Nathan Gamester is a Research Analyst a a think tank working on issues relating to policy and government as well as the economy, entrepreneurship and international business. He writes here in a personal capacity. Follow Nathan on Twitter.
Conservatives have an opportunity to support reform without upsetting the constitutional apple cart.
Last Friday, the House of Lords (Amendments) Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons having passed through the Lords with universal support. However, the bill was not moved for debate and there is no indication when the Bill will progress further.
This was perhaps predictable judging by the timing of the debate (Friday afternoon graveyard slot), as well as the complete lack of coverage it received. It is now safe to assume that this short Bill has been thrown into the long grass.
This is unfortunate because the bill (known as the Steel Bill, after it's author Lord Steel of Aikwood) could be just what the Conservatives are looking for.
Lords reform has always been a constitutional headache for the government but over the last fortnight it has developed into a full-blown migraine. This Bill could be the much-needed paracetamol the Prime Minister is searching for.
The Steel Bill provides cover for Conservatives who want to uphold their commitment to reform the Lords but who also fear a backbench rebellion over more far-reaching proposals. By supporting the Bill, Conservatives can place themselves on the side of reform without completely upsetting the constitutional applecart. A win-win scenario.
The Bill is short, simple, and, specific. It should be viewed as the first step on the road to reform. In contrast to other proposals, it doesn’t attempt to bundle together every facet of Lords reform into a single package. Rather it would enact several important but relatively uncontroversial reforms that seek to improve the House of Lords.
As Lord Steel has explained, the current version of his Bill does only three things:
- It paves the way for a Peers retirement scheme (which would reduce numbers and cost);
- It allows for the removal of Lords who don’t attend;
- It allows for the removal of Lords who are convicted of a serious criminal offence.
The question at this point is not should the Lords be reformed but how best to do it. The recent (and much discussed) fiery meeting of the 1922 Committee demonstrates the uneasiness that is felt among Conservative MPs about the current reform plans – particularly with the commitment to forge ahead with an 80% elected House of Lords. This Bill could be the answer the government needs, for now at least.
The bigger issues of reform won’t go away, nor should they. Both the Conservative Manifesto and the Coalition Agreement make reference to an elected House of Lords (although it is worth noting that neither document promises to bring forward legislation; the Coalition Agreement simply commits to establish a committee). Further, this issue has generated so much attention and debate both in Westminster and beyond that we have gone past the point of no return – action is needed.
By supporting the Steel Bill and placing it on the statute books, the government would buy itself time to properly consider the more controversial areas of reform while at the same time implementing proposals that get to the heart of the anomalies that exist in the upper house. What is more, these are the anomalies that tend to generate the most unfavourable headlines for the House of Lords.
The Steel Bill has a lot going for it: it was universally supported in the Lords; it would reduce the running cost of the Lords; it would reduce the number of Lords without sacrificing expertise; it does not require huge constitutional change.
Lord Steel has described how he has tried in vain to persuade senior Lib Dem colleagues about the merits of his Bill. He concludes that Nick Clegg has his heart set on “Big Bang” reform rather than smaller, incremental changes that would deliver genuine improvements to the upper house.
I suggest that Conservatives who support reform but fear what is currently proposed, should listen carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has to say.