Wednesday, 11 July 2012

House of Lords reform (to be concluded in the autumn?)

Programme motions were introduced by Labour in their first year of government, specifically to reduce an opposition's power to obstruct progress on a Bill and even prevent the end of a Bill ever being reached. (I recall that one of the first actions of New Labour was to push through an Act on plant variety patenting in a single day.) Before this innovation, timetable motions (the "guillotine") were only resorted to after it was clear that a Bill was meeting time-wasting tactics.  Last night, on the second day of the second reading debate on the House Of Lords Reform Bill, Jack Straw, a senior member of the Blair administration, repented of programming - after fifteen years! Many other Labour and Conservative members protested the proposed schedule.

One can see the objections to a tight timetable on discussion of a Bill of major constitutional import, and the coalition government was surely right to withdraw its programme motion. The Labour front bench promised not to filibuster the Bill when it comes back to the House in the autumn (probably - we will know more at business questions on Thursday). I hope they keep their word, but they said something similar about the Parliamentary Voting System And Constituencies Bill before it went to the Lords. Nor have they yet responded to government requests for their own suggestions as to what time is required for the reform Bill.

The ninety-two Tories and nine DUP members in the "No" lobby last night were clearly sincere in their outright opposition to the Bill, in that they want to keep the Lords exactly as it is. After all, there has been a built-in Conservative majority there for a hundred years or more, even after New Labour (without a referendum!) stripped the upper chamber of most of the hereditary peers. The Tory pitch was: it works, why change it? Dr Julian Lewis, in his speech, cited Lords revisions which strengthened restrictions on trade unions. However, he did not mention that Margaret Thatcher's poll tax legislation - something that cried out for rejection by a truly reforming chamber - sailed through the Lords with no more than a ripple. I hope those Tories in their election literature dissociated themselves from the official manifesto commitment that:  "We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords". They clearly had no intention of working towards any such consensus. 

Some also smeared reformers as seeking grubby short-term political advantage. Would they not do us the courtesy of recognising that Liberals since the days of Lloyd George have been against the unelected nature of the Lords?

Nor should one impugn the sincerity of those Labour members who voted against out of a long-standing antipathy to there being an upper chamber at all - though one notes that Jeremy Corbyn, a unicameralist, was in the "Aye" lobby last night. These, too, no doubt disavowed their party's official manifesto, in Labour's case to commitment to "moving to a wholly elected House of Lords".

Condemnation should be reserved for those hypocrites who opened their speeches with agreement that there should be Lords reform, but still voted against second reading. There was nothing in their list of objections, including the absence of a referendum, which could not have been dealt with at committee stage.

 On the subject of a referendum, Labour should realise that this would be a costly exercise. Nor is there any indication that turnout would be meaningful. However, if the price of guaranteed Labour cooperation in getting the reform on to the statute book is a referendum, then the government should swallow its pride and accept it. Perhaps Labour can be persuaded to trade including in the Bill provision for a referendum, which was in their manifesto, for excluding election by party list, which was not.

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