Deputy Leader Phil Hunt assesses Lords reform following this week's Commons debate, vote and non-vote
Lords reform faces a hugely uncertain future with the failure of the Coalition government to even put its timetable motion to the vote in the House of Commons last night. The humiliating climb down was a sight to behold. As the Coalition partners slugged it out over a long two day debate, it became abundantly clear that a mass of Tory MPs would not support the Bill. Equally clear during the debate, was the catastrophic failure by Nick Clegg to produce a coherent piece of legislation.
Whatever the controversies over whether the second chamber should be 80% or 100% elected, once only terms of 15 years or the place of bishops, the focus of most MPs was on the powers of an elected Lords. And the lack of any convincing argument from Ministers as to how legislative gridlock was to be avoided between two elected chambers was rapidly exposed.
Potentially, the House of Lords has a lot of muscle. The pre-legislative scrutiny undertaken by the Joint Select Committee it reported back: “if the Lords chose to use its powers, it would be one of the most powerful second chambers in the world”. Yet it hasn’t done this for many years, precisely because its current members know they lack democratic legitimacy. Conventions have developed to help Peers exercise a voluntary constraint. An all or mostly elected chamber will give short shrift to that.
One of the more fanciable claims made by the government about its Lords Reform Bill was that Mr Clegg had dealt with the fear of many MPs that Commons primacy would be challenged by an elected second chamber. In fact, all the Bill does is to say that the Parliament Acts will apply. Without the conventions however, there will be little to hold back a confident and assertive House.
Indeed, under what is currently proposed, an elected Lords could reject all legislation, thereby forcing an extensive use of the Parliament Acts and delaying Bills by a minimum of 13 months but probably longer. It could also make extensive changes to legislation and refuse to back down at the ‘ping-pong’ stage, forcing the Commons to concede on major changes. And it could even veto all secondary legislation. Over a thousand pieces of such statutory instruments go through each year, and these are not covered by the Parliament Acts.
Alongside all of this, there are potential issues with the government’s proposal for new Lords to be elected under a system of proportional representation. Those who arrive at Parliament by this route may well start to claim greater legitimacy since the argument will run that the second chamber more nearly matches the votes of the public at general elections.
None of this is to argue against an elected second chamber. Far from it. But it does show how flawed the current proposals are.
As the dust settles this morning, Ministers seem to be promising another Programme Motion come the autumn. They are clearly hoping to buy time to persuade Tory MPs to let a Bill through that they have no belief in. Few Westminster watchers, would bet on the government achieving this. Few, too, would conclude that the Coalition is in anything but a sickly condition, having bizarrely chosen to prioritise Lords reform over the many more pressing issues concerning our country at this time.
Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour's Deputy Leader in the House of Lords
This article was first published at www.labour-uncut.co.uk