HC Deb 03 March 1999 vol 326 cc1084-104

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

3.46 pm
The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

As it has been agreed that clause 1 should stand part of the Bill, the remaining clauses should fall naturally into place as consequences of it. Clause 2 deals with the fact that, under the common law, confirmed in the case concerning Bristol, South-East in 1964 and my right hon. Friend who is now the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), peers are prevented from voting in elections to the House of Commons and from standing as candidates.

The clause allows hereditary peers to vote in parliamentary elections and to stand for election to, and be Members of, the House of Commons. It is an appropriate response to their loss of the right to sit personally in Parliament by reason of their hereditary peerages.

Some of the disadvantages, as well as the privileges, of peerage are tied to membership of the House of Lords. The excusing by right of peers from jury service, for example, is a statutory bar arising from their membership of the House. That will lapse with their loss of membership of the House of Lords.

It was confirmed, however, in the case fought by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, as he reminded us on Second Reading, that some of the attributes of peerage are found in the blood. The status of not being a commoner, and being therefore ineligible to have any direct connection with the House of Commons, is one of them, so it is necessary to overturn, by statute, peers' inability to vote, stand or sit. The rights will not flow automatically from the loss of membership of the House of Lords.

That is the purpose of the clause and I do not think that anyone, in fairness, could object to it. I should add for the sake of completeness that clause 4(3) contains the transitional provisions needed to ensure that effect can be given to the clause by the time that the 2000–01 electoral register comes into force.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I do not dissociate myself in any way from the thrust of the clause, but a question arises on which I would appreciate the Minister's views. The hereditary peers will be allowed to vote at future general elections, but they are summoned to Parliament personally for the duration of the Parliament and, being at the present Parliament, they are deprived of the right to vote because they represent themselves. Is there not a serious constitutional anomaly concerning their civic rights if they are deprived of their right to sit in another place halfway through a Parliament and not at the end of it?

Mr. Hoon

I was about to deal with that point. If the hon. Gentleman reads clause 4(3), he will see that we propose that the Secretary of State may by order make such transitional provisions as he considers appropriate about the entitlement of holders of hereditary peerages to vote at elections for the House of Commons or for the European Parliament. That provision is to deal with precisely the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes. It would allow the Home Secretary to make appropriate provision to allow those hereditary peers who have lost their right to sit in the other place to be included on electoral registers in time for them both to vote and stand before any subsequent general election. That is why clause 4(3) has been included in the Bill.

Mr. Grieve

I follow the Minister's argument, but it does not get round the problem: the peers will be disfranchised for the remainder of this Parliament from having representation, either in the upper House by themselves, or in this House by virtue of having been able to exercise their right to vote at the general election. That would be a serious denial of civic rights to 759 people. I would be interested to hear the rationale behind the proposal, and the Minister's view on that point, which I have made on several occasions to the Leader of the House without getting a reply.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is making heavy weather of this. As a distinguished lawyer, he will know that it is not usually appropriate for Parliament to legislate retrospectively, which is what he suggests. If we were to remedy the problem that he describes, we would change the rules retrospectively and, if we did that, he would be the first to challenge us.

Mr. Grieve

I was not suggesting that we should alter matters retrospectively. My point was that, to keep an equality of civic rights, the measure to deprive the hereditary peers of their right to sit should come into force at the end of a Parliament, when they can then vote for the election of a new one.

Mr. Hoon

As I have said, the provision in clause 4(3), if accepted by the Committee and ultimately by the House, will allow transitional provisions to be made that will give the hereditary peers the opportunity to vote in any subsequent general and European elections. That seems to me to be an appropriate response to the problem the hon. Gentleman describes.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

In the event of the Government accepting the Cranborne proposition, will it follow that clause 2 would also have to be amended, or would any hereditary peers sitting as a result be disqualified from voting or being elected to this House?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to speculate about an amendment that may or may not be accepted by the other place or by this House. It would not be wise for me to follow his speculation, but I would say that it is not clear—if such a proposition were to be accepted—whether those peers would sit by virtue of their hereditary peerages or as a result of some other mechanism.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I understood fully the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), but it does not get round the problem. Nobody is asking for retrospective legislation—rather, we are asking for fairness in legislation, although I can see the Minister scoffing at the mere suggestion that we might request that the legislation should be fair. The peers could not vote at the general election because they had representation in their own right in the other place. That will be taken away before the next election and they will have been denied their human and civic rights to vote for people to represent them in this House.

Mr. Hoon

Is not the answer to the hon. Gentleman's problem the fact that the peers have been enjoying rights in the House of Lords since the general election and will continue to enjoy those rights unless and until the Bill is passed?

Mr. Evans

The point at issue is the date on which the Bill will be enacted, and on which the hereditary peers will be denied their right to sit and vote in the other place. We suggest that the natural time at which that should occur would be the next general election when they could use their civic right to vote for representation in the House of Commons. That is fairness. The Minister must appreciate that the timing of the Bill's enactment as currently planned will mean that 700 or so peers who are not part of any arrangement by which some hereditary peers may sit as life peers after the Bill is passed, will have lost their right to vote for representation in this Parliament.

No one denies the simplicity of clause 2, but questions arise because the Leader of the House has said that she is minded to accept at some stage an amendment tabled by Lord Weatherill or others in the other place that would allow a certain number of the present hereditary peers to remain after the Bill becomes an Act. Three questions arise, and I should like the Minister to deal with them.

