Motion to Agree
That the Report from the Select Committee Resetting the limits for Oral Questions, topical Oral Questions, balloted debates and topical Questions for Short Debate; and further temporary suspension of the Standing Orders relating to hereditary peers’ by-elections (5th Report, HL Paper 190) be agreed to.
My Lords, the report concerns two issues: the first is resetting the limits per Member for Oral Questions, topical Oral Questions, balloted debates and topical Questions for short debate; the second is a further temporary suspension of hereditary Peer by-elections. I shall deal with the issues in turn.
This Session is almost a year old, and a number of Members have reached or are about to reach the limit on the number of Oral Questions and topical Oral Questions that they may table in a Session. Previously in long Sessions, the Procedure Committee has recommended and the House has agreed that the limits should be reset after a year has elapsed. The committee’s first recommendation, therefore, is that the limits should be reset from 1 January 2021. The committee also recommends that, from now on, the limits should be reset automatically on 1 January each year, and not at the start of the Session. That limit will apply regardless of prorogation, but will be reset at the start of each Parliament and run to the end of that calendar year. I hope that this change is agreed for the convenience of the House.
I turn to the further temporary suspension of hereditary Peer by-elections. The House will recall that, on 23 March, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, we agreed to suspend Standing Order 10(6), which states that by-elections must
“take place within three months of a vacancy occurring.”
Then on 7 September the House agreed to further suspend by-elections until 31 December.
At its meeting on 1 December, the Procedure and Privileges Committee again considered this issue. The committee discussed the ongoing situation concerning the pandemic, the inability of some Members to attend the House and the suspension of other types of election. While it would be possible to hold a remote by-election, the committee decided, on division, that a further suspension was desirable. The committee will meet again on Wednesday 26 January and will consider this issue again and report to the House as soon as possible thereafter. The report from the committee explains this decision. Noble Lords will have noticed the second Motion in my name on today’s Order Paper, which gives effect to the committee’s decision. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, the clerks tell me that it is most unusual to table an amendment to regret the Motion in respect of business other than statutory instruments. However, as noble Lords may remember, the Convenor of the Cross Benches recently moved an amendment to regret the Motion on the Second Reading of the internal markets Bill. I hope that the House will forgive me today if I follow his lead.
My Motion draws your Lordships’ attention to the Procedure Committee’s decision last week to continue the suspension of the Standing Order that enables the by-elections of hereditary Peers to take place. As the noble Lord said, these by-elections were originally suspended in March, when the House adjourned during lockdown; everything was thrown into disarray by an unprecedented crisis, and the House and its authorities and staff responded as best they could. I fully understand that. Even when we returned, with some clerks working from home and everyone at sixes and sevens, suspending non-essential business was perfectly understandable. Since then, eight months later, the hybrid House is operating, communications have improved, Select Committees are sitting, taking evidence and reporting, and even new Select Committees have started their work.
The by-election process is a simple one, which has been done partially by postal vote for some years, and that could be extended without difficulty. The House already communicates with the electorate—your Lordships—every day, and one or two additional items would make little difference. The Clerk of the Parliaments, the in-house returning officer for these elections, already maintains a list of candidates who wish to stand, pursuant to Standing Order 10. In other words, even in these difficult times, it is well within the House’s present capabilities to conduct these by-elections. There are currently four vacancies and thus four seats in the House that are unfilled for no apparent reason.
However, with the exception of my noble friend the Leader of the House, the Government Chief Whip, the Lord Speaker and me, every other member of the committee present—one noble Lord was absent—voted to continue the suspension for another month, until January. Your Lordships would reasonably think that the committee had sound reasons for its decision but, if it did, I did not hear any, because no reason was put forward. However, the noble Lord who is the leader of the Liberal Democrats suggested that at a time when no elections were being held it would be “perverse” if the House of Lords was the only place to hold elections. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, the United States has held one of the biggest democratic elections in the world, and no one thought that perverse. Indeed, the newspapers were full of warnings not to try to postpone the election. So a country worse affected by Covid than we have been can hold a national election, and we cannot even elect four new Members to this House. I think that is pretty perverse.
