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Dissenting Members of The Joint Lords Reform Bill Commitee Speak Out

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LORDS REFORM REPORT
The Minority Report Is Scathing In Its Criticism Of Nick Clegg's Draft Bill | PA

The long-awaited report from the Joint Committee looking at the government's draft plans for the house of Lords has been published, and while the group of MPs and peers broadly support Nick Clegg's planned reforms, they raise questions about whether the House of Commons could remain supreme in the terms laid out by the coalition.

And there is a clear minority on the committee - around 12 of the 26 members who sat on it, who feel Clegg's proposals are half-baked and dangerous. What each of them actually thinks should happen to the Lords varies enormously - some of them favour a 100% elected Lords, some of them would rather things remained as they were.

But they all agree that the draft Bill set out by Clegg fails to address critical issues - particuarly how the House of Commons would remain supreme once the Lords becomes largely elected. They issued their minority report on Monday [PDF] - something quite rare for a committee to do - and gave a news conference at Westminster.

Their report is dense and deals with a lot of obscure parliamentary protocol - but is packed with objections, not only on the lack of direction from the government on how the Lords would interract with the Commons, but also on whether the Lords should be elected by proportional representation, something the dissenters point out was rejected in a referendum in 2011.

They also question whether Lords elected for 15 year, non-renewable terms, really would be accountable for the public.

Baroness Shepherd, a former Tory education secretary, led the press conference, saying it was "an absurd proposition" to set up an elected Lords without drawing up in precise terms what the relationship between the new Lords and the Commons would be.

"There are serious deficiencies in the draft Bill," she said, adding that the minority members of the commitee had felt compelled to issue their alternative report because "the joint select committee decided only to consider the draft Bill, and not the practical and constitutional implications of the draft Bill."

The government believes that the Parliament Acts - first introduced in 1911 to exert the supremacy of the Commons over the unelected Lords - will do a perfectly adequate job of protecting the lower house, even when the Lords is elected.

Many disagree with this view. Baroness Symons, a Labour peer, argued: "Primacy does not rest on the Parliament Acts, it rests on the simple premise that the House of Commons is elected and the House of Lords is not."

Tom Clark MP, who supports a 100% elected Lords, raises a number of concerns, and castigated the attorney-general Domonic Grieve for failing twice to give evidence to committee.

He calls for a "convention" to be set up, similar to the one which was appointed to look at plans for the Scottish Parliament in the late 1990s.

Other MPs, including Tory Eleanor Laing, are more generally hostile to creating an elected Lords. They argue that under the current proposals, the UK would just end up with a duplicate of the House of Commons.

"The public don't want even more elected politicians paid for by the taxpayer," she argued.

In an interview with the The Huffington Post on Monday, she launched a fierce attack on Clegg's motivations for Lords reform. You can read that here.

Among the other issues the dissenting members raised was the cost of an elected Lords. They say they are unable to reveal the exact projected costs because these are confidential to the government, but say that while the Lords currently costs the taxpayer £77m a year, this would rise to £177m after elections, and could end up costing in total more than £400m over the course of its first five years.

Aside from the parliamentary spectacle of a committee being so divided that they need to air their divisions publicly, today's reports suggest Clegg faces an uphill battle to get his reforms through.

Even though the 'majority report', as it were, agreed with a lot of Clegg's proposals, they disagreed on some. Their biggest bone of contention is their call for a national referendum on the plans, something the Labour Party also says it wants to see.

David Cameron has refused to rule out a public vote, and there is likely to be increased pressure on the government to concede the point if it wants to push its plans through.

Meg Russell from UCL's Constitution Unit said that now the joint committee has recommended that the government’s proposals be put to a referendum, pressure to concede this will become "irresistible".

"The referendum already has support from the Labour leadership and many Conservative backbench MPs. If pressed to a vote on the issue in the Commons, the government would almost certainly lose," she said.

There is also mounting pressure from around 100 Tory MPs for there to be a free vote in the Commons, when the Bill to reform the Lords appears before it.

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