First, what will happen in the other place to those who will be among the 91, or any other number, who are retained?

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

On a point of order, Sir Alan. I have become used to the idea that hon. Members must address the business of the Committee as listed on the amendment paper. Must we endure hour after hour of "what ifs", or of matters that may arise at a later date? Would you make it clear to the Committee whether hypothetical questions such as those being put by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) are properly the business of the Committee today?

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

On a point of order, Sir Alan.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Let me deal first with the first point of order.

I have heard nothing out of order. The questions raised are matters of debate. I am concerned to ensure that points made are relevant to the Question before the Committee. There is, conceivably, some overlap between the points being made on clause 2 stand part and matters that we may reach when we consider clause 4. However, I am satisfied at the moment that all that has been said has been in order.

Mr. Evans

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman may have been led astray, so I should mention that we are in Committee.

Mr. Evans

Thank you, Sir Alan.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

What happened to the other point of order?

Mr. Evans

The point of order has been more than adequately dealt with. Labour Members like to close down debate whenever they can, but the House of Commons is here to scrutinise the Bill before us. If we cannot do so here, where can we do so?

Mr. Tyrie

Has not the problem that we have just encountered arisen as a direct result of our having before the Committee a Bill which will almost certainly be amended in the other place? We are not being given the opportunity to debate what it is almost certainly the Government's intention to put on to the statute book.

The Chairman

Order. This is not a debate about a debate. It is about clause 2.

Mr. Evans

In that case, I shall add nothing to my hon. Friend's excellent intervention, Sir Alan.

Clause 2 is about a certain number of people who will retain their titles, but lose their rights to sit and vote in the other place. However, a number of hereditary peers will receive sitting and voting rights after the Bill becomes an Act. However great that number may be, does the simplicity of the clause mean that those peers will have no right to vote at a general election because they are continuing to represent themselves in the other place?

The second question relates to the number of peers who will be elected by other peers in the other place. A number of hereditary peers will help to elect a group of peers who will remain in the upper House for some indeterminate period of time. We do not know when stage 2 will come about. We are talking only about a transitional House, which could be with us for a long time. We simply do not know how long it will exist. There is the example of other changes, such as that of 1911. It took 88 years for us to get round to this reform. Who is to say that it will not be a further 88 years before we get round to the reform now proposed?

4 pm

Will the hereditaries who will be able to vote for other hereditaries to remain in the Lords be allowed to vote at general elections and or even stand for this House, even though they will have helped to elect legislators for the other place? That is a straightforward question, but it is one of the anomalies thrown up by clause 2. Such peers will be allowed to vote once for a group of people in the upper House and once for someone in this House. The Minister may say that that will affect only those who vote in the election for hereditary representatives. All hereditaries will be eligible to vote for the peers to remain in the upper House, but some may not take up their voting rights. Is the Minister about to say that peers who vote for legislators in the upper House cannot stand for this House or vote for legislators in the lower House? If they do not take part in the first election, will they have full rights? That would mean that they would vote only once, for Members of this place.

The Minister and the Leader of the House think that this is a simple Bill, but it has not been thought through. As with many of the constitutional changes, the Government have not fully considered its effects. Will the Minister direct his attention to some of the anomalies raised by clause 2?

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

This is the first time that I have participated in a debate on the second Chamber. I have an interest to declare in that, in the fullness of time, I stand to inherit a hereditary peerage and could benefit from the provisions of clause 2 as drafted. I therefore have a personal interest in it, which I make plain. You will perhaps forgive me, Sir Alan, if I do not declare that interest in every debate in which I might subsequently participate.

I wish to support what my hon. Friends have said, but first I want to tell the Minister that I broadly support clause 2. I have long thought that the second Chamber needed fundamental reform. I believe that we should start with functions. Its powers need to be substantially increased so as to be a check on this House. That can be done only if we are prepared to confer proper legitimacy on it. I favour a second Chamber that is wholly, or very largely, directly elected. The consequence of that is that I support clause 2 as a natural corollary of my general position.

I come now to the personal point, which causes great concern. It is known that the Weatherill amendment—or is it the Cranborne amendment?—may well receive sympathetic attention from the Government. I would be deeply concerned if, as a consequence of creating a college of hereditary peers capable of electing 91 or any other number of representative peers in the second Chamber, people such as myself who may wish to remain a Member of this House, but still take a peerage, would find ourselves disfranchised or disabled from doing so. That point was made by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). The Government must address it, because people such as myself would be deeply distressed if the consequence of accepting the Cranborne-Weatherill amendment was disapplication of the provisions of clause 2 to persons such as me and one or two other right hon. and hon. Members.

I have one other point in support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley said. There will have to be some amendment to clause 2 if we accept the Cranborne-Weatherill amendment. Once we create a college of hereditary peers who elect representative hereditary peers to sit pro tem in the other place, unless we disqualify that group—those who are in the electoral college—we shall have given them two votes. We shall have given them the ability to vote within the electoral college for representative peers as well as to vote for people in this House.

Mr. Tyrie

It could not happen to a better group.

Mr. Hogg

That may be so, but the question whether it is democratic is one to which the Committee must turn its attention.

