The House of Lords had another bout of “speed-dating” tonight with speakers limited to two minutes each on the following question:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what would be the effect of an elected House of Lords on relations between the two Houses of Parliament.”
The opening speaker (who had longer than two minutes) was Lord Bruce Grocott, a highly-respected former Chief Whip, who pointed out that the current primacy of the House of Lords would not continue if/when the House of Lords is elected. Of the relationship between the Lords and the Commons. he said:
“The basis of the relationship could not be simpler; the primacy of the Commons is secured by the fact that it is elected and we are not. That is the conclusion of the report, which explains the current relationship. My argument is very simple and I shall try to develop it. An elected upper Chamber—whatever you call it—would fundamentally change that relationship for the worse.”
He argues that an elected upper House would no longer defer to the House of Commons, pointing out:
“Frankly, it would be bound to be the case. People who say that there is nothing to worry about do not even begin to imagine what it would be like to stand as a senator for this House—I refer to senators for the sake of argument—and say to one’s electorate, “I very strongly oppose the poll tax”, or, “I very strongly oppose the imposition of an identity card system and will do so as strongly as I can as a senator in the House of Lords but ultimately I will stop opposing it if the Commons insists”. That would be a very peculiar plea to put to your electorate when you are hoping to be elected to this House.
I wish to dismiss the other common argument reasonably quickly: that is, when people say that there is nothing to worry about because other parliaments across the world have no difficulty whatever in having two elected Houses. The answer to that question is so obvious that I am almost embarrassed to repeat it; they started with a blank sheet of paper. We have a House with existing powers, which in most respects are identical to those of the House of Commons. That is the difference between us and other parliaments. If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, of course we could define what the Lords does and what the Commons does and away we go—there would be no problem. It clearly would be a problem if you had an elected House taking over the powers that we enjoy but which—this is crucial—we choose not to enforce. That is the difference between the present position and the one that would apply if this House were elected.
I am more than half way through my time, so I shall recount quickly what I think are the inevitable, predictable consequences for the relationship between the two Houses of an elected second Chamber. First, there would be a constant battle for legitimacy between the two Houses and constant arguments about which represented the most authoritative voice of the British people. Would noble Lords on the Lib Dem Benches who are so passionately in favour of proportional representation—we are told that we will have proportional representation in the upper House—declare that an upper House elected on the basis of proportional representation is not as legitimate as the other House down the Corridor, which is elected on first past the post? Of course they would not say that. There would be endless debates and arguments about which was the most legitimate Chamber.
The second inevitable consequence would be that this House would demand more powers. I do not know of any House anywhere, whether it is the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the European Parliament, where people, once they are elected and in situ, do not demand more, not fewer, powers. I say that to people who argue that the only answer is to have a written constitution. I ask them whether they can really imagine sitting down and writing a constitution, the first few paragraphs of which would have to state, “We are now going to have an elected upper House instead of the appointed upper House, but we think it is important to start by reducing its powers”. That would be quite a difficult argument to get across in any rational debate.”
And then he asked:
“In a situation in which there are two elected Houses and a Motion of no confidence in the Government, what is to stop both the Houses having Motions of no confidence in the Government? What happens if one says, “We have confidence in the Government”, but the other says that it does not? I should like to know the answer to that question.”
He went on:
“Even more seriously—this is not frivolous—we have now decided that it is pretty important for the elected House of Commons to make a judgment before our troops are committed in battle. If one House, democratically elected, said yes it is right to go ahead, and the other House, also democratically elected, said no it is not, I would not like to be the lawyer to work that one out. Those are the kinds of questions, when there are two elected Houses with equally democratic legitimacy, that simply have not been sensibly addressed. The only reason why I wanted to raise this issue today is that I believe it is the absolute duty of the Government to think not only about whether the House of Lords should be elected or not elected, but about the consequences not just for the House of Lords but for the House of Commons, for MPs’ relations with their constituents, and for relations between the two Houses. That needs to be addressed before any fundamental change is made.”
After that, speakers were limited to two minutes each. Ominously for the Conservative Coalition some trenchant questions were also posed by senior Tories.
Lord Howe of Aberavon made his position very clear, posing questions that he said:
“ought to be answered in light of the prospect of the arrival of elected Members in this House. First, will any fault be corrected thereby? Secondly, will any improvement be achieved thereby? Both those questions have so far secured only absolutely void answers. On the contrary, virtually all the judgments on the performance of this House have been strongly positive.”
And later Earl Ferrers was even blunter:
“My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for introducing this debate, because it seems elementary not to realise the huge problems that there will be between the two Houses if your Lordships’ House becomes an elected Chamber. It seems obvious.
People—particularly our dear friends the Liberal Democrats—always say, “Reform the House of Lords”. It is as if they feel they are in the sixth form and have been told to write an essay on how you make a democratic Parliament and the answer is “Two elected Chambers”. Of course that may be so, but as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, we are not starting from there. That is what the dear Liberal Democrats do not ever seem to understand; we are not starting from scratch. We have inherited a constitution, which is the envy of all other countries, and it works. It works. Yet we are now out to try to destroy it. It is a great privilege. It has worked for 600 hundred years and the answer is that you want to build on it, and not destroy it. Whatever Members of another place may say about wanting an elected second Chamber, their successors will hate it because there will be another Chamber saying, “We have been elected too, we have got just as much right as you have to have our views prevail and our votes too”. Are people going to offer themselves for election to a House which has the powers that we have? The answer is no. The power between the Houses is finite and if your Lordships’ House gets any more powers, another place will have to give up some of their powers. Is it likely to do that? No.”
House of Lords reform is going to be messy …..