Of course, it is true that there have not been any by-elections to the House of Commons, but that is probably because there have not been any vacancies to the House of Commons. I felt that the argument from the leader of the Liberal Democrats was a bit strange, coming from the leader of a party that does rather well in local elections rather than national ones—even more so because, on 27 November, the Liberal Democrats did actually win a by-election, in Perth City South, in Scotland, which received quite a lot of publicity. Did the noble Lord really not know that, or that by-elections have been taking place in Scotland since October? It is just a silly excuse, is it not?
We do not hold hereditary Peers by-elections because we like them, nor should we suspend them simply because we disapprove of them. We hold them because it is the law. Section 1 of the House of Lords Act 1999 abolishes the automatic right of hereditary Peers to a seat in this House, and Section 2 says that 92 people shall be excepted from Section 1 and that
“Standing Orders shall make provision for filling vacancies”.
It is not a grey area—it is the law. Nor does it say that the Procedure Committee of this House can ignore the law if it feels like it.
During the Second Reading of the internal markets Bill, I suggested to your Lordships that the rule of law is not in fact black and white and that parking on a yellow line is not the same thing, say, as murder, or another serious offence, but my view did not find favour in your Lordships’ House.
“When those responsible for making the law—that is, us the Parliament, we the lawmakers, who expect people to obey the laws we make—knowingly grant power to the Executive to break the law, that incursion is not small. The rule of law is not merely undermined, it is subverted.”—[Official Report, 19/10/20; col. 1286.]
Those are not my words; they are the words that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, sadly not in his place, used so eloquently and convincingly when he moved his regret Motion during the passage of the internal markets Bill. I do not think that my colleagues on the Procedure Committee last week were intending deliberately to undermine the rule of law but, perhaps, they allowed their personal and political prejudices to overcome their judgment.
The Select Committees of this House broadly fulfil three roles: some examine general policy areas; others focus on specific Bills or subjects of current national interest and controversy; the third group is concerned with the orderly management of the House and the rules of engagement by which it operates. The Procedure and Privileges Committee falls into that latter category. Over the years, I have sat on Select Committees of all sorts—nine or 10 in total—and this is my second stint on the Procedure Committee, having previously been a member in the 1990s. Of course, everything that our committees do is to a certain extent controversial. We all have strong views on some things, less so on others. We all fight our corners, particularly on hot political issues. That is as it should be, but the committees responsible for running the House tend not to be party political and work in a more collegiate way to find the best way to operate, balancing the needs of the Government, political parties, the Front Benches and, critically, the Back Benches, to enable the whole House to do its job. That is obviously particularly difficult during this pandemic, for reasons that we all recognise. However, in all my years in this House I have never before witnessed a Select Committee treat a subject in such a cavalier and partisan way as the Procedure Committee did last week—in complete contrast to the care with which it approaches all the other difficult issues that come before it.
My final point is about timings. I recognise that the tiresome business of having speaking lists and providing sufficient time for noble Lords to put their names down for business tabled at short notice is a challenge. However, this is the third week running that a Select Committee report has been ordered to be printed on a Wednesday and a Motion to agree it has been tabled late on a Thursday, to be debated immediately after Questions the following Monday. Last week, the Conduct Committee’s report on the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis—all 103 pages of it—was debated less than two sitting days after it was published. It is my perception that many more noble Lords would have contributed to that debate if they had been able to. As a consequence, it was a deeply unsatisfactory and unhappy debate.
The latest guidance on the hybrid House and committees, agreed on 11 December and coming into force today, states:
“Where practicable, there is parity of treatment between remote and physical participants”
in the hybrid House, but that brief business after Oral Questions, such as the Motion we are debating now, is treated as physical business only and there will no remote participation. That, coupled with the habit of tabling these Motions only two days before they are due to be debated, makes it almost impossible for the House to consider them properly. Indeed, a number of noble Lords have contacted me since I tabled my amendment indicating that they wished to participate in this debate but had been unable to do so at such short notice. It cannot be right to table Motions at such short notice and, at the same time, make it mandatory for speakers to be present in person.
