Mark Harper Talks To HuffPost About Lords Reform, Lobbyists And Party Funding

"There Are Genuinely Mixed Views"

Since it's a day for flutters, HuffPost will bet you fifty quid that Mark Harper will one day be leader of the Conservative Party. Any takers? He's definitely one to watch.

The Tory constitutional reform minister is embedded in the Cabinet Office, to help Nick Clegg get his totemic House of Lords reforms through Parliament, and the two men have - by all accounts - got on very well with each other, despite the two coalition parties being endlessly split over how to reform politics.

They got through the factious AV referendum without a cross-word, but there will be more coalition tears over the next few months, as the legislation which will end hundreds of years of tradition in the House of Lords is finally published.

We've been in a kind of limbo period over Easter, but Mark Harper - a comprehensive school-educated man from Swindon who went to Oxford to study PPE, is clearly busy. Seemingly highly caffeinated, he gesticulates wildly during our interview, his hands forming huge circles in front of him or thrusting ideas out into the ether.

He's immaculately dressed as well, despite it being Easter recess. "You never know when you'll be summoned to do some kind of telly thing," he explains, because on the day I meet him, he's the "minister on call" in case some form of disaster strikes.

Given how telegenic and strangely classless he is, the government should probably wheel him out for all their interviews, but Harper is too busy for that, preparing without a doubt to introduce the House of Lords reform Bill in the Queens' Speech in four weeks' time.

It's difficult not to like him because he's so nice, but presumably he gets a lot of badgering from his fellow Tory MPs, annoyed that he's happily implementing Nick Clegg's agenda to reboot the House of Lords?

"There are genuinely mixed views. Some are very keen, some are very un-keen," he says. "I do remind some of them - as I did when the AV bill was going through - that we should trust the fact we had a well-drafted bill. And I think there's a very solid Conservative case for strengthening Parliament, reducing the power of the executive, making it a bit more difficult to legislate.

"If you're a Conservative you do not believe that the way to fix the world is to pass lots and lots of Bills."

Mark Harper is like the Roger Federer of the government, returning every difficult curve-ball flawlessly - almost robotically, some might say. It seems pointless asking him what he'd like to do next in government, but I try anyway, and the answer is quite illuminating:

"Well, the PM asked me to spend some time in opposition in the shadow defence team, I did that, he then asked me to almost move onto the domestic agenda as shadow minister for disabled people.

"When the election result happened, asked me to do this. Three quite varied jobs, I've enjoyed all of them, this one is endlessly fascinating."

So he can turn his hand to anything! Unfortunately his "endlessly fascinating" job is gathering extra workload all the time. As well as Lords reform, Harper is also tasked with setting up a register of lobbyists, in a bid to tackle alleged sleaze concerning their access to senior politicians.

The government's consultation on this has been widely criticised for leaving the definition of what a lobbyist actually is too narrow. He's also got the question of how to fund political parties on his desk. Did the recent rows about cash-for access reshape those two debates in his mind?

"I think it's fair to say that if you look at the public meetings, there are a number of people who've said you need a broader definition. It has raised some issues about the breadth of the consultation.

"People are clear, we do need to get this right. I actually think people do accept is that the last thing we want to do is rush out a back-of-a-fag packet idea. The consultation we've extended to next week, we'll have a White Paper and pre-legislative scrutiny.

"On the party finding side, the talks between the parties kicked off yesterday." [Wednesday of this week] "I don't quite know where that's going to end up.

"It's one of those things that we all know what the problem is, we all know what the kinds of solutions are going to be, they all involve pain for the parties and it's about trying to get a consensus where everyone can sort of live with it. That's not easy."

Wouldn't taxpayer funding of parties be annoying for the public to begin with, but better in the long run than this drip-drip of sleaze? "We've said at the moment, and I think this is right, it would be very difficult for voters to accept that while we're making tough decisions about benefits and tax and public spending that the one thing we were going to find some resources for is giving political parties some money."

But these two items, significant though they may be - are small beer compared to Lords reform, which looks set to be a dominating feature of the coalition.

The draft Bill published by the government would see a gradual change from the largely appointed Lords to a largely elected chamber. Every five years about a quarter of the appointed Lords would be removed and replaced with elected members, who would serve a long fifteen-year term. They wouldn't be allowed to stand again.

