This week, after 30 interminable meetings and much going round the houses, the Joint Committee on David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Draft House of Lords Reform Bill published its report.
Within minutes, a minority group from the Committee, having lost many votes on amendments to the official text, published an “alternative report”. It advocates, guess what: more meetings, more discussion, another Commission. You name the delaying tactic, they have thought of it.
The reform opponents are also much alive to the success of misleading figures in distorting the public debate on AV last year. If you remember, this simple change to the voting system was said to put in jeopardy the provision of health care and military equipment, all because of its ostensible costs. Remember those dying babies and vulnerable soldiers prayed in aide by the ‘no’ campaign? So it is that those opposing Lords reform have concluded that “the best estimate” of costs for a mainly elected Lords was from Labour’s Lord Lipsey, who speculated that the costs would be £433m between 2015 and 2020.
But his ludicrous projections were arrived at ten months ago before the Joint Committee had even started work. Tuesday’s Financial Times reports that he is already backpedalling from his calculations, and reducing them by at least £100m, based on the Joint Committee’s actual proposals.
It’s important to remember in this debate that no second chamber is free, and that the existing Lords is far from cheap. Peers get £300 a day – tax free – just for turning up. Claims amounted to nearly £20m last year, double the equivalent figure from ten years ago. The price tag of the House of Lords becomes all the more formidable, as each new Prime Minister appoints more and more people into the House. If things go on as they are, membership of the House will rocket from the present (absurd) 807, to well over 1000, and the cost will grow inexorably even without reform.
The Joint Committee recommended that any elected member who doesn’t attend for more than 50% of the days should forfeit their seat, and have to re-stand if they still want to stay on. In our estimation, there should therefore be a decent but basic salary reflecting about 50% attendance, and a continued, much more modest daily allowance for those who turn up more often. Otherwise we could have a lot of Senators earning £60,000 a year, and not necessarily even coming to Westminster on more than about 75 days a year. That clearly would be unacceptable, and that is why no reformer we have met suggests this is what should happen. The opponents have created a straw man for the benefit of the media.
Fundamentally, a reformed second chamber must ensure that anyone from any walk of life can become a member without having to have their own additional income or private wealth. But this need not mean lavish salaries or great big staffing allowances. Hysteria over potential costs does not negate the urgent need to reform our ridiculous, bloated second chamber. Indeed, without reform public support for abolition (already three times higher than that for the status quo) will only grow.
The overall package put forward by the government received majority support from the Committee which accepted that the primacy of the Commons need not be unduly weakened, especially by a House which is only 80% elected. Members supported proposals for a 15 year, non-renewable term as a means of maintaining independence and long-term thinking, and they agreed that an STV system should be used for the elections. We believe all of that is progress. Only when the antis were losing votes on these arguments, did they make their successful bid to put a recommendation for a referendum into the report.
That googly was the last ditch of the last ditchers, but it is not one the pro-reform needs necessarily to duck. In the coming months, we must as Liberal Democrats be ready to answer the hackneyed cost arguments and the age-old refrain, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It is broke, and if need be we will seek public endorsement to get on with fixing it.
See also Paul Tyler and Andrew Adonis’s article at Comment is Free.