So I have a personal interest that I do not seek to conceal. I do not wish to find myself unable to take advantage of clause 2 should I decide to do so. There is a serious problem. It cannot be resolved finally today, but I hope that the Minister of State will understand the force of the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and I have made and that he will deal with the problem should the Cranborne amendment be moved and accepted.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). I agree with a great deal of what he said. I was interested by his choice of words in his initial remark: he said that he was one of those who would benefit from the Bill. Anyone who believes in democracy will agree with him. He will be relieved of the duty to go and sit in another place. He will be able to continue sitting and speaking in a democratic Chamber chosen by the people of a constituency and to be accountable to them. The things that go to the heart are the things which we value most in our democracy.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will benefit, it follows that those who are left in the other Chamber—the life peers chosen not by heredity but by patronage—will be at a distinct democratic disadvantage. The clause discriminates against life peers if we believe, as I do and the right hon. and learned Gentleman does, that to sit in a democratic Chamber is an advantage, a benefit and a precious right. The condemnation of people in the other House to be the only people in our democracy who are not part of it is something which the House ought to consider before it proceeds with the Bill.

Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I think that the Bill is a fine and historic piece of legislation. I agree specifically with the clause in so far as it advances the argument. However, it has the unfortunate consequence of, probably inadvertently, disadvantaging life peers. Hereditary peers gain enormously from the clause, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said. They become electors. They become eligible for election. They can be chosen by vote. They will sit in this House, which is about as great a privilege as anyone can have in our democracy. But the life peers will not be chosen by the people and be accountable to them. They will be chosen by oligarchs. They will be chosen by the few—oligos. That is an extremely sad and wrong position for them to be in. It is extraordinary for this House, as a result of a reform taking us into the 21st century, to be creating a new oligarchy—that is what the new electoral college will be, and that is wrong. It can be put right. The Bill is not the end of the story.

I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies he will emphasise that when the royal commission looks at the next stage it will be able to correct the inadvertent defects and consequences of the clause and the Bill. If he does not, and if the royal commission decides that the second Chamber will not be part of our democracy, because it is not directly and democratically elected but chosen by oligarchs, that will be wholly wrong and we should be extremely wary of that. In my view, and that of many hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, we shall have reformed one enormous defect of the other place—its hereditary principle—but not the other great defect, which is that the second Chamber is neither chosen by, nor directly accountable to, the people of this country. It is not part of our direct democracy.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give the Committee some reassurance that Lord Wakeham and the royal commission will give that matter serious consideration. One of the commission's options, as laid out in the White Paper, is to consider a directly elected Chamber that would avoid any taint of oligarchy. Only then can Members of that Chamber benefit in the way that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham rightly tells us he, too, will benefit.

Mr. Grieve

I endorse most of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and the remarks about the long-term issues that the Committee must address. We are concerned with stage 1—we hope that it will be a stage 1 and not, as I greatly fear, a prolonged stage during which we become bogged down considering what should happen next. It is an interesting reflection of the bizarre way in which we are going about the process that we end up with all those small but important points, such as the one made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). If the Weatherill amendment were to be accepted—as we have been told that it will—we would end up with the potential anomaly of Members of the House of Lords having two votes.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Does my hon. Friend agree that what we have been told is that the amendment will be accepted if the Government get their way and succeed in parliamentary blackmail against their lordships?

Mr. Grieve

I agree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps I was presuming the success of the blackmailing tactics that the Government might employ. Based on the words of the President of the Council, I must accept that there is an intention, in certain circumstances, to accept that amendment. In that case, a number of bizarre constitutional anomalies will be created, whereby certain hereditary peers will be given the right to elect representatives in both the other House and this place unless an adjustment is made.

I should like to drag the Minister back to the point that I made in my intervention. It is only a small point, but the Government seem to have made a notable attempt to slip away from the central thrust of the matter and not to address my point properly. When the Bill is passed, there will be a most peculiar anomaly: hereditary peers who did not have the right to vote at the last election, because they had the right to represent themselves for the duration of the coming Parliament, will lose that right halfway through that Parliament without ever having had any right to influence the formation of the House of Commons. It might be said that the numbers are so small and insignificant in relation to the total electorate that that does not matter; or that, even if it does matter, the Government have decided in their wisdom that it should not matter, because they consider it to be an accident and that they cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the Committee if that is the case.

I can recall a number of results in the last election that might well have been different if the total number of hereditary peers living in particular constituencies had had the right to vote—for example, Winchester, which is stuffed full of hereditary peers and where, after the first count, the majority was only two. The matter is not completely academic.

A principle is involved. Not long ago, we incorporated the European convention on human rights, which has a specific clause about the need for fairness in elections and for the legislature to reflect the will and the expression of the will of the electorate. We are breaking that convention and I want to know why it is so necessary to do so in the middle of a Parliament, whereas the proper procedure would be for the changes to come about at the end of a Parliament. If we did that, we could roll stages 1 and 2 into a single process. We could establish the clear principle that the hereditary peers will go by legislating now on stage 1 and then move on to stage 2.

I have raised a legitimate point, and I would like an explanation of why certain people's civic rights will be discarded arbitrarily by this legislation.

4.15 pm
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

Several interesting points have been raised in this discussion—notably by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who has just spoken. It should be possible to deal with the fairly minor anomaly of losing a position in the House of Lords as a result of the hereditary principle and then having the right to vote in a democratic election. If my memory serves me correctly, peers of the realm appear on electoral registers so that they may vote in local authority and European elections. Therefore, it should be relatively simple to amend the process, as the procedure and the lists are already in place.

On the point about how many hereditary peers may be affected, I believe that there are some six or seven peers in my division—some of whom may be life peers. While I am never over-confident about election outcomes, just as the law does not take account of trifles, we should sometimes be bolder in our analysis of how things turn out. That issue can be dealt with.

