Lords big beasts turn up the heat on reform

Ahead of this evening's Commons debate on Lords reform, Lord Ashdown, Lord Adonis and Lord Tyler have again made the case for an elected upper chamber.

Ahead of this evening’s Commons debate on Lords reform, scheduled to start at 5:00, Lord Ashdown, Lord Adonis and Lord Tyler have again made the case for an elected upper chamber – and taken on some of the arguments of the antis. Adonis and Tyler say an elected second chamber “will give it the authority to challenge governments”, while Ashdown implores Parliament not to “waste this chance for real reform”.

Tonight’s debate follows a series of reports in the last month that ‘dinosaurs’ on the Labour and Tory benches, in both Houses, would delay, water down or completely block any reform – with even senior Liberal Democrats, like David Steel, said to be opposed.

Writing in this morning’s Guardian, Lords Tyler and Adonis point out the ludicrousness of suggesting reform is being rushed, or lacks a popular mandate:

“All three main parties committed to a wholly or mainly elected Lords in their 2010 manifestos. If MPs vote for a reform bill next year, surely these unelected peers will not wish to stand intractably in its way?

“Any objection that reform is taking place with undue haste will not stand up to scrutiny. It is now 100 years since the passage of the Parliament Act, which states the intention to substitute the Lords with ‘a second chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation’.

“Committees and commissions have been ruminating on what to do ever since…

“Of 117 peers appointed since the 2010 pledges, 24 are Lib Dems. Given that their party is the most trenchantly in favour of reform it would be a real betrayal if these peers switched sides. Of the 788 peers in the house at present, two-thirds were appointed after the 1997 Labour manifesto commitment to democratic reform. Implementation now is hardly a surprise.

While of the argument that an elected second chamber will threaten the primacy of the lower house, they write:

“Peers and MPs will note that the draft bill maintains the primacy of the Commons by ensuring that the Lords will never have a more recent mandate (since it will be elected in thirds). Senators (if that is what they are called) will be legitimate, but not able to claim they are as accountable as MPs, since their terms will be longer and non-renewable.

“And the parliament acts will remain in place, allowing the Commons to override the Lords after a year… To suggest there will be constant gridlock is to ignore international experience where democratic second chambers frequently challenge their lower houses – and yet the world continues to turn.”

In the Times (£), meanwhile, Lord Ashdown takes on the arguments that “there is no public call for it; it will all end in constitutional collapse; it is vandalism to let the elected into our quiet groves of wisdom; and they won’t handle things half as well as we do”.

And on the whole point of the second chamber, that of holding the executive to account, amending and scrutinising legislation, he writes:

“The Lords should have two functions. The first is to be a revising chamber. This it does well. The second should be to act as part of our system of checks and balances, to stand up to an overmighty executive, backed by an overwhelming majority in the Commons, when it tries to do foolish things, such as the poll tax or launching us into an illegal war. This we do hardly at all. How can we? We are the government’s creature.

“The first thing a new government does is to appoint enough new peers to create a majority for itself in the Lords, which replicates the one it has just won in the Commons. So we are all too frequently reduced to a reflection that magnifies the power of the executive, rather than a counterbalance that, subject to the Commons’ ultimate authority, checks it.

“We may have a bicameral system when it comes to the small thing of amending legislation. But when it comes to the big thing – acting as a check on the executive – ours is no more than a monocameral system with a bungalow annexe.

“Last week Labour old warhorses in the Lords ignored their manifesto commitment to an elected chamber and again joined backwoodsmen of the Tory right to block radical change.

“There is a chance for a great reform here. In the end, it may all depend on whether Labour in the Commons is prepared to put its money where its manifesto was. If it doesn’t, then we may lose another chance for change. Then we will know, once again, that Labour just cannot be trusted with reform.”

See also:

Tory and Labour peers look set to frustrate Clegg on Lords reformJune 17th

Diversity and democracy: Reforming the LordsJune 1st

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