Lord Tyler and Baroness Scott write… We urgently need to reform our bloated second chamber

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.

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18 Comments

  • toryboysnevergrowup 25th Apr '12 - 1:31pm

    A think a rather more urgent matter is to deal with the double dip recession – in all 8 quarters since this Government was formed the economy has grown 0.4% vs 4.3% redicted by June 2010 deficit reduction plan. The economic strategy is clearly not working and the LibDems in government need to remember what they said in the election campaign about not cutting the deficit until growth was established. Instead a lot of effort is going to be spend in what will be an ultimately fruitless task to reform the second chamber – which I suspect will put back that desirable objective even further. Politics is meant to be the art of the possible.

  • A good article and the final point is a great one. If there needs to be a referendum to ensure Tory MP’s cannot get out of supporting this then so be it. I’m sure it can be won.

  • The last thing this country needs is more professional politicians! Also, reform does not come free. On the figures suggested above, these reforms will still cost an additional £333M and for what? Where is the evidence that these reforms will make our country better?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Apr '12 - 10:08am

    Matthew

    You miss the point that no sustainable consensus/parliamentary majority has been built around how the 2nd Chamber should be reformed – so as in the past the result is likely to be lots of effort with little or no product to show at the end. And the likely failure will put back reform of the 2nd chamber for a long time. While I admit that this might have some benefit in diverting present members of the Government from more damaging activities such as messing up the economy even more I do think there needs to be a little thought about what will and will not suceed when it comes to parliamentary reform. As I mentioned before I think there is a lot to be said for the Constitutinal Commission approach used for the Scottish Parliament – I also think that there is rather too much concentration on the electoral process for the 2nd chamber rather than giving some thought as to what its proper role should be. Work out the former and then electoral process will become rather more obvious to those who are deomcratically inclined.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Apr '12 - 10:31am

    I believe that if you put a representative collection of members of the 3 major parties, excluding those Labour Party members who believe in the overthrow of the capitalist system, the electoral system anoraks of the LibDems and those Tories who are not EU obsessed and still have to get over the Reform Acts, in a room for a day they would probably come up with a pretty sensible consensus as to what the role of a 2nd chamber should be and how it should be constituted and elected. The current cobbled together proposals and the parliamentary process will not.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Apr '12 - 10:43am

    Matthew Green

    Perhaps one of ways of addressing badly drafted legislation (and I agree) – would be to address the review and scrutiny arrangements within the Civil Service. Perhaps another problem is that the lawyers who should be doing such a job can now find much better paid jobs in the private sector. I’m not sure that it means that we need a second chamber full of professional draughtsmen. I would be more concerned about legislation which has unintended consequences or that contains conceptual errors that means it will not achieve its objectives or where the objectives are poorly defined. There is also the checks and balances role of a 2nd chamber. All of this would point to the need for a second chamber that is peopled with representives drawn from outside the political machines – but would also require changes in how the 2nd chamber reviews and approves legislation.

  • Chris Rennard 26th Apr '12 - 11:34am

    I put some of the arguments here in letters to the Daily Telegraph, replying to the opposition to reform.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/9221595/A-reformed-House-of-Lords-would-gobble-up-power-and-pick-a-fight-with-constituency-MPs.html

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Apr '12 - 1:53pm

    Paul

    I don’t think you need a consensus that would carry everyone’s colleagues along in each party – and I agree that such wouldn’t be achievable. What is needed is a consensus within the country as a whole rather than one that would satisfy individual parties – it is precisely because no consensus exists that satisfies the individual parties in the Coalition that the current proposals will not be accepted. Rather than pursuing your vainglorious attempt I do think that there is more that our representative could do to push and harry the Government on the economy even though this may not involve legislation.

    I don’t think the dissimilarity to the Scottish Constitutional Convention was as you point out – I think there is a consensus for a democratically accountable second chamber – but as in Scotland there are plenty of disagreements as to what its role and objectives should be and how it operates, and what was needed was the development of a detailed and workable model that could be put to the electorate – and so address the quibbles of those who were opposed to the underlying principle (which was why the first Referendum on Scotland was lost!).

    My problem is not with the end objective but the inept strategy and tactics with which it is being pursued. I also think that there is something of a democratic deficit as the discussion with the elctorate to date has been pretty limited and focussed on composition of the 2nd chamber and has not addressed such matters as its purpose and how it relates to the 1st chamber.

  • “Even the £333m figure you quote (i.e £433m less £100m) is highly speculative since the progenitor of those sums is allowing for a raft of staff to be attached to elected members.”

    Just to clarify, that estimate is for a five-year period, isn’t it? So the annual equivalent would be £67m, compared with the current £20m figure, the difference being almost entirely down to the assumed cost of support staff.

  • “membership of the House will rocket from the present (absurd) 807, to well over 1000,”
    So what?

    I don’t see any problem in having 1000+ members on the books, other than they won’t all physically be able to get into the second chamber at the same time, but this is no different to many companies who (deliberately) have insufficient office space for all of their employees, or companies (like supermarkets) who have large pools of part-time workers. However these companies extensively use either technology to enable all employees to contribute, or pro-active human resourcing to ensure they have sufficient staff on duty to satisfy anticipated demand. The same can be done for the Lords.
    The only real requirement is to ensure that members get compensated for the time they are expected to devote to the business of the Lords, namely scrutiny of legislation; otherwise it won’t get done.

    So back to basic’s: WHAT IS THE CONSTITUTIONAL PROBLEM, REFORM OF THE LORDS IS TRYING TO ACHIEVE?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Apr '12 - 8:44pm

    Paul – I think history will judge whether it is a vainglorious attempt. I just hope that unlike in the case of the economy there is a Plan B in case of failure.

    On the relationship between the 1st and 2nd chambers – I suspect the desire of the public for the 2nd chambers views to carry more weight will vary from issue to issue and according to which party’s legislation is being thwarted, but I think that is incredibly naive to assume that the current relationship can endure after any reform. The question as to when it is right and wrong for the 2nd chamber to obstruct/challenge the 1st chamber will change fundamentally – and given the proposed 15 year term of the members of the 2nd chamber, it would also chnage over the life of the 2nd chamber. One of the commonly expressed reasons why we need a 2nd scrutinising table is that the present system does not allow for a proper thinking through of the consequences of proposed legislation, I fear this is what is happening here.

    BTW – I am all in favour of elections – everyone in the 2nd chamber should be elected and certainly more often than every 15 years and the electorate should have a clear idea as to the role and function of that chamber so that we can use our wisdom to select those most suited.

  • Paul: You are confusing legitimacy with credibility and independence; the second chamber has legitimacy (it is the ‘check and balance chamber’ in the UK’s implementation of a bicameral system). However , like the first chamber it has problems with credibility, transparency and independence of action.

    Perhaps we need to step back even further and ask the questions a consultant would ask a business: what is going well? what could be done better? and what are the challenges?

    As toryboysnevergrowup states, by having an elected 2nd chamber, the existing relationship and dynamic between the two chambers could not be sustained or justified. For example, with the majority in both chambers being elected, the legitimately and relevance of the Parliament Act would need to be reassessed.

    Also as toryboysnevergrowup states, we need a clear expression of the role and function of the second chamber and hence the role and responsibility of its members, without this we cannot determine what is the best way to recruit people to the job and for candidates to articulate why they are suitable.

    So as I said before, back to basic’s…

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