Let the people decide

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

The House of Lords will be starting the new session of Parliament in the same way as it ended the old one, by debating a favourite subject – its own future!

Yet the first two days of the week long debate on tomorrow’s Queens Speech is likely to expose big splits in the Coalition over Lords reform. Widely expected to be the focal point of the government’s legislative programme for the rest of this year, disastrous local election results have driven panic among Conservative backbenchers and a rapid retreat. Significantly, the Prime Minister’s call to arms in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph made no mention of Lords reform whilst the Chancellor said on Sunday that it was absolutely not a high priority.

Of course, the Tory game had already been given away over the weekend by Lords Leader, Tom Strathclyde when, in dutifully proclaiming his belief in an elected second chamber, he predicted the Bill might get killed off in the Commons. That seems to be the option of choice for most Tory Cabinet Ministers. In contrast, the Deputy Prime Minister signalled his determination to press ahead with Lords reform whilst Vince Cable has said that we should get on with it quickly and quietly.

Latest indications are that we will get a watered down commitment in the Queens Speech, merely to put a Bill before Parliament to look at the composition of the Lords. Threats to use the Parliament Act have faded and it is entirely possible that the Government will concede a referendum to coincide with the 2015 General Election.

It’s little wonder that Lord Strathclyde might not relish weeks if not months of debate on the Bill. The draft version, which has been poured over by a Joint Select Committee of the two Houses chaired by Lord Richard, received a mauling in the Lords last week.

Widely differing views may be held by Peers about supporting an elected second chamber, but there is near unanimity in needing to resolve what its powers should be and its relationship to the Commons. An elected Lords is bound to be more assertive and this would inevitably shift the balance of power away from MPs.

The Government has no answer to this. Clause 2 of the draft Bill simply asserts that the status, powers and functions of the Lords will not change. But this is a complete cop-out and the Joint Committee believes that the Clause is not capable of preserving the primacy of the Commons. Significantly, the preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act suggests that for a chamber to be constituted on a popular basis, new proposals would be needed for limiting or defining its powers.

But in last week’s debate, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the Minister responding for the Government, would not be drawn on this. Neither, would he comment on whether a second chamber elected by proportional representation would claim greater legitimacy than the Commons. 

Asked about the applicability of the Parliament Act, he was no more forthcoming.  Crucially important evidence had been given to the Joint Committee by Lord Goldsmith and Lord Pannick, who both said that those drafting the 1911 Act did not intend its provisions to apply in the event of a second chamber being constituted on a popular basis.

Splits around the Cabinet table on Lords reform may not quite be a Coalition breaker but the Bill faces a very uncertain future. It is inescapable that unless Ministers are able to articulate the role, function and powers of both Houses and their relationships to each other, the Bill will fall at the first hurdle and deserve to do so.

If the Bill gets through however, the proposals should be put to the British people. As a Birmingham resident, I have just taken part in a ballot to decide if we are to have an elected Mayor. We have already had a referendum on the AV voting system and Scotland is promised one on independence. Lords reform is no less important an issue and a referendum should be held to let the people decide.

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