Charles Tannock is an MEP for London.
Last year, the House of Lords registered one of its highest voting turnouts of the last Parliament when 544 peers voted on an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. This particular vote was a defeat for the Government, and so this figure represents a relatively good measure of the numbers at the call of each party – not exactly a scientifically foolproof measure, but nonetheless a logical one.
On that occasion Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat peers numbered 185, 172 and 80 respectively. To put these figures another way, any joint-initiative of Labour and the Liberal Democrats would point to a majority of at least 67 in the House of Lords against the Conservatives.
As things stand, Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats have 224, 214 and 101 eligible peers respectively, the Liberal Democrats clearly being the most overrepresented group of the three. In cases in which the Lib Dems and Labour club together in future against the Government, any majority is likely to be reliant on the Crossbenchers.
As the Conservatives move to single party government, and the Liberal Democrats look to refresh their party under a new leader (undoubtedly by distancing themselves from their former coalition partner), these numbers have the potential to pose big blocking problems in the Lords. During the last Parliament, the Coalition Government suffered 99 defeats in the Lords. Without a large influx of new Conservative peers the number in this Parliament could be a lot higher – particularly if the constitutional nicety of the Salisbury Convention is challenged as we progress further into the term.
Whilst there are no exact rules as to the makeup of the second chamber, traditionally efforts have been made to try and offer a reflection of the Commons in terms of membership, possibly reflective of the popular vote. With the dissolution honours undoubtedly set to include a number of Liberal Democrat and Labour appointees, this would suggest that over the next year or two we will see the creation of up to 150 (or perhaps even 200) new peers, swelling the Lords’ membership to over a thousand.
These figures point to a number of problems. The possibility for Lib-Lab pacts in the House of Lords that could cause much disruption to the Conservative Government’s passage of legislation through the House, particularly over the EU; increased influence for the crossbenchers in tipping the balance on such occasions; and the likelihood of the House of Lords reaching the over swollen headline-grabbing figure of a thousand members as time goes on.
The obvious solution is to once again examine House of Lords reform. This topic is likely to come under increased scrutiny regardless due to the presence of 56 SNP MPs, a party that continues to adhere to its policy of non-cooperation with the chamber by refusing any offers of peerages. (It would be entitled theoretically to a large number following last week’s result.)
Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats and Labour will almost certainly continue to call for reform. The Conservative Party should therefore take this opportunity to impose reform on its watch, and to be the architects of a more democratic and functional reformed second chamber.
I have long been a proponent of a proportionately-elected Senate using the de Hondt system on the basis of regional party lists and independents. This could be done on coterminous regions with those for the European Parliament elections, but with longer terms of say 10 or 15 years.
This would provide a fair balance between strong clear majority government in the Commons, delivered by first past the post, whilst offering ground to those that have grievances with the fairness of the way that the system distributes seats – in particular UKIP and the Greens who got around five million votes last week but only two MPs between them. An appointed life element could also be included so as to continue the role of the real experts on the crossbenches and former Prime Ministers etc. Eighty per cent elected and 20 per cent appointed strikes me as a reasonable balance – but this would be subject to debate.
I advocate offering the new chamber US Senate and European Parliament-style powers of scrutiny and oversight in the appointment of senior public officials – for example, Supreme Court judges, high ranking diplomats, the Governor of the Bank of England, etc. This would provide a specific and separate role for the chamber from the primarily legislative function of the Commons – reducing the likelihood of wars of political supremacy between the two elected houses. The Parliament Act would still apply to override legislative objections beyond a year, as would the unimpeded passage of money bills.
In the event that there is little appetite for fully-fledged elected Lords reform of this kind, there are a number of lesser options that must now be seriously considered. The passing of the Lords Reform Act 2014 in May of last year may offer one solution. This small piece of legislation made it possible for peers to resign as voting members of the Lords, but to keep their titles.
With cross-party talks and the goodwill of peers, this mechanism could be used to modernise the workings of the Lords. As a starting gesture, each of the parties could be encouraged to draw up a ‘dissolution resignations” list to accompany the dissolution honours list, which could carry some small pension or redundancy pay rights.
This could then be used as a means of balancing the number of incoming peers with the number outgoing peers. To date. 17 peers have voluntarily retired under the auspices of this legislation, suggesting that this proposal could be further encouraged to make it viable and balancing the different parties’ representation, especially if financial incentives were added at times when redundancies were actively canvassed for. If the system proved successful, such groupings of retirements could become a regular feature of the parliamentary calendar.
Whatever is decided, action seems to be unavoidable at this stage. Without a measure of reform, the powers-that-be will be left to decide between the options of ballooning the house to an unworkable size, or facing the prospect of being beholden to a second chamber overwhelmed by members of two parties that have just returned some of the worst electoral results in their histories. The better option is surely to embrace reform at a time when the Conservatives can lead the way.