My Lords, I pay tribute to a number of noble Lords who have paved the way for me, if I may put it that way—in particular and most recently my noble friend Lord Dubs, whom I have known from the other place for a considerable number of years; the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and the work he is doing in relation to hereditary Peers; and of course the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who has played a pioneering role in the broader field of reform of the Lords.
Noble Lords will recall that I had the privilege of being the 58th Chairman of Ways and Means in another place. The first appointment was made originally because of the restoration of the monarchy. It was felt by Parliament that your Lordships’ House at the time had a particularly strong influence—many at that time felt that it was an unhealthy influence—on the other place. Of course, the whole matter is described in the 25th edition of Erskine May, which has just been published. What good work was done by David Natzler, whom a number of noble Lords will know personally. If you flick through that book—although it is not the sort of book you flick through, because it is quite a thick volume—you will find the key part on page 930, paragraph 37.6. The title is, “Basis of modern practice with respect to privilege”. The paragraph is not very long and states:
“That all aids and supplies, and aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole gift of the Commons; and all bills for the granting of any such aids and supplies ought to begin with the Commons; and that it is the undoubted and sole right of the Commons to direct, limit, and appoint in such bills the ends, purposes, considerations, conditions, limitations, and qualifications of such grants, which ought not to be changed or altered by the House of Lords”.
The central theme of my submission this morning is that I am here as an appointed Peer, but that there are portions of policies affecting our former constituencies, if we were previously elected, and ordinary people on the electoral role. We are precluded here from interfering in certain policies.
I took a close look at and pay tribute to Conventions of the UK Parliament by the Joint Committee on Conventions, which was produced in 2005-06. A number of your Lordships served on that committee. In paragraph 99, it concluded:
“In the House of Lords:
A manifesto Bill is accorded a Second Reading;
A manifesto Bill is not subject to ‘wrecking amendments’ which change the Government’s manifesto intention as proposed in the Bill; and
A manifesto Bill is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons, so that they have the opportunity, in reasonable time, to consider the Bill or any amendments the Lords may wish to propose”.
That is quite clear. It re-emphasises the fact that your Lordships as individuals are restricted, and that we cannot take part in a proportion of the work that the other place is doing.
I wondered what further evidence I could find that would be helpful to your Lordships. These days we spend a great deal of our time talking about what the young think. None of us here is young, but I am quite sure that in our normal lives, we talk to young people where we live. I had the opportunity to be approached by a student at Bedford School, where I went as a boy; and where, incidentally, Erskine May was also a pupil. He approached me and asked whether he could shadow me for a period of time. So I said, “Have a look at this Bill. You’re taking A-level politics, are you not?”. He said yes, so I said, “Have a look at the Bill, do your own research and give me some comments. I don’t mind what you come up with; I’m not worried one way or the other. My views are clear, but you can criticise, et cetera”.
I will now give a few quotes from what he wrote to me, because they are quite interesting—quite forthright, as most young people are. He writes:
“I was appalled to hear members of one of our two great Houses do not get a vote on who the future government should be, which will, of course, have as much of an impact on their lives as it will on everyone else’s.
I find it is an embarrassing stain on the democracy we boast of in this country. As one of the world’s leading powers, it is nothing short of shocking that our second chamber is the only one in the world that does not allow its members to vote at general elections. This means out of nearly 200 countries with second chambers, ours is the only one that doesn’t. The only way to describe that is shameful!
The only two arguments used to defend the law in the 2013 debate”—
my noble friend Lord Dubs’s debate—
“were; that this is the way it is done so leave it that way and the other was the scepticism around reform.
The first argument is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Archaic laws can have no place in our society, or politics, just because it’s the way we have always done certain procedures doesn’t mean it is right and should carry on … However, when the original resolution was made there was a need to limit the powers of Peers … So, if members of this House do not have a say on financial bills here or in general elections, where do they have their say on how they want their economy to be run? As you are all aware, you don’t! This is a complete failure, especially as it is a basic right within our nation for the majority to be given the right to vote … If members of the House believe they should not be granted the vote, then they can make a conscious decision not to vote. However, their unwillingness to vote should not then stop others in an attempt to further participate in the political system they play a key role in. As a 17 year old who is politically active and waits with eagerness to exercise whatever democratic rights and privileges we enjoy in our country I can only imagine the pain and anger it must cause that simply because of one’s job they are then unable to vote, despite the fact that they have enjoyed voting and campaigning for, or even serving, previous governments. Considering all of the facts that this is an outdated law, and was made against predecessors long before those who now sit I feel very strongly and passionately that this bill must be passed”.
That is the view of a 17 year-old reading A-level politics.
