Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill [HL]

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2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 19th July 2019

(4 years, 12 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill [HL] 2017-19 View all Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill [HL] 2017-19 Debates Read Hansard Text
Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Naseby for re-introducing a measure of constitutional importance to noble Lords, even if, as we have heard, it does not cause a great deal of excitement outside this place. My noble friend and I go back a long way, having been elected to another place on the same day in 1974. My majority that year was 808—by comparison a huge increase on his own. He has consistently taken an interest in constitutional issues, not least, as he reminded us, in his capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means in another place, and which he has maintained since his elevation to your Lordships’ House in 1997.

My noble friend has been around long enough to know that the more lavish the praise a Minister heaps on the mover of a Private Member’s Bill, the less likely he is to support it. He will also know that the life expectancy of a Private Member’s Bill introduced at this stage of a parliamentary Session is poor. None the less, the measure is to be taken seriously, as indicated by the number of noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I am grateful for their contributions.

As my noble friend pointed out, Peers who are Members of this place are not entitled to vote at general elections, along with other minority groups such as prisoners, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth reminded us. The long-standing rationale is that Peers who are also Members are already able to represent themselves in Parliament and therefore do not require separate representation by a Member of Parliament, unlike members of the general public. My noble friend Lord Norton made that point in his excellent speech: we have an ability to scrutinise legislation that is simply not available to others. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, described this as a price we pay. One could also regard it as a consequence of a privilege; maybe that is the sort of language that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would prefer.

The argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Norton seems sound, so I have reservations about my noble friend Lord Naseby’s proposal to change the current legal incapacity that prevents Peers who are Members of this place voting in general elections. If we ask for a say on who sits in another place, MPs might want a say on who sits here. I say to my noble friend Lord Sherbourne that I am not against piecemeal reform. Indeed, I am in favour of it—I took through the other place the Bill on the expulsion of Peers—but only if I believe it makes sense.

The principle that Peers could not vote in general elections clearly has a long history, dating back as far as 1699. The 1699 Commons Journal, volume 13, stated at column 64:

“Resolved, Nemine contradicente, That no Peer of this Kingdom hath any Right to give his Vote”—

“his” vote—

“in the Election for any Member to serve in Parliament”.

This principle has been upheld for the following 320 years and is premised on the fact that Peers are already able to represent themselves in Parliament, unlike members of the general public.

The bar has long been established within the common law. The courts have conclusively decided that Peers have no right to vote or to be entered upon the register of electors in a series of cases, including Earl Beauchamp v Overseers of Madresfield, and Marquess of Salisbury v Overseers of South Mimms 1872. In these related cases, Earl Beauchamp and the Marquess of Salisbury challenged being taken off the electoral register in their respective counties. The judgment that followed ruled that a Peer of Parliament was incapacitated from voting at an election for a Member of the House of Commons and was therefore not entitled to be placed on the register of voters.

Considering the long-standing rationale for your Lordships’ voting rights, I would therefore have hoped that my noble friend Lord Naseby would agree with the statement of Lord Campbell, as Lord Chief Justice in 1858, that by,

“an ancient, immemorial law of England … Peers sat in their own right in their own House, and had no privilege whatsoever to vote for Members to sit in the other House of Parliament”.—[Official Report, 5/7/1858; col. 928.]

My noble friend referred to the legislation as being archaic, but as recently as 1999, Section 3 of the House of Lords Act explicitly enfranchised hereditary Peers who were not Members and disfranchised Peers who were. It says:

“The holder of a hereditary peerage shall not be disqualified by virtue of that peerage for … voting at elections to the House of Commons, or … being elected as, a member of that House”,

but that:

“Subsection (1) shall not apply in relation to anyone excepted from section 1 by virtue of section 2”,

which is those Peers who remained.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, mentioned, the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 has allowed for the retirement and expulsion of Peers. Under this legislation, those Peers who give up or are disqualified from their seats in the House of Lords are no longer regarded as Members of your Lordships’ House and are unable to return. As such, they regain their right to vote in general elections, or indeed to stand for election. The bar applies only to Peers who are Members of this place.

In 2011, the Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote to the Government, questioning whether the disqualification of Peers who are Members of the House of Lords from voting in general elections is compatible with the right to participate in free and fair elections under Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR. The then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, responded to confirm its compatibility, explaining that the right is not absolute and limitations may be imposed on it, and the fact that Members of your Lordships’ House have a voice in Parliament makes these arrangements legitimate. The then Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that the Government had no plans at that time to review the issue, confirming the position taken by the previous Labour Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, used this opportunity to raise the case for Lords reform, voting reform and other issues. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, pointed out—in a seven-minute speech this time—that is a debate for another time.

Peers who are Members of your Lordships’ House can, of course, vote where appropriate in elections to the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, local government elections, police and crime commissioner elections, and in national and local referendums.

I will deal with one or two points raised. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, raised an issue concerning the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale. Supreme Court judges appointed since 2009 are not Members of the House of Lords and therefore can vote. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, joined the House of Lords in 2004 and served as a Law Lord until 2009, when, along with other Law Lords, she transferred to the Supreme Court. On retirement, she will return to the House of Lords, of which she is already a Member, and continue to be unable to vote.

I agreed with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and others that there are other issues we could discuss. I will come on to that in a moment, once I have responded to my noble friend Lord Sherbourne. I am afraid I disagree with the point he made about taxation and representation. Taxation is quite rightly not connected to democratic representation in the UK. An American or Japanese citizen of voting age who works and pays taxes in the UK does not have the right to vote in parliamentary elections, and a citizen of voting age who is not a Member of the House of Lords but who pays no income tax retains the right to vote. There is not a direct connection.

In response to the issues raised by the noble Baroness, there is more to be done to encourage those who are entitled to vote to vote. We have youth engagement projects and National Democracy Week; we are supporting disabled people to stand for office; we are making changes to anonymous registration; we are making it easier for disabled people to register to vote and to stand for election; and we are reducing barriers to registration.

I look forward to 5 September—by which time I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, may be in a position to continue to represent the Opposition Front Bench on these issues—when there will be an opportunity for further discussion on the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.

In conclusion, I recognise my noble friend’s dedication to this cause. This is not the first time he has endeavoured to introduce these measures. In March 2015, he asked a Question in your Lordships’ House on Peers’ exclusion from voting in general elections. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, replied:

“My Lords, the Government have no plans to review in this Parliament the long-established legal incapacity that prevents Peers who are Members of the House of Lords voting in a general election”.—[Official Report, 23/3/15; col. 1224.]

That was the position of the Liberal Democrats at that point; I note that it has now changed. However, the position of this Government has not changed.

In our democracy everyone should have a voice, but I would argue that noble Lords have that by virtue of participation in this Chamber. It is a respected voice, which adds depth and wisdom to our legislative process, and allows us full participation in the life of the nation. My noble friend’s Bill may clear its hurdle today but I doubt it is going to complete the course.