Lord Moore of Etchingham debates involving the Cabinet Office during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 23rd Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Wed 23rd Feb 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading

Conversion Therapy Prohibition (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Bill [HL]

Lord Moore of Etchingham Excerpts
Friday 9th February 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I approach today’s debate with some hesitation because I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject. Your Lordships have heard so many well-informed and often moving speeches on both sides of the argument, and I will not be able to add to that body of knowledge. However, I hope to examine what happens when Parliament tries to make laws about matters concerning free speech and personal feelings without asking itself the difficult questions involved. Too often, laws are made merely because some people feel very strongly on a subject and wish to give their opinions the force of law. I will remind your Lordships, however, of a well-known example from fairly recent history which should be a cautionary tale.

In the mid-1980s, there was widespread indignation, chiefly among Conservatives, about how left-wing councils were, as they saw it, wasting money and abusing local government duties to preach all sorts of “propaganda on the rates”. This was the era, noble Lords will remember, of the so-called nuclear-free zones, the militant tendency, “Red Ted”, “Red Ken” and so on. One area of contention was gay rights. The media reported that left-wing councils and education authorities were using public money to promote homosexual inclinations and lifestyles among children. Some noble Lords may remember a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which was allegedly available in a Haringey school library—actually, it was not. The pressure mounted for laws to ban such material in schools. Several Conservatives objected to the idea; some argued it would be an infringement of free speech, while others pointed out there was no need for legislation because existing new laws—which gave greater powers to parents and governors—would deal with the problem. “No,” said the supporters of a possible Bill. They believed the offending councils and education authorities were using the rubric of equal opportunities to smuggle in works which, as one put it, eulogised for 15 year-olds

“precisely the kind of homosexual acts that give rise to AIDS”.

Such propaganda must be stopped, they said.

In the end, an alliance of the Conservatives who were fed up with the hard-left councils and those who wished to enforce traditional moral attitudes prevailed. A Private Member’s Bill ran out of time before the 1987 general election, but the Conservative manifesto in the election complained that:

“In certain cases education is used for political indoctrination and sexual propaganda”.


This stand was thought to have done well on the doorstep. After victory in the election, Mrs Thatcher, now Prime Minister for the third time, allowed the conversion of the original idea of a Private Member’s Bill into an amendment to then Local Government Bill—hence the famous, indeed notorious, Section 28 was born. It forbade

“the teaching, in any maintained school, of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

There was private consternation within government at this, with some Ministers complaining that Section 28 would

“proscribe the mere expression of opinion”,

and others that it would simply “not work”. There was public outrage too. In the debate here, eight lesbians abseiled from the Public Gallery down to the Floor of your Lordships’ House. It was probably Section 28 that galvanised the British gay rights movement, leading, for example, to the rise of Stonewall in this country. There were no successful prosecutions under the Act; it was repealed in 2003. The whole thing was a failure, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, has testified, it did a considerable amount of damage.

Your Lordships will have quickly spotted where my argument is heading. Attempts at banning so-called conversion therapy risk becoming the mirror image of Section 28. The Bill contains many of the same problematic elements. These include: the lack of proper evidence of a wide and deep problem; an attack on free-speech rights, which many noble Lords have noted, including the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford; the failure to use existing laws to find a remedy, if remedy is needed; inattention to how the Act would work in practice; the tendency to use legislation to make an empty moral gesture rather than a useful difference; and the tendency to exploit, in a political or electoral context, a sensitive issue which many regard as a matter of conscience.

If, as many expect, another party holds the majority in another place before the end of the year, we may even encounter the same shift from a Private Member’s Bill to a government measure which happened in 1987. Such a repetition of history would show that nothing has been learnt from it. One of the puzzles about this subject is that the present Government have given so much countenance to it. Since 2017, in various incarnations and under three Prime Ministers, the contentious idea that conversion therapy is a defined reality and a threat is meekly accepted. Also elided, without understanding the arguments, are questions of sexual orientation and questions of gender identity. The Government are in a muddle and do not know what to do. I think this confusion derives, in part, from their feelings of inherited guilt over Section 28. Surely the best way to assuage such guilt is for the Government not to replicate, on one side of the argument, the mistakes their predecessors made on the other.

