Lord Tyler writes… Only the Government’s Bill can take the hereditary principle out of Parliament

There has for some years been a conceit in the House of Lords that the place could gain stature and authority simply by doing a bit of tidying up at the edges, and by ending the hereditary principle. There has been a further conceit that this work can be done without controversy or delay.

Our own David Steel has been a doughty proponent of this approach, as a logical precursor to more comprehensive reform. Last Friday, he gave Peers their best opportunity ever to prove that it could work.

Yet the Lords showed itself resistant even to the modest changes on offer. David’s Bill suggested an exit route for those who want to retire, a compulsory exit door for those who commit criminal offences, or don’t attend. Crucially it also sought to stop any more hereditary peers coming in through the absurd “by-elections”, meaning their numbers – and with them the principle of heredity in Parliament – would dwindle over time by way of natural wastage.

LDV readers will know that I never felt that the Steel Bill – as it was soon dubbed – was sufficient. But we did come to recognise that it could be necessary as a down-payment on further reform, and I had hoped that a consensus might be found for it to be done quickly.

Not so. Hereditary peers tabled some 300 amendments at the last minute. Chaos reigned, with bits of paper flying around everywhere and the House having to “adjourn for pleasure” twice while documents were printed and re-printed. Out of the jaws of all this disarray, David managed to snatch some small victory by reluctantly giving in to the reactionaries. He said, “I have not changed my view that the hereditary by-elections, particularly in the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, are really quite farcical. In the 21st century to have elections to Parliament by heredity by three votes to one is simply absurd.” However, the clause on ending the hereditary principle was duly excised, and the raft of vexatious amendments was magically withdrawn.

David himself recognised that this filleting of the Bill degraded its status. He tabled an amendment to rename the Bill to House of Lords (Amendment) Bill, saying “having pared the Bill down to just two succinct issues—retirement and expulsion—I think it is rather grandiose to describe it as a House of Lords Reform Bill.”

Its remaining provisions on exiting the House, whether by choice or by compulsion, for different reasons, are still sensible. However, I do not fancy the Bill’s chances in the Commons now that is so simperingly unambitious. MPs will surely refuse to leave in place 92 peers who are neither elected by the public nor appointed on merit – 92 peers who sit in the Lords only because their fathers did.

The overwhelming forces of self-interest at play in the Lords gave the lie to any idea that consensus could be formed around modest proposals of the kind David has tried so hard to promote. Existing life peers had hoped they could use this tactic to persuade the Government to drop its plans for an elected House, and to stick with “what works” instead. On Friday, more than ever, it was clear that the Lords doesn’t work.

Only the Government’s full reform will make the place effective and representative. Nick Clegg and David Cameron’s proposals are comprehensive yet evolutionary. They are for a democratic chamber distinctly different to the Commons. And they have germinated over more than a decade of cross-party talks, and from three party manifesto commitments to the public. Their time is now.

You can read the Friday’s full debate in the Lords here.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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6 Comments

  • Martin Pierce 15th Feb '12 - 5:58pm

    As I said in response to a Mark Pack item on the same subject last week – it’s worth re-reading Roy Jenkins’ “Mr Balfour’s Poodle” as a reminder that less changes than you might think when it comes to the Lords, even in a century.

  • I am afraid that you almost singlehandedly destroyed any faith many of us had in the House of Lords, when you called concerned members of the public, [e mailing you and other peers, as is their democratic right, re the NHS proposals,] a rentamob.
    You continued to destroy that faith, by introducing a recent amendment to the Welfare Bill and then voting against it, yourself.
    I have totally changed my mind about House of Lords reform and whereas I would have gone for an elected House, the use of Party Whips makes the idea of such a body being in the remotest way, democratic, highly unlikely.

  • Richard Shaw 15th Feb '12 - 10:06pm

    @Margaret

    Unlike the current appointed Lords where self-interest, Party lines or patronage have no effect on decision making? Personally I don’t think you can rationally call emailing appointed or hereditary Peers as if they were representatives of the people a democratic right and simultaneously defend the House of Lords’ undemocratic nature.

  • Richard, I am no expert in this area, but am assuming that elected peers, would be subject to the whip, as in the present system.

  • Richard Shaw 16th Feb '12 - 7:31am

    @Margaret

    As far as I’m aware the Lib Dems don’t whip their Peers – and even if they did as often as in the commons that’s not an argument against reform, unless you argue the presence of the whip means we should abolish elections to the Commons. Unfortunately democracy means sometimes decisions are made some people disagree with – I would always prefer that to having an autocracy I always agree with.

  • Helpful Lib Dem 16th Feb '12 - 1:39pm

    The Lib Dems most certainly whip their peers, and have one, two and three line whips just like they do in the Commons! A whip is an indication to peers indicating the party (i.e. government) position on each motion or amendment, and the number of lines is an indication to peers how important it is they stay and vote with the party for that particular item.

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