Motion to Agree
That the Report from the Select Committee Further temporary suspension of the Standing Orders relating to hereditary peers’ by-elections, Terms of reference of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, House procedures and Court Injunctions, Cessation of Membership and Revision of Standing Orders Relating to Public Business (6th Report, HL Paper 223) be agreed to.
My Lords, there are three Motions in my name on the Order Paper today. Should the House agree to the first Motion, which is to agree the recommendations of the Procedure and Privileges Committee’s sixth report, the further two Motions are resolutions which give effect to the report’s recommendations.
Before we get any further, I express my gratitude to the Government Chief Whip for providing this time promptly after the committee produced its report on 8 February. Such reports are usually presented to the House as brief business after Questions in hybrid proceedings, but given the interest that the issue of hereditary Peers’ by-elections has generated on previous occasions, and representations from a number of noble Lords who have indicated that they might wish to take part in a debate remotely and who would not currently be able to do so, I was keen to find a slot which would facilitate contributions as inclusively as possible.
I now turn to the committee’s report. The first issue it considers is that of hereditary Peers’ by-elections. Standing Order 10(6) states that by-elections must take place within three months of the vacancy occurring. On three occasions last year, the House agreed to suspend these provisions for short periods, most recently on 14 December 2020. During the short debate on 14 December, I undertook to return to the House early in the new year once the committee had had the opportunity for a further discussion and to produce a further report.
As the report before the House makes clear, there is a range of views within the committee about the appropriate point to resume by-elections, given the continuing and unpredictable impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, on balance, and in line with the previous recommendations the committee has made, we agreed to ask the House to agree further to suspend Standing Order 10(6).
In making this recommendation, the committee is aware that it is technically possible for us to hold by-elections if we used electronic means to do so. But, overall, the sense of the committee is that it would be difficult for by-elections carried out in this way to be satisfactory. In particular, we felt it was undesirable to restrict hustings to a virtual form when those candidates who are largely unknown to the electorate might be at a significant disadvantage if they are restricted to interacting virtually only.
In making this recommendation, which would be implemented if the House agreed to the second Motion on the Order Paper, the committee was very mindful of the legal position. This question attracted attention from a number of noble Lords on 14 December and I will take this opportunity to set out the position in a bit more detail.
We are clear that the House of Lords Act 1999 requires by-elections as a matter of law. Any suspension can therefore be only temporary, and at this time it is a response to the ongoing national pandemic. In discussion, we agreed that to reflect this position it was important that the suspension must continue to be subject to regular review and decision by the committee and the House, to ensure that the suspension remains proportionate and necessary in the situation to reflect the circumstances presented by the ongoing pandemic. With that level of caution, we have recommended only a short further suspension until after Easter 2021, at which point the position will need to be reviewed again.
I am of course aware that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has tabled an amendment which calls for by-elections to be resumed forthwith. I will not pre-empt the noble Lord, who will be asked to move his amendment when I conclude, but I hope that in setting out the position in some detail I have at least explained why the suggestion from the committee is as it is.
The report makes recommendations in four further separate areas. The first of these is to adjust the terms of reference of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to allow it to fulfil the same important role in “sifting” any proposed negative statutory instruments laid under the European Union (Future Relationship) Act 2020. It has performed the same role with equivalent instruments under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. This is, I hope, an uncontroversial suggestion, and raising it gives me the opportunity to put on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, and his colleagues on the committee for the outstanding work they continue to do for the House at a time when the parliamentary scrutiny of statutory instruments continues to be of critical importance.
The report also recommends a change to the Companion reminding all noble Lords of their responsibilities in exercising their rights under parliamentary privilege, in particular that in exercising our undoubted right to free speech we have due regard to the relationship between Parliament and the courts. This change recognises that, although the Companion gives clear guidance on the application of the sub judice resolution, it has not done the same for Members proposing to raise issues subject to court orders and injunctions. We hope that increased clarity will be helpful to noble Lords.
