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House of Lords reform: the Lords are speaking - is anyone listening? - Sunday 11th July 2010


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On the 29th June 2010, an epic debate took place in the House of Lords on the subject of reform of the House.  The debate, which arose as a result of a motion by Lord Steel of Aikwood (Liberal Democrat), was introduced by the Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde (Conservative), who announced that he would establish a Leaders’ Group, chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral to consider and draw up a draft bill for reform.  Although this marks the beginning of what are arguably the most extensive set of works ever on the form and composition of the House, with potentially profound constitutional impact, the debate has been largely ignored by the press.  The significance of the issues are not, however, lost on the Lords themselves, who attended the house in large numbers to express their views, with a total of 65 peers speaking in the course of the 8 hour debate, which continued long into the night.

 

    

The principle motion under consideration ran as follows:

That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government, notwithstanding their proposals for Lords reform whose legislative timetable is unclear, to table Motions before the Summer Recess enabling the House to approve or disapprove:

(a) a scheme to enable Members of the House to retire,

(b) the abolition of by-elections for hereditary Peers,

(c) the removal of Members convicted of serious criminal offices,

(d) the creation of a statutory appointments commission.

These four issues were originally slated for consideration in the Constitutional Reform Bill of the previous administration, but were expunged from the bill as part of the many compromises reached to see pending legislation through in the ‘wash up’ immediately prior to the dissolution of parliament and the general election. 

    

Although the issues set out in the motion might be regarded as relatively minor in the overall scheme of House of Lords reform, it was almost inevitable that the subject of the debate would range wider and deeper, especially in view of the fact that so many peers requested to speak on the matter. 

The debate should be viewed in the context of  'The Coalition Agreement', published by the Government on 20 May 2010, which  stated that a Committee would be appointed to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords.  That Committee, consisting only of front-bench spokespeople from the three main political parties, is to prepare a draft Bill which is to be published by December 2010.

The debate brought forth harsh criticism of a process of reform, whereby a draft bill is the starting point, even before there has been discussion as to whether and what manner of reform should be brought forward.  Moreover, the fact that the Lords’ committee to be established to draft such a bill comprises only representatives from the lead political parties drew a stinging attack from Baroness D’Souza who commented,

 

 

“I wonder what consensus means, or what kind of consensus is concerned with talking only to those who already agree to your plan. That is no way to rewrite fundamental parts of the constitution of this country.”

The issues were wide-ranging and encompassed many of the arguments arising from proposals to reform the House in general and the move from an appointed House to an elected House in particular.  Whilst there is far from a uniform consensus among their Lordships about the need for reform and the form it should take, it was manifestly clear that the majority of the House have grave misgivings about the wisdom or necessity of moving towards a wholly elected House, and the consequent strengthening of the hold of political parties and the emasculation of crossbenchers.   These may have been the first words on the proposals for reform of the House, but they are unlikely to be the last.

There are clearly profound concerns in the House regarding proposals for reform; the frustration of many was summarised by Lord Grenfell who stated,  

“I have to confess that I am somewhat irritated by the fact that we are invited to take note of the case for reform of the House of Lords,  as though that were on the coalition’s agenda. It is not. What is on the agenda is the abolition of the House and its replacement with something entirely different.” 

The debate begs the question of whether reform needs to be so dramatic, or whether we can continue the “steady incremental and non-revolutionary development of the UK’s constitutional framework” which, in the view of Lord Birt (Cross), “sets us apart from other countries” ?

To find out more about the House of Lords and reform proposals see here.

Follow these links for interviews with Lord Norton, Lord Hunt and Lord Grocott giving their views on reform.


The debate summarised:

The first step should be to go back to first principles


 

 

 

 

A number of Peers, such as Lord Rooker (Labour), Lord Waddington (Con) and the Archbishop of York (Bishop), urged us to go back to first principles, and consider what the role and functions of the House are and should be 

Lord Campbell (Con) even went as far as to call for a debate as to whether a second chamber is desirable at all (although he admitted that almost definitely people would be in support of one).

Some attempted to define this role. Lord Bilimoria (Crossbencher) described the House as  the “guardian of the nation”,

and the Archbishop of York emphasised that it should encourage freedom of expression and thus itself should be free from political pressures.

Others described it as being an advisory chamber which ensures that legislation meets the highest possible standard (Lord Grenfell, Lab).

