We live-blogged again for the second day of the Commons debate on Lords reform today, covering the opening and closing speeches for the government and the opposition. Here is the full text.
Day 2 Begins
The second day of the Commons debate on the government’s proposals for reforming the House of Lords will begin shortly. We’ll be blogging on the opening and closing speeches today. As yesterday, the goal is to see whether the claims that are made can be justified with evidence and clear reasoning.
Sir George Young
The main headline of the day is that the government has withdrawn its programme motion – at least for now. The implications of this are for parliament-watchers to debate, not for those of us who look at the arguments for or against the reforms in itself. So I won’t comment on it here.
In the rest of his speech, Sir George Young didn’t offer many arguments on the content in itself: he talked a lot about the history of the Lords reform debate over recent years. This is interesting and shows Sir George’s well known desire to bring people along with them and show how his position fits with broader patterns of thought. But this doesn’t do much to help us decide what we should think: it doesn’t address the merits or otherwise of the current specific proposals.
He did, however, discuss in some detail the question of whether the reforms would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. Like Nick Clegg, he presented a long list of factors weakening the democratic legitimacy of the Lords compared to the Commons: staggered terms, absense of re-election, the fact that the Commons will remain the chamber that sustains the government. These are all justified points. He also pointed out that the Parliament Acts will survive: again, a valid point.
So there wasn’t much concrete content here, but what there was was all entirely reasonable.
Angela Eagle has opened the second day of the debate for the Labour Party. Her focus was initially largely on the need for scrutiny and the desirability of a referendum. I began to worry that, like Sadiq Khan’s speech yesterday, this would be one that never properly addressed the substance of the issue. But actually she then went on to say quite a few interesting and reflective things.
First she talked about Commons primacy. She argued that the issue of the relative powers of the two chambers ”has to be effectively dealt with in the primacy legislation”. She is right to suggest that this is an important issue: it probably is not wise to leave the future of the Salisbury Convention to unplanned evolution. Experience from the Australian Senate suggests that primary legislation might not, however, be needed: the Australian Senate’s equivalent of Erskine May, called Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, sets out the basic principle of the Salisbury Convention without resort to primary legislation. It says that, in deciding how far to push its powers, the Senate should take account (inter alia) of:
Whether the matter in dispute is a question of principle for which the government may claim electoral approval. The Senate is unlikely to resist legislation in respect of which a government can truly claim explicit electoral endorsement, but the test is always likely to be the public interest. (p. 13)
A resolution of both Houses affirming something similar to this might be preferable to its inclusion in primary legislation – not least because it would ensure that dispute between the chambers do not end up in the courts for resolution.
Second, she criticized the length of the proposed terms (fifteen years) and the fact that those terms will be non-renewable, which denies accountability. She was right to argue that there are significant disadvantages in both of these elements. No other democratic chamber in the world has terms anything like as long as fifteen years and very few have non-renewable terms. There are, however, also arguments for the government’s proposals: long, non-renewable terms can be expected to free members of the Lords from the need to kowtow to the whips or to short-term whims of an inattentive public. A balance needs to be struck. In my evidence to the Joint Committee, I suggested that mechanisms for removing early members who do not attend regularly would move some way towards greater balance. Other creative solutions might be put forward too.
Third, she briefly questioned the proposed electoral system. This was curious, as the Labour Party is the only party to have proposed in the past something close to the semi-open list system that the government’s Bill contains. It would be interesting to know what the objections are. There are certainly elements in the government’s specific proposals that can be questioned: the big differences in the sizes of different constituencies could usefully be reduced by dividing the largest in two; the lists might be made more open so that voters have more control; voters might be allowed to express more than one preference for a single candidate. But Angela Eagle did not provide such detail.
Fourth, she argued that the reformed chamber should be wholly elected. This is in line with Labour’s manifesto at the last election and is the most obvious democratic choice. On the other hand, it would almost certainly mean that the vast majority of the current crossbenchers would be removed. Voters say in surveys that they value the presence of the crossbenchers. So, again, there are good arguments on both sides that need to be weighed.
All in all, then, this was a thoughtful and worth while contribution, raising genuine issues that the government ought to be required to answer. I hope we will see more of this serious discussion and less of the petty point scoring that has been all too prevalent.
On a more minor note, Angela Eagle also made the notable claim that Labour “has been responsible for all the major reforms to the House of Lords over the last hundred years”. Surely not. The introduction of life peers in 1958 was hugely important: over time, it transformed a largely hereditary chamber into a largely appointed one. It was introduced by the Conservative government of Harold MacMillan. So too was the reform of 1963, which allowed women hereditary peers to enter the House of Lords for the first time and allowed members of the Lords – such as Tony Benn and Quentin Hogg – to renounce their peerages.
