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

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Department: Leader of the House

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

Earl Howe Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 13th March 2020

(4 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on his success in the Private Members’ Bill ballot. His persistence in bringing the Bill before the House is admirable and shows his dedication to reform in this area. As noble Lords are well aware, the matter in question is the removal of by-elections held when a sitting hereditary Peer vacates their seat. As a sitting hereditary Peer, I declare my posthumous, if entirely non-presumptive, interest.

Stopping these elections would, over time, end the ability of noble Lords to sit in this House by virtue of a hereditary peerage alone. Noble Lords have heard a great many views today, as in previous years, in relation to the proposal in the Bill, so I do not intend to repeat in full the detailed arguments made by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham when he provided the Government’s response to the previous iteration of the Bill. I do, however, wish to stress firmly that the Government continue to believe that this House has a key role in scrutinising the Executive and being a revising Chamber. It is important that the way this House is constituted reflects both that role and the primacy of the House of Commons.

The proposed removal of hereditary Peers through the Bill, albeit over time, would constitute a major reform to the composition of the Lords as it would become a de facto appointed Chamber. Furthermore, as this and previous debates have demonstrated, there is no clear consensus in favour of the Bill. Those observations are by way of a preface to saying that, while we welcome discussion on matters relating to the role and functions of the House of Lords, we have reservations about the Bill.

As noble Lords will be aware, there have been previous proposals to end the practice of hereditary by-elections and, indeed, to remove hereditary Peers from the House altogether, since the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999. From the Wakeham commission to the numerous Labour Government White Papers, and from the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 to the coalition Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill, this issue has been considered and debated at great length. There have also been several efforts by noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to end the by-elections through Private Members’ Bills. For all the merit in debating the matter before the House today, I fear that perhaps the main thing we have learned is that opinions on this issue are divided and, judging by noble Lords’ contributions today, look likely to remain so for a while.

The Government recognise that Members of this House play a vital role in scrutinising the Executive and enabling the House of Lords to be what it is—an effective revising Chamber. It is worth pointing out, as many noble Lords already have, that hereditary Members have played, and continue to play, an enormous role in the work of this House through their committee memberships and contributions in the Chamber.

I will expand briefly on the subject of House of Lords reform. Legislation passed in recent years, such as the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 have shown that consensual reform is possible. The work of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House has also demonstrated that change can be achieved without the need for legislation. However, I draw a distinction between the reforms brought about by the 2014 and 2015 Acts, which were, in essence, incremental changes, and the reforms proposed in this Bill, which are altogether larger and more far-reaching. Such reforms should be considered carefully and—I emphasise—holistically.

As a Government, we recognise the vital work that this House does while also respecting the primacy of the other place. Equally, though, I highlight that the Conservative manifesto committed to reviewing the role of the House of Lords. We will announce our plans for that review in due course, but meanwhile I gently suggest that that commitment by the Government provides a fresh context to the matters now before us.

Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for continuing to raise this issue and I extend my thanks to all those who have participated in today’s debate. I conclude, however, by making clear the Government’s position, which is that reform needs to be considered carefully, not brought forward piecemeal. This is especially the case where, as here, there is no clear consensus. It is for these reasons that, on behalf of the Government, I feel bound to express reservations about the Bill.