A number of Peers sang the House’s praises, Baroness Miller of Hendon (Con) deeming it the finest revising chamber in the world.



The reasons for reform need to be established


 

 

 

 

Even if consensus on the purpose of the House can be reached, one must also establish good reasons for reform.  Some believe that because a commitment to significant reform – moving from an appointed to elected House – was set out in all three main parties’ election manifestos, there is a public mandate for reform to be pushed through.

Others, such as Lord Grenfell (Lab) and Lord Rodgers (Lib Dem), do not see this as convincing as they contend that the public don’t fully understand the consequences of change, and even if they did, reform of the House consisted of just 2.5 lines in the Conservative manifesto, and only a paragraph in the coalition document (which is 300 pages long).

Furthermore, perhaps it is not a priority for the public, who are more concerned simply about the dominance of the executive in the Commons (Lord Howarth, Lab).

Others cited a fall in public confidence in Parliament as a proponent for change (Lord Strathclyde; Viscount Eccles, Con).

Lord Kakkar (Cross) warned that reform must be implemented at the right time for the right reasons, and not simply to ease tensions in a coalition government.


Is the House of Lords ‘democratic’?


 

 

 

 

An overriding argument that persuades many that reform is essential, is the contention that the House is ‘undemocratic’ and therefore lacks legitimacy. 

The Earl of Onslow echoed the sentiments of some Peers, that since peers are unelected, the House has no legitimacy.  Furthermore, Lord Brooke (Lab) argued, as the House is not directly accountable to the public, it cannot be considered democratic.  

Lord Norton (Con) disputed both of these notions. He agreed that democracy requires accountability, but posited that the House of Lords maintains this by providing an important check on the Commons and the executive.

He also argued that the House is legitimate, by virtue of the fact that it has an especially qualified membership; the legitimacy of the House of Commons derives from elections, but this is not the only way to establish legitimacy.

The logic of this argument was neatly summed up by Lord Grenfell who said that, “our true legitimacy lies in what this House achieves”.   

Lord Higgins (Con) conceded that the House is not democratic but contended that it does not need to be, because our democracy as a nation is present in the fully elected House of Commons, and there is no necessity for it to be present also in the House of Lords.



Wholesale reform is not necessary


 

 

 

 

Lord Howe (Con) argued that there was a total lack of evidence justifying a change on this scale.

Baroness D’Souza (Convenor of the Crossbenchers) asked why the recent reforms, such as the House of Lords Act 1999 and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which are very effective, aren’t enough in themselves.

Lord Bilimoria argued that “what is needed is further evolution, not revolution”. 

Many of their Lordships appeared to agree that shortcomings of the House could be adequately dealt with by minor reforms, such as those outlined in the motion of Lord Steel, without the necessity for wholesale reform.

 

Baroness O’Cathain (Con) suggested that a post-legislative scrutiny committee should be set up and Lord Goodhart (Lib Dem) proposed that titles should be abolished, along with fancy dress at state openings.

The reform which seemed most important to many Peers though, was putting a limit on numbers, as the number of peers entitled to sit in the House is rapidly approaching 800.  

Lord Strathclyde announced he would be setting up a Leaders’ Group to look at these and other suggestions, and peers suggested possible solutions such as voluntary retirement (Lord Steel), having maximum periods of service (Lord Howarth, Lab; Lord Cobbold, Cross), or simply setting restrictions on the appointment of New Peers (Baroness O’Loan, Cross) perhaps by the creation of a statutory appointments commission.


Arguments in favour of retaining an appointed House


 

 

 

 

Lord Bilimoria emphasised that appointment brings a wealth of diversity, objectivity, experience and expertise into the House, and Lord Denham (Con) gave the example that when animal lobbying became important in the 80s, they were able to bring a veterinary surgeon into the Lords and thus to expand the range of skills available on an ‘as required’ basis.  

Baroness O’Loan argued that appointment has lead to a very high standard of debate.

Lord Howe pointed to the high levels of attendance in the House as an achievement of the current system.

Other advantages noted were that appointed Members have no constituency pressures to distract their focus from the Chamber, and that they are able to consider long-term strategies where required (e.g. for climate change) as they are not subject to an electoral cycle.



Shortcomings of the House in its current form



 

 

 

 

Lord Richard (Lab) asserted that though the quality of debate is extremely high, the House of Lords is rarely listened to by the Commons as it is “capable of being ignored”, and Lord Cope (Con) argued that the “ping-pong” of amendments always ends up going in favour of the Commons, as the Lords gives way.

