HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM – 10 July 2012
Dr Julian Lewis: It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), especially as what I have to say will illustrate in a practical way the point at the heart of his speech, which was the importance of the specialist role of the Upper House as presently constituted.
In a marvellously robust speech yesterday, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who is in her place again today, described the proposals in the Bill as a deceit.
“They are expressed in the language of high moral purpose”,
“but they are really about pretty low politics.”– [Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 71-72.]
She was absolutely correct. 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 – the point made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras – by considering amendments purely on their merits.
Yesterday, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), a Lib Dem and a former Member of the second Chamber, said at column 54:
“First, in my view the House of Lords is broke. It does not actually work”,
and at column 55:
“Secondly, we need to take the best of what exists. For example, the reason the House of Lords works well is that the Whip is lighter”. – [Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c.54-55.]
I shall now explain from personal experience why he was right in column 55 and wrong in column 54.
In the 15 years since I entered Parliament, I have managed to change the law only once, when the Labour Government allowed a rare free vote on a matter affecting the security of MPs. But in the 15 years before I entered Parliament, I worked closely in connection and in co-operation with a group of peers and, between 1984 and 1990, it proved possible to alter the law on three important occasions. This was entirely because of the way the House of Lords works.
Consider the Trade Union Act 1984, when we briefed the Lords on the merits of postal ballots for union elections, compared with the counting of heads at tiny branch meetings. Dozens of peers were persuaded and, despite the best efforts of Government Whips against them, an appropriate amendment was carried. Back in the Commons, the same amendment stood no chance of success because of the much tighter controls on Back Benchers. Nevertheless, in response to the Lords amendment, the Government decided to offer a proposal of their own – to try making postal ballots the norm and to create central registers of trade union members. Four years later, this led directly to the introduction of compulsory postal ballots, as the Lords had originally proposed. If the Upper House had been predominantly elected, and especially if it had been elected on a PR list system, the initial amendment, which eventually led to the introduction of postal ballots, would never have been passed.
Even more clear-cut were the changes to the Education Bill in 1986 and to the Broadcasting Bill in 1990, both of which were amended in respect of the balanced treatment of politically controversial issues. In each of those cases, the more independent-minded peers were willing to listen to, and be persuaded by, arguments that when such subjects were presented in the classroom or in the media, it must be done in an even-handed manner.
Such was the strength of their case that the amendments made in the Lords to both those Bills were allowed to remain intact when they returned to the Commons.
An Upper House filled mainly from party lists of professional politicians would have been no more receptive to any of those arguments than the House of Commons, where almost all the votes are strictly whipped and where defying the Whip is seen as an act of career-changing rebellion. The willingness of Members of the House of Lords to judge arguments on their merits, and to amend legislation accordingly, stems not just from the limited discipline which can be imposed upon them, however. It derives, in large measure, from the fact that many peers are appointed after reaching the summit of their professions. They therefore have an expertise which full-time MPs might have achieved had they not switched careers to enter the Commons.
It is not the same to be a potential expert who decided instead to become a full-time politician in mid-career as it is to be an actual expert, who entered the Lords after reaching the top of the medical profession, the Armed Forces, business, the Church or the arts. Even the ex-MPs in the Lords have generally left further career ambition behind them. By contrast, young full-time politicians may well be able to see the strength of an argument for amending a Bill, but their careers are still in front of them and only a minority will put ambition aside.
This dismal Bill would be the end of the House of Lords as a place where laws are fine-tuned, and I urge all colleagues to reject it.