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Everyone loves a Lord? Reforming the second chamber is easier said than done

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House of Lords reform is unlikely to be as straightforward as the Coalition seemingly believes, both in its implementation and outcome.

The Coalition recently published a draft House of Lords Reform Bill and an accompanying White Paper. It sets out a proposal for a three-phase shift to an upper chamber of 300 members, 80 per cent of whom will eventually be elected by the Single Transferable Vote. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, in their joint foreword to the paper, state that they are 'fully committed to holding the first elections to the reformed House of Lords in 2015'. It is intended that 'the change in composition of the second chamber ought not to change the status of that chamber as a House of Parliament or the existing constitutional relationship between the two Houses of Parliament.'

While some understandably argue that these changes are long overdue, it would be wrong to state that the House of Lords has been impervious to change. Over the past century its legislative powers have been reduced by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949; and its composition has been altered considerably by the Life Peerages Act 1958, Peerage Act 1963 and House of Lords Act 1999. However, many attempts at more thorough reform have failed. They include the Bryce Report of 1918 and the attempted changes pursued during Harold Wilson's Labour government of 1966-70. The latter proposals to alter composition and powers were effectively beaten in the House of Commons in 1969, demonstrating that it is not only the Lords that may prove a barrier to the new Coalition plan.

History suggests that if House of Lords reform is to be implemented it requires either a reasonable level of consensus (as there was over measures contained in the Peerage Act 1963, such as allowing hereditary peerages to be disclaimed for life) - or a determined effort, like that which drove the first Parliament Act through the Lords in 1911, backed up by the threat of creating sufficient numbers of Liberal peers to secure its passage.

The current proposals - because of their radicalism, because some will find fault with particular features of them and for reasons of political opportunism - are likely to be resisted by backbenchers of different parties in both Houses. Ultimately it is conceivable that the Lords will agree neither with its own effective abolition, nor that constitutional convention obliges it to submit to the will of the Commons over this issue. The Coalition would then have to use the Parliament Act if it wishes to force its Bill onto the statute book, as the Labour government did in 1949 when reducing the delaying powers of the Lords. Doubts have already been raised about whether the Prime Minister, David Cameron, would wish to resort to such a measure, faced with likely discontent within his own party, late on in a Parliament. If he did not, for this particular package to be revived after the General Election expected in May 2015 would probably require the Liberal Democrats - the main drivers of these proposals - still to be a part of whatever government is formed.

If these changes are brought about, over time another set of complications is likely to arise. The white paper states that it does not 'intend to ... alter the balance of power between the Houses of Parliament'. Yet it goes on to acknowledge that 'the relationship between the Houses is governed on a day to day basis by a series of conventions'.

Conventions are continually appearing, changing and disappearing; a process that can be expected to continue. Conventions involving the Lords are no exception. For instance, it was once considered acceptable for a Prime Minister to sit in the Lords. But since the retirement of Lord Salisbury from the post in 1902, a principle has developed that premiers must be MPs. Similarly, the Salisbury-Addison convention dating from 1945 (which has restrained the Lords in blocking legislation implementing manifesto commitments of the governing party) has changed over time, to the point where its existence is now in doubt.

The government is rash to assert that its proposals will not affect the relationship between the Lords and the Commons. Unlike Peers at present, elected members of the new second chamber would be able to claim democratic legitimacy, possibly even exceeding that of MPs in the Commons. They will be able to point to their being returned by a more proportionate electoral system than that used for the Commons; and note that they each represent more voters than MPs, who will number 600 to their 300. The existing conventions of Lords deference to the 'primacy' of the Commons - already vague - might then begin to disintegrate, with the Lords playing an increasingly assertive role in the passage of government legislation.

The White Paper on Lords reform claims that conventions have 'served the relationship between the Houses well'. Consideration of the historical record suggests that this statement is not entirely correct as far as attempts to reform the House of Lords are concerned; and they may not help deliver the current set of proposals. Moreover, if these plans are implemented, these conventions may become less effective still.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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