This is the first of a series of updating posts I will place on this page in the coming days.
Perhaps the major constitutional event of the summer was the announcement by the Prime Minister in August that the Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill would be dropped. The Bill was introduced into the House of Commons in June 2012 and passed its second reading in July, after two days of debate. The Bill would have reformed the composition of the House of Lords such that, after a series of transitional periods, it would eventually have been composed of 360 elected members, 90 appointed members, 12 bishops and any additional ministerial members. Elected members would have been elected for one term only, but that term would have lasted for the lifetime of three Parliaments (i.e. 15 years). House of Lords elections were to take place according to the open list system (in Great Britain) and according to the single tranferable vote system (in Northern Ireland). The Bill contained no provision seeking to alter the powers or functions of the House of Lords; the provisions of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 would have remained in force; and the Government was insistent that the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament (Lords and Commons) would be unaffected by the reforms proposed to the Upper House’s composition.
The Government had published a Draft Bill on House of Lords reform in 2011 (this is noted at pp 34 and 660 of the book). The key differences between the proposals in the Draft Bill and those in the 2012 Bill are that in the former the proposed size of the reformed House was 300 members (compared with 450 members in the Bill) and that in the former it was proposed to use the STV system for the whole of the United Kingdom. Both the Draft Bill and the 2012 Bill shared the features that the Government saw no necessary link between reforming the House’s composition and reforming its powers, functions, or relationship to the Commons. The Draft Bill was the subject of withering attack by a Joint Select Committee appointed to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny (see HL 284/HC 1313 of 2010-12). An unofficially published minority report subjected the Government’s proposal to even more sustained assault.
Within the Coalition, appetite for Lords reform was clearly greater in the Liberal Democrat party than in the Conservative party. While the Bill received its second reading in the Commons in July, it was clear that any “programme motion” designed to timetable the Bill’s further passage in that House would fail. Backbench Tory MPs wanted to be able to talk the Bill out and to use the weapon of parliamentary time to make life exceptionally difficult for the Government. The Opposition, in principle in favour of Lords reform, was prepared to sit back and watch Tory and Lib Dem MPs tear into one another — certainly, Labour was not about to help out Lib Dems in need of overcoming Tory resistance to reform. The Government announced that it would withdraw its programme motion and the Prime Minister undertook to his beleaguered Deputy to try to rally Tory backbenchers behind the Bill over the summer. When in August it became clear that he could not do this, he pulled the plug on the Bill.
There are two immediate consequences. The first is that the Liberal Democrats have indicated that they are to withdraw their support for the redrawing of constituency boundaries and for the redcution in the size of the Commons from 650 to 600 MPs (on which, see the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011). Political commentary suggests that, far from accelerating the break-up of the Coalition, this will actually bind it tighter, as the electoral experts seem to be of the view that it would be harder for the Conservatives to win an overall majority of seats at the next election if the Commons remains at 650 constituencies. We shall see …
The second immediate consequence is that House of Lords reform is dead, at least for the remainder of this Parliament. We got closer to it this time around than we have done at any point since the House of Lords Act 1999 was passed. As documented at pp 659-60 of the book, we’ve had endless rounds of White Papers and Draft Bills, but not since the 1999 Act had we actually had a Government Bill formally introduced into Parliament. A huge block of parliamentary time had been assigned to debating House of Lords reform (in both Houses). Much of this time is now free. Meanwhil, not much remains of the Government’s constitutional reform programme. The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which is currently in the House of Lords (having been passed by the Commons) is about it, at least for the time being.
Why is House of Lords reform so difficult? Sometimes we have over-hasty constitutional reform in the UK without adequate scrutiny (see my January 2012 post here on process and reform). Sometimes we have the opposite — too much talk and not enough action. House of Lords reform is the classic example. One of the difficulties is that the legitimacy of the House of Lords — and the legitimacy of proposals to reform it — depends on how you look at it. Looked at as the Government did from the perspective of composition without regard for powers and functions, and you see only the case for change. But, looked at from the perspective of what the House of Lords actually does (and should do), you see much more of the case against. For House of Lords reform to progress, what is surely needed is a dispassionate analysis of what we want from a second chamber and of how we think we might be able to get that from a second chamber whose members are elected rather than appointed.
What we want from a second chamber is surely very close to what we have now: namely, effective, informed and expert scrutiny of legislation. How can we ensure that this precious achievement is not compromised by the introduction into the Lords of a long overdue dose of democracy? After all, whatever you think of the House of Commons (and of the urgency with which proposals for its reform ought to be considered!), the one thing you cannot say of it is that it routinely delivers effective, informed and expert scrutiny of legislation.