Lord Naseby (Con)
My Lords, of course, actually, it is the second time that I have had the privilege of putting an identical Bill before the House. Indeed, the last time was only six months ago. But for the intervention of a general election, I am sure it would have made substantial progress.
First, I thank some of my predecessors who tabled if not an identical Bill, then one very closely reflecting the same thrust. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is in his place, as is the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and I say a sincere thank you to both of them for the contribution they have made to this cause. We will eventually be successful at some point.
I should like to go back in history just a little because there is a historical dimension to this, which is why we find ourselves in the position we are in. I took the name “Naseby” simply because I was the Member of Parliament for Northampton. Obviously, I could not take “Northampton” because we already have an Earl of that name. I had been involved in the Civil War commemorations, and in particular for the Battle of Naseby itself. All of the wounded from that battle came into my constituency, and therefore it seemed appropriate for me to take the name. That battle on 14 June 1645 was for me one of the key moments in the creation of our democracy. Yes, the “Commonwealth” did not last very long—due, dare I mention it, to the hereditary principle in the sense that Richard, the son of Oliver, did not actually have the wherewithal to run the country. That eventually led to the restoration of the monarchy, and basically that is where we stand today.
I suspect that at the time, Peers were viewed with a degree of suspicion by those in the other place, which is why some restrictions were put on the upper House. I shall quote a number of aspects of that—not at great length, noble Lords will be pleased to hear. The principle that Peers cannot vote in elections to the House of Commons has a long history and the Library has kindly prepared some data. At least between 1699 and 1998, the House of Commons would pass a Sessional Order at the beginning of each Session to the effect that no Peer had any right to elect a Member of Parliament. Then of course we have the well-known case of Earl Beauchamp v Madresfield in 1872. We began to see some progress around that time, and again I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who dug out the quote from Benjamin Disraeli, who said that he sought support for extending the right to vote in general elections to Peers because they were taxed by votes cast in the House of Commons.
Things do slowly move forward; that is the principle of life in this great Parliament. In 1999—I was here then, as were a number of other noble Lords—it was held in common law that it was the status of being a Peer that precluded one from being able to vote. Since 1999 and the House of Lords Act, it is the fact of being a Member of the Second Chamber that prevents one from voting. Under the terms of the 1999 Act, hereditary Peers who are excluded from membership of the House are able to vote and, as we know, Members of the House of Lords can vote in all other elections.
More recently, we had the disqualification updated again. The House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which is not very long ago, and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 extended the right to vote in general elections to Peers who ceased to be Members of the House in a way other than under the 1999 Act, for example through retirement, non-attendance, conviction of a serious offence or expulsion. So I conclude from all that that this is a pathway and that we are making slow progress. I am 83. We do not yet have a retirement age here. To the best of my knowledge, I am fit and well, so I am going to take another look at this particular objective which I share with a number of other noble Lords—and indeed perhaps I may say that I share it with a large number of Members of Parliament in the other place as well.
My basic tenet is still the same: all of us here give leadership in our own communities. There must be very few Members of this House who do not provide leadership in the community in which they live. The very word “Lord” gives us a passport to that. However, we are denied a view about our own elected Member of Parliament. We cannot stand in front of them and say, “I am supporting you … or you.” We have to stay quiet. We are denied the right to vote on a manifesto for the political party that we might support—a manifesto that will affect our family and children. Is that not part of our human rights? Only through a general election do the electorate have the opportunity to vote on different spending plans. Yes, we are in the upper House, but we have no voice on these issues, particularly as we do not debate taxation matters and only very rarely do we vote on statutory instruments of a monetary nature. And yet in the society we are in today, money and expenditure are absolutely vital to our everyday lives, as they are in any democracy. We all know the clarion call, do we not? We learned it as schoolboys: no taxation without representation. But about 800 men and women are denied that opportunity to vote in our democracy. The only other people who are denied it are certain categories of criminals, and that of course I find irksome.
In the recent election, 47.56 million people had the absolute right to vote—except for the 800 that we are—and 67.3% of them people took advantage of it. The following is interesting, but if I am honest, I only discovered it yesterday when I looked at a breakdown of voting. There is a category of “anonymous voters” and nationally there are just over 2,500 of them. If we are worried about our names appearing somewhere because we voted, perhaps we could join those 2,500 anonymous votes. I say that just as an aside.
However, matters have shifted since the last election. Here, but with great care, I will draw a parallel with the monarchy and what has been happening there in relation to politics. We know that the Queen by dint of time does not vote—but she can vote. We know that members of the inner circle of the Royal Family are encouraged not to vote—but they can vote. In fact, we do not really know if they vote or not, but all other members of the Royal Family can. There is something of a parallel with our position today, and I am grateful to a lady called Helen Thompson for what she has written in the New Statesmen—colleagues may be interested to note that I read it. The following was written in the 31 January to 6 February issue, and it caught my eye:
“The prorogation crisis last September showed the obvious dangers in blurring the line between the monarch’s passive role and democratic politics. By asking the Queen to perform an act that would inevitably be subject to legal challenge, the Prime Minister condemned her to act politically. That the High Court of Justice for England and Wales, an appellate panel of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom could not agree on the legality of the use of royal powers, or the relevance of Boris Johnson’s motives, demonstrated how hard consensus is on constitutional matters involving the Crown, once a political crisis requires them to be scrutinised.”
Well, I would suggest to colleagues that there is no political crisis yet, but I draw a parallel to a degree with the slow passage of the Bill of my friend the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to remove by-elections for hereditary Peers. This whole process has been exceedingly undemocratic, but the last couple of Governments have shilly-shallied around it and delayed it. It is a small but significant measure, as is the measure before your Lordships this morning.
As it happens, the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was number one in the ballot. This Bill was number two. Colleagues will know that I have a great interest in Sri Lanka, where they have a phrase, “auspicious”. I think that this was an auspicious happening that may well be beneficial to both parties in the end.
My Government now have more than four years to get on and look at this Bill and at the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. We have on our side the same young man, who is my research assistant—although I shall not use the same quotes I used last time. These are a few of the reasons he thinks this Bill should go through. He says in a note to me:
“Another reason used to defend this appalling law was the scepticism around reform. This came in two main forms, one being that it was a sort of ‘slippery slope’ to further reforms, and the second was that in 2013 it was not the right time to do such a reform. Well, rather simply there is no evidence for there to be further reforms following this one. It is a single bill, on a single issue, so this line of argument is discounted. Finally, in response to the other side of the reform argument, we are now seven years down the line”.
Now is as good a time as any, and he sees no reason why anything should be put in the way to prevent this Bill going forward. That is from Alex Wilkins, and I thank him for the work he has done on that.
We now know that the vast majority of the electorate are on our side. How do we know that? A good number of us have been out on the doorstep recently, and people are amazed. Those who know me say, “You don’t have a vote, Michael?” Those who have forgotten that I am here now say, “You don’t have a vote, Mr Morris?” I say, “No.” No one out there understands it—which is incredible in itself, is it not?
We have lots of friends across the world, and many of us visit other parliaments. In every single second chamber anywhere else in the world, they all have a vote. We are the only Parliament in the whole world where those in the upper House do not have a vote in the key general election.
I am all for tradition—I dress fairly traditionally—but we know the electorate do not understand it; I have just said that. To recap for the benefit of the Front Bench, I am not necessarily saying this morning that the tradition that we do not vote on money Bills should be removed. What I am saying is that we should have the right to vote in a general election. This is a short, small, targeted Bill. In my judgment it deserves to make progress through the House. As I said near the beginning, I have talked to many friends in the other place and believe there is substantial support there for the Bill. I beg to move.