As a result, there is a growing feeling on all sides of the House that important matters relating to its working practices, which need to be carefully considered, are being rushed through without the opportunity for reflection and proper debate. The House has made some extraordinary changes to its procedures since March to allow it to operate at all. The Lord Speaker, in his weekly “home thoughts from abroad” has described these changes as a success. Technically speaking, they are, but none of us should kid ourselves—or, more importantly, anyone outside this House—that our current proceedings are anything more than a weak shadow of their former selves, or that this is any way to do business. These changes must be as temporary as possible and certainly not permanent. In its present state, this is not a proper, functioning House of Parliament.
The guidance further states that it is our duty to work from home if we possibly can and to take the advice of Public Health England, an organisation largely now discredited. That is wrong. It is absolutely clear that our first duty is, above all things, to be here in this House, in the words of the writ of summons that all have received and responded to, “waiving all excuses”. It is also clear and always has been, long before anyone invented codes of conduct, that our duty is to act and speak at all times on our honour: in other words, as our conscience dictates, however uncomfortable that may be.
I imagine that we would all like to go through life without regrets, but that is not realistic. What I most regret is not some of the things I have done, but rather, the things I should have done but failed to do. It is for that reason that I have tabled my amendment to the Motion today, but I very much regret the need to do so. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will call the following to speak: the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Epsom, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. At that point, I will ask if there are any further speakers. I will then call the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and ask the Senior Deputy Speaker to reply to the debate.
My Lords, I would struggle to find anything that I agreed with in the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. It was wide ranging, including a reference to Public Health England. I am not sure of the relevance of that to the continuance of these by-elections. The noble Lord managed to say, somehow or other, that this is in the law—as though the law is something on which he has never previously expressed an opinion—and that this is neutral legislation on which he has no particular opinion. Of course, he has in fact been a passionate supporter of that law and, speaking personally, a passionate opponent of every attempt to change the law concerning these particularly ridiculous by-elections.
I strongly welcome the decision of the Procedure Committee to further postpone these by-elections. As the Senior Deputy Speaker said, this is the third Motion of its type. The first, in March, was moved by the Leader of the House and the second, in September, by the Senior Deputy Speaker. The House should spend a moment or two to take stock of this issue. Both the previous Motions were moved for the screamingly obvious reason that the country was in the midst of a coronavirus crisis and the House authorities were overloaded enough already, without having to organise a clutch of hereditary Peers’ by-elections. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, referred to the first Motion, saying that these were early days and that he could perhaps understand why there was a postponement of further by-elections. However, he did not mention the one in September, when the House unanimously decided that the suspension should continue.
My case is very simple: all the conditions which prompted the House unanimously to suspend the by-elections, first in March and then in September, remain in abundance today. We are operating a hybrid House, which most estimates assume will remain at least until the summer. Non pass-holders are pretty well excluded from the House, unless they are here to give evidence to a Select Committee.
Of the four by-elections pending, two are whole-House elections. In one recent such election, held in January 2017, there were 27 candidates. How on earth do you arrange Covid-safe hustings with 27 candidates and a potential audience of 800? In any case, what is the rush? As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who I am glad to see in his place, pointed out in the debate in September, if we can postpone local government elections and by-elections until May, surely the nation can cope without four more hereditary Peers’ by-elections in the next few months. I should mention at this stage that one of the by-elections is caused by the retirement of the Countess of Mar, who made an outstanding contribution to this House over many years, and whose retirement means that there are no women remaining among the 92 hereditary Peers in this House. She said to me, and in this House, that she was strongly in favour of ending these ridiculous by-elections.
I know that the House is well aware of my views on these elections. On three occasions, in three parliamentary Sessions, I have introduced a Bill to abolish them. Whenever votes have been held on the subject, the majorities for their abolition have been overwhelming in all parts of the House. Had one of my Bills become law, the by-elections would be history by now, and we would have been spared wasting time on debates like today’s. That is yet another reason for extending the suspension of these by-elections. The only mechanism, in practice, by which they could be stopped is a Private Member’s Bill, a Bill which today’s speakers opposed when they had the opportunity.