Then I asked myself, what is the position today on royalty? I asked the Library for a little help on that. Before I got any evidence from the Library, I was sure that they were not allowed to vote. What did I find? On investigation, I found that while the Head of State—the Queen—has to remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters and is unable to vote or to stand for election, that is only a convention. There is no law that prevents Her Majesty or the Royal Dukes voting. Indeed, after the Act we passed in 1999 the Royal Dukes were allowed to vote. The advice from the Palace is that those who are close to Her Majesty—I think “inner circle” is the phrase that is used—are asked not to take part, and that is very understandable. But the rest of the royals can all vote. It is entirely up to them whether they do so—nobody is forcing them to vote—and I think that that is of considerable relevance.
A number of friends in the House will know that I started my life in the other place with a majority of 179. On the first count, it was around minus 200, so we had a recount. On the second count, I think I won by three or four. On the third count, I won by 179. I shall not go into the detail of how or why that might have happened—that is not relevant this morning—but it is interesting. If we look at more recent elections, how many of us remember Harmar Nicholls in Peterborough in 1966? After seven recounts, he was elected by three votes. Brighton Kemptown was won by seven votes in 1964. Winchester was won by two votes in the 1997 election. Even more recently, in 2017 North East Fife was won by two votes. I put it to your Lordships that it is a weak argument to say, “What difference do one or two votes make to the situation on the ground?”. What would have happened in Fife if three of our colleagues from across the border could have voted and might have chosen to vote for the candidate who came second? That is worth thinking about very seriously.
My view is that one vote counts, so I put it to your Lordships that the time has come to recognise that we take part in our local communities. I suggest to noble Lords that every one of us sitting here this morning is active in our own community. We take part. We take a responsibility—yet we are precluded from voting in the key vote that any person in our society can have. This is an important Bill that should move forward. I beg to move.
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord for raising a very acute constitutional question. It may surprise many Members of your Lordships’ House to hear that I am very conflicted about it, because I am not at all sure that whatever activity I indulge in in my own constituency or in the country by way of politics necessarily qualifies me to vote in an election. The central fact is that we are an undemocratic House. Having arrived here, we are given the privilege of legislating, and we have to pay a price for that—it is very simple. The fact is that an undemocratic Chamber that is able, in a democracy, to legislate and lay down the law without any reference to the people has to pay a price. I am an economist: if you have a benefit, you pay a price.
The idea that every vote counts is really frightening. If a seat went one way or the other due to the vote of a local grandee, people would be outraged. Part of the Brexit rebellion and so on is that people are asking, “Who are these people laying down the law?” I am sorry but when we came here we gave up certain rights. If you want to vote, the way is open: leave the House and renounce your title. Everybody has that choice. Yes, the Members of this House should be able to vote but only after the House has been reformed and is an elected Chamber.
My Lords, I very much enjoyed the account from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, of recent very close election results. His message was that every vote matters—so, I think, it should.
The principle of this Bill has support from these Benches, but from them we note the irony of demanding votes for Peers to elect MPs without demanding votes for people to elect Peers. In 1911, Asquith’s Liberal Government introduced the Parliament Act. The preamble to that legislation said that,
“it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords, as it at present exists, a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis”.
When its drafters included the phrase,
“such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”,
I doubt that they thought we would still be waiting for that substitution of principles 108 years later.
The case for giving Members of the House of Peers the right to help elect Members of the House of Commons was recognised by the first Earl of Beaconsfield, better known as Benjamin Disraeli, when he was Prime Minister 150 years ago. However, more recent legislation has confirmed the principle that Peers should have votes to choose MPs only when they cease to have votes in this place.
It seems to me, however, that since the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 ended the powers of this House in relation to financial measures, and restricted its power over all other legislation, being able only to delay it, the denial of a vote to its Members in general elections has been anomalous. Of course, the Liberal Democrats sought seven years ago to achieve a full reform of this House—one which would have completed the aspiration of the 1911 legislation after only a century of delay. However, we failed, so we have to accept incremental reforms until we are able to argue again for what we consider to be basic principles of democracy.
This Bill proposes a very minor reform but it is one on which we may well be accused of special pleading by putting our own interests ahead of those of other people who are also presently unable to elect Members of what we sometimes still refer to as the other place. People who are not UK citizens but are presently citizens of the EU have a right to vote here to elect local councillors, if they live here, and they presently have a right to elect MEPs if they can get past the bureaucratic barriers put in their way, but they do not have a right to elect MPs unless they are citizens of the Irish Republic, Cyprus or Malta. I believe that the best way of ensuring that the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living here are protected if we leave the EU is to ensure that they can vote for MPs as easily as they can vote for local councillors.
