On Friday the House of Lords debated its own future.
Lord Steel of Aikwood (formerly leader of the Liberal Party) has brought in a Private Member’s Bill with four components. It would place the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis, abolish by-elections for hereditary peers, reduce the size of the House (from about 700) by encouraging retirement of peers who wish to leave and remove peers who do not attend – a new measure intended to ex-communicate peers who are sentenced to prison for at least a year.
Lord Norton of Louth is a Tory peer and a Professor at Hull University. Many of his superb students have served with great distinction in the Conservative Party. An expert on our uncodified constitution, Lord Norton made an important contribution to the debate:
"The arguments for the Bill are compelling and have already been well made. Given that, I feel it appropriate to use the time available to follow the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his excellent speech and address the arguments used against the Bill. As the noble Lord mentioned, there are those who argue that the Bill does not go far enough and those who argue that it goes too far. The argument that the Bill does not go far enough has been expounded in previous debates and various speakers have already referred to it. The aspect of the argument on which I wish to focus is that advanced by the Lord Chancellor and others that the purpose of the Bill is to prevent wider reforms from being achieved. It is recognised that there is much of merit in the Bill, but we are told that it is a means of stifling attempts to give effect to the Government’s preferred policy for the second Chamber.
“On the question of kicking the issue into the long grass, does the noble Lord not recognise that the danger of these incremental approaches to Lords reform is that they will inhibit the move towards fundamental reform? I will take the same view about the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for the same reason”.—[Official Report, 23/1/09; col. 1875.]
It does not take much reflection to recognise that that is an admission of weakness. If the Government’s case is so compelling, why will the Bill inhibit the move towards fundamental reform? That line of argument is tenable only if you believe that the case for wider reform is inherently weak and likely to be undermined by incremental changes. If enactment of this Bill were to undermine or even destroy the political will to achieve further reform, that would be a damning indictment of the case for the Government’s position. If the Government believe that the case that they have made in the White Paper is sound and compelling, the Bill should not be—indeed, cannot be—seen as an impediment to that case. The Government have accepted that there will be no legislation on wider reform in this Parliament. The White Paper envisages change that will take years to deliver. Therefore, the choice is not between the White Paper and the Bill; the choice is between the Bill and doing nothing.
Given that the choice is between the Bill and doing nothing, let me turn to the argument that the Bill goes too far. This House has evolved over centuries. Intrinsic to evolution is change. A static institution often becomes,
sooner or later, a dead institution. This House has shown a remarkable capacity for change. Much of that change has been achieved through amending our practices and procedures—in other words, changes that were within our own gift. However, some changes that are necessary to strengthen the House can be achieved only by statute, hence the introduction of the Bill.
One of the principal objections to the Bill appears to be to Part 2, which covers the by-election provision for hereditary Peers. I have dealt with this argument previously. Closing off the by-election option will not prevent hereditary Peers from entering the Chamber. It could actually have the opposite effect. I am regularly told that there are 92 hereditary Peers in the House of Lords. The number is actually greater than 92. The number of Labour hereditary Peers granted life peerages is higher than the number sitting under the provisions of the 1999 Act. The Liberal Democrats also recognise the value of conferring life peerages on hereditary Peers. However, the practice has not been followed on the Conservative Benches or the Cross-Benches, largely because of the number of hereditary Peers remaining on their respective Benches. The by-election option is utilised as the exclusive route for bringing in hereditary Peers. That seems to be seen for what it is: an impediment to, not an opportunity for, bringing in more able hereditary Peers. We have had some very able Members brought in through the by-election route. Their quality has not tailed off in recent by-elections. That suggests that there are talented hereditary Peers still outside the House. However, their chances of entering the House are constrained by the rate at which existing hereditaries in the House die off. If those in the House demonstrate longevity, no one comes in through that route.
My point is that the existing arrangements hinder rather than assist an able hereditary Peer excluded by the 1999 Act who could contribute to the work of the House. If we were to close off the by-election option, such a Peer could apply to the Appointments Commission, or be considered when a new set of working Peers is required. Able and younger hereditaries could come in more quickly and in greater number than is presently the case. In short, closing off the by-election option should be seen as a sign of confidence in the ability of excluded hereditaries, not a means of preventing them from coming into the House. If one has confidence that there are able hereditary Peers worthy of membership of the House, one should embrace the provisions of the Bill, not oppose them.
Other arguments could be raised against points made against the Bill, but I wanted to address what I see as the two principal claims levelled against it. I do not believe that either is sustainable. One can easily be in favour of fundamental reform and support the Bill. One can be in favour of ensuring that able hereditary Peers have an opportunity to enter this House and support the Bill. Essentially, it is an issue of confidence. Those who want wider reform, or who want able hereditaries to enter the House, and support the Bill have confidence in their position.
I have yet to hear a compelling case against the Bill that overcomes the objections that I have advanced. The Bill is necessary, perhaps more so now than before, and the case for it is compelling. It has my complete support."
I think that the House of Lords’ unelected status is a massive benefit. A revising chamber that is free from the whims and pressures of the electorate is every bit as desirable as a lower chamber which is not. Alas the winds of change are very much blowing in the direction of elections for the House of Lords.