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

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Department: Leader of the House

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

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading (Hansard)
Friday 7th February 2020

(4 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on securing a place so high up in the Private Members’ Bill ballot and on his Second Reading today. At the outset I should say that I support what the Bill proposes, though it is a very small measure, affecting, I think, only the 800 or so people who are Members of this House. As many noble Lords have said, there are always many more pressing matters that we could deal with in this House. All of us on different sides would say that the issues we discuss every day in the House are not always the ones that we want to discuss at that time.

Although I accept that we are in a privileged position in this House, that in itself is not an argument for denying us a vote in a general election. I am well aware that successive Governments of all colours have proposed this measure in the past. As we have learned today, Peers have been prevented from voting in general elections since 1699 by the passing of Sessional Orders, and since 1999 by the passing of the House of Lords Act.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Blunkett: I would have voted Labour in the election if I had had a vote, but I did not vote Labour because of course I was not allowed to. I will vote Labour in May when I vote for Sadiq Khan in the Mayor of London elections, and I look forward to that very much. However, to suggest that we somehow represent ourselves—we might hear that argument in a moment—and that that is a reason not to give us a vote, is a complete nonsense.

The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, made a number of important points. He demolished the arguments against this very well and I congratulate him on that. I agree particularly with the point about taxation. It is a fact that we here all pay our taxes but have no way of affecting that at all, and that is not right. He also made the point that just because something was deemed right in 1699, or on the other dates he mentioned, that is not a reason why it is right today. By that measure, we would not have life Peers today and I certainly would never have made it into this House from the Aylesbury estate at Elephant and Castle. Things need to change, and we should look to change them progressively.

It is a fair point that the 800 of us would probably have had no effect at all on the result of the general election, not even in one constituency. We may have had an effect in one in 2017, but I do not think there was a single constituency that would have been affected this time. Certainly, in the constituency that I live in, Lewisham Deptford, votes from me and my wife would have had no effect at all.

There are other important things which have huge implications and we should look at in the future. My noble friend Lord Adonis made some very valid points about things that need to change in how this Chamber operates and how we do things outside the Chamber. Those need to be looked at by the Government in the future.

Other issues were raised, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, which are very important but not in the scope of the Bill, so we cannot get them in. One point that he mentioned was people’s right to vote at the age of 16 or 17. In Scotland, people have the right to vote at that age in the Scottish Parliament and local authority elections and in referendums. People now have the right to vote in Welsh Assembly elections at that age and will shortly get it for local elections. The Scottish Parliament led the way in this and the Welsh Assembly followed. At some point, the Government will equalise this right to vote at the age of 16 across the whole of the United Kingdom. The sooner they do that, the better. It is much better if the Government get up and do it, rather than dragging their feet and avoiding the inevitable outcome—equalising the voting age at 16 across the whole of the United Kingdom.

The other matter—again, I believe this will not be in the scope of the Bill and so cannot be addressed—is the completeness and accuracy of the register. It is certainly not complete or accurate at present. This has been shown by many studies and research from several bodies. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred to the Electoral Commission, which found that up to 9.4 million people are either not registered to vote or are registered incorrectly, with major errors. This is wrong and the Government should put it right for the very reason of having an accurate and complete register.

Not being on the register affects many other things, particularly your credit rating, which then has a huge effect if you want to get finance. You might be refused finance altogether, or the more attractive deals might not be available to you, because one major way of identifying you is not there. It can also affect things such as being able to rent a property, because your identity cannot be verified effectively. This is very important.

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, said that the Government now have four years in power, which is one of the advantages, I suppose. The Government have quite a long period in which they are under no threat in the House of Commons and can do what they want. They should use that time to address a number of issues regarding elections and how we conduct ourselves in them. These include the right to vote, as I mentioned, fake news, democracy, the threat to our democracy from digital advances, the use of data, the role of the Electoral Commission, the threat to democracy from foreign Governments and many others. I hope the Government will use these four years to address those very important matters, which need to be looked at.