In my view, there is a need for a fundamental review of the franchise for all our elections, going well beyond the scope of this Bill. A few yards from where we are now, I sometimes take questions from school groups visiting Parliament. I suspect that many of us do that. It is a delight to try to answer very many good questions. They vary a great deal. From the youngest ones, I always get, “Have you ever met the Queen?” There are questions such as, “What is the one thing in the world that you would most like to change?” Recently I was asked, “What is the longest debate in which you have ever taken part?” My description to a group of six year-olds of an all-night sitting a few years ago, with camp beds and sleeping bags laid out in the Library, led to much excitement about the holding of sleep-overs in the House of Lords, as they understood it to be.
From sixth-form groups, I generally experience questioning as intelligent and as informed as from any group of people over 18. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, quoted the eloquent words of a 17 year-old in support of the principles of his Bill. I would say to the sixth-form groups that I frequently address that the Liberal Democrats believe that they should be able to vote to choose MPs at the first general election after their 16th birthday. That is at least as important a principle as it is for Members of this House to be able to vote to elect Members of the other House.
We now have a different starting age for the franchise for local elections and devolved elections in different parts of the UK, so it must be time to consider properly the voting rights for everyone living here, for UK citizens living abroad and for young people from the age of 16—as well as for Peers of the realm.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, quoted one paragraph of the Parliament Act 1911 but he did not then quote the next paragraph, which recognises that, if you change the composition of this House, you also have to revisit the powers of the House.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Naseby on introducing a Bill that has the merit of brevity. I would normally begin by addressing the merits of the argument, but on this occasion I shall look first at the level of support for the measure. How much support does it enjoy, be it from the public or from Members of the House?
Proposals for change to your Lordships’ House, be they great or small, rarely excite interest outside the House. I have in various writings on reform of this House quoted Janet Morgan, who once wrote:
“On Summer evenings and Winter afternoons, when they have nothing else to do, people discuss how to reform the House of Lords. Schemes are taken out of cupboards and drawers and dusted off. Speeches are composed, pamphlets written, letters sent to the newspapers. From time to time the whole country becomes excited”.
Well, the political classes may become excited but there is little evidence of the whole country ever doing so. Even in 1910, when there were two general elections, with Lords reform ostensibly being to the fore, the electorate remained as uninterested as it had been before the House rejected the 1909 Budget. As George Dangerfield wrote of the December election campaign:
“The country was indifferent, and politicians were hard put to it to stir up its lethargy”.
I am not sure that Lords reform was to the forefront of popular concerns either when the House of Lords Reform Bill was before the Commons in 2012.
Given that, it is not surprising that the issue before us today attracts no obvious public interest. I did a post on my blog about it and invited comments on the Bill. It attracted a grand total of two responses, the first of which was:
“It’s a non-issue. The Lords sitting in the upper house are small in number (and should be much smaller still—I suggest by drawing lots) and relatively balanced politically, so it’s unlikely to affect any election, so who cares? It’s not worth three sentences to discuss”.
Public indifference is matched by apparent indifference on the part of Members of this House. The speakers’ list for today may be notable for quality, but not for quantity. There is no clear, swelling demand for change on the part of Members, and in my view, that is significant. I notice also that the issue has not been the subject of much study. Even the Library briefing note relies on a blog post I did some years ago on the legal position of the prohibition.
I turn to the issue of principle. The argument, which has been made since the 19th century and is repeated today by my noble friend Lord Naseby, is that the House of Commons has powers denied the Lords, not least in terms of taxation, and Peers, the same as other citizens, should be able to vote for those who determine taxation. As my noble friend has mentioned, members of appointed second chambers elsewhere get to vote for members of the elected house.
In this country, we are now almost the only citizens not able to vote for MPs. I say almost, because certain other categories, notably prisoners, are also disfranchised. Once released from jail, they can vote—as indeed can anybody in this House who retires from membership. Mention of prisoners brings me on to the rights argument. We cannot argue that we are denied a basic right without conceding that prisoners are as well. In the Hirst case, the ECHR did not hold that prisoners should have the right to vote but that a blanket ban on prisoners being able to vote was in contravention of the convention.
There is a key difference between us and prisoners, which leads me to address the case against the Bill. Prisoners have no voice in Parliament; we do. It may not be as great as that of MPs, but we have a security of tenure denied those in the other place. The votes of Peers in a general election are not likely to swing the outcome, even in the closest of contests, but the fact of having the right to vote in addition to a place in Parliament—and a secure one—may seem a privilege too far. We may not vote on issues of taxation, but we have privileges that are denied to citizens. We can debate finance Bills at Second Reading. If a Bill is certified as a money Bill, we can offer amendments. Although the Commons is not obliged to consider them, there have been occasions when it has accepted amendments. In short, we can engage government in a way that the ordinary citizen cannot.
As I have said, the Bill will not excite great interest but, if passed, it may contribute to perceptions that we are seeking more for ourselves and do nothing to increase public understanding of the role played by this House. We add value to the political process, and we do so at relatively little cost. Indeed, if one could ascribe monetary value to the raft of changes we achieve to public legislation, I believe it would more than offset the costs of running the institution.