My Private Member’s Bill got its Second Reading in March, and in the normal course of events, it would be well on its passage through the House by now. Yet, as we know—and I fully accept the reasons—during the Covid crisis, all Private Members’ Bills have been suspended. I might have a justified grievance if the House, during the Covid crisis, had no time for Private Members’ Bills but enough time to organise and hold by-elections to get more hereditary Peers in.
If we do not pass the Motion today, on 31 December, in deep midwinter, the by-election’s suspension will lapse; that has not been mentioned, although it has been implied. As 2021 dawns, the House of Lords will embrace the new year by setting in motion the procedure for the election of a clutch of new hereditary Peers. Perhaps, we would hold them all on the same day. It could be a Tuesday—let us call it a “super Tuesday.” What sort of message does that send out about this House and its sense of priorities?
Of course we should support the Motion from the Procedure Committee. When it meets in January, the committee should propose a further extension, at least until the House returns to its normal practices and the worst of the Covid crisis is over. In the meantime, is it too much to expect that Private Members’ Bills will resume, that self-awareness and common sense in this House will triumph, and that the temporary suspension of these by-elections will become permanent?
My Lords, I will not speak for long, as I have no dog in this fight. However, I remind the House that under Standing Order 10, agreed by both Houses, by-elections are part of the 1999 compromise written into law and due to remain in place until the second phase of Lords reform. By-elections have been free and fair, and they have produced many worthy Members of this House, including the current Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, and a shadow Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, to name but two.
Since I have been in this House, which is not very long, it is the hereditary Peers who have impressed me the most. A huge percentage of them work hard, sit on the Front Bench and stay late at night. I have no reason to think the by-election should be postponed yet again. As the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, mentioned, postal voting is already used and could be extended; it would be unconstitutional for it not to be. I wonder whether this decision had something to do with dislike of hereditary Peers; surely personal bias is not an acceptable reason to delay by-elections further. Therefore, I will support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Mancroft.
My Lords, I am delighted to speak in support of the amendment to the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Mancroft. I will make four points. First, it is a fair assumption, is it not, that a lawmaking body might just, on the balance of probabilities, have a duty to uphold the law and not continually to postpone its implementation, as we are doing in the case of hereditary Peers’ by-elections—a minor detail for some, I dare say. But I wonder whether there is an elephant in the room—in the Chamber, even—that dares not speak its name, and so large is it that it distorts all sense of perspective.
This brings me to my second point. Some say, occasionally on a Sunday, that your Lordships’ House is too large. But that disregards the fact that only about half of us attend on a regular basis. The elephant in the room, which some have a vested interest in ignoring, is that the introduction of a mandatory retirement age would address that issue overnight and to a far greater extent than yet another unjustified suspension of the hereditary Peers’ by-elections.
My third point is simply this: who among us could fail to have been impressed by the example of duty and public service to her people set by our sovereign during one of the deepest domestic crises of her long reign? So, why, closer to home, here in your Lordships' House, do we hack at the roots of such a noble tradition by denigrating, rather than celebrating, such a strong sense of duty and public service passed down from one generation to the next by some of this country’s oldest and most distinguished families?
Finally, I was born not with a silver spoon in my mouth but with a broken leg. I have no vested interest, but neither am I burdened by a boulder on my shoulder. Surely we are bigger than this. We should honour our duty and uphold the law. Hereditary Peers’ by-elections should resume without delay.
My Lords, I listened with care to what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, and increasingly, I find myself deeply shocked by his whole attitude towards these elections. Every week, he is perfectly happy to vote against the Government on a whole load of extremely important issues, but when it comes to voting on something like this, he suddenly gets all coy and shy and does not think he is capable of doing so, and nor is the rest of the House. This must be complete nonsense.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, misrepresents the reason that I, my noble friend Lord Mancroft and others are so opposed to the Bill he has proposed many times. The reason is not to defend the continuation of hereditary Peers or the by-elections but to avoid the creation of a wholly appointed House. Many Peers have spoken on this. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has made several great interventions on the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, would find his Bill far easier to pass if he were to bring forward a clause for the creation of an independent, statutory appointments commission that would, at that stage, police who came into the House, but he is steadfast against that.
