In his dying days in office Tony Blair has rushed out “legacy” plans for “reform” of the Lords. As ever with a Blair reform, nothing important has been worked out properly, except New Labour’s self-interest.
Who but Mr Blair would have penciled in as his first principle of “reform” that every one of his friends should stay in the House for the rest of their lives? An army of over 150 Labour backwoodsmen, like Lord Levy, would remain for a generation and more, ready to vote down any proposal that might be favoured by a majority of elected peers.
Predictably, Mr Blair has opted unerringly for the system of “election” that keeps power in the hands of party bosses. In his proposed “reformed” House there would be 540 peers alongside all existing life peers, swelling the House to over 800 members, at a time when the public are crying out for fewer politicians.
50% of these would, by about 2020, be elected on party lists in immense Euro-constituencies, utterly remote from connection with the people. Another 30% would be drawn from lists submitted by party offices, then selected by an unelected Commission charged to fill the House according to politically correct quotas.
What a dismal, quintessentially New Labour proposal, one which would remove much of the independence and authority of the present House, while not introducing any real element of democratic accountability.
Conservatives see one essential principle as underlying any Parliamentary reform: it must strengthen the authority of Parliament and enhance its ability to control the executive. This mish-mash of political self-interest, PR and political correctness will certainly not do that. We also believe reform of the House of Commons, not even mentioned in this plan, is even more urgent than that of the Lords.
David Cameron has made clear that if there is to be reform of the Lords then it must be on the basis of genuine election, while maintaining in the House at least a fifth of its membership as distinguished independents. If there is reform, then election should be in areas to which people can directly relate, based on cities and counties. And it should be for long non-renewable terms to ensure maximum independence of party.
There is no case for moving to a system that increases the power of party bosses or hands over the appointment of half of one of our Chambers of Parliament to an unelected commission. Tony Blair sees this as an extension of his gimmick of “People’s Peers”, whose success is by no means universally accepted.
The House of Lords currently offers extraordinary quality at low cost. This new House would be paid and peers offered retirement packages. No figures are given, but as with all Blair’s “reforms” you would be wise to bet on the high side. Retirement payoffs from the taxpayer would no doubt be convenient if you had donated to Labour on the way in!
We oppose any attempt to legislate for “reform” on this basis. Jack Straw was right to seek for consensus, but this is no basis for that. Talks should continue between parties to find a way forward.