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Hereditary Peers

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on hereditary peers in the House of Lords.

Order. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will leave quietly. This is an important debate, and I am sure we should give the right hon. Gentleman the courtesy of being heard. If Members could leave quietly it would be much appreciated.

As a fellow member of the Justice Committee in another life, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I suspect the right hon. Gentleman has detected a certain discourtesy. May I assure him that none was intended whatever? I am sure he has brought a really important debate, and I assure him that he will be listened to with great interest, as always.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I knew perfectly well that that would be the case.

I start by welcoming the Minister to his place and by saying what the debate is not about. It is not about abolishing the House of Lords; we will have views on that—I have always voted to abolish the Lords—but the debate is not about the abolition of the Lords. It is not about the role of bishops sitting in the House of Lords or not; we might debate at some point whether the Church of England or other faiths should be represented, but it is not about that. It is not about how we appoint peers to the House of Lords—whether by Prime Ministers, commissions or in other ways. It is not about the method of appointment or the existence of the House of Lords per se; we can debate and discuss the second Chamber and whether we need one or not another time.

The debate is about a simple question: should the hereditary principle be present in our legislative Chamber in the 21st century? That question is simple. Should we perpetuate the current anomaly, by which 92 hereditary peers are chosen to sit in Parliament by each other—or on occasion, as last week, the whole House—on the basis of whom their ancestors were, rather than personal merit? Should those individuals remain in this Parliament?

I know that the Minister is a historian; in fact, only this week I bought a copy of his book, “Bosworth” for further discussion. He will know that history is about change and campaigning for change, so I simply ask him to look at this issue, as I know he will have done and will do in future. If I said that we were going to discuss the Russian Parliament, and if members of that Parliament were the grandchildren of Lenin, for the simple reason that they were his grandchildren, I suspect that he would make noises to the Russian embassy to improve its parliamentary democracy.

If I spoke to the Minister about the South African Parliament, and there were people there for the simple reason that their grandfather was Nelson Mandela, I think the Minister would ask the South African Government what was going on with their democracy. I know that you take a great interest in European matters, Mr Davies. Last Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European Union. If I came to this Chamber and said that there were people in the European Parliament simply because their fathers—in most cases—were signatories to the treaty of Rome in 1957, I think we would all have something to say about that.

However, in the Houses of Parliament today, we have people still in the House of Lords for no reason other than their great-grandfathers, great-great-grandfathers or a further distant relative served some purpose at some time for the Government of the day and received a peerage that was then handed down week in, week out, year in, year out to their ancestors. That matters because, even within that, election to be one of the 92 hereditary peers is restricted to people who previously sat in this Parliament as a hereditary peer. As a historian, the Minister will know that that is not a tenable basis for democracy across this country or any other. That matters; it is not a game. It is about a seat in Parliament. It is about the right to vote on legislation, to hold Ministers to account, to express an opinion and to make choices on behalf of somebody. The question is who that somebody is.

Lord Lyell, who sat in this House as a hereditary peer, sadly died earlier this year. A by-election was held last week, in which the only candidates could be hereditary peers whose families had served the state or royalty or somebody in the past. Of those who could apply, 27 did. None of my constituents could apply; perhaps Lord Mostyn, who owns Mostyn Hall in my constituency and who was a candidate for that election, was at one point from my constituency, but none of my constituents could apply. I am not sure many of your constituents could, Mr Davies, and I am not sure many of the Minister’s could.

However, 27 people applied, and it was restricted to those people. I will give a flavour of some of the candidates, if I may: the 5th Baron Bethell, an old Etonian; the 5th Baron Biddulph, who owns 1,000 acres on the banks of the Tweed; the 4th Baron Gainford, aged 92, who promised in his manifesto not to attend the Lords casually; the 7th Baron Hampton; the 3rd Baron Hankey; the 7th Baron Harlech, another old Etonian; the 8th Earl of Harrowby, another old Etonian; Viscount Hood who—surprise, Mr Davies; which school did he go to?—went to Eton. I have no objection at all to people who go to Eton being elected to the Houses of Parliament. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. David Cameron, went to Eton, and I have no objection to him getting into this Parliament.

However, it is wrong in the 21st century to have a small pool of people for the 27 candidates who had, for example, given service to the previous monarch and included the 4th Earl Lloyd-George; the 4th Viscount Mountgarret; Lord Somerleyton; and the Earl of Stockton, whose father was Prime Minister. The relatives of two former Prime Ministers and lots of people from Eton were fighting for a place in Parliament, in an election in which none of my constituents could stand.