The report also invites the House to address an issue which could potentially cause confusion arising out of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the cessation of membership of this House. Noble Lords will be aware that the Act provides that a Member who does not attend the House during a session of six months or longer ceases to be a Member at the beginning of the next Session. This provision does not apply to noble Lords who were suspended or disqualified from sitting or voting for the whole of the Session in question or to noble Lords on leave of absence for the whole or part of that Session. The Act defines a Member of the House as a person entitled to receive writs of summons to attend. This therefore includes new Members, and the committee was concerned that any new Members who receive their writs towards the end of the Session and are not introduced by the end of the Session could be caught by the provision inadvertently and would cease to be Members of the House. This issue was not raised during the passage of the Act in either House.
However, Section 2(3)(b) of the Act states that the non-attendance provision does not apply to a Member if the House resolves that it should not
“by reason of special circumstances.”
We believe that the situation of new Members who have not, for any reason, been introduced, falls within the “special circumstances” envisaged by the Act. The third Motion in my name would allow the House to clarify that provision and avoid an unintended consequence.
Lastly, the report asks the House to agree to an updated edition of our Standing Orders, reflecting changes agreed since the last edition was published nearly five years ago, as well as some stylistic changes.
I look forward to contributions in the short debate ahead and I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, I think I owe your Lordships an apology, as I have caused some confusion by my decision not to move the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord McFall—the Senior Deputy Speaker—and have had discussions with the Chief Whip, and I think it would be wrong to impose a tense debate on your Lordships this evening. For that reason, I have decided not to move the amendment I tabled. Of course I remain of the view that the by-elections are important and hope they will be resumed very soon. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McFall, will take the matter back to the Procedure Committee immediately after Easter and that the by-elections will resume immediately thereafter.
Amendment to the Motion not moved.
No apology needed, Lord Trefgarne. We have had a number of scratches so, to give everyone an opportunity to be ready, I will name the speakers who have scratched: the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Snape, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox of Buckley, Lady Altmann and Lady Hoey. I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester.
My Lords, I congratulate the Senior Deputy Speaker on the way in which he introduced the sixth report from the Procedure and Privileges Committee. Although I am listed as a member of the committee, I shall not attend my first meeting of it until next Tuesday, 2 March, so I can claim no part in the authorship of this report—although I am 100% supportive of the proposals in it.
I will concentrate on just two subjects. First, the debate is an opportunity to congratulate all our brilliant staff on the extraordinarily successful way in which they have steered us through the implementation of all the new rules relating to the management of the hybrid House. Like most noble Lords, I cannot wait for us to return to normal times, but everyone concerned with getting us to where we are now deserves our heartfelt thanks for being able to help us keep the show on the road.
Recognition of what the House has achieved came this morning, rather unexpectedly, in a whole-page article in the Guardian entitled “Peer pressure: Lords embrace lockdown technology and set the pace for virtual reform”. I know we should not regard the other place as our rival, but the paper’s political correspondent offered the view that, compared with the Commons,
“it is the Lords—with an average age of 70—that has seemingly embraced the modern era more thoroughly”.
Paraphrasing the Senior Deputy Speaker, the article says
“the chamber has a commitment to inclusive participation, and the option to speak remotely assists this”.
That is a commitment he repeated in his opening speech this evening.
This brings me to my second point: how we handle consideration of Commons amendments—ping-pong. The guidance note from the Procedure Committee says:
“When the hybrid House considers Commons Amendments and there are no counter propositions to the Minister’s motion or to the Commons message, the only speakers will be the mover of the original Lords amendment, or another sponsor of that amendment with the mover’s agreement, followed by frontbenchers and a Crossbencher nominated by the Convenor. They can participate physically or remotely … When there are counter propositions to the Minister’s motion or to the Commons message, in addition to the members above, the movers of counter propositions may participate either physically or remotely. Any other member may participate physically, subject to usual seating arrangements and the capacity of the Chamber.”
It is therefore not possible for Members who have not signed the amendment, but wish to speak remotely, to do so.
I believe that this guidance should now be reviewed for three reasons. First, it conflicts with the House’s advice to Members to work from home. Secondly, it contradicts the statement made every day from the Woolsack by the Lord Speaker or one of his deputies:
“Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally.”
