By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday's debate on the Lords Reform Bill was heated, yet relatively polite. I noticed far more speakers against reform of the Lords than for – perhaps because pro-reform Tories knew, the programme motion having been withdrawn, that they would win the Second Reading vote easily (thanks to Labour votes).
Many Tories early in the debate – the initial stages took the form of Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, and his Shadow, Angela Eagle, giving statements on behalf of their leaderships – gave answers which followed the format of "Of course the current Lords is indefensible, but so is this Bill". Gareth Johnson (Dartford) did not take that line. He was proud to be in favour of the Lords' position as an unelected house:
"I have never defied the party line before, and it is something I hope not to do throughout my time in Parliament, but the Bill is fundamentally wrong. I have been a loyal supporter of both the Government and my party, but I am proud to be British, proud of our constitution and proud of our Parliament. The other place forms an essential part of our constitution, our heritage, history and culture, and once it is gone, it is gone. Seven hundred years of history will be undone if we support the Bill. I want to be able to look my children in the eye and say, “I did not forsake the British constitution. I said no.”"
"I may be in a small minority, but I am one of those people who do not become infected by the view that we must have a democratic House of Lords. I do not want a democratic House of Lords, and that is precisely why I shall vote against the Bill. I want objectivity, expertise, experience and wisdom, all the qualities that we are told so often that we do not have in this House. I do not want Members of the House of Lords to be subject to the electoral and party pressures to which we may be subject here."
Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North), a rising star recently elected to the '22, gave a very good speech:
"We are told that if we believe in democracy, we must support elections, that the laws of the land should be made by people elected by those who obey the laws of the land and that there is a democratic deficit in our polity because the upper House is not elected. That is disingenuous; there is no democratic deficit because the will of the elected House is unambiguously superior. The will of the people cannot be gainsaid. It is only through pretending that peers are law makers that one can confect a democratic deficit from the supremacy of the elected House."
"My constituents in Watford are already faced with elections for parish councillors, three district councillors, a directly elected mayor, Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament and now police commissioners. Do right hon. and hon. Members really think that an eighth category of election will really make this country more democratic? I do not. The number of people voting is going down time after time. I cannot accept that having people on party lists, as in the proposed system, will make this country more democratic by making the House of Lords more representative."
"As expected and feared by many of us, the Bill is attracting a great deal of attention and debate in the Westminster bubble—far more, I must say, than on the streets of York Outer. On the one hand, that may be reassuring. Any attempt to reform our constitution should be debated properly and in full. However, in light of the economic uncertainty in the eurozone and the wider economic crisis, I simply do not believe that reforming the House of Lords is an urgent matter of governance. In truth, the timing is woeful, and that undermines the whole debate."
"Having failed to gain an AV armlock on the Commons, the Liberals are aiming for a PR stranglehold on the Lords. Since legislation must pass through both Houses of Parliament, this will require perpetual appeasement of Lib Dem demands, even if the Conservatives or Labour win an overall majority in the Commons at the next election. Yet much more is at stake than the institutionalisation of third-party power by creating an upper House based on proportional representation, for we will lose the ability to improve legislation… by considering amendments purely on their merits."
"I faced tonight a dilemma that I have finally resolved in my own mind. I cannot support this Bill on Second Reading. I could not look myself in the eye if I voted for it on Second Reading, and clearly that is incompatible with membership of Her Majesty’s Government, so I informed the Chief Whip this morning that I have resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. … I see my friends from Northern Ireland on the Opposition Benches, and I genuinely regret the fact that I will not be able to continue to make such a contribution in the Northern Ireland Office. As someone who was born in north Belfast, who spent the early part of their life there, who is a Catholic and a Unionist and who recognises, understands and, indeed, feels both traditions in Northern Ireland, I think that taking such action is a matter of great regret, but I do it with passion and belief, and confident that it is the right thing to do."
"It will be impossible for people such as me who want constantly to come forward with radical ideas from the right and for Labour Members who want to come forward with radical ideas from the left to wade through the dominance of the Liberal establishment in the other place. There would never have been the kind of reforms that Mrs Thatcher achieved in office under that system. Many people in this House may think that that would have been good, but I think that it would have been a great shame."
"Other countries have indirectly elected or appointed bicameral legislatures, but not a single responsible country remains that allows itself to change constitutional law as though it were ordinary law. The constitution protects the citizen from the Government. For that reason, the Government, who are temporary, have no right to interfere with the constitution of the people."
"Let us stand back and look at the results. Under Conservative Governments before 1997 and Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010—and even occasionally under this coalition Government—it became too easy for Ministers to bring measures to the House, to get them approved by the House and to pass them without effective check in the House of Lords. It was too easy for those measures to end up on the statute book."
"I understand from my reading of the weekend press that the Deputy Prime Minister feels that the Bill represents a way for the Liberal Democrats to reconnect with their supporters. I have fought four elections in which the Liberal Democrats have run me a very close second, and never have I heard any of the Liberal Democrat candidates who fought me talk about this matter. I have never read about it in any of their “Focus” leaflets or election addresses. They have consistently won about 20,000 votes in my constituency, yet they have managed to mobilise only three of those voters to write to me and ask me to support this Bill."
"I also struggle with the idea of having to confront my constituents, who are being expected to deal with austerity. We are expecting people to accept the cuts that the coalition claim are necessary if we are to put the country back on its feet and deal with the mess that we inherited, but at the same time we are telling them that politicians may decide to spend £153 million on more politicians."
"I am a proud democrat. I believe profoundly in the representative democracy that this House enshrines. The coalition agreement said that we would seek consensus to bring forward proposals on House of Lords reform. As yesterday’s and today’s debate has shown, there is no such consensus."
Nick de Bois (Enfield North) made the same point:
"We agreed to work for a consensus. If nothing else has been shown in the House today, it has been shown that there is no consensus for electoral reform"
"Can hon. Members imagine having a senator—apparently that is what they might be called—in their constituency with a manifesto, and a manifesto to do what: to revise well; to advise even better? It is ludicrous. Conflict will be the inevitable consequence. Of course, the question is who will stand for election. The question of what sort of person might stand for election to the second Chamber has been mooted by many hon. Members tonight. We need an upper Chamber with the knowledge and expertise to revise and advise as it always has, and we have one."
The full debate can be read on here.