Tory MPs voiced their scepticism about an elected second chamber during yesterday's debate in the Commons
By Jonathan Isaby
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I have already covered Conor Burns' sideswipe at Lord Heseltine from the debate on Lords reform, but what else happened during the debate?
Overall, one got the impression that (with a few exceptions) the Conservative benches were highly sceptical about an elected second chamber - including many who are usually deemed to be supporters of the Government.
Later in his speech, Conor Burns spoke in favour of the status quo - ie a fully appointed chamber - and then considered what parties had promised in their manifestos:
"I wish to deal briefly with the argument that reform was in every party’s manifesto. It was, to some degree, and the Liberal Democrats, who had the most pro-reform manifesto commitment, got 23% of the vote in the general election. Labour, which was slightly more lukewarm, got 29%, and the Conservatives, who were the most lukewarm, got 36%. There is almost an argument that if we want to do things on the basis of what was in the manifestos, we should remember that the most people voted for the party that was most lukewarm on the issue. We have to ask ourselves, as at the time of Maastricht, when all three Front-Bench teams are united on something, how do those who dissent make their view known?
"It has been repeatedly claimed that an elected House of Lords is a commitment set out in all three main party manifestos and that the Government and the Opposition would therefore be justified in using the Whip and the Parliament Act to push it through. If we look at the manifestos, however, we can quickly see that this argument is mistaken. The Liberal Democrat manifesto includes just three references to the House of Lords and includes a commitment to “a fully-elected second chamber”, so Liberal Democrat MPs who vote for an 80% elected Chamber will be voting against their manifesto.
"The Labour manifesto does better, because it has five references to the Lords, but its commitment includes a referendum and the Bill does not, so Labour Members can hardly be whipped to vote for an elected Lords without the democratic legitimacy of a referendum.
"What does the Conservative manifesto say? There is just one reference to an elected House of Lords, on page 67, and it is not deemed sufficiently important even to be included in the summary at the head of the chapter. It states: “We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords”. That is a commitment not to an elected House of Lords but to “work to build a consensus.”
"Not a single constituent has contacted me to discuss Lords reform. Not one e-mail, either pro or anti, not one telephone call, not one letter and not one person attending my surgeries has brought the burning issue of Lords reform to my attention. That is why I am so concerned to speak in this debate, because not only has that not happened in the past 12 months of my being an MP, but it did not happen in the previous four years, when I was busy knocking on doors and kissing babies as a parliamentary candidate. Indeed, in the 10 or 20 years that I have been an active member of the Conservative party, campaigning regularly, nobody has ever raised the issue of Lords reform with me... The reality is that our constituents want us to spend our time in this Chamber producing legislation that will have an impact on the things that matter to them. They want us to talk about jobs, the economy, schools and the health service.
"Among all the people in this debate, both for and against—those in the other place, Ministers and experts—absolutely nobody has suggested that the other place does not do a good job in scrutinising the legislation that is put before it. To repeat the saying that has been used so often, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” One of the reasons why the other place works so well is the experts contained within it."
But John Stevenson disagreed with that assertion about a house of experts:
"There is a lot of talk about the experience, expertise and, indeed, wisdom of Members of the House of Lords. I fully accept that there are some very able people in the House of Lords, far more able than myself, but they would not lose their expertise by being excluded. They could still be members of commissions and produce reports for the Government. Lord Hutton recently produced a report on pension reform, but he did not need to be a Member of the other House to do that, so I am not so sure about that argument. More importantly, we forget that this Chamber, too, has expertise. We do this Chamber a disservice when we talk about the expertise in the other Chamber, because the same expertise exists here. Indeed, Members develop that expertise over the years they are here, and I see no reason why that would not be replicated in an elected House of Lords."
"In the absence of a written constitution he is trying to create an elected second Chamber that is not a rival to the House of Commons, but that is a virtually impossible task. He has therefore come up with the idea, which was well summed up by the right hon. Member for Torfaen as “dotty”, of electing people for a single, 15-year term. We really have to kill that idea; I am not aware of any other major legislature in the world that does that. The points have been made again and again, so I do not need to repeat them. Those people will be elected but unaccountable, and what sort of life will they lead if they are in the House of Lords for 15 years and never have to stand again? Is the senator for the east midlands, which is a vast area, really going to want to go and talk to Poverty Action in Nottingham on a rainy Saturday night, or to their local party in Leicester on a wet Friday evening? That is not going to happen.
"Those people will be sitting in the Lords knowing that they are never going to be allowed to stand again—so, unaccountable in that sense—but they will claim that they are elected, and it is for the birds to suggest that they will not take on this House. Of course they will, especially if they think they are more representative because we are elected under this old-fashioned, first-past-the-post system—which by the way people quite like, but let us forget the people for a moment—and they are elected under a much more democratic, proportional representation-type system."
David Ruffley took up the legitimacy argument:
"As night follows day, elected Members of an upper Chamber would be able to claim as much legitimacy as Members of this House. [Hon. Members: “No!”] An elected Lord, from my party or any other party, would be entitled to turn up in my constituency, or any Member’s constituency, claiming that he had a mandate on almost any issue he chose. What would the public make of that, and what kind of mandate would it be? Would it be based on proportional representation? There are two problems with that. First, any kind of electoral reform was—the last time I looked—rejected fairly decisively by the British people in a referendum earlier this year. Secondly, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Burton observed, the system would be the creature of party machines—dare I say it, Whips—who would ensure that, on a national or regional list, troublemakers, perhaps independent-minded existing peers, were not placed on such a party list."