I can advise this with some confidence because I hereby confess my own error on Section 28, which I supported in the paper I edited at that time. Because I shared the dislike of left-wing councils using schools for propaganda, I was impatient of the practical difficulties involved in the legislation, and I underrated the sense of threat that laws of this nature can carry with them, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, has referred to. Then, many gay people felt threatened. Now, with the Bill, it is parents, church people and some professionals in the field who feel threatened. I studied the story of Section 28 and I hope I have learnt my lesson. I now apply it more than 30 years later by arguing against this Bill today.

Elections Bill

Lord Moore of Etchingham Excerpts
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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They can vote them out, but it is much more obscure—the link is much less direct. The supplementary vote system, which is what we are talking about replacing, clearly allows weaker candidates, with fewer first preference votes, to get through the system because of second preference votes, which have the same value as first preference ones—that does not seem right.

My only regret about the Bill is that it does not get rid of the even more confusing additional member system for the London Assembly. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, we fortunately no longer have the proportional representation system for the EU elections, which resulted in MEPs being distant and certainly not accountable to electorates. I would personally look again at the systems used in Scotland and Wales, but I shall stick to my normal practice in your Lordships’ House of not getting involved in devolved matters. It is time for our electoral systems in England to return to their roots and for the first past the post system to be the default for national elections and all English elections.

Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I have been affected by the debate this evening. I was intending to speak—if I was going to speak at all—in a rather different way, because I have anxieties about the way that the Government introduced this legislation, at the point when they brought in all the material about the form of election. But I have been stirred by the other side of the argument, because something that I feared has definitely now come about: the people arguing against the Bill are really trying to bring back proportional representation, as a much wider piece of argument, into the whole of our public life and our electoral system—

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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I did not argue in my speech for bringing proportional representation forward at all.

Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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I thank the noble Baroness for that and accept what she says. I am thinking more widely of the debate—

Lord Kerslake Portrait Lord Kerslake (CB)
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Does the noble Lord agree that I also made no argument to extend proportional representation? My specific concern was about this change and it being made without consultation.

Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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I listened closely to the noble Lord’s speech, and it is perfectly true that he made a very long and important argument about the specifics, but he also expressed a general preference for proportional representation.

I wish to make a very simple point, which I think came across very well in what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said. He described how, even under the strict chairmanship of Lord Jenkins, it took 12 months of what he called “immense complication” to look at these issues. That is precisely the problem with all this. It is dangerous to confess to ignorance in this very learned and expert House, but despite covering politics in various ways for 40 years, I have never been able fully to understand or explain all the different voting systems that clever people keep coming up with, and that is an argument against them. If somebody who is paid a salary to try to understand these things still finds them complicated, there is something wrong with them. All right, I am stupid, but I make the point that it is very important for the buy-in of a democracy that people can understand what is being said, what is being offered and how to perform the operation they are invited to perform. They can do so under first past the post, but under proportional representation they cannot, broadly speaking. Therefore, I oppose these amendments and support the Bill.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I used to be a full supporter of first past the post, very much in the spirit of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in relation to accountability. However, over recent years I have started to see a problem that I wanted to raise—I am not just doing this as counselling. Because of the whole of Clause 11, we have been invited, in a way, by the Government to discuss electoral systems, and that is one of the problems with the way it has emerged. I would not be discussing it if they had not brought it in, but now that everyone else is discussing it, I will join in.

