House of Lords reform: is that it, then?

“Now is the time for action,” said Nick Clegg.
Image reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.

Less than two months ago, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, said:

The coalition stands on the brink of an historic achievement.  After more than a hundred years of debates, cross-party talks, Green Papers, White Papers, Command Papers and a Royal Commission, we are finally introducing a Bill to create a democratic and legitimate House of Lords.

It cannot be right that ordinary, hardworking people are expected to obey laws that are created by people appointed entirely by birth or patronage, who have a generous pay packet and a job for life. The time for idle talk is finished. Now is the time for action.

As is by now well-known, the Government has stepped back from the brink of that “historic achievement”. On 6 August, Clegg announced—no doubt at the cost of immense personal embarrassment, given that Lords reform was, for the Liberal Democrats, a centerpiece of the coalition programme—that the Government did “not intend to proceed with the Bill in this parliament”.

Of course, for many people House of Lords reform is a matter of no perceived importance or practical relevance whatever—a point perhaps implicitly acknowledged by Clegg, when he said that the coalition would now focus on measures to stimulate economic growth and promote social mobility.

For those who do have a view about Lords reform, however, it tends to be a highly divisive issue. Clegg’s stance, as is clear from the statement quoted above, is one of high-minded principle. As a true “democrat”, he simply cannot stomach the thought of a legislative chamber populated by unelected—and therefore, on his analysis, illegitimate—members. I have already explained, in an earlier post and in this video, why I think that that analysis is flawed: the fact that the members of a second chamber are not elected does not necessarily deprive such a chamber of legitimacy. My own view, therefore, is that the decision to ditch the House of Lords Reform Bill is to be welcomed.

But it is important to remember that, like most issues that come before Parliament, the fate of the Bill was determined as much by political circumstances as by reasoned argument. It certainly does not follow that House of Lords reform is off the agenda. Indeed, it is very likely that each of the main parties will commit to some sort of reform in their manifestoes for the next general election. However, given evident Conservative unease about the sort of far-reaching reform that the Lib Dems were pressing for, the question becomes whether reform—when, or if, it happens—will be more limited.

Lord Steel
Image reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.

A possible model for more modest reform can already be found in the sensible proposals—eg to remove the remaining hereditary peers and control the size of the Lords—put forward over a number of years by Lord Steel, a former leader of the (then) Liberal Party. This House of Lords Library Note explains Steel’s thinking, while his latest attempt at reform is the House of Lords (Cessation of Membership) Bill, a Private Member’s Bill that is presently before Parliament. Given the apparent political impossibility of far-reaching reform of the House of Lords, it is high time that more limited, but badly needed, changes such as those favoured by Steel were implemented, at least as a stop-gap measure.

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