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Welcome to the Chair, Mr Pritchard. In the by-election that followed the sad death of Lord Lyell, the whole House of Lords could vote, because he was one of the specially promoted of the 92 remaining hereditary peers. Some 346 votes were cast out of a potential 803 for a seat in this Parliament.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. We have an absurd situation where the upper House is about 200 Members larger than our House. Does he agree that a simple, easy way of helping to restore the balance would be to scrap all the hereditary peers in one fell swoop, at least as an initial step, so that purely appointed peers are left?

The hon. Gentleman is seven minutes ahead of me in my speech. That is a very good point. I do not see this as a party political argument; I see it as a matter of central democracy. I will return to that point later.

Lord Colgrain, who won the election last week, won with 143 votes and will take his seat in the House of Lords in due course. The turnout was 346, and as I have said, the total electorate is 803. The winning share of the total vote was 17%, and the turnout—even in this election, among such highly tuned political minds as the electorate of the House of Lords—was only 43%.

Lord Colgrain is a Conservative peer; I hold no objection to that. His peerage comes from the 1st Baron Colgrain, who died in 1954. I have no objection to him having a grandfather who worked for a bank and was president of the British Bankers’ Association, director of the National Provincial Bank and involved in London Assurance. I have no objection to that being his ancestor; that is a matter for him and his family. What I have an objection to is him being allowed to be on the ballot paper in an election in which only 27 people could participate as nominators and only 346 people ultimately voted to give him a seat in this Parliament.

Lord Colgrain has said that he wants to bring his experience of farming and finance to his membership of the Lords—fine. He is a governor at £34,000-a-year Sevenoaks School—fine. However, if we look at the hereditary peers, they are not drawn from the range of society that we might want reflected in this great, diverse Parliament that we have here today. That might seem ludicrous, but let me look at Lord Thurso, who was elected last year. Members will also know him as John Thurso. He served as a Member of this House for 14 years. He got elected when he was thrown out of the House of Lords with Labour’s first tranche of hereditary peers in 1999. He had a miraculous blood transfusion and removed his blue blood to stand as an ordinary mortal, and he got elected. At the last general election, he lost his seat in Parliament to a member of the Scottish National party. He was ejected from this House, yet Lord Thurso could stand at the first opportunity in a hereditary peer by-election.

The electorate in that case was a massive three electors—the three other Liberal Democrat hereditary peers. The election was due to the terrible death of Lord Avebury, whose work I had a lot of admiration for. The three electors for this post in Parliament were the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, the relative of the former Prime Minister; the Earl of Glasgow; and Lord Addington. There were six other candidates for this three-vote election: Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, the great grandson of a former Prime Minister; Lord Calverley; the Earl of Carlisle; Lord Kennet; Earl Russell; and Lord Somerleyton. I have no objection to any of those individuals per se, but they obviously did not have the weight to carry the three voters, because in an election with 100% turnout, Lord Thurso got elected with 100% of the vote.

I put it to the Minister that if we were in a foreign democracy, staring across the vast ocean and looking at the United Kingdom in the 21st century, and said, “Here we have an election where only people whose great-great-great-great grandparents or other relatives were peers can stand. Here we have an election where only three people can vote, and here we have an election where 100% of those three people voted to put one person into the House of Lords,” we might look on with ridicule. If it were a foreign country, we might be looking at representations in the United Nations, sanctions for lack of democracy or pressure on that Government.

It is well and good, I hear you say. We removed in 1999 all but 92 hereditary peers from the House of Lords, and those 92 remained as a guarantee for the second stage of Lords reform. The Minister will know that the second stage of Lords reform is a long time coming. Irrespective of that, we have an opportunity to look at what we can do now.

If we look at this from outside, coldly, we see that of the 92 hereditary peers, 91 are male and only one is female. Again, I have no objection to their belonging to certain political parties, but 48 are Conservatives, 32 are Cross Benchers, four are Labour, four are Liberal Democrats, two are non-affiliated and one represents the UK Independence party. That is hardly diverse. What do they bring, in terms of diversity, to our society, apart from their accident of birth and their status?

