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Hereditary Peers’ By-elections

Volume 805: debated on Monday 7 September 2020

Motion on Standing Orders

Moved by

Further to the Order of 23 March, that Standing Order 10(6) (Hereditary peers: by-elections) be suspended until Thursday 31 December 2020.

My Lords, this Motion will further delay outstanding hereditary Peers’ by-elections until the start of 2021. Standing Order 10(6) states that by-elections must take place within three months of the vacancy occurring. On 23 March, the House agreed to suspend these provisions until 8 September, which at that time was expected to be the first day back after the Summer Recess. On 16 July, the Procedure and Privileges Committee met and agreed that a further suspension until the end of the year was necessary. The Motion before the House today gives effect to that decision.

The current state of the pandemic makes this suspension necessary for a number of reasons, including the difficulty of holding hustings, of allowing Members to vote in person in whole-House by-elections, and indeed for newly elected hereditary Peers to come in to take the Oath in person before contributing. I beg to move.

I will go through the short list that I have. I have been notified that those Members who want to speak are the noble Lords, Lord Cormack, Lord Trefgarne, Lord Newby, Lord Balfe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I therefore now call the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.

I thank the Lord Speaker. I hope that we should not infer from what the Senior Deputy Speaker has just said that we are going to return on 1 January; I sincerely hope that that will not be the first sitting day.

To be serious, perhaps I may say at the outset that while I welcome this opportunity, I am increasingly convinced that we need to up our act in this Chamber. It is disgraceful that so few Members are allowed to sit in here. It would be very easy to have at least three Peers on this Bench, or to have one on each of certain other Benches. Depriving Members of your Lordships’ House of the opportunity to participate properly in debate is a disgrace and I hope sincerely that those who have charge over these things will look imaginatively at what can be done. Of course we have to remain safe, but nobody can have ultimate safety. We must have a viable Chamber that can hold the Government to account and debate more expeditiously—as it could if more of us were here—the great issues of the day.

I do not oppose this measure but I feel that it would be more sensible to heed what the Lord Speaker has said about the numbers in this House and to delay further by-elections indefinitely—perhaps until a proper and definitive decision has been made on the Grocott Bill. I am sorry not to see my friend the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his place. It is very important to underline that the continued participation in this House of any existing life Peer is not and must not be threatened by that Bill. We have valued colleagues and I hope that they will be here for a very long time, but by-elections that sometimes produce more candidates than electors, a point which has often been made, do not enhance the reputation of your Lordships’ House.

We need to look carefully at how we admit Members to your Lordships’ House. Today we have welcomed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, and I am only sorry that his supporters had to stand at a distance from him. If ever there is proper social distancing in this House, it is when a new Peer is introduced, so it is farcical that the right reverend Prelate’s two supporting Bishops had to stand on the steps of the Throne. As we begin to introduce new Peers over the next two or three weeks, I hope that there will be a sensible arrangement whereby the supporters are able to support. I hope that they will be able to be robed, but if not, at least the Peer being introduced should be robed and the others should be here. I hope very much that the Lord Speaker will be able to use his considerable persuasive powers to ensure that that happens.

We do believe that too many are coming in, but each one will be courteously and individually welcomed, as is always the case and as it should be. However, we have an underlying problem with numbers, and the sooner that the full House can have another proper debate on the Burns report and on the wise words of our Lord Speaker, the better. I hope sincerely that we will soon reach a stage where, if someone is given a peerage, he or she does not automatically come in immediately. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester came in because he has been waiting for a considerable time. There is a finite limit on the number of Lords Spiritual, at 26, which includes the two archbishops and the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester. The others have to wait their turn. I believe that we can take an example from that.

I also believe that Prime Ministers should be able to give a peerage without a seat in the House of Lords, because the Prime Minister himself has created an extra problem for your Lordships’ House. All of these things should be looked at together in the round. It would be a good idea if the Lord Speaker asked the noble Lord, Lord Burns, to bring an updated report before your Lordships’ House in order to re-emphasise some of the existing recommendations and perhaps introduce new ones, and for us as a proper House of Lords to debate. The Government should then listen to what the Lords have said.

