The new year will present lots of challenges, not least for government. The main challenge wil remain the economy. However, for Parliament there is a challenge – somewhat parochial but of great constitutional importance – and that is the attempt to replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber. This is usually referred to, not least by the Goverment, as reform of the Lords whereas it is more accurately described as abolition.
The Coalition is seeking to introduce a Bill to achieve this goal. The Coalition Agreement stated the intention to introduce a draft Bill (although it referred to as a draft motion, reflecting the haste in which the agreement was constructed) by the end of 2010. That timetable has slipped. The latest estimate is that it will be published in the Spring. It is then expected to be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of the two Houses. This, it is accepted, is likely to take some time.
The timetable may well slip further. I suspect that some of the issues still unresolved in the working group – a rather closed body – drawing up the Bill may remain unresolved for some time. It may be that the whole process runs into the sand or rather, in the terminology frequently employed within the Palace, the long grass.
While the long grass is eminently to be preferred over any Bill being brought forward, it is dangerous to assume that the Bill will find its way there. For some of us, vigilance is the keyword. Eight years ago, Sir Patrick (now Lord) Cormack and I formed the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. We favour reform within the House in order to enable it to do a more effective job, but we are opposed to an elected second chamber. The present chamber adds value to the political process. An elected chamber, we contend, would not; indeed, we believe it would be value detracting.
We constitute a cross-party and cross-chamber group and are very active in pressing the case for retaining an appointed chamber. We have been gratified not only by the support we draw from MPs and peers but also the support achieved in recent public debates, be it the Intelligence Squared debate in November or the schools’ debate held in the chamber last month. However, we need to press the case further. It is not that easy, given that the issue is not exactly at the forefront of public consciousness (and no reason at the moment why it should be). One of my tasks during 2011 is going to be to seek to mobilise activity among supporters outside Parliament. When peers make the case for retaining an appointed chamber, they are open – whatever the merits of the argument – to accusations of being self-serving. When the case is made by members of the public it carries more weight. When the argument is explained, people tend to become much more supportive of the existing House. The more we can mobilise supporters in the country, the less enthusiastic the Government will be to pursue a measure that will not be to the benefit of the country.