As my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham is well aware, I am keen to ensure that we improve our scrutiny of legislation. We do a good job, but I believe that we could do it even better. As I have stressed before in this House, ensuring that we deliver good law is a public good. That is what we should be focusing on, and ensuring that our scarce resources, including time, are devoted to it. That is what the public should see us doing. We should be thinking of public service, not self-service. We need to focus on raising awareness of the work of this House and what it contributes to the nation. This measure is, I fear, something of a distraction and may prove unhelpful if—it is a very big if—it gets noticed.
My Lords, I support this Bill just as I supported the same Bill when the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was promoting it six years ago, in June 2013. I have reread the Second Reading debate of his Bill then and noted rather to my surprise that I managed to speak for eight minutes; I am not sure I shall manage that today.
I recognise, of course, that this is perhaps not the most burning political issue of the day. But it has for some time been, and remains, an issue worth raising and one which should finally be resolved—in its favour, I suggest—and put to bed. I invite your Lordships to look at it this way: suppose that our present bicameral system was being devised and established for the first time today, long after the passage of the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, with an elected House of Commons being rightly accorded the primacy it is recognised to have; it alone having the power to impose taxes and deal realistically with money Bills; it alone having the right by convention to implement its policies, particularly its manifesto promises; it alone having the power to bring down government; and so on. Suppose all that, and that those setting up the system of government then asked themselves—after looking around the world at other bicameral nations where the second Chamber invariably has the vote—should the Members of the upper House have a vote in deciding who should be the Members of the House of Commons? I suggest that one cannot seriously doubt that the answers would be: of course they should; why on earth not?
It is quite wrong to suppose that the mere fact that we have a limited say in scrutinising and refining Bills from the House of Commons, and occasionally promote Bills ourselves, should disqualify us from voting in parliamentary elections. One point I made in the debate brought by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is that the 11 of us who in October 2009 ceased to be Law Lords here and were recreated as Justices of the new Supreme Court became at that point totally disfranchised. For so long as we remained Supreme Court Justices, we ceased to have any vote or voice whatever in national political life. We were disqualified from speaking or voting here in the Lords, yet as Members of the House of Lords we had no vote either in parliamentary elections. Still now, 10 years on, there remain in the Supreme Court two such Justices, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, the President of the Supreme Court; and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore. There are, I think, two Scottish law officers similarly placed.
This does not apply to Peers who retire, nor indeed any Peer who may be expelled from the House under the provisions of the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, although no doubt it applies to other Peers statutorily disqualified from active membership. Should we simply write off those cases as mere oversights or regrettable anomalies in an otherwise sensible, logical voting system? I suggest not. It seems to me rather that, as a matter of principle, we should finally end the wider anomaly, which consists in the disqualification of all Members of this House from voting in Commons elections. The right to a parliamentary vote should be regarded as a basic fundamental right that should be denied to citizens only for compelling reasons. It is no longer denied to mental patients. It is, as we all know, still denied to all convicted prisoners. Personally, I regret that, but I suggest that today is not the occasion to debate again its pros and cons. No more is it, pace the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, the occasion to debate the Liberal Democrats’ cause of a wholly elected House of Lords or indeed the question of votes for 16 year-olds.
I accept that there is a stronger case against prisoners voting than there is against Members of this House having the vote, but I suggest that there really is no coherent case for denying us the vote simply because we have a limited—though, I recognise, valuable—role in the overall legislative process. It is not a sufficient role to justify our being denied any say in those who have primacy in legislation, the Members of the House of Commons.
The vote is a symbol of a healthy democracy whose value should be recognised. The Bill would assist in that recognition, and I wish it well.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on having introduced the Bill. He and I had a chat about it beforehand and I very much welcome the fact that he has introduced a Bill on the same principle as the one that I introduced into this House about six years ago.
I want to comment on one or two of the speeches that we have heard. I was slightly surprised; I say to the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that I have never argued that, by giving Members of this House the right to vote, we could significantly tip the balance in parliamentary elections. It may be that that would happen, but I think it is a slightly way-out suggestion. I would welcome it if we could tip the balance in close votes, but that is not the way it is.
I am more concerned about my noble friend Lord Desai, who said that we have to pay a price to be here. I find that an extraordinary comment. There are enormous privileges in being here, of course, but the idea that we should somehow be penalised by not having our democratic say seems to be slightly odd in terms of our parliamentary democracy.
I have enormous respect for the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I often agree with him, but I must say I part company with his thesis today. This may be a distraction for some, but surely a principle is worth talking about even if there are not demonstrations in Whitehall and Parliament Square in support. The noble Lord is putting forward the theory that there has to be a lot of public feeling and there have to be demonstrations out in the streets before we should make a change. I am sure he does not really mean that, but that is what his argument sounded like.