It is entirely possible for your Lordships’ House to refuse to admit somebody. A peerage has been given but we do not have to sanction immediate entry. There is precedent going back to the reign of Queen Victoria, when she tried to create a life Peer—in 1862, I think. I am not suggesting that we invite a confrontation by doing that immediately, but that in the interests of the House we have to do two things: first, to demonstrate that we are a proper, functioning House—which we are not at the moment—and secondly, to try to ensure a membership that is more in line with the other place.

My Lords, I will not detain the House for more than a moment. As your Lordships will be well aware, I am not a supporter of the Private Member’s Bill tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and am sure I never will be, unless circumstances change and House of Lords reform has by then been completed, which was the condition on which the hereditary noble Lords came to this House in 1999. In the meantime, there is room for more than one respectable view on the present circumstances. I do not, therefore, oppose the present proposals but I am not particularly strongly in favour of them.

I support this Motion for the reasons given by the Senior Deputy Speaker, and because at the moment no elections to any public office are being held. Elections were postponed in May and no local council by-elections are being held. If the only election at this point was the hereditary peers by-election in the House of the Lords, it would make us look even more foolish—if that were possible—than we already do.

I very much hope that this is a stopgap measure. The strong balance of opinion in the House is that this system should be done away with, and we need to make progress. We are in a difficult position, in that Private Member’s Bill debates are not taking place. I think it is the Procedure Committee that needs to take an in-principle view on this—given the ways of your Lordships’ House, and having been here only 20 years, I am not quite sure about that. Now that we are more back to normal, we need to get more back to normal in dealing with Private Members’ Bills. Then, we could deal with the Grocott Bill, because at the moment it is in limbo, and we need to move on it.

Until recently it was possible to argue that abolishing by-elections for hereditary Peers altogether should not go ahead because it was being beastly to the Conservative Party, which would lose disproportionately. However, the profligacy of the Prime Minister in his recent appointments list—however unwelcome in so many ways—means that the Conservatives can no longer feel unfairly done by. I hope, therefore, that the Government and all their Back-Benchers will review their position and support permanent abolition of by-elections for hereditary Peers.

We are clearly a long way from being back to normal. I endorse everything said by my noble friend Lord Cormack, because we need to get back to normal. We could get many more people in this Chamber, but we also need some willpower behind the need to get back to normal. A certain lassitude and reluctance to get things done seems to have descended on us. We certainly should not be having by-elections until we get back to normal. The Procedure and Privileges Committee will meet in December, I believe—certainly before this new Motion expires on New Year’s Eve. The middle of a vacation does not, in any case, seem a very good date for it to expire, particularly since the Deputy Lord Speaker may, in the tradition of his country, be somewhat busy on New Year’s Eve.

I would like the Procedure and Privileges Committee to look at the need for these by-elections and whether we should make time for the Grocott Bill to be heard. I listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, had to say, but the Grocott Bill will not remove a single Peer from this House: it allows them to die away, over the course of half a century. Some would say that that is an extremely generous way to treat them, but it has nothing to do with the Conservative Party.

We have to start standing up for ourselves. My noble friend Lord Cormack made reference to the Library and the rule brought in when Queen Victoria created a life Peer, and that was turned down. It goes back a lot further than that, however. I read the Library report, but there was also something in the New Statesman and I asked the Library for an account of what had happened in relation to life Peers. I read a debate from around 1860, I think, and I can inform the House that life peerages go back to the reign of Henry III, in the 13th century.

There have been regular life peerages. They used to end them by chopping off the heads of the Lords when they fell from favour. This is no longer recommended procedure, but I have had advice from an extraordinarily senior source to the effect that the sovereign creates but the House sits, and we would be within our powers to amend our Standing Orders to create a queue for Peers waiting to take their seats, as my noble friend Lord Cormack suggested. The size of the House would be determined and there would be a Burns-style distribution, based perhaps on previous elections or other criteria: there would be an allocation to each party.

At the moment I often look at the ranks of the Labour Party—my former party—and I feel a bit sorry for them, because they could do with strengthening, frankly. Democracy in this House relies on having a strong Opposition, not just strong Conservative Benches; it needs to be much wider than that.

