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The public want an elected Lords and this Coalition will deliver it, insists Mark Harper

By Tim Montgomerie
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As part of ConservativeHome's series on an elected House of Lords we spoke to Mark Harper, the Tory minister responsible for steering the necessary legislation through the House of Commons.

Harper, Clegg, Cameron

Nick Clegg alongside the two Conservatives he works most closely with; David Cameron and Mark Harper.

“Why do you never mention Mark Harper when you talk about candidates for a Cabinet job?”

That was the question recently put to me by an aide to the Prime Minister. It’s a good question. Few Tory MPs have TV skills as good as Mark Harper. As far as Downing Street is concerned the MP for the Forest of Dean has excelled as the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform. He was chosen to be the number two to Nick Clegg because of three qualities: personability, conservative credentials and ambition. Downing Street needed a “nice Tory” to work alongside the Deputy PM, someone that Clegg would like and trust.

Harper, who backed Liam Fox for the Tory leadership in 2005, was thought to be right-wing enough to ensure the Conservative backbenches felt they had "one of theirs" holding this controversial portfolio.  But Downing Street’s bigger observation was that Harper is also very ambitious. Number 10 calculated that Mark Harper’s eye to the future would ensure he didn’t rock the boat in a very sensitive brief. He hasn’t. Many ministers are loyal 90% of the time but over a drink or two they’ll share their doubts about some or other aspect of Project Cameron. Harper appears to be loyal just about 100% of the time. In public and private he defends the Coalition line on all constitutional issues. This led one Tory MP to wonder if he had been invaded by the body snatchers. “He’s so loyal to the Coalition, it’s unreal”, I was told.

I spent forty-five minutes on the phone with Harper last Friday to discuss Lords reform. He didn’t persuade me but he was certainly disarming. Conservatives cannot stray from a basic principle in this debate, he insisted, and that basic principle is that people who make laws ought to be largely elected. This, he continued, was a principle that 60% of the population also agreed with. In the most recent British Social Attitudes survey just 6% think the Lords is okay as it is.

In an interview with Saturday’s Daily Mail Harper said that Lords was heading towards more than 1,000 members. He said it would be “absurd” for this to happen, especially when the Commons is reducing its total size to 600. 70% of existing members of the Lords take a party whip, he said. It’s simply too big and not as independent-minded as its defenders argue. The Coalition had originally envisaged halving the size of the House of Lords and that all members would be full-time. The Joint Committee on Lords Reform is suggesting a middle way with a membership of 450 peers but some of them part-time, with continuing involvement in other walks of life.

Harper said the aim was to produce a Lords that had more legitimacy than the current chamber but not to create an alternative centre of power to the Commons. It would, I suggested, be inevitable that once elected the Lords would demand more power. Liberal Democrats, I continued, would contend that because they were elected by proportional representation, peers would have more authority than MPs.

No, no, no said Harper - offering three reasons why this wouldn’t be true. One was the simple fact that the Parliament Acts (which ensure the Commons can always get its way) would be untouched. The Lords could only win more powers if the Commons agreed. Second, because the elected members of the Lords would be elected in thirds for fifteen year terms the democratic mandate of the Commons would always be fresher. Third, only 80% of the Lords would be elected versus 100% of the Commons.

He also said we are at least 13 years away from the Lords being 80% elected. If the Coalition’s reform passes the first elections would be held in 2015, then 2020 and then 2025. Harper didn’t say it but you could make the case that the AV referendum has killed electoral reform for a generation and Lords reform will kill the issue for a similar length of time. The choice, in other words, is this gradual and careful reform or a Lib/Lab pact enacting something more radical as soon as given the chance.

Mark Harper told me that he’d read every word of the House of Lords’ debates on the matter. Nearly every anti-reform speech was essentially the same, he said. Lords said we simply delay and improve laws; we don’t have much power; so let us be. I hope, he said, that will be the attitude of members of the Lords when it comes to reform. Their suggestions for improving the proposal for their election will be welcomed but the legislation must be passed and the Coalition will use the Parliament Act, if necessary, to force it into law.

Every party promised an elected Lords, he said, in their manifestos and the Lords should respect that. Some Tory MPs dispute this and say the wording in the party’s 2010 manifesto was vague. They note that there was no mention of proportional representation in the manifesto and, furthermore, Cameron had implied any movement towards election was a third term issue. Coalition involves compromise, noted Harper, but what the Coalition delivers should be very close to the spirit of the Tory manifesto. I dissented strongly. Election by proportional representation would ensure the Lib Dems held the balance of power forever, I said. They and Crossbenchers already do in the Lords, he countered. But not in a Lords that would see itself as more legitimate and therefore more powerful. Harper returned to his earlier arguments. It won’t, he said, be more powerful.

Some wonder if Lords reform is a coalition-breaker. The Lib Dems are certainly raising the stakes. Tories had understood that they’d vote for an AV referendum if Lib Dems voted for the boundaries review. There is now a feeling that the Lib Dems – who, of course, got and lost their plebiscite - won’t support the final boundaries settlement (due in September 2013) if the Tories don’t vote for an elected Lords. This would be very bad news for the Conservatives as the boundary changes could take them up to twenty seats closer to a majority. Harper dismissed this worry. There were, he said, no indications in public or private that Lib Dem ministers would welch on the boundary deal. None at all, I asked, “really?” “None”, he insisted. Away from the Lib dem frontbench there are, of course, indications.

Our aim, he concluded, was to deliver an elected Lords in the most harmonious way possible. Existing Lords would not be thrown out overnight but their numbers reduced gently and consensually over a ten year period. That ten year process would, he hoped, be by cross-party consensus and involve representatives of every interested person. Make no mistake, however, he said: an elected Lords must happen.

> ConHome poll of Tory members on Lords reform.

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