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Fresh attempts to reform the House of Lords rejected by Government

Published 09/09/2016

Tory Peer Lord Bowness warned colleagues to 'be careful of what we wish for'
Tory Peer Lord Bowness warned colleagues to 'be careful of what we wish for'

Fresh attempts to reform the House of Lords and scrap the "laughable" system of by-elections to replace hereditary peers have been put forward.

Labour's Lord Grocott urged peers to take the lead and enhance their reputation by removing the election process used to fill vacancies caused by the death, resignation or expulsion of the hereditary peers.

The former MP also warned the "indefensible" system has effectively reserved 92 seats in the Lords for men only, with just one woman among the 199 candidates registered to become a hereditary peer candidate.

Reforms to the Lords in 1999 left just 92 hereditary peers in place. Since then 30 vacancies have been filled through a series of by-elections, the Lords heard.

Calls for change follow a recent Lib Dem hereditary peer by-election which cost taxpayers £300 and involved just three voters.

Viscount Thurso was elected to the Lords in a poll which recorded a turnout of 100%, with the former MP finishing ahead of six other candidates after securing the votes of the three peers eligible to vote.

Lord Grocott, moving his House of Lords Act 1999 (Amendment) Bill, said: "To achieve 100% of the votes cast in an election is spectacular, even by North Korean standards.

"And to hold an election where there were more than twice as many candidates as voters deserves an entry in the Guinness Book of Records."

He added: "To have this procedure as a mechanism for electing a member of Parliament is beyond ludicrous. It is, as I think I've demonstrated, laughable.

"My short Bill has the simple objective of ending this by-election procedure once and for all."

On the dominance of men in becoming hereditary peers, Lord Grocott said: "For the foreseeable future, the overwhelmingly likelihood is that any vacancy will be filled by men.

"The 1999 Act in its application over 17 years has for all intents and purposes resulted in 92 positions in the House of Lords being designated men only.

"This can't go on, it's indefensible."

He went on: "The by-election system is way, way, way past its sell-by date. My Bill scraps it in two simple clauses.

"For this House to take the lead and pass it would enhance our reputation and improve our Parliament.

"Its passage would hurt no-one and cost nothing."

Former minister Lord Howarth of Newport, who defected from the Conservatives to Labour while an MP, said of Lord Grocott: "He is no Robespierre. He's not proposing that aristocrats should be despatched to the guillotine.

"If the measure that he has put before you is to be passed by Parliament, no hereditary peers will be found suspended from the lampposts in Parliament Square.

"The process he proposes is entirely painless."

Conservative former minister Lord Elton, an hereditary peer, said he saw his role as standing up to the "juggernaut" of government.

Lord Elton, who noted he does not believe his son has ambitions to replace him, opposed the Bill and told peers: "Entirely for reasons of the good of the Government of this country, I'd ask you to wait until we have a proper measure and a measure which has more impact on this House."

Lord Grocott's Bill is unlikely to become law without Government support.

A number of peers called the current state of the Lords "ridiculous" amid a debate that moved over to wider reform.

There was consensus across both benches that the House of Lords should not exceed the size of the Commons.

Labour's Lord Anderson of Swansea even questioned whether the increasingly large number of peers would be able to fit into Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, where the Lords would move to under plans announced this week to vacate Parliament for repairs.

"Perhaps we should have to look elsewhere - perhaps even to Wembley Stadium to accommodate the numbers," he quipped.

Former Tory shadow minister Lord Cormack went further, detailing a position that included a cap on numbers, as well as requirements that no political party could have overall control and that 20% of peers must be cross-bench.

Former Tory minister Lord Robathan also suggested a mandatory retirement age for peers, with only 54 retirements since 2014 under the existing voluntary arrangements.

Both men also defended the work of hereditary peers in the Lords, saying they were among the hardest working and worthy contributors.

Lord Robathan added: "I was a former medium ranking minister, but it's not unconnected, I suspect, that I was very heavily involved in David Cameron's campaign that I was sent to this House.

"Lord Grocott was, I recall, Prime Minister Blair's private secretary. We're all here for all sorts of reasons."

However, Tory former council leader Lord Bowness warned his colleagues to "be careful of what we wish for".

He added: "We can all be victims in changed circumstances for the solutions that we have put forward to solve problems we thought would involve other people.

"Drastic measures implemented over a very short time, brought forward with the best of intentions, might have unforeseen and unintended consequences for the House and for Parliament."

Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman in the Lords, ruled out Government support for the Bill.

She said: "While we see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our second chamber, this is not a priority for this Parliament."

Lady Chisholm said other more pressing issues included Brexit, as she said changes should be brought in as part of wider reforms.

Lord Grocott's Bill was given an unopposed second reading and will undergo further scrutiny at a later date.

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