Chamber musings

Philip HuntPhil Hunt reflects on the mood of Peers following this week's Lords Reform Bill announcement

The Lords was strangely subdued this week when its leader, Lord Strathclyde came to the despatch box to tell the House of its fate. The government’s long awaited Bill to reform the Lords had been heavily trailed but even then there was genuine surprise at the obvious inadequacies in the proposals.

The complete lack of clarity as to how two elected chambers would avoid legislative gridlock was, matched by puzzlement as to why Ministers seemed so reluctant to let the people have a say in a referendum.

Perhaps even more surprising was Lord Strathclyde’s half hearted approach to defending the detailed proposals. It didn’t take long before the Bill was exposed as a fudge to keep the Coalition partners together.

Lord Strathclyde was heard in absolute silence from his own backbenchers. In contrast, Labour Leader, Baroness Jan Royall caught the general mood of Peers in saying that with the tremendous economic challenges facing our country, Lords reform was not only not at the top of the priority list of but not even on the list at all.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has claimed that primacy of the Commons would be assured. But the Bill does no such thing and speakers in the debate felt that it would only be a few years away before an elected second chamber started to claim greater legitimacy than the Commons. Proponents of proportional representation would no doubt argue that a second chamber under PR would match the votes cast at general elections more accurately than MPs.

The government’s claims that the costs of running Parliament would be cheaper as a result of the proposed reforms were treated with incredulity. And the idea that elected Lords would be part-timers who would not want to represent their constituents was greeted with a mite of scepticism.

Perhaps the mood of the House was best described as one of sadness. A sense that whatever members felt about an elected chamber, the government’s proposals were seriously flawed. It would be tragic if the really good work of scrutiny undertaken by the Lords at present was to be lost as a result of inadequate thoughts about how an elected second chamber could best complement our constitutional arrangements.

Let’s hope that the Commons is given ample time to debate the Bill. It is too important to be rushed through without the full consequences being understood.

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

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