who are excluded from this House—not including the 92 who are here—are allowed to vote.

My Lords, the Minister has been asked about reform of Parliament and the situation of a bicameral reformed Parliament. Would he agree that, de facto, we now have a unicameral system in which the House of Commons, by legislative right, ultimately gets its way? Who would arbitrate if there were two equal Chambers in Parliament?

My Lords, I would not agree with that, but I think that the noble Baroness and I had better have a long conversation with an authority such as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on the subject.