I was minded to support Amendment 136 until I realised that it was an amendment that would overturn a referendum, which struck me as not a good idea and not likely to fit in with my general position on these things. It is perhaps ironic to those people in this Committee arguing for proportional representation that I was elected using that method in the European elections and came top of the list. I do not know if people think that was a fully democratic system, because a lot of people did not think that I should have been there at all, or elected in that way, when I stood only for very particular reasons, as we know.

These are the problems with first past the post in 2022 that I cannot get my head around. Through this Bill, we want to reassure voters that elections are watertight in terms of fairness and that they represent what they want as voters. In a number of debates, we have discussed our worries about different clauses that might be seen to be disenfranchising voters—sometimes I think these are overwrought worries, but they are worries none the less. It seems to me, however, that first past the post, in lots of ways, makes many people’s votes redundant and represents a frustration with what is happening politically.

I remember that before the 2016 referendum I was invited to a think tank gathering at which most of the people were supporters of remaining in the European Union. They assumed that I was as well, because that is what nice think-tankers did. They said that one problem they had was that the referendum would not be taken seriously if they did not get a big turnout, so what could they do to get a big turnout? The consensus in the room was that it must be emphasised that a vote in the 2016 referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime vote where, for once, every single person’s vote would count. They went out and argued that very successfully and the nation said, “My goodness, for once my vote really will count.” As a consequence, people took it seriously that they were being asked to make a big constitutional decision and that this was one election where every individual vote meant something. In the build-up to the referendum, it led to grass-roots discussion groups being set up around the country, family conferences and people getting together with their research. People took the whole thing extremely seriously and there was an atmosphere of vibrancy and buzz, with people saying, “What should we do?” as they assessed the pros and cons. People rose to the challenge that their vote counted, an idea which I think really resonated.

Elections Bill

Lord Moore of Etchingham Excerpts
Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl) (Maiden Speech)
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My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for his particularly generous remarks about my late father. I was very touched by them, and I will return to them because they are relevant to the theme of my speech today.

I must first apologise to this House for my delay in making this speech. I have spent my life as a newspaper editor, journalist and writer and we of course live by deadlines, but there is no deadline for making a maiden speech so I have procrastinated. But I hope I have some excuse. I was introduced when Covid-19 was going strong, and I found it difficult to acquaint myself with your Lordships’ House in hybrid form. A Parliament means a place where people speak, but the pandemic muffled normal speech. Many of your Lordships could not attend in person; many members of staff were working from home. I thank them all warmly for their kind efforts on my behalf, and it was not their fault that I was uncertain what I should be doing. Today it is an honour—and I must say a relief —to be addressing a fully functioning House at last.

I come from the county of Sussex. Nowadays Sussex is regarded as rich, but our eastern part of the county has traditionally been poor. A few years ago, the Tatler magazine published a satirical illustrated map of Sussex; our little rural patch was marked by a large cactus and the words “Social Desert”. We felt perversely proud of that. Even today, my birthplace, Hastings, is well known for areas of persistent poverty. Robert Tressell’s famous Edwardian socialist novel about poverty, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, is set in Hastings. It is subtitled “A season in Hell”. I maintain that modern Hastings has many glimpses of heaven, but problems do remain.

Hastings helps explain my interest in the Bill that we are debating today. In 1844, my great-great-grandfather, Robert Ross Rowan Moore, stood there as the free trade, anti-Corn Law candidate. In those days, the fishermen of Hastings did not have the vote, but they did support free trade. By law, no candidate could be elected unless present in the constituency on polling day, so the fishermen kindly proposed to kidnap my ancestor’s rival, the Tory candidate, and take him out to sea. Sadly, Robert Moore refused the fishermen’s offer and therefore lost the election, but my family still possesses a roll which names the

“one hundred and seventy-four honest and independent electors who voted for Robert R. Rowan Moore and free trade.”

