House of Lords reform: New plans unveiled – but it may never happen
THE vast majority of members of the House of Lords would be elected under plans for sweeping new reforms unveiled in a parliamentary report.
Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday opened the door to a referendum on future changes. However, doubts emerged last night over whether the proposals from a joint committee of peers and MPs would ever be enacted.
The make-up of the Lords has threatened to split the coalition government – which was underlined by the fact that 12 of the 26 members of the committee opposed yesterday’s final report.
Critics said the changes would increase the cost of the Lords from £19 million now to £433m a year in the future, and would undermine the authority of the House of Commons.
The committee came up with a radical plan to reduce the number of peers from almost 1,000 to 450, with 80 per cent elected and the other 20 per cent appointed.
Elections would take place every five years based on a version of the single transferable vote used in New South Wales, Australia. The proposal would mean that voters would select either a preferred party or rank candidates in order, improving the chances of independents.
The existing peers would be entirely phased out by 2025 and the new appointees would be selected through a new Appointments Commission, with the government making recommendations. The number of bishops sitting in the Lords would be reduced from 26 to 12.
However, the committee insisted any reform would need to be supported by a referendum.
Liberal Democrats regard reform of the second chamber as a key priority, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has dismissed calls for a referendum as a waste of money.
But many Conservative backbenchers are fiercely opposed to the changes, which they fear would put the primacy of the Commons at risk.
The bill is also expected to face stiff resistance in the House of Lords – potentially forcing ministers to invoke the Parliament Acts to get their way.
Mr Cameron yesterday said that he was not personally in favour of a national vote on Lords reform, as it would be expensive and proposals to overhaul the upper chamber had been included in the manifestos of all three main parties.
But he refused to rule out a referendum – something many of his backbenchers are demanding and which Labour leader Ed Miliband supports.
Mr Cameron said reforms would go ahead only if all three parties agreed to “work together, rationally, reasonably, sensibly on trying to deliver what I think the British public would see as, not a priority, but a perfectly sensible reform”.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan welcomed the committee’s backing for a referendum. He said: “The proposals as they currently stand risk total gridlock in the way we are governed, something pro-reformers of all political colours will want to avoid.
“Labour supports a reformed House of Lords through the creation of a wholly-elected second chamber, with clearly identified powers, a relationship between both chambers which is codified and that upholds the primacy of the Commons, then put to the people in a referendum.”
The committee agreed the new system should be phased in gradually, with 150 members joining at each of the three general election years of 2015, 2020 and 2025.
But rather than removing existing life and hereditary peers at the same rate, as the government proposes, it argued that all those who failed to attend the Lords on more than one in three sitting days should be thrown out in 2015, reducing the size of the Upper House from about 800 to fewer than 600 at a stroke.
Committee chairman Lord Richard said: “It is now for the government to consider our proposals before coming forward with a final bill which it can present to parliament for further scrutiny.”
The joint committee’s report revealed stark divisions between members, drawn from all sides of the two Houses of Parliament.
Nine of the 26 members voted against elected peers altogether, two voted against a 15-year term and eight voted against a referendum. At one point, the committee was split 11-12 on whether a more assertive upper chamber would or would not enhance the work of parliament, with a small majority deciding it would not.
The alternative report was backed by 12 members of the committee, including six privy counsellors. Among them were constitutional experts Lord Norton and Lord Hennessy, the chair of the Association of Conservative Peers Baroness Shephard, former Ulster Unionist leader – and now a Tory peer – Lord Trimble, Labour MP Tom Clarke and the Bishop of Leicester.
They warned that the government’s draft bill “totally fails” to set out a system to avoid an elected Lords challenging the primacy of the Commons.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “It is deeply disturbing that the committee can’t seem to agree on the basic principle that we should be able to elect our representatives. Of course the parties don’t want to lose control over who sits in the House of Lords, but we cannot let the turkeys veto Christmas.”
SNP constitutional affairs spokesman Pete Wishart MP said: “This is at least the third attempt at Lords reform during my time in parliament, so I am not holding my breath. The SNP’s position is that the second chamber should be wholly elected. We welcome any moves towards this, but it’s moving at a glacial pace.”
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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