A century of non-reform
For those who define and equate reform with an elected House of Lords, so that this is their holy grail, this book will make grim reading. Well researched, it is no dry academic treatise, but provides real insight into how and why all attempts at fundamental change have failed.
The 1911 Act limited the delaying powers of the House of Lords to two years. This was further restricted to one year by the 1949 Act. Neither of these Acts sought to amend in any way the composition of the House of Lords.
In 1945 The Labour party had 16 hereditary peers, and it was obvious that the Attlee government could not get its business through the Lords in the face of intransigent opposition. A voluntary restriction was agreed, the Salisbury-Addison convention which effectively stated that ‘the House of Lords would not seek to defeat any legislation which had been proposed in the Election Manifesto of a political party’.
Over the past 100, years every conceivable suggestion for changing the composition of the House of Lords has been proposed: life peers; a combination of speaking but non-voting peers with peers with voting rights; fixed term nominated peers; removal in their entirety of the hereditary peers, to be replaced by an elected house ; a combination of ‘life and heredity’, as in the present system; and then on to various proportions of elected peers and nominated crossbench peers.
Similarly, almost every style of proposing change has been used: Royal Commissions, inter-party talks, party leaders’ discussions, cabinet sub-committees, bilateral talks between senior members of governing parties and oppositions, and the latest debacle – proposals drawn up by the minority party in a coalition government, apparently without discussion and certainly without acceptance by the senior coalition partner. The latest suggestion is for a ‘national convention’, so far delightfully vague, and federalism is back on the agenda.
Arguably, the greatest impediment to reform is the House of Lords as currently constituted. Not because of the oft cited assertion that the House is too large; that should solve itself over time by natural wastage. (49 peers have died since the 2010 election.)
However, there are persistent rumours that a new tranche of life peers is expected soon, perhaps 40 or 60 and even 80, as the government seeks to consolidate its support within the House.
I sense that the natives are getting restless. There are repeated complaints that the House of Commons is not effective and not doing its work properly. Meanwhile, the House of Lords takes pride in the work that it does, and is seeking to do more. In a recent debate on working practices, calls were made for the Lords to be involved in pre-legislative scrutiny of proposed legislation as well as post-legislative scrutiny of Acts of Parliament; there are also calls for more joint committees of Commons and Lords.
Furthermore, there is no doubt that the House is edging towards a power to delay secondary legislation rather than the so called nuclear option of voting down.
Taken together these are a seemingly modest and appealing accretion of power, but it is enough to alert and remind those in power that an elected House of Lords would inevitably challenge the generally accepted doctrine of the supremacy of the House of Commons.
Every attempt to produce an elected House has foundered as governments have been solely and primarily concerned to protect the passage of their legislation. It is imperative that a constitutional settlement is arrived at whereby the power of each House is enshrined in statute. Otherwise in the year 2112 someone will write a book entitled ‘Two Centuries of Non-Reform’.
Bob Hughes is a Labour peer and former MP for Aberdeen North
constitution, House of Lords reform, Westminster