Debates in Parliament | House of Lords Reform

Posted on: 29th June 2011

Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)

Of the 61 countries in which the second Chamber is elected, does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that in those countries there is a written constitution that clearly enshrines the relative powers between the first and second Chambers? I welcome many of these reforms, but I have many misgivings about that particular aspect.

Nicholas Clegg (Deputy Prime Minister, Lord President of the Council; Sheffield, Hallam, Liberal Democrat)

It is the view of the Government that this reform, which is long-overdue and long-debated, can take place without the embellishment and framework of a written constitution.

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Later in the debate


Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good argument in favour of reform of this Chamber. Does he not accept that in the White Paper, under the section on powers, it is clear that the Government have no intention of addressing the issue of the existing conventions?

There is no intention to codify them in any form, so there is a chance of the leach of power from one Chamber to the other.

Mark Durkan (Foyle, Social Democratic and Labour Party)

That is only if the measures go forward as they are in the Bill. That is not an argument for the status quo; it is an argument for getting necessary change and getting it right, making sure that there are clearly distinct roles and powers. Those distinctions will be clear in the minds of Members of the respective Chambers and in the minds of the public who will be separately and distinctly electing people.

There is the idea that one form of election will trump another. In Northern Ireland, even those parties that defend the first-past-the-post system for elections to this House all agree that the elections for our three seats in the European Parliament should be by single transferrable vote, because it is fairer, better, safer and avoided geo-sectarian tensions and everything else. At no point are the mandates of MEPs used to trump or override the individual mandates of MPs in any sense. If we clearly distinguish between the two Chambers in how we work and function, there will not be a problem.

There is also the issue of other supernumerary members, not just those appointed temporarily as Ministers, but the bishops from the Church of England. I do not believe that that should be the case. However, from my own background and experience, I am obviously very aware of religious and constitutional sensitivities. If representation is to continue, there is no reason why there should not be some sort of pastoral Bench in the second Chamber, for, yes, Church of England bishops, but for other faith interests as well, perhaps without the right to vote, but with the right to address issues so that they can offer their sincere reflections without being trapped into various procedural devices and partisan ruses. Many of those pastoral interests might prefer to speak without the bother of the vote or being caught having to decide between amendments here and particular votes there. If we have 80% election, part of the 20% could be elected or approved indirectly through some of the devolved Chambers, and perhaps that could include some of the faith interests and some pastoral representation as well.

We need to think reform through a lot more than is provided for in the Bill, and we need to use the Committee to improve it. Unfortunately, I note that the only two parties in the Chamber that have never appointed anybody to the House of Lords—that have always refused to do so on principle—are not involved in the Committee. We are serious about reform; I am not sure if anybody on the Committee is.


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Later in the debate

Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)

It is a pleasure to follow Paul Maynard because he has expressed a view from the Conservative Benches that is probably discordant with the views of the majority on those Benches and I shall do the same from mine.

I welcome many of the reforms, such as the removal of hereditaries, the constraint on patronage and the limit on the term, which is probably a matter for debate, and the reduction in the number of peers, which should also be debated further. There are also the Government’s intentions about the maintenance of function and power and about the primacy of the Commons over the other place. In addition, we have the right to retire, which will clearly be welcome, and a beefed-up Appointments Commission. The transitional arrangements have been debated elsewhere.

Unless the other place can do things that we in this Chamber cannot do, or bring into the legislative process something that we in this rather more tribal environment are unable to achieve, frankly we need to ask ourselves the unicameral question: why bother having a second Chamber at all? It would be far better for the country, particularly in these rather straitened times, to turn it into a museum and generate resources rather than for the nation’s resources to be sapped by something that contributes nothing to the process itself.

I have a great passion for democracy, but we do not need to democratise everything that moves. What we are about is improving the primacy of this Chamber. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is no longer in his place, rightly emphasised that properly to have a debate about the need for this Chamber to function effectively we need to establish a written constitution that empowers this Chamber in relation to the Executive. It is not necessary to create a mirror image Chamber at the other end of the Corridor that contributes nothing to the legislative process.

