Michael Burgess 10.27am
Rejoice! It has ultimately come to pass. Fret no longer, hard-working families of the United Kingdom; the House of Lords Reform Bill that you have so keenly anticipated is finally upon us.
It seeks to establish a 450-strong, 80 per cent elected Upper House by 2025. The remaining 20 per cent is to be made up of appointees. Starting in 2015, the electorate will be able to vote for the first 120 new members using regional lists, a form of proportional representation (PR).
Disappointingly, this regional list system will give a lot more power to political -parties than the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system that was proposed in the earlier Draft Bill.
Unsurprisingly, despite there being in principle some public support for a more democratic upper chamber,polls show that the general public don’t think this should be a priority at a time when we are still deep in the economic mire. A majority of those polled think that some type of reform is a good idea but that it should not be the main concern at this time. Perhaps more surprisingly, marginally more people think that the House of Lords should be left entirely as it is.
Only in Westminster is this a burning issue, with strong feelings on either side. The potential size of a Tory rebellion has prompted warnings that any PPS or Minister not voting with the Government will be sacked or ignored in a future reshuffle. Others on the Government’s backbenches have already expressed their willingness to fall on their sword.
Meanwhile, the Labour party is playing politics by claiming to support the Bill in principle while still seeking to make the Government suffer. Despite Labour’s dubious motives, we should welcome extra time for scrutiny of such large constitutional change.
There is also the issue of a referendum, or in the fact the absence of one. Ed Miliband has renewed his calls for one. He is not alone. Plenty of parliamentarians find it hard to see why a referendum was appropriate for the Alternative Vote but not for a major constitutional change such as this.
The main counter-argument is that since all three major parties included Lords reform in their 2010 manifestos, there is no requirement to ask the people.
However, now that the electorate are aware of the details of the Bill, there is a sound argument that they ought to be consulted before Parliament creates posts for another 360 elected politicians with constituencies five times the size of the average for a MP. Understandably, there is strong public support for a referendum.
Yet ‘more democracy’ alone is not enough; there has to be real accountability. The new senators will struggle to be truly representative and the 15-year terms weaken their accountability. Moreover, the future primacy of the House of Commons is a genuine concern, despite the continued presence of the Parliament Act.
Of course, proper reform of the House of Lords is something that is long overdue. But this could be achieved without time-consuming controversial legislation. By improving the appointments process, removing the remaining hereditary peers, reducing its size and reforming Prime Ministerial patronage, the Lords could be made a more efficient chamber and less of a political retirement home. A move towards an elected, truly representative second chamber could then be explored as a genuine alternative - with the option for a referendum - within the next Parliament.
Instead, we are left with a Bill that has been labeled a “Constitutional monstrosity”. David Cameron supposedly once said that Lords reform was a third term issue. It need not be thrown that far into the long grass, but it ought to be addressed at the right time and with the right reforms. Unfortunately, this Bill fits neither of these criteria.
Follow Michael on Twitter @SuperMacmillan