What the agreement actually says

I return to the subject of what is in the Coalition Agreement.  There has been a lot of talk in recent days about the agreement, not least claims it has been broken, but usually without reference to what it actually says.  Section 24 on ‘Political Reform’ includes a commitment to ‘legislate to make provision for fixed-term Parliaments for five years’, to ‘bring forward a referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies’, and to ‘bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall’. 

Notice a pattern here?  ‘legislate’, ‘a Bill’, ‘early legislation’.  And on the House of Lords? ‘We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.  The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010’.  No reference to the Government bringing forward legislation.  

Now I know some people claim that it is clear or implicit that the Government planned to introduce a Bill in the light of the proposals, but if that was the plan it needed to be spelled out in the same way as other proposals.  On the referendum Bill, for example, it was made explicit: ‘We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the position parties will take during such a referendum’.  In other words, provision was made to anticipate and deal with expected opposition from MPs and peers.  There was no such provision for what was predictable opposition to proposals for an elected second chamber.

The Coalition Agreement is not some ancient document written in an obscure language discernible only by learned scribes who have to tell us mere mortals what it really means.   We communicate through a shared understanding of the meaning of words and, as far as I am aware, the Coalition Agreement is written in English.  The provision on the Lords is clear ‘We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals…’   That commitment has been met.  To employ a quote from Tim Loughton ‘End of’.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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13 Responses to What the agreement actually says

  1. Dean B says:

    I agree.
    In addition, the proposed Lib Dem response (blocking boundary reforms) is not proportionate or intellectually justifiable.
    a) The Conservatives successfully delivered Second Reading of the Lords Reform Bill. The defeat was on the programme motion. Coalition agreements surely do not go as far as to proscribe how parties will vote on every procedural motion to come before the Commons? They commit (or in this case do not commit, as you have pointed out), to delivering votes at Second and Third Readings.
    b) The Conservative payroll vote was delivered, even for the programme motion. The Lib Dems now propose to whip their party to vote against the boundary changes – a totally different thing to a backbench rebellion.
    c) Those Conservatives who voted against the Lords reforms voted with their consciences on the issue before them – even the most enthusiatic advocate of the Bill must agree on that. The Lib Dems now say they will vote against a proposal that only a few months ago they were saying was desirable – a good thing for the country. The mantra “we cannot be expected to do things we don’t like if the Tories aren’t prepared to do the same” does not hold, as the boundary changes were not “something they didn’t like” (as tuition fees and the NHS changes were). Blocking them is purely an act of spite. And if the Lib Dems were being truthful when they said the boundary changes would benefit the country, it follows that they are now doing something damaging to the country, purely to spite their Conservative colleagues.
    d) The Lib Dems say “now that a part of the coalition agreement has been broken, we have to renegotiate.” But where is the renegotiation? They have made their mind up – they are voting against the boundary changes.
    If this is the “new politics” that the Lib Dems have spoken about ever since I can remember, it looks awfully similar to – if not worse than – the old politics they so derided.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dean B: Quite right. On the Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill, ministers voted as required for the Bill under the convention of collective ministerial responsibility, despite some of them being vehemently opposed to it. Unless the PM decides to suspend the convention, then it applies to any government measure laid before the House, including the boundary changes.

      There are, incidentally, some good quotes in favour of equalising constituency sizes – from Nick Clegg. That is, constituency changes as covered in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. The name of the Act suggests a link.

  2. maudie33 says:

    The Lib/Dems were not clever enough to outsmart the Tories because they took the coalition deal at face value. Big mistake. But, the Tories outsmarted the Lib/Dems, that is obvious. Putting up these what the document says is guff. A cover to plead innocence. Who were their lawyers?

    However, what you are missing is, you are leaving Clegg with no alternative other than to hammer you. And that is because there is a, ‘what has he got to lose’ clause, here. That can never be a win/win situation. What the Tories must consider in this little throat squeeze is, if he calls your bluff, what are you willing to lose?

    • Lord Norton says:

      maudie33: What face value?

