APPG meets to discuss House of Lords reform

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Constitution works to improve the quality of debate on proposals for constitutional change and the way in which they are introduced. Previous topics explored range from the AV referendum to Scottish independence. The APPG is supported by The Constitution Society. 

The meeting on 16th May 2012 was a response to the House of Lords Reform Report and was attended by Members of both Houses. The event was chaired by Lord Norton of Louth with presentations from Dr Meg Russell (Deputy Director, Constitution Unit, UCL) and Professor John Curtice (Research Consultant to NatCen Social Research).

The APPG meetings are open only to members of both Houses and are unattributed so the following is a brief summary of the topics explored.

Many agreed that the politics of House of Lords reform were as fascinating as its theoretical underpinnings. Indeed the Joint Committee on House of Lords reform was cited as a microcosm for the possible pressure points and hot issues ahead for a potential bill.   

Areas of agreement that were noted as interesting were the concessions that an elected second chamber would seek to use its powers more assertively and that the primacy of the Commons in a new settlement could not guaranteed.

Where the committee has disagreed is on the length of terms for a ‘senator’  (torn between ten and fifteen), the renewability of terms and indeed the question of election full-stop.  The role and number of bishops in the Lords is a point of debate as is the ability for ministers to be drawn from a revised upper house. The current report suggests allowing the appointment of ministers but preventing them from voting though some saw this as complicated and unsatisfactory.

The transition stage to any new settlement would be seen as difficult and many agreed that a referendum would have to be granted for such a change in the constitution. It was noted that ironically a result that said no to an elected Lords may still act to further increase the legitimacy and powers of the chamber anyway as peers would feel they had a mandate from the people to act.

Whether House of Lords reform will be kicked into the long grass was widely spoken about. It was mentioned that Cameron’s suggestion that such changes could be achieved in a short amount of time neglects the fact that previous constitutional changes have spent a long time on the floor of the house. The Scotland Act (1998) and Wales Act (1998) respectively took eight and seven days to be passed, while ratification of the Maastricht Treaty (1992) took twenty-three days. A comparison was drawn to the attempt by the Wilson government to implement Lords reform that was withdrawn after eleven days in committee.

If the bill does make it to the floor then buying off rebels with compromises will add to the time while Labour may push forward an amendment for a fully elected Lords that would undermine the current compromise between the coalition partners. Hundreds of possible amendments could bog down the passage of such a bill.

It was noted that a possible compromise, that would nonetheless be an historic reform, would be to implement Baroness Hayman’s recommendations. Indeed, it was noted that the history of constitutional change in the United Kingdom shows that incremental reform works while radical change does not.

The role of the public in this debate is, of course, crucial. But in-depth analysis seems to prove that they are as ‘confused’ on this issue as politicians are. While the public consistently seem to favour election over appointment, appointment itself is not rejected completely and the public seem to favour a less politicised House of Lords – something potentially harder to imagine in a reformed chamber.

Like the political parties, it was explained, this issue transcends party politics in the public consciousness, no one party can claim full support for its position even from its own members. Further analysis on public opinion can be found here.

Discussion from the audience was lively and there was respectful disagreement on several topics, not least as to whether a referendum could be won by reformers. Some argued that the ‘yes’ side had the edge while others suggested it would be a similar process and result to the AV referendum, potentially with an anti-politics slant arguing against an elected Lords. All were in general agreement that at least a referendum would settle the issue either way.

There was also debate on a possible constituency role for ‘senators’. While all agreed that such a position, though originally unintended, would be likely, there was disagreement as to whether this was a positive or negative development.

The image of the Lords was also raised. Some peers disliked the “Queen’s Speech” as being the definitive presentation of the Lords and several noted that when their work was explained many in the public seemed to understand their role far better.

The APPG concluded with thanks to the speakers, audience and The Constitution Society. We will, as ever, be keeping abreast of all of the latest developments on this and all other constitutional matters. 

The next APPG meeting will be on party funding.