Lord King (Con) was quick to defend the Lords, citing the example of whe n its intervention prevented 90 days detention without trial.  

 

Lord MacLennan (Lib Dem) also noted that in the last 5 years 40% of amendments put forward by the Lords against the original advice of government, have been accepted.

Another criticism of the House was that it has not excelled recently in holding the executive to account, allowing the executive to spend and legislate excessively (Lord Strathclyde).


Merits and demerits of an elected House


 

 

In order to solve these perceived shortcomings,  moving to an elected House of Lords is suggested. Lord Richard simply believes that legislators should be elected by those affected by their legislation.

The Peers considered this proposition and others while attempting to ascertain whether elections would help eliminate the perceived weaknesses of the House. Lord Grenfell argued that moving to an elected house will not solve the crucial problem: a lack of power given to the Lords, in comparison with the Commons.

Lord Cope contended that this lack of power arises merely because it is not elected.

The Earl of Onslow emphasised the need to rebalance power between the Commons, the Lords and the Executive, and suggested that the House of Lords should have the power to throw out bills, but when it does so, an election should occur to let the people decide.

However, Lord Rooker (Lab) and Lord Morris (Lab) were among those who feared such an increase in power, reasoning that an elected House would use all the powers – such as legislative delay – that the current House chooses not to use.

Furthermore, Baroness D’Souza and Lord Waddington asserted that this increase in power would lead to conflict and stalemate between the two chambers (although this was contested by Lord Desai, (Lab) who pointed to other bicameral models where both houses are elected, and still manage to solve the conflicts that arise).

If elected, the House of Lords may simply become a replica of the House of Commons. Lord Low (Cross) asked, “where is the added value in a pale imitation of the House of Commons composed of people who could not get into the House of Commons?”

 

Lord Mayhew (Con) agreed with the idea that the Members of the Lords would be those who would rather be in the more powerful House of Commons.

A further concern was that in an elected House the breadth of expertise of the Lords will be lost, as individuals such as academics, Nobel Laureates and leaders of industry, all of whom are currently represented in the House would be unlikely to be willing to take part in electioneering (Baroness Miller of Hendon, Con).

The impact of political parties would arguably also increase considerably, as parties would be likely only to back candidates for election who act along party lines (Lord Pilkington, Con).

Baroness D’Souza also noted that this would likely mean an increase in the power of the whips

This increase in party influence would also mean that the highly valued crossbenchers would be lost (Lord Walton, Cross).  

In any case, as the Archbishop of York pointed out, the House of Commons is elected but does no better at holding the government to account or properly scrutinising legislation.

An elected House would also cost more, as Members would need to be salaried and also have offices within Westminster (Lord Steel), and Lord Wright (Cross) estimated that this cost might be 3 times higher than the cost of the House as currently constituted.  He also emphasised that all current conventions involving the Lords would be totally changed with an elected house. Lord Morris (Lab) argued that there are already too many elections for the electorate to take part in.



The process of reform


 

 

 

 

The issue of the process of reform was also at the heart of the debate. Lord Norton warned that our constitution by nature is a complex interlocking system, and we must be aware that change in one area can have serious consequences on other areas. Therefore the way that reform is tackled is as crucial in the decision-making process as the question of what reforms should be implemented.

Lord Strathclyde announced at the start of the debate that a cross-party committee on House of Lords reform has been set up by the Deputy Prime Minister, with an aim to produce a draft bill for an elected House by the end of the year.

The concerns of the Peers about this Committee were two-fold. The first was that the Committee does not include a single backbencher (as pointed out by Lord Barnett, Lab) or a single crossbencher (Lord Hannay, Cross), notwithstanding the fact that most of the dissent on matters of reform comes from these two constituencies.

Lord Strathclyde argued that the draft bill should be the product of a consensus between parties who support the principle of an elected House

Baroness D’Souza responded by saying, “I wonder what consensus means, or what kind of consensus is concerned with talking only to those who already agree to your plan. That is no way to rewrite fundamental parts of the constitution of this country.”

The second concern is that too many fundamental issues have not been decided by the House before the bill is drafted. These include reaching a consensus on the precise role of the House, whether it should be wholly- or partly-elected (Lord Steel), what transitional provisions would be put in place (Lord Richard) and whether reforms will be put to the public in a referendum (Baroness Royall, Lab; Lord Inglewood, Con; Lord Brooke).

