There is overwhelming support for reform but Friday once again showed there is little chance of it succeeding.
On Friday 3rd December, for the fourth time in just five years, Labour peer Lord Bruce Grocott put forward his bill to end the bizarre practice of hereditary by-elections and in turn begin the process of ending guaranteed aristocratic representation in the House of Lords.
In recent years Lord Grocott has waged a personal war to end these “beyond satire” by-elections. But each time his bill has made it to the floor his attempts have been consistently thwarted by hereditary peers. In 2019, Lord Trefgarne and the Earl of Caithness laid more than 50 wrecking amendments in order to ensure that the debate exceeded three-and-a-half hours, and the bill failed.
This latest second reading debate meant that amendments could not be tabled but the same old arguments came up again with many peers calling the bill little more than ‘nibbling at the edges’ when it comes to Lords reform.
Lord Trefgarne made his well-known objections to the proposals noting: “I accept that the present size of your Lordships’ House is excessive but the problem is too many life Peers, not too many hereditary Peers.”
Lord Moylan rejected the suggestion that there was widespread public opposition to the existence of hereditary peers arguing (without irony) that as unelected hereditary peers that “If we are accountable to anybody, it is to the public for whom we legislate.”
But despite these few committed voices of opposition support for this reform spans the whole house, peers of all parties and none both appointed and hereditary agree it’s time to change the system. But until the government backs reform it stands no chance of being passed in the upper house.
The government remains opposed to Grocott’s proposals or, as government spokesperson Lord True put it during the debate: “governments reservations of his proposals remain” – on the basis that the hereditary questions should not be addressed until a full proposal of reforms is agreed that cover all of the house, not just a small group within it.
But when it comes to Lords reform the great cannot be the enemy of the good. We need wholesale reform of our outdated second chamber but ending these farcical hereditary peer by-elections would be a small step in the right direction.
This bill should be uncontroversial – a small and common-sense reform that would end these ridiculous by-elections, slowly reducing the number of hereditary peers. No radical overhaul or disruptive upheaval. In fact, in 2020 these by-elections were temporarily suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic and the House of Lords continued to function without issue.
Since they returned we’ve seen seven new hereditary peers join this chamber, each one taking a seat for live to vote on our laws down solely to the circumstances of their birth. One peer, Labour’s Viscount Stansgate (ironically the son of Tony Benn, who famously rejected his hereditary peerage) was ‘elected’ unopposed to his seat. You could be forgiven for laughing it wasn’t so serious.
The last by-election was held last month, with Labour scrambling to fill the Labour-allocated seat. The winning candidate, Lord Hacking, won with a short 75-word manifesto that simply promised to adopt “social democratic policies”.
The bill is now at the committee stage, where every clause of the Bill has to be agreed with and votes on amendments take place. Any peer can suggest amendments and it’s expected that many will in an attempt to block the bill.
This Friday in the Commons Labour MP John Speller is putting forward a similar bill, we can only hope it won’t meet the same fate as this one because this spectacle cannot be allowed to continue.
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