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Barry Foulkes: David Steel shows Prime Minister Cameron the way on Lords Reform

Barry Foulkes is a party member in London and suggests that David Cameron should take his cue on Lords Reform from the former Liberal leader, David Steel.

One little noticed ‘event’ in the latter part of 2008 was the introduction by Lord Steel of a Private Member's Bill on the issue of House of Lords “reform’’. In presenting to their Lordships a Bill which seeks to retain an appointed Upper House but help this most ancient and reverent of chambers sit more comfortably in a modern democracy,  Liberal Democrat peer David Steel has perhaps provided David Cameron a very ‘conservative’ solution to an almost perennial unanswered question.

Without re-hashing the arguments for and against a wholly appointed chamber, those who seek change in the name of ‘’modernity’’ and  so-called ‘’democracy’’ should take heed of the old Conservative maxim, “to change what is worst and conserve what is best”. A House which boasts retired Generals, Admirals, Cabinet Secretaries, eminent academics and leading figures from every sector of our economy should surely be considered worthy of “preserving what is best”. That these figures are not inhibited by the sinister ‘Whip’ but are able to freely contribute their expertise and ‘institutional memory’ (West Wing fans?) to the public debate is something that we should consider ‘a good thing’.

For advocates of an elected chamber, there is a point of principle – nothing wrong with that, far from it – but as such, neither side is likely to convince the other of the respective merits of their case – to agree to disagree is as far as we shall get. However, if the terms of debate are to be set around a House as currently constituted, then in the true spirit of ending “Punch ‘n’ Judy” politics, David Cameron as Prime Minister should welcome David Steel’s late conversion to the cause of an appointed chamber, re-visit his Bill and allow it full passage through both Houses of Parliament.

For any wholly appointed House to be ‘legitimate’ in the eyes of a society expectant of democracy, the issue of “who appoints” must first be addressed. When the massed ranks of hereditary peers were expelled from the House in 1999, we saw the House of Lords move from a House based (predominately) on birthright to one based on favour with the PM – what William Hague infamously branded the “House of Cronies”. Even those who argue for the merits of an appointed second chamber agree that this is far from ideal. In response to these cries of foul play, Tony Blair wistfully created the House of Lords Appointments Commission, promising an end to the days of Prime Ministerial patronage. Not so. The Commission’s remit was limited to nominating a few so called “People’s Peers” and the ability to block any appointments considered particularly inappropriate – ie those who had bunged the Labour Party £1million or more in recent months. 

Lord Steel’s Bill provides for this Commission to become a permanent, statutory body, independent of the party leaders. Senior cross-bench peers would make up the majority of the Commission’s membership with a balance of party aligned peers making up the rest. Recommendations made by this Commission and only recommendations made by this Commission would be put before The Queen for nomination to the peerage – away in a flash is the soiled patronage of the PM. Potential peers would be recommended on the basis of two criteria – (1) Capricious Merit and (2) an ability and (most importantly) a willingness to make a contribution to the Upper House. Goodbye to short term nominations, such as Lord Mandelson, simply to help out the PM of the day; hello to a true House of the great and the good.

"Ah!", say those who see suspicion in the award of a peerage for life, "how would you stop those handed an ermine robe from enjoying a good lunch in the House and never being seen again?" Lord Steel’s Bill provides for a much more active use of a Permanent Leave of Absence, policed by the Lord Speaker: any peer who felt unable or unwilling to make the time commitment necessary as a “working peer” could apply for a “Permanent Leave of Absence”, leaving only those peers who make a day-to-day contribution to the public debate able to participate in the workings of the chamber. A quick look at the attendance record of Lords will show that this simple device would dramatically reduce the number of peers likely to sit in the Lords and vote on legislation. David Steel also proposes the introduction of a voluntary upper age limit (which he sets at 75), at which grand old age peers would be invited to apply for permanent leave. Such a tool would be established as a way of renewing the chamber and allowing for new peers without it becoming too large in membership (rather than out of bigotry to grey-haired elders).

If David Cameron has decided that large scale constitutional reform is not going to be a hallmark of his first term, then he should be clear that he wishes to preserve these defining elements of the Lords, but - as a modern British PM - allow debate on pragmatic and modest change. Enter Lord Steel of Aikwood.


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