The House of Lords Reform Act 2014: The Steel/Byles/Norton Bill.

After five failed attempts Lord Steel of Aikwood, with the assistance of Conservative MP Dan Byles, has succeeded in reforming the House of Lords. The reform does not introduce elections, remove the Bishops or discontinue hereditary by-elections but it still contains important ‘caretaker’ measures.

Lord Steel has since 2007 attempted to pass a Bill which would not enact full reform of the Lords but would correct some longstanding issues that governments have failed to tackle. The original ‘Steel Bill’ as it became known passed the House of Lords numerous times but would always falter in the Commons as it proposed ending the by-elections through which Hereditary Peers are replaced. As this would be classed as ‘major reform’, changing the composition of the Lords and leave a wholly appointed second chamber, it never received government support. Specifically in this Parliament it has been blocked by Nick Clegg who refused to allow anything short of full reform. However this section of the Act was dropped under pressure from the Earl of Caithness and Lord Trefgarne and changing government attitudes to minor reform ensured it received cross party support.

The Act was introduced to the House of Commons on 19th May 2013, sponsored by Dan Byles MP, had its first reading in the Lords on the 3rd March 2014 and received Royal Assent on 14th May.

Clause I.

Clause I simply allows for members to properly ‘retire or otherwise resign’ from the House of Lords. This is the main thrust of the Act, to provide a way of reducing the number of members without changing its composition. The voluntary retirement scheme which this Act replaces was essentially a form of permanent leave as retired peers were still counted as members of the House.

Previous proposals have included a compulsory age of retirement but this has been rejected due to the example of active and highly valued peers such as Lord Carrington and Lord Jenkins. Lord Carrington, a member of the Lords since 1945, is 94 and Lord Jenkins is 88 in September. Only the Lords Spiritual have a set retirement age as they retire their Sees upon reaching 70 and therefor cease to be members of the Lords.

Whilst supporters of the Act are not expecting a dash for the door it does allow for those who no longer feel they can contribute to the house in a positive way to permanently end their service.

Clause II.

Clause II allows for the removal of peers for a lack of attendance. Peers who do not attend the Lords once during a parliamentary session that is longer than six months cease to be members at the beginning of the next session. This does not apply to those who have taken leave or are disqualified from voting. The Act also includes provision for the Lords to acknowledging special circumstances. The example given in committee was of a member of the House of Lords being forcibly detained abroad as a prisoner of war.

One of the main criticisms of Peers is that they receive their titles but do not then participate actively in debates and votes i.e. that they are lazy parliamentarians. Attendance for Peers is much lower than it is for Peers but this is in part due to Peers having specific areas of expertise and interest they focus on and many of them have jobs outside Parliament. However, there are some Peers who are seen to enjoy the privilege of memberships without fulfilling their duties as members.

There are very few Peers who simply do not attend but this measure may go some way to increasing attendance now that the law officially frowns upon those who do not attend. It is easy to avoid expulsion but is certainly an improvement on having no rules at all.

Clause III.

Clause III brings the Lords in line with the Commons in that Peers who are found guilty of a serious criminal offence and are imprisoned for one year or more whilst a member of the Lords cease to be members. The Lord Speaker has to certify both that the person has indeed been convicted of a serious offence and that they have also been sentenced to imprisonment to over a year before issuing a certificate of expulsion. When a member is convicted abroad the House has to vote to agree that a certificate should still be issued. This recognises that not all legal systems are as efficient as that of the UK. Certificates can be rescinded if a conviction is overturned, imprisonment is reduced to less than a year or the conviction is replaced with another where detention is less than one year in length.

Very few members of the House of Lords have ever been convicted of a serious criminal offence that would now result in them being removed from the House of Lords. Lord Archer is the most famous example of recent times. The Act is not retrospective but it ends the possibility of Peers being convicted of crimes as serious as murder, as Lord Lucan was, and retaining their membership. This clause does not remove a Peers title as well as their membership. For that to occur primary legislation would have to be introduced to repeal letters patent.

 

Clause IV.

Clause IV allows for those who cease to be members of the House of Lords to stand to be members of the House of Commons and also allows voting in general elections. Clause IV also ensures that if as a result of the Act the number of excepted hereditary peers drops below the 90 stipulated by the House of Lords Act 1999 then by-elections occur in accordance with standing Order No.9.

The worry with allowing ex-members to immediately stand for the commons is that people could be appointed to the House and then resign after one Parliament to pursue a career in the Commons. The idea being that the Lords becomes a staging ground to improve the standing of candidates. The government, opposition and Dan Byles MP all voiced support for an amendment to combat this but nothing was forthcoming. Quite how real these fears are will become clear in the coming years.

Clauses V, VI and VII.

There are a further three clauses to the Act but they merely deal with the application of provisions, the title, territorial extent, definition of a peer and member of the house of lords and the commencement of the act.

This Act is hardly headline news but it is an important step forward in creating a more sustainable and even more well respected second chamber than we currently have. It is unlikely that this Act will result in many Peers leaving the House of Lords but having the option and ability makes it that bit more robust.

David Steel

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