Lords Reform: Yes to a referendum - if there is demand
Author: Alexandra Runswick
Published on Jul 03, 2012
Should House of Lords reform be endorsed by a referendum? David Cameron and Nick Clegg say no - that it was a manifesto commitment for the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Party. Others including Ed Miliband argue that this is precisely why we need a referendum - people didn’t really have a way of expressing views on this one issue at the general election, they were voting for a package of policies. The Labour Party also point out that their manifesto committed them to holding a referendum on Lords reform.
Part of the problem is we have no formal criteria for deciding when we should and should not hold referendums. While it is often argued that significant constitutional changes should be endorsed by referendums, as the devolution settlements were, this is not a requirement. Unlike many other countries the UK does not have a written constitution or a referendum law that sets out when referendums have to take place. This means that the government of the day can pick and choose both which issues will be put to a public vote and which will not. Unfortunately their reasoning is not always clear. For example it is not immediately apparent why referendums were necessary to introduce directly elected mayors but not Police and Crime Commissioners. Or why referendums weren’t thought necessary when changes were made to the composition of the House of Lords in 1958 (the introduction of life peerages) or 1999 (the removal of all but 92 of the hereditary peers) but it is being considered now. This confusion makes referendums intensely political. Added to which, the issue of whether or not there should be a referendum on our continued membership of the EU is the elephant in the room of any referendum debate.
So the government is not required to hold a referendum on Lords reform, but should they? Yes but only if the public wants one. National referendums are expensive, costing in the region of £100 million. We shouldn’t spend that money, particularly not at a time of austerity unless it is clear that the public wants to have a vote on this issue.
Unlock Democracy is proposing that a rejective referendum, more commonly known as a citizens veto, be added to the draft House of Lords Reform Bill. This would mean adding a section to the Bill stating that that once Royal Assent has been granted, opponents of reform would have a limited period of time, usually one year, to collect a specified number signatures, such as 5% of the electorate, to trigger a referendum. The Bill would need to state when the referendum would be held if the petition was successful, the most obvious date for this would be the 2015 general election but it could be combined with other elections.
We already have this trigger mechanism for elected mayors, 14 referendums have been triggered this way. If campaigners in Bedford, Stoke on Trent, Doncaster, Ealing and Salford were able to do this, then opponents of Lords reform should also be able to do so, if there is genuine antipathy to the proposals. In the meantime politicians should deliver the reform they are all committed to.
You can read Unlock Democracy’s briefing on citizens’ veto here.
Alexandra Runswick is the Deputy Director of Unlock Democracy