Thirdly, the rule can give rise to the highly undesirable situation where Members are denied the opportunity to participate in a debate on a Commons amendment which has not been discussed in your Lordships’ House previously. I cite the proceedings on the Fisheries Act 2020 last year as evidence of that. The Bill started in your Lordships’ House on 29 January 2020. It received our normal thorough scrutiny, with four days in Committee in March and two on Report in June. At some point, the Government decided that they wished to add a permissive extent clause—a PEC—which would give them the power to overrule the wishes of the democratically elected Governments of the Channel Islands on fisheries matters if they wished to. This was hugely controversial and caused great concern in Jersey and Guernsey. There is no need to go into the detail of that today as the arguments were extensively aired in our ping-pong debate on 12 November.
The crucial point as far as our procedures are concerned is that any Member who had not signed the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, or who was not physically present in the Chamber, was not able to take part. This was even though there had been no reference to the new clause on the PEC tabled by the Government throughout any Lords stage on the Bill and indeed, during the Commons consideration at Second Reading and in Committee.
It is particularly regrettable that a Member who was most upset at being prevented from taking part—she was following medical advice and isolating at home—was my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley, the only Guernsey-born Member of your Lordships’ House. She was able to send me her views and I included them in a speech I made in the debate. It would have been much better had the House been able to hear from my noble friend herself. That is why this one aspect of the hybrid procedure really needs to change.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and I certainly associate myself with his comments on the ability we have now of being a virtual House. I appreciate being able to take part virtually, and the staff certainly need congratulating on getting us to understand the technology and enabling it.
I want to speak on a narrow point this evening. This Motion talks about the revision of Standing Orders, and I want to ask about Standing Order 1(2). This defines who may sit in the Chamber, besides Peers, when Her Majesty addresses the House. They include diplomats and, as the Standing Order says at the moment, “Peeresses”. I suggest that this has escaped revision and has not kept pace with all the modern equality legislation that it should have, because “Peeresses” are defined as a woman who is the wife of a Peer. By definition, it excludes men who are husbands of Peers. It excludes men who are in marriages with a same-sex partner—although, interestingly, it possibly does not exclude the wife of a female Peer should they be in a same-sex marriage.
At the very least, this Standing Order needs to be urgently amended to be inclusive and reflect current equality legislation that should govern your Lordships’ House as well as the rest of the country. Maybe we will still have a lot of distancing when Her Majesty addresses the House for the next Session, but maybe we will have reverted to normal. I hope that, whichever way it is, this Standing Order can be amended so that our House will reflect the sort of equality we have come to expect the rest of society to follow.
We have had one further scratch, from the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, so after the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook.
My Lords, I am really grateful to my noble friend Lord McFall, the Senior Deputy Speaker, for arranging this debate today in a manner in which we can all participate—virtually, if we wish. I do hope that, given the announcement in the other place today, it will not be long before we are all able to come into the House and participate properly. I look forward to that opportunity. I must say I find it very strange today that speakers are dropping out; we have just had another. They seem to be falling out quicker than the English cricket team; it is really quite astonishing.
I greatly welcome this report, particularly in relation to the by-elections, and I hope it will be approved. Notwithstanding the article in the Guardian today that my noble friend Lord Faulkner referred to, I am afraid that the House of Lords has not had a good press recently. The explosion in the number of Members—which results from the Prime Minister being eager to use, or maybe abuse, his patronage—when the Lords had agreed, as Members will recall, to cut our numbers, has given our critics plenty of ammunition to start with. When our new Members include one rejected by the Appointments Commission, the son of a KGB agent and nearly all the renegades who backed the Tory Vote Leave campaign, and our numbers increase again to over 800, there are very few arguments with which we can mount a defence at the moment.
We in the Labour Party plead not guilty on this issue of numbers, in that we have been able to stick to the formula agreed to cut our numbers. Our new appointments number fewer than half the sad deaths and retirements among Labour Peers over the last couple of years, and our appointments are all new working Peers. These are anachronisms, but the greatest anachronism of all is the system of by-elections for hereditary Peers. It is bad enough that the hereditaries have a substantial place in the second Chamber, but the fact that they are the only group—now all men—able to automatically renew their membership through this discredited and farcical procedure rubs salt into an already open wound.
The House is in urgent need of reform and we could and should start with ending this farce, as my noble friend Lord Grocott, who will be speaking later in the debate, regularly and rightly urges us to do. Meanwhile, we can at the very least postpone any more by-elections while we are suffering this awful pandemic, which I hope will allow us time to consider ending them permanently.
