23rd December 2014
Anthony St. John is one of the longest serving peers in the House of Lords, having been a member since 1978. He is affiliated with the crossbenchers, and is one of the 90 remaining hereditary peers. He is the 22nd holder of the title Baron St John of Bletso, which was created in the mid-1500s.
Q: You’ve been in the House of Lords since 1978, how has it changed since then?
A: When I joined the House of Lords, it was full of hereditary peers. There were over 750 who had the right to sit because of inheritance, and I believe this was wrong. In 1999, they reformed the House of Lords. They abolished hereditary peers, and one in ten survived. So there were 75 hereditaries who became elected, fifteen others became deputy speakers, and two remained by virtue of being the higher of the food chain, for example, the Duke of Norfolk remained. I was one of those who survived the cull. So to put it into perspective, in the House of Lords, which is very different to the House of Commons, we have the governing party (the Government), we have the Opposition, we have the Liberal Democrats and then we have a strange breed called the crossbenchers, of which I’m one, and we’re independent. The crossbenchers created 28 hereditary peers to remain in the Lords, elected from 280 hereditary peers in the House of Lords at the time, and when they were elected, I came third. I don’t know why, but I was lucky enough to remain part of those who stayed behind. But in answer to your question, the House of Lords has changed in that it is a far more professional chamber. There are far too many members, and they ought to cull the numbers by at least 40% in my opinion, but it’s an effective chamber for revising and examining legislation. The unique feature of the House of Lords, compared to any other executive chamber in the world, is that it represents all interest groups: you have doctors, you have lawyers, you have accountants, you have ex-politicians. Whatever subject is being debated, you have those there who can speak with authority on the subject.
Q: You are a crossbencher. What do you think are the advantages of being a crossbencher?
A: The crossbenchers are a unique group, and I think I must make it quite clear that we are not part of Farage’s UKIP: we are independent minded individuals who have no bias; in fact, we vote as much for government as we vote for opposition. Being a crossbencher does not make us subject to the whip. (The whip means that you can be told by your party that you have to vote.) No one tells us how to vote. The crossbenchers are made up of an extraordinary selection of those who have been head of the armed forces, those who have been head of the police, those who have been head of the diplomatic corps, ex-judges, independents. It’s a very eclectic group, and very stimulating, and a great crowd to be with.
Q: Have you been dealing with any interesting bills recently?
A: Certainly. We’ve just had two private members’ motions. I should perhaps differentiate between a private members’ bill and a public bill. Public bills are those bills which come through because of the Queen’s speech, and in their manifesto, they lay out the legislation for the forthcoming session. For example, we’ve just had the modern slavery bill, which sounds an extraordinary bill to be going through parliament, but that’s part of the election manifesto. And then we have two bills that I’m working on. One is the Medical Innovations Bill, which is a private members’ bill created by Lord Saatchi, in which he’s trying to expedite the time period it takes to allow experimental drugs to be used, particularly in the treatment of cancer. Then we have another bill I’m personally involved with, called the Divorce Financial Provisions Bill, which is trying to change the law so that lawyers don’t gain from the unfortunate situation when partners get divorced. It’s trying to make the law clearer, and more defined. These are two situations which are very much in the public interests, but which are not part of the election manifesto. The chances of these bills becoming law are very slim, but nevertheless, they are two issues that I’m involved with, and which other crossbenchers are very involved with as well.
Q: What’s your view on the proposed referendum to leave the European Union?
A: I think it is very risky to have a referendum in 2018. I should declare my interests right from the start: that I am pro-Europe. I think it is in our interests that Britain is part of the European Union: we have a population of barely 65 million, and we have a European Union which has in excess of half a billion people. Europe is a complicated issue. It is complicated because many people don’t understand the exigencies of the membership rules. It’s complicated because we have different cultures. It’s a very new concept. I think business wants to be part of Europe, and I think the public are increasingly scared of being a member of Europe, and I’m not entirely convinced that a referendum is the best way to decide whether we should be in or out of the European Union. So, risky is how I would put it, just like the Scottish referendum. In retrospect, the Scottish referendum was a good thing, because it made people debate in a very logical fashion the pros and cons of being part of the United Kingdom. And in actual fact, it worked out that it had a happy ending, but I’m not convinced with the European Union that there will be a good result.
Q: Finally, how do you think that the House of Lords will change in the future? Would you please elaborate on your thoughts about a cap being introduced on the number of Lords.
A: I think the House of Lords has to go through another stage of reform. I’m not a believer in an elected upper house: if you elect an upper house you’ve got to give the House of Lords a lot more power, and it should become a form of senate. One of the unique features of the House of Lords is that it has persuasive powers rather than directive powers, and by that I mean if you have directive powers, you have the right to veto. If you have persuasive powers, you don’t have the right to veto, but you have a consortium of wise men and women who have the knowledge and expertise to persuade Parliament. I do stress women, because the House of Lords up until 1959 had no lady members, and now we have almost 30% of lady members. And I think the House of Lords has evolved in time, but it does need more reform. In answer to your specific question, it does need to reduce its numbers. We have well over 900 members, there is seating for about 400, and frankly, membership of the House of Lords should only consist of those who are active: there’s no point in having members who are peers by virtue of simply having a title and are not taking part in activities in the House, in Select Committee work, and in the very functions of the House of Lords. So my belief is if you have a title, and you don’t take an active role, you should be forced to take leave of absence. Equally so, I’m not convinced that if you get to a certain age, you should retire: I believe that many of the wisest members of the House of Lords are the senior members, those who are in their eighties and nineties who speak with enormous experience, and enormous knowledge, and enormous wisdom, and I would hate to see that part of the House of Lords being lost. So it is evolving, it’s a political hot potato in that the Liberal Democrats would like to make the House of Lords a fully elected chamber, Labour doesn’t know what to do, the Conservatives are playing a game of cat and mouse: they pretend that they want to have it fully elected, but they don’t want it fully elected. So I think a partly elected, partly nominated house is the best solution, but it needs to evolve, and there is an old expression ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and that’s my answer.