The Independent View: House of Lords Reform – The Way Forward

It’s fair to say that last night’s debate on the House of Lords Reform Bill will not go down in history as the Common’s finest moment.  There was more cant on display than the entire run of Play Away.  Many of the speeches appeared to be against a different bill entirely and you could be forgiven for thinking the bill bore no resemblance to the one which Labour had proposed in its own White Paper in 2008 (in fact, the proposals are remarkably similar).

For all that, however, it is fair to say the Lib Dems have not exactly covered themselves in glory either.  It would be a harder bill to argue against if Nick Clegg had accepted more of the Joint Committee’s recommendations – in particular its proposals for limiting the appointments of ministers and the need for a concordat between the two chambers to sort out how they will work together.  And then there are the numerous attempts to link support for the House of Lords Reform Bill with boundary changes, most recently articulated by outgoing strategy advisor Richard Reeves.

The fact that even senior Lib Dems seem divided on whether this is a legitimate tactic suggests they really ought to have got their act together.  But the simple fact is that this has backfired spectacularly.  David Cameron’s reported views, that they were making progress on calming the rebellion down until Richard Reeves’ interview was published last week, squares with my own experience.  That should surprise nobody: many Tory MPs have deep reservations about the boundary changes themselves; if the Lib Dems vote down the boundary changes those MPs will not only get what they want but be able to denounce their coalition partners for treachery without having the embarrassment of voting down the new boundaries themselves.  And of course if gives Labour, who are desperate to see the boundary changes blocked, every incentive to scupper the bill.

It would be wise for the front bench to keep their powder more dry over the programme motion as well.  There is no question that the programme motion would make life easier for government, but there are plenty of examples in recent history of bills which have survived the passage of the House of Commons without the added benefit of a timetable.  One of the few assurances that Sadiq Khan gave in his speech yesterday was that the Labour front bench would not accept filibustering in an attempt to disrupt debate – and of course we have a speaker in the form of John Bercow who has form for taking action against such behaviour.  It would be a desperate mistake for the government to suggest that if the programme motion falls it will effectively kill the bill.  Not only is this not true but it gives the rebels every incentive to use tonight’s vote as an opportunity to give the Lib Dems a kicking.

So where do we go from here?  In the absence of Labour offering what amendments they would accept, the government should accept Caroline Lucas’ thoroughly constructive amendment to allow for three more days of debate – thus allowing more time for debate than any other bill in recent history (including the last Labour government’s own bill in support of the Lisbon Treaty).  They must indicate clearly before the vote that they will press on with the bill, regardless of the outcome of the programme motion vote.

But they would also be wise to take on board some of the points raised in yesterday’s debate.  The single most disliked aspect of the bill, by both opponents and supporters of Lords reform, is the proposal to give elected members of the second chamber 15 year, non-renewable terms.  There are good reasons for this proposal as it ensures that the second chamber will always have an older, less immediate mandate than the Commons.  However, that would also be the case with 10-year terms, with half up for election every five years.  And by allowing members of the second chamber to stand for re-election at least once would introduce much needed accountability into the system (you can read more about Unlock Democracy’s proposals for improving the bill in the briefing we sent to all MPs [pdf]).

The tabling of a government bill for House of Lords reform last month was a historic moment.  It would be a tragedy for Nick Clegg to march us all to the top of Constitution Hill only to march us all down again.  Calm heads must prevail; it is not always easy to discern the petty posturing from the constructive criticism in last night’s debate, but it is there if you are willing to look for it.

* Peter Facey is the Director of Unlock Democracy

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • “However, that would also be the case with 10-year terms, with half up for election every five years. And by allowing members of the second chamber to stand for re-election at least once would introduce much needed accountability into the system”

    If only. For the first ten years they’d toe the party line to ensure reselection, and for the second ten year term to do as they please. For accountability every elected politician should face the possibility of being recalled, and not only if they are found guilty of a criminal offence. Until MP’s vote to let themselves be recalled, I’m not trusting how they vote on the Lords.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 10th Jul '12 - 12:36pm

    I’m afraid Clegg’s approach on this is going to lose it . Most Labour and I supect most LibDem supporters can see the democratic deficit that attaches to the current proposals – and they are also being attacked on the basis that they support the status quo with regard to the relationship between the Ist and 2nd houses. The Government may wish to say that the proposals represent the “final say” on reform of the House of Lords, and George Young has explicitly said so – but I’m afraid there is no mandate for that being the case. If Clegg wanted, or was able to take the view, that this was the best that was achieveable for the present – and then commit his Party to specific further reforms in the future should there be a sufficient mandate – then he would demonstrate some leadership and might actually achieve something – and Lords reform would still be alive if he failed.

    To be honest, I very much doubt that most ordinary Labour and Lib Dem supporters (and not a few Tories) would have much disagreement about the type of 2nd chamber that we would like to see. True leadrship is about how we get there.

  • The comments citing the rebellion rates of MPs and current Peers ignores the methods by which each group is chosen.

    MPs are nominated by the Party, but then have to face public approval every five years, so there is a case for the Party to allow them some leeway. Letting a few MPs speak their minds occasionally is good for the image of the Party as a whole when it comes to getting them re-elected.

    The majority of Lords are nominated by one Government, given a quick going-over by an independent panel constrained to making sure they won’t be an immediate embarrassment to the chamber, and let in. They don’t need to worry about little things like the facts, they can just do what the Whips and the back-office boys tell them to do. (There are a few independents, appointed purely for their expertise in one field or another, but I’ll leave them to one side for the moment since they aren’t of any particular Party. They’d ideally have less of a voting record anyway – why should a surgeon be expected to fix your car when there’s a mechanic next door?)

    The current proposals for elected Lords gives us the worst of both worlds. The candidates are chosen by the Parties, so there’s every incentive for them to choose the ones who’ll give them the most loyalty for their investment. But without the possibility of re-election, there’s no reason to pick someone who’ll make the occasional token crowd-pleasing rebellion. With such an interval between elections for each seat, and two in between to confuse matters (plus all the Commons and European and Council elections), the public will have forgotten that the Parties nominated such a trained seal last time; alternatively, they’ll see a new name and assume that means change. And of course, since it’s an election and elections require massive publicity networks and spending, independents are severely handicapped compared to the Parties who keep such things in place.

    A far more effective reform would be to make the appointment of Lords subject only to a truly independent commission, as was recommended to the New Labour government for part of the post-1997 reforms but then quietly abandoned half-way. The purpose of the Lords is not to represent the Public – that’s what the Commons is for – but to be the voice of reason. By introducing term limits but allowing re-appointment, turn-over of the useless and the superseded could be achieved without throwing out the still useful. By requiring them to be answerable only to the commission, the Lords would be free to make the right decision even if it were unpopular.

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