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House of Lords Hansard
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House of Lords: Register of Hereditary Peers
25 October 2017
Volume 785

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the legislative arrangements giving rise to the Register of Hereditary Peers who wish to stand for election to the House of Lords.

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My Lords, the House of Lords Act 1999 provides for Standing Orders of the House to make arrangements for the replacement, by elections, of hereditary Peers who are Members of this House. The Standing Orders provide for the register of hereditary Peers. Therefore, these arrangements are a matter for this House.

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That was not really an Answer to the Question. I just ask the Minister to confirm that, of the 198 names on the register of those who are eligible to stand for by-elections for vacancies among hereditary Peers, just one is a woman and none is from any of the ethnic minorities. Should not those two facts alone convince us all that this system is not just ludicrous but totally indefensible? I have a very simple question for the Minister and, if he could just answer with a yes, we could move on to the next Question. Will the Government do something that will hurt no one and cost nothing—that is, back my Bill, which would scrap this whole ludicrous system?

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I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. Moving on to the next Question would not help me at all, as I have to answer that one as well. As he will know, when I replied to the Second Reading debate on his Bill, I said, referring to the specific anomaly that he referred to, that as a consequence of the current arrangements we have a system that is very difficult to defend in equality terms, and that reflected the views expressed. However, I went on to say that there is an exemption from the Equality Act for this arrangement. 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. So Parliament specifically exempted these provisions when it passed that piece of legislation.

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My Lords, does the Minister accept the principle that no one Parliament should be able to bind its successors, and that therefore an understanding between two Front Benches in 1999 to continue, as a temporary arrangement, the presence of hereditary Peers via by-elections should now be brought to an end by providing time in this House and the other place for the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to be considered in order to end the embarrassment of these hereditary by-elections?

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The arrangements that the noble Lord refers to do not just date back to 1999; they were confirmed in 2010 in the Equality Act. This legislation was introduced by the Labour Government and the relevant provisions exempting peerages passed without debate and without amendment in this House in 2010. So it is not a matter of blaming the 1999 arrangement. The House recently had an opportunity to address this matter but, when the legislation went through, it declined that opportunity.

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But, my Lords, we are now in 2017. Some of my best friends are hereditary Peers, but this is not about the individuals concerned; it is about the system. Many “Blackadder” fans in your Lordships’ House will remember the Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election. As Blackadder said, it was half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk fens with an empty town hall, a population of three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin and a small hen in its late 40s. Such rotten boroughs in real places had larger electorates than some of our hereditary Peers’ by-elections and they were abolished in 1832. We all know that my noble friend Lord Grocott has a cunning plan. Is it not time for the Government to support his Bill?

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I say to the noble Baroness that her Government had 13 years, from 1997 to 2010, in which to address this issue but they did not do so. They had a further opportunity in 2010, when the Equality Act, to which I referred, was introduced to address it and they declined so to do. So far as the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is concerned, we had a good debate at Second Reading. I set out the Government’s view at that point, and we look forward to its Committee stage when my noble friend the Chief Whip finds time for it. The noble Baroness said that some of her best friends were hereditary Peers; my line manager, the Deputy Chief Whip, is a hereditary Peer.

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My Lords, as the last female hereditary Peer left standing, I ask the Minister whether he is aware that I support the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. We have gone on for too long with elections. We no longer know the electorate as well as we should and it is time that we called an end to them.

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As I said, the House will have an opportunity, when we debate the further stages of the noble Lord’s Bill, to come to a conclusion. When I summed up, I indicated the views that were for and against. I think I ended up by saying that in one sense, the Bill was premature, because we were waiting for the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. Hopefully, that report will be in the public domain by the Committee stage.