Over the last few days, there has been a lot of media coverage of a meeting of backbench Conservative MPs at which I was the only person to speak in favour of members of the House of Lords being elected. I wanted to wait until this morning, when the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament set up to scrutinise the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill (of which I was a member) published its report, before publicly setting out my views because I want to refer to some of the Committee’s conclusions.
I should make it clear at the outset that I entirely accept that reforming the House of Lords isn’t top of the public’s list of priorities. It isn’t a priority for me either. However, Parliament is able to deal with a large number of issues at the same time and inevitably some of them, though important, aren’t going to be major issues of public concern - I don’t remember many constituents contacting me to encourage us to intervene militarily in Libya for example. The fact that reforming the House of Lords isn’t often raised with us on the doorstep shouldn’t, on its own, be a barrier to progressing it.
Like it or not (and personally I think it was the right thing to do in the circumstances), we are in a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats and reforming the House of Lords is a priority for them. The Coalition Agreement included a commitment to:
“bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”
No doubt some of my colleagues will say that they were never consulted on this agreement and things would undoubtedly be easier now if we had gone through it as a Parliamentary Party in the same way that the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party did. Nevertheless, Lords reform was in our General Election manifesto and the Leader of our Party signed the agreement so as a matter of principle we should honour it. If any of my colleagues are unconvinced, I would ask them to reflect on the practical consequences of breaking our word because consequences there would surely be.
In the short term, the Liberal Democrats might withdraw support from other elements of the Coalition Agreement that they are uncomfortable with. There has been media speculation that they might refuse to vote for the revised Parliamentary boundaries currently being drawn up by the independent Boundary Commission. That would make it much more difficult for us to achieve our goal of a majority Conservative Government at the next Election - it would be extremely difficult for us to do so without fairer boundaries than we have at present. They might block other measures. The Coalition would undoubtedly become more fractious, which is the last thing the country needs when we are trying to deal with the appalling economic legacy we inherited from the last Government.
I would also ask my colleagues to consider the longer term consequences. It is strategically vital for the Conservative Party that the Liberal Democrats feel closer to us than to the Labour Party. Of course, our objective is to elect a majority Conservative Government but in the event of future hung Parliaments we want them to be pre-disposed to working with us - and we certainly don’t want to see a return to the Labour/Liberal Democrat tactical voting that worked against us at the 1997, 2001 and 2005 General Elections. It is then very important that we honour our word.
And is House of Lords reform really so objectionable? It surely can’t be right that in 2012 the political parties get to choose most of the people who sit in one House of Parliament. I have no problem with genuinely independent, expert voices being appointed but politicians should be chosen by the public.
Doing so does however raise two concerns which need to be addressed.
First, it is undeniable that if most of its members are elected (the Government is proposing 80% elected, 20% appointed and the Joint Committee agreed) the House of Lords will become more assertive vis-a-vis the Commons. This is a good thing - at present, too much bad legislation gets passed because the Government is in a powerful position in the House of Commons and the House of Lords is conscious that it lacks the democratic legitimacy to challenge the Commons. But it is important that we don’t tilt the balance too far, that we preserve what is known as the primacy of the House of Commons (its ability to ultimately enforce its will in the event of a disagreement between the two Houses) so that the governments we can elect can deliver the manifestos on which they have stood.
The Joint Committee concluded that, whilst the balance between the two Houses would shift if an elected element is introduced into the Lords, primacy would ultimately remain with the Commons. If only 80% of the Lords are elected and in three tranches over a 15 year period, its democratic mandate would clearer be weaker than the Commons and provided the Government makes it clear in the Bill that the Parliament Acts will continue to apply after reform there will still be a legislative backstop to enforce primacy.
The second concern that many people have is that electing most of the Lords will create a new group of elected politicians who will compete with MPs in their constituencies, creating confusion. The Joint Committee looked at this in some detail. The new senators or whatever they will be called will represent large constituencies - in our case, probably the whole of south London - so it is very unlikely that people will go to them rather than their MP, though they may do so if they don’t get a satisfactory answer from their MP. They will only be able to serve for one 15-year term so they won’t have an electoral incentive to get involved in things that aren’t part of their role and we recommended that they are given allowances to pay for constituency offices or staff to deal with individual casework (as opposed to people contacting them to urge them to vote for or against particular pieces of legislation, which undoubtedly - and rightly - will happen).
To summarise then, House of Lords reform isn’t a top priority but it was in our manifesto; it was part of the Coalition agreement; it is right in principle that politicians in our second chamber should be elected by the public, not given jobs for life by the political parties; and if the Government listens to what the Joint Committee had to say it can be done in a way that deals with the concerns about the primacy of the House of Commons and senators competing with MPs for me.