How do these hereditary peers get their titles? I will give but three examples. Lord Abingdon’s ancestor, James Bertie, was awarded the title of Earl of Abingdon for his loyalty to the royalists during the English civil war. His father had the title of 2nd Earl of Lindsey, which he would have inherited if it was not for King James II. Lord Fairfax of Cameron is an ancestor of Thomas Fairfax, who was granted his title because he was one of the first Englishmen to go to Scotland to swear allegiance to the new King James I. I do not know about you, Mr Pritchard, but I happen to think that in the 21st century, we owe more to our democracy than to give a seat in Parliament and a vote on my constituents’ issues to someone whose ancestor happened to be the quickest person to get to Scotland from London at that time.

Lord Thurlow’s ancestor, Edward Thurlow, was granted his title in 1792. He was a Tory MP for Tamworth and Solicitor General in the Government of Lord North. That might be fine. When Lord North was in power, we had only just lost America, and yet today I believe the Minister will stand and defend—I may be wrong, and I hope I am—the idea that the ancestor of someone who was given their peerage just after we lost America should be able to make decisions that affect the people I represent. I have fought elections since 1987, winning some and losing some, to get a seat in this Parliament, and yet on the basis of a handful of votes, Lord Thurlow can sit here.

Perhaps the worst example of all, which cuts me to the quick, is the current Conservative peer Earl Attlee. He inherited his peerage as the grandson of one of the greatest Prime Ministers of all time, Clement Attlee, who fought for a Labour Government and for massive social change. Now, through the hereditary peerage, his grandson, Earl Attlee, sits in the other place and votes in a way that I know his grandfather, although I never had the privilege of meeting him, would not approve of or endorse. He would not want his grandson to vote in that way, yet under the ludicrous system that we have, that is what happens.

Following the general election, there were five by-elections before the one last week, so this is happening all the time. I say to the Minister in the four or so minutes in which I will continue to speak before handing over to him that the Government have a choice. As in all things, the Government have a choice. They could allow this to continue. They could say, “We are going to wait until we have reform of the House of Lords. We will not do anything until we get wholesale reform of the Lords.” I suspect that that is what the Minister may say today. We could, however, adopt one of two other solutions.

The noble Lord Grocott, who sits in the House of Lords as a life peer and who sat in this House for many years as your neighbouring Member of Parliament, Mr Pritchard, in Tamworth—

Yes. Bruce Grocott was the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth originally and then came back as the Member for Telford in due course. Lord Grocott has introduced in the other place the House of Lords Act 1999 (Amendment) Bill, which says that we should stop the elections for hereditary peers now. It is a reasonable measure. Had it been implemented in 2015, the five by-elections to which I referred, plus last week’s by-election, would not have happened. This point relates to the conclusion of the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter): these peers could perhaps die off or retire and not be replaced. Lord Grocott has a live Bill in the other place. It has been discussed and debated and, surprisingly, hereditary peers tried to talk it out, but it is an option for the Minister to consider.

The Minister will know that I have in this House tabled a formal Bill, the House of Lords (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers) Bill, which adopts Lord Grocott’s proposal to allow an end to hereditary peer elections now, and includes a sunset clause date for when the hereditaries will be removed from the other place. I have given them notice that on a day in two and a half to three years’ time they will cease to be Members of that place—of the Houses of Parliament.

The Minister therefore has three choices. He could certainly leave the situation as it is, but he could also look at just stopping the by-elections or at using a sunset clause. There may be other options that I have not thought of, because those two seem to me very sensible and logical.

To go back to the contention of the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, if the Government have decided that there will be fewer Members of Parliament—some 600—after the next election, which it is in the Government’s gift to do, but there are now some 843 Members of the House of Lords, of whom 92 are there because of their ancestors, not because of their own intrinsic merits, I think that it is time for change, and there is the potential for change there. I am talking about removing the peers and reducing the House of Lords membership. As I said in my opening comments, without abolishing the Lords, changing the method of election, touching the bishops or doing anything else, we could remove 92 peers in a very simple way by accepting Lord Grocott’s Bill or, indeed, my own.

I pray in aid the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, who said in The House magazine that reform had been

“hanging over the House like a cloud”.

He insisted that there was no way the Lords could defend its current size of more than 800 peers when the Prime Minister was set to reduce the size of the Commons to 600 MPs:

“I don’t think that we can justify a situation where you have over 800 peers at the same time as you’re bringing down the Commons to 600 MPs.”

He said:

“What we have to do first is to literally decide ‘what’s the number?’”