There is a fundamental point of principle here. I like helping in elections, and at the last general election I helped in about five constituencies. Whether or not one does that, though, I actually felt a sense of pain, I was hurt, that on polling day I was not able to vote. I regard that as my right as a citizen and a fundamental democratic point, even if only 800 people would be affected by changing the law. Maybe I am being sentimental, but I have felt hurt, on every general election day since I was privileged to join this House, that I was able to help, to knock on doors and ask people to go and vote but could not do so myself.
One of the fundamental points is this. Yes, of course we are in a privileged position in that we can influence legislation, initiate legislation and change the laws of this country if the Commons agree with us, as they often do, but we do not have the right to influence who would be our Government, and that surely is the difference between influencing legislation on a day-to-day basis and actually having a say in who we want to govern the country, which we would do through voting in parliamentary elections. I would have thought that was absolutely basic. Bishops have a vote, as do Members of other second Chambers in the world, but we do not.
I would like to refer to what happened last time. After quite an extensive debate in this House, we agreed to the Bill, and off it went to the Commons. I should be careful before I criticise the procedure of the Commons but, gosh, I am going to. There is an odd procedure under which, if a Bill works its way there, any Member of Parliament can shout, “Object!”, without there being any ability to identify who that person is. So I took the trouble to write to all the known objectors on the Back Benches who might object explaining what the Bill was about, that it did not affect their rights in the Commons and so on. I thought I had covered everyone, but someone still shouted “Object!”. I do not know who it was, but I am going to tell the House what my suspicion is, and I am looking at the Lib Dem Benches. When I was moving my Bill last time, the Lib Dem Benches did not like it and said it was not appropriate—I will come on to that in the moment—so, when it got to the Commons, it is my strong suspicion that the notorious objectors did not shout “Object!” but someone did so on behalf of the Lib Dem Benches.
Why was that? After all, we have had a conversion on the road to Damascus from the Lib Dems; I believe that they are now totally in favour, and I welcome that. However, their argument then as I understood it—and this was Nick Clegg’s view—was that we do not change anything about the House of Lords unless we change everything. This was a dramatic revolutionary principle that piecemeal change was no good: “Don’t touch the Lords unless you change it in all sorts of ways”. Frankly, that is an absurd approach to politics. The evidence of British parliamentary history is that progressive change bit by bit is the most effective way of achieving change, so I was surprised when the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who six years ago was speaking for the Lib Dems, suggested that they did not want this. As I say, I have a strong suspicion that there was one objector in the Commons; I was sitting in the gallery but could not identify who they were. This is a great fault in the procedure of the Commons. We should have the right to identify anyone who shouts, “Object!” and blocks a Bill. I say this to the Lib Dems: I welcome a conversion, and if they are all converted then that is wonderful.
The Bill is about something important. There will not be cheering in Parliament Square and people will not be marching down Whitehall, but as a fundamental principle of democracy we should have the right to vote. My only regret is that the Bill says that this is to happen a year from now, but we might have an election before then, so even if the Bill went through, that would be another election where we were denied the right to vote. Still, I very much welcome the Bill, and I hope this House will give it a welcome and warm passage.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Naseby, and I support the Bill. Before I come on to the main point that I want to make in my speech, I shall pick up one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He made a very fundamental point about the privilege of voting in general elections. I have always been struck by the empowering way in which general elections happen. Millions of people go into their local library, village hall or church hall. They go into a booth, take the stub of a pencil on the end of a piece of string and put a cross on a scrap of paper. They put that scrap of paper into a tin box and, very often, the next day the entire Government leave office. That is the most empowering thing that we do in a democracy. I happen to like the fact that it happens the next day, because it reminds people that they themselves did it; it was not done in smoke-filled rooms. I remember how empowered I felt when I first voted, and I have voted in every single election, as I suspect most people in this House have. However, the one thing we are not allowed to do is vote in general elections. We are denied that empowering and unifying experience, which is so important to our country.
I support this Bill for one fundamental reason, which is taxation. Everybody in this House pays income tax, VAT and excise duties; they possibly pay capital gains tax; their families might pay inheritance tax. Quite rightly, we in this House do not decide taxation—I agree with that. Members of Parliament in the House of Commons decide that, but we cannot elect those Members. We cannot have any say at all on the levels of taxation imposed upon us. If we were talking about some third-world or newly independent country where they denied certain people the right to elect the people who impose taxes on them, we would be horrified.
I want to give the House two figures. At the last election, there were 46 million people on the electoral roll. Every one of them was entitled to vote for the Members of Parliament who decide taxation. There are 778 people who cannot do that—Members of this House. We are denied that right. This is more than just a minor anomaly; it is fundamentally wrong.
