Every so often, the issue of reforming the Lords comes to the fore. In recent weeks, we have witnessed calls for reform or even abolition. When I was interviewed for the BBC Week in Parliament programme last week, I made the point that the calls were similar to those that were heard in 1910 and 1911, following the rejection by the Lords in 1909 of Lloyd George’s budget.
Then, as now, the debate did not derive from first principles, based on what role one ascribed to Parliament and the place to be taken by the second chamber. The debate last century was not one either of principle or popular demand. The general public, as Roy Jenkins observed in Mr Balfour’s Poodle, ‘remained as unexcited as it had been throughout the long struggle’. The issue that largely shaped one’s stance on Lords reform was that of Irish home rule. That was the burning issue of the day. The Lords was seen as an impediment to achieving home rule. If one was in favour of home rule, the Lords was an undemocratic barrier to necessary reform. If one opposed home rule, the Lords was an essential constitutional bulwark. It was the issue of home rule that led to the collapse of the constitutional conference convened in 1910 and dominated debate on the Parliament Bill. The avowed aim of the Bill, declared Lord Deerhurst, was ‘the passing of a measure to give Home Rule to Ireland’.
Fast forward to today and we see the debate over Lords reform shaped largely by the stance taken on Brexit. If one is in favour of Brexit, one objects to the role played by the Lords in passing particular amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. If one opposes Brexit, the House is fulfilling its essential role of scrutinising legislation. The stance of the House has created mixed feelings for some politicians who dislike an unelected second chamber, but support its stance on the Bill. There is again no discussion of reform derived from first principles, nor any great obvious popular surge for reform. Those demanding change draw attention to the fact that over 160,000 people have signed a petition calling for abolition of the Lords. For some reason, they do not emphasise the petition signed by over 4.4 million that called for a threshold to be applied to the EU referendum.
The calls for reform, as has tended to be the case over the years, focus on form and not function. People advance their schemes for reform – a House of x number, elected by y method. What someone thinks is an original idea is often one advanced already by a good many others. I get frustrated by the number of times I get proposals for a House chosen indirectly by professional bodies, the proponents believing their idea to be original. The fact that they believe it be original reflects the fact that they have not bothered to do any serious research.
This is one of the most annoying aspects of calls for reform. They derive from no informed study of function or indeed of value. I have previously drawn attention in a post to the problems of valuing the work of the Lords. Critics often look no further than the cost of administration, making no attempt to assess the value of the work of the House. They often focus on the chamber: how many are attending and are they clearly alert; how many speak? As with the Commons, this ignores what is going on in committee and offices. One might have cause to worry if members of both Houses spent most of their time in the chamber. Both chambers are increasingly specialised, working through committees, and the issue of value also applies here. How does one ascribe value to constructive dialogue between committees and ministers that results in changes to public policy?
In sh0rt, debate on reform needs to be better informed. What we have witnessed has been debate that is largely superficial and, one might add, premature. There is as yet no conflict between the Commons and the Lords. The Lords have passed amendments which the Commons have yet to consider. It is only if the Commons reject some, and the Lords seek to insist, that there is a problem. MPs are not expected to reject the nearly 200 amendments brought forward by government to meet points raised by committees or individual peers, which it is accepted have strengthened the Bill and helped avoid pitfalls or uncertainties consequent to the UK’s exit from the EU.
And if I hear one more politician misstate the Salisbury convention…