"I agree passionately that we do not want to set up a rival Chamber. It is important that we do not run the risk of two people, both in Parliament, representing the same area, and one interfering with the work of the other. I do not think that would be satisfactory. I am gradually coming round to the idea of a national list system: a voter would decide at a general election whether they were Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem, and the lists would be devised in proportion to the votes cast... The benefits of a national list system are that it gives us elections, it does not create constituency rivalries and it recreates what we have now but in a way that has an elected element to it."
James Wharton took issue with the electoral system currently proposed for the second chamber:
"My support is still slightly tentative, however, because I have a very serious reservation about the method of election proposed for the other place. At the moment, the proposed method is the single transferable vote... An STV system discriminates against people whose names, by accident of birth, place them towards the end of the alphabet. I declare an interest, having a surname that places me at the end of the alphabet... This system discriminates almost directly against people based on where their name appears in the alphabet, and I urge the Government to think very carefully about introducing it."
Jacob Rees-Mogg voiced opposition to the plans as currently proposed:
"We need to decide whether a fully elected House of Lords will have such legitimacy that it will then be an equal partner with this House of Commons, as it was prior to 1911 and the Parliament Act. Her Majesty’s Government argue at the moment that that will not be the case, and that all will remain the same. I simply do not think that is credible... if we are to make the change, it can be made only if it is put to the British people. They have to be given a choice about that constitutional settlement, and we have to be realistic about the fact that it will completely change the relationship between the two Houses. It will mean a strong House of Lords that will exercise its power, and if one thinks that that is a good thing, one may wish to support Her Majesty’s Government. However, those who want this House to remain primary must oppose the change. The Government’s statement in their draft Bill that Lords will not interfere in our constituencies is fair old bunkum. Of course they will—they are politicians. It will give them a chance, in exactly the same way as we interfere in matters that rightly belong to the councils. I oppose the proposal as it stands."
"I welcome the Government’s publication of the draft Bill. As many hon. Members have said this evening, the House of Lords needs to be reformed. Much in the White Paper is very good. We need to reduce the number of Members of the other place; to introduce mechanisms for retirement and for dealing with peers who never attend; and, for those of us who are disestablishmentarians, we need to consider the role of the bishops... We need something different from this House not just because people will be appalled at the creation of a few hundred more full-time politicians—that is abhorrent to the man in the street—but because the value of a bicameral system is that the two Houses should be different from one another. They should be complementary, but not a mirror image."
"The Deputy Prime Minister said that in a modern democracy people must choose their representatives. That is absolutely right. We in this House of Commons are those representatives. The House of Lords is not the representative of the people. The Members of the House of Lords are not the people’s representatives: they are something different, and long may they remain so."
"The proposed reform would also remedy a long-standing sore at the heart of our Parliament: the power of patronage. Since the inception of Parliament, the main thread linking generation to generation in this Chamber has been the fight against patronage. There is nothing more invidious than the patronage that accompanies the bestowal of membership of the House of Lords. It is much worse than the system of hereditary peers, it is much more open to questionable donations, and it allows Members of Parliament to be moved from this place to make way for high-fliers. In my view that system is not tolerable, and should have been reformed decades ago."
Paul Maynard joined her as a fervent reformer:
"I welcome these proposals but lament the fact that they do not go quite far enough. I am one of that die-hard band of Conservatives who believe in a 100% elected upper Chamber. I joined the party not because it was the Conservative party but because I wanted to be a member of a party of change—a party in favour of changing Britain for the better, rather than keeping what was wrong as it was."
"I happen to believe that in a free country, representatives should be elected, and one of my objections is that the current proposals suggest that 20% remain unelected. I would prefer 100% elected, although I hold the rather idiosyncratic view that the bishops should remain. Even were they to remain without voting rights, they would offer spiritual guidance beneficial to our deliberations. Those who argue that two elected Houses will lead to conflict and a power grab by the upper House—or Senate, as I hope it would be called—I would say that the lower House will retain control of money Bills, and of course the Parliament Acts will remain. Why should this country alone among nations with two elected Houses be unable to meet the challenge of those two Houses co-existing?"
Henry Smith also marked himself out as being in favour of a wholly elected second chamber:
"We are an evolving constitution, and we are a country that to its credit has proudly developed the principles of liberty and participative democracy over the best part of many centuries, but, as we are at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, an evolving constitution to my mind says that the only legitimate second Chamber for this Parliament is a wholly elected second Chamber, because 100% is the most legitimate and best way forward.
"I am not entirely opposed to reform of the House of Lords, but I am deeply sceptical about the idea of an elected House of Lords. The simple fact is that there is far more to a successful democracy than elections. Many people have said that the reason why we must have elections for the House of Lords is to give it legitimacy. That is not the right argument. Lots of institutions in our democracy do not need elections to make them legitimate. Judges and magistrates are not elected, and we have a monarch who is not elected. All these parts of our constitution play a very important role despite the fact that they are not elected."
And finally, another sceptical note sounded by Rory Stewart:
"What are we trying to create? Who are these senators with their 15-year terms? What will people make of these monsters of pride, with all the disadvantages and all the unaccountability—they will never stand for election again—sitting on their red Benches, swathed in their ermine robes, without the expertise of others, and able to claim a mandate from the people that conveys power without responsibility? Why are we doing this? We are doing it because the public is angry with us. Under the cloak of democracy and legitimacy, we are switching things around. It is as though our constituents had asked us to repair a leak in the school roof, and we have said, “Don’t worry, we’ve repaired a leak in the church.”