HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM – 27 June 2011
Dr Julian Lewis: May I start by warmly endorsing that suggestion, although I am afraid that a referendum would result in the triumph of hope over experience? I fear that the knowledge that this proposed reform of the House of Lords to a primarily elected or all-elected Chamber would not get past a referendum ensures that no referendum will be offered to the British people.
I have been trying to think of what I might contribute to this debate that has not been said before and that might not be repeated subsequently, and in the end I have come up with a little personal experience, which I hope the House will indulge me in discussing. It has often been my silent boast to myself that I did far more in affecting legislation before I became a Member of Parliament than I have managed subsequently. In fact, I have only once managed to affect legislation going on to the statute book since I was elected to this House in 1997, and that was over the issue of MPs' home addresses not being made public in response to freedom of information requests. I was able to win that change only because the then Labour Government had the decency to give the House a Free Vote.
I influenced legislation on three occasions prior to becoming a Member of this House, however, thanks to the House of Lords and the way in which it functions. The first of the three occasions was to do with the Trade Union Bill of 1984. The then Thatcher Government did not propose to make postal ballots for trade union elections compulsory. The issue was passionately raised in the House by Conservative Back Benchers, and most prominently by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Edward Leigh) – he was in the Chamber until very recently but has sadly slipped out just at the wrong moment – but their arguments were brushed aside. In the House of Lords, however, an amendment that trade unions should conduct their elections by postal ballot rather than the raising of hands in unrepresentative branch ballots was discussed in great depth and at great length, and that amendment was carried on the strength of the argument.
Of course, there was no question of that surviving into legislation without the agreement of the democratically elected Lower House. Precisely because Members in the Upper House had recognised the strength of the argument and had taken the trouble to amend the Bill, when it came back to the Lower House, although the Government did not accept the amendment in full, they at least made a determination that trade union postal ballots should become the norm. In subsequent years they did not become the norm, however, so in 1988 that measure was brought in against that test, which would not have been in place but for the intervention of the Upper House. Subsequently, trade union postal ballots were made compulsory in the 1988 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough has now returned to the Chamber, having just missed my recent reference to him.
The second campaign was to do with the fact that in the 1980s many ideological disputes and divides were finding their way into the school classroom. Once again, we could not get an amendment considered seriously in the Lower House, but it was taken very seriously in the Upper House. The Bill that became the Education Act 1986 was amended in the Upper House to ensure that political issues were raised in the classroom in a balanced and responsible way. When the Bill returned to this Chamber, the amendment's merit was recognised and it was kept.
Finally, the same thing happened with the Bill that became the Broadcasting Act 1990. Questions of due impartiality for politically controversial subjects were enshrined in law as a result of changes made in the Upper House.
The whole point is that in the Upper House there are not only experts but people who can make changes to Bills that would be whipped out of existence if they were introduced in the Lower House. If we go down the road of having a fully elected Upper House, we will simply increase the number of Members of Parliament by a total of 300. They will be whipped in that place in the same way as they are in this place and the prospects of their being able to make changes that will survive the process in the democratic Lower House will be lost.
Gavin Barwell: I am partly giving my hon. Friend an opportunity to finish his argument in the time allowed to answer my intervention, but I also ask him to consider the model in the draft Bill, which is 80% elected and 20% appointed. That does not seem, at least from the study I have done of the appointments since 2010, to be that different from the ratio in the Upper House at the moment between political appointees and those who might be classified as independent experts. Why does he think there is a danger with the 80:20 model?
Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, which was made by Lord Ashdown in his article in The Times. He said:
"As for wisdom versus democracy, well I concede that there is a reservoir of expertise in the Lords."
He went on to say that
"maybe we should preserve this 20% if they are independently appointed",
much though he would prefer to follow the 100% model.
On the question of experts, nobody is denigrating the potential expertise of people who become party political professionals when they enter this House. I am not saying that the average level of intelligence or articulateness in this House, whatever people might think, is lower than the average level of the same qualities in the other House; but the fact remains that those of us who chose in our 30s or 40s to become professional politicians gave up the chance of reaching the pinnacles of expertise that we might have reached if we followed other careers. If we make the proposed change, we will find that people who reach the pinnacles of their profession will no longer be part of the legislative process and that will be our loss.