The House of Commons is currently debating the government’s Lords reform proposals. A two-day debate will culminate in two big votes tomorrow evening. We held our first ever liveblog during the principal speeches in the first few hours of today’s debate. You’ll find the complete text of what was said below. All being well, we’ll be back for the summing up speeches tomorrow night.
Commons Debate on Lords Reform
Coming here very soon – our very first liveblog!
In less than an hour’s time, the House of Commons will start its first major debate on the government’s bill to reform the House of Lords. If past debates are anything to go by, the debate will contain some sensible arguments, but also a great deal of nonsense. Drawing on the Political Studies Association Briefing Paper on Lords Reform that I wrote last year, as well as more recent research, I’ll be offering commentary on the major speeches as they are made.
It’s not my wish to argue for one side or the other (though I’m not going to make a secret of the fact that I think the pro-reform case is much stronger than the case for the status quo). Rather, my goal is to make some small contribution to improving the level of debate on this important issue. We need a debate based on evidence and clear logic, not the baseless hyperbole that many politicians seem to think is all we deserve.
What’s at Stake?
Before the Commons debate gets going, let’s refresh our memories on what is actually at stake here. Much of the media coverage concentrates on the political game: the tensions within the Lib Dems and Conservatives and the divisions within all three main parties. All of that is certainly important. But the substance of the issue in hand matters too. Should the Lords be reformed at all? If so, what form should the reforms take?
At present, the House of Lords has 765 members. If you include those who are disqualified or on leave of absence, that rises to 802 – hence ministers’ claim that the House now has ‘over 800′ members. Most of these are appointed, though there are still 92 hereditary peers and 26 bishops. The appointees are mostly party representatives: overall, close to three quarters of the members of the House take a party whip. They are chosen by the Prime Minister, though the PM consults with the other party leaders about who should be their party representatives. In addition, almost a quarter of the members are ‘crossbenchers’, or independents. These days they are chosen by an Appointments Commission, which seeks people of distinction who will represent the diversity of the country.
The proposals would cut the membership of the House of Lords, though not quite to 450, as is often said. There would eventually be 360 elected members, 90 appointed crossbenchers, 12 bishops, and an undefined number of ‘ministerial members’, whom Prime Ministers could appoint to serve in government.
The main questions of debate are the following:
- How far would the reforms strengthen democracy – if at all? Reformers say it’s self-evident that electing most of the chamber would make it more democratic than now. Some do, however, have qualms about the retention of an appointed element. Furthermore, the use of fifteen-year non-renewable terms means that, once elected, members will not be accountable to the electorate – and that accountability is intrinsic to democracy. On the other hand, defenders of the government’s line suggest that the public want members of the second chamber who are independent-minded and willing to say what they really think – and that freedom from the need to seek re-election might aid this. In other words, they suggest that what looks like a less democratic system might actually produce a chamber that is closer to what people want. Opponents of reform, meanwhile, suggest that having two elected chambers rather than just one will muddy the waters and make it hard for voters to control what actually happens in the corridors of power.
- Would the reforms destroy the primacy of the House of Commons? Opponents of reform often say they would, but I will be interested during the debate to see if they come up with any convincing arguments for believing this – I haven’t come across any such arguments yet. The reforms would almost certainly make the second chamber more powerful than it is at present, but lots of constraints will remain. We might well come back to this point soon….
- Would the reforms harm the expertise currently found in the House of Lords? It should first be said that the current House of Lords isn’t as driven by impartial expertise as it likes to claim. Most of its members, as we have seen, are partisan appointees and levels of partisan voting are almost as high as in the House of Commons. Still, the crossbenchers provide an element that is missing from the Commons – and, indeed, from every other legislative chamber on the planet. The government proposes that 20% of the members should continue to be appointed by the Appointments Commission, so it would seem that this element will survive. Nevertheless, there are important questions to be asked about whether the crossbenchers would continue to contribute to the reformed chamber as effectively as they do at present.
So these are some of the important issues that the debate will hopefully shed light on. Let’s see whether it really does.
Just the UK and Lesotho?
Nick Clegg’s has said in his opening words during the Lords Reform debate that the UK shares only with Lesotho the distinction of having a second chamber composed through heredity and patronage.
He is correct on heredity. But there are other appointed second chambers. The most notable is in Canada, but there are also eight others in democratic countries around the Caribbean. Not that the Canadian Senate is particularly popular….