I have one more point. The other implication of the electoral register being wrong is that our boundaries are wrong. Whether the Government stay with 650 seats in the House of Commons or make it 600, if millions of people are not registered to vote, the boundaries are wrong. We need to get that right as well. Getting the boundaries right is very important and we need to get people properly to register to vote.

In conclusion, I suggest one possible reform to the work of this Chamber, which the noble Earl might take back to the Government Chief Whip, who is no longer in his place. We will give the Bill its Second Reading shortly and then move that it goes to a Committee of the whole House. That will carry on. We have 30 or 40 Private Members’ Bills, which will all go to Committees of the whole House. They will sit here and that is as far as most of them will ever go. Government Bills sometimes go to a Grand Committee. I have checked with the Clerk of the Parliaments and we could move this to a Grand Committee. If we did that, we would get more Bills through this House. There are many good Private Members’ Bills that do not challenge government policy but propose good, sensible things and, if we looked at that, we could get more Bills through this House and off to the other place. That is one of many reforms that we could make.

I leave my comments there and I wish the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, well.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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The noble and learned Lord has raised a very interesting constitutional point. It is so interesting that I think it is appropriate for me to write to him about it, and copy that to noble Lords who have spoken. As noble Lords who have stood where I am standing will be aware, there is a point at which the brief in front of a Minister runs dry. That is the case in this instance, but I reserve the right to produce some arguments.

Another issue raised was about the well-worn principle that there should be no taxation without representation. My noble friend Lord Young’s comments on that issue in the debate on 19 July last year were cited. I can understand why the point about a Japanese citizen could be attacked, but a British 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. The point my noble friend was making on that occasion, which I echo today, is that there is not a direct connection in law between people who have paid tax and people who have the vote.

The reason why Members of the House of Lords cannot vote on Finance Bills goes back a long way. The financial primacy of the Commons dates back many centuries and was formalised by two Commons resolutions in the late 17th century. The first, from 1671, states

“that in all aids given to the King by the Commons, the rate or tax ought not to be altered by the Lords.”

That is quoted in Erskine May. The second resolution is more detailed, from 1678—I would love to read it out, because the language is wonderful. Noble Lords suggested that this is an anomaly or even an affront, but none of it prevents this House debating money Bills or tabling debates on a financial matter.

As many noble Lords have pointed out, Peers who are Members of this House can also vote, where appropriate, in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly; in local government elections; in police and crime commissioner elections; and in both national and local referendums. The difference in those instances, I say in particular to my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, is that those are forums or offices in which Peers do not have an automatic right to represent themselves.

Noble Lords therefore have a say in local, devolved and national decision-making. Enfranchising noble Lords to vote in general elections would give Peers two ways of being represented in Parliament—it would give them double leverage as citizens. My noble friend Lord Sherbourne suggested that there is no possible downside to such a change. The Government believe, on the contrary, that conferring such an exceptional privilege cannot be right.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and others to say something about the commitment in the Conservative manifesto to review the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts in a constitution, democracy and rights commission. I wish I could provide him with further and better particulars on this commitment at this juncture, but, as I have said on two occasions recently, it is still too soon for me to do so. The scope of the commission will be announced in due course. However, I can tell him that the aim of the commission will be to develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. I hope I need not say, although I will, that we will continue to promote the UK’s interests and its values, including freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law. It is clear, I hope, to most noble Lords that careful consideration is needed on the composition and focus of the commission.

In light of all that I have said, I must end with a disappointing message to my noble friend. Even if the Government supported the principle behind this Bill, and I hope that I have set out clearly our reservations about it, they do not think that spending further parliamentary time on it is justified when other, more pressing electoral reforms—reforms which the Government are working hard to bring into being—have been so widely called for.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark
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I have just been looking at the Companion. The Minister said that we do not need any representation because we represent ourselves in Parliament—I accept that we are Members of Parliament in a sense—but the Companion and the Code of Conduct talk about acting on personal honour and in the public interest rather than out of private interest. There may be some conflict there. I do not want the Minister to comment on that now, but perhaps he can have a look at it and respond to us in a letter.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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My Lords, I would be glad to look at those passages in the Companion. I simply observe that they do not relate to our right to sit in this Parliament; they are much more about how we should behave when we come here.