I could not follow—it may be my fault—the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who said that life peers would be disadvantaged by the present proposals. I cannot understand why that should be so. If life peers are to remain in the upper House—I believe that the upper House should not comprise any peers at all, but that is a matter for another day—they will presumably have chosen to go to that place. In that sense, they are in a different position from hereditary peers, who are there as a result of the consequences of history and their ancestors.

Mr. Fisher

Is it not true that life peers chose to join an hereditary House that comprised a vast majority of hereditary peers? Many life peers chose to move to the upper House in an attempt to dilute the influence in another place and act as a democratic restraint upon an hereditary House. Many would not have chosen to go to the other place if they had known that it would be democratically elected in the future. Many life peers came from this place and a lifetime of representing and being accountable to people. They benefited from and cherish democracy, and they went to the other place only as a second-best option when their time had passed here.

Mr. Hurst

That may be so in part—it is not possible to read the motives of each appointment to the upper House over time, or to say whether people went to the other place to dilute the influence of hereditary peers or as a last resort because their careers were slipping. It is difficult to analyse the reasons at this stage. In any event, if hereditary peers are removed, by numbers alone the upper House will become more powerful because of the nature of those who then constitute it. If men and women go to the other place as life peers, and hereditary peers disappear from the Chamber, the influence of the former group will be much greater.

Mr. Hogg

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about life peers—they have made a choice. However, the hon. Gentleman should also bear in mind the fact that Ministers have adopted a different approach regarding hereditary peers of the first creation, of whom there is at least one in the House of Lords at present, the noble Lord Whitelaw. As I understand it, he is able to take advantage of clause 2—although he has chosen to be an hereditary peer—whereas the great class of life peers cannot. There is already a distinction.

Mr. Hurst

I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point. I am sure that my Front-Bench colleagues will have noted his concerns, which may be dealt with in detail when the Bill returns from the House of Lords. In many ways, our debate on this clause is hypothetical, because we are assuming that certain changes will be made in the upper Chamber, and that they will be accepted when the Bill returns here. It is not for me to suggest whether we are straying from the confines of the matter before us, but in many ways we are speculating about what may occur.

Those points may be dealt with in due course, but I remain unconvinced by the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that life peers will be disadvantaged. I should have thought that they would be advantaged by the current proposals if we then moved on to having an elected upper House, which I trust we would not. If we took that course, it might be open to them to disclaim their life peerages.

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been of assistance in pointing out to the Committee something that I must now emphasise. Although it is possible to anticipate certain changes, there will be a proper place to deal with them in detail, and the Committee might deny the House the opportunity of doing so at the proper length and in the proper detail if too much is said now. If certain changes are made in the other place, they will come to this place and there will be an opportunity for debate and amendment, so I am not minded to allow this debate to run on endlessly.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Bearing in mind what you have just said, Sir Alan, it strikes me that nothing could illustrate better the difficulty in which we find ourselves than the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). We seem to be debating a clause on the assumption that it will end up being different, and that gives the debate a rather unreal quality. However, we must deal with that.

We seem to be saying that under clause 2, hereditary peers would be able to vote for candidates for the House of Commons, stand as candidates for the House of Commons and, if there were an election in the upper House, vote for their equals to become members of a category that we have not yet defined and which may or may not exist. We are now considering the possibility of hereditary peers taking part in a series of democratic processes that are oddly unrelated.

Making sense of the Bill, giving it coherence and setting it in the context of what we believe to be stage 1—never mind any stage that may lie beyond—is proving rather difficult for me and, I suspect, for most hon. Members present. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) illustrated that point well. We shall now be asked to approve of the clause although we have the strong suspicion that it will be irrelevant sooner or later. That is an unusual position in which to put a Committee. We usually legislate in good faith and respond to what the Government of the day or hon. Members have to say about a Bill on the assumption that what we see is what we will get, but here we are faced with the odd situation of being pretty certain that what we see is not what we will get. We shall end up with something different.

Dealing satisfactorily with that question is a difficult proposition. We shall be guided, of course, by you, Sir Alan, and you will keep us on the straight and narrow. However, because we shall be kept on the straight and narrow, and the problem will recur throughout our deliberations on the Bill, we must ask ourselves how valid or legitimate our deliberations can be given the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the Government's threat or promise—I am not sure which it is—about what may or may not happen when the Bill leaves here and goes to the other place. That question is left hanging over us.

I have another difficulty on which I would be grateful for guidance from the Minister. I am left wondering whether the Minister is absolutely satisfied as to the propriety of the procedures set out in this clause, and in the Bill so far as we know it, should there be an election at any time between now and the expiry of the five-year fixed maximum term of this Parliament.

It is possible to conceive of circumstances in which an election called by the Prime Minister might intervene at one stage or another of the proposals on which we are deliberating.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend is making a serious judgment, and he is right to do so. The transitional arrangements, which are set out later in the Bill, and which would, if enacted, give hereditary peers the right to vote in elections, are permissive, not mandatory. If we want to ensure that, if the Bill is passed, hereditary peers have a right to vote and so on, the provisions that we will address later need to be mandatory rather than permissive.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I shall of course take into account what he says, although I will not pursue it at this stage, Sir Alan, because you might take a rather dim view of my doing so. I hope for guidance from the Minister at this stage, as this point will become relevant later.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us where he feels the calling of a general election by the Prime Minister would leave the Bill, in whatever stage we had reached in our deliberations of it or with regard to stages 1 and 2 or whatever. I say that with particular reference to the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham in respect of safeguarding the rights of Members of the present upper House when they might be being changed by the Bill. We would want to make sure that they would still be validated in the event of an election being called, perhaps unexpectedly, for reasons that none of us can know now, perhaps not even the Prime Minister. It is an important point.

