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]

Lord Northbrook Excerpts
Lord Northbrook Portrait Lord Northbrook (Con)
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My Lords, I acknowledge the tenacity of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in promoting this Bill, and for reaching the age of 80 since we last debated it. It is for another day to discuss whether, in normal times, Private Member’s Bills which do not pass your Lordships’ House should have the same priority in the next Session. I do not like the decision to remove equal chances of any Private Member’s Bill succeeding in the ballot, by instead cherry-picking a group on a rather unfair basis without consultation with the House.

As my noble friend Lord Trenchard has already said, the Bill is a breach of a promise given in 1999. On June 22 that year, Lord Denham asked the following question of the Lord Chancellor:

“Just suppose that that House goes on for a very long time and the party opposite get fed up with it. If it wanted to get rid of those 92 before stage two came, and it hit on the idea of getting rid of them by giving them all life peerages … I believe that it would be a breach of the Weatherill agreement. Does the noble and learned Lord agree?”

The Lord Chancellor replied:

“I say quite clearly that … the position of the excepted Peers shall be addressed in phase two reform legislation.”—[Official Report, 22/6/1999; cols. 798-800.]

I also remind the House of the importance of the then Labour Lord Chancellor’s words on 30 March 1999:

“The amendment reflects a compromise negotiated between Privy Councillors on Privy Council terms and binding in honour on all those who have come to give it their assent.”—[Official Report, 30/3/1999; col. 207.]

For the hereditary Members of the House at that time, of which I was one, it was a vital part of the 1999 Act and a key condition for letting it make satisfactory progress through the House. Nothing could be clearer than a former Lord Chancellor’s words: that is why I believe that the Bill indeed breaches the Weatherill agreement and the House of Lords Act 1999, as does a current hereditary Labour Peer. I also believe that, as a matter of principle, such major constitutional reform should be implemented by government legislation rather than by a Private Member’s Bill.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
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Does the noble Lord agree with Lord Salisbury that that agreement was brought about by undue pressure and substantial threats at the time?

Lord Northbrook Portrait Lord Northbrook (Con)
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No, I do not agree with that.

The current system for the election of the 92 can be fine-tuned. The change I would like to see is that all replacements should be elected by the whole House, which would give more logic to the Labour and Liberal by-elections in particular. Overall, the system controls the number of hereditary Peers to a fixed number and has produced good-quality replacements. The hereditary Peers are a strong link with the past, a golden thread that goes back to the first separate sitting of the House in 1544. Until relatively recently, in House of Lords terms, the House was entirely hereditary. By-elections provide a way into this House that is not dependent on prime ministerial patronage.

Since we last considered such a Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the problem has been in controlling the number of life Peers—there have been no fewer than 62 new creations since the previous time we debated the Bill—and getting equal quality. I suggest that there should be elections among their numbers at each election to keep the total size of the House to, say, 500. To monitor quality, there should also be a statutory appointments commission whose verdict cannot not be overruled by the Government.

The Government’s response to the Burns committee report, which recommended limiting the size of the House by a different method, was not encouraging. It said:

“The Government does not … accept the Committee’s recommendation that the Prime Minister must now commit to a specific cap on numbers, and absolutely limiting appointments in line with the formula proposed”;

hence it appears there will be no limit on the size of the House. If and when the Labour Party gets back into power, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, so rightly said, it will also have to appoint a considerable number of new Peers to get its legislation through, so the size of the House will keep increasing.

With regard to further reform, we have also been promised a constitutional rights and democracy commission. I believe that we should wait for what this produces before acting on any constitutional Private Member’s Bill. In summary, though, significant legislation to implement phase 2 Lords reform should be brought forward by the Government rather than by a Private Member’s Bill.

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Lord Northbrook Portrait Lord Northbrook (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Does he recall the passage in Alastair Campbell’s memoirs when he said that he could not believe that Viscount Cranborne was going to go along with this deal, as it was only going to end in tears for him?

Lord Grocott Portrait Lord Grocott (Lab)
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I am not sure that I understood that intervention. I have read most of Alastair Campbell’s memoirs—but I can tell the noble Lord what was going on in Downing Street in 1999, because I was working there. We were certainly worried to death about the whole of that legislative programme. Our clear manifesto commitment was to remove all the hereditaries, and we were prevented from doing that because we were told that the rest of the programme would be wrecked. If there are any noble Lords who have not picked up on that and understood it, will they please read it again in Hansard, or read the comments that the Marquess of Salisbury has made? Do us all a favour, please, and when or if we have this debate next year—if it fails this year, I shall bring it back, and that is not a threat but a promise—let us end the discussion about that. It is simply false, incorrect, wrong and absurd. I hope that I have made myself clear.

The other point that needs repeating, even though several—