A Strong Voice for Croydon Central - Gavin Barwell MP
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A frustrating two days
10/07/2012 23:57:00


Despite having been a member of the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament that looked into the issue in detail and sitting through the full two days of debate, I didn't get called to speak about the House of Lords Reform Bill, which was rather frustrating to say the least. Below is what I would have said.

Parliament has been talking about reforming the House of Lords for over 100 years.

It cannot be right that most of the seats in one of our Houses of Parliament are in the gift of the leaders of the main political parties.

So why has it taken so long?

Because although most people agree that reform is required, they can't agree on the detail. Should the second Chamber be wholly elected, partly elected or appointed but not by the party leaders? And if there are to be elections, what should the electoral system be, how long should they be elected for and should they be able to stand for re-election?

Most of the people who have spoken in this debate have recognised the need for reform but many, particularly from the Conservative benches, have opposed the principle of election. They worry that once you introduce an elected element the House of Lords will challenge the primacy of the House of Commons, leading to a constitutional crisis, and would prefer a fully appointed House though with appointments made by an independent Commission, not the party leaders.

I agree that there is a case for having some independent experts in the second Chamber - indeed, under the Government's proposals they would make up a higher proportion of the House than active crossbench Peers do of the current House. But I have grave concerns about a fully appointed House. Such a House would inevitably be a House of the great and the good, of the Establishment. But the problems that Britain faces today are problems of the Establishment - the banking crisis is a crisis of our financial establishment, the phone hacking scandal is a crisis of our media establishment, the MPs expenses scandal was a scandal of our politicial establishment. Yes there is a place for expertise but we also need voices that reflect the views of the British public, not just the Establishment.

Of course it is true that if you introduce an elected element into the House of Lords it will become more assertive. Personally I think that would be a good thing - the House of Commons' ability to scrutinise legislation will always be constrained by the fact that the Government by definition always has a majority in our House. A more assertive Lords would ensure that we get better legislation.

The question is how much more assertive the Lords would become. Some fear that it would regard itself as equal to the Commons, that our primacy would disappear. I just can't see that happening. Members of the Lords would know that their House was only partially elected, that its mandate was less recent and that Parliament was clear when agreeing to elections for the Lords that its role was as a revising Chamber. So the conventions would evolve, they might well start voting down bad secondary legislation for example - no bad thing in my opinion - but I can't see them voting against the Second Reading of Government Bills. And even if I am proved wrong, the Parliament Acts would still be in place to ensure the Commons could ultimately get its way.

Having said that, I would like the Government to make some further changes to the Bill.

First, if the point of reform is to get rid of patronage then the electoral system needs to be a fully open list and the Prime Minister shouldn't have a power to appoint Minister who remain Members of the House even after they cease to be Ministers.

Second, there is an argument for long, non-renewable terms (long so that the mandate of the House of Commons is always more recent to help protect its primacy, non-renewable so that Members of the House of Lords are independent of the Whips) but it does create a problem in terms of accountability. The Government should include a power of recall in this Bill and it should be a wider power than for the Commons given the much longer terms.

Third, Oliver Heald made a good point in about ensuring that Members of the Lords concentrate on their role of scrutinising legislation rather than competing with MPs for constituency casework. The Government could solve this by saying that Ministers will only deal with constituency casework from MPs.

And finally the Government should include a referendum. If the choice is a Bill with a referendum or no Bill at all, it's a no brainer.

Reform of the Lords is long overdue but it is only going to be achieved if people are prepared to compromise over the detail.

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Readers' Comments

On 21/07/2012 03:06:00 John Cartwright wrote:
I broadly agree with the government's proposals. I would prefer the elections to be by STV rather than lists, although this is a relatively minor point. There has been a lot of criticism of the idea of having 15-year terms and not allowing members to be re-elected, but these two features are specifically designed to reduce the danger of the House of Lords (or Senate, whatever it's called) challenging the primacy of the Commons. If members are not worrying about the prospects of re-election or re-selection, they will be more likely to rebel or be more imaginative in expressing their views. This can only be a good thing.



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