Finally, I raise another issue while we are on the report from the Procedure and Privileges Committee. My good friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has just referred to the Queen’s Speech, and I ask whether the Senior Deputy Speaker will take this opportunity to inform the House as to whether the committee is now considering the arrangements for the end of the current Session and the start of the new one, including the Queen’s Speech, and what arrangements there might be, given the current circumstances? It is a very important issue; I would expect the Procedure and Privileges Committee to be considering it, and I hope that the Senior Deputy Speaker will confirm that and will be able to tell the House tonight what the current situation is.
Meanwhile, I say once again that I welcome this report, I hope it will be approved and I am most grateful —I have never said this before—to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for agreeing not to move his amendment.
My Lords, I listened carefully to the introduction from the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and his summary of the reasons of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, but I found them unsatisfactory. The committee’s recommended delay in reinstating these by-elections has gone on long enough. Whatever some noble Lords may think of them, even some of their fiercest critics, such as my noble friend Lady Noakes, believe that, as long as they are clearly set down in statute, they should still be held. There are now four vacancies and thus four seats in the House unfilled for no apparent reason, while the number of new life Peers—as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, wisely said—has expanded much more proportionately.
Last month, local council elections were reinstated for May, so there is no reason why we cannot go ahead with our by-elections in a Covid-secure way. With respect, I disagree with the Procedure Committee and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, about their views on holding them, but first I congratulate the noble Lord on reaching his 80th birthday last November. He said, in last December’s debate:
“How on earth do you arrange Covid-safe hustings with 27 candidates and a potential audience of 800?”—[Official Report, 14/12/20; col. 1427.]
There is no requirement for hustings in the legislation, the House of Lords Act 1999. Each candidate could quite easily present himself on Zoom; the hustings have never had an audience of 800. Even if all the audience could not hear them at once, the proceedings could still be recorded. In summary, technology could easily be used to solve the problem of hustings and the voting system could be made entirely postal. At his young age, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, still has plenty of time to pursue his abolition Bill.
If the Procedure Committee continues to recommend unnecessary delay, I see no reason why legal advice should not be taken on statute law being broken—namely, Section 2 of the House of Lords Act 1999.
Finally, I fully support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, on revision to the consideration of Commons amendments.
My Lords, I am delighted to play my part in this debate and I admire the way that the Senior Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, introduced it in a cautious, concise and clear manner. It is a potentially quite divisive debate and there will be disagreements. I disagree with my immediate predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, but I cannot disagree with the way in which he put forward his argument, and I appreciate his argument. I was similarly impressed by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, not moving his amendment. Again, that was a good example of the House at its best.
I declare my interests, as recorded in the register. I am a member of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, but I do not speak on behalf of that commission in any way. It is right and proper to draw that to the attention of colleagues.
Before I continue, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Grocott for his tireless campaign to abolish the by-election of hereditaries in this House. Anybody who listens to his speeches cannot help but smile. He speaks with humour, charm and a completely non-offensive manner. I look forward to his contribution to this debate, because he has already declared his position and expertise on the subject.
We all come into this House from various sources. Some of us are prime ministerial appointments to become Ministers. Others are nominated from a political party or are Cross-Benchers. Then of course there are the people’s Peers, and, finally, that group of people who have been here—or their families have—before any of us: the hereditary Peers. I happen to agree with my noble friend Lord Grocott, but I shall put forward a suggestion that might help us a little along the way. Four of the groups of people who have entered this House have done so in a similar way. Their backgrounds, credentials and suitability—not in a political or a personal sense or anything like that, but purely on the grounds of probity—are basically examined by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and we very rarely disagree with the suggestion of a nominee that is put to us, usually by the Prime Minister.
It is not a real disadvantage to those of us who have come in and been adjudged clean; at least we know that our backgrounds have been checked as to whether we pay taxes in the UK, whether we are a threat to national security and so on. It is important that such things are closely examined. However, there is one group of people who enter this House who do not go through that process: the hereditary Peers. We should be moving along the route of making sure that at some stage individual hereditary Peers, when they have their by-elections, go before the House of Lords Appointments Commission. That that is not for us; it is something that the hereditary Peers themselves could do, and it would make their standing stronger with people who might be a little doubtful.
