Lords Reform update – Spring 2009

If the pace of reform of the Lords had quickened as much as the need has intensified, I would by now be out of a job.  We would have elected Senators.  Their pay and expenses would be transparent, and the codes of conduct to which they were expected to adhere would be clear, firm and enforceable.  Crooks would be out.  Sanctions would be in.

Alas, the Government’s White Paper (Cmd 7438 – July 2008) – though strikingly good in content – is a paper whose future is likely to be celebrated more in the breach than in the observance.  We do face an extraordinary situation:  A government with no apparent agenda at all, scrabbling away to fill its remaining legislative years on what seems to be an inexorable path to defeat.  The Bills this year are dire:  we have a Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill that is there to dictate to Councils the way in which they should handle petitions, and to set up new quangos.  We have a Political Parties and Elections Bill, originally sold as an opportunity to increase transparency of party funding, and take the big money out of politics.  In fact it reduces transparency and leaves big money firmly where it is, at the heart of our political system.

So why not scrap all this time-wasting, and get on with the one thing that remains a popular government policy, in the service of a noble, democratic principle?  Gordon Brown still just about has time to leave office having reformed our Parliament beyond recognition, and in a democratic direction that neither the Tories nor anyone else would ever dare reverse.

The reality is a more depressing one.  Despite four separate promises Ministers have made to me in the House of Lords to publish draft clauses of a Bill that could bring reform of the Lords to fruition, they remain undrafted, or gathering dust on civil servants’ shelves.  Later in April I will be pressing for a progress report.

The Government is firmly of the view that it needs another mandate to implement its policy, even though it has already fought three elections on a promise of reform.  Indeed, the House of Lords Act 1999 was passed on the express understanding that it was the first of two stages – one to move beyond the anachronism of the hereditary peerage, and a further stage to move firmly into the twenty-first century, with real elections and real representatives in the second chamber.  After three terms of Labour Government – all sustained by parliamentary majorities in the Commons of which other governments through history would have dreamed – they have failed to deliver.

In frustration at the slow progress, my colleague and former Party Leader, Lord Steel, has introduced a Bill of his own.  It is certainly not a bad Bill, since it introduces some sensible – if modest – changes that have been stuck on the starting blocks because Ministers are so reluctant to fire the starting pistol for wholesale reform.  It would remove entirely the right of the Prime Minister to appoint new Peers, commuting that power to an independent commission.  It would exclude the hereditary peers (about time too).  And, crucially, it would allow people to leave the House, to retire in peace and make way for new blood.

However, this Bill puts ‘real reformers’ in a real dilemma.  On the one hand, these small changes simply aren’t enough; they don’t represent the real leap that our democracy needs.  On the other, it is a common folly of progressives to let the best set up permanent shop as rival to the good.  So I and many others have softened our position, and if Lord Steel’s Bill gets any further through the House of Lords, we will approach it constructively for the valuable changes it can make.  But we must be certain that his Bill is a stepping stone to the fundamental changes we seek, not an island from which Ministers can excuse the persistence of patronage and privilege in our political system.

In the past week, I have made my own attempt to introduce Private Members’ legislation in the Lords.  Since I have worked closely with Jack Straw’s cross-party group to produce the Government White Paper, and I introduced my own House of Lords Reform Bill in the House of Commons before I stood down in 2005, I have mostly kept away from Lords reform in this initiative.  My Constitutional Renewal Bill is designed to build on the draft published by the Government and it makes wide-ranging, radical changes to restore civil liberties and rebuild confidence in the political system. 

The only section concerned with the House of Lords is that on dealing with people who have been convicted of criminal offences.  Here I share some ground with Lord Steel’s House of Lords Bill, in that it is clearly time to extend the same sanctions to convicts in the Lords as apply to those in the Commons.  Similarly, the ongoing lack of accountability to the electorate in the House of Lords makes it all the more necessary to have clear rules of conduct, which – if broken – could lead to exclusion from the House.  You can read the full Bill here, or – for the weaker willed – just the explanatory notes here.

Some people say now is not the time to worry about the British Constitution.  It is the British economy – indeed the global financial system – with which we should all be concerned.  And of course we are.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that unresponsive political systems have nothing to do with undemocratic economies.  The vast gulfs of wealth in our country are a direct product of the vast gulfs of power in our democratic system.  Elections bought by political parties, influence sold to donors, places in Parliament for friends not foes, and a parliamentary system that militates towards arrogant majority government – these are all big factors in our present predicament.

If anyone had listened to Vince Cable ten years ago when he was first warning of this crisis, mightn’t we be in a better position today?  And he wasn’t ignored because people thought he was wrong but because Labour Ministers only listen to the people in their own gang.  They – just like their Conservative predecessors – tend to surround themselves with advice that confirms their prejudices instead of challenging them, and they make decisions to attract headlines to win marginal constituencies today, rather than to sow prosperity everywhere for tomorrow.

Lords reform is just one part of a fundamental set of changes we will need to make to Parliament and to our political system if we are to learn the lessons that recent history has taught.  Yet oddly it’s probably the easiest to get on with right now, to create a new chamber of Parliament with the people’s mandate to check and challenge excessive Executive power.  Far from being an irrelevance for another, more prosperous day, it could not be a more germane step on the road that will get us there.

Paul Tyler
April 2009

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