Lord Rennard (LD)
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, whose forensic examination of the case was quite flawless. However, I shall argue that this should not, perhaps, be seen as our highest priority.
The Bill proposes a very modest measure of constitutional reform. It is at the opposite end of the scale from the Great Reform Act 1832, the second Reform Act 1867, the third reform Act 1884 and the Representation of the People Acts of 1918, 1928 and 1969. Over 150 years, those Acts extended the franchise for elections from about 214,000 people—about 3% of the population—to the 47.6 million people who were registered to vote in the general election last December. That figure did not include the approximately 800 Members of the House of Lords, which is why we are here today.
In moving the Second Reading of an identical Bill here last July, the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, made much of the fact that the House of Commons has primacy in legislation, has total control over financial matters, and that its membership effectively decides who forms the Government. If Members of this House have no say in the membership of the House of Commons, then we have no say in who forms the Government of the country, and that cannot be right.
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, also said, and repeated today, that out of nearly 200 countries with second Chambers, ours is the only one in the world that does not allow its Members to vote at general elections. Recent legislation has confirmed that we are disfranchised in this way, and in replying to the debate last July the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, cited the House of Lords Act 1999 in particular. But when I voted as a new Member of this House for that Act, it was on the basis that it was to be only an interim measure before a second and more fundamental phase of reform. That reform did not happen under Tony Blair and we are still waiting for it because of the failure of the other place to agree a timetable Motion for the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012. That was despite that Bill achieving its Second Reading by a massive 462 to 124 votes of MPs. The process of reform is therefore very frustrating.
It is 109 years since Asquith was Prime Minister and the Parliament Act 1911 promised to replace the hereditary principle with the popular one. It has not happened yet, so those of us who believe in the value added by a second Chamber and that lawmakers would have greater legitimacy if they were chosen by voters must argue for piecemeal reform until we can get what we consider to be real reform.
What this Bill proposes would be a tiny step in a process of incremental reform, but it is not one that we should be making our priority. People will say that it would be inconsistent if we were to demand the right for us to vote for MPs, while voters have no right to elect Members of this House.
There are also other more important issues of democratic legitimacy to address and which must have greater priority than this proposal to add Peers to the voting registers for electing MPs. There are, for example, around 9 million people not on the electoral registers who should be included or who are not correctly registered. The failure properly to include such a large number of people distorts election results and constituency boundaries. We should also be giving more consideration to the uncertain fate of the 3 million EU citizens presently living in the UK. There would be no better way of guaranteeing the promises made to respect their rights than to give them the right to elect MPs in the same way that they have been able to vote for local councillors and members of the devolved Assemblies. You do not need to be a UK citizen to vote in our general elections. More than 300,000 Irish citizens and nearly 1.2 million qualifying Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK are eligible to vote in our general elections. As we continue to debate our future relationship in Europe, we should ensure that the 3 million EU citizens resident here should be able to help choose our MPs.
The Bill addresses an inconsistency in electoral law, but before we think about our own voting rights while we are already Members of this Parliament, we should consider properly the growing inconsistency in the age for inclusion on the voting registers. In Scotland, you can now vote in Scottish Parliament and local elections at the first election after your 16th birthday. In Wales you can now vote from 16 for the Welsh Assembly, and you will soon also be able to vote in local elections there. At the very least we must consider all these issues before we consider letting us vote in a general election which is not due until May 2025.
Finally, I refer, as other noble Lords have, to the excellent speech by the excellent former Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. I am sorry he is no longer in his place. In response to the gracious Speech on January 8 he spoke about the proposed commission on the constitution, democracy and rights and how it is supposed to examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. He said that
“it will have to sit for a very long time and cover a wide range of subjects, including the royal prerogative, judicial review, party funding, the voting system, the future of the union, the ECHR, the role of House of Lords, the freedom of the press, franchise for 16 year-olds and appointments to the judiciary, to mention but a few.”—[Official Report, 8/1/20; col. 217.]
I suggest that the proposal in this Bill should be considered together with those issues. I hope that in his reply to the debate the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will tell us more about how this commission will be established, its timescale and whether it will consider the issue in this Bill.