My Lords, I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for his introduction to the debate. I had hoped that he might lift the lid a little more on the arguments going on in the Procedure Committee, but he followed his report almost word for word. I hope that when he sums up he will go into a little more depth.
There has been considerable concern in the last 12 months or so about our ability to hold the Government to account. Equally, there is concern about how the House is run and the role played by those who try to help us to run ourselves. The commission has come in for severe criticism, and is possibly an institution no longer fit for purpose. The Procedure and Privileges Committee is again urging your Lordships to suspend the law for reasons that are weak and rather poorly set out. That is something that we will need to return to and seriously consider in future.
I cannot help but feel sympathy for my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, with his concern about the House of Lords Act 1999. Many of us disliked the Labour legislation but he was a member of the Labour Party, as was the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was the Prime Minister’s bag carrier, they had it in their power to make the Bill better than they are now saying it was.
When one comes to consider the reasons why the Procedure and Privileges Committee is urging your Lordships to suspend hereditary Peers’ by-elections again, I wonder whether the Senior Deputy Speaker realises that, in the City and all around this country and in every other country, interviews are being held remotely to appoint people to company boards or jobs where they do not know anybody. The report, which was quoted by the Senior Deputy Speaker, states that
“it is unsatisfactory to restrict hustings to a virtual form where candidates largely unknown to the electorate might be at a disadvantage.”
Companies are choosing people they do not know by Zoom. I spoke to a director of a company two days ago, and he had not met a single other director of that company when he was appointed. If the City and other companies can do it, why can the House of Lords not? Are we that incapable? The reasons set out in the sixth report are—I shall use a phrase that the Senior Deputy Speaker will understand—just peely-wally.
I support what the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, said about consideration of Commons amendments. I have raised this with the Senior Deputy Speaker on the Floor of the House before. What further discussions has he had with the Lord Speaker about this? His committee gives us one lot of advice and the Lord Speaker writes letters to us telling us to stay away and abide by the rules. You cannot do both if you wish to speak on consideration of Commons amendments.
When one stands back and looks at the legal aspect of this, it makes one wonder whether the committee has not been swayed by the hegemony of those who are against hereditary Peers’ by-elections. The decision this time is not sensible but more of a political decision. Having said that, I was grateful for some of the words that the Senior Deputy Speaker used, and I hope that he will use his persuasive powers to get the rest of the committee to agree a change at the next meeting soon after Easter.
My Lords, I would certainly like to add my thanks to my noble friend Lord McFall for the way in which he has introduced this debate and for arranging for it to be at a time when we do not delay the normal proceedings of the House earlier in the day. I also thank my noble friends Lord Clark of Windermere and Lord Foulkes, who said such kind words about my Bill to abolish the hereditary Peers’ by-elections, for their continued support for that objective.
I need to correct the speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in two respects. First, he said that we were suspending the law on these by-elections. We are not suspending the law at all; we are suspending our Standing Orders. He also said that the Procedure Committee’s report made a political recommendation. That is strange when the recommendation about the hereditary Peers’ by-elections made in December was carried by 13 votes from all parties in favour of their continued suspension to four votes against. That is pretty conclusive that there is widespread support for the suspension across the House.
That does not surprise me because it will soon be a year since the Leader of the House moved a Motion—it was the Leader who did it—to suspend the hereditary Peers’ by-elections. She did so for the persuasive and common-sense reason that we were experiencing huge challenges in operating the House and keeping people safe during the coronavirus crisis. The Leader recommended that the suspension should last for almost six months—quite a long suspension—from 23 March to 8 September. Since then, we have had two further suspensions, bringing us to today’s Motion—which I fully support—which further suspends the by-elections until after Easter. It implicitly repeats the same message that we heard from the Leader: that we are not out of the coronavirus woods; that holding by-elections requires hustings, which would clearly be impossible, unwise or both; and that the time and energies of our clerks’ department are far more thoroughly engaged in dealing with rather more pressing issues than the restoration of by-elections for four hereditary Peers.
