Lords reform back on the agenda?

No doubt Lords reform will be back on the agenda after the peers have had their way with the Article 50 Bill. The Lords will at most be able to delay the legislation, but it may well return to the Commons in a shape that is displeasing to the Tory  brexiteers. In that instance, we can expect to see ministers huff and puff about the impertinence of an unelected house interfering with Government legislation. These will be the same ministers who as Tory MPs frustrated Nick Clegg’s plans to have the House of Lords elected along with so many of their colleagues.

The Lords is a revising and scrutinising chamber and it has a duty to take the Government on if they produce bad legislation and I expect to see them doing that.

The idea of electing the Lords was discussed again on Friday as Green Peer Jenny Jones’ private members’ bill came up for second reading.  It is not dissimilar to Lib Dem thinking on Lords reform and it was therefore unsurprising that our Alan Beith and Paul Scriven spoke up in favour of the Bill.

Alan had a good swipe at the Tories’ plans for a Repeal Bill in the process:

>We are now in a new situation. It would be an extraordinarily optimistic person who thought that we could get through legislation on Lords reform in a Parliament which will be overwhelmed by the vast corpus of primary and secondary legislation that will be involved in leaving the European Union. Perhaps the noble Baroness shares the tendency to political optimism which is often a characteristic of Liberal Democrats.

Her Bill has many similarities with the coalition’s proposals and with Liberal Democrat policy. It provides for what we regard as the essential ingredient of democracy while recognising that the second Chamber should be elected on a different basis from the Commons and on a different timescale. However, retaining all existing Peers except hereditaries as non-voting Members outnumbering the voting Members would produce a very strange assembly with obvious tensions. The noble Baroness may be making a massive concession before the process of negotiation has even begun in order to get turkeys to vote for Christmas.

However, the House of Lords will change in this Parliament, despite the impossibility of major Lords reform going through. It will change because of the repeal Bill—which I refuse to call “great”. In any case, it is not a repeal Bill but a re-enactment Bill. I do not remember that the great Reform Bill was ever called “great” until after it had
been passed—and some of its opponents probably still did not call it that.

And then he looked at the prospect of continued threats to the Lords if the House didn’t play ball with the Government.

Transfer of EU law cannot be achieved without numerous consequential changes, with many matters of policy dealt with in secondary legislation. Alongside that problem, Governments will continue from time to time to threaten dire consequences for the Lords if this House causes the Executive any serious difficulty or inconvenience. These range from the various Strathclyde proposals to remove powers—on the shelf at least for the time being—right through to the creation of a large number of new Peers to give one party a majority, or even to abolition.

>All this is extraordinary, given the resistance to reform. It must mean something. What are we otherwise to understand from some of the language used whenever the Lords threatens to exercise its ability to send a matter back to the Commons? Sir William Cash said in the debate in the Commons on Monday: If the House of Lords were to attempt to stand in the way … it would be committing political suicide”.—[Official Report, Commons, 31/1/17; col. 838.]

Quite what that political suicide consists of he did not make clear, but the language was not that different from the initial response of Ministers to the Strathclyde proposals when they were first published—even though there was some welcome pulling-back by the Leader of the House shortly afterwards.

The threats are constantly used and they come, extraordinarily, from those who we assume are not in favour of fundamental reform of the Lords but would be prepared to change it in circumstances where it posed them too much difficulty. The threats are used mainly when the House of Lords considers exercising its right and duty to ask the elected House to think again—usually about a specific subject within a Bill or statutory instrument. Such a role will be needed if some of the statutory instruments under the repeal Bill are used to make substantial policy changes which should be dealt with in primary legislation. If that  happens, at some point the Lords will have to send something back to the Commons and demand that it be reconsidered.

It can be said that the Executive are getting the best of all worlds: a House of Lords which, if it causes Ministers any significant inconvenience or delay, is put on notice that it will be curtailed in unspecified ways. The fact that the House has no democratic legitimacy of any kind is used as the argument to prevent even the exercise of its traditional role of making the elected House think again. There is something ironic about the Executive threatening the Chamber with fundamental change when reform has been prevented by the two parties that have been in a position to bring it about and failed to do so.

Paul Scriven got into electoral systems geekery:

I also want to mention the voting system itself. This is where, as a Liberal Democrat, I put my anorak on and start talking about different proportional systems. Your Lordships would expect a Liberal Democrat to do that, but I believe that the voting the system in the Bill needs to be changed because, as a lot of people say, the list system gives  power to the parties rather than the electorate. It is the party that decides where and how somebody goes on the list, and therefore it is more or less a party choice who gets there. I support the multi-member single transferable vote system, because that gives real power to people to have a choice—not just of one person but of a number of people who they might wish to give a preference to. They can choose between parties and between party and non-party. If someone has an expertise in or relevance to that region, people can choose them and have the power to rank them. The make-up of the House would be very different and there would be less power in the hands of the parties than if we stuck to the list system. It would allow the electorate to have a voice in giving a preference to people who were not just on the party list. I support that.

And he had an interesting analogy about the work of the Lords;

Since I have been here—I am one of the newer Members of this House—I have often been asked how I would describe the House of Lords. I say, “A vacuum cleaner”. People look at me rather strangely, and I say, “Because it cleans up a lot of dust and dirt in the legislation that comes from the other place and passes it back much cleaner and with much more clarity”.

