Thursday, December 22, 2011

What exactly will the "reformed" House of Lords be doing?

For some time we have known that in the new session, which, outrageously, will not open till the spring of 2012, there will be a Bill to reform the House of Lords. Those people who were so outraged by Nick Clegg's recent idiotic pronouncements about the present Chamber being an affront to democracy will do well to bear in mind that on this issue (as on so many others) he and the Prime Minister are at one. In fact, they are at one with the previous two Prime Ministers.

The need to "reform" the House of Lords is not immediately obvious and was not so even in 1997 when Tony Blair decided to use that and the ban on hunting as a sop to this disgruntled left-wingers. (Much good did it do him.) The Upper House does its business considerably better than the Lower one and, though its members are paid merely expenses when they sit in the Chamber, they spend a great deal more time and energy on their work as legislators and revisers of legislation than our highly paid Commons. I have written about this too often to be able to link to any specific post but as the Bill starts making its way through Parliament (and, maybe, even before) I shall return to the subject.

How people get there is, after all, less important than what they do when they are there. After all, our real government is in Brussels, in any case, and that is not about to change.

The real reason for the proposed reform is the need felt by this and previous governments and by the political parties to control the Chamber that is likely to oppose and revise whatever legislation they try to bulldoze through. It has been hinted that the reason Mr Cameron has appointed more peers than even Mr Blair did in his first year was to ensure that there was a large cohort of people grateful to him for when the "reform" is to be pushed through. That may be a miscalculation. For the time being, even appointed peers are not dependent on those who had appointed them and may well vote according to their consciences. They may even turn up for the debates, something many of Blair's appointees did not once they realized that a great deal of work and very little pay were involved.

That this "reform" will not be any better thought through than the previous one was, is indicated by the response given to Lord Kakkar's Starred Question on Wednesday.
To ask Her Majesty's Government why the draft Bill on House of Lords Reform makes no provision for defining the powers of an elected second chamber.
A fair question. After all, once the make-up of the House of Lords changes, its role and duties will change, too. The notion that the Upper Chamber is secondary to the Lower rests entirely on the assumption that the former is unelected. That will, logically, change once they are both elected and we have something resembling a Senate. Also, the elected members will expect to be paid and paid as handsomely as their colleagues are in the Lower House. In other words, everything will be different. Lord Strathclyde (for it is he, again) does not think so. At least, the people who wrote his reply do not think so.
My Lords, the draft House of Lords Reform Bill specifically provides that nothing in the provisions affects the status, powers or jurisdiction of either House of Parliament. We therefore do not believe that it is necessary to define the powers of this House in primary legislation.
The rest of the short debate, which is well worth reading, consists of peers attempting to point out to the noble Minister that the provisions of the Parliament Act applied to one elected and one unelected Chamber and, therefore, cannot apply in the same way to two elected ones, with the said Minister refusing to acknowledge that black is black and white is white. I quite liked Lord Howe of Aberavon's contribution (yes, yes, Geoffrey Howe):
My Lords, is it not possible that including such provisions in the Bill would make lucid and clear the increased risk of conflict between the two Houses and the disastrous consequences of the creation of a new structure? Will my noble friend tell the House whether that is the explanation, and is it the consequence of idle carelessness or deliberate deceit?
Dear me, what a suspicious nature some people have.


  1. Huzzah, Dr Szamuely! Perhaps I may be so bold as to offer a link of my own in defence of the appointed House of Lords, from the perspective of public choice theory.

    I will add in passing that, like many others, I have no qualms with hereditary peers but did not raise it in my essay as the likelihood of their restoration bears as much chance as a Stuart restoration — though may one hope at Christmas? Fortunately, Lord Steel of Aikwood’s House of Lords bill does offer the possibility of hereditaries being selected by an appointments commission, so there is some promise of retaining the best elements of the past.

    Second, although public choice is often taken to be quite critical of the State and of politicians and bureaucrats — Tullock is sympathetic, while Seldon very much less so — I remain a Tory in my belief that the Government can be a beneficial force. But public choice offers many good reasons why <u>two</u> elected chambers is a very bad option indeed.

  2. Thanks, Stephen. I shall be using all the available material, your article as well.

  3. Any justification for reforming the House of Lords is based on the fact that it is not democratically elected. However, existing politicians gain their power from the supremacy of the House of Commons, and have spend centuries weakening and destroying any other power bases. They will not do anything that weakens the powers of the House of Commons. Making the House of Lord's democratically elected will increase its legitimacy and hence its power. Therefore, it will not happen. Labour gave us a muddle. If anything changes now, we will get another muddle, likely also intended to reduce scrutiny of bills and increase the speed at which they are passed. (Whether it will succeed in this is another matter).

    In Australia, the upper house (the senate) is elected, and as a consequence there was never much justification for anything like the Parliament Act, so the Australian senate has essentially the powers that the House of Lords had in 1901. The two houses have equal powers, except that the senate can only reject but not amend money bills, which must be initiated in the lower house. All other bills can originate or be amended by either house. By convention, the government is formed of the party that has the confidence of the lower house, but being the government doesn't actually give you the ability to get any legislation passed if the senate won't vote for it.

    Governments hate this, of course. Under the voting systems in play, governments almost never control both houses, and need to scramble for votes from minor parties and independents, and (horrors) have to have their bills scrutinised by senate committees. Since the senate became its present size in 1984, there has only been one two year period (2005 to 2007) when a single party has held a majority in both houses. At the start of this, John Howard used his senate majority to gut the powers of senate committees, and then got into trouble shortly afterwards after enacting poorly drafted legislation that backfired on him. The powers of the senate committees were then restored in 2008.

    No British government would ever dream of enacting anything like this though.

  4. Michael, thank you for that explanation. I must confess that my knowledge of the Australian system is very inadequate so I welcome this. What the government here is trying to do is to have their cake and to eat it: change the way the House of Lords is filled but not to change its powers and position. That cannot be achieved.