Warning to Lords: if you play silly buggers with Lords reform, you’ll lose your say

The last few days has seen seep into the media an idea that has been doing the rounds of pro-Lords reformers in government for a little while.

It is an answer to the question of how the Coalition Government could get Lords reform through the Lords itself without the legislation being bogged down in filibustering and disruptive tactics designed to wreck other legislation. For all the childish temper tantrum tinge to the views of some peers (mainly Conservative) – ‘if you dare take away my place in the Lords, I’ll scream and I’ll scream and I’ll wreck all your bills’ – it is a serious threat. Because, after all, unelected peers don’t have to worry about making themselves look ridiculous, out of touch or petulant in the eyes of the electorate as they’re currently blessed with a seat in Parliament for life, regardless of what the public thinks.

So the answer to this? Give the Lords one chance to behave sensible and if not, force through Lords reform without giving them a say. This would be palatable on a topic such as Lords reform which was in the manifesto of all the main parties at the general election and was also in the Coalition Agreement. It means putting the proposed Lords reform to debate and amendment in the Upper House in the usual way, but if it gets filibustered to death or other legislation gets wrecked in revenge, pull the legislation. Then use the Parliament Act to push through a reform measure regardless of what the Lords says.

In other ways – ‘if you debate sensibly, we’ll listen and amend the legislation, but if you don’t, tough – it’ll happen anyway but just without you getting a say’.

What that Parliament Act propelled version should say is a matter of some debate in the coalition at the moment. Some in Liberal Democrat circles want it to be a simple and radical alternative. Some in Conservative circles want it instead to be a rather more modest alternative, one that brings in a limited number of elected peers in 2015 but leaves the question of increasing the number of elected peers open, to be returned to in the next Parliament. Either way, the key feature – which is good news for the Liberal Democrats – is that David Cameron looks committed to using the Parliament Act if necessary.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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12 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 27th Feb '12 - 3:42pm

    I will of course vote for an elected House of Lords, an d probably (with some reluctance) vote for a mainly elected House.

    But I think that using the Parliament Act to force through a change would be wrong:

    (1) constitutionally dodgy.

    (2) politically stupid. (If anyone thinks that this is an issue that will sweep the country they are living in a locked room with no windows).

    (3) possibly doomed to failure in the Commons – if Labour and most small group MPs vote against , it only needs about 30 Tory MPs to rebel.

    Tony Greaves

  • Daniel Henry 27th Feb '12 - 4:43pm

    But Tony, aren’t the Labour frontbench in favour?

  • Jeremy Hargreaves 27th Feb '12 - 6:05pm

    I know I should know this, but since this was in the 2010 manifestos of both us and the Conservatives, isn’t this covered by the Salisbury Convention? This addresses the admittedly small number of us who care about Tony’s point 1.

    On Tony’s point 2 – I see this and it clearly is true that the nation is not transfixed by this issue. But this doesn’t this work both ways – they might not care if Lords change doesn’t happen, but they surely won’t care much if it does. And insofar as they do think about it, even if that isn’t much, making Parliaments elected is surely broadly popular.

  • David Allen 27th Feb '12 - 6:27pm

    “David Cameron looks committed to using the Parliament Act if necessary.”

    I’m sure Cameron is attracted to the idea of using force majeure to get his own way. This is not necessarily to be encouraged.

    Lords reform is always viewed as making improvements to the way a secondary revising chamber does its secondary job. Beware. The assumption that its powers are limited might be swept away along with the hereditaries, who currently serve a special, little recognised, function. That is, to look like a bunch of old buffers, and hence to make it obviously and intrinsically ridiculous to suggest that the HoL might ever regain real primary power.

    We have an unwritten constitution, testament to the British preference for muddling through, or else just muddling. We have seen with the Poll Tax and the Dangerous Dogs Act just how much we can get muddled, or deliberately distorted. Will our new Senate bring us US-style gridlock? Don’t bet against it!

  • Technically the Libs and successor parties have never been bound by the Salisbury convention as the convention was basically between the then Leader of the Lords (Addison – Labour) and the leader of the Opposition in the upper House (Salisbury – Conservative). Therefore, the Libs have never been bound by it.

    The existance of the coalition raises the issue that there is a need for a new kind of constitutional convention of this like to be honest.

  • Sorry, what problem is Lords reform supposed to solve?

