New Forest East

HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM - 10 January 2023

HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM - 10 January 2023

Sir Julian Lewis: I would like to begin by posing a scenario. We go to the public and we say to them, “We have a good idea for constitutional reform. Let us double the number of Members of Parliament.” How do colleagues feel that would go down? Not very well, I think. Suppose we then said, “Let us double the number of Members of Parliament, but elect half of them at one time, and half of them at another time.” How would that work in practice?

Alternatively, we could say, “Let us elect them all at the same time, but sit them in two Houses.” In which case, they rubber-stamp each other. Finally, we would say, “Let us elect one group under one electoral system and the other group under a different electoral system, but one will clearly be subordinate to the other, even though they are both democratically elected.” I wish anybody luck in trying to resolve the arguments and the deadlock resulting from that.

David Linden: May I add one further option? There would be 59 fewer Members of Parliament if Scotland becomes independent, and then the remaining guys could do what they want with their own constitution.

Sir Julian Lewis: If we were having a debate about Scottish independence, I would be happy to engage with that. Our Scottish colleagues have quite rightly chosen to participate in the UK national constitutional debate, and that is what we are considering this afternoon. I have a firm view that if the House of Lords had to go, it would be far better to have a single elected Chamber, rather than two elected Chambers that would perpetually be either deadlocking or rubber-stamping each other.

Graham Stringer: I agree with the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Does he agree that there is a fallacy in the comparison with other countries that have two different systems and an upper House? They rely on a written constitution and the courts interpreting it. That fallacy is deep within the Brown report – somehow, constitutionally, we will limit one House when we do not have a written constitution. Is that not a nonsense?

Sir Julian Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is an independent thinker on his party’s Benches. Not for the first time, I find myself in total agreement with him. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said that the system of two elected Houses works well in other democracies. I am not sure that the citizens of the United States would entirely endorse that opinion, great though their democracy is.

Pete Wishart: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Julian Lewis: Forgive me, but I would like to develop my argument a little more. I promise that I will then give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Pete Wishart rose 

Sir Julian Lewis: How can I refuse the hon. Gentleman?

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is always courteous. I am an abolisher of the House of Lords, but the UK is a complex democracy and some sort of revising Chamber would be required to take care of all its specific demands. The right hon. Gentleman and, I think, the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) were here when Robin Cook proposed a series of reforms. I think we voted 11 times on a number of proposals, and none of them went through because of the very arguments made by the right hon. Gentleman. We cannot have competition with the House of Commons, but surely abolishing the House of Lords would not mean that we were left with nothing. There must be something we can think of to go in its place.

Sir Julian Lewis: I remember that series of votes, because I voted against every one of those propositions. I was absolutely convinced that all of them would have changed matters for the worse.

Having said that, I agree with the hon. Gentleman as far as saying that there surely must be ways in which reforms can be made to the existing, non-elected upper House. I am sure that many thoughtful Members of that House agree with that proposition, not least the noble Lord Cormack and Lord Norton of Louth. They run an effective campaign for an effective second Chamber that is constantly looking at ways in which the existing upper House can be successfully improved.

After a promising start, having given a nod or two to the expertise of many Members of the upper House and to the quality of their debate, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), to whom we are all grateful for introducing the debate, fell into the traditional trap of complaining mainly about what the House of Lords is rather than what the House of Lords does, and does very well. In the short time that I wish to take up, I will give an illustration of that – if my technology will allow me.

I have a confession. I have been a Member of Parliament for over 25 years, and in all that time I, as an individual legislator, have managed to change only one piece of legislation, and that was because of the most unusual occasion of a free vote in the lower House. However, in a six-year period in the latter part of the 1980s – before I became a Member of Parliament – I was able, with the essential help of Members of the House of Lords, to change no fewer than four pieces of legislation. For the record, one was to require postal ballots for trade union elections, which was incorporated in the Trade Union Act 1984 and the Employment Act 1988. The second was to outlaw political indoctrination in schools, which was incorporated in the Education Act 1986 and carried forward in the Education Act 1996. The third was a measure prohibiting local councils from publishing politically partisan material on the rates, and that was incorporated in section 27 of the Local Government Act 1988. Fourthly, a more strict definition of the concept of due impartiality in coverage of politically contentious issues on television and radio was incorporated in the Broadcasting Act 1990.

I imagine that SNP Members in particular are sitting in horror at the prospect of all those legislative changes having gone through, but whether or not we agree with the particular changes, the fact is that they were possible only because the unelected House has a very limited whipping system. If a Member persuades thoughtful and independently minded Members of the upper House of the wisdom of a proposed amendment to a piece of legislation going through the parliamentary process and convinces them to back that amendment, there is every prospect that the upper House will insert it in the legislation, and it will remain there when it returns to the lower House, thereby forcing the Government to consider it seriously.

I mentioned the issue of postal ballots in trade union elections, which are now accepted by all. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) tabled an amendment on that issue in the lower House, it got nowhere. It was voted down – not on its merits but because of the whipping system. The vast majority of Members who voted on it probably did not have much idea of what his amendment contained. They did what they were told. In the upper House, if I could convince people that something was sensible and they voted it through into the legislation, I found that it had a better than 50% chance of remaining in that legislation when it went back to the lower Chamber.

There are, of course, undeserving people sitting in the House of Lords, but there are also many people who chose not to become professional politicians. They chose to stay in their own professions and to rise to the top of them. They became top academics, lawyers and people in the field of, for example, medicine or any other profession or trade. I am not in any way being disrespectful to the abilities of those of us who chose to become full-time, or more or less full-time, Members of the House of Commons, but when we made that decision we gave up our ability to maintain and develop our level of expertise such as it was before we took that career path.

Having an unelected second Chamber, even though some people may be put there for the wrong reasons, should nevertheless not blind us to the fact that many people who have great intellect, knowledge and expertise can bring those talents to bear on legislation as it goes through and improve it. It is precisely because they are not elected that they can never seek to usurp the powers of the House of Commons, but always be rightly subordinate to us in this House while we benefit from the value added that they bring to the process.

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[Kirsty Blackman: ... I will now talk specifically about how the House of Lords works and operates, and what it looks like. The most recent figures I could find in the Library are from 2019 and show that the average age of Members of the House of Commons is 51. That is not as young as it should be and does not reflect the general population or even the general voting population. However, the average age of Members of the House of Lords is 71. The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) may be interested to know that he is younger than the youngest peer in the House of Lords. Although he and I are relatively young Members of Parliament, we are far from being the youngest MPs these days.

Sir Julian Lewis: As a 71-year-old Member of the lower House, I will not take offence at the hon. Lady’s ageism. I will just point out, however, that if people get to the top of their professions before they get seats in the House of Lords, where they can apply their expertise, they will tend to be older rather than younger.]