Reforming the Lords

Might we see just a smidgeon of Lords reform, this week?

On Friday the Commons debates Dan Byles' private members bill to give their lordships the right to retire, the power to expel colleagues for serious offences and the ability to remove non-attenders.

It's not exactly the storming of the Winter Palace, but given the way the Coalition's programme of constitutional reform programme has belly-flopped, ministers should probably be grateful for any crumb of comfort.

The Byles Bill is the latest incarnation of the Steel Bill - introduced and re-introduced several times by the former Liberal leader in the House of Lords, in progressively diluted form.

Originally this was a much more ambitious measure, setting up a statutory commission on appointments to the Lords, and excluding the 92 remaining hereditary peers, but in the face of determined opposition, it was pared down to its current form.

A couple of issues still remain; firstly, how should the Lords deal with a peer convicted of a serious offence in a foreign court?

Some backbenchers (especially, I'm told, Jacob Rees-Mogg) are worried that this could result in foreign courts exercising power over membership of the UK Parliament.

I'm told an amendment will be offered on Friday, during report stage, turning round the current wording of the bill, so that instead of the Lords having to decide to ignore a verdict reached abroad, they would have to decide whether they wanted to take notice in the first place.

The second issue, raised by constitutional savant Meg Russell, is whether the bill should include a "cooling off period" during which peers who retire from the Lords would not be permitted to run for election as an MP.

She argues that it would be damaging if a peerage became a springboard to a Commons career.

Others don't regard this as a particular danger when most of the movement between houses happens when (elected) MPs become (appointed) peers.

"Why on earth would they want to go back," asked one supporter of the bill.

So, if the Byles Bill is not derailed by these issues in the Commons, and passes its report and third reading stages, its next obstacle is the House of Lords.

They have debated and voted through earlier versions of the Steel Bill, but they would need to approve this version in its precise form, in order for the bill to become law.

That requires the House to find the debating time - and, unlike the Commons, they don't have to schedule a Friday sitting to do so.

If the parliamentary session drags on into late May, there should be little difficulty in finding a couple of afternoons; business in the Lords seems to meandering along at an amiable pace at the moment.

As with Lord Dobbs' EU Referendum Bill, any amendment would kill the Byles Bill, because the Commons would not have time to consider the changes.

The difference is that this bill seems to have cross party support and no-one wants to wreck it.

And it's amazing how a bill can be wafted into law, when everyone's on side.

But if you hear a strange grinding sound in the background, during the debate, it might come from the teeth of Lord Dobbs.

Update 27 February: An e-mail arrives from Lord Steel pointing out that his original bill did not seek to exclude hereditary peers, but to end the by-elections held to replace them when they died - thus allowing the hereditary element to, as he delicately puts it, wither away.

He's right, of course, but in any event, that section of the bill was dropped long ago.