Nick Clegg has put three arguments for Lords reform: democracy, effectiveness, and practicality. I talked a bit about the democracy and effectiveness points previously. On this issue, see the excellent work of the Constitution Unit in their report from last year, House Full.
A Concession from Nick Clegg
A question from Conservative backbencher Rory Stewart has elicited the first concession of the day from Nick Clegg. He will, he said, be willing to consider inserting an extra element into the Bill, such that after the first tranche of elections to the reformed chamber, a further vote would take place on whether the reform should be completed. Interesting to see if that one goes anywhere.
Caroline Lucas has just asked whether Nick Clegg would add an extra three days to the debate allowed under the government’s programme motion. Nick Clegg did not say no.
Summing Up Nick Clegg’s Speech
Opening the debate on Lords Reform, Nick Clegg put forward three arguments for reform: first, to promote democracy; second, to promote effective scrutiny of government; and third, to relieve the practical problem that the Lords is getting larger and larger and becoming unsustainable. He also addressed two principal fears held by those worried by the reforms: that they would end Commons primacy and deprive the second chamber of its current expertise.
I didn’t detect any significant over-claiming. As I argued a few posts ago, there is a self-evident argument for saying that the government’s proposals would promote democracy. There are also questions and doubts, of course, but the core argument is indisputable.
On effectiveness, clear evidence is harder to come by: quite what impact election would have on the behaviour of the House can’t be known in advance. Nevertheless, we know that the House of Lords has become a little more assertive since the reforms of 1999, so it seems reasonable to suppose it would become more assertive again.
That leads, of course, to the fear that it would become too assertive and destroy the primacy of the Commons. Nick Clegg was right to say that it is possible to combine election of two chambers with primacy of one. Poland and the Czech Republic both have elected second chambers that are much weaker than even the present House of Lords. Most saliently, Australia has an elected Senate that is assertive and sometimes causes the government trouble, but that accepts that it is a revising rather than a governing chamber. Something akin to the Salisbury Convention, under which the House of Lords does not block government business that was contained in the governing party’s manifesto at the last election, is written into the Australian equivalent of Erskine May. Nick Clegg was also right to list a number of constraints on the legitimacy of the reformed Lords, including the fact that it would retain an appointed element. He could also have mentioned the staggering of elections – which will mean that the Commons always has a fresher mandate – and the use of non-renewable terms – which will dissuade those who want a career at the top of politics from running for election to the Lords.
I’ll try to post on the issue of expertise in a while….
So far, the debate has mostly been free of nonsense. But several silly things have been said about electoral systems. In particular, several people have claimed that, voters having rejected ‘proportional representation’ in last year’s referendum, it is indefensible to introduce it in the House of Lords.
First, voters did not reject ‘proportional representation’ in the referendum last year. The referendum was a choice between First Past the Post and the Alternative Vote. Neither of those has anything to do with proportional representation.
Second, even if voters had rejected proportional representation for the House of Commons, that would not mean anything about their views on elections to the House of Lords. If a country has a bicameral legislature, it makes sense that the two chambers should be composed differently: otherwise, they merely duplicate each other. There are perfectly good arguments for having a lower house elected by First Past the Post and a second chamber elected by a form of proportional representation.
A different point on voting systems: Sadiq Khan, leading for the Labour Party, has repeatedly said that the Joint Committee did not consider the possibility of an open list system. Well they certainly asked me about it when I presented evidence!
A Conservative backbencher – sorry, I didn’t spot who it was – has just drawn attention to the ‘ministerial members’ who would be included in the reformed House of Lords. As he said, the provision for these allows the prime minister of the day to appoint as many people as he or she wishes to the chamber (though only eight can be in government at any one time). As he also said, this has changed since the draft Bill: originally, these members would have remained members only for so long as they were ministers; now they will remain members for fifteen years, even if they are ministers only for a day.
Nick Clegg did not mention this aspect of the Bill in his speech, and it is difficult to see how it can be justified on the criteria that the Deputy Prime Minister used to justify the reforms as a whole.
Summing Up Sadiq Khan’s Speech
Sadiq Khan has just opened the debate on the Labour side. The substance of his speech focused not so much on the content of the reform itself, but on the process by which the reform occurs. In line with Labour policy, he argued that there should be a referendum before reform occurs. He also argued that time is required for the debate and that there therefore should be no programme motion – that is, no fixed timetable setting out how long each stage of the debate should take.