I want to pick up some of the arguments that I suspect—I may be wrong—my noble friend the Minister will deploy in arguing against this Bill, as I am sure he will. The first is that we should not do this via piecemeal reform. This is how House of Lords reform has been done for the last 100 years. There is no prospect of a coherent, comprehensive piece of legislation coming forward. We have changed the composition of the Lords, we have allowed retirement and we now have an attempt to reduce the size of the House. I looked back to see what excuses had been made against individual piecemeal reforms of this House in the past, and I was fascinated by the arguments used against the policy proposed in the 1960s by Viscount Stansgate, better known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, who wanted to allow hereditary Peers to renounce their peerage. One of the arguments used against that was deployed by the Garter King of the day. He argued that allowing peers to renounce their peerage would subject their wives to what he called “social demolition”. Very weird arguments are used against piecemeal reform, but the only way this House will reform itself in the foreseeable future is precisely by piecemeal reform.
The other argument that will no doubt be used is that there are some technical flaws in the Bill. I do not know if there are or not, but if there are, they can be corrected. This week, we had the Northern Ireland Bill that went through the House in two days. There were technical flaws that had to be corrected, and they were corrected extremely efficiently and swiftly.
The third argument will no doubt be that this is not the right time. Of course, I fear that this Bill will not reach the statute book, because we will come to the end of this Session at some point.
I want to put this point to the Minister, and I would like him to answer it if he would. Does he at least accept the fundamental principle that there is something wrong when people who have taxes imposed upon them have no right to decide who imposes them?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, for opening this debate and all noble Lords who have contributed. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, was quite right; it may be a small debate, but it was a quality one for all that. I have certainly learned a lot this morning. I should say at the start that it is an unexpected treat to be here this morning, but I would have much preferred that my noble friend Lady Hayter was standing here covering this brief. Her gifts are rather greater than mine and she would have done a much better job. I fear she is a loss to the Front Bench and your Lordships will have to make do with me.
I am with my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne: I love voting. I love everything about it. I love the sense of responsibility, the sense of hope and the deep secrecy of the polling booth. I even love the pencils on strings. I often give thanks for those who fought so that I would have the right to vote and I have always used it. I voted in a general election for the first time in 1979, when I was still at school. If I am honest, the result was not all I had hoped for. However, I kept voting and by and by it got better. By about 2010, I had got the hang of it, but then I was not allowed to do it any more. In the middle, in 1997, it went really well for a few years. It went up and down.
I confess that I now miss voting in a general election. The last time I went to vote locally, there were two clerks on the polling desk. One asked the other what the “L” next to my name meant. She whispered, “Lord”, looked quizzical and just said, “Well, because…”. Then she looked at me and waited for me to move away, I suspect before intoning the list of Peers, felons and so on, because it seemed faintly rude.
In the last general election, 48,324 people voted in the city of Durham and 55% of them voted for my wonderful honourable friend Roberta Blackman-Woods. Obviously, I would have been happy if I had been able to vote, but it would not have made a difference to her election. I take the point from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that there are times when it does. Had it been on a knife-edge, and my vote had tipped the balance, I am not sure the people of the city of Durham would have welcomed that with open arms. They may not have felt happy about it, if that had made a difference. Fortunately, it did not. My honourable friend’s standing was so great that the people of Durham came out to back her in great numbers.
My noble friend Lord Desai made the point that, traditionally, the view has been held that we pay a price for being here. Although I hear very clearly what my noble friend Lord Dubs thought of that analogy, it has seemed to me personally that if I had to trade the chance to vote in the city of Durham to be able to stand here to amend Bills and change legislation, that is at least a fair swap. As my noble friend Lords Dubs will know, although he may not approve of it, the view of the Labour Party has long been that if we are to look at this question, we should look at it in a broader sense. We have long had a view that there should be a constitutional convention which should look at the composition and role of the House. This could be swept up in that.
Despite the steely stare of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, I want to talk briefly about other ways of extending the franchise, something raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is right: there is a question about priorities. If I were going to start extending the franchise, I do not think I would start with us. I would want the opportunity to give 16 and 17 year-olds the chance to vote. Then the rather impressive 17 year-old described by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, would not have to wait for the next election, should it happen to come along sooner than currently planned. I look forward to seeing him take up the former seat of the noble Lord in due course—possibly not very long, based on that comment. However, I would send one comment back to him. If we get rid of all the archaic laws on our statute book, it might look a little different from how it does now. He might want to give some thought to that.
I will share one thought in passing on young people voting. Can the Minister let me know whether it is true that members as young as 15 have a vote in the Tory party elections to choose the next Prime Minister? If so, is it not ironic that they can effectively choose the next Prime Minister but cannot vote for their local MP?
