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House of Lords Reform (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers)

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2016

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the House of Lords Act 1999 to remove the section 2 exception under which 90 persons have the right to sit, speak and vote in the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage; and for connected purposes.

Last week a Member was elected to an ancient and world-revered national Parliament in a by-election following the death of a sitting Member. Once elected, they would be able to make laws, hold the Government to account, have influence and make a real difference to the lives of households up and down this country. Nominations for the vacant post closed on Monday 11 April 2016 at 5 pm. Those nominated, of which there were seven, all had to convince the electorate of their merits to secure a simple majority, at which point one would be elected.

All that should sound familiar to hon. Members. Any democracy has the same pathway for gaining a seat in Parliament—win the argument and get elected. This election, however, was different. It was not modern or open, and it was certainly not democratic. This election was for a place as one of the last remaining 92 hereditary peers to sit in the unelected Chamber.

Members should be aware of the details of last week’s process, as it deserves full scrutiny. To be nominated for that seat in Parliament, a nominee had to be on the register of hereditary peers and be of the party of the previous Member. The electorate that held the power of electing the noble peer to the House of Lords was, in this case, three people—the three Lib Dem hereditary peers remaining in that House were the whole electorate. I remind the House that this is the 21st century.

This House will recall the great fights about the 1832 Reform Act. That Act abolished the constituency of Old Sarum, which used to be able to send two Members of Parliament to this House. Old Sarum had 11 voters, making it positively huge—almost the Isle of Wight, dare I say it—in comparison with the electorate for the election that the noble Lords held last week.

As I said, last week’s electorate consisted of three Liberal Democrat hereditary peers, the noble Lord Addington, and the noble Earls of Glasgow and of Oxford and Asquith. Baron Addington’s peerage dates back to 1887, when his ancestor, a businessman and Conservative Member of Parliament, was granted the title. The 10th Earl of Glasgow can trace his title back to 1703, when it was created for his ancestor David Boyle, who was one of the commissioners who negotiated the Treaty of Union. The third Earl of Oxford and Asquith is a newer entry to the House of Lords. He is the grandson of the former Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, and his title was created in 1925.

Each hopeful in the election had the opportunity to write 75 words on why they should be trusted with a seat in the mother of Parliaments. The manifesto of the eventual winner, Viscount Thurso, was excellent for the environment. It was a blank piece of paper. For the gang of three who voted for him, there were no words saying what he would do or why.

I am pleased to tell the House that, in contrast to the national trend of declining voter turnout, there was a 100% turnout—all three—and no spoilt ballots. Miraculously, all three votes went to Viscount Thurso in the first round. The count took 24 hours, by the way, which is not quite Houghton and Sunderland South. It still resulted in a new Member of Parliament.

Viscount Thurso was the Member of Parliament elected in the Lords last week. He was a Member of the Lords until 1999. He subsequently removed himself from the membership of that House, and got elected as the Member of Parliament for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. He was Member for that constituency until last May, when he lost his seat, because someone else was elected to this House of Commons. That is the right of democratic elections in the House of Commons. He has now happily got a return route to the Lords through the sad death of Lord Avebury. I like John Thurso. I worked with him in this House and I bear him no ill will, but even he must be embarrassed by his blue blood transfusion in last week’s election. My Bill seeks to ensure that that election will be the last of that type in the 21st century.

Hereditary peers existed for hundreds of years, and through patronage, favours and who they knew, laws were made by an elite rather than by those who were accountable or elected. The House of Lords Act 1999 reduced the number of hereditary peers from more than 1,300 to 92, and that Act was introduced by the Labour Government to try to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The first stage of that was the removal of 92 hereditary peers as a “temporary” measure, but we are now 17 years on, and that temporary measure needs to be terminated. The lawmakers were retired, and although they were allowed to keep their title, their right to vote, speak and govern was lost for ever. However, 92 hereditary peers remain, and the question for our modern democracy concerns what legitimacy they have for the future.

Lord Fairfax of Cameron is a Conservative peer who sits in the Lords. His ancestor, Thomas Fairfax, was given a seat in the Lords because he was the first Englishman to travel to Scotland and swear allegiance to the new King James I. I happen to think that the ability to make laws should not be based on the skill of someone’s ancestor in catching a coach to Edinburgh in the 17th century.

Another ridiculous example is the current Conservative peer Earl Attlee. It beggars belief to think that the first Earl Attlee—a Labour Prime Minister who implemented some of the most dramatic reforms in Britain’s history—would have sat in the House of Lords and voted the same way as his grandson will today. The real Clement Attlee would not have voted to curtail trade union legislation or remove support for the most vulnerable in our society, yet through the hereditary principle his grandson today takes the Conservative Whip, thanks to a peerage granted to a Labour peer. To make matters worse, we have Ministers of the Crown who are hereditary peers. Viscount Younger of Leckie was an Under-Secretary of State for business and is now a Whip in the House of Lords. Lord de Mauley was Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That is simply not acceptable in the 21st century. My Bill seeks finally to remove those whose place in Parliament is by birth rather than by merit.

Why is that important? We need change in the House of Lords, but in this House we cannot agree on what that change should be. Surely, however, the abolition of the hereditary principle would be a move towards a more equitable Parliament, and a Chamber where people are not excluded because of their place of birth, or given a place in Parliament because of their parentage.

We all have our views on Lords reform, and we all take different positions. I have always voted for its total abolition, but others want a hybrid system, an appointed second Chamber, or a fully elected Senate. The key point is to make some change. If the method used in last week’s election was used to elect a trade union general secretary, this Conservative Government would have cracked down on it years ago. If that were the method of electing a housing association board, this Government would have sold off the housing and abolished the board. If it were the method of electing a mayor or local council leader, the Government would have abolished that council or reformed its election system years ago. However, it is not—this is a forgotten election.

Let me give the Government another reason to act. The House of Commons will face dramatic change, and its Members will be reduced from 650 to 600. It is now time for the Lords to take their share. This Bill could mean a saving to the taxpayer. The expected annual saving from the boundary review could be £12.2 million in allowances and costs. It is important to keep fair political boundaries, but we must also have a proper elected Government because we are “all in this together”.

I have had a number of sponsors, but I particularly wish to thank those who I could not list, including my hon. Friends the Members for Bootle (Peter Dowd), for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for North Durham (Mr Jones), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for Caerphilly (Wayne David), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), for Bury South (Mr Lewis), for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff).

Let us end this farce and ensure that we have an elected House of Commons, and not a House of Lords that is based on the hereditary principle.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr David Hanson, Helen Jones, Debbie Abrahams, Diana Johnson, Jenny Chapman, Helen Hayes, Fiona Mactaggart, Dan Jarvis, Albert Owen, Ian C. Lucas, Mr David Anderson and Matthew Pennycook present the Bill.

Mr David Hanson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May, and to be printed (Bill 166).