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Hereditary Peers: By-elections

Volume 815: debated on Wednesday 10 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the operation of section 2 of the House of Lords Act 1999; and what plans they have, if any, to amend section 2(4) which has so far resulted in 43 by-elections to replace hereditary peers.

My Lords, the Government currently have no plans to amend Section 2(4) of the House of Lords Act 1999 to end by-elections for replacing excepted hereditary Peers.

My Lords, I am not in the least surprised by that reply. As the noble Lord knows, a by-election is taking place as we speak—the drama of it is among all of us. It is the seventh this year and, as the Minister knows, following the retirement of the Countess of Mar, there are now no women at all among the 92 hereditary places. Is it not obvious to the Minister, as it is to pretty well everyone else—apart from maybe half a dozen in this House—that a system of by-elections in which only hereditary Peers can stand and, in most cases, only hereditary Peers can vote, and which in practice is for men only, is not just indefensible but risible?

My Lords, if the noble Lord was not surprised by my Answer, I was not surprised by his question. The Act was part of an understanding and agreement that was enacted in statute and then as required in Standing Orders in 1999. The noble Lord was PPS to the Prime Minister at the time and assented to that. Yes, there is a by-election today. I have voted in it and, in accordance with the Carter convention, I voted for a Labour Peer. I have kept to the agreements made in 1999.

My noble friend is right to refer to the risible nature particularly of the current by-election, in which the whole House will be voting to replace the late Viscount Simon, a Labour Peer. Of the three candidates, one is a member of the Labour Party, one says that he is a Conservative and a third says that he is a member of the Labour Party but is pictured in Wikipedia festooned with Liberal Democrat paraphernalia. Is it appropriate that, despite the sad death of Lord Brian Rix, this Whitehall farce of ours looks like it will continue for many more years? I know that the Minister is not renowned for his sense of humour—

My Lords, I withdraw. The Minister is renowned for his sense of humour. Perhaps he will join me in laughing at this procedure, which brings this House into great disrepute.

I am certainly not going to comment on my sense of humour. What I would say is that I always take your Lordships’ House seriously. If that is mistaken for not having a sense of humour, then I plead guilty. I believe that I have answered the noble Lord’s question. The arrangements subsist under statute and agreement until such time as there is agreement not only in your Lordships’ House but across the country and in the other place as to the future nature of this House.

My Lords, the work of this House, as shown on the Environment Bill this week, is greatly valued and respected, but we lose that respect because of the deep and profound concerns about the size of the House and the way in which people get here. Will the Government finally acknowledge that we need restraint and effective scrutiny on political appointments and that we need to end the farce of hereditary Peer by-elections?

My Lords, I believe that I have answered the last question from the noble Baroness. People get here in many ways, the majority by patronage through nomination by one individual who happens to be the Prime Minister of the time. I respect everyone in this Chamber, however they got here. Indeed, some get here by being right reverend Prelates. We should concentrate on doing our work well and publicising our discontents a little less.

Does my noble friend agree that closing off the by-election option for hereditary Peers and putting the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis should not be seen as mutually exclusive options and that, implemented together, they could be taken to constitute stage two of House of Lords reform?

My Lords, I regret that I do not agree with my noble friend. He will know that the position of the Government is that we do not favour piecemeal reform and that overall reform needs careful consideration.

My Lords, the role and composition of a second Chamber would be appropriately discussed by a constitutional convention. The noble Lord may recall that his party’s manifesto promised us the establishment of a constitutional convention, which should appropriately be on an all-party basis. The Government appear to have abandoned that. Will the Minister pledge to argue with his colleagues that they should reconsider it?

My Lords, again, we have discussed this before. I have made clear in this House and the Government have made clear that the proposed groundwork of the commission is being carried forward in separate workstreams—for example, the Faulks review on judicial work. We have decided to pursue this through separate workstreams.

My Lords, behind the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, lies a sentiment that has much wider appeal among Members, as emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, which is that this House has too many Members. However, I consider the Question to be premature. Will the Minister consider whether the Act might give a precedent for legislation to ask all the major groups in the House to reduce their numbers by a similar self-selection process, as occurred under the Act? This could be by 20%, say, thereby reducing the numbers to become more in line with those in the other place without altering the current political balance.

My Lords, my noble friend puts forward an interesting suggestion. Some would say that what was proposed in 1999 worked well at the time, but I repeat that the Government believe that reform must be considered very carefully. I take note of what my noble friend has said.

My Lords, for those of us who support the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, it is a matter not of personalities but of closing a backdoor that gives membership to this House —perhaps I should say another backdoor. I hope that the Government realise that the reputation of this House is not so strong that we can maintain arrangements that seem indefensible to the vast majority of this country. Perhaps the Government do not mind this, but many in this House do.

My Lords, my noble friend talks about backdoors. Of course, the proposition before us would be a backdoor to the creation of an all-appointed House with no assent by people or Commons.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that “hereditary” and “elections” seem to be a contradiction in terms? I recall that, on a parliamentary visit with the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, he would say, “My name is Patrick Courtown, I’m a hereditary Peer and I’m elected,” and I would say, “I’m Baroness Smith and I’m appointed.” It does not make sense to anybody else in the world. The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is the most important one: what really matters is the work of your Lordships’ House. When we are here, nobody knows who—other than the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, because I have just pointed it out—is hereditary and who is appointed, because it does not matter once they are here. Therefore, why not just end this farce of by-elections and treat all Members as equal? On that basis, I can promise that the Official Opposition will give any legislation a fair wind and get it through very quickly.

I agree with the noble Baroness; indeed, I said that the work of this House is the most important thing. I agree with her that all of us here are equal. What I do not agree with, I repeat, is the proposition put by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.

My Lords, is this not really about good faith? I have not been here very long but some of your Lordships were here when a deal was done, establishing the current system pending stage two reform. At the risk of making myself Billy-no-mates again, as I was in my old job, I favour eventual democratisation but, unless we are prepared to do that, does my noble friend not agree that it is perverse to be targeting what is, despite a limited franchise, the only elected element in this Chamber?

My Lords, I will not be tempted too far down that road or some people might resuscitate some of the things that I said 10 years ago about your Lordships’ House and its composition. I now stand at the Dispatch Box as a Minister. My noble friend is absolutely right that we have a system that came out of particular circumstances. It was assented to and, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, said at the time, will bind and honour all who gave it their assent until we have reform of your Lordships’ House, which, as I hear, a lot of people would favour.