There is an interminable debate going on in the House of Lords chamber at the moment on the motion that “that this House takes note of the case for reform of the House of Lords.” Sixty-seven peers have put down to speak and at the present rate of progress the debate will finish about 1am tomorrow. Proof, if it be needed, that there is no subject that the House will wish to debate in more detail than its own future.
In an insouciant speech, the Leader of the House, Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde (for it is he), set out the Government’s policy. His smirk – that would have made the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland jealous – grew wider every time he hinted that the process of Lords reform might take a long time and be subject to much debate, discussion and argument.
He also exposed the Conservative element of the Coalition Government’s attitude to that hallowed document, the Coalition Agreement.
First, he acknowledged that Lords’ Reform would not have been a Tory priority:
“Before the election, we knew that if Labour had won we would now be faced with a Bill based on Jack Straw’s committee paper, seeking to legislate on an elected senate in Labour’s historic fourth term—but that was not to be. Equally, we believed that, with a Conservative victory, reform would not be such an urgent priority and we could continue to seek a consensus for a long-term reform. Under the coalition Government … the issue has now been given greater priority.”
Then he introduced a note of weariness:
“We seem to have been living with propositions for reform of your Lordships’ House for years, indeed decades. It is neither the most important question facing the country nor the least important; this is one House in a sovereign Parliament. It is a House that has often been proved right in recent years, but its voice needs to be better heard.”
Followed by what for him was clearly a moment of regret:
“There have been years of debate since the 1999 Act changed this House for ever by ending the right to sit by virtue of hereditary peerage alone.”
And the mask almost slipped with:
“We have seen umpteen schemes and watched them drift down umpteen backwaters, often with many here cheering loudly as they ran aground in the mud. We have seen umpteen propositions for change within the House. ….. Many have hoped that it would all go away, but it has not.”
Was he one of the many perhaps?
Then a hint that maybe the whipping on the Conservative side of the Coalition may not be quite as rigorous as one would expect when the time comes for the House to consider a reform Bill:
“My Lords, I have consistently taken the view over a long period—I am not saying that I will retain that consistency—that whipping a Bill on reform of the House of Lords is a particularly fatuous exercise as I suspect that Peers will make up their own minds, almost whatever the Whips tell them. However, we are a long way from having legislation on which we need to take a view on whether it will need to be whipped.”
And finally a direct indication that the Coalition Agreement is hardly worth the paper it is written on:
“The coalition agreement, which noble Lords will have seen, envisaged a wholly or mainly elected House with elections on the basis of proportional representation. ….. it also anticipated the transitional arrangement that a “grandfathering” system would be put in place for current Members of the House. I know that noble Lords will be anxious to know what both these things mean. They mean that we as a Government have yet to take a view—”
So there we have it:
…. the Cheshire Cat is grinning.