It is peculiar to our electoral arrangements that the Prime Minister has the power to call an election at any time. As soon as we start—

The Chairman

Order. I have been listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. Essentially, what he is saying is more suitable for a Third Reading debate rather than for the clause 2 stand part debate, because of its wide applicability.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful, Sir Alan. I shall not pursue the matter, but I was making my point in the context of the words "voting at elections". I have probably made my point sufficiently, and the Minister has understood it. I may return to the issue at a later stage, as you suggest.

All I wanted to say is that we are in difficult waters, so it is especially important that the Minister should guide us at this stage and explain how he sees matters developing. In that way, we might have a better context in which to conduct our subsequent debates; we might be better informed and, I hope, reassured that nothing in the Bill will create difficulties not foreseen by the Government and not covered either by subsequent amendments or by the text of the Bill itself. They are the reassurances that I seek at this stage, and I look forward to the Minister giving them.

4.30 pm
Dr. George Turner

I shall make two points. First, I am surprised that the Committee wants to waste time now discussing business which might properly be conducted later. If we were earing complaints from the Opposition that the Government were not giving sufficient time to discuss something which was before the Committee because it had been moved as an amendment in another place, I should have considerable sympathy with them because I do not think that constitutional changes should be made without proper debate. However, what we are achieving—

Mr. Forth

On a point of order, Sir Alan. Will you confirm that we cannot conceivably be wasting time unless you were to tell us that we were doing so, and that this is a legitimate debate, and will continue to be so for as long as you are guiding us and permitting it to continue?

The Chairman

The right hon. Member slightly anticipates me. I was hoping that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) was not inadvertently implying criticism of the Chair for allowing this debate to take place. Clearly, all that I have heard has been in order. I have given the Committee a ruling on the limits of this debate, but it is a perfectly legitimate debate.

Dr. Turner

I was not disputing your ruling, Sir Alan; I was trying to support the one that you have just made. You suggested that, if we prolonged this debate, it may prevent time from being allocated to a more appropriate debate. I was simply urging through you, Sir Alan, my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench not to waste too much time on such a hypothetical matter.

Opposition Members are seeking to protect the privileged few, who for many years, as well as the first two years of this Parliament, have been able to vote on legislation without having been democratically elected. I know that many Labour Members believe that an end to such privilege cannot come too soon. Any injustice that results in a lack of representation in this House, but not elsewhere, for only one half or two thirds of a Parliament is minor indeed compared with the privilege that many families have enjoyed for centuries.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has done an injustice to what has been said from the Opposition Benches. I can only assume that he has not been listening very carefully. I do not particularly blame him for that. I, for one, am not defending the hereditary peerage. I want an elected Chamber. I know that that is the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), as it is of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who will seek to catch your eye, Sir Alan. To argue that we are seeking to protect entrenched interests in the other place is to misunderstand what has been said in this debate.

Dr. Turner

My mother used to say, "Watch and see what they do, as well as what they say." Opposition Members have been in favour of reform of the other place for 80 years, but it has not happened yet. I want to ensure that it happens in this Parliament. Those who seek to delay such reform are, like their party for most of this century, seeking to protect the privileged few. This House needs to get on with the Bill, and agree this clause.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Conservative Members say that they are not defending the hereditary principle, but during the 18 years—let alone before then—in which they were in government, not a single step was taken to do away with it. How have they suddenly become so radical?

Dr. Turner

My hon. Friend answers his own question. I have heard very little from Conservative Members about their great concern to reform the other place.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

On the alleged disfranchisement of hereditary peers for part of this Parliament, does my hon. Friend agree that they knew at the election that their right to vote and sit in the Lords may be abolished? Indeed, they have known that that was Parliament's intention since 1911, from the preamble to the Parliament Act. Did they not know that when they claimed their peerages? Have they not, since 1963, had the right to disclaim their peerages and stand for and be elected to the House of Commons?

Dr. Turner

My hon. Friend's point is valid.

The driving principle behind my strong support for this measure in our manifesto is that, without reform of the other place, and from what I have seen in the short time that I have been in this place, we would get but a fraction of our business through in the final two years of this Parliament, and therefore fail to deliver on our manifesto commitments. That was well illustrated in the past 12 months. The sooner that this Bill is enacted—and I support this clause as part of it—the better.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was concerned that the debate had been, if not constrained, certainly coloured by potential hypothetical amendments which may be introduced in another place. That is not so much anomalous as absurd and insulting, because such amendments were tabled by me and my hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), and rejected by the Committee. That should be the end of the matter. It strikes me as odd that we should continue as though that had not happened.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield pointed out the injustice that hereditary peers would suffer, certainly for the remainder of the Parliament, if they were, in effect, disfranchised. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) discounted that on the ground that their votes would have been unlikely to affect the result in any way. With the greatest respect, I do not think that that is the point.