The reasons the Senior Deputy Speaker provides for not having these by-elections are about as thin as they could be. If they are to be further suspended at the January meeting, I hope he can come forward with considerably better reasons than these. In the footnotes of this report, I was amazed to see that there had been a by-election, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Mancroft—and who should have voted against the suspension but the Lord Speaker, the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip? I really would have thought that the Procedure Committee, which exists essentially to try to help us all with procedures, would have considered this with rather more care than it obviously did before it continued the suspension.
My noble friend also raised legal advice. This House has very recently spoken at some length about and voted in favour of the rule of law. Great articles have been written and speeches have been made. Could the Senior Deputy Speaker write to me to say whether the House has taken any legal advice on whether it is in breach of the law? If it is not in breach, at what point would it be—after 12 months, after 10 years? I have no idea, but someone must know and we should be told.
I gather that there will be a further report. I have no doubt that this report will be agreed today, and there has been a request for a further one. I really hope that, when we discuss this again, we will have real answers to why we should not have these by-elections, given that the technology is now available to do so much.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who is as earnest a reformer of your Lordships’ House as I am. Before coming on to the substantive argument, I have a couple of comments on what the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said.
First, I regret what he said about Public Health England. I point out to him that the people working for it have been working all hours and doing a tremendous job. They are officials; they are part of the Department of Health. We argued against this on the Health and Social Care Act 2012, but the Government insisted that they lose their independence and they were brought into the department. They are officials and cannot speak for themselves; the person accountable for their performance is none other than the Secretary of State. It is a great pity to hear such nonsense from some noble Lords opposite on the responsibilities and duties of public officials.
Secondly, the noble Lord referred to issues being rushed through this House. Of course hybrid working is not perfect and there must be some trade-offs, but this is a good opportunity to say how much I appreciate what has been done and how effective we have been. Members of the Commons tell me how they wish they could follow the way we have been able to do this.
On the substantive issue, surely the nub of my noble friend Lord Grocott’s argument is that, at the height of the many issues this country faces at the moment, the idea that we should waste time on these ludicrous by-elections is complete nonsense. Also, I would be very surprised if the Procedure Committee made any recommendation to your Lordships’ House that did not keep fully within the law. The decision to postpone these elections is very sensible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, referred to the House of Lords Act 1999, on which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was a leading actor for the Opposition and I was the Government Whip in the Lords. I think I sat through every minute of those riveting debates. The premise was very much that reform would soon follow. We saw what happened: first, my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine’s White Paper did not get very far; he and I served on a Joint Committee chaired by Jack Straw—if he remembers—which attempted to produce a consensus on a way forward, which did not make as much progress as we would have hoped; then the coalition Government attempted Lords reform. It is time to accept—I regret it as much as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—that reform is some way off.
We are in the process of trying to reduce the House. There has been general agreement on all sides that we should do it. Frankly, it would be a modest contribution to suspend the by-elections a little longer. The Procedure Committee has gained a reputation over the years for taking its time on difficult matters. I suggest it take a very long time indeed before it decides to allow these ridiculous by-elections to go ahead.
My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for more than a few moments. I very much agree with the position taken by my noble friend Lord Mancroft. These hereditary Peer by-elections should and, I hope, will remain in place until—as was said back in 1999—House of Lords reform is complete. I had the privilege the other day of having a small piece published in the New Statesman in which I described what I thought might be an appropriate form of House of Lords reform. To be honest, I would not oppose an elected House, but I do not believe the idea would ever get through the other place. I am therefore more than happy to support something rather more modest, as I said in my piece, to which my noble friend Lord Strathclyde referred. These by-elections are provided for in law. They should happen as soon as possible. I very much support my noble friend Lord Mancroft.
My Lords, I address the House from the Cross Benches, not because I have suddenly decided to join them but because there is so much enthusiasm from my Conservative colleagues to contribute to this debate that I did not have anywhere else to sit. I also have worries about trying to join the Cross Benches; I do not think I am left-wing enough.