In those days there was no secret ballot. Indeed, that great liberal John Stuart Mill was actually opposed to a secret ballot. He believed that honest men—and it was only men in those days—should publicly declare their allegiance. He was frightened of the corruption that goes with secrecy. As the 19th century progressed, however, people realised that only a secret ballot could prevent intimidation by powerful interests. In 1872 the Ballot Act was introduced. All of us in your Lordships’ House are disfranchised in general elections, so we can look at the matter disinterestedly, I think. I am sure that we all agree that the secret ballot was the right way to go. It was the key means of obtaining the universal franchise which lies at the heart of the development of our modern parliamentary democracy.

It follows that the ballot must be carefully protected from the corruption arising from secrecy which Mill feared. The integrity of the universal franchise is guaranteed by methods of registration and scrutiny. This has been essential for public trust. My late father, whom the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned, was a lifelong Liberal, and frequently a candidate. He therefore had the distressingly wide experience of losing at nine general elections. I remember, however, that he always expressed complete confidence in the functioning of the system, with one notable exception. This was when he stood in Northern Ireland in 1966. There, the split in the community was so entrenched that cheating was endemic. My father met a man who claimed to have voted unionist 92 times at the previous election and was offering to transfer his favours to him. He high-mindedly refused; like his great-grandfather in Hastings, he remained unelected.

The fact that voting in Ulster was often cooked was a symptom of democracy impaired. That is why Northern Ireland today is particularly careful, more so than the rest of the United Kingdom, to protect the integrity of the ballot. A painful history has taught this lesson.

The benign consequences of electoral trust are extremely high. When working on my biography of Margaret Thatcher, I was struck by how she, and most mainland candidates in the middle of the last century, could draw on public confidence in the ballot. In the 1950 and 1951 general elections, she had no hope of beating the Labour candidate, but the sense of engagement was strong. By the time she had left Dartford, she had raised membership of her constituency Conservative association to 3,160, a figure roughly 10 times greater than modern party memberships even in safe seats. No doubt much of this was due to the young Margaret’s phenomenal energy, but there was also widespread faith in the poll itself.

Nowadays, I think this faith is declining. There is serious controversy about personation, intimidation, proxy votes, postal vote harvesting and so on. In the United States, such issues are now so partisan that they threaten to undermine faith in voting altogether. We must not go down that path.

I have a small direct experience of this issue. Before entering this House, I was legally registered to vote in two places: at home in Sussex and in central London. There seemed to be no check on whether such people, of whom there are hundreds of thousands, were voting twice. In the EU referendum of 2016, I therefore decided to expose the problem. I voted normally in Sussex and then went to London. There, I entered the polling station and handed over my legitimate polling card. I went into the booth and wrote, “I am spoiling this ballot paper in order to show how easy it is to vote twice”, and then I submitted it.

I later described this in the Daily Telegraph, hoping to help the Electoral Commission by drawing attention to the dangers of abuse. After a bit, I got a call from the police asking to come and see me. The officer who arrived was very kind and a little embarrassed. She said that the police were acting at the request of the Electoral Commission. Although I had cast only one vote which could affect the result, she explained that, according to law, I had voted twice. The Electoral Commission wanted me prosecuted, but the police had decided that a prosecution would not be in the public interest. “Please don’t do it again,” she politely added. Some noble Lords may think I acted foolishly, but I hope they can accept that my motive was public-spirited. I must say I remain disappointed that the Electoral Commission showed more zeal in chasing me than in stopping potential abuse.

There are strongly differing views about this Bill. Some rightly worry that too close an invigilation of voters’ identity could deter whole classes of people from exercising their democratic right. Others see greater danger in leaving the vote so open to abuse that elections can no longer achieve a true representation of the people. In a maiden speech, I should not come down hard on one side, but I hope that we, who cannot vote in elections to another place, can unite in recognising that the integrity of the ballot really is a sacred trust. It is a simple act to write a cross beside the name of the candidate you prefer, but behind that act lies a long history of legislation and enforcement which is the work of a high civilisation. It is a continuing, delicate work which we must assist.