Tom Perrin is a student who can be followed on twitter at @tomperrin93
Last week, the Government was defeated by the House of Lords on elements of its welfare form bill. Today, it will again consider parts of the bill – specifically, the proposal fundamentally to overhaul Disability Living Allowance. As significant an event as this may be, behind it lurks the shade of an altogether different (certainly equally important) issue that, rather like a ghost from the shadows of the past, sporadically comes back to haunt us: namely, Lords’ reform. For some, these defeats will be reason enough to reform the House of Lords. But for me, the effect is contrary. They show the Lords at its best and exemplify perfectly why the proposed Coalition Bill to in effect abolish it must be opposed.
If we put the topical matter of the Government’s defeat and today's debate aside, what we see is something truly remarkable. We see the House of Lords, the second House of Parliament, opposing a Government bill with considerable force; thereby making the Government think twice and perhaps review aspects of its legislation. Surely that is accountability in action? The existence of an appointed House of Lords means that executive power is limited. With a House of Commons that is all too often dominated by the whips, what the Lords does, is prevent a one party state. That is, in so many respects, its biggest strength.
Nick Clegg’s proposed reform bill would, most probably, prevent the second chamber from exercising this vital constitutional rôle. If members of the new, elected "senate" were to be elected under the Single Transferable Vote System (with all the flaws that that entails) then they would most likely represent a political party. Their ability to vote on conscience on issues would be hindered by their allegiance to their political party – both in terms of the lingering threat of removal at the ballot box and having the party whip withdrawn. Government control over the legislature would be strengthened and democracy therefore would be weakened.
It is simplistic to postulate the status quo simply on account of its historical and traditional foundations. Indeed, foremost, the argument for retaining an appointed second chamber is an intellectual one. First, the House of Lords provides an arena whereby experts can scrutinize the Government’s legislation – in what other legislative chamber can former foreign secretaries, chiefs of the defence staff, faith leaders, academic experts, charity campaigners and leading entrepreneurs (to name just a few) discuss and vote on the Government’s legislation? The detail of what is, all too often bad legislation sent from the Commons, is therefore effectively analysed and improved.
Second, it prevents a situation of deadlock between the two Houses of Parliament; the primacy of the Commons is ensured through the current system. What those in favour of election fail to remember is that by increasing the Lords’ power (which would happen through election), a real threat would be posed to the Commons. The United States of America may have two elected chambers but, crucially, it also has the President to intervene in conflicts between the two assemblies. We have no such counterpart. Furthermore, there is no consensus amongst the public on Lords reform whatsoever: they are rightly more concerned with the pressing problems that now face us: of which a crippling debt and an international financial crisis form a part.
But this is not to say that tradition and history are unimportant; indeed, what Bagehot referred to as the "dignified parts" of the constitution are vital if we are to progress into the future with stability and confidence. The future depends on the past just as much as it depends on the present. It is rather like a house, that has been built up brick-by-brick: today’s stability rests on yesterday’s foundations; its destruction damages the future by threatening to bring the entire structure crashing to the ground. In an unstable world, a little continuity can go a long way. Furthermore, the status quo works. It functions effectively. The beginning of wisdom is, in the spirit of a great Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne to “leave well alone”. Surely that is a hallmark of Conservatism – why, then, do David Cameron and his Government so easily reject it?
It would be quite wrong to assert that Parliament is outdated and has not undergone reform. Harold Macmillan’s Life Peerages Act of 1958 brought an alternative to the hereditary principle to the House. Margaret Thatcher introduced a comprehensive system of select committees (which are functioning extremely effectively today). Tony Blair got rid of the hereditaries and modernized the practices of the House of Commons. This is not to say that Parilament is without need of reform. The House of Lords, for example, does have its faults; its membership is unsatisfactory, both in number and composition. These are problems which Lord Steel’s bill would adequately solve but which the Government seems to reject. What we want is piecemeal, pragmatic reform based on a recognition of the situation as it is, rather than drastic ideologically driven change which threatens our constitution and the fabric of our national identity.
The House of Lords is a 21st century miracle. It is one of our last great institutions and yet (somewhat like the Monarchy) it still manages to perform its job efficiently and with dignity. That is not to say that reform is not needed, indeed to the contrary, reform of the House of Lords is necessary. What we do not want however, is abolition of the Lords – for that is exactly what enacting the Clegg bill would result in. All conservatives, Mr. Cameron included, have a responsibility to ensure that this affront to our institutions and constitution is not allowed to progress.