House of Lords reform is a bugbear for the coalition. The Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular, have made much of the coalition agreement commitment to sort out the upper chamber once and for all.
Today, the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill has published its first report. It is broadly in agreement with the coalition’s draft bill, recommending an upper house of 450 members serving for 15-year non-renewable terms, with 80% of members elected and 20% nominated. Twelve bishops would sit in this new house, and while the current system of by-elections for hereditary peers would cease in 2015, there would be scope for at least some of them to remain as part of transitional arrangements.
So far, so good. But the problem that this report throws up for the coalition is to do with a referendum. The key paragraph from the report is this one:
'The Committee recommends that, in view of the significance of the constitutional change brought forward for an elected House of Lords, the Government should submit the decision to a referendum.'
The government has already made clear by not including provision for a referendum in the draft bill that the preference is not to have to consult the country on this. In his evidence to the committee, Mark Harper said that “because all three parties were in favour of this, we did not think that a referendum was justified”.
In his interview on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, David Cameron didn’t completely slam the door shut on the idea though – he said that the government “shouldn't rule a referendum out of hand”.
However, it would be dangerous to take this willingness to consider a referendum as sign that House of Lords reform is on track to go ahead. Cameron also said:
“One of the reasons why Lords reform never goes ahead is although there's actually a majority for it in the Commons, and the three main political parties are in favour of it, all the parties are split on it. That is the fact. So the only way it can ever happen is if actually all the parties agree to work together, rationally, reasonably, sensibly on trying to deliver what I think the British public would see as not a priority, but a perfectly sensible reform that we have people legislating in the House of Lords who are elected by the people.”
He seems to be saying that House of Lords reform can only go ahead if each of the three parties can come to an inner consensus on it, as well as then coming together to form a parliamentary majority. That amounts to saying that if Labour won’t get behind the government’s proposals, and the traditional parliamentary awkward squad continue to be awkward, the prime minister won’t try too hard to ram the reform through.
There’s also the matter raised by Mary Ann Sieghart in her Independent column today – of late, the Lords has been doing an excellent job of holding the government to account. As the old adage goes, why try to fix something that isn’t really broken?
The entirety of the joint committee isn’t even wholly convinced by their report, it would seem. I’m about to go to a press conference held by some of its members where they will arguing for Lords reform not to be considered in isolation, but to be part of a more general look at parliamentary powers.
As ever with Lords reform, it’s still far from clear whether anything will actually get done.