Let us, therefore, take stock of what has been the effect of a 12-month suspension. Has anyone suffered as a result of it? The answer is no. Has it cost any money? The answer is no: in fact, it has saved several hundred pounds, which the elections cost to run. Has the suspension affected the workings of the House? The answer is no: if anything, it has helped us, because the House authorities have been able to concentrate on more pressing matters. What about the world outside Westminster? Has the press been chasing the story of why there have been no by-elections? The answer, of course, is no. Have the public been demanding, “Bring back the by-elections”? The answer is no. If anyone has had any correspondence on this, electronic or otherwise, please send any copies to me.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, gave no evidence whatever to suggest that restarting the by-elections would bring any benefit to the Lords, to the constitution or to the public. I noticed that none of the three Peers who have spoken this evening in favour of the by-elections returning had anything to say on this. The truth is that there have been no downsides whatever to the suspension, and we all know why. These elections are ridiculous; they are absurd; they are supported by no one, either in Parliament or outside, except for a handful of Members of this House. That fact, of course, is the elephant in the room in today’s debate: that without the opposition of a couple of Members—the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness —who have used every procedural trick in the book to block any reform, these by-elections would have been scrapped years ago.
Three times in three Sessions of Parliament I have introduced a Bill to scrap these by-elections. Whenever votes have taken place, the majorities in favour of the Bill have been huge, with support from Members in all parties and in all parts of the House. If only the massive majority in favour had been respected, we would not have been having this debate today: the by-elections would be history. Now we have before us the report from the Procedure Committee. The only criticism that I would make is that the suspension until Easter is too short. I would have suspended the by-elections at least until July. By the way, that would also give the House sufficient time to consider my Bill, which received its Second Reading on 23 March last year.
I emphasise again that a further extension would not require any change in the law. All that it requires is a decision by the Procedure Committee to recommend to the House a further suspension of Standing Order 10(6). This is entirely within our legitimate powers to do. Like the Commons, we are unchallenged masters, and rightly so, of our own Standing Orders. As for today, I simply hope that the House will support the Motion in the name of the Senior Deputy Speaker.
My Lords, I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for producing this report, and for being the Senior Deputy Speaker who is regularly criticised for not going as far as we would like but probably not as far as he can go anyway.
As usual, I will make myself somewhat unpopular with this side of the House, because I fundamentally agree with the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Foulkes. I do so on a very good, historical basis. Our noble friends the hereditary Peers have said that this was part of the 1999 settlement, and it cannot be undone until there is a final settlement, but there will never be a final settlement. We had the Lloyd George/Asquith reforms, the Attlee reforms, the Macmillan reforms of hereditary peerages, and the Blair reform. Let us not kid ourselves: the 90 hereditary Peers—we can discount the extra two who are royal warrant holders—were part of a deal which, if I remember rightly, cost the then Leader of the Conservative group his job. He fell out with William Hague, who was then the leader of the Opposition, because the latter felt that the deal should not have been done in the way that it was, but it was done, and we have now moved on 20-odd years. To my mind, it is now time for some more reform.
In the run-up to the last election, after it had been called, I spoke to a very senior member of the Labour Party in the other House about the Grocott Bill. I asked, “Do you think you’ll support it?” This person said, “We don’t need to support it. They’ll be gone within three months. It’ll be a great idea because we could even up the numbers of the House by cutting down the number of Peers in the Conservative Party, and no one is going to get up to defend the Lords. We’ll be popular all round.”
We need to step back. We keep going on about being a self-regulating House, yet we cannot even manage to get Bruce’s Bill debated. That is how self-regulating we are, and we need to look at that. It would be easy to abolish the 90, and to reform the Lords. The one thing I can project and predict is that this side of the House would not like it. We would be the ones who would lose out, because if we do not get down to reforming the institution in such a way that broadly commands support, we will find it thrust upon us, and there will be no hereditary Peers. As my friend—I still have the odd friend in the Labour Party—said, “We’ll have them all out within three months”.
