Disappointing news on Lords reform - and an equally disappointing response from the Liberal Democrats
I’m disappointed that more of my colleagues weren’t prepared to compromise on the issue of reforming the House of Lords and that, as a result, the Government has had to accept that it won’t be able to make progress on the issue. Sadly, one of our two Houses of Parliament will continue to be largely appointed by the party leaders and that means more party donors, apparatchiks and retired MPs being given jobs for life.
I can understand Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats being frustrated about this. The Coalition Agreement contained a clear commitment to Lords reform:
“We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election” (page 27).
Some of my colleagues argue that we have fulfilled this commitment - the Government has brought forward proposals, that is the end of the matter - but there is a clear implication - “In the interim...” - that the Government will then implement those proposals. My colleagues may regret taking such a literal approach to the Coalition Agreement if the Liberal Democrats do likewise on other issues eg human rights where all the Agreement says is “We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law and protects and extends British liberties” (page 11). To be fair, the root of this problem is that Liberal Democrats MPs went through the Coalition Agreement line by line and signed up to it; Conservative MPs did not and hence many do not feel themselves bound by every detail.
But I am equally disappointed in what Nick Clegg had to say yesterday when announcing that the Government wouldn’t be able to make any progress:
"The Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken ... I have told the Prime Minister that when, in due course, Parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election I will be instructing my party to oppose them".
This kind of tit-for-tat response:
• reflects badly on the Liberal Democrats - they voted for the principle of a reduction in the size of the House of Commons and smaller discrepancies in the size of Parliamentary constituencies, presumably because they thought that was in the best interests of the country and now they are going to vote against the detailed recommendations that have been produced at significant cost because they are cross with Conservative MPs over Lords reform;
• is contrary to the principle of collective responsibility that underpins Cabinet Government (the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform, which set out how the Coalition would work, was explicit that “the principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, continues to apply to all Government Ministers. This requires...decisions of the Cabinet to be binding on and supported by all Ministers”); and
• is going to make it harder for the Coalition to work effectively.
Lords reform was part of the Coalition Agreement but it was not linked to the boundary review. The link was - very clearly - to having a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which we have delivered:
“We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum” (page 27).
Nick Clegg himself was crystal clear about the lack of a link between Lords reform and the boundary review in answering a question from Eleanor Laing MP on 19th April this year:
Eleanor Laing: "Is it the case that the reports that your party’s support for further progress on boundaries legislation is dependent upon progress on House of Lords reform legislation are wrong?"
Nick Clegg: "Of course, there is no reliance on our support for a Coalition Agreement commitment for progress on unrelated or other significant parallel constitutional formations. I have said that. There is no link; of course, there is no link."
Yesterday was a sad day for the Coalition then. The Liberal Democrats are entitled to be upset with some of my colleagues over Lords reform. But they have just made things worse.