Paul Tyler writes…What next for the Lords?

The Leader of the Liberal Democrats peers, Dick Newby, has warned that the Prime Minister may try to pre-empt an agreement to restrict the ever-increasing size of the Lords by packing in new Tory appointments in the New Year.

The forecast that Theresa May would follow the plea of St Augustine – “Lord, make me pure, but not yet”. In the debate in December he set out the Party’s position on short term plans to present:

The proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, offer an alternative way forward. From these Benches, as I say, we support their principal features: a significantly reduced size of your Lordships’ House, party membership based on electoral performance, and a gradual phasing in of the new arrangements. We do not of course resile from our policy of having elections for the political Members of your Lordships’ House, but we are realistic enough to know that this is not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, it is highly desirable that something is done to reduce our size….

There are certainly some features of the proposals before us today which we believe are not ideal. The argument for having membership based on the mean of votes cast and seats won has in our view no rationale. It is a fix. It benefits the two largest parties at the expense of everyone else and yet again reflects the steadfast determination of Labour and Conservatives alike to prevent Parliament, even your Lordships’ House, reflecting the will of the people, to their own permanent advantage.

The inability to do anything about the remaining hereditary places is also a problem. This is one element of the proposals about which we on these Benches can afford to take a relatively relaxed position, as we are barely affected, but, at this point, to have a reform which increases the proportion of hereditary Peers, however personally distinguished, is perverse. If the main thrust of the reforms are accepted by the Government, we hope that they might also relent in standing out against the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, or a Bill of their own which would deal with this problem. The same consideration applies to the number of Bishops but, again, a short, free-standing Bill could deal with the issue.…

So we are prepared to give these proposals a cautious welcome today. We would greatly prefer the politicians in House to be elected. We do not think constitutional reform by informal agreement is the ideal way of entrenching things, but the key thing now is the attitude of the Government. If in today’s debate there is a large majority of support for the proposals before us, as I expect there to be, will the Prime Minister constrain her current unfettered powers to create Peers in order to make the proposals viable, and will she act in good faith by not putting more Conservatives in your Lordships’ House before the new system kicks in? To coin two phrases, the ball is in the Government’s court and the clock is ticking.

After over 90 speakers I as Party Spokesperson summed up for the Liberal Democrat Team:

Unless the Prime Minister is willing to abide by this constraint, we might as well give up now, and without a statutory scheme her successors cannot be held to her agreement in law either. We would have to insist that in the event that she or any future Prime Minister broke out of this constraint, the whole scheme would be null and void.…

Not only will MPs have no formal say in a major constitutional change but their constituents will have no opportunity to lobby them to express their views. It is extraordinary that in a debate that has lasted for most of the day so few Members have referred to the views of the public. At one point, one noble Lord referred to “the people who send us here”. No people send us here, but the people have a considerable interest in the composition of the legislature. I think that only the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Hunt, referred to this as an issue that we should address.

I find it ironic that those who have previously argued so vociferously for the primacy of the Commons should now acquiesce in a scheme which deliberately excludes its Members from any effective say in the composition of this House of Parliament.…

To our fellow citizens this will look like a process appropriate for the membership of a gentlemen’s club, not for the membership of half of the national legislature. To pursue a school analogy, not content with marking our own homework, we would be thought to have written our own exam paper and decided on our own expulsion system and its victims.…

We should remember that the present proposals may be sufficient for a short time, but if we are not very careful, the public will become much more disposed to abolishing the House than to supporting its continued appointed basis. The public will want to know where they have a hand in these proposals. The committee’s recommendations may give us a temporary reprieve. However, for the sake of the reputation of the House they cannot be permanent. This is unfinished business. I conclude as I did in last December’s debate by saying that, eventually, “The only acceptable method for reducing the size of a House of Parliament in a parliamentary democracy is democracy”.

The whole Debate can be read in three sections here, here and here.

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

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9 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 20th Dec '17 - 4:55pm

    To be clear there are strong rumours that Mrs May is going to send a large batch of new Tory peers to the Lords in the New Year in order to make it harder for the Lords to pass amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. This would of course be a constitutional outrage and a political disgrace – but it would also but the very firm knockers on the Lords’ own proposals to reduce the size of the House by agreement. I hope the Lords Speaker is going to have some very strong words with her very soon.

