Progress report: Constitutional reform
Deputy PM Nick Clegg came into government in 2010 promising the "biggest shake-up" of British democracy since the Great Reform Act of 1832. He has been grilled on his progress by the Lords constitution committee. So, how are things going?
ELECTED HOUSE OF LORDS
End Quote Mark D'Arcy
If the bill isn't in the programme, Lords Reform won't happen in this Parliament”
The coalition agreement sets out plans for a mostly elected Lords, with the overall number of peers cut from the current 800 or so to 300. Of these 20% - or 60 - would still be appointed for their expertise. The rest would be elected for 15 year, non-renewable, terms.
The proposals are currently being discussed by a joint committee of MPs and peers. Mr Clegg and David Cameron are keen to conduct the first Lords elections by 2015. However, opponents are warning that a smaller House will find it harder to scrutinise legislation and are likely to kick up a fuss. The committee will ask Mr Clegg if he thinks the Parliament Act will have to be used to force the measure through against the House of Lords' wishes.
FEWER MPs AND EQUAL-SIZED CONSTITUENCIES
The government pledged to cut the number of MPs by 50 - to 600 - and to make constituencies more evenly sized to ensure greater fairness for voters. It has since published detailed plans for the re-drawing of constituency boundaries, which were consulted upon around the country. MPs were asked before Christmas to appeal against changes of which they disapproved. The Boundary Commission will publish its revised plans next year and these are expected to be decided on by Parliament by October 2013. These plans seem on track to be completed by 2015.
The government has passed a law providing for general elections on a fixed date every five years, the next occurring on 7 May, 2015. The only ways an election could be triggered earlier are if Commons a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is found - or if a motion for an early general election is agreed by at least two-thirds of the House.
POWERS TO RECALL MPs
Giving voters the power to remove MPs found guilty of wrongdoing was a promise made by both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives before the general election. As part of the coalition arrangement, they agreed that a by-election could be called when an MP was jailed for a year or more, or a committee of MPs decides a contest should go ahead following a lesser offence. But, before the by-election can happen, 10% of constituents would have to sign a petition calling for their MP's removal. A draft bill on the issue was published last December. Some - such as Tory MP Zac Goldsmith - are unhappy that MPs will be in charge of deciding whether an MP faces being recalled, rather than it being something constituents can force.
REFERENDUM ON CHANGING VOTING SYSTEM
The two coalition parties agreed to hold a referendum on whether the UK should change from the first-past-the-post system to the alternative vote (AV) system for general elections. After weeks of parliamentary battles, a law was passed allowing the referendum to take place in May 2011. It did, and voters opted overwhelmingly to retain the old system.
STATUTORY REGISTER OF LOBBYISTS
David Cameron has described the work of lobbyists as the "next big scandal waiting to happen" at Westminster. Setting up a register of operatives to ensure their influence on MPs and peers is more transparent was part of the coalition agreement. The government has recently launched a consultation, which includes how to define lobbying as an industry and deciding who should have to register. It says it wants lobbying to be largely self-regulating but is promising fines of up to £5,000 for those who fail to comply. A work in progress.
MORE BACKBENCH MP CONTROL OVER COMMONS
The government promised to implement in full the recommendations of a committee into the running of the Commons led by the then Labour MP Tony Wright. These included giving backbench MPs more say over the scheduling of debates, amid criticism that ministers were becoming too dominant. So the Backbench Business Committee was set up in 2010. It meets once a week to decide what subjects will be debated by the Commons in time not allotted to the government or the opposition - that amounts to at least 27 days in this parliamentary session.
As part of its plans to re-connect voters and MPs, the committee said it was important to give the public more of a say in the conduct of parliamentary debates. One way of doing this was to allow the subjects of popular petitions to be discussed. So the government set up an e-petitions website. Those picking up more than 100,000 signatures can now prompt a debate, providing an MP puts the idea to the Backbench Business Committee. Already, the Commons has talked about issues including the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and the increase in fuel prices. Some backbench MPs have been unhappy that the e-petitions debates have to be staged during the time reserved for backbench debates, rather than having dedicated time of their own.
ELECTED SELECT COMMITTEE CHAIRMEN
In an effort to beef up the select committees, which scrutinise government departments, the government promised to implement the Wright committee's recommendation that they should be nominate and elected by MPs. The first elections took place in June 2010 - the month after the coalition was formed.
OTHER SUBJECTS MR CLEGG IS SET TO GRILLED ON...
The deputy prime minister will be asked about the issue of devolution, which has risen to the top of the political agenda after the Scottish government's recent consultation paper about their proposed referendum on Scottish independence. He is also set to be asked about reform of political party funding - an issue on which there is yet to be consensus.