Lord Faulkner (Lab) asked how the government could pursue the drafting of such a bill when the last vote on the subject of reform in the House of Lords saw Conservative peers voting 6 to 1 in favour of an appointed House.



 

Parliamentary material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO on behalf of Parliament

The verbatim Hansard report of the debate may be viewed here.


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Thu, 7th October 2010

The Constitution Society (TCS) commissioned YouGov to carry out an on-line poll to gauge public opinion on a broad range of issues around electoral reform and the government’s referendum proposal. 2548 people were asked various questions about their voting intentions and their understanding of voting systems generally. They were also asked to give their reasons. The survey produced some surprising results .



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Archive - APPG on the Constitution

Thu, 21st October 2010

An archive of agendas and resources from previous meetings of the APPG on the Constitution.



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AV Referendum Campaign Funding Rules

Fri, 20th August 2010

Following the Electoral Commission's confirmation of funding rules for the AV referendum campaign, we look at how this interesting campaign might evolve, and whether either camp is advantaged from the start.



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The Politics of Electoral Reform

Fri, 30th July 2010

A Bill is currently before Parliament to propose a referendum on electoral reform and boundary changes. To date, none of the main political parties has given reasons why a change from our First Past the Post system of electing members to the House of Commons ought to be changed to a system of Alternative Voting. We examine the implications of a change in voting system and look at some of the, perhaps unforeseen, consequences of the changes which the Bill proposes.



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Looking for that special someone: the enduring relationship between politicians and special advisers

Thu, 29th July 2010

We take a look at special advisers, often thought of as a recent phenomenon. However closer examination reveals that special advisers have been around as long as politicians.



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Nick Clegg under scrutiny by the new Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform

Sat, 17th July 2010

On 15th July 2010 Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister became the first witness to the newly-formed Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The committee cross-examined Mr Clegg both on the timing and content of reform proposals.



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Experts join calls for joined-up thinking in the scramble for constitutional reform

Sat, 24th July 2010

In a further valuable contribution to the burgeoning debate on constitutional reform in general, and the codification of the British constitution in particular, a group of constitutional experts led by Stephen Hockman QC and Professor Vernon Bogdanor have called for a holistic approach to the constitution. In a paper published by JUSTICE, the group analyses the questions which need resolution before any moves can be made towards the creation of a codified constitution.



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Do we need a written constitution?

Fri, 2nd July 2010

Prompted by the recent publication of a book on the subject by Richard Gordon QC, the PR consultancy SPADA recently sponsored a debate on whether the UK now needs a written constitution. Read more, or watch a video of the debate in full.



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The Speaker speaks of his plans for the future

Wed, 16th June 2010

The Rt Hon John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons outlined his vision of a revitalised chamber of the House of Commons. The new Parliament has seen an encouraging number of new faces in the House taking an active interest in the business of the Chamber. But what will it take to sustain that enthusiasm and reinvigorate debate in the House?



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Fear and Lothian in Westminster. The English question is not going to go away

Mon, 7th June 2010

Both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru have stated that they intend to exploit the hung parliament to their own advantage, once again putting the spotlight on the 'English question' - that Scottish and Welsh MPs may vote in Westminster on issues that affect only England, whilst English MPs have no say in relation to the deliberations of the Scottish parliament or the Welsh assembly. We look at whether there will ever be a solution to this problem.



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British politics hits a purple patch. A look at calls for electoral reform

Sat, 29th May 2010

Amid the calls for electoral reform and the coalition government's promise to put the Alternative Voting system to a referendum, we look at what difference a change to the voting system would make. Is democracy in the voting or the counting?



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EU Foreign Policy: to boldly go where none has gone before?

Tue, 18th May 2010

The European Union has been criticised in the past for failing to develop a more effective foreign policy, but the External Action Service is supposed to bring new cohesion and coherence to this area of European cooperation. However, the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Ashton, has already run into opposition to her plans and, although a compromise has been struck, the road ahead scarcely looks any easier.



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A plea for extra time: PR should not be a political football

Wed, 12th May 2010

The negotiations leading to the formation of the new coalition government have turned, in part, on the question of electoral reform. A matter of such constitutional importance should, it is argued, form part of a wider review of the constitution and should not be used merely as a political bargaining chip. Will sufficient time be given to consider the implications of change before reforms are pushed through?



