After 15 days in committee, an end to the standoff in the House of Lords is finally in sight, writes Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Executive Director of Democratic Audit.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg is the Executive Director of Democratic Audit
After 15 days in committee, an end to the standoff in the House of Lords over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is finally in sight. Negotiations via ‘the usual channels’, in which crossbench Peers have played a major role, appear to have secured agreement to bring the committee stage of the Bill to an end before close of business on Wednesday. If this sudden outbreak of goodwill on all sides can be sustained, the Bill now has a realistic prospect of receiving Royal Assent in time for the AV referendum to go ahead on 5 May.
When the Bill finally returns to the Commons, however, it is likely to differ in a number of subtle but important respects to the one which arrived in the Lords some three months ago. In return for agreement on the timetable, the government has signalled a willingness to seek compromises in relation to its proposals for a radical re-drawing of constituency boundaries.
Much of the detail stills need to be agreed – on the floor of the House and elsewhere – and it will be at the Bill’s report stage in the Lords that the terms of the compromise will be clear. However, after more than 100 hours of debate in the Lords, the basic elements of any workable ‘deal’ are already evident.
One element, on which the government has already given some ground, concerns provisions for local public inquiries in instances where proposed boundary changes prove controversial. The Bill currently proposes to abolish such inquiries, replacing them with an extended consultation period – but it now looks likely that they will be retained in some form.
There are likely to be two other essential elements to a compromise package. First, the government will have to consider how far it is willing to go in relaxing the criteria for ‘equalisation’ of constituency electorates. There are a number of possibilities here – none of which are mutually exclusive.
The Bill currently proposes a rigid +/- 5% variation from the ‘electoral quota’ of around 76,000 voters, but relaxing this to +/- 10% would clearly offer a basis for consensus. Likewise, some of the more controversial local impacts of the proposals could be dealt with by granting additional exemptions to those already contained in the Bill. Opting to undertake boundary reviews every 7-10 years, rather than every 5, would also allay many opposition concerns.
Second, the government will probably need to give some recognition to legitimate concerns about the potential impact of cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600. While it is almost certainly too late to retain a 650-seat Commons after 2015, a firm commitment to undertake post-legislative review of the size of the House could also offer scope for cross-party agreement as part of a broader set of compromises.
With matters now moving forward, the government has withdrawn, at least for now, its threat to introduce a closure motion in the form of a ‘guillotine’ to bring an end to the debate. This was always the ‘nuclear option’, and would have raised profound issues about the constitutional position of the House of Lords as a ‘self-regulating’ chamber tasked with scrutinising and revising legislation.
A closure motion has never previously been used to force an end to a debate in the Lords, and there can be no question that it would be a highly controversial, and damaging, step.
Even without such drastic measures, however, the Bill’s passage through the Lords has provided plenty of indication of constitutional flux. Much has been made of late night filibustering and other tactics allegedly imported into the Lords by former Labour MPs. Yet, government Peers have been just as prepared to break with the traditions of the House.
The debate has witnessed the adoption of two ‘closure motions’ to force votes on individual amendments – a procedure last used in the Lords in 1971, and which has never been resorted to twice during the passage of a single Bill through the House.
Against this backdrop, the intervention of crossbenchers, led by Baroness d’Souza, proved critical yesterday in breaking the deadlock between government and opposition. Constitutional car crash averted, their Lordships now have a matter of days to render a flawed Bill with major constitutional implications both more workable and less controversial.
While the race to ensure a May referendum on electoral reform looks to be won, the costs for the deputy prime minister’s ‘second phase’ of constitutional reform could be substantial – particularly if the referendum is lost.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the Bill for how and where we cast our votes in 2015, one thing seems certain – recent events in the Lords are likely to be a mere prelude to talk of ‘constitutional crisis’ to come.
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