Lords reform: 100 years in the making, another 50 to go?

One of the major achievements in the Coalition Agreement is the commitment of the Conservatives to support not merely a “wholly or mainly” elected Upper House but also one elected by proportional representation no less.

The timetable has started to slip, from the original agreement’s decision to “come forward with a draft motions by December 2010″ to talk about draft legislation in January and then, slipped in near the end of Nick Clegg’s conference speech, the intention that the first elections will not be held until the latest possible moment while still keeping the commitment to act in this Parliament – 2015.

If you accept that elections in 2015 is good enough (and it’s a date not without its problems) then the slippage from December to January is but a minor detail as it doesn’t suggest any reason why 2015 cannot still be met. With fixed-term Parliaments, boundary changes and the AV referendum still to get through Parliament, it is understandable why priorities have been elsewhere, leaving Upper House reform plans to slip a little.

Much more worrying is the chatter about letting the currently unelected members of the Lords retain their places, in large numbers and for their own lifetimes. The Coalition Agreement has an opaque reference to it being “likely there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers”; i.e. letting some, many or all retain their places even after elections are introduced.

A modest degree of grandfathering makes sense, for reasons such as to have some continuity of knowledge about how Parliament works, but there are high hopes in some quarters that for “modest” read “very large numbers”.

The divide in Westminster is not so much across the political spectrum as between peers of all parties and everyone else. Among Labour, Conservative and (to a much lesser, but not trivial, degree) Lib Dem peers, there is a rearguard hope that even if elections really must be introduced for their house, the combination of allowing some unelected posts and generous grandfathering will keep elections largely at bay.

A small but telling example of the way peers manage to argue successfully for special provisions for themselves is the provision as to who can vote in May’s referendum on the alternative vote for the House of Commons. The legislation before Parliament grants a vote in the referendum to people who can vote in elections to the House of Commons – with one, and only one, addition: peers. They don’t get to vote for the House of Commons but they are due to get a vote to decide the electoral system used for the House of Commons.

Complicating the question of Lords reform is the need to reduce the size of the Lords – currently 738, larger than the Commons and far larger than the planned 600 MPs. Unless significant numbers of unelected peers are removed from office, the size of the Lords will balloon or the elected proportion will be tiny. If Lords reform also includes proper salaries and support staff for full-time elected Parliamentarians to do their work, there will also be strong pressures to keep the costs down by having an Upper House that is no larger than the Commons.

One way to resolve this is the idea floated over the summer and reported by The Times that appointed peers get to vote amongst themselves to select a smaller number who are allowed to continue in post until they die. As with the similar arrangements when hereditary peers were abolished, it has the advantage of making it harder for peers to oppose the legislation (and perish the thought that far more think they are bound to be elected to remain by their colleagues than there are slots to fill…).

The big disadvantage is that if some group of appointed peers get to retain their seats for their own lifetime then, even allowing for the higher than average age amongst the Upper House, that means some will be still there for 50 years.

Both Tom McNally and Ed Miliband have made conference speeches this year pointing out that 100 years is more than long enough to wait for Lords reform to be finished. They’re both right – and letting interim measures hang on for another 50 years would be wrong.

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