I hope that the Senior Deputy Speaker continues with his zeal for reform, and I would make a practical suggestion. The Grocott Bill has never really been tested. I suggest that the Senior Deputy Speaker put it to the committee that by-elections be suspended until the Grocott Bill has been disposed of. It is as simple as that, and it is a challenge to the Government Front Bench to make it possible. We all know that it could be made possible. What have we been doing this afternoon? We have been debating the Suella Braverman maternity Bill, which came out of nowhere, because it is needed. If the devil drives, you can find solutions. That solution could be found. If we look at the numbers, we see that for the first full-House selection of an hereditary Peer on 27 March 2003 there were 661 eligible voters. By March 2017, the figure had gone up to 803. It then went down in January 2019 to 785 because of the restraint of Theresa May, but we are now back to 840.
There has got to be reform, and it will have to go much further than hereditary Peers. We must find a way of reducing the size of the House without stopping new people coming in. I see my noble friend Lord Hannan sitting next to me, and he is going to play a valuable role in this House, and we have to have a series of reforms which enable retirements so that the Benches can be refreshed. It is no good pulling up the drawbridge and saying that no one else can come in.
If we are a self-regulating House, let us get down to doing it, and let the Senior Deputy Speaker and his committee look at some creative ways of doing it. I have already pointed out to him that I have been given some very good legal advice that we could ration the entry of Members into the House. The Queen creates Peers, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, but it is the House that seats new Peers. Let us explore it. It was done in Victorian England, incidentally, which is where the legal precedent comes from. I ask for some creative thinking. I applaud the Senior Deputy Speaker and all his work, and I hope that before too long we can get around to doing what we should be doing. A self-regulating House should be a “self-sort it out a bit better” House.
I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for introducing this debate. The hour is late. Fortunately, the arguments on all five issues in this report were properly discussed by the Procedure Committee, of which I am a member. Tonight, we have only discussed one issue, but I am not going to delay the House by raising the other four, which I agree with.
I agree too that the hereditary Peers’ by-elections should be delayed, as is recommended by this report; the answer is that public elections in the country at large have been postponed, and it would be perverse for us to call elections for us in the House of Lords when the country cannot have its elections. By April it should be clear whether we will have elections or not, and I know it is currently the Government’s intention to do so.
The only issue we have discussed, then, is hereditary elections, but there were two good swerves during the debate, by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, raising the issue of ping-pong procedures, and by my noble friend Lady Miller raising the issue of Peeresses in clause 1(2). I support both of them in hoping that we will look further at those issues in the Procedure Committee, particularly ping-pong. My noble friend’s point on equality seems long overdue for reform.
I hope that, in the coming months, we will also learn from the best features of the hybrid system of this House to see how might improve our procedures going forwards, when the pandemic and lockdown finally end. There have been some good features; the staff deserve due credit for taking us down the route they have. A year ago, none of us would have believed what we achieved over the last year in the most trying circumstances.
As the time is short, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for withdrawing his amendment. I welcome this report, and hope the House will approve it, and give my thanks to the Senior Deputy Speaker for encouraging this debate and leading it.
My Lords, I start with three thanks. First, I echo the thanks of my noble friend Lord Faulkner to all the people who have been involved—including the staff and back-up—who have allowed this hybrid House to continue and, indeed, to improve each time. It is working well, as are the votes. Secondly, I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker and the Procedures and Privileges Committee for their work in bringing us this report. Thirdly, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who has made a wise and good decision not to press his amendment. He probably realises that it would be fairly inappropriate for us to take a view on that, when we have heard from the Prime Minister today that there may be a cautious staged way out of lockdown but it is still some way off. When there are still 120,000 families feeling the loss of a loved one, our talk of returning to normal would seem a little foreign to them. It was a correct decision, and was helpful to the House.
As the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, just said, we are still focusing on how on earth we make the May elections work and making sure that every voter can take part. These are highly significant votes.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, is undermining his own position if he thinks that electing someone to this House is anything like electing someone to the board of a company. Frankly, electing someone to a legislature for the rest of their life is a serious matter. It does not strengthen the argument to compare it with what it is possible to do on Zoom for a company board.
I wish to make two or three other points. It is interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, talked about our maybe needing to alter our language to allow wives to sit here for the State Opening. Husbands already do, albeit that this is not in the wording. This would open the House up to more equality, whereas these by-elections are for men only; they bring only men into this House. It is questionable whether we are complying with equal opportunities legislation when we are able to take a view of appointing only men to a position of such importance.
