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

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Department: Cabinet Office

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

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Excerpts
2nd reading
Friday 3rd December 2021

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill [HL] 2021-22 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Lilley Portrait Lord Lilley (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on putting forward this Bill; if anyone could by his wit, eloquence and the respect in which I hold him convince me of its necessity, it would be him.

I want to make a few brief points. I shall comment on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that we should widen the debate to the question of robes. I remember that, when I first wore my robes here on my introduction, I was told the story of Lord Hailsham who, having worn them at the Queen’s Speech, went out and saw the then Neil Kinnock on the other side of Central Lobby, which was filled with Japanese tourists. He shouted “Neil!”, at which point all the Japanese tourists fell to their knees—so there are clearly risks involved in the wearing of robes.

To get back to the more serious issue of today, first, the by-elections were part of an agreement. I remember that because, at the time, I was deputy leader of the Conservative Party and the then William Hague phoned me up to say that Lord Cranborne, who was a member of the shadow Cabinet, had, behind his back, negotiated with Tony Blair an agreement on the reform of the upper House, and to ask what we should do about it. I agreed with him that we had to sack Lord Cranborne, and we marched to this place and confronted the Association of Conservative Peers, who, to a man and woman—or to a noble Lord and noble Baroness—supported Lord Cranborne in what he was doing. It was not a welcome agreement, but it was an agreement that was subsequently enshrined in law in this place.

I have listened time and again in recent months to lectures from noble Lords, some of whom have spoken today, on the importance of keeping agreements once you have signed them in the context of the Northern Ireland protocol. You may not like the agreement and you may not agree with the people who negotiated the agreement, but you are bound by the agreement. It may, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, be described by one of the negotiators as “bullshit”, or the threats he used may be “bullshit”. We know now that Monsieur Barnier’s position was based on pretence and he subsequently turned out to be sovereignist in French terms—although that did not do him much good. Whatever it is, we are either bound by agreements or we are not. We are able to repudiate agreements only if the other side is not implementing them in good faith or there is a substantial and significant change of circumstances.

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait Baroness Watkins of Tavistock (CB)
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My Lords, I want to raise the issue of the agreement because I am one of the few people who have been appointed by the independent Appointments Commission. Since 1999, the numbers have radically reduced, and part of the agreement was that there would be regular independent appointments, yet by-elections for hereditary Peers have continued as part of what I believe is the same agreement. I wonder whether the noble Lord would like to comment on that.

Lord Lilley Portrait Lord Lilley (Con)
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The noble Baroness makes a point which I had not previously considered. If the agreement is being breached in that respect, it is an important matter and I would agree with her that it should be properly adhered to. I am glad to have her support on the importance of adhering to agreements, which should apply also to hereditary by-elections.

My second point is this. What approach should we adopt to constitutional reform? There are broadly two approaches: one, which normally prevails particularly on those Benches but among some on this side of the House, is what Hayek calls the constructivist approach—the belief that any measure should be evaluated against some abstract principle, such as democracy, equality or diversity, and that if it does not conform to them, it should be radically changed until it does. If we apply that to this place, the only way to achieve representative diversity would be the jury principle, and all of us would have to go unless our number happened to be picked in a random choice of people to replace us. Certainly, if democracy is to prevail, we would have to move to an elected House—something which I think would be foolish and of which the lower House would not approve. The alternative approach is the pragmatic approach that tends to prevail on these Benches. Does it work in practice? I submit that this House does work in practice. It works in practice for the contribution from the hereditaries—that does not prevent it working in practice. If things work in practice, we should not try to mend that which is not broken. The view of the constructivists, of course, is that it may work in practice but it does not work in principle—a foolish attitude if ever there was one, and one which I would not advocate.

Finally, does the House of Lords as it is composed and with a hereditary component work in practice? When I was Secretary of State, I would always have a Minister in my team in the Lords. The Whips would present me with various names and I would look through their qualifications, experience and so on and choose one. As it happened, most times I chose a hereditary. I did not know whether they were hereditaries or life Peers—I am afraid I was not acquainted with many Members of this House at that stage. I chose them on the basis of their experience and what I knew of their abilities, and there was a disproportionate number of them among the hereditaries Peers, who, for one reason or another—perhaps because they had known from birth that they would one day, if their father died before they did and their elder brothers predeceased them and so on, come to this place—had prepared for this by taking an interest in public affairs, but not driven purely by the sort of ambition that drove me and others who have come through the more disreputable process of going through the lower House.

We should recognise that hereditary by-elections are a valuable source of experienced, committed, prepared men and women—it would be nice if there were more women, and that is one of the more powerful arguments that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has used.

I remind the House that we made an agreement, and we should abide by that agreement. If we do not abide by that agreement, we are opening up to not abiding by other agreements, and I shall remember that when debates take place on the Northern Ireland protocol. We can either say that abstract principles apply, in which case this whole place has to be radically transformed, or we can say that we will go with what works and stick with what works, and not waste our time and unnecessarily change it.