Members of the current House of Lords have, self-evidently, an interest in continuing the status quo but this does not invalidate their expressing rational opposition to the proposed reforms.
As the Labour Party has stressed, moreover, this is hardly a pressing Government priority in the present difficult climate. Manifesto commitments were also on the basis of consensus agreement on the reforms and with the prospect of a referendum, so the nation could decide.
As a Conservative Peer, politically my concern is that if this ends with the Government having to use the Parliament Act, not only could this lead to legal chaos as it is questionable whether or not the Parliament Act could be used to force through such reforms, but it could also split the Conservative Party.
The arguments against the proposals have been well rehearsed, particularly by Boris.
My main points are that the Lords has had major reform already, with Life Peers in the 1950s and the Blair Reforms limiting the hereditaries to a very keen and diligent 100.
In a British-type parliamentary system it makes sense to have an appointed second Chamber. It is worth noting that this continues to apply in India where, moreover, the Prime Minister is an appointed member of the Second Chamber – effectively today’s “Lord Salisbury”. The Lords, as it has been reformed already, is well designed for its purpose. It enables the appointment of experienced individuals with expertise, few of whom would be likely to stand for election. We have the Commons as our elected Chamber for the purposes of accountability to the electorate; the Second Chamber complements this as a revising Chamber. Collectively, the Lords understand that while they may do their best to change/improve what they believe to be legislative mistakes, they can only push significant issues where they have public opinion overwhelmingly behind them. It is inevitable that an elected Chamber would try to increase its powers to compete with the Commons, justifying this on the basis of its elected credentials.
The Lords is presently relatively cheap; members get no financial support for researchers or secretaries and simply a daily allowance if they participate in the House. In practice, a maximum of around 500 attend; those who do not attend cost nothing. A smaller, elected House would cost considerably more with all the add-on costs – estimated by Lord Lipsey at £500m over 5 years.
The obvious question which poses itself is as to why the Liberals have been so insistent upon their reform programme: my assumption is that they think they could secure a significant elected representation in such a new second Chamber (which could not be described as ‘The Lords’) – essentially as being neither Conservative nor Labour – and particularly, when they are likely to suffer major loss of representation in the Commons at the next General Election. In other words the Liberals’ motivation is naked Liberal Party self-interest rather than the national interest.
It is to be hoped that the Bill will end up being “de-railed” in the Commons. If this is not the case, I do not see the House of Lords voting it through, whatever the Party political pressures – there is overwhelming cross-Party opposition. There is thus the very real danger of the Government ending up being forced to consider using the Parliament Act to force through their legislation. Here I suspect this may be more than many Conservative MPs and Party members could stomach, leading to all sorts of political problems for the Conservative Party.
It strikes me as a mistake for the Conservative leadership to have got itself into this position and a misjudgement if it believes that this is something which MPs and Party members do not care about very much. It would also be an ill day if this Government goes down in history as having wrecked our constitutional arrangements, which in the main work well.