Saturday, 20 March 2010

Peers Suffrage

Viscount Tenby asked the government earlier this week - whether they plan to change the law to allow peers who are members of the House of Lords to vote in general elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government's 2008 White Paper on House of Lords reform proposed that Members of a reformed second Chamber should be able to vote in elections both to the House of Commons and to the reformed second Chamber. The proposals would enable all members of the peerage and new Members of the second Chamber to vote in all elections.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that incisive reply. Is he aware-I am sure that he is-that once those in custody have been given the vote, which rightly seems likely to happen in the near future, the only people unable to do so will be those who are judged incapable of voting and Peers of this House? With so much dissension about the constitutional reform of this House across and among parties, would not the Government welcome the chance to bring in a relatively easy amendment that would command support on all sides of the House?

Lord Bach: I am not sure that it would get absolutely unanimous support across the House-I have to say that first-although I think that it would get general support. However, our view is that provisions on voting in general elections are best dealt with in the context of a fully reformed second Chamber-so perhaps we should move to a reformed second Chamber as quickly as we can.

Lord Waddington: Would not the Minister agree that, whereas Members of the House of Commons represent their constituents, we have the great privilege of representing ourselves in Parliament? Leaving aside what may be in store for us in future, is not the present set-up entirely justifiable? Why should we have the right to have an MP represent us when we can represent ourselves?

Lord Bach: I do not think that the constitutional position could have been put better, but I am looking forward myself to being able to vote in a general election again.

Lord Acton: My mother's father-the late, late, late Lord Rayleigh-adopted the American colonists' mantra, "No taxation without representation". Does that not answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington?
Lord Bach: It is an extremely effective mantra. Whether it actually answers the noble Lord's constitutional point, going back to the resolution of the House in 1699, I am not entirely certain.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: Would not the Minister like to divide the Peers from the lunatics?
Lord Bach: I do that every day.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: Would the Minister confirm that it is in order for Lords spiritual, who are not Peers, to vote in general elections, and that they should therefore be encouraged like all good citizens to use their vote?

Lord Bach: There is no bar to the Lords spiritual voting in parliamentary elections. However, I understand that it has long been the tradition that they do not do so. While they are not Peers, they none the less sit in this House and can therefore participate in person in the proceedings of Parliament instead of being represented in the House of Commons. There is no legal bar to the Lords spiritual voting in a general election; it is very much a matter for them.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, as the Minister said, there was cross-party agreement in the group that led to the 2008 White Paper on this issue. Does he recognise that that was 89 weeks ago? What have he and his fellow Ministers at the Ministry of Justice been doing all this time? Apparently there is now the promise of a draft Bill or some draft clauses. What is this going to be-is it serious legislation or is it simply electioneering at the fag end of this Parliament?

Lord Bach: The noble Lord will remember that, as I understand it, the cross-party group was made up of Front-Benchers. There are many others in this House who are not Front-Benchers who do not always share precisely the views of their Front Bench.

Lord Kinnock: I ask my noble friend to be slightly more incisive than he was even in his very incisive first Answer and anticipate the spirit of future reform by inserting a small government amendment in the forthcoming constitutional Bill that would enable those Peers who wanted to vote, as well as voting for a Member of Parliament, to vote for a Government, and those Peers who did not want to vote to be able to abstain. By those means, he would satisfy everyone.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I have always found everything that my noble friend has said extremely tempting, but on this occasion I have to resist what he has to say. Our view is that provisions on voting in general elections are best dealt with in the context of a fully reformed second Chamber.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I declare an interest: I have never been able to vote at all. How many people, other than me, did not vote in the previous election?

Lord Bach: Of those entitled to vote, some 38 per cent.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, my noble friend made reference to a new reform Bill, which has been referred to as a constitutional Bill. An amendment could be incorporated into it, as has been suggested, to deal with the question of Peers voting in the general election. However, my understanding is-my noble friend referred to this when he talked about differences of opinion between the Front Bench-

Noble Lords: Too long!

Lord Davies of Coity: Sorry. My question is: can my noble friend guarantee that this House will support the reform Bill that the Front Benches are agreeing to?

Lord Bach: I find as months go by that I can guarantee really nothing at all. I have certainly never been able to guarantee anything that is before this House.