An opportunity not to be lost

Wednesday 28th December 2011

By Lord Paul Tyler

The House of Lords is more likely to evolve in a democratic direction now than at any point in the last century. With both parties in the Coalition Cabinet firmly behind a set of reform proposals, there is serious momentum for change.

Yet as the Government gently brings up its reform clutch, all too many Peers are scrabbling for their reactionary handbrake. The excuse they advance (often disguising personal interest) is that a second chamber with democratic legitimacy would challenge and rival the House of Commons.

But opponents of reform are too ready to ignore the behaviour of the present House of Lords, which has shown its capacity to be, by turns, more partisan and more assertive even since the last general election. The volume of Bills is not dissimilar to that introduced by previous administrations, but the obstacles to the Government’s programme are more numerous and more vociferous. Far from acting as temporary, modest check on the detail of legislation, the Lords has shown itself prepared to be institutionally intractable.

To justify their roadblocks, Peers claim that well scrutinised, perfectly simple ideas are complex and rushed. This was most evident on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill (now, finally, Act), which was before Parliament for more than a year. The whole Bill contained only seven clauses and one schedule, and so much time was allowed in the Commons that MPs ran out of amendments to discuss. Yet still reactionary Peers–mostly on the Labour side–cloaked outright Oppositionitis in pompously-conveyed, ostensibly-learned, apparently-interminable cavilling.

In these situations, they assert themselves because they can, and because they know it is troubling to the Government. It is just the kind of partisan behaviour which opponents of reform claim will be rife in an elected chamber. If life appointees already indulge in it, then that specious objection to democracy surely falls.

The Coalition’s Lords Reform Draft Bill and White Paper are thoughtfully crafted because their genesis is more than a decade’s cross-party discussion of the options. Contrary to the claims of their detractors, the proposals have not come out of nowhere, nor are they just “Nick Clegg’s baby”. Indeed, David Cameron is equally committed to the first elections scheduled for 2015. And the bulk of the White Paper reflects what was published by Jack Straw in 2008, the product of previous cross-party work.

It seeks to bring to fruition the manifesto commitments of all three main parties. MPs across the political spectrum should therefore see this as an issue of trust. Do you know of one successful 2010 parliamentary candidate who promised to break with their party’s manifesto commitment in this area?

Meanwhile, Peers cannot simultaneously assert the primacy of the Commons and threaten a veto of any reform Bill they send us. To do so would be absurd and transparently self-interested nonsense. The democratic second chamber proposed by the Government will be neither rival to–nor replica of–the House of Commons since it will be elected in thirds, on a different system. The Government will continue to rely on the Commons to sustain it in power, and the Parliament Acts will remain in place. The ‘primacy’ objection therefore falls too.

The truculence of the present Lords is used to justify doom and gloom about the prospects of the draft Bill. Yet it is Peers’ subordinate status in relation to the Commons that helps the Bill’s opponents justify their position. If the Lords is subordinate, it should accept MPs’ clear commitment to reform. If it is truculent, the case for democratising its membership becomes stronger than ever. Either way, all parties now have a duty to finish the job.

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