I would therefore like to see this Motion passed and the noble Lord, Lord Burns—or, if he thinks it is a poisoned chalice, someone else—to look, in the way suggested, at the means by which this House can implement the desires it endorsed at the time of the Burns report. We have weapons in our armoury that could be used. Although it saddens me to say so, I do not think that the present Prime Minister will follow our advice unless there is some strength behind it—the ability to say, “No, you cannot do that”, and the powers to stop it. Otherwise, we will be ridden roughshod over. I therefore support the Motion. I ask the Procedure and Privileges Committee to consider coming back to this House before the end of December with its thoughts, and that this House look at limiting our numbers, getting a legislative or rule-based way of doing it, and saying to the Government, “Fine, you create, but we will admit”.

This has been a rather wider-ranging debate than either I or probably the noble Lord, Lord McFall, as Senior Deputy Speaker, anticipated. I agree with the point the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made about the Prime Minister not listening to advice. I think the only advice he listens to is that of the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Cummings. Perhaps if we could persuade him, we might have more success in him treating the House and Parliament with some respect.

I had not expected the debate to go back to the 13th century. The House of Lords sometimes looks backwards rather than forwards, but it does not often go quite so far back. I think this illustrates the scale of the problem. We are dealing with something here and now, and the Motion before us has my full support. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, made the most telling point. If local government elections have been stopped around the country and the public are not entitled to elect, it would be nonsensical for an unelected House to elect one of its few elected Members to this place.

I want to put on record that this is a policy issue. This is not about the merits or otherwise of any individual who serves in this House, by whichever route they come in. All Members of your Lordships’ House are welcomed. In fact, most of us really do not know who are the life Peers and who are the hereditary Peers, except those who make an effort to defend the continuation of the hereditary principle ad infinitum with the temporary position introduced in 1999.

I disassociate myself from some of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which is unusual. We all want to get back to working as normally as possible as soon as possible, but we can do so only in realms that make us safe. Indeed, my understanding is that no Member of your Lordships’ House has wanted to speak physically but not been able to attend physically. We have to respect those who for many reasons—whether for travel or because they live in hot-spot areas or for their own medical conditions—wish to participate remotely. I think we do better than the House of Commons in that regard.

Finally, on the comments made about the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, he was unable to be with us today. For very understandable reasons, he would want to be here. I am sorry the noble Lord made that comment. It would be remiss of me not to mention his Bill. It has had the overwhelming support of your Lordships’ House on many occasions. It is not fit for today’s House of Lords to have by-elections for hereditary peerages. The only reason we do not have that Bill, and have the Motion before us today, is that the Government do not want it. We have invited the Government many a time to say, “We will help give this a speedy passage through Parliament”, but because of the processes, a few Peers who do not support it have blocked that Bill with parliamentary vandalism tactics. We will return to that Bill, but I make a plea to the Government. It is a Bill that has the overwhelming support of your Lordships’ House.

The noble Lord, Lord Burns, gave a way forward on the size of the House, and that is one issue, but the Motion before us has nothing to do with that. It is about having a sensible process: we should not have by-elections to your Lordships’ House in the current circumstances. It has my full support.

My Lords, I have not received notice that anyone else in the Chamber wishes to speak, but does anyone else in the Chamber wish to take part? No. If that is the case, I call the Senior Deputy Speaker to reply.

My Lords, I thank Members for their comments and for the history lesson, which I followed with great interest, but I remind them that the Motion before the House relates to a suspension of the Standing Order relating to by-elections. I am very happy for Members to write to me on the relevant wider issues they wish to see the Procedure Committee looking at, and I will certainly take a report back to the Procedure Committee as a result of the wider debate today. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, is not in favour of these proposals or the Grocott Bill.

It is my information that the Lord Speaker’s Committee has agreed to meet again to consider the latest situation—but, again, that is not relevant to the Motion. The points made today about delaying by-elections indefinitely, with some individuals saying they should be abolished, are certainly policy issues, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, noted. I am content to take any comments, including those today, back to the Procedure Committee for discussion. We will meet regularly. We are meeting in the next two weeks and then in the first half of October. We have a number of meetings before the Christmas Recess, so the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, can be reassured that there is sufficient time for us to look at these issues. With that, I beg to move.

Motion agreed.