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Lord Renton: I have not so far intervened in any of your Lordships' debates on the Bill. However, I feel prompted to do so in view of what I consider to be a very important constitutional point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret.
I happen to be a life Peer, but I have taken a great interest in constitutional matters for a long time. At one stage, I even served on a Royal Commission on the constitution. An interesting issue arose when earlier this century the House of Lords was deprived of voting on finance Bills. However, it was not deprived of its opportunity to express its views about those matters. The views that were expressed were often heeded. It did not have the right to send the Finance Bill back to another place. But if there was a sufficient volume of opinion in your Lordships' House on a financial matter, whether expressed by hereditary Peers or other Peers, in due course due notice was taken of those views.
If the hereditary Peers are to be deprived of the opportunity to express their views, even for a year or so, and yet to have no opportunity to elect Members to another place, then there will be a void in our constitution. That is something which we should avoid.
Earl Ferrers: I find this a fascinating subject and a very important one. My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who as usual is a master of the understatement, said that that was unfair and that Peers should have the right to vote. He is absolutely right. If hereditary Peers are to be catapulted out of this Chamber, or got rid of--to use the cheerful phrase of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer--and cannot vote here any more, they must have the right to vote for Members of another place.
My noble friend Lord Elton is absolutely right to provide in Amendment No. 126 that we should leave out the word "may" and provide that the Secretary of State "shall" by order make such a transitional provision. I should be interested to know what the Government intended to do, because my mind is taken
I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will wish to ensure that we are not without the equivalent of a dog licence. The noble and learned Lord said that hereditary Peers are to be "got rid of". He stumbled over those words but he could not find a better expression, and that was what was in his heart. If the hereditary Peers are to be "got rid of", they must obviously have the right to vote for Members of another place.
Lord Crickhowell: I wish to raise one other curious anomaly, for if I read the Bill aright, not only is it possible that noble Lords about whom my noble friend was speaking will not have their dog licences, but they will be in a position to stand for election to the House of Commons and be elected to the House of Commons but not have a vote. That seems to be an extraordinary anomaly. I do not believe that there is any pause when one obtains permission to stand. After the Bill is passed, you can stand and be elected but you cannot exercise that privilege, which I dare say one or two Members in this House have exercised, of voting for themselves in an election.
Therefore, when the Minister replies I hope that he will confirm the point made by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who said that it is possible to add to the electoral register after the October date. If it is possible to get out the names of candidates to fight an election campaign, it surely cannot be impossible to add the names of Peers to the electoral register so that they can stand and vote.
Lord Trefgarne: I am not sure that even if every hereditary Peer, the moment that he is ejected from this House, is granted the right to vote, that that will be good enough. Is it not the case that under the European Convention on Human Rights everybody is entitled to live under a government whom he has elected for the purpose? If hereditary Peers are to leave this Chamber at, say, the end of this Session in October or November, most of us will not have an opportunity to vote for the Member of Parliament in our constituency until the next general election. One or two of us may have a chance to vote in a by-election in the meantime, but for two of three years most of us will be unrepresented. In other words, the Member of Parliament will be someone for whom we have never voted and will not have a chance of voting for until the next general election.
It has been suggested that that is not in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights and that, therefore, for that period noble Lords who have been so ejected will not receive that to which they are
Viscount Mountgarret: Forgive me for not being quite myself this evening. I omitted to refer to the question of taxation and representation, the matter that brought about the loss of the American colonies, as they did not wish to be taxed without being represented at Westminster. The position is that 650 noble Lords will be dismissed from this place without enfranchisement until the next general election. Am I right in thinking that they would be perfectly entitled to refrain from paying their taxes until they are so enfranchised?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: As the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, said, that is a new point and an area that we have not looked at before. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said, the important point is how the mechanism will work to allow hereditary Peers to take part in general elections in this country.
Perhaps I may reply in two stages and, first, set out the Government's intention in relation to the order-making power contained in Clauses 4(3) and 4(4) and then deal with each of the amendments in this group. The power in Clause 4(3) permits the Secretary of State to make transitional provision on the entitlement of hereditary Peers to vote in elections to the House of Commons or the European Parliament.
Clause 2 of the Bill removes the disqualification on holders of a hereditary peerage from voting in parliamentary elections. The disqualification will be removed at the end of the Session in which the Bill is passed. However, as stated in the debate, the qualifying date for entitlement to vote in parliamentary elections (10th October in Great Britain and 15th September in Northern Ireland) might have been passed before that time, depending on when the Session ends.
Those entitled to vote on the qualifying date are included in the electoral register, which operates from the following February. If the session ends after 10th October 1999, existing hereditary Peers would not be entitled to vote on that date and would not be included in the electoral register operating from February 2000. Therefore, they would not be entitled to vote in an election to the House of Commons until February 2001. That is much too long. If necessary, it is intended to make an order to enable hereditary Peers to vote in elections from February 2000.
How that will be achieved will, in part, be affected by the date of the coming into force of the Bill. At that stage, it is perhaps not possible to predict precisely the circumstances or the date of the coming into force of the Bill. It is possible that no provision will be required under the order-making provision because the session may end before 10th October. That deals with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. However, I shall return to his amendment later.
It is also intended to exercise the order-making power to ensure that hereditary Peers resident overseas can qualify during the transitional period for parliamentary elections when they would otherwise be unable to satisfy the conditions in Section 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 because they were disqualified at the relevant time for being Peers-- for example, because they were not included in an electoral register, as is required by Section 1(3) of that Act.