There is a debate that we have not properly had. We have leapfrogged over the question of what we want a second Chamber for to how people get into that Chamber. The risk in the Government’s proposals is that we are welding the worst side of what we have in this place—its tribalism—into another place, rather than helping it to achieve the kind of objective that we want and the nation needs in order to balance what we do here with what is required in what should be a revising Chamber, a place for sober second thoughts, and not one that simply reflects the same kind of party tribalism that we have here. It will contribute nothing. We might as well not have it at all.

The potential risk of the seepage of power from this Chamber to the other is addressed in the draft Bill, but not sufficiently. It acknowledges on page 11 that the balance of power is established on the basis of statute to a certain extent, but also convention, and of course convention is changed by convention. One of the conventions that will be under a great deal of scrutiny and is at risk is that if there is no intention to codify the relationship between the two Chambers, powers will seep to another place. There will certainly be a challenge to take those powers to another place. Rather than go through the process of electing members to another Chamber, we should establish and work on a written constitution for this country.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, Conservative)

As is pretty obvious to people who know me well, I am not an academic, a lawyer or a constitutional

expert, which puts me in a minority of probably one for the purposes of this evening. However, I am a pragmatist from west Wales, and in that spirit I want to offer something constructive to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper, of whom I have grown rather fond during the past 14 months as we have discussed one constitutional matter after another. Some of my best friends are estate agents and car salesmen, and much as I know them well, like them and enjoy their company— indeed, I was one at one stage—it does not necessarily mean that at the end of the day I want to buy what they have on offer. I fear, and I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying so, that this moment is no different.

Given the limited time that we have, I thought it would be helpful to summarise the debate. I have sat through 50-odd contributions and for the sake of something different to say, I jotted down what I thought the debate had shown. A snapshot of the views expressed across the Chamber reveals that this is not about Lords reform but about parliamentary reform, abolition of the Lords and the relationship between the Lords and this place, between us and the devolved Assemblies and between us and voters. Those are serious matters. This is not some throw-away matter that we can loosely describe to the press as a process of kicking out a few old duffers. This deserves to be taken more seriously.

Another point that has been raised is that there would be long-term effects. There are long-term questions that need to be answered and arguments that have not been properly addressed, and I hope that theMinister will have the opportunity to reply to them. What failure in the upper House are we seeking to remedy? How will elected Members succeed where unelected ones have apparently failed? What improvements are we hoping to achieve? We seem fixated on how the House of Lords, or whatever it will be called, will look, rather than what it should do. That is the nub of the matter, and I must say that this afternoon’s debate has simply confirmed my fears in that respect.

On the other hand, the Government have attempted to make the case that the Lords “lacks sufficient democratic authority”. Mind you, so do many other institutions in which the nation happily puts its trust. That is an absolutely fair accusation if that is what we seek. There have been enough contributions from around the Chamber and the other place to suggest that that is not what we seek, so we must be very careful not to justify these measures purely on the basis of that argument.

There appears to be no public appetite for this, and people have dismissed public appetite as somehow irrelevant. They say, “It may be boring, but it’s important.” Well, many things we do here are boring and important, and some are boring and unimportant, but this is actually boring and very important. I wonder what my friends in The Eagle in Narberth would say tonight if they flicked over from the tennis and saw me standing here. When they are trying to cling on to their public service jobs, or hold on to their house, or get an operation in their local hospital, they will think—I apologise for looking at the camera if this is the case—that this is yet another example of some self-indulgent activity that contributes to people’s disinterest in and indifference to politicians of whatever nature, either elected in this House or unelected in the other.

There seems to be almost no parliamentary support for the proposals, judging by the statistics in the House of Lords and in this place. There appears to be some coalition interest, and we can only speculate why that might be. There are profound long-term constitutional consequences that need further examination. We are told that there would be significant costs, which one estimate puts in the region of £433 million. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the comments that have been made this afternoon and follow the recommendation that many Members have made, particularly my hon. Friend Conor Burns, which is to proceed with great caution, go for a free vote and remember that it was not long ago that we suggested to the Labour Government that there was a fine line between constitutional reform, which we all support, and constitutional vandalism, which we accused them of achieving. We should bear in mind the wonderful words of the Prime Minister, whom I also commend, who rightly said that this was a fourth-term issue.


Read the full debate with this question in context here