  • nvelope2003 20th Dec '17 - 5:23pm

    Lord Greaves: Yes it would be a constitutional outrage but Asquith asked the King to create enough Liberal peers to get the Lords to pass the Parliament Act. It did not happen because the Conservatives preferred to accept the inevitable rather than have their House swamped with Liberals which was a pity as all sorts of interesting people were going to become peers.

  • Mick Taylor 20th Dec '17 - 6:07pm

    Nvelope2003. Actually it was to get the government’s budget through, because up to then the restriction of money bills was not in force and the HoL was blocking Lloyd George’s peoples’ budget. The Parliament Act came after the HoL backed down in light of the threat of new Liberal peers.

  • Laurence Cox 20th Dec '17 - 6:48pm

    Lord Tyler is being ingenuous when he says “but, at this point, to have a reform which increases the proportion of hereditary Peers, however personally distinguished, is perverse.” When the hereditary peers were reduced in numbers to 92, the total number of peers was 669 (in March 2000). As there are now 797 peers, the proportion of hereditary peers has fallen since then. All the reform is doing is returning the proportion to something close to the level that the Blair Government originally intended. In fact, as David Cameron appointed 117 peers at a faster rate than any PM in history, our own party was complicit in the inflation of the Lords during the Coalition Government.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Dec '17 - 12:06pm

    nvelope2003 20th Dec ’17: Are these precedents relevant today? The Duke of Wellington led a mass abstention from the Lords in order to accept the Reform Bill (1832) which altered the composition of the Commons by abolishing named constituencies.
    David Steel’s bill has become law, allowing voluntary retirement from the Lords, but not including the abolition of bye-elections for the peerage. Several peers have taken voluntary retirement and David Steel has said that he intends to retire from the Lords at the next general election (for the Commons of course).
    David Cameron has not taken a peerage. Churchill did not. Heath did not, quoting Churchill. Thatcher did. John Major did not. Damian Green might be available, the Tories have a large majority in Ashford, possibly including a personal vote. When Cecil Parkinson was enobled he said, on TV, that if he had anything to say he would say it on TV. He has since died.
    Gordon Brown created several peerages in his so-called ‘government of all the talents’. There was a list of peers who have not spoken in the Lords, one of whom has appeared on TV repeatedly to defend his inaction, saying he is an active lobbyist, has written a book which reads like a manifesto although he has never been an MP, is now an independent (crossbencher) and does not understand electoral systems.
    The current Labour leader has appointed only one peer, so far.
    Because the government is busy with the Brexit legislation it does not want to spend any parliamentary time on Lords reform, such as abolishing bye-elections, however noble. Retiring non-attenders and not replacing them all is a way of reducing the numbers. Another way would be to repeat the process used for the removal of hereditary peers, which was elections within political parties in the Lords and similarly for cross-benchers. The voice of the Archbishop of York was heard on welfare policy, giving a moral lead on poverty issues which caused Chancellor George Osborne to change his policy. He is a member of the Church of England but spoke for people who are not all regular church-goers. Mrs. Thatcher appointed an Orthodox Rabbi as a life peer, but what about the representation of atheists and agnostics?
    Committees in the Commons should ensure that no legislation is sent to the Lords unconsidered.

  • Mr Underhill. It’s reassuring to know that the Archbishop of York is a member of the Church of England but disappointing to learn that the Duke of Wellington and Cecil Parkinson are dead. Merry Christmas.

  • nvelope2003 21st Dec '17 - 1:12pm

    Richard Underhill: I expect that there are plenty of atheists and agnostics in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

    Mick Taylor: Sorry if I got this in the wrong order.

  • Peter Hirst 21st Dec '17 - 3:46pm

    Surely, the first step is to take the appointment of new peers out of the Party system. A compulsory retirement age and not appointing substitutes for deaths (or retirements) would help reduce the numbers that are ridiculous. Until there is all Party support for change and process little will happen.

  • nvelope2003 21st Dec '17 - 5:37pm

    Mick Taylor: I have checked my information and I was right first time. The Budget was rejected by the Lords but eventually passed after the January 1910 General election returned the Liberal Party to power with Irish Party support. Because of previous attempts by the Lords to amend or reject Government Bills, particularly the Budget and the Irish Home Rule bill the Liberals and Irish Party determined to reduce the powers of the Lords to those of a delaying power. King George V agreed to create 400 Liberal peers if the Parliament Act was not passed. It was duly passed.

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