      • maudie33 says:

        Come on, Lord Norton, Clegg didn’t jump into bed with the Tories without inducement. Why would he do that? What he didn’t do, was what any lady of the night knows must be done up front, and that is payment before they go further. Clegg didnt get paid.

        Now, if you are asking me what the deal was. I wasn’t in the room so I have no idea. However, no one takes a leap the way the Lib/Dems did without having an arrangement for their objectives to be met. At least in part. To do otherwise would be a losing move from the onset. And they couldn’t be that politically ignorant.

      • Dean B says:

        maudie33: You don’t know what payment he got? Have you seen the car he gets driven around in? The house he can use at weekends? Have you seen his title? This is the guy whose party came third in the election – he is the Deputy Prime Minister. He must laugh himself to sleep every night.

      • Lord Norton says:

        maudie33: I fear you have completely missed the point. The claims are made about breaking what was in the published Coalition Agreement. As far as constitutional issues are concerned, the inducement, as you put it, was the referendum on AV. Without that, the coalition negotiations would have stalled.

  3. maudie33 says:

    @Dean B:

    And clearly you are not aware that when it comes down to perks and income both denote emptiness when you are left a disatisfied ego. This is where you mistake the psyche of the man. Men are fulfilled by their achievements and what they have accompllished. The rest of their pay off is secondary

    And, Lord Norton, what was publilshed is not what went on. That is flim flam, or, fancy footwork. What is written is akin to minutes, they are adjusted to suit the taker.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maudie33: You still miss the point. MPs and peers are under no obligation to support private deals. All one can go on is what is in the Coalition Agreement and it is that which the Deputy Prime Minister calls in aid.

  4. Joe C says:

    Obviously the idea of Lords ‘Reform’ is not going to go away. Is there no way to introduce legislation to remove the hereditary peers and provide for retirement in the mean time. It would mean that Mr. Clegg couldn’t argue that its filled by birthright and too big. Another problem I find is, in speaking to Cross-bench peers (especially Stevenson peers), they would like to see that happen but feel that they would be accused of being self seeking in pushing it and so don’t.

    I think we need a campaign to grow to counter the anti-lords campaign otherwise next time round we will have the odd article in Editorials but will be overwhelmed by the ‘elected house’ campaign.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Joe C: I very much agree. This is something that we shall be pursuing. The Government, or rather Mr Clegg, have passed up an opportunity to achieve something positive. We are keen to pursue what in effect is the original Steel Bill (statutory appointments commission – with nominations for peerages made on conspicuous merit; removal of the hereditary by-election; removal of peers who don’t attend or are convicted of serious offences, further provision for retirement), or even a Steel+ Bill. Such a Bill could have been introduced in this session, in place of the House of Lords Reform Bill; it would not require much work in terms of drafting – it is basically already in place – and would be supported in both Houses, without the controversy and conflict that surrounded the Government’s proposals.

  5. Croft says:

    Surely the question to be asked is why Clegg said there is no link between Lords reform and boundaries to the committee here but now says there is?

    Q179 Mrs Laing: I never think it is a waste of time. Therefore, is it the case that the reports that your party’s support for further progress on boundaries legislation is dependent upon progress on House of Lords reform legislation are wrong?

    Nick Clegg: Of course, there is no reliance on our support for a Coalition Agreement commitment for progress on unrelated or other significant parallel constitutional formations. I have said that. There is no link; of course, there is no link.

    However on a separate point I suppose you could argue the coalition agreement does not bind both parties to vote for the proposals the boundary commission produced. Could you tell us when the last time parliament rejected BC proposals?

    The other issue is I suppose the difference between the coalition agreement and what was or was not said. You must have some idea LN if the parties gave a stronger oral promise or linkage in private that was understood to be a commitment even if it was not unequivocally stated in the document??

  6. Alice Stretch says:

    Although your point on the actual wording of the agreement is important, I believe the media would hardly agree. The agreement has been taken out of context/warped so many times that readers of certain papers would believe there was an implication of legislation being brought forward. More people need to be clear on “what the agreement actually says” in order to have a coherent debate on the matter of give/take by the Lib Dem/Conservatives. (so thank you for posting this)

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