I know that the hon. Member for Braintree is something of an enthusiast for the British electoral system, of which we enjoy the benefits now, and has suspicions about continental intrusions into that system. One of the arguments which is advanced for such intrusions is that, if one casts a vote that is not for the winning candidate, it is, in effect, a wasted vote. I fear that, by discounting the votes of hereditary peers in that manner, the hon. Gentleman is playing into the hands of his enemies on the central question of the validity of our electoral system.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) went even further and suggested that, as the hereditaries had known for some time that the reform was liable to happen, they could accept that jeopardy. In a democracy, it is important that the system should be seen to be principled and fair. The obvious remedy is to delay implementation of the measure until the end of the Parliament.

Mr. Linton

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, since 1963, hereditary peers could have voted in general elections or stood for election to Parliament simply by disclaiming their peerages?

Mr. Swayne

That is true, but those peers had no wish to do so. It is absurd to say they should have done so in anticipation of a measure such as clause 2.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said that his potential support for a measure such as clause 2 was conditioned by his enthusiasm to see the other House strengthened, that that required an elected House, for which the clause was an important corollary, and that that was an argument for supporting the clause. I am rather persuaded by that argument, but I have reservations.

One reservation is that perhaps we are projecting into the other House desires that should be focused on the House of Commons. By projecting those desires into the potential strength of another House, we may undermine the coherence of the entire constitution. I remain to be persuaded of the argument of my right hon. and learned Friend.

Many Members—certainly many Conservative Members—have drawn attention to the independent nature of members of the hereditary peerage, but the clause would give those independent members a means of standing for the House of Commons, of improving the independent-minded nature of its Members and, therefore, the overall quality of Members' scrutiny. My view of that argument is that it will take a long time to take effect, whereas, very shortly, we shall be deprived of the independent views of hereditary peers in the other place. I prefer the principle that we should not change what we have before we know precisely with what we are replacing it. For that reason, I am against the clause standing part of the Bill.

Mr. Tyrie

To take up some of the detailed points which have been made, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) pointed out that the transitional arrangements in clause 4 were permissive and not mandatory. I shall be grateful if the Minister will explain why that is so and why the arrangement cannot be made mandatory. Is this in any way connected with the possibility that another clause will be added in another place? This clause may be sitting here to enable the Bill to go through later, with the addition of the Weatherill amendment.

Anomalies have been raised in respect of people finding themselves in a privileged position for a brief period in the other place if the Bill is passed. One way of dealing with that is to consider delaying implementation until the end of the Parliament, rather than the end of the Session.

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have selected an amendment, which I expect to call later, about commencement and duration. I therefore counsel him not to refer to those matters now. It would be inappropriate to do so and it would not enable the hon. Gentleman to expand on them very much under a further group of amendments. I think that he is raising matters that should be left until later.

Mr. Tyrie

May I point out, Sir Alan, that the anomalies derive from clause 2 and that there is an inevitable interaction between clauses 2 and 4 in that respect? It is inconceivable that we should discuss how to go about implementing clause 2 without considering the transitional arrangements. Such arrangements are integral to the problem. However, I shall not pursue the matter. I merely say that, if we were to follow your ruling to its conclusion, we would be required to debate part of clause 2 when considering clause 4, which I think would be equally messy.

The Chairman

Order. On another interpretation, I would have to rule that we are debating the Bill as it is, not as it might become. There will be an opportunity, as there is in any bicameral system, for the House of Commons to face other proposals at a later stage. There is nothing new in that. I have allowed a stand part debate on clause 2 on the understanding that it is a general debate by virtue of being a stand part debate. Other details will be dealt with under my selection of amendments.

Mr. Tyrie

Thank you, Sir Alan, for your ruling. As I said a moment ago, I was not intending to pursue the matter any further. However, I would be grateful to receive an answer from the Minister.

Clause 2 will remove the common law disqualifications on hereditary peers to sit in the House of Commons or to vote in general elections. A more drastic approach that hereditary peers can take is to exercise their right to renounce their peerages under the Peerage Act 1963. That route was opened up—it has already been discussed this afternoon to a degree—after a struggle by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is not in his place, Alec Douglas-Home and Quintin Hogg, the father of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham. They all decided that the House of Commons was a better place than the Lords to pursue a political career. In a way, this is a nobler place, because it carries democratic legitimacy.

This is not a suitable opportunity to debate those matters, and I do not intend to do so. I merely say that the interim House may find itself so shorn of credibility and so evidently a patronage-dominated House that life peers feel the need to have the right of a disclaimer such as that which hereditary peers already enjoy.

Life peers are to be discriminated against in one sense. They will be stuck in what may become a wholly neutered and irrelevant Chamber. Interim Houses have a habit of lasting a long time. Life peers had the choice of deciding whether to join the current upper House, but they have not had the choice of deciding whether to join a putative—probably severely damaged—rump of a House, which we shall have to know henceforth as the "interim Chamber".

I ask Ministers to consider offering the right to life peers of moving from the Lords to the Commons by extending the disclaimer provisions of the 1963 Act. My new clause 22, would have that effect. Although it has not been selected, I should still be very interested to know whether the Minister thinks that the Government might view such a provision sympathetically.

4.45 pm
Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend is dealing with the interesting point, which was dealt with also by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), that the hereditaries should have got out when they were given notice to do so, in 1963 or whenever, and that they therefore should not feel aggrieved at not having been able to vote at the previous general election. If life peers are given the same power to get out, we will not know what the stage 2 House of Lords will look like. It could well be that life peers, too, are not only denied the right to vote at general elections but thrown out halfway through a Parliament.

