To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Lord Speaker’s announcement of the retirement of Earl Baldwin of Bewdley on 9 May, what is their policy on by-elections for hereditary Peers.
My Lords, we are committed to ensuring that the House continues to fulfil its constitutional role as a revising and scrutinising Chamber effectively, including by working with others in your Lordships’ House to address the question of its size. That policy extends, of course, to any questions on the composition of the House. We should of course also offer the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, the very best for his retirement.
Well, that was an amiable Answer —but in no sense an answer to the Question that I asked, which was about the policy of the Government on hereditary Peers’ by-elections. Will the Minister confirm that the retirement of the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, means that a by-election—we shall call it a parliamentary by-election—will be taking place, the electorate for which will be 31 hereditary Peers, and that the list of those eligible to stand as candidates in the election will consist of 198 hereditary Peers, 197 of whom are men?
The Minister is straightforward with this House and he has a sense of humour, so I hope that he shares the view of the overwhelming majority of this House that these by-elections are now beyond satire. They are ludicrous and indefensible. If he does think that—although he keeps his face very straight as he looks at me—I hope that he will be able to announce that the Government will do something popular and announce that these by-elections will be ended by supporting my Bill, and that this by-election, which we will be forced to go through, will be the very last of its kind.
My Lords, the noble Lord’s Bill had an unopposed Second Reading on 8 September and on 23 March useful progress was made in going through the amendments. The Government are prepared to allocate yet further time for the Committee stage of the Bill—a hospitality not normally extended to a Private Member’s Bill, as the noble Lord, himself a former Chief Whip and custodian of Fridays, will know. The use to which the House puts that extra time is a matter for him and for the House.
So far as the by-election is concerned, it will contain, I suspect, the most sophisticated and discerning electorate, comprising 31 Cross-Bench hereditary Peers.
My Lords, should we not merely wish the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, well, but remember that he was the grandson of one of the greatest peacetime Prime Ministers? As a strong supporter of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I ask that we reduce at least some of the absurdity of this by-election by allowing all Peers to vote.
My noble friend will know that that is a matter not for legislation but for the Standing Orders of the House. If the House wanted so to do, it could do that without the noble Lord’s Bill or any action by the Government. It is entirely a matter for the Standing Orders of the House, as my noble friend Lord Cope mentioned in one of our debates.
My Lords, this House is involved in very serious business at the moment. It was therefore very good to hear the Minister’s robust defence of the actions that this House has taken in scrutinising legislation and doing its constitutional duty of asking the other place to think again—if it thinks it should do that and it is appropriate. But it is subject to a great deal of criticism for doing that constitutional duty at the moment. Does that not make it much more important and urgent that, at this time, we take action against things that are indefensible, including both the size of the House and the nonsense of hereditary Peers’ by-elections?
The Government are giving a fair wind to this Bill and I can say from the Dispatch Box that the Government have no plans to block it or obstruct it.
My Lords, the Government have the power to take the Bill in government time, which we would greatly welcome. Some 60 years ago there was not a single female Member of your Lordships’ House; things have moved on and improved since then. This year we are celebrating 100 years since women gained the right to vote in general elections. So is it not a deep-set irony that the only place in the UK that will not have elected a woman in a recent by-election is your Lordships’ House? Surely hereditary by-elections have had their time, which has passed and gone. I know that the noble Lord is very good at keeping a straight face on this issue and I admire him tremendously for that—but the time has come for them to go.
I am not sure who put the Equality Act 2010 on the statute book, but it does not extend to the hereditary peerage—that answers the first question. On the second, the House of Lords Reform Act went on to the statute book in 1999. The Labour Government had 11 years with substantial majorities in another place in which they could have addressed this anomaly. It is a little unfair to criticise this Government for not making it a priority.
My Lords, while there is room for more than one point of view as to the merits of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, would it not be better to wait for the outcome of the proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, before we decide how to proceed in this matter? In the meantime, I agree with the suggestion that the by-elections should be made all-House by-elections, not narrowly defined ones as at present.
As I said in response to an earlier question, the latter issue raised by my noble friend would be a matter for the House and does not require legislation. The Burns commission looked at this issue, but because it requires legislation did not directly address it. However, the Burns report did point out that, without action, the hereditaries would account for a growing proportion of a smaller House and that it would pre-empt the ability, particularly of my party but also of the Cross-Benchers, to nominate new Peers if spaces were occupied by the winners of hereditary by-elections.
My Lords, in addition to the very formidable arguments advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the Minister has just touched on an extremely important and urgent issue. Unless action is taken to finish these by-elections, we will have continual problems with the two-out, one-in policy that is absolutely critical to making progress on the Burns recommendations. This will affect the Conservative Benches and the Cross Benches in particular. Can the noble Lord not only give us an assurance that the Government will urgently find time for the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, but tell us that they will support it?
I have said that I will not obstruct it, which I think is of some reassurance. On the two-out, one-in policy, since October last year some 15 noble Lords have taken voluntary early retirement: eight from my party, four Cross-Benchers, two from the Labour Party and one from the DUP. The Liberal Democrats have scored nul points. By any reckoning, they are the most overrepresented group in this House and they should be leading the resignation field instead of being stranded at the starting post.
Follow that, my Lords. I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.