House of Lords: the wrong reforms at the wrong time

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.

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After Hilton, Conservative radicalism looks set to continue unbounded

Michael Burgess 10.32am

So David Cameron’s closest adviser has embarked on a year-long American sabbatical. Meanwhile, the coalition is experiencing its roughest ride since the tuition fees rise, as the Health & Social Care Bill struggles its way on to the statute book.

As a backdrop, the run of opinion polls in which the Tories have enjoyed virtual parity with the Labour party at around 40 per cent appear to be ending. Some people believe now is the perfect opportunity to rein in the Conservative radicals and show the party’s ‘modernisers’ that the programme of reform is not worth the political pain it is inflicting. Will the British public tolerate tough austerity measures and sweeping reforms of beloved public services? Can that radical approach deliver the all-important Conservative majority in 2015?

These un-enlightened souls may also ask themselves: why are the Tories using up political capital on this scale of change when, after all, they are meant to be ‘conservatives’? Surely recent events have shown that it is better to adopt a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ approach for the next three years, placating the Liberal Democrats at every turn and doing their best not to upset the vested interest groups?

Wrong.

Now more than ever, the Government has to have the focus and determination to push through this essential programme of reform.

Tony Blair was not afraid to cast himself as a reformer, but even he only scratched away at the surface, often being held back by the trade unions, the Labour party or the media. Spin truly is not substitute for substance.

The coalition, on the other hand, has driven onwards with reforms to education, policing, healthcare, public sector pensions, university finances, welfare and local government. A valiant effort as it approaches only its second anniversary.

It is a mistake, therefore, to believe that Steve Hilton’s departure signals the beginning of the end for Conservative radicalism. He leaves behind a Tory party dominated by those of a similar reforming zeal. In Cabinet, Michael Gove, Francis Maude and Iain Duncan Smith are the current poster boys, but there are plenty of others hanging on their coat tails or blazing their own paths.

As we approach the Budget on Wednesday, all eyes are on George Osborne. He is not wanting of advice, with calls for reducing the top rate of income tax, cuts to corporation tax and raising of the personal allowance.

Post-Budget, the focus will surely switch to the Queen’s Speech. Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat colleagues will want to set out a programme of constitutional reform, presenting perhaps the biggest test to the wider Conservative party’s reforming credentials. Reform of the House of Lords is a polarising topic but the Tories should embrace it, for no true moderniser should advocate a wholly unelected second chamber.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge is for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to keep to their radical course. Strong leadership and communication of policies and ideas will be vital. Now is not the time to shy away from making and defending tough decisions for the sake of short-term politics and tomorrow’s headlines. We saw where that got the last Labour government, whose chronic infighting and a constant battle for favourable press coverage consumed their energies, leaving little space for reforms to see the light of day.

As for Steve Hilton, perhaps it was the Civil Service that did for him in the end. Or maybe he just wanted what most people would want - to spend more time with his family.

Whatever his reasons, Conservative radicalism looks set to continue unbounded. Long may that be the case.

Follow Michael on Twitter @SuperMacmillan