Alternatively, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, we could extend the franchise to long-resident EU nationals in this country after we leave the EU—or before, since some were denied the chance to vote in May. Or we could address the difficulty in voting faced by people in rented accommodation, young people on the move, or indeed homeless people, of whom there are, I am sorry to say, more than there are Members of this House. Can the Minister share any thoughts from the Government on that?
In parenthesis, before I close, one of the interesting things about our current system is that we are Members of the UK Parliament and remain so even during a general election. Should there ever be a crisis—God forbid—while the Commons was not sitting, at least our being here permanently means that we have the opportunity not only to express a view on questions, but to challenge and bring to account Ministers on the decisions they may take. Maybe that is a slight benefit to our being slightly aside from the fray.
For now, notwithstanding the very strong views expressed around the House, it is our view that this is not the biggest priority to tackle. It is not the biggest injustice before us. I am not sure that it is even the biggest injustice in this House. The hereditary by-elections, with their in-built bias on grounds of sex and race, frankly call to be addressed ahead of this. As fortune would have it, we have an opportunity to do precisely that on 6 September when my noble friend Lord Grocott brings his Bill before the House. That is something to look forward to.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Naseby for re-introducing a measure of constitutional importance to noble Lords, even if, as we have heard, it does not cause a great deal of excitement outside this place. My noble friend and I go back a long way, having been elected to another place on the same day in 1974. My majority that year was 808—by comparison a huge increase on his own. He has consistently taken an interest in constitutional issues, not least, as he reminded us, in his capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means in another place, and which he has maintained since his elevation to your Lordships’ House in 1997.
My noble friend has been around long enough to know that the more lavish the praise a Minister heaps on the mover of a Private Member’s Bill, the less likely he is to support it. He will also know that the life expectancy of a Private Member’s Bill introduced at this stage of a parliamentary Session is poor. None the less, the measure is to be taken seriously, as indicated by the number of noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I am grateful for their contributions.
As my noble friend pointed out, Peers who are Members of this place are not entitled to vote at general elections, along with other minority groups such as prisoners, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth reminded us. The long-standing rationale is that Peers who are also Members are already able to represent themselves in Parliament and therefore do not require separate representation by a Member of Parliament, unlike members of the general public. My noble friend Lord Norton made that point in his excellent speech: we have an ability to scrutinise legislation that is simply not available to others. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, described this as a price we pay. One could also regard it as a consequence of a privilege; maybe that is the sort of language that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would prefer.
The argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Norton seems sound, so I have reservations about my noble friend Lord Naseby’s proposal to change the current legal incapacity that prevents Peers who are Members of this place voting in general elections. If we ask for a say on who sits in another place, MPs might want a say on who sits here. I say to my noble friend Lord Sherbourne that I am not against piecemeal reform. Indeed, I am in favour of it—I took through the other place the Bill on the expulsion of Peers—but only if I believe it makes sense.
The principle that Peers could not vote in general elections clearly has a long history, dating back as far as 1699. The 1699 Commons Journal, volume 13, stated at column 64:
“Resolved, Nemine contradicente, That no Peer of this Kingdom hath any Right to give his Vote”—
“in the Election for any Member to serve in Parliament”.
This principle has been upheld for the following 320 years and is premised on the fact that Peers are already able to represent themselves in Parliament, unlike members of the general public.
The bar has long been established within the common law. The courts have conclusively decided that Peers have no right to vote or to be entered upon the register of electors in a series of cases, including Earl Beauchamp v Overseers of Madresfield, and Marquess of Salisbury v Overseers of South Mimms 1872. In these related cases, Earl Beauchamp and the Marquess of Salisbury challenged being taken off the electoral register in their respective counties. The judgment that followed ruled that a Peer of Parliament was incapacitated from voting at an election for a Member of the House of Commons and was therefore not entitled to be placed on the register of voters.
Considering the long-standing rationale for your Lordships’ voting rights, I would therefore have hoped that my noble friend Lord Naseby would 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 noble friend referred to the legislation as being archaic, but as recently as 1999, Section 3 of the House of Lords Act explicitly enfranchised hereditary Peers who were not Members and disfranchised Peers who were. It says:
“The holder of a hereditary peerage shall not be disqualified by virtue of that peerage for … voting at elections to the House of Commons, or … being elected as, a member of that House”,
“Subsection (1) shall not apply in relation to anyone excepted from section 1 by virtue of section 2”,
which is those Peers who remained.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, mentioned, the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 has allowed for the retirement and expulsion of Peers. Under this legislation, those Peers who give up or are disqualified from their seats in the House of Lords are no longer regarded as Members of your Lordships’ House and are unable to return. As such, they regain their right to vote in general elections, or indeed to stand for election. The bar applies only to Peers who are Members of this place.