I want today to help the Minister, the Lord Speaker and the Houses of Parliament; the number could be, at the very least, 92 fewer by removing the hereditary peers or giving them notice and stopping their election, or, if the Minister wishes to maintain that policy, keeping them as they are.

As I said, the Minister is a historian. He has the chance today to make history. If he does not make history today, he will wake up one day and find himself on the wrong side of history. He should take the chance now, grab it, make a name for himself and remove hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

I thank you, Mr Pritchard, and Mr Davies for chairing the debate so effectively and efficiently. I also thank the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) for raising this matter today. I am incredibly flattered that he has bought my book on Bosworth—I would sign it for him if that would not devalue the copy. I began my postgraduate research at university by looking at the new Tudor nobility—creations to the nobility—in the mid-15th century. If I had thought then that more than 15 years later I would be here today, responding on the Government’s behalf on the hereditary peerage, I would have worn a wry smile.

I do not doubt the right hon. Gentleman’s conviction and passion when he talks about this subject. I was there for his speech on 19 October in the House of Commons during the Opposition day debate on the House of Lords. I know that his private Member’s Bill ran out of time last Friday and that he brought a ten-minute rule Bill to the main Chamber in April 2016. I was going back through his political career just to test his commitment to and consistency on the issue of the House of Lords, which we are debating today. I can go as far back as when he was a 26-year-old candidate standing in Eddisbury on the Labour party’s 1983 manifesto, in which it stated very clearly that it would take action to abolish the House of Lords as quickly as possible and, as an interim measure, introduce a Bill in the first Session of Parliament to remove its legislative powers. All credit to the right hon. Gentleman for remaining consistent throughout his career and in his voting pattern to the manifesto commitment that he stood on in 1983.

With that in mind, I am sure that he will respect my decision to stick to the manifesto commitment that I stood on in 2015. I would like to place this on the record. It is on page 49 of the Conservative party manifesto. We stated:

“While we still see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our second chamber, this is not a priority in the next Parliament. We have already allowed for expulsion of members for poor conduct and will ensure the House of Lords continues to work well by addressing issues such as the size of the chamber and the retirement of peers.”

We added:

“We will ensure that the House of Lords fulfils its valuable role as a chamber of legislative scrutiny and revision”.

I am not asking the Minister to break that manifesto pledge. Everything I have said would fit in with that pledge. I have talked about allowing retirements and not having elections. I am not asking for a change in elections; I am just asking him to look at retirements.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a particular point about a manifesto commitment, but he ignores the fact that it is not a priority for this Government.

My hon. Friend is a very able Minister for the Constitution, which is a subtle change of title from the previous Minister for Constitutional Reform—I am glad that an element of conservatism is seeping through the Cabinet Office. Surely the greater constitutional abomination of the other place at the moment, rather than the hereditary peers, is its recent tendency to attempt to defy the Salisbury convention.

There have clearly already been debates and issues raised about the primacy of the elected Chamber. It remains the Government’s commitment that the primacy of the elected Chamber must remain paramount. Many peers have reflected the fact that that is an important consideration. With the article 50 Bill becoming the article 50 Act, we saw that peers understand the primacy of the elected Chamber, and we hope that that arrangement will continue.

I would like to dwell on what reform has meant over the past couple of years. As we have seen in the past, if reform of the House of Lords is to succeed, parliamentarians in both Houses must be able to work constructively together to make progress. It is clear from recent debates on the matter in the Lords that there are strong feelings on both sides. Although there might be agreement on certain issues, there is not yet clear consensus on the way forward.

The Committee stage of Lord Grocott’s Bill, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, which would have removed the by-election system for replacing hereditary peers, clearly demonstrated that there was a level of disagreement and not a clear consensus on the way forward. With that in mind, and with so many other pressing legislative priorities to deliver over this Parliament—not least the fact that article 50 will be triggered tomorrow—the Government do not consider comprehensive reform of the Lords to be a priority. That is in line with our 2015 manifesto commitment.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will acknowledge that the manifesto commitment was to look at the size of the House of Lords and at some of its composition. There was a commitment to reforming the Chamber; clearly, a Chamber that has 200 more Members than the House of Commons presents an issue. We recognise that the House of Commons is currently too large with 650 Members, so we are reducing the number to 600.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have stated, the second part of the manifesto commitment was to

“ensure the House of Lords continues to work well by addressing issues such as the size of the chamber and the retirement of peers.”