I am still smarting under the blow of the internal market Bill, when we were told in no uncertain terms that the Government were acting illegally regarding the withdrawal agreement. I opposed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, at that point, because I had been told by my noble and learned friend Lord Keen, the former Advocate-General for Scotland, that it was legal. We therefore had a disagreement between two very distinguished lawyers over what was legal and what was not in that Bill.
We are back in this situation now. Legal advice is being given that it is all right to delay these by-elections, while other legal advice would tell you that it is not all right to go against an Act of Parliament and a statute saying that these by-elections should be held. The problem with lawyers is that they are liable to back whichever side happens to suit them at the time. I would not describe the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as hypocritical, but I would call him inconsistent. The House should seriously consider its different views on legality in this case.
I suppose I will be described as a “lefty lawyer”, but I would like to change the subject. I welcome the provisions in the fifth report of the Procedure Committee relating to Questions, which are eminently sensible and practical. Could it also look at Questions for Written Answer which have not been answered for 10 days or more? There are some 113 such Questions on the Order Paper today; this should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I listened with interest to the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. He made some important and salient points about the workings of this House. I hope that it returns to normal as soon as possible, as it is best that we do not make a virtue out of a grim necessity.
I know that I am new here. I am absolutely no fan of hereditary Peers, on principle, but the truth is that no one is elected here. Appointed Peers are no more democratic than hereditary, and I would like the fullest possible debate on reform, even abolition, in the future. But I find it distasteful to use this Covid crisis to push through political reform by stealth. To suspend a by-election using Covid as an excuse seems completely wrong to me, whatever the by-election is or however silly people consider it. In too many instances, I have found politicians on all sides prepared to use this pandemic to avoid proper, accountable and open debate, and to push issues that they would never get through if they had to face the electorate or even Parliament, in some instances. They are also using this pandemic to subvert laws and norms.
I do not support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, because it is about hereditary Peers, but it seems right and proper that procedure is followed and that Covid is not used sordidly to avoid accountability and elections of some sort, at least.
My Lords, I am not always popular with hereditary Peers, because I think that the by-elections are ludicrous. I am with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on his Bill and regret that he is having such a difficult time bringing its passage forward, but I support my noble friend Lord Mancroft today, because this is the law. We should not let a procedure committee override the law, especially because there do not appear to have been any serious attempts to find a workable solution. This is just one deferral leading to another.
I suspect I know what will come back from the January meeting of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, unless a clear instruction is given to the clerks now to come up with a workable solution for that meeting. My noble friend Lord Mancroft has made it plain that this would not be difficult to organise, given the practices that we have evolved, over the last nine months, to become a hybrid House. The technology and procedures are available. It would not take the clerks very much time to devise a satisfactory procedure, and I hope that noble Lords support my noble friend Lord Mancroft.
My Lords, I apologise for detaining the House. I had not intended to speak but, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, took the trouble to explain what he understood to be my views, he goaded me into speaking. I apologise for detaining other noble Lords on that basis.
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said that no arguments were put in the committee and that it took a “cavalier and partisan” decision. He then explained the argument I put, so there was some inconsistency there. Actually, the committee took quite a lot of time on this issue, a number of arguments were advanced and a vote was taken. The problem for the noble Lord is not that there were no arguments; it is that he did not like them and then he lost the vote.
For the avoidance of doubt, this is the argument that I made, and other members of the committee must decide whether or not it weighed with them. At a time when all elections in England and Wales are postponed—all local elections, the mayoral election in London and all by-elections—for the House of Lords to have a by-election in those circumstances would make the place look even more ridiculous than it does whenever we have such elections.
The noble Lord mentioned that there are by-elections in Scotland, so there should be no bar to a House of Lords hereditary Peers by-election. There are by-elections in Scotland and my party was fortunate to win one. It is possible to hold by-elections in England and Wales today, but the Government decided, and this House agreed, not to do so. There are and will be none until May. It therefore seemed logical to apply the same principle to by-elections of hereditary Peers. We can revive our discussions, as we will at the end of January to see what we think then.
On behalf of the committee, I object to how, when the noble Lord loses a vote, he dresses it up as the committee not operating properly. The committee operated absolutely properly. There was a long debate with strong feelings on both sides. There was a vote and the noble Lord lost. End of.