  • The funny thing is over on Conservative Home it’s being debated that the Lib Dems will throw their toys out of their pram and scream about not getting lords reform if the conservatives oppose it.

    Frankly constitutional reform of this scale should be put to a referendum, preferably after one on whether we remain in the EU, which has considerable more say over our parliament because the Commons can overrule the Lords but the Commons cannot overrule the EU.

  • David Allen is dead right

    We know to our cost that the great British public have a habit of balancing power when they can; Tory commons = lab/lib councils and vise versa .

    Given the chaos inflicted on Obama through a similar balancing of power a wholly elected upper chamber has inherent risks

  • Richard Marbrow 27th Feb '12 - 11:12pm

    It does seem that the Lords are threatening legislative gridlock to prevent reform of the House of Lords while their prime argument against an elected House is that it would lead to……legislative gridlock.

    Am I the only one that finds this all a little surreal?

    It’s 2012 not 1812, what are we doing with patronage as a means of selecting legislators? It is an absolute anachronism and should be consigned to the history books where it belongs.

    Any of the Lib Dem Life Peers who vote against reform clearly entered the Lords under false pretences as they pretended to be Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrats believe in democracy rather than patronage.

  • Richard Shaw 28th Feb '12 - 8:50am

    @ Richard

    It’s more of an assortment of problems than a single one.

    Overcrowding & Imbalance – There are currently 788 Peers able to sit in the Lords. Each successive government appoints as many Peers as possible to give it an advantage in the House – thus undermining their supposed independence. There’s no limit on numbers or proportions.

    Patronage – The Government has a considerable power of patronage as they appoint the Lords and a free to appoint as many people who have served their party well. Again undermining their independence and integrity of Parliament.

    And that’s before we question the legitimacy of people who were appointed maybe 30 years ago to a supposedly democratic legislature. Britain is alone among developed nations in having an unelected Second Chamber – not something to be proud of.

    I note that some have remarked that the Lords are worth being unelected due to their supposed expertise. But does one have to be an expert to be a Lord? Heavens no. Unlock Democracy recently issued a report that only 11% of Peers could be described as experts in a field – whose expertise is dating as many are very much retired. Plus they aren’t restricted to Bills on topics on which they are experts. In any case if you really need expert advice then hold Select Committees, etc.

    Why reform? The House of Lords is an undemocratic, unbalanced, non-independent institution comprised of ex-experts, loyal party servants and people there by right of birth or a particular faith.

  • Martin Pierce 28th Feb '12 - 9:04am

    It’s sad to see Tony Greaves, who was a proper radical in my youth – I always looked forward to his back page column in Liberal News – turn into a defender of a legislative chamber of Parliament appointed by patronage. In 30 years in the Party I don’t remember this ever being Lib/SDP/Lib Dem policy or principle. And how is it constitutionally dodgy? The Parliament Act was CREATED to deal with Lords opposition to their own reform! And was used for the first time to reduce their suspensory veto from 2 years to 1. On the Salisbury convention, it’s difficult to see how this isn’t covered, as it was in both Tory and Lib Dem manifestos and the Coalition Agreement. Problem on the Tory side is a lot of them don’t agree with their manifesto (a la Labour and AV). Finally – Redndead – note any ‘chaos’ in the US is because the LOWER House is controlled by a different Party to the President – the Senate has a Democrat majority. Personally I’d welcome a more powerful Upper House – the problem we have at the moment is that in the end the Commons is supreme, and thanks to our new 5 year fixed term Parliaments we the voters get a say once in a blue moon and after that it is elective dictatorship for half a decade

  • Stuart Mitchell 28th Feb '12 - 10:24pm

    Jeremy: “I know I should know this, but since this was in the 2010 manifestos of both us and the Conservatives, isn’t this covered by the Salisbury Convention?”

    Well, I seem to recall that when Labour were getting stick for proposing to use the Parliament Act a few years ago (can’t remember on which bill), the Tories turned round and said, “We’re not interested in the Salisbury Convention any more, and do not consider ourselves bound by it.” Obviously Cameron has now changed his mind!

    I really don’t see the point of bringing in an elected second chamber. The House of Lords, like the monarchy, is indefensible in principle yet somehow seems to serve us reasonably well. What is the point of two elected chambers? If both have equal power then chaos ensues. If one has primacy over the other, such that the second chamber has only a non-binding review-and-revise role, then personally I’d rather see it continue as it is (with at least SOME of the great and good in there) than be populated entirely by party politicians.

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