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House of Lords reform questions

09 May 11 17:04
Mark D'Arcy
By Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent

There's something a little stage-managed about the post election positioning around Andrew Lansley's Heath and Social Care Bill. I was going to write "the government's Health etc Bill", but I'm not sure the government is that keen on it any more.

I suspect the Prime Minister is at least as keen as Nick Clegg on re-writing the Bill, if only because he fears his party could once again be cast as closet NHS-privatisers, when he has laboured so long to dispel that impression.

But if the paused NHS Bill is amended, so that, for example, GPs will be able to opt into (or stay out of) the wider role in commissioning NHS services that it envisages, another danger of perception awaits the PM and the Conservatives; they don't want Nick Clegg to be seen as the compassionate face of the Coalition, forever frustrating the knavish tricks of those hard faced, privatisation-obsessed Tories.

While the Lib Dems would love to be cast in that role, it would dent their partners if it became accepted - and it might, because it runs with the grain of public perception.

Part of the answer may be for the Conservatives to find a new Health Secretary, and the Daily Telegraph's superbly connected Ben Brogan is canvassing the return to the Cabinet of the Major-era Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell, who now chairs the Health Select Committee, which has been critical of the plans in the Bill. Mr Dorrell has always denied casting covetous eyes on Mr Lansley's job, but were he to be asked, I wonder….

Further rows may follow, notably on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. With the Coalition's plans for revamping the House of Lords now being touted as a big flashpoint. The Coalition agreement contains a carefully worded pledge to bring forward proposals for a "wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation".

"Bring forward" does not mean enact. The letter of the agreement is satisfied by the publication of the proposals, and the Conservatives are not honour bound to vote for them - a bit like the AV referendum deal. I don't know if they would be so crass as to simply publish a Draft Bill, then smirk a bit and refuse to go any further - but they might be minded to let it run into the parliamentary sands.

And Lords Reform won't happen unless the government is prepared to demonstrate real political will.

Leaving aside the implications of all this for the cosmic balance of the coalition, I think the whole issue raises two mostly unmentioned sets of problems for Mr Clegg.

First, what's the political point? As AV has just demonstrated, the public don't care very much about constitutional meta-issues, and deploying vast amounts of energy on Westminster arcana that ordinary voters don't care about does not look like an effective way of rebuilding his party's battered image.

Secondly, while the Lib Dem faithful might like the idea of reform, it doesn't provide the party with the kind of extra leverage they hoped AV would yield. The Lib Dems are already the pivotal force in the Lords and it is hard to see the slow phasing in of an elected house (the most likely proposal to emerge) yielding them more leverage. So there's no party advantage to be had, other than the totemistic one of having extracted something, anything, from the coalition.

And then there's the mostly unaddressed point about law-making process. I doubt any constitution-writing founding father, starting with a blank sheet of parchment, would have recommended a chamber like Their Lordships House. But it works. The House of Lords is highly efficient and effective at processing the often slapdash legislation sent to it by the Commons. It understands its place in the scheme of things.

Any proposals to change the current make-up should not only satisfy complaints that the Lords is "medieval" or "undemocratic". They should also deal with the question of maintaining good quality scrutiny, and ensure that a newly-elected chamber doesn't decide that it has an equal right to its opinion and start picking fights with the Commons.

There are those who argue that constitutional change should only be done with the utmost care, by a priest class of parliamentary savants, insulated from mere politics. Maybe in a Utopia.

But most constitutional change happens only because an elected government has been prepared to put energy into it, for pressing political reasons. Whether it is devolution or the two Parliament Acts, most change happens because it is driven by the needs of the moment - but even so, it still needs to be very carefully thought out.

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