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 Rennard Excerpts
2nd reading
Friday 3rd December 2021

(2 years, 4 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 Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, in 1909, Lloyd George put forward the People’s Budget, proposing measures such as the introduction of the first ever old-age pensions in this country. The then Liberal Government planned to finance them by increasing taxes, including the basic rate of income tax, which would rise from the equivalent of 5p in the pound to 6p in the pound, and a tax on the wealthiest landowners. Opposition from such landowners was so strong, however, that in November of that year, the Finance Bill was rejected by the House of Lords by 350 votes to 75.

The issue of constitutional reform and the role of the House of Lords was then centre stage in the January 1910 general election. Following it, there were then 70 days of debate and 554 Divisions on the Budget before the House of Lords was forced to accept it.

A second general election was required in the same year to give authority for a Parliament Bill to curb the powers of veto by the House of Lords. The Parliament Act 1911 did not attempt to change the composition of the House of Lords, but the preamble to the Act stated the intention

“to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis,”

although it recognised that,

“such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.”

We have been very patient in seeking to bring an end to the hereditary route to membership of this House over these 110 years. Perhaps only in this place could more than a century be considered too short a timescale in which to agree necessary changes. Yet it is clear from previous debates and votes that the overwhelming will of this House is to end the farcical process of holding by-elections to provide for more hereditary Peers.

On this issue, the great efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, follow those of my late and much respected noble friend Lord Avebury, who introduced a Private Member’s Bill on the subject in 2006. Why have we not made more progress on an issue which had overwhelming support in this House and in the other place when it was last tested?

The first reason is simply that a small group, almost all of them hereditary Peers, whose own position is not threatened by this Bill, have nevertheless put forward completely bogus arguments and multiple irrelevant amendments and used anti-democratic filibuster techniques to block its progress. The second reason is, of course, that the Government are not really interested either in reducing the size of this House, or in ending in good time the principle of having hereditary membership within our Parliament. They should have the honesty to say so but should also show the democratic commitment to allow time for both Houses to determine the issue.

It was the late Robin Cook who pointed out when he was working on a cross-party basis and championing Lords reform in 2005 that, as he put it:

“Only we and Lesotho reserve seats for hereditary chieftains”.

We should support this Bill today so that this could no longer be said in future.

We have heard much in previous debates about “gentlemen’s agreements” and “binding arrangements”, but the overarching principle is that no Parliament can bind another; otherwise, what point would there be in holding general elections, if major issues have been permanently determined by previous Parliaments?

We should not, in these considerations, again allow the time of the House to be wasted with hundreds of irrelevant amendments. Some of the individual amendments were nine pages long, trying to amend a one-page, two-clause Bill. Many of these amendments were not moved and there never was any intention of moving them; they served only to filibuster the debate and prevent progress.

No existing Member of the House—and I accept that we have some very excellent hereditary Members—should feel threatened by this Bill. The 203 people on the waiting list for hereditary vacancies—all men, I believe—have other routes to membership, including through the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission and the patronage of the Prime Minister.

If we respect this House—and many of our debates have spoken about respect for the House—we should let the will of the House prevail on this issue. Let the Bill complete all its stages. We should let the House of Commons vote again on this issue. That would allow people to see who is defending the hereditary principle, but I suspect that the Government would not like this to be known.

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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.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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If the noble Lord is so convinced by the principle that agreements, once made, are binding and can never be changed, should he not then accept that the European Communities Act 1972 was a binding agreement in which we joined the European Union which could therefore never be changed by a future Parliament?

Lord Lilley Portrait Lord Lilley
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With respect, that is a silly point because we left under the treaty of whatever it is, which had Article 50 which allowed members states to leave.