Lords reformers facing many hurdles
- 9 May 2012
- From the section UK Politics
What now for House of Lords reform?
The Queen has announced that the government will bring forward a bill to change the composition of Parliament's second chamber.
In the introduction to the Queen's Speech, David Cameron and Nick Clegg say "we will keep our promise in our parties' manifestos and reform the House of Lords".
The accompanying bumf says the bill would create a substantially smaller, mainly elected second chamber.
The new members would be elected a third at a time. The old members would leave in stages. The powers and functions of the Lords would remain unchanged.
But what does that mean in practice, not least when there seem to be many signals that the government is getting cold feet on this?
In the coming weeks, the coalition will have to put flesh on the bones and agree the detail. And this will be no easy task. For example, there is as yet no agreement on how small the new Lords chamber should be. Some say 300, symmetrically half of the new 600-strong House of Commons.
A committee of MPs and peers said recently that was too few and 450 would be a better number. What form of proportional representation should be used? How big should be the regional constituencies? And, yes, how many bishops should survive?
Once political agreement is reached on the detail, the parliamentary draftsmen will draw up a bill. Ministers expect to publish one probably in late June or early July, so that MPs can debate the principles before they go on their summer holidays. As we know, this will be a hugely controversial bill, so the government business managers want to get on with it. As it is a constitutional reform, all the detailed committee stage scrutiny will have to take place on the floor of the House of Commons, not in some room for Lords obsessives upstairs, so it will take time.
So there will be a bill and it will be put before Parliament. But, and it is a big but, there is huge opposition to this measure. Many Conservatives oppose what they see as a second-order issue compared with fixing the economy. Many MPs and peers from all sides think it is the wrong thing to do. Many Liberal Democrats, though, believe it is entirely possible to do both. Either way, this legislation will be hard fought.
THE OFFICIAL OPPOSITION
What Labour do on Lords reform will be crucial because their votes could make government defeat possible in the House of Commons. The expectation is that Labour will support the idea of reform in principle but oppose the government on much of the detail. So it is expected that they will oppose the government's motion that limits the amount of time MPs can debate the plans in the Commons. It is expected that they will oppose plans for an 80% elected chamber and instead push for a fully elected Lords. It is also likely that they will push for a referendum.
In the face of all that opposition, there are many signs that the coalition is possibly losing the political will to force these reforms through using technical measures known as the Parliament Acts. These allow the government to get the changes through eventually, without needing the support of the House of Lords.
The Queen promised simply that there would be a bill to reform the composition of the House of Lords. That is pretty broad language which could allow the government to water down its plans and make lesser changes such as getting rid of the remaining 92 hereditary peers.
The Queen announced 15 bills before she got round to Lords reform. Priority this ain't. The government wants people to think it is focused on tackling the economy not obsessed with what some see as arcane constitutional reform.
The deputy prime minister has been softening his rhetorical support for reform, saying on Tuesday that he cared more about helping apprentices and poor school children and cutting taxes than introducing "a smidgen of democracy" into the House of Lords.
The man in charge of the upper house, Lord Strathclyde, said in an interview with the Financial Times that he backed an elected Lords but noted that it would be more expensive and more aggressive. He also suggested that an elected Lords might not have backed Margaret Thatcher's privatisation. These are not remarks that will lessen the opposition of Tory MPs.
A POSSIBLE GET-OUT DEAL?
It has been reported that Mr Cameron might persuade Mr Clegg to give up on Lords reform by agreeing to postpone plans to change parliamentary boundaries and cut the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 MPs. Many MPs believe the boundary changes would help the Tories by redressing historical anomalies. But both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats inside Downing Street say categorically that this suggested trade-off is untrue. And that makes sense.
If Mr Cameron wishes Lords reform to go away, he can simply allow Parliament to kill it for him. He does not need the Lib Dems' agreement to do that, nor does he need to give them anything in return. There are enough opponents of Lords reform on all sides of both houses to drive a stake through this bill. He also, as he said in the Daily Mail, wants a majority at the next election and boundary changes could in theory help him get that.
SO WHAT NOW?
There will be a bill to reform the Lords. It will be hugely controversial. We are just at the early skirmishes in a long battle. It is still highly possible that it will enter Parliament but never leave it. Even Lord Strathclyde says it is 50-50. But it is not dead yet. The signals coming out of Number Ten downplaying reform are designed to calm fevered Tory brows and show the government remains focused on the economy rather than the constitution. But the coalition has not yet reached the point when it has to decide how much political capital it wishes to spend on Lords reform. That will come later after many long days and nights of parliamentary battle.