These episodes suggest that the Conservative Party has in the past been a major supporter of Lords reform, and Sir George Young tried to build on that theme in his speech to support his argument that Lords reform is a strongly Conservative policy. It should be said, however, that without some kind of reform, the hereditary House of Lords of the 1950s was moribund. These reforms were, in part, reforms designed to protect the essence of the status quo.
We should also note that, as recently as 1983, the Labour Party advocated not the reform of the House of Lords, but its abolition. Given the UK’s highly centralized system of government and strong political parties and given the fact that the First Past the Post electoral system produces single-party governments after most elections, this would have allowed government’s to do almost what they liked, without any formal check.
So neither of the main parties should claim to highly when it comes to their own past records on the Lords reform issue.
Liveblog will be back for the closing speeches in the debate, some time after 9pm this evening.
We are back again for the summing up speeches on both sides. First is Wayne David, for the Opposition.
He began by concentrating on the primacy of the Commons, arguing it is self-evident that an elected second chamber would challenge that primacy. Nevertheless, given that he wants a fully elected chamber and believes in Commons primacy, he presumably accepts that primacy can be maintained if suitable provisions are in place. He didn’t say anything about what these might be.
The experience of Australia, which I mentioned earlier, suggests that the election of two chambers can indeed be combined with the primacy of one without the need for specific legislation. Nevertheless, it would be sensible to write down something akin to the Salisbury Convention in some form – ideally through a resolution of both Houses. It seems likely that a concession on this point will come.
Like Angela Eagle, he then expressed concern over aspects of the electoral system without offering detail on what these might be. It seems likely that the government will be willing to compromise in some ways here too, but we will need to await the detail of the issues that Labour wants to push on.
Third, he criticized the fifteen-year terms, pointing out – like many previous speakers – that these prevent accountability.
And finally, he argued for a referendum.
All these are genuine points where real debate is merited. Hopefully the Labour Party will genuinely seek good resolutions on these issues and not just play politics with them.
Finally Mark Harper has wound up for the Government.
He began by pointing to strong public support in the polls for Lords reform. This is fair enough, though it should also be said that voters barely think about this issue. Lords reform is the sort of thing that sounds nice when a pollster asks you a question about it, but that doesn’t mean you will support it after a lengthy referendum campaign.
He argued that Lord Steel’s alternative reform proposals are too weak to achieve even what they are supposed to achieve (never mind any of the government’s other intentions). Again, this is fair enough.
He said there would be a debate about a referendum at committee. It’s not clear whether he was hinting at something here or not.
He urged support for the proposals.
But otherwise he kept to rather general points.
MPs having now headed off to vote on the second reading of the Bill, it’s time for a few closing remarks.
Much of the debate has been depressing. There has been a lot of political point-scoring that has shed no light on the important issues and can only contribute to public disillusionment with the quality of our politicians. There has also be a fair bit of nonsense. Many speakers have assumed that the election of two chambers is incompatible with the primacy of one, apparently in complete ignorance of all the evidence to the contrary. Some have simultaneously maintained that members of the second chamber elected from lists will lack democratic legitimacy and that an elected second chamber will have the legitimacy to rival the first chamber, even though these positions appear to conflict. Some have conflated the Alternative Vote electoral system, the government’s proposed semi-open list PR system, and the closed-list system used for European Parliament elections, as though anything that is not First Past the Post can be denigrated as something evil called ’PR’ .
But there has also been some good discussion. The four government ministers all made solid contributions, avoiding outlandish claims and making many sensible points. After a poor start with Sadiq Khan, who said very little on the substance of the Bill, Labour’s two spokesmen today also offered good arguments. As my previous comments, particularly on Angela Eagle’s speech, suggest, they raised points that genuinely deserve to be interrogated in the government’s proposals: points where there are good reasons for what the government has put forward, but also good reasons to take a different view.
This generates some hope that when we return to this issue in the autum, a meaningful discussion will occur, Labour will work genuinely to strengthen the Bill, not just play politics with it, and progress can thereby be made. This, at least, is what we can hope for. The current composition of the House of Lords is indefensible, almost wholly dependent as it is either on heredity or on the patronage and whim of the prime minister and other party leaders. It would be a great shame if point-scoring and self-interest among politicians prevented yet again the adoption of something better.