The House of Lords has proved itself time and again over the last 100 years to be the great surviving institution. When there have been threats to its very existence, they have been seen off by pragmatic reforming concessions that have secured the survival of the Lords in a recognisable form. Arguably the greatest threat to the Lords came in 1911 when the government had been re-elected on a mandate of reform. The result was the Parliament Act that prevented the Lords from having the government at their mercy and enabled the government to carry through the programme on which it had been elected, within the limits of a single Parliament. The limitations placed on the legislation-blocking powers of the Lords firmly asserted the power of the House of Commons as the dominant chamber.
In 1949, Clement Attlee pushed through more reforms to reduce the amount of time the House of Lords could delay a bill from two sessions to one year. Various further changes came in the ensuing decades such as the phasing out of the granting of hereditary peerages (the last such was granted to Willie Whitelaw by Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and was largely symbolic as Whitelaw had no male issue), the creation of life peerages and the removal of the bulk of the hereditary peers under Tony Blair.
Yet despite many pledges of full reform, the Lords remains. The many committees and commissions and the numerous manifesto pledges have resulted in little alteration, and many of those who have championed change may rightly conclude the Lords reform is the Bermuda Triangle of British politics.
Now the coalition has started the motions again. Speaking to the political and constitutional reform committee in May this year, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said the stated aim is to “devise a system of election mandate and duration of term that can preserve the independence of spirit that is important for the Lords and separates it from the partisan nature of the Commons”. Clegg recently told the Commons that, in his judgement, no one was in favour of the status quo. In a sense, he is correct. However, many of my colleagues on all sides of the Commons are open to reform of the Lords but opposed to its abolition. Even peers accept that constitutional reform is inevitable but oppose an elected second chamber. In June 2009, ComRes conducted a poll of 100 peers and found that only 9 per cent supported a fully elected House of Lords,18 per cent a partially elected House and 48 per cent favoured a fully appointed House.
In my view, the debate on the future of the House of Lords all too often starts at the wrong end. The debate is about who should sit in the Lords, what system of election should be used, what proportion of the Lords should be elected, what it should be called, how long the term limits should be, what to do with the Bishops and the like. The current debate is going down the same depressing path. Instead, of posing all these procedural questions, should we not start at the front end of the debate? We should ask instead: what do we want the second chamber to do? From that answer will flow all the answers to its composition and function.
If we are to have a debate that will nourish our appetite for improving the effectiveness of Parliament, the newly established joint committee should focus its work on this.
I have long believed in a fully appointed second chamber. I have supported that position for many years – so far back indeed that I supported it when it was the official position of my party. I have not changed my mind and nor do I suspect I ever will. I have held that view strongly and consistently for two reasons. Firstly, I believe that an appointed second chamber lacks the fundamental democratic legitimacy to challenge the supremacy of the democratically-elected House of Commons. And secondly for a very pragmatic reason – it works. The latter point is verified by the overwhelmingly majority of amendments made to Commons Bills in the House of Lords that are accepted by the Commons when the legislation comes back in an improved form from the Lords.
But I do accept the need for reform to the Lords and I would like to make a number of small suggestions as to how the status quo can be improved.
One argument for the proposals that are being consulted on is that the House of Lords is too big and becoming too party political. Both are true. Yet this has not been done by the Lords. Rather, it has been done to the Lords. It is no use MPs making this argument when it is in fact they who have created more and more peers. A simple answer would be to cap the size of the Lords at a number of perhaps 500 or less and to reach that number through natural wastage. Another simple reform would be to introduce a retirement mechanism.
We should also move from membership of the Lords being an honour to recognising that working peers are expected to turn up. The clue is in the name. Yet too many do not. Lord Heseltine has voted in fewer than 20 divisions in the 10 years that he has been a member and has not yet spoken. Lord Moore has yet to speak. Likewise for Baroness Falkender.
An attendance criteria should be put in place to maintain the right to sit.
Yet fundamental to the debate is the role and supremacy of the Commons. There is very real concern that whatever proposals come and whatever safeguards are given we could be embarking on a process that will, over time, see an elected Lords rise to challenge the supremacy of the Commons. That mandate creep can already be seen.
Tony Blair encapsulated the question well. He said: “The key question on election is whether we want a revising chamber or a rival chamber” which was why it was a question “not for one Parliament, but for the long term”.
He was right. And despite manifesto commitments in favour of Lords reform, he always gave the House of Commons a free vote. The coalition should do the same.
Conor Burns MP is the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West and PPS to Hugo Swire, Northern Ireland minister