Mr. Tyrie

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that that would be iniquitous. Hereditary peers are given a one-off choice—they have one year—to renounce their peerage. The Government should certainly consider making some provision for the right to be exercised at any time, rather than for it to be restricted or time limited. I should be grateful if the Minister would address that issue also.

Mr. Hogg

As we are in Committee, Sir Alan, I gather that it is perfectly in order for hon. Members to speak twice in a debate. I should like to ask the Minister—I ask now so that I do not have to intervene in his speech—for his interpretation on one point.

On the right provided in clause 2(a), for hereditary peers to vote at elections, and the "transitional provision" right provided in clause 4(3), my understanding is that the clause 2(a) voting rights will come into effect automatically at the end of the Session in which the Bill is passed and that those rights are not dependent on the transitional arrangements provided in clause 4(3). If I am wrong about that, and the voting rights are dependent on the clause 4(3) transitional arrangements, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—and I—must be right in saying that the rights should be mandatory. Will the Minister tell us about the relationship between the two provisions?

Mr. Hoon

The Committee should congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on setting the tone for this debate. His ingenuity in drafting questions suggests that he may have missed his vocation. Unfortunately, there are not many vacancies for mediaeval philosophers these days—but clearly he has a future in counting angels on pinheads.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley purported to ask me three questions, but he asked me only one. I had already answered the question from the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), but the hon. Member for Ribble Valley asked me the same one. I give him the same answer: it is not necessary for us to speculate now about what other amendments might be passed in another place. It remains to be seen whether we shall have a debate on those matters.

Mr. Evans

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Leader of the House has already said that she is minded to accept the Weatherill amendment when it is tabled in the other place? Does he accept that that is the Government's position?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that there will be an opportunity to debate such an amendment when and if it is passed. I am sure that he would not want to anticipate that debate today, or to spend unnecessary time in Committee considering the rather arcane questions that he asked.

Opposition Members occasionally complain that the Government anticipate the results of votes and take votes for granted. Is that not what Opposition Members are doing by suggesting that that amendment will, at some stage or other, be debated in Committee or in the House? We are simply working on the basis of the text that is before the Committee. We hope that that text will come before the House, but that depends on the outcome of votes.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made some more thoughtful points. He referred sensibly to the situation that might arise in relation to a college of hereditary peers, but he answered his question by saying that he would seek to address the House should any further amendment be debated. I should prefer to leave the matter on that basis. It would be more sensible to wait until there was such an amendment—if there was one—before going into such details.

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's interpretation of clause 4(3) and its relationship to clause 2(a). They do not depend on each other. However, I draw the opposite conclusion. The provisions in clause 4(3) should be permissive rather than mandatory, because we might not need them. Changes might not be needed in the electoral register, so it is more sensible to have the maximum flexibility available.

Mr. Hogg

The Minister's point is fair to an extent. However, does he agree that, if there were a by-election before the end of this Session—which might happen—it would be important, if we were to do justice by electors, to make provision by transitional arrangements for the right to vote and to stand?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would consider that in such an eventuality, but we are getting into unnecessary detail which does not assist our discussion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) wondered whether life peers might be discriminated against by the provisions. I do not agree with him. The Bill is not about the rights of life peers, but about the rights of hereditary peers. Life peers will not leave the other place if the Bill is passed, so there is no reason to give them the right to vote in elections to the House of Commons. They do not need a Member of Parliament to represent them here because they can represent themselves. Moreover, they have made an informed decision to accept a life peerage, with all the benefits and penalties that that implies.

Mr. Tyrie

Does the Minister accept that the benefits and penalties will be fundamentally altered by the reform?

Mr. Hogg

The company in the Dining Room will be different.

Mr. Tyrie

The company in the Dining Room will be completely different, and there will be many other changes besides. If the House is fundamentally changed, it should be right to give the life peers an opportunity to decide whether they wish to remain there. If the place is not being fundamentally changed, why are we going ahead with the reform?

Mr. Hoon

I was about to deal with a point that the hon. Gentleman had raised. No one is forced to accept a life peerage. As we heard on Second Reading, there is usually a queue of people anxious for such preference. In those circumstances, we do not need to worry unduly about the position of life peers, not least because, if the Bill is passed, their ability to represent themselves in the other place will be strengthened. Instead of their voice being diluted by those of a large number of hereditary peers, they will be a far more significant element of the other place, so their position will be enhanced rather than weakened. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central will accept that.

Mr. Fisher

I must have failed to make myself clear. It is not a question of the life peers leaving. They are being left outside our newly democratic constitution. That is why they will be at a disadvantage. The Government made it clear in the White Paper that this House has primacy. The life peers are being left by democracy, condemned to remain in an illegitimate rump. That is why they are at a disadvantage. That is not the contract that they were offered when they were invited to join that House. They were invited to become a member of a complicated and historic House. Many of them believed that they were going in to introduce some restraint in an hereditary system that they did not believe in. We are changing that hereditary system, but we are not giving life peers what we are giving hereditary peers: the right to move into the full sunshine of a democracy. I find it both baffling and unfair that life peers should be condemned to inhabit a democratic hulk.

Mr. Hoon

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern for life peers, but, as I said, they will be much more able to represent themselves once the Bill is passed. That is the underlying reason for the common law disability affecting peers. They have the right to represent themselves in the legislative process, and it is that legislative process that is important. That is why it is recognised that peers should not vote in elections to this part of the legislative process, which would give them two opportunities to influence the content of legislation. That is, I think, a proper response to my hon. Friend's fears.

