On Friday the House of Lords debated its own future.
Lord Steel of Aikwood (formerly leader of the Liberal Party) has brought in a Private Member's Bill with four components. It would place the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis, abolish by-elections for hereditary peers, reduce the size of the House (from about 700) by encouraging retirement of peers who wish to leave and remove peers who do not attend - a new measure intended to ex-communicate peers who are sentenced to prison for at least a year.
Lord Norton of Louth is a Tory peer and a Professor at Hull University. Many of his superb students have served with great distinction in the Conservative Party. An expert on our uncodified constitution, Lord Norton made an important contribution to the debate:
"The arguments for the Bill are compelling and have already been well made. Given that, I feel it appropriate to use the time available to follow the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his excellent speech and address the arguments used against the Bill. As the noble Lord mentioned, there are those who argue that the Bill does not go far enough and those who argue that it goes too far. The argument that the Bill does not go far enough has been expounded in previous debates and various speakers have already referred to it. The aspect of the argument on which I wish to focus is that advanced by the Lord Chancellor and others that the purpose of the Bill is to prevent wider reforms from being achieved. It is recognised that there is much of merit in the Bill, but we are told that it is a means of stifling attempts to give effect to the Government’s preferred policy for the second Chamber.
“On the question of kicking the issue into the long grass, does the noble Lord not recognise that the danger of these incremental approaches to Lords reform is that they will inhibit the move towards fundamental reform? I will take the same view about the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for the same reason”.—[Official Report, 23/1/09; col. 1875.]
It does not take much reflection to recognise that that is an admission of weakness. If the Government’s case is so compelling, why will the Bill inhibit the move towards fundamental reform? That line of argument is tenable only if you believe that the case for wider reform is inherently weak and likely to be undermined by incremental changes. If enactment of this Bill were to undermine or even destroy the political will to achieve further reform, that would be a damning indictment of the case for the Government’s position. If the Government believe that the case that they have made in the White Paper is sound and compelling, the Bill should not be—indeed, cannot be—seen as an impediment to that case. The Government have accepted that there will be no legislation on wider reform in this Parliament. The White Paper envisages change that will take years to deliver. Therefore, the choice is not between the White Paper and the Bill; the choice is between the Bill and doing nothing.
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