The government launched its proposals for reform of the House of Lords two weeks ago. At the time, there were widespread rumours that senior Labour and Conservative peers were gearing up to scupper the plans. A survey of peers reported in The Times this week appears to confirm this: 80 per cent of the peers who responded said they opposed a wholly or largely elected second chamber.
As The Times points out, if peers do indeed choose to oppose the government’s plans, they will be acting counter to the manifestos of all three main parties in last year’s general election. Labour promised “to create a fully elected Second Chamber” (in stages). The Liberal Democrats, similarly, pledged to “replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber”. The Conservatives were only slightly less reformist, saying, “We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords”.
But peers tempted to flex their muscles on this issue should be aware that the consensus across the parties surrounding House of Lords reform runs much deeper than this.
First, there is strong and long-standing agreement on the need for a second chamber. Labour dropped its support for abolishing the House of Lords without replacement after the 1983 election, and proposals for unicameralism were soundly defeated in the Commons in both 2003 and 2007. On this point at least, their Lordships are in line with the general view.
Second, there is also very general agreement on what the second chamber should and should not be for. Cross-party talks held in 1948 concluded that “The Second Chamber should be complementary to and not a rival to the Lower House”, and there has been no dissent from that view since.
The first attempt to come up with a lasting settlement for the second chamber after the supposedly stop-gap reform of the 1911 Parliament Act was the Bryce Conference of 1917–18. This argued that the House of Lords should first be a revising chamber, scrutinizing legislation from the House of Commons. Second, it should be able to initiate legislation on uncontroversial matters to ease the burden on the Commons. Third, it should have the power to delay legislation “in order to enable the opinion of the nation to be adequately expressed upon it”. Finally, it should be a forum for “full and free discussion of large and important questions”.
Subsequent reports have offered very similar wish-lists. The Royal Commission that investigated Lords reform in 1999–2000 under the chairmanship of Lord Wakeham, for example, argued that the second chamber should be a revising chamber that scrutinizes the government’s legislation (paragraph 3.25), that it should “have the formal power to require those who initiate legislation to justify their proposals to the public” (paragraph 3.26), and that it should be a source of wise counsel on important issues (paragraph 3.19). The cross-party Public Administration Select Committee, in its response to the Wakeham Commission’s recommendations concurred that there was broad agreement on these fundamentals (paragraphs 49–50). A cross-party group of senior MPs and peers that sought to “break the deadlock” on Lords reform in 2005 also agreed that “The second chamber should continue to operate as a house of review, scrutiny and deliberation”.
Where there has been disagreement in the past has been over the question of how the House of Lords should be composed. Earlier proposals were for either a wholly appointed chamber (agreed in the 1948 cross-party talks and recommended in a 1968 white paper published by the Wilson government) or a chamber elected indirectly by MPs (advocated by the Bryce Conference). There has been no significant recent support for indirect election. But there has been debate over the degree to which the second chamber should be directly elected or appointed. The Wakeham Commission proposed that a substantial majority of members should be appointed. But reactions to this were mixed. Many, including the Public Administration Select Committee, argued for a chamber in which more than half the members would be elected. Tony Blair, among others, rejected this view and said that the chamber should be fully appointed. These disagreements ended in the farce of February 2003, when, in a series of votes on the second chamber’s composition, the House of Commons voted against every option available.
Yet even this point of disagreement has now largely dissolved. The Commons voted decisively in 2007 for a second chamber that was either 80 or 100 per cent elected. Both Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs produced large majorities for these options. Conservative MPs, as in 2003, voted against all the options, but came closest to supporting an 80 per cent elected chamber. A 1998 white paper – the third on Lords reform during the Blair–Brown years – presumed that no more than 20 per cent of the second chamber would be appointed. Official Conservative support for a “substantially” or “mainly” elected second chamber has been consistent since 2001.
So support for a wholly or largely elected chamber is now solid across the spectrum of elected politicians. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that this is the right option (this is a subject on which I will say more in the coming weeks). But it should nevertheless give peers pause for thought. They should recognize that they have a strong personal interest in believing that an appointed chamber is best. Given that so much opinion is now ranged against them, they should think carefully before presuming that their instincts on this issue are reliable.