Say one thing, vote another. That seems to be the instructions to the government’s junior party in the Lords. The localism bill currently before us removes the existing right of social tenants to take a complaint (once dealt with by the provider) direct to the Housing Ombudsman – a right which every other consumer has with virtually every other Ombudsman scheme. Instead, under the bill, they will have to have it heard either by their (untrained in dispute resolution) MP, councillor or tenants’ panel member. Furthermore if still not satisfied, the tenant will need the permission of that MP or councillor to take their complaint to the Ombudsman. This veto and denial of direct access runs completely counter to the basic rules of all Ombudsmen schemes (and to Cabinet Office guidance). It also makes the MP an adjudicator, not a champion of their constituent’s interests. I moved an amendment in the Lords to remove this Barrier to Access – and the Liberal Democrats kindly spoke in favour of it. But come the vote – 61 of them flocked into the government lobby against it (denying me a majority by 24 votes).
A few days later, and we’re back trying to ensure that the welfare bill gets proper scrutiny in the Lords, and in a forum accessible to our many wheelchair-bound peers for whom the proposed changes to disability living allowance and mobility issues are key. However, the government is intent in taking the committee stage away from the Chamber despite an earlier understanding that main chunks of it would be there. Significantly, if the committee stage is in the chamber, we are allowed to vote – which would show up any Liberal Democrat failure to support the rights of some of the most vulnerable in society. So what do the Liberal Democrat peers do? Yes, 74 of them trooped back into the government lobby providing a healthy 52 majority to bundle the bill away to a committee room – quite against the Lords’ normal practice of taking contentious bills on the floor of the house, and simultaneously making access difficult for disabled peers and public alike. (Meanwhile, the government is left with an empty chamber, as there’s now no business to replace the scheduled Welfare bill debates!)
And so it goes on, whether at the Liberal Democrat conference, or in the Lords: no matter how strongly their activists feel on an issue, when push comes to shove, they maintain the Conservatives in office. Despite this, Cameron let them down on the AV vote, and is taking the share of the spoils of the constituency shake-up, though even Tory MPs are now wondering whether it’s worth all the hassle for an extra 20 seats. They have the comfort though, if left without a bolthole, of a possible a seat in the unreformed Lords, which may increase in proportion to the reduction in the Commons. The Joint Lords-Commons Committee on Lords Reform (chaired by our own Ivor Richard) is likely to make haste slowly in reaching any conclusions, while the Liberal Democrat-Tory promise of a bill to facilitate recall of an MP seems to have disappeared completely (perhaps because they feared its first outing would be in Sheffield).
The government’s legislative timetable is a mess. Big bills – on localism, welfare reform, the NHS, education – are all in the Lords, along with Scotland and, shortly, legal aid. Meanwhile, where the Lords have tried to make changes – most notably on the weird proposal for elected police commissioners, and on fixed-term parliament – the Commons promptly overturned our amendments without a second thought. Perhaps abolition of the second chamber is a better solution to the problem of these tiresome Lords, for if we are never to make a difference, what on earth are we for?
Dianne Hayter is a Labour peer and former chair of the NEC
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