By Dr Paul Behrens, University of Leicester.
Reform of the House of Lords is one of those issues which every self-respecting government must attempt at least once in its lifetime. Last week, it was the coalition’s turn. The outcome promised to be exciting: there was talk about the ‘Mother of all Westminster Battles’, even the end of the coalition itself. Devious manoeuvres were apparently plotted by both promoters and opponents to the Bill, and there was a chance that we would be treated to months of machiavellian powerplay which would have made the West Wing look like a bunch of posies. In the end, it wasn’t all that dramatic: the Bill passed its second reading with a comfortable majority, and the ominous ‘timetable motion’ was postponed.
All the same: 124 MPs voted against the second reading, even though the Labour leadership had supported it. The rebels included 91 disgruntled Conservative MPs. Was it just disenchantment with the coalition? Party games as usual?
That will have played a role, sure. But there is more.The point is that reform proposals are deeply flawed, and in more regards than one.
The most significant change the Bill introduces is the fact that almost 80% of the new Lords will now be elected. In the Commons, this has given rise to the fear that there will be a new rival chamber which will be less polite in their dealings with the Lower House. At the moment, the Lord revise legislation, and frequently make amendments to bills sent by the Commons, but open, irreconcilable clahes are rare. If they happen, the Commons can override the Lords’ objections through the Parliament Acts – and this has been done only seven times in the last 100 years. The Commons always have an ace up their sleeve (by now a rather tattered card): “we are the elected representatives, therefore our will be done”.
Under the new proposals, that card loses much of its magic. Not only would most Lords be elected too – but they would be elected under voting systems which arguably do a better job at reflecting the will of the people. The Commons’ system (first past the post) has come under much criticism – it is telling that it was seen as fit neither for European Parliament elections, nor for the Welsh Assembly, nor for the Scottish Parliament. The new Lords might well turn out to be the more legitimate chamber. And they will be aware of that.
Sooner or later, a hotly debated topic will make it to Lords and Commons – terrorism legislation, say, or voting rights for prisoners. It is difficult to imagine that one of the Chambers would then be polite enough to give way to the other. And why should it be the Lords who give in? If two elected chambers exist, it might well be time to talk about a new distribution of power.
And there are other weaknesses. When Nick Clegg introduced it last week, he praised the new membership of the House as being “properly representative of all parts of the United Kingdom” and pointed out that nearly half of the Members of the Lords currently come from London and the South East. That may be so. Only – there is an interesting aspect which Mr Clegg did not mention. It is the situation in which the ‘nations’ of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland) will find themselves under the new arrangements.
Under the Bill, three elections are to take place before the House reaches its full strength. At each of these, Scotland gets 10 peers, Wales 6 and Northern Ireland 3. England gets a whopping 101. Even at its full strength, the House will have only 9 elected peers from Northern Ireland as opposed to around 25 under the current system. The South East, by the way, will still be comfortably off. Among the first 120 delegates, it will take the combined power of Northern Ireland, Scotland and 4 Welsh peers to outvote that particular region of England. It is, as Ian Lucas called it in the Commons, an allocation on a “purely mathematical” basis; it does not even begin to take the national identities in the UK into account.
The Reform Bill therefore is certainly a strange beast: it introduces changes, but it also wants to keep the status quo. The Lords will be more legitimate, but their relationship with the Commons is to stay the same. There will be regional constituencies, but Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are to stay England’s poor relative. Those rebels who called it a “constitutional monstrosity” may have erred on the side of the theatrical. But it doesn’t take much to understand their reasons.
Dr Paul Behrens teaches international and constitutional law at the University of Leicester.