Opinion: A healthy chamber in a healthy democracy?

Well, last week Liberal Democrats had a good week in the House of Lords. Our peers played leading roles in attempts to mitigate the more regressive effects of the benefit changes. And on Thursday, with Labour supporting us effectively for once, Shirley Williams led our peers to a signal victory on the NHS Bill.

There has been a long campaign to rescue the NHS from some of the harmful changes in the Bill. One of the most fundamental and, in the longterm, the most dangerous change was the removal of the duty of the Secretary of State “to provide or secure the provision of health services”.

Lansley proposed the much weaker wording of to “promote a comprehensive health service”. Additional duties “to set objectives and requirements for the Commissioning Board annually” and to require health bodies “to improve quality” and “to reduce inequality” were mooted and remain. But without the direct duty to “provide and secure”, future Secretaries would have had a “Get out of Jail Free” card in the event of market or organisational failure. Not only that, but were they to have sought to intervene or direct the commissioners or the hospitals, they would have found they lacked the power.

So it was a real achievement for Shirley, the NHS Future Forum, Evan Harris and all those campaigners inside and outside Parliament when the Health Minister Earl Howe conceded in the Lords that he would support the amendment and that “the Secretary of State will retain ministerial responsibility to Parliament for the provision of the health services in England”.

This now brings us to another point. There have so far been 30 or so government defeats in the Lords and the Labour peer, Toby Harris, recently revived a rumour that the Government is preparing to swamp the Lords with 60 extra peers. This would give the Coalition a theoretical majority of 120 and would effectively stifle successful dissent in the Upper House.

If there is any truth in this, what should the Liberal Democrats do? Agree and accept their share of the ermine-fodder? Or remind the Tories of their reforming intentions for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber and decline? Should they celebrate recent successes by some of their most effective parliamentarians by taking part in a ruse that will ensure they cannot succeed ever again? Or should they tell their Tory coalition partners that curtailing democracy by turning the Lords into a Coalition poodle is unacceptable?

Feesgate was disastrous enough. Would gaining a handful of new Lib Dem peers be worth embarking on the new disaster of Lordsgate?

* Nick Hollinghurst is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and a member of Tring Town Council

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One Comment

  • “And on Thursday, with Labour supporting us effectively for once”

    Sorry to be the one to point this out but the use of “us” in this statement belies some confusion. The “us” in the upper house (who I wholeheartedly support), do not always represent the total of the Lib Dem peers, even if you remove the Ministerial vote. Also they are going against the other “us” who are responsible for the legislation, namely the coalition where there was pretty solid backing from Lib Dem MP’s.

    Lib Dem Ministers offered full and vocal support for the NHS Bill in it’s original form including on this site. Which “us” do Labour need to offer support to ?

    Us and them seems to be a it blurred.

    All I can say is thank goodness for Baroness Williams, I find that where she is involved I think of myself as us and not them…

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