Like cowboys, parliamentary Bills fall into three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly. But every so often you come across a Bill that is neither good nor bad nor ugly, but just a hopeless mess.
That, I’m afraid, is the status of the new Bill to create an elected House of Lords. People can differ on the merits of the issue; what they can’t differ on are the flaws in the Bill itself. It is confused, inaccurate, self-contradictory and disingenuous. It will prevent real reform, and reduce diversity and deep expertise in our political system. It would be a catastrophe for our country if this Bill were ever enacted.
Start with the inaccuracy and confusion. The Government says the Lords has served the country with distinction, but is now proposing a chamber of 450 people—call them Senators—of whom 80% will be elected. It claims this will be cost-neutral. But in fact the Bill fudges the numbers, by including the costs of a smaller Commons (irrelevant), ignoring the cost of elections (£16 million a year alone), and assuming Senators do not attend 25% of the time. The truth is that new Senate will be 3-4 times more expensive than the current Lords.
The Bill anticipates that Senators will be paid £300 a day plus expenses, or about £44,000 p.a. Except that they won’t, because the pay cap is actually £66,000 p.a., and anyway their pay and expenses will be set not by Parliament but by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. And even that will change when the new chamber starts throwing its weight around.
Entering the world of self-contradiction: the Government has repeatedly asserted that “those who make the laws should be elected.” Except the Bill includes 90 appointed senators. So are they less legitimate than the elected ones? If yes, why are they there? And what happens when they start to swing controversial votes in the new Senate? If no, then why not acknowledge the legitimacy that comes (as often at present) with expertise and a proper appointments process?
Or this: the draft Bill last year recommended that the new senators be elected by Single Transferable Vote, as broadly did the Joint Committee on the Bill. But the Bill itself instead introduces a voting system based on regional lists of candidates. This arcane change is actually highly significant. The STV system is designed to give power to voters, who can choose between candidates of the same party. But the regional list system gives power to political parties.
Can you name your MEPs? The reason why not is because they are elected by regional lists. The Government has pledged to increase political accountability, but the Bill will create power without accountability. Free-floating Senators with no constituencies and no pressure for re-election mean a politics of pure ideology and party line. It also means fewer women, fewer people with disabilities, and fewer people of colour in frontline politics.
There has also been an important failure of due process. The Government originally worked hard to establish a consensus on this Bill, but without success. The Joint Committee sat longer than any in recent memory. Because of internal disagreements it was forced to put more issues to the vote than any recent committee. It even had an unprecedented minority report, signed by six Privy Councillors.
But the Joint Committee has barely been heeded by the Government. Its key recommendations were that an issue of this constitutional magnitude required a referendum, and that the crucial clause governing the relationship between Lords and Commons should be entirely rethought. These recommendations have been ignored or brushed aside.
Instead, the Government has treated the votes of a highly divided committee as a consensus, when it is nothing of the kind. It has refused to allow the Committee to publish the costs of the draft Bill, and has refused to schedule a debate on its report, as is normal practice. Instead, it has rushed to get the Bill into Parliament before the summer. Now it proposes to push the Bill through the Commons on a whipped vote and with a guillotined debate.
And these actions have been surrounded by fibs, of varied size and importance. One is to pretend that those who oppose this Bill oppose reform as such. In fact the opposite is true. This Bill will ultimately fail, and with it will go the chance to reform the Lords in useful ways for another decade.
Another fib is to pretend that all reform requires election, when in fact the key reforms—reducing the numbers, improving scrutiny, evicting criminals, reducing political patronage, dealing with the hereditaries—could be achieved without election. Indeed they would likely go through on the Commons on a free vote.
A third is the endlessly repeated assertion that the main parties are bound by manifesto to support Lords reform. In fact the key phrase in the Tory manifesto simply says “We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber”. That commitment has been discharged. Conservative MPs are under no manifesto obligation to support this Bill.
But the issue goes wider than this. A reformed but not elected Lords could be a magnificent thing. But this Bill will pile a constitutional crisis on top of an economic crisis. Whatever they think of the underlying issues, all MPs have a constitutional obligation to vote against it.
[This article first appeared in the Guardian on 4/7/12]