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Constitutional Reform Is Always Difficult

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The coverage of the debate over House of Lords reform has focussed on the opposition to the bill; and the limitations of the bill currently before Parliament. In the first day of debate only a quarter of speeches were in favour of reform. The main arguments levelled against the House of Lords Reform Bill seem to be that: given the more pressing concerns for politicians now is not the right time for this debate, that whilst the present system might be wrong in theory at least it works in practice, that the democratic election of s second chamber will threaten the primacy of the House of Commons, and lastly that the reform bill on offer is merely a shabby compromise put forwards as a means of enabling the coalition to continue on.

I am not convinced by any of these arguments. I would be the first to agree that this issue is not of great concern to the public we represent, and I admit that the only views I have heard expressed on the matter question why we should take the time to focus on this now. But although we are here to reflect public opinion, we are also elected to use our own judgement and it is my belief that rarely in politics is it considered the right time to introduce constitutional reform. Indeed, as the Foreign Secretary said earlier this week, Parliament was conducting other business even during the Second World War which, though not about urgent matters of life and death, was nonetheless important to the long term interests of the country. The same is true now in relation to Lords reform.

Those who argue that the status quo at least works in practice seem to hang their hat on two different observations: that the Lords houses considerable expertise, and operates with significantly less party politics that the Commons. Though if you champion that fact that the present system allows for considerable expertise to be brought to bear on legislation, I would ask why we are wasting that expertise by limiting it to a revising role?

Of course there are indeed many eminent people with considerable knowledge in the House of Lords, of that there is no question. But another point worth considering is that I believe that expertise is compromised by the indefinite period of service. You can come into the chamber with considerable expertise, but is your expertise still at the cutting edge if you retired from your profession or business some ten years ago? And if instead of retiring you are still working then, as Chris Bryant MP and Laura Sandys MP pointed out in the debate, are you not at risk of having a conflict of interest?

I must admit that I find the contention that there is less party politics in the Lords to be less of an argument against reforming the Lords and more of an argument for reforming the Commons. But how true is it anyway; only earlier this year we saw the Lords having to stay up all night and sitting for an extra week when party politics led to ongoing filibustering. Indeed I think those who think there is less party politics in the House of Lords would be shocked to realise that as many as 189 Peers are previous members of the Commons. That might be only a quarter, roughly, of the entire membership of the Lords but I would wager that it is a far higher proportion of those members who take an active part in the proceedings.

Irrespective, it is the threat to the primacy of the House of Commons that is the main reason why the Government are struggling to get this bill through Parliament. This accounts for both the unity between those who would normally be very disparate bedfellows, and for the vehemence of the opposition faced by the proponents of this bill. It is indeed one of the areas where I part company from both sides in this argument.

I part company from the proponents because I do see that once elected peers are not going to be content with a purely revising role over the long term. The Government will put in place measures to limit their influence and they will not be permitted to alter the limits of their authority without the consent of the Commons; but over time it is likely that they will make a case for change. If you believe as I do, and as Stephen Dorrell made clear in his speech, that the strengthening of the Lords, not against the Commons, but in tandem with the Commons will lead to a stronger Parliament overall then such change may well be welcome over time. And that is what sets me apart from the bill's opponents.

Finally, I reject the argument that this bill is a shabby compromise, though that is not to say that the bill is wholly right in its current form. The bill is really taking up where the white paper introduced under the last government left off. There has been a huge amount of debate about the reform of the House of Lords over the years. The White Paper introduced by Jack Straw MP, the Royal Commission chaired by Lord Wakeham, the 'Breaking the Deadlock' review under the late Robin Cook and the deliberations of the Joint Committee on Lords Reform under this government. There has been extensive and exhaustive review of the subject, and the general direction in favour of an elected upper house has featured in the manifestos of all the main parties and features in the coalition agreement.

Although I voted for the bill at second reading that is not to say that I don't want to see some changes. I am unhappy with the single fifteen year term, it deals with the issue of membership in perpetuity but only addresses the need for democratic accountability in a limited way. It is also dispiriting to be using the party list system across large regional constituencies. I have no objection to a proportional system for electing the upper house but the list system does not enable enough direct connection between members and the communities they serve. Nevertheless these deficiencies could be hammered out and improved upon during the committee stage of the bill, and it is to be hoped that the Government will listen to the views of both critics and supporters on those two points.

Constitutional reform is always difficult. Even if people agree on what is wrong in the current arrangement, they never agree on a solution. But that is no argument for accepting, yet again, a status quo which combines a hereditary basis with one of patronage and which results in a chamber which is totally unrepresentative of the population for which it is legislating. By electing 80% of peers at a different time, by different means, whilst preserving, via an independent system of appointments, an element of cross bench involvement we can deliver an improvement on the status quo. For me, the bill is a glass half full, not a glass half empty, and I was pleased to support it, in the hope of being able to improve it during its passage through Parliament. The bill delivers an end to that status quo.

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