My Lords, I totally agree with the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. This is quite extraordinary. I do not know that it has ever happened before in your Lordships’ House—that a member of a committee does not like the decision of that committee and then tables an amendment. In fact, the decision of the committee was a compromise. I could equally have tabled an amendment in the same terms as the noble Lord’s, because I did not think it was the best decision to wait until the end of January. The noble Lord, Lord Ashton, will recall that I proposed that we wait until we are not operating in a hybrid way. I will come back to something that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said on that. When we are operating normally and can function properly as a House, as he put it, that would be the time to have by-elections of hereditary Peers.
I have been clear throughout, whatever my views on the by-elections—I take the same line as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes: I do not think they are appropriate in this House; this is the next stage of reform, and I support the Grocott Bill—that is not what we are discussing today. I cannot speak for other noble Lords and I speak entirely for myself, but that did not play a part in my decision to support the suspension first proposed and that it should continue now.
This has been an extraordinary debate, but it would be wrong if we set a precedent that, when an individual does not agree with a committee’s decision, anyone can bring forward a Motion to disagree or to change it. I have no intention of doing that on this matter, which I did not fully support, but it was a compromise.
I will pick up some of the comments. First, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, because she addressed other parts of the report. I am not suggesting that we have a further debate on those points, but I think resetting Questions is a sensible move when parliamentary sittings are becoming uncertain. To go from January to December and have an annual allowance for Questions makes more sense. She will recall that I raised Written Questions and had discussions with the Government Chief Whip at the end of the previous Session, when we had a huge number of outstanding Questions that were not being answered.
Part of the problem is that many more Questions are being asked, partly because so many of the Answers are inadequate, so noble Lords go back two or three times to get to the bottom of what they are seeking. I propose that there should be a day’s debate when those who have Questions outstanding can hear Ministers’ Answers. The Department of Health has the greatest number of Questions and wrote to every Member to address their outstanding Questions. Unfortunately, as helpful as the letter was, it did not answer the Questions. We need to look at some way to address this, because there is a huge backlog of Written Questions and the Answers are not as adequate as they should be.
To come back to the matter at hand, the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, raised several points that were just incorrect. First, he talked about the Conduct Committee debate on the report into the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, who has now been suspended from your Lordships’ House. There was no debate on that report. This House decided that reports could be received and voted on, but no debate took place. It was not that scores of Members were trying to speak who were unable to, because it would not have been allowed.
Secondly, there was a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and others, such as the noble Lords, Lord Hamilton and Lord Strathclyde, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, about breaking the law. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is absolutely right: the committee took legal advice and it was as one would assume—that it would be wrong to use the Covid emergency. It is worth noting that it is becoming more of an emergency, with the proposal that London, Essex and Kent will probably go into tier 3 even today, rather than the decision being taken later this week, as expected. That was reported as I was driving to your Lordships’ House earlier, so this is a serious situation, but it would be wrong to use that situation to take a political view on hereditary by-elections.
The legal advice said that you could continue to suspend them but that you would have to fix a date, or have a route map or a plan to say when they were coming back; it could not be indefinite. As long as a decision is taken to show they are going to be reinstated, that is within the law. I hope that allays noble Lords who feel that the law is being broken—the law is not being broken. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, saw the same legal advice as I did. The law has not been broken and is not being broken; it is acting within the law to say that a further period of suspension to deal with Covid is satisfactory.
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, also said that there were no arguments. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, there were no arguments that he liked—he disagreed with the arguments. It would not be right for me to divulge who voted how, and the vote took place—
It is public.
Oh, it is public—so noble Lords will see that it is not straight along party lines. The idea that a political decision is being taken is absolute nonsense. People made a decision on the information and the legal advice before them.
I would also like to take up the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, who spoke of this House having a dislike of hereditary Peers—absolute tosh. I have never heard anything so shocking. I have never seen anybody in this House show any less respect to, or find any less credible, a hereditary Peer than an appointed Peer. All Peers once they are here are equal, and they are treated with equal respect. I am sorry she felt she had to make that point, but she is completely wrong on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, also said that the hybrid House is not functioning properly and talked about things being rushed through the House. I think I can look to the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, for some agreement on this: the one thing that is not happening in this place at the moment is business being rushed through. Most business takes significantly longer than it did when the House was working normally. I think the one thing everybody in this House will agree on is that the sooner we are able to get back to a functioning House, and the way we normally do our business, the better.