The questions he was asked were more interesting than the speech. Liberal Democrats repeatedly asked him how much time he would like: clearly, there is appetite for compromise on the programme motion, such that more time is allowed. Graham Allen, chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, indicated that there is dissatisfaction on the Labour side as well: he suggested that people outside Parliament would see an inconsistency in claiming to support reform while appearing not to want to compromise on the procedure in order to get it through.
It will be interesting to see if any Labour MPs defy the party whip in the vote on the programme motion tomorrow night.
Legitimacy and Lists
Opponents of reform are treading a tricky tightrope, as Michael Rikfind has just demonstrated in his contribution to the Commons debate. On the one hand, Rifkind argued that an elected second chamber will necessarily challenge the primacy of the Commons. On the other hand, he argued that members of a second chamber elected on a list system would have no legitimacy with the public.
So far as I can see, the only argument for the first of these points is that election would give the second chamber legitimacy equal to that of the first. But that can’t be true if the list system would confer no legitimacy.
Lists and Patronage
Margaret Becket has continued the theme of talking about the electoral system. She notes that Nick Clegg argues against the current House of Lords on the basis that it is a chamber of patronage. She points out that a list system is a system of patronage, so the reform just replaces one form of patronage with another.
This surely misses two points. First, putting a list before the people for approval must matter for something: it’s not the same thing as appointing people without any kind of democratic check.
Second, the proposed list system is a ‘semi-open’ list system. It is not an ‘open’ list system, as government ministers have said: that would be a system that allowed voters and voters alone to determine the order in which the candidates on a party’s list were elected. Rather, it is a semi-open list system: both parties and voters will have some influence on the order of election. This puts a real constraint on parties’ ability to secure the election of unpopular individuals.
Just how strong that constraint will be is difficult to predict: it depends on how many voters choose to use their right to vote for individual candidates. The government originally proposed a Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system, which would have created a stronger constraint. But it is a meaningful constraint all the same.
Conservative MP Eleanor Laing has focused attention on the question of Commons primacy. She asserts that election of the second chamber will inevitably lead it to challenge the primacy of the Commons.
As I said earlier, that just doesn’t follow. The Polish and Czech upper houses are elected but much weaker even than the current House of Lords: their votes can be overturned by the lower house without meaningful delay. The Australian Senate is more powerful than that – indeed, more powerful than the current House of Lords. But it does not challenge the primacy of the Australian House of Representatives. Something close to the Salisbury Convention is enshrined in its equivalent of Erskine May, the ‘parliamentary bible’ that sets out every detail of parliamentary procedure. It is widely referred to in the scholarly literature as a ‘revising chamber’ to distinguish it from the ‘governing’ lower house. It passes most legislation without any amendment at all.
I said earlier that I looked forward to hearing a solid argument for the claim that the reforms would challenge the primacy of the Commons. Such an argument hasn’t been made yet.
Three MPs – Labour’s Peter Hain and Mike Gapes and the Conservative Oliver Heald – have just argued that the second chamber should be elected indirectly – what Peter Hain calls a ‘secondary mandate’. It means that the second chamber would be chosen by people who are themselves elected – by local councillors, for examples, or members of regional assemblies.
This is an option that hasn’t been discussed much in the UK, but it’s actually quite common elsewhere. Germany’s Bundesrat contains delegates of the regional governments. Austria, India, Namibia, and the Netherlands all have second chambers elected by provincial parliaments. France’s Senate is elected by local, departmental, and regional councillors and by members of the National Assembly. South Africa’s National Council of Provinces contains representatives of both provincial legislatures and provincial executives.
Advocates of this approach argue that it would ensure the primacy of the Commons. Some also like the idea of giving a voice for subnational government at the national level. It would most obviously become workable in the UK if there were regional government in all parts of the country. Without that, it would need to involve local councillors.
The difficulty with this is that councillors in England and Wales – though not in Scotland or Northern Ireland – are elected through a highly disproportional system. Most people agree that the House of Lords should be elected by some kind of proportional system in order to ensure no party has a majority. Indirect election by people elected by First Past the Post (and often the even less proportional First Two, Three or Four Past the Post) would not do this.
The debate is starting to get a bit repetitive, so I’ll stop updating now. We have seen a great deal of opposition to the government’s proposals on the Conservative benches. Labour speakers have been much more divided on the substance, though they have stuck solidly to their party’s opposition to the programme motion. Perhaps the government’s supporters are just keeping quiet. If not, it is difficult to see how they can win the programme motion tomorrow evening, without which they will struggle to pass the reform.