These new peers would have super-constituencies, and there would be about 300 of them. By 2030 the upper chamber would consist of 80% elected peers, and 20% would still be appointed. The Church of England Bishops would keep twelve of their seats. It's not clear whether the Lords would still be so-called. The government says it doesn't want to get into silly arguments about names at this stage.

There's no guarantee it will work, and some Lib Dems have said that if the Tories fail to get their MPs and Peers into line on the reforms, the Lib Dems will block David Cameron's cherished plan to reduce the number of MPs by 50 and change the boundaries to lessen Labour's inbuilt electoral advantage.

Harper claims that the case for replacing the unelected Lords is "unarguable". "If you challenge peers on that, what they do is fall back and try to pretend that they don't make the laws, really, they just offer a bit of gentle advice, or that the Commons always gets its way, and that's just not true. Anyone who's had to take legislation through knows the Lords do help make the law. The fact they can delay and make ministers think again means they can change the law."

Harper doesn't mind bashing the Lords either, saying they were "completely out of touch on the issue of the welfare cap" and that they often fail to have proper debates about things.

"That was a point [Lord] Andrew Adonis made. When he was Transport Secretary in the Lords, he said all the time he was there, he was the lead minister, he never once had a question or debate on any of the three big infrastructure projects he was responsible for.

"They never debated high-speed rail, they never debated aviation or airport policy, and he made some changes to infrastructure spending on roads. Really significant changes, and they spent most of their time asking him about pedestrian crossings outside Parliament."

The debate surrounding Lords Reform has really boiled down in recent weeks to what the relationship between the two houses of Parliament will be during and after the changes. Try as I might, I find it frustratingly difficult to get Mark Harper to make any substantial forecast on that. How will the Commons change under the reforms, I ask?

"I don't know that will happen long term. What we've said is the relationship will change. We don't know exactly what it will end up being. I think it would be good for the Commons if it did more of the work and not just leave it to the Lords. It's not necessarily a bad thing if the Lords pushes back on the Commons and forces it to get its arguments better."

The next stage in the process will be the publication of a report by a joint committee of peers and MPs on the 23rd of April. This will be the result of a long-running inquiry, and some of their findings have purportedly already leaked.

They are expected to unanimously call for a referendum before Lords reform can even start. Harper will not commit to opposing a referendum outright, but the mood music is one of firm resistance. "I'm not clear about what the argument is for having one. We'll look at it, but the government's not persuaded there's a case for having one."

"All three parties support Lords reform in principle. The public view on this is pretty settled, it's absolutely true that it's not in their top three issues but the position is very clear. Only 6% think the status-quo is right. So I'm a bit uncertain about what the point of £100m being spent on a national referendum is, to answer a question on which the public's view is quite settled."

But there seems no doubting a Lords reform Bill will be a critical part of the Queen's Speech next month. Harper seems a bit annoyed that the joint committee report leaked. "We encouraged them to have the report a bit early, but they won't let us have an embargoed copy of it either."

But not having advance sight of the report won't be a problem in getting a final Bill into the Queen's Speech? "No we'll take a serious look at the report. We know the areas that are controversial, and I gave evidence to the committee four times."

The subliminal message from Harper seems to be this; Tories can stick their fingers in their ears and pretend it's not happening, members of the House of Lords can throw up objections all they like. But this is really happening, and while the government is jumping through all the right hoops and ticking all the right boxes, it's determined to get its way.

Harper's all very nice about it, promising to "listen seriously" to the joint committee's concerns - and there will be plenty.

Expect a lot of rehtoric from him and other Tory ministers in the months to come, suggesting that Lords reform is not just a Lib Dem idea but a Tory one. Their process is "a very British way of doing it," he insists.

"Both from a Conservative perspective and, I think, a British perspective, the idea that you create perfection by drawing it up on a blank sheet of paper, implementing it overnight, that's kind of not how we do things."

The reality is, though, that House of Lords reform would not be happening right now if were there not a coalition. If the coalition gets its way, will there be a need for a constitutional reform minister in future? Is Mark Harper working himself out of a job?

"Since I never actually expected to get this job in the first place, and I suspect the Prime Minister never envisaged the need to have created it, I honestly don't know. Actually quite a lot of what we're doing are things that were in our manifesto, but we didn't put them in a chapter called constitutional reform. Whether in future you'd have a role specifically for that, I don't know."


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