The power in Clause 4(3) of the Bill allows the Secretary of State to make transitional provision in respect of the entitlement of holders of hereditary peerages and European parliamentary elections. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, rightly said, Peers are currently able to vote in European parliamentary elections and neither the Bill nor any order made under it will alter that position. It is intended to use the power relating to European elections so as to allow the holder of a hereditary peerage who is resident overseas and who benefits from the transitional provision to be made in relation to parliamentary elections, to be able to vote in European parliamentary elections on the basis of his or her entitlement to vote in parliamentary elections without the need to show entitlement under Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, which makes provision in relation to Peers resident overseas and European parliamentary elections. The power in relation to European elections has been taken merely to relieve hereditary Peers of the burden of going through two administrative processes; so it is entirely to help hereditary Peers.
Clause 4(4) provides for the order to be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament. This is intended to reflect the transitional and limited nature of the power. It allows for maximum flexibility to give effect to the rights of hereditary Peers to vote in parliamentary elections from an early date. Not being able to make an order during the period between the end of the Session and the beginning of the following Session may prevent the most appropriate provision from being made. In particular, it may be necessary to act quickly so that the hereditary Peers can be included in the register as it is being prepared in November rather than having to have a system of formal claims or registration officers making alterations to the register or publishing claims notices.
To those who think that the power is too broad I would only reiterate that the power is a transitional power and that it is tightly defined. It is also a power that affects only a small number of people. The main reason for including a power rather than making provision in the Bill is to ensure that the most appropriate arrangements can be made both from the point of view of efficient administration and from the point of view of the convenience of hereditary Peers themselves. If we put it on the face of the Bill it might take longer for hereditary Peers to get the right to vote rather than with this power, which gives maximum flexibility.
I should say that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee accepted the Government's reasons for taking the power in Clause 4(3). The report of the Committee said that it was appropriate that any
I now come to the individual amendments. Amendment No. 123, which is the first of the substantive amendments moved by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, provides that the qualifying date for inclusion in the electoral register for elections to the House of Commons should be 1st January rather than 10th October for the purpose of preparing and publishing any electoral register that will apply to any elections taking place from the date of the coming into force of the Act and 16th February 2001. The idea, as he said, is to extend the qualifying date by three months, during which time the Bill will have been passed and the legal incapacity from voting in parliamentary elections removed. We are doubtful that it will achieve that: rather, it simply seems to put the date back.
I have to say that although this is not the substance of the noble Earl's amendment, the amendment is defective in a number of other respects. To identify one or two only, in the first place it refers to the wrong Representation of the People Act. It does not deal with Peers resident overseas, nor with European parliamentary elections.
More significantly, in certain circumstances it could fail to achieve the result intended. The provision is not adequate to deal with the scenario of the Bill coming into force after 1st January 2000 and therefore hereditary Peers would not be able to vote until February 2001. There could therefore be a delay of over one year in those circumstances, which I am sure is not what the noble Earl intended.
Amendment No. 124 also removes the order-making power. The new subsection (3) proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, deems Clause 1 of the Bill to come into force on 14th September for the purposes of Section 4 of the Representation of the People Act 1985. Ignoring the fact that reference is made to the wrong Representation of the People Act, the amendment is ineffective since a Peer's incapacity would still subsist even though his membership of the House of Lords was deemed to have ended. Disqualification on voting in parliamentary elections arises from the status of being a hereditary Peer; not on membership of this House. The amendment should rather have referred to both sections.
I would also note that the subsection would have the effect of preventing any by-election (or general election) from taking place until a hereditary Peer who had applied to have his name included in the electoral register had been included and the register amended. That of course would be unacceptable.
Amendment No. 125 replaces the order-making power in the Bill to make transitional provision in relation to entitlement to vote in parliamentary and European parliamentary elections and seeks to make provision on the face of the Bill. The amendment
The amendment is defective, first, in that it allows a hereditary Peer to vote who may be disqualified for other reasons (for example, because he is too young or because he is in prison). Secondly, it deals with the right to stand for election to the House of Commons and ties it to being included in the electoral register. Inclusion in the electoral register is, on the one hand, a new condition and places an additional burden on a hereditary Peer, while on the other hand it seems to give an entitlement to stand, notwithstanding any other disqualifications that might apply. In any event, there is no need for any transitional provision to be made in respect of standing for elections to the House of Commons. That also deals with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. There are certain circumstances in which one can stand to be a Member of the House of Commons without being allowed to vote because one does not appear on the electoral register.
The amendment failed, first, to deal with hereditary Peers resident overseas and, secondly, with European parliamentary elections. It does not specify how many registers the provision is aimed at. Nor does it seem to acknowledge that Section 5 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 makes detailed provision about the meaning of residence.
Amendment No. 126, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, seeks to require the Secretary of State to make an order. The Leader of the House in the other place has already given an assurance that the Government will ensure that hereditary Peers will be able to vote from an early date. However, depending on whether the Bill is passed, it may or may not be necessary to exercise the power to achieve that objective. We do not want to be required to make provision for something that may be covered by existing provision, which is the provision if the Bill becomes law before 10th October. However, I should make it clear that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, can be assured of our good intentions to see that the necessary provision is made to enable hereditary Peers to vote.
Lord Elton: I am perfectly content with what the noble and learned Lord said on the first of my pair of amendments in relation to "may" or "shall". However, perhaps I can return to something that I may have misheard earlier.
I am left with the impression that the intention is that the voting rights of hereditary Peers removed from this House shall commence on 1st February 2000. In the not impossible, certainly unlikely and perhaps politically cataclysmic circumstances of an election suddenly being called (for instance, because of a disaster in foreign policy) between the end of this Session and 1st February next year, the Secretary of State will have had to have made the order before that decision is taken. He is not going to know when the necessity will arise.
It seems to me, therefore--good intentions nonetheless--that it may be necessary to make an order giving the power for the right to vote to excluded hereditary Peers, as is said in my amendment, between the end of the Session and February 2000 and not simply from February 2000.
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