That is not to say that the Government are unsympathetic to the case put forward by the right hon. Member for Delyn. In the last Parliament, under the previous Administration, the Government introduced a Bill that would have made 80% of the eligible membership of the House of Lords elected. Both he and I were in the same Lobby on Second Reading of that Bill, which would indeed have removed hereditary peers. It was ultimately unsuccessful, not because of a lack of commitment to reform, but because of a lack of political consensus on the form that reform should take and the process by which it should be enacted. However, that does not mean that we cannot make pragmatic and measured progress today, above all by achieving the consensus that was lacking in 2012.

To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), the Government are clear that we want to work constructively with Members and peers to look at the pragmatic ideas for reducing the size of the Lords that can command broad consensus, just as we attempted to do in the last Parliament. On certain measures we worked with both Houses to introduce some focused, important reforms. With Government support, the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 enabled peers to retire permanently for the first time and provided for peers to be disqualified when they do not attend or are convicted of serious offences. Already more than 50 peers have chosen to take that step of eventual retirement. We also supported the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, which provided the House with the power to expel Members in cases of serious misconduct, as well as the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015.

I believe that by making pragmatic, incremental reforms that can command consensus, real progress can be made. The right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned being on the right side of history. Looking at the historical processes of constitutional change, we see that those are often developed, constructed and effectively delivered by measured and manageable reform.

Will the Minister please say after me—so that it is on the record—that the current UK Government support the principle whereby three people can vote for a Member of Parliament? Will he just say that for me? That is what he is saying.

A debate in Westminster Hall is not the place for hypothetical questions, and it is certainly not the place for hypothetical answers. The UK Government are determined to enact the Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto commitments, which clearly state that Lords reform is not a priority in this Parliament, but that where we can work constructively to address the size of the House and the retirement of peers, we will do so.

It is by making pragmatic, incremental reforms that command consensus that progress can be made. That is why the Government welcome the work of the Lord Speaker’s cross-party Committee of Back-Bench peers—the right hon. Gentleman mentioned him—to explore practical and politically viable methods by which the size of the House of Lords can be reduced. On 20 December 2016, the Speaker in the House of Lords announced that he was establishing the Lord Speaker’s Committee

“to examine the possible methods by which the House could be reduced in size.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 December 2016; Vol. 777, c. 1541.]

That followed a debate on 5 December in which the House of Lords unanimously agreed that its size should indeed be reduced.

The Committee’s remit is to

“explore methods by which the size of the House can be reduced, commensurate with its current role and functions.”

Specifically, it is instructed

“to examine practical and politically viable options that might lead to progress on this issue; analyse their implications; and set out any outstanding questions that may need to be answered in order for any proposals to command broad consensus across the House.”

Following its deliberations, there was a consultation exercise that closed on 20 February; I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members have taken the opportunity to respond to that. The Committee will offer advice to the Lord Speaker on potential next steps. It is expected to conclude its work by early summer.

The Committee considers that its remit requires it to work within the following constraints: first, that there is no change to the House’s role and powers or to the primacy of the Commons, and that deals with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) made; secondly, that Members continue to be appointed, but with a ceiling on the total size of the House; thirdly, that there is no increase in the cost of the House; fourthly, that there is a guaranteed percentage or minimum number of Cross-Bench peers; and fifthly, that no single party is to have a political majority. I note that in the questions that were put as part of that consultation exercise, the Committee sought suggestions about how to achieve two overarching aims: first, to reduce the House from its current size to a target number or range; and secondly, to keep the House at that target size or range afterwards. It stated:

“In considering different options, it may be helpful to factor in the following points.”

One of those includes:

“Any consequential implications for the Lords Spiritual (the Bishops), the future of hereditary peers in the House, and automatic appointments of certain office-holders.”

I am sure the right hon. Member for Delyn has taken the opportunity to make his views heard as part of that consultation.

Although there may be no consensus on this matter—the right hon. Gentleman is right to have predicted that the Government are committed to looking at measured and manageable reform, but that comprehensive reform of the House of Lords is not a priority in this Parliament—we look forward to hearing the independent Committee’s recommendations and to future discussions with colleagues across both Houses about where and when that consensus might be found. May I just say that it has been a delight to have this opportunity for discussion and debate today? It is important that these views are aired and put on the record and that I, as the Minister responsible for the policy, can come to the House to defend the Government’s position. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government policy on hereditary peers in the House of Lords.