Phil Hunt on the demise of the Deputy Minister's Lords Reform Bill
What a sad picture the Deputy Prime Minister made in the Commons yesterday when he admitted his proposals for Lords reform had failed and that his MPs would vote against the parliamentary boundary changes.
While Mr Clegg was comprehensive in pointing the finger of blame at just about everyone at Westminster except himself, he must accept that much of the problem lies with his authorship of a deeply flawed piece of legislation. Despite the cross-party talks, the publication of a draft Bill and scrutiny by a Joint Committee, he never quite got to grips with a proper definition of what the powers and role of a second elected chamber should be-let alone its relationship to the Commons.
Under Mr Clegg’s proposals, an elected Lords could have rejected all legislation so forcing an extensive use of the Parliament Acts and delaying Bills by a minimum of 13 months but probably longer. The democratic second chamber could have also vetoed all secondary legislation, over 1,000 pieces of which go through Parliament each year and these are not covered by the Parliament Acts.
The new Lords would have been elected under a system of proportional representation. Some elected members may well have started to claim greater legitimacy since the argument would have run that the second chamber more nearly matches the votes of people at general elections.
This is not to argue against an elected second chamber – despite Mr Clegg’s attempts to blame Labour for his Bill’s demise we are fully committed to Lords reform. But it does show how risky his plans would have been given the likely lack of proper scrutiny in the Commons with the government wanting to limit debate.
Mr Clegg had very little else to offer yesterday, apart from his usual intemperate remarks about the current Lords. This was confirmed by his decision to make the statement in the Commons in the absence of Peers who are not sitting in September. “No decision about me without me” may be the government’s unlikely mantra for the health service, but not it seems for the country’s second chamber.
Almost as disappointing was Mr Clegg’s lukewarm approach to Lord David Steel’s admirable persistence in seeking incremental improvements to the Lords. His Bill has already passed through the Lords and would allow Peers to retire as well as dealing with a long-standing blot by removing from membership those who were convicted of serious criminal offences.
Remarkably, Mr Clegg was critical of the size of the second chamber yet made no commitment to halting more Peers. Rumours are rife in Westminster that the Coalition plans to put dozens more government supporters into the Lords. The second chamber’s effectiveness in revising legislation has already been weakened. While the last Labour government lost about a third of all votes, the Coalition is losing at a rate of under half that.
Ironic therefore, that Mr Clegg’s principled words about reform have bitten the dust just as he seeks to put more of his own placemen in the Lords.
Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour's Deputy Leader in the House of Lords