However, being a good vacuum cleaner is not good in terms of a modern, outward-looking, functioning democracy…

In reading the whole debate, I was struck by a posh Tory hereditary peer telling Jenny Jones off for referring to Alan Beith as “you.” Surely to goodness, if it was an issue, a private word afterwards rather than a public rebuke would have been more appropriate. It was quite a horrible moment, especially given that Jenny, a female Green Peer, is part of the “we” whether he likes it or not.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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12 Comments

  • nigel hunter 5th Feb '17 - 1:10pm

    Bill Cash was playing the bully, typically a Brexiteer who do not like to cope with intelligent discussion but only with those who agree with them.
    The Lords must NOT disappear It is a House that corrects over the top legislation It could contain one third political appointees, one third experts and one third ordinary people who have community experience. Politicians can pick their third. The rest could be picked by public vote. Any other ideas folks?

  • The House of Lords is due an overhaul, but I am very clear that it must remain/become (depending on your level of optimism) a chamber that values experience and expertise far more than party politics. The House of Lords must be a meritocracy, but it must also be compatible with a modern democracy, and balancing those requirements successfully will be a challenge.

    I am pleased that the purpose of the House of Lords is being discussed, because all decisions must be made with this in mind. Essentially, it proof reads the work of the Commons, and makes corrections, points out anything that has been overlooked, and if required, suggestions for reworking. The people doing the marking must be able to prioritise the long-term interests of the country over what suits the short-term interests of their party (if they have one), or even their own re-election.

    I’m mindful that those who might be best at doing the work within the Lords may not be the ones who are best at winning a public election. It’s just not realistic to expect the public to be able to vote in the best specialist experts, and while we might be able to convince experts to accept a seat in the Lords, few would be keen on standing for election. We’d end up with a self-selecting group of people who do not represent their speciality, never mind the public as a whole.

    I like Nick’s idea of dividing the seats into groups, and having different methods of appointment accordingly, and I would like to see more representation of community groups. Right now, we have Bishops, and I think I may be in the minority by liking their involvement, but we could probably get away with halving their number (they can vote amongst themselves), and introducing formal places for their equivalents from other religions and community interest groups.

    To do this right will be a long and tricky process, but we need to be careful not to be caught off guard by disgruntled Tory Brexiteers with a sudden desire for change.

    I’d prioritise making another push for PR for the Commons, but in the meantime, I think we would do well to encourage a modest pruning of the Lords, reducing numbers by about 10% Perhaps another election between the remaining hereditary Lords and those appointed more than, for example, 30 years ago. Ditch those that never turn up, and the likes of Andrew Lloyd-Webber who have no real interest in good legislation.

  • nigel hunter 5th Feb '17 - 2:02pm

    Can the party have a members competition, questionnaire, or something to get views as to developing a policy to reform the chamber.However it must not be got rid of ,cos it acts as a checks and balance for Government decisions, incliuding when we are in government.

  • I take it that everyone has seen the trails for an up-coming BBC documentary called “Meet the Lords”, coming soon on BBC2.

    Martin, I agree it is likely that there will be no actual action on the Lords any time soon, but there will be discussions about its role and the need to reform, and probably blaming them for having the temerity to do what they are supposed to do. We should be prepared to use this as an opportunity to put forward sensible suggestions and hope that some of them gain traction.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Feb '17 - 3:53pm

    I’m a strong believer in either Lords reform or Lords abolishment. I would support either policy that ends a veto on our laws by an unelected chamber.

    I don’t think a second chamber is necessary, I think we should just have a stronger civil service and write the laws properly in the first place, but an elected second chamber is better than what we currently have.

  • The Commons will not want an elected second chamber that will be as legitimate as they are. The odds are that there will be reform at some point, but I doubt that another elected body is on the cards

  • Laurence Cox 5th Feb '17 - 5:51pm

    I would hope that if the Deputy Speaker in the Commons does not select any of our Party’s amendments for debate on Article 50, our Peers, who are numerically much stronger than our MPs. insist on debating them in the Upper House.

  • nvelope2003 5th Feb '17 - 9:15pm

    Eddie Sammon: An unelected House of Lords should not have a veto over a fully democratic House of Commons but we do not have one because of the way it is elected. However, there is something to be said for an advisory Second Chamber which can review legislation passed by the democratically elected House and suggest revisions.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Feb '17 - 9:45pm

    Hi nvelope, I change my mind on what is best out of unicameralism and bicameralism, but what I’m against is keeping the Lords as it is because people can’t agree on what specific type of Lords reform to go for.

    There are ways to prevent the Commons from wielding too much power, such as devolution, a written constitution and referendums, but we should get rid of legislative power from unelected people. Laws should be made by accountable people.

  • Matt (Bristol) 6th Feb '17 - 10:58am

    I imagine there is no way in hell this will happen, but I believe that Lords Reform is one of the few things that could be expedited by a judicious referendum (accompanied, of course, by enabling legislation), on the grounds that there is a nominal parliamentary consensus on the need to do it, but all attempts to do it have broken down due to MPs bickering about how to do it.

    I imagine a 3-question referendum:

    What should the proportion of directly elected members be? (100% or 66%)
    What should be the system used for the directly elected members? (STV or list PR)
    What should be the method used for the indirectly elected members? (election by HoC using a system to be chosen by HoC, or appointment by independent commission)

    There we go, easy. (Joke).

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