In 2011, the Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote to the Government, questioning whether the disqualification of Peers who are Members of the House of Lords from voting in general elections is compatible with the right to participate in free and fair elections under Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR. The then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, responded to confirm its compatibility, explaining that the right is not absolute and limitations may be imposed on it, and the fact that Members of your Lordships’ House have a voice in Parliament makes these arrangements legitimate. The then Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that the Government had no plans at that time to review the issue, confirming the position taken by the previous Labour Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, used this opportunity to raise the case for Lords reform, voting reform and other issues. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, pointed out—in a seven-minute speech this time—that is a debate for another time.
Peers who are Members of your Lordships’ House can, of course, vote where appropriate in elections to the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, local government elections, police and crime commissioner elections, and in national and local referendums.
I will deal with one or two points raised. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, raised an issue concerning the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale. Supreme Court judges appointed since 2009 are not Members of the House of Lords and therefore can vote. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, joined the House of Lords in 2004 and served as a Law Lord until 2009, when, along with other Law Lords, she transferred to the Supreme Court. On retirement, she will return to the House of Lords, of which she is already a Member, and continue to be unable to vote.
I agreed with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and others that there are other issues we could discuss. I will come on to that in a moment, once I have responded to my noble friend Lord Sherbourne. I am afraid I disagree with the point he made about taxation and representation. Taxation is quite rightly not connected to democratic representation in the UK. An American or Japanese citizen of voting age who works and pays taxes in the UK does not have the right to vote in parliamentary elections, and a citizen of voting age who is not a Member of the House of Lords but who pays no income tax retains the right to vote. There is not a direct connection.
In response to the issues raised by the noble Baroness, there is more to be done to encourage those who are entitled to vote to vote. We have youth engagement projects and National Democracy Week; we are supporting disabled people to stand for office; we are making changes to anonymous registration; we are making it easier for disabled people to register to vote and to stand for election; and we are reducing barriers to registration.
I look forward to 5 September—by which time I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, may be in a position to continue to represent the Opposition Front Bench on these issues—when there will be an opportunity for further discussion on the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.
In conclusion, I recognise my noble friend’s dedication to this cause. This is not the first time he has endeavoured to introduce these measures. In March 2015, he asked a Question in your Lordships’ House on Peers’ exclusion from voting in general elections. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, replied:
“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”.—[Official Report, 23/3/15; col. 1224.]
That was the position of the Liberal Democrats at that point; I note that it has now changed. However, the position of this Government has not changed.
In our democracy everyone should have a voice, but I would argue that noble Lords have that by virtue of participation in this Chamber. It is a respected voice, which adds depth and wisdom to our legislative process, and allows us full participation in the life of the nation. My noble friend’s Bill may clear its hurdle today but I doubt it is going to complete the course.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to noble Lords who have taken the time to take part in this morning’s debate. I have led marches along the thoroughfare in front of this House and know that 17 year-olds now feel as strongly as they did then. I promise my noble friend Lord Norton that, if he wants a demonstration outside from the young people of this country in support of this Bill, I will take up that challenge. He may be surprised, but there would certainly be far more than the two people who responded to his blog—that may say something about the blog, but that is by the by.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard—I could almost have written his speech—is right. The Liberal Party is consistent; it wants overall reform of the House of Lords and I accept that position.
I was slightly disappointed in my friend the noble Lord, Lord Desai; he and I agree on so many things, and he looks very comfortable sitting there at the back. Yes, it is a privilege, but that does not undermine the rights of the individual.
I thank my almost colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He and I will work together on this.
I had not heard my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, although he sits next to me almost every day. He made a very powerful speech.
I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. The House should listen to him; he has far more experience than most of us.
There have been many quotations about why we should not have the vote, but my noble friend reminded me of a Front Bench quote. I think it is his view—it is certainly mine—that the Parliament Acts make a complete nonsense of the pre-1911 cases. I am not sure that the Government understand that, or maybe they do and have just ignored it.
I thank my noble friend on the Front Bench, who was generous in his comments about me. I remember 1966, when I fought the seat in Islington North and lost handsomely. I was keen to get to Parliament and when local elections came up in 1968, I was asked to lead in Islington. I was told that we had not got a single seat and had not had one for many years. I got things organised and arranged marches—my noble friend Lord Norton should take note. The Government of the day were very unpopular and by sheer dedication on the part of many people, we won 57 out of 60 seats. Issues of this nature are really important to me and to many others. Democracy is about one man, one vote.
I remind the House that this is not my first Private Member’s Bill. I had another, the Mutuals’ Deferred Shares Act 2015, which took more than one Session. There is not a great deal of time left now, but this will not go away. There is nothing wrong with incremental legislation. There is nothing wrong with focusing on a single issue in life; you are more likely to succeed. I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.