Andrew Tyrie is MP for Chichester and has just co-authored (with Sir George Young MP ) this report for the Constitution Unit on the future of the House of Lords.
Six weeks ago, Gordon Brown told us that he would “come forward with published proposals for the final stage of House of Lords’ reform before the summer Adjournment.” What we have had instead is some minimalist proposals designed to show that the government is doing something. No surprises there, but by the autumn we are supposed to see something closer to what Brown promised, with measures setting out the detail of a reformed second chamber.
The challenge for David Cameron and his team is how to respond – not just now or in the autumn, but in preparing to take power. The paper that George Young and I published last week is intended to help provide that response, and to deal with the dilemmas that our party confronts.
Conservatives have long believed in an effective second chamber, seeing it as part of the checks and balances necessary for limited government. Back in the twenties, Churchill doubted the “trumpery foundation” of “mere nomination”. He insisted:
“If we are to leave the venerable, if somewhat crumbled, rock on which the House of Lords now stands, there is no safe foothold until we come to an elected chamber.”
More recently, the party has come strongly to that view; we have been committed to an elected second chamber since early in the 2001-05 parliament, and in the Commons votes of March 2007 nearly 60 per cent of Conservative MPs supported at least one of the options for democratic reform.
Yet pragmatism means that the “trumpery foundation” of nomination – and it has seldom looked more trumpery than in the week of Lord Sugar’s arrival in the upper house – may yet have some life in it. As Jack Straw has admitted, Lords reform will not be resolved before the next election. For an incoming Conservative government, the risk will be of a debilitating battle with obstructionism in the Lords that could derail not just this reform, but a major part of its legislative programme. That cannot be allowed to happen. The public will not understand or forgive us if we pick a constitutional fight, rather than get on with tackling the crisis in the economy and the public finances.
That is why, even for those of us – like George and me – who believe in and have consistently championed an elected second chamber, interim measures are vital. There is a lot in the Lords that needs changing. January’s cash for clauses scandal exposed the limitations of the standards and disciplinary regime.
The cash for peerages scandal of 2006-07 highlighted the significant patronage power that remains with the Prime Minister, and its potentially toxic link to party financing. The Lords’ allowances system is becoming a scandal all of its own.
The House is too big – the biggest legislature in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress – and it needs, in the words of Lord Jay, “to move further along that curve from honour to job.” We should not abandon the longer-term aim of an elected second chamber, but there is a lot that can be done to tackle these problems without provoking the full-blown confrontation that the principle of election will trigger.
The most important interim reform is that all new members of the House of Lords should be ‘term peers’, serving a single term limited to three parliaments. (This is the same term of office as that envisaged for members of an elected House under existing reform proposals that have cross-party support). The arrival in the Lords of new members, there to do a clearly-defined job for a clearly-defined period, will bring an important change to the institution.
Secondly, the system of standards and sanctions in the Lords must be brought more into line with the toughening regime in the Commons, including a power to expel members. Some of this was addressed in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Once Sir Christopher Kelly has completed his review of Commons allowances, he should undertake a similar review of the Lords.
Third, as David Cameron has long argued, there should be a wholly independent Appointments Commission, put on a statutory basis. This should be implemented immediately. Until comprehensive reform is accomplished, the Appointments Commission should undertake the appointment of all peers, not only ‘non-political’ appointees. Parties would submit a ‘long list’ of candidates for their nominations. This would break the link with political patronage and with donations. It is extraordinary that the government’s Bill is silent on this issue. As the Public Administration Select Committee pointed out in January, this is a reform that could be enacted quickly and make a profound difference.
Yet even if we decide – as we should – to sidestep the battles that an immediate push for an elected chamber would bring on us, we should not abandon it as a longer-term aim. In any case, we will need to develop our response to any Bill brought forward in the autumn.
There is cross-party agreement in a number of areas. For example, ever since the Wakeham Commission, there has been consensus on the idea of members serving a single, non-renewable term of several parliaments. The Cross-Party Group that sat following the Commons votes in favour of reform, of March 2007, made more progress. Nonetheless, there are a number of important issues on which we need to establish our position.
- The second chamber should be 80 per cent elected, with a minority appointed element of independent experts. This would keep some continuity with the strengths of the existing House, and make it harder for any one party to get a majority. Nor is a hybrid House quite as outlandish as is sometimes suggested. They can be found in Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Spain. In any case, the current House is already hybrid, with Bishops, Law Lords, Hereditaries and Life Peers each appointed on different criteria;
- We should aim for a smaller Chamber over time, although the continuing presence of life peers means that this cannot be accomplished immediately. The initial aim should be for a reformed chamber with 400-450 members (compared with a current Lords membership of 740). Longer-term, there should be a review to examine the possibility of further reductions in numbers, in step with a similar process in the Commons;
- Members of the reformed second chamber should be elected in thirds for a single, non-renewable term of office, equivalent to three parliaments;
- Contrary to the stance taken by our representatives on the Cross-Party Group, there should be a Proportional Representation system for elections to the second chamber. This will not undermine the use of First Past the Post for the Commons. On the contrary, it will entrench it. FPP, with its ability to deliver clear party majorities, works well for the Commons supporting its role as the source of legitimacy for a government. However, the second chamber requires a demonstrably different system. The current lack of any party majority is one of the better features of the existing Lords. And because the chamber is elected in thirds, FPP would have the perverse effect that a new government could confront an opposition majority in the second chamber (because of the continuing effect of earlier elections in which the other party had been victorious). By contrast, a government heading into its third term – when they are not necessarily at their wisest – would face the least restraint from the second chamber;
- Elections for the chamber should probably be on the basis of the regions that are used for European elections, although the electoral system should favour greater voter choice than the pure party list approach.
Getting the second chamber right is vital for the quality of government in this country. Unlike the Labour Party, which at four General Elections in the last century argued for abolition of the second chamber, Conservatives have been on the right side of the argument about the Lords. If we set out our stall on both the short-term and the long-term prospects for reform, we can remain there.