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Should civil servants have the tyranny of the first draft? Peter Lloyd considers the Cabinet Secretary’s “Cabinet Manual”

Thu, 6th May 2010

Peter Lloyd questions the provenance of the recently disclosed 'Cabinet Manual'. Amid suggestions that the manual might form the basis of a written constitution, he questions whether it should be for a civil servant to generate the first draft of such a fundamental document.



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Sound bites vs. quiet reflection: Better Government requires a considered approach

Sat, 1st May 2010

In a letter published in the Financial Times this week, members of The Constitution Society and the Better Government Initiative outline four basic principles of good government that could improve the legislative process. The principles are difficult to fault, and could be implemented without legislation, but the question will remain whether there is any incentive for politicians to change the way that they behave.



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Crisis, What crisis?

Tue, 13th April 2010

At a debate of the Society of Cogers on 19th April 2010, Nat le Roux, Chairman of the Trustees of the Constitution Society, argued that our problem may not lie with our constitution itself, but rather with the conduct of our politicians. He suggested that the single biggest problem of contemporary democracy - is that all politicians are terrified of losing power, because the lesson of the last 30 years is that once you’ve lost power you don’t get it back for a generation.



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Rip it up and start again: the only way to deal with the House of Lords?

Mon, 26th April 2010

In an article published for the first time on the ReConstitution website, Professor Dawn Oliver argues that we should resist political pressure to reform the House of Lords by making it an elected body. She proposes abolishing the House of Lords and starting from scratch by the creation of a wholly appointed Commission for Executive Scrutiny, with proposals which chime with views expressed by Lord Bingham.



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Chief Civil Servant advises Brown to stay put in event of hung parliament

Thu, 4th March 2010

The head of the Civil Service is warning Gordon Brown not to leave Number 10 if it is unclear who has won the upcoming election. Sir Gus O’Donnell told MPs that it is “the Prime Minister’s duty not to resign” until a successor can be found.



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Are new faces enough?

Wed, 21st April 2010

Will the problems with Parliament be solved by the retirement of many of the worst expenses offenders and an influx of new MPs? There is a perceptible mood for change amongst voters, but will altering some of the personnel be enough to restore confidence in both Parliament and the ‘constitution’ of the United Kingdom?



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Reform sidelined as 'wash up' commences

Wed, 7th April 2010

Campaigners are expressing their dismay, as the government’s legal commitment to hold a referendum on reforming the electoral system looks set to be scrapped as part of the ‘wash up’.



Anti-corruption campaigner brands 'wash up' a stitch up

Mon, 29th March 2010

Legendary anti-corruption campaigner Martin Bell is spearheading a campaign to make the ‘wash up’ more transparent. Mr Bell is criticizing the process, which takes place during the final days of a parliament to try and get as many of the remaining bills finished as possible, as a “stitch-up by and for the main political parties”.



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Jack Straw attacks Cameron's plans to reduce number of MPs

Wed, 17th March 2010

A senior government minster has laid into David Cameron’s plans to reduce the number of MPs should he get into power.



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Libel judge defends privacy law

Mon, 15th March 2010

The controversial libel judge at the centre of a storm over the development of privacy law in the UK has hit back at his tabloid critics. Justice Eady, who rose to notoriety after punishing the News of the World for publishing intimate photos of Formula 1 boss Max Mosely’s private life, accused tabloids of having a vested interest in stunting privacy for financial gain.



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Senior Tory calls for Lords Reform

Wed, 10th March 2010

A senior Tory is expressing her support for an elected House of Lords. Margot James, a vice-chairwoman of the Conservative party, made the announcement during an interview with Reconstitution where she claimed the current system was “out of kilter”.



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Expert calls for Government to follow through on reform

Mon, 8th March 2010

Academics are calling for “immediate assurances” from the government that it will implement the recently agreed Wright reforms before the end of this parliament. Dr Meg Russell of the UCL Constitution Unit warned them “this is the timetable the Commons voted for and party leaders must work together to honour that.”



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Controversy over whether reform goes far enough

Tue, 23rd February 2010

The parliamentary reform movement is split over whether the proposed Wright Reforms go far enough.



Better Government Initiative

Mon, 1st February 2010

Better Government Initiative launches major report.