My Lords, the Equality Act 2010 provides that neither a life peerage nor a hereditary peerage, as a dignity or honour conferred by the Crown, is a public or personal office for the purposes of the Act. As such, the register of hereditary Peers is not subject to equalities legislation. As provided for in the House of Lords Act 1999, Standing Orders of the House make provision for the replacement by elections of hereditary Peers who are Members of this House. It is therefore a matter for this House, when regulating its own affairs.
My Lords, I am glad to hear the Deputy Leader confirm that this will ultimately be a matter for this House. I ask him also to confirm that the current register of hereditary Peers—containing as it does the names of all those people eligible to stand in by-elections—contains the names of 199 people, just one of whom is a woman. I would have thought that this statistic alone should bring into disrepute the whole by-election system for the replacement of hereditary Peers. I should be grateful if the noble Earl, Lord Howe, would do the House a favour by announcing that the Government will support my Bill, which costs nothing, hurts no one and has overwhelming support in this House. In so doing, we would be able to consign this whole by-election system to the dustbin, where it deserves to be.
My Lords, I must declare an obvious personal interest in the context of this Question, as an elected hereditary Peer. But in the context of what the noble Lord seeks to achieve by his Bill, it would not in our view be an incremental reform. Reform of that kind would clearly change the means by which membership of this House is determined, as well as its composition, and would be a fundamental change to how it operates. The Government’s position is that comprehensive reform of the House of Lords is not a priority during this Parliament.
My Lords, until the Grocott Bill or something like it has a realistic prospect of success, should we not look at the electorate for the by-elections? Can we not also take a crumb of comfort that one of those high on the list on the Labour side is Lord Stansgate?
My Lords, I am sure that the House will wish to note that fact but I can only say again that the process for the filling of vacancies on the register of hereditary Peers is a matter for this House under its Standing Orders. It is open to any noble Lord to make representation to your Lordships’ Procedure Committee and to the Lord Speaker on any relevant matter.
My Lords, the Minister said this would not be an incremental change. By my reckoning, if we take the hereditary Peers who are currently in your Lordships’ House, if we fail to have by-elections to replace every single one of them as they choose to retire or depart by other means, it would take 60 or 70 years. I think that is a fairly incremental change. I suggest to the Minister that this House thinks we should end by-elections for hereditary Peers—he just has to be here when we have our debates. There are very few noble Lords, including hereditary Peers, who think it is the right thing to have the nonsense of these elections. The other House would agree with us; the public agree with us. Why do the Government not just get on and make this minor, incremental and sensible change?
My Lords, I say it is not incremental because the end point of such a measure would be to entrench a House—if one excludes the Lords spiritual—composed solely of appointed life Peers. That is where the Government are coming from. I suggest to the noble Baroness that we have an opportunity, through the committee set up by the Lord Speaker and chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for noble Lords to make representations to the committee on this or any other associated matter.
I wonder whether the Minister would care to reflect on what he has just said. It does not seem to me that there is anything in the Bill that my noble friend Lord Grocott is bringing forward which would preclude further and different kinds of reform within, say, the next 60 years during which it would be possible to see the end of the hereditary principle in this House, if only my noble friend’s Bill were in operation. Therefore subsequent reforms might overtake that over time, and I think many of us hope that they will, so is that really a reason to stand in the way of this Bill?
My Lords, as the Government’s manifesto made clear, we believe that the size of the House should be addressed, and that is the issue primarily being addressed by the committee set up by the Lord Speaker. However, we also made it clear that with so many pressing legislative priorities, not least those stemming from the result of the UK referendum, comprehensive reform is not a priority during this Parliament. We do not wish to close to our minds to that idea. A good case can be made for comprehensive reform, and it is worth remembering that in the last Parliament the Government put forward a Bill that would have made 80% of the eligible membership elected.
My noble friend raises an issue which I believe has often been addressed in the past, but again it is not beyond the scope of the committee that has been established by the Lord Speaker. However, it is difficult to address that issue satisfactorily if one is going to be fair across the whole country.
I wonder whether the Minister will reconsider the answer he just gave about the amount of legislative time involved in this incremental change and his assertion that in the period ahead, during which this Bill could easily be passed, the House will be overpreoccupied by legislation relating to Brexit. Surely the case is that, even if we have a Bill to trigger Article 50, we know that the Government and the Labour Party agree that that Bill should be through by 31 March. Therefore, would it not be possible for the Government to give time for the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, from 1 April?
As with any proposal to reform your Lordships’ House, the key is that we have a prospect of securing broad consensus for whatever is being proposed. Where there are further measures that can command consensus across the House, then the Government are more than willing to work with your Lordships to look at how to take them forward, and we hope to see such proposals emerging from the Lord Speaker’s committee.
The Minister keeps referring to the Government recognising that this is not the time for a comprehensive review. Does he not accept that step-by-step change might be a lot more effective than a comprehensive approach, which has often failed in the past?
The Government are certainly not averse to incremental reform, providing we can agree on what incremental reform means, which is the reason for my earlier answer to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. As proof of that, one has only to look at the two Acts relating to the composition of the House that we passed in the last Parliament—the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 and the House of Lords Reform Act 2014—as well as the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015, which again was a measure in this bracket.
My Lords, does the Minister recall that the insertion by Lord Cranborne—now the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—of this dimension into the 1999 Act was intended precisely to make it more difficult to put in a halfway reform and to ensure that when we moved further on the question of elected hereditaries, we moved towards some form of comprehensive reform? Does he also accept that the main thrust of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in this is to get rid of the elected hereditaries, but to stop there and go no further?
My Lords, the noble Earl has said that my noble friend Lord Grocott’s proposal is best advanced through a change in Standing Orders—presumably not through legislation. What are the implications of that? Will the noble Earl and the Government give my noble friend an opportunity to test the opinion of the House?