Unlike some of my more radical friends to whom the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, referred, I have not wanted to get rid of the existing hereditaries. We love them. My noble friend Lord Grantchester was here until a moment or two ago. We are talking only about not having any more. We do not have an open door and a taxi waiting outside.
My noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere made the point that anyone standing in a hereditary by-election should be subject to the same scrutiny as other noble Lords. This should be looked at. The suggestion for reform made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, should go quickly to the committee or to the House authorities to see if it could be taken forward.
I do not like our second guessing a committee that we set up to do the work for us. It hears many more views; its members can talk in confidence and have a to and fro on the ideas. We asked the Procedure and Privileges Committee to carry on that work for us—to look at the ups and downs, the pros and cons, and to exercise its judgment on our behalf on choices that the House needs to make. We would be ungrateful if we tried to second guess and undermine its wisdom and thought and to substitute our judgment for that of its members. I may not like everything they come up with, but they would have to take leave of their senses to want to put my judgment before theirs. The committee has come up with the right bundle of proposals and we should give it our full accord.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have taken part. We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate.
I do not wish to detain the House much longer, but I will quickly respond to some of the points made. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, complimented the staff. They have done a terrific job on the hybrid House. I know from the feedback I have received from Members how generous the staff have been with their time and in their engagement with people. I shall certainly take these remarks back.
On ping-pong, the next meeting of the Procedure Committee is on 2 March. I have had quite a few exchanges with different Members on ping-pong; that will be an issue for consideration on 2 March. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner and Lord Northbrook, all brought that up, so I will put that issue forward.
On the issue of Standing Order 1 from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, regarding equality and inclusiveness, the committee intends to do a wholesale review at some stage in the hopefully near future as well as updating the Standing Orders. I heard what she has said tonight and will put that to the committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, made the point about arrangements for State Opening during the pandemic. The Procedure Committee may need to consider that and certainly will, but the timing of Prorogation is not within our remit or understanding. It lies elsewhere, so I cannot satisfy him on that point.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, made a point about the unfilled seats; yes, we have four unfilled seats—two whole-House seats, one Conservative and one Labour. I have already taken legal advice on that and, if I remember correctly, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked for it in the last debate. I sent him a copy of that letter and I think a copy was put in the Library, but for the sake of Members I will repeat it: under the Life Peerages Act, Her Majesty has the power to confer a peerage for life. That peerage entitles the holder
“to receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords and sit and vote therein accordingly”,
so it cannot refuse to accept someone as a Member of the House by stopping their introduction.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark, made very good points about the House of Lords Appointments Commission. I know he is a distinguished member of that commission, along with others. I will refer to what he said here but, again, that issue is outwith the Procedure Committee agenda.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, also made the point about the Procedure Committee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said that a lot of debate goes on in the committee. I can assure Members that the extent of debate is great and that I take anything said on the Floor of the House back to the committee and tell it exactly what was said. Everything said tonight will be taken back, but noble Lords should keep in mind that the range of views we heard tonight has been wide and deep—it is just the same on the committee itself.
I will take back the point from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that suspension until Easter is too short, but I do not know where that one will go. However, I admire the noble Lord’s campaigning zeal; he does it with enthusiasm, integrity and civility at all times.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, has raised the issue of suspending the by-elections with me before. He has also engaged with me on the issues of reform and reducing the size of the House. The Lord Speaker, having established the Burns committee, is really keen on that issue. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, asked me if I would raise these issues in my weekly discussion with the Lord Speaker. I certainly will, and I will take the points he made back to the Lord Speaker; in fact, I have a meeting with him tomorrow.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, is correct that we discussed valid issues in the committee. Ping-pong is a live issue. As mentioned, we will be discussing that on 2 March, and I assure Members that it will be an extensive debate. The noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Balfe, made different suggestions of what may be legally possible. If they feel I have missed anything out on the legal aspect, they can write to me or contact my office and I would be happy to pass on information, as I did to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, at the last meeting.
I hope that covers most of the points Members made tonight. I was delighted that we had an opportunity to have this debate. It arose from discussions I had with the Government Chief Whip, so I thank him again for that. I thank all Members for their contributions, for the way they delivered those contributions and for the positive engagement we have had in this debate. I commend the Motion to the House.