Around the Houses

Philip HuntPhil Hunt on the latest developments in the Lords reform debate and the increasing relevance of the Steel Bill

David Steel’s admirable persistence in seeking incremental improvements to the House of Lords is about to be rewarded as his latest bill looks likely to get passed by the second chamber today.

Although modest, it allows Peers to retire and deals with a long-standing blot by removing from membership those who have been convicted of serious criminal offences. And Lord Steel is hopeful that his bill will be picked up in the Commons and given a speedy passage. Indeed, there are those who think if the government’s own flawed efforts bite the dust, it might be happy to use the Steel Bill as the foundation for its own Mark II bill.

Over the summer recess, the Prime Minister will be hoping to pull off a deal with the rebel Tory MPs which the LibDems can bring themselves to accept. But the conundrum remains that a huge swathe of Tory MPs are totally opposed to any elected members in the second chamber. In contrast, the LibDems, having been offered the chance to veto the appalling Health and Social Care Bill, decided that Lords reform is a much more important to them.

This is hardly a recipe for agreement. Given the government’s own proposals do nothing to resolve the powers of an elected Lords and its relationship to the Commons, it is difficult to see the Coalition finding a way through.

This explains the flurry of excitement last weekend when The Daily Telegraph reported that Jesse Norman MP, the Tory rebel leader had sent an email to Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin proposing a seven point plan for Lords reform.

Emphatically rejecting popular elections, Mr Norman proposed that mass membership organisations like the BMA, TUC and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds could elect their own Peers. This would underpin his view that the Lords should be a chamber of reflection and revision, peopled by experts and representatives from our national community.

Other measures which built on those of Lord Steel include a reduction in the size of the chamber; removal of the hereditary peers; a retirement age and arrangements for resignation; and separation of the peerage from the legislature.

Subsequently, Mr Norman tweeted out that the story was highly misleading and inaccurate. Well, perhaps! But there is no denying that there may be a need for a Plan B as an interim solution to deal with some of the most pressing problems of the current House. Whether they get anywhere, remains to be seen.

Perhaps the government would be better advised to go back to the drawing board. It should certainly be prepared to allow the Commons proper time to scrutinise the Bill. It should also concede to Labour’s demand that the British people should have the final say through a referendum.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour's Deputy Leader in the House of Lords

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