By Iain Martin
17 May 2018
Some of my best friends are members of the House of Lords, which makes what I am about to say painful.
They should be abolished. Or rather, the Lords should be subject to a process of reform so fundamental, so far-reaching, that by the time it is done it will come as close to abolition as makes no difference. The historic red benches and the elaborate decor — always too Turkish boudoir for my taste — can stay but the composition and membership of the chamber must change dramatically. The powers of the Lords should be redefined for the post-Brexit era.
Why do I say this? I have, after all, been arguing for decades in favour of the status quo of a largely appointed chamber, albeit with decreasing conviction. Successive governments have packed the place with their cronies while modernising other parts of the constitution: introducing devolution, creating a Supreme Court, and extending the use of referendums. Don’t worry, say constitutional conservatives among whom I used to number myself. The unelected Lords was never perfect and it still makes no sense but after a fashion, it works. The problem is that having watched the disgraceful shenanigans of the Lords on press regulation and Brexit of late it is clear that the Lords isn’t working.
This week there was the worst illustration of the problem yet. The Commons thought that it had settled the question of press freedom, when it voted against moves to hold yet another inquiry into the press. But the Lords had another go on, voting down the government, in breach of the convention that bills which enact manifesto commitments should be passed by the Lords.
The case for the Lords has long rested on the claim that it is an independent chamber of great minds who are less prone to partisan politicking than the vulgar elected types down the corridor. Yet on the issue of another press inquiry, many Labour peers appear to have just taken their line from the odious Tom Watson MP, persecutor of Leon Brittan and others. Anti-press peers voted on Monday to defeat the government and return the bill to the Commons. Outraged MPs voted again the following day, reaffirming their original position. This parliamentary ping-pong is expected to return to the Lords next Monday.
As one peer, a former cabinet minister, put it to me sorrowfully: “We are exceeding our powers. Carry on like this and the Lords is going to get itself abolished.”
On Brexit, the case is more complex. The second chamber should be scrutinising the Brexit legislation. It ill behoves Brexiteers to complain about their lordships taking a robust interest in these matters when the executive is making such a mess of it and parliamentary sovereignty was one of the reasons we voted to leave in the first place.
There have been excesses in the voting on Brexit in the Lords, for sure. So many amendments have been put down that it looks as if wrecking, rather than improving, the legislation is the main aim.
But much worse than that have been the insulting and patronising contributions made by peers during debates on Brexit. Back in January Lord Kerr, a former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said that Britain would “come to heel” for Brussels. This is an appalling way for a former public servant to speak of his country, as though it is a naughty labrador in need of admonishment.
Last month Lord Roberts, former president of the Welsh Liberal Democrats who failed on five occasions to get elected to the Commons, used a speech to compare Brexit to the Nazi Enabling Act and the prime minister to Hitler.
However much voters may dislike this sort of nonsense, they cannot remove peers, who have life tenure.
What can be done?
When Sir Nick Clegg, as deputy prime minister, sought to give the House of Lords some democratic legitimacy, he ended up with a half-baked scheme worse than the status quo, with grand-sounding senators to be elected for a 15-year term. MPs who feared being bossed about by an elected Lords killed Clegg’s scheme.
Reform usually falls on that sticking point, and the complaint that it won’t work because Britain has no written constitution. So why not get one or, short of that, devise a new settlement that encourages greater involvement from the constituent parts of the United Kingdom?
The aftermath of Brexit is a golden opportunity for a rethink, especially when an underpowered parliament will have much more to scrutinise and decide than it has for 40 years.
With that in mind, shortly after the June 2016 referendum, the Constitution Reform Group formed by Lord Salisbury and other former politicians and officials, proposed a new voluntary Act of Union, giving the constituent nations of the UK and the city regions of England more and better defined powers.
The Lords could become the UK chamber, overseeing foreign affairs and areas of common interest. Give representation in that chamber to members of the devolved assemblies, or introduce a strand of direct election alongside an element of expert appointment. Limit party whipping. Encourage open minds and foster better or less legislation.
All this should be put up for discussion and resolution in a pan-UK, non-partisan, constitutional convention. The Lords in its present state shows how essential this is if the chamber is to be saved. As things stand, it has cooked its goose.
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