House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill [HL]

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Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be here on a Friday again on this subject. This is a House of Peers; that is what makes us so special. All of us are here for different reasons, with most of us appointed on the recommendation of one man or woman. It is sad when, directly or indirectly, anyone disparages any part of our membership, when all of us are here legitimately and by statute. One of the attractive features of this debate was that, almost all the time, we managed to stay on the right side of that and not to stereotype individuals but to argue about principles.

I of course congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who knows of my personal respect and affection for him, on securing the debate. I was unkind enough in a debate earlier this week when he advanced a rather dubious argument to say that I would not want to play the three-card trick against him, but I would want to give him some money to put on the National for me in a betting shop, because his success in the ballot is remarkable. I am not a betting person, but if I see him at Grand National time, I will be coming his way.

This is the fourth Private Member’s Bill seeking to abolish the by-elections that are held when a hereditary Peer vacates their seat in this House, as established under statute in 1999. I regret to say that the Government’s position on the noble Lord’s proposals remains unchanged, however commendable the resolve.

The intention of this Bill, in common with the earlier Bills, is to stop by-elections taking place when a hereditary Peer—

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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Since there is overwhelming support for this Bill right across the House and since the Government are committed to reducing the size of the House, why do the Government not give time for the Bill to complete its stages in this House so that a final decision can be made, rather than our going through this whole thing year by year?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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Well, my Lords, not everything that your Lordships are in favour of necessarily becomes law, and some things become law that your Lordships are not in favour of. I am not going to go back to the debates of 1999, and I am certainly not going to go back to the debates of 2019, unless provoked further.

The Bill would stop by-elections taking place when a hereditary Peer vacates their seat through retirement, expulsion or death. Over time, that would remove the presence of 90 of the 92 hereditary Peers. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has pointed out, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, wishes to keep the Lord Chamberlain and the Earl Marshall, but 90 of the hereditary Peers who sit in this House by statute, under the terms of the House of Lords Act 1999, would go.

It has been a very wide-ranging debate. There is nothing that your Lordships like more—and I like it myself, actually—than talking about your Lordships’ House. A lot of wider issues were brought in—even robes, although I do not see many of them here today. I do not propose either to reiterate the Government’s reservations about this Bill in full, because they have been detailed by successive Ministers, very frequently, as my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham reminded us, during the several debates on previous iterations of the Bill, one of which reached Report. However, I shall draw a few brief points to the attention of your Lordships.

First, the House of Lords, as we all agree, has a key role in scrutinising the Executive and as a revising Chamber. It is important that how it is constituted reflects that role and the primacy of the House of Commons as the elected Chamber. My noble friend Lord Attlee early in the debate was followed by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, opposite, stressing the importance of considering the overall role of the House of Lords going forward. The Government respectfully disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that his Bill represents an incremental or piecemeal—whichever word is to your Lordships’ taste—reform to this House. Indeed, it is the opposite. The proposed removal of hereditary Peers through this Bill, albeit gradually, would constitute a significant reform to the composition of this House. It would become, as my noble friend Lord Mancroft observed, a de facto appointed Chamber—saving the presence of the right reverend Prelates. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, that that would be a significant change. It was certainly considered when the first Bill was conceived that there would be a stage two; that was the assurance very firmly given. Recollections may vary of the negotiations, but I was also involved, and a very firm commitment was given at that time by the party opposite to move to stage two.

An all-appointed House is certainly the preferred model of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, my noble friend Lord Cormack, and others who have spoken, and they are entitled to that entirely reasonable view. But others across this House hold different and, as we have heard today, equally reasonable views as to how we should be constituted. The point is that the Bill should not seek to address that matter through the back door. As the Government set out in our manifesto, we are committed to looking at the role of the Lords, but any reform needs careful consideration and should not be brought forward piecemeal, and certainly not reform of this kind, which would clearly change the composition of this House in a significant way, even if gradually.

Removing the excepted hereditary Peers would have further consequences, as Members on Benches opposite said, on party balance within the House. Presently within this House there are 47 Conservative hereditary Peers, 33 Cross-Benchers, four Labour hereditary Peers and three Liberal Democrats. I am not quite sure where the other two Liberal Democrats went to, but the numbers were not quite the same originally. There are also two non-affiliated hereditary Peers. That means that, if this scheme had not operated since 2003, there would now be 18 fewer Conservative Peers, 18 fewer Cross-Bench Peers and a far smaller reduction in the numbers on the Benches opposite. That is the flipside to the argument put by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in that obviously the passage of this legislation would be a great Labour Party gain, relatively, in party strength.

While some feel strongly that by-elections to replace hereditary Peers should end, others have disagreed, as we have heard in what has been a measured debate—and I welcome that. I hear no sign of some of the things that the noble Lords opposite may fear. We have heard from my noble friends Lord Trenchard, Lord Mancroft, Lord Northbrook, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, Lord Moylan and others who believe that, while the issue of comprehensive reform remains unsettled, the excepted hereditary Peers should remain, as was the explicit undertaking and agreement in 1999, underpinned in statute. No one would deny, and actually no one has denied—and to go back to my opening remarks, I welcome that—the great contribution of excepted hereditary Peers to the work of your Lordships’ House through their committee memberships and during debates in the Chamber. We all of us, wherever we sit in the House, feel that to be true.

While focusing on the issue—and I agreed with some elements of what my noble friend Lord Moylan, said, as a new Member, about how we are perceived—I certainly do not believe that we should be driven by elements of the media on this issue. As I have always said, we should concentrate not on knocking ourselves but on doing our work well, in playing a crucial role in scrutinising the Executive as a revising Chamber, while recognising the primacy of the elected House of Commons. While we have listened to debates on this topic, and will listen attentively and respectfully, if the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, moves that the Bill should be committed to a Committee, the Government’s reservations on his proposals remain.