Mr. Evans

As has been said, several hundred peers who thought that they were going into a body of a certain kind will instead find themselves in a new transitional House. We do not know what stage 2 will involve. What is the major objection to allowing life peers who no longer wish to be part of that upper House, but wish to vote for Members here or, indeed, stand for election here, to do just that?

Mr. Hoon

I have already answered that question. The problem is that, under the common law, peers have the right to represent themselves and are part of the legislative process sitting in the House of Lords. Allowing them to vote for Members of this House would, in effect, give them two opportunities to vote. Opposition Members have made that point themselves.

Mr. Tyrie

That is not the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was making. His point was that life peers should be given the chance to leave the other place if they wanted to do so, because the place that they joined would no longer exist after the Bill was enacted.

The Minister is right in saying that future life peers will know what they are getting in to; but existing life peers will not. Will he deal purely with the position of existing life peers? Why should they not be able to choose whether to remain in the other place, or leave and have the opportunity to vote and sit in this place?

Mr. Hoon

I am not aware of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman is expressing on behalf of life peers. I have received no representations along those lines; nor, I suspect, has the hon. Gentleman. I do not see that the choice exercised by those who have decided to accept a life peerage will be affected in any way.

Mr. Winnick

Are we to believe that those who accepted life peerages did so on the basis that they would go to the other place simply because it was made up of life peers and hereditary peers? Surely the thought never entered their heads. They accepted life peerages because they considered it an honour, and wanted to contribute accordingly. Whether the House contained hereditary peers was irrelevant.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend makes the point much more succinctly than I have.

I sometimes think that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) must have become the hon. Member for Bizarre Constitutional Anomalies. He has clearly built that phrase into his word processor. He referred to the European convention on human rights, but did not seem to accept that his criticism of what we are doing would fall foul of case law against retrospection under that convention. It is clearly stated on the front of the Bill that it is compatible with the convention, an endorsement that is now necessary in the case of all legislation. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should make such a point.

Mr. Grieve

I have never sought a retrospective element. I was concerned about the enactment of the Bill before the end of this Parliament, rather than at the end of the Session. There was no question of my seeking some retrospective application.

Mr. Hoon

The way in which I understood the hon. Gentleman—it is still the way in which I understand him—was that to correct the problem, it would be necessary to legislate retrospectively.

Mr. Letwin

Does the Minister agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) would not have had to become the hon. Member for Bizarre Constitutional Anomalies if the Government had not created so many?

5 pm

Mr. Hoon

So far, I have not identified any. If I can be blunt, a simple and straightforward Bill is being used to try to find difficulties that do not exist. I accept that, in a Committee, it is perfectly proper for Opposition Members to seek to find difficulties. So far, they have been unsuccessful.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Does the Minister accept that a point of principle has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)? Hereditary peers were unable to vote at the last election because they were guaranteed a seat in this Parliament. Had they known that their right to remain in Parliament would be removed, they would have been in a different position. The fact that they are losing their rights halfway through a Parliament creates the anomaly. The way to get around that is not through any form of retrospection, but simply by not applying the measure until the end of the Parliament.

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept that—that would simply delay the operation of the Bill, which we hope the House will accept. The hon. Gentleman's proposal would be no more fair than the situation arising when someone attains the age of 18 after a general election. They do not have the opportunity of voting for the period between becoming 18 and any subsequent election, yet there is no suggestion from the Opposition that that is in any way unfair. The position for hereditary peers will be precisely the same. They will lose the right to represent themselves in the other place if the Bill becomes law. By virtue of clause 2, they will then have the opportunity of voting and standing for elections for this place.

If a gap or difficulty is created by the need to prepare electoral registers well in advance of any general election, that can be remedied by the operation of clause 4(3). That is a simple, straightforward and—above all—fair package. Opposition Members—particularly those on the Front Bench—have to say whether they would prefer another solution to clause 2, which is a fair way of dealing with hereditary peers.

Dr. Fox

I am impressed by the elegant way in which the Minister comes up with some of his arguments, but the argument about someone attaining the age of 18 is not the same. In one case, we are increasing the franchise by allowing those who knew that they were to take part eventually to do so and, in the other, we are disfranchising those who did not know that they were to be disfranchised.

Mr. Hoon

They should have read the Labour party manifesto a little more carefully.

Mr. Grieve

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has, in part, picked up on the point that I wished to make. The parallel of the 18-year-old is not valid. However, the issue is not whether hereditary peers read the Labour manifesto—that is irrelevant. The point is that a class of people over the age of 18 are entitled to vote for election to this House. The only ones who are deprived of that right—apart from those disqualified because they are lunatics or felons—cannot vote because they are entitled to represent themselves during the currency of the Parliament.

It is halfway through the Parliament—and not at its end—that the Government are intending to deprive those people of their power to represent themselves without giving them the power to vote on what happens in this Parliament between the time that they are disqualified and its end. I believe, therefore, that they should be removed and disqualified at the end of the Parliament.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman made precisely the same point earlier, and I will not weary the Committee by responding precisely as I did then.

I think that I have dealt with all the points that were raised. I considered carefully the points made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). He is always anxious that I should deal in detail with his observations. I think that I have done so. I will not speculate on how precisely clause 4(3) will operate. That is why we have made it permissive. We may not need to use it, and that would be the best solution.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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