One of the other decisions taken at this committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, fully knows, was that, in January, when we shall meet to consider hereditary Peer by-elections, we will also look at the route map and the stages towards this House returning to normal working. That does not mean we can say “On 1 April this will happen”, or “On 1 June that will happen”, but we can say that when social distancing reduces, and when people are vaccinated, that is all part of the route map to us getting back to our normal way of proceeding.
The amendment to the Motion is ill judged. I hope it does not set a precedent. I could have equally put down a Motion—which I think I would have had the House’s support for—to say that we park this issue while we operate in a hybrid way. It was never about the election; it was always about the hustings and how those who wanted to vote could hear the views of those who wished to stand in these elections. It would be nonsense to start them now. It is a far better decision to just hold fire and delay, wait until we are working normally and then restart those by-elections. My noble friend Lord Grocott will then have the opportunity to present his Bill again, and I will support it again. But that is not the issue before us today—it is the straightforward Procedure and Privileges Committee report and what is in the best interests of this House at this time.
My Lords, I thank the 13 Members who spoke for providing us with their very strong and varied comments on this issue. To take the prevailing views that were aired at the committee, the issues concerned were the current state of the pandemic; the difficulty of holding hustings while social distancing; the requirement for Members to take the oath in person, which is unwise for people with underlying health conditions; and the suspension of other types of elections, such as local elections. In that vein, the committee thought it was desirable to postpone by-elections for a further period.
On the issue of the law and whether the standing order could be suspended indefinitely as a way of getting rid of by-elections—as was suggested in the debate—the advice of counsel is that the House of Lords Act 1999 requires by-elections as a matter of law and that, while it may be possible to justify their temporary suspension due to a national emergency, it would be quite different to suspend by-elections indefinitely in an attempt to defeat the legal requirements of the Act of Parliament. Indeed, a new Act of Parliament would be required to secure a more permanent change to these arrangements.
The issue was about the committee dividing. I think this touches on the nature of the debate and the commitment of people during the discussions we had. Divisions in the committee are very unusual indeed; there has not been one for over a decade. We always try to achieve consensus, allowing Members to put their point of view in their time and in their way. That is the hallmark of the committee’s work. Indeed, Members have been complimentary to us on the way we have dealt with the hybrid proceedings of the House, and other issues, as we have faced the pandemic. So we look at it as a whole. Today’s debate has demonstrated that this is an issue on which there are often strong and fairly irreconcilable views. That is why the committee will be talking further and hoping to seek to agree a way forward when it meets in March.
I was asked two points by Members. One was to write on the legal issue—I think that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—and I am very happy to do that. Secondly, turning to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and Written Questions, it is custom and practice that when Members contact me, I always put their issues in front of the Procedure and Privileges Committee. That is what I will do for the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and others.
I would just like to finish by commending the hard work and the conscientious way that Members of the committee look to the work that they do on behalf of the House. I am sure that they will continue to do that in that vein.
My Lords, when I moved my amendment to the Motion, in what I hoped was a very measured way, I did not intend to set off a firecracker in your Lordships’ House—but I apologise, because I appear to have done so. I did not intend either to have a debate about the splendid Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—which I do not agree with, of course—nor to have a wider debate on Lords reform.
What I was hoping to do was to draw your Lordships’ attention to one or two things which I felt they might benefit from having a chance to mull over. It seems to me that the one person who did focus, and did seem to identify in my obviously very badly put words what I was trying to say, was the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, whose remarks I agree with completely. What I am concerned about more than anything is that, not deliberately but incidentally, we are setting off on routes and making decisions under the difficult conditions in which the House is currently working that we would not normally make, or that we should not wisely make. That was what I wished to draw to the House’s attention. I think I succeeded in doing so—and a few other things as well—but, in the meantime, I think we had best move on. I therefore beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.