After a century of attempts, will the House of Lords be reformed?

Fri, Jul 13, 2012, 01:00

LONDON LETTER:David Cameron says he will try one more time to get an agreement from his MPs, but he faces a tough task

IT IS difficult to defend the existence of an unelected parliamentary chamber often filled with elderly occupants, including some still there by hereditary right. However, such a case, oddly, can be made for the House of Lords.

For a century, many have demanded the reform of “the other place” in Westminster. Lloyd George wanted to do it. So did Winston Churchill, although he later changed his mind. So, too, did Harold Wilson.

Going into the 2010 election, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all agreed in their manifestoes – to varying degrees, admittedly – that the Lords should be turned into a senate, filled mostly by elected members.

Once in power, Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg produced a plan that would involve 80 per cent of the chamber being elected over three elections, using a regional list and a partly proportional voting system that some say would enshrine his party’s influence in British politics.

On Tuesday night, Conservative rebels forced British prime minister David Cameron and Clegg to abandon a Commons motion that would have limited debate of the reforms to just 10 days, even if the legislation itself was cleared for later debate.

However, as Cameron said, approving the legislation – which would see four out of five senators in a new upper house elected over 10 years – is useless until means are also agreed that would give it some chance of getting into law.

For many outside the bubble of Westminster, the issue that has brought 91 Conservative MPs into open rebellion against Cameron is incomprehensible: reform of the House of Lords.

The focus on the time to be put aside is understandable. Labour’s Harold Wilson tried, but failed, to reform the Lords, finally giving up when his ministers collapsed in exhaustion after one all-night debate after another.

Cameron is accused by Clegg of not having done enough to persuade, or force, his backbenchers into line. Clegg has pointed out that he and senior Liberal Democrats have gone to the wall frequently to get their people to vote for unpopular legislation, notably tuition fees.

Just over two years into their coalition, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have come to a fork in the road. The choice in the coming weeks will determine not just the effectiveness of the union but, perhaps, its very existence.

On Wednesday night, Cameron told Conservative MPs that he would make one further attempt to get an agreement over the summer months, although he faces a tough task since many of his people voted on grounds of principle, not just political devilment (although there was much of that too).

Clegg has laid great stress on the programme for government, saying the Conservatives agreed to an elected upper chamber. The difficulty for Clegg is that the text does not actually go that far.

Instead, the agreement pledged both sides to “establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”. Such work would be done by December 2010.

Understandably, the Liberal Democrats argue that this must be read as a statement of intent, saying trust would be impossible if everyone was to parse and analyse every line.

Most Conservative MPs believe an elected senate would threaten the primacy of the House of Commons, destroying the long- held conventions and laws that have governed the relationship for 100 years.

The Lords can only delay legislation for a year. If the legislation is passed once again by MPs, it passes using the powers of the Parliament Act – first brought in to deal with Irish demands for Home Rule. It has been used only four times.

Equally, the Lords do not oppose promises made in election manifestoes, which is why a Conservative-controlled upper house did not block the creation of the National Health Service by Labour after the second World War.

Clegg’s opponents insist that all these conventions will be lost.

Elected senators will seek to expand their powers over time, threatening a logjam in British politics, where a government with a Commons majority could be unable to rule.

Equally, opponents point to the work done by the House of Lords, which could often teach lessons to MPs in how to delve into every clause and subclause of legislation at committee stage.

The current reform of the NHS is a case in point.

British health secretary Andrew Lansley produced a badly written Bill. MPs failed to make it a whole lot better, while the Lords, to their credit, did much to improve it.

To doubters, one can but recommend reading the publications by MPs on European Union matters and comparing them with the work penned by “the other place”.

The comparison flatters the venerable lords and baronesses.