The government must not be blackmailed on Lords reform
Author: Peter Facey
Published on Feb 16, 2012
Martin Kettle's argument that Lords reform should be dropped rests on a number of assertions that simply do not bear close scrutiny.
Foremost among these is the belief that in order to be seen to be effective, the government of the day must push a sufficient amount of new laws through parliament. Such a commitment to legislative activism was especially popular under New Labour, but was something which the coalition promised to curtail.
It is surely right that the government's main focus should be on the economy and alleviating poverty right now. It is equally surely right that that job should be done by the department of work and pensions, the department of business, innovation and skills, the department of education and the treasury, not the cabinet office. We need action right now, not legislation which will not take effect for years to come. Seeking to tackle an economy by passing ever more laws is a close relative to Nero's approach to putting out fires.
Martin also presupposes that government should heed the threats of 'industrial action' currently being issued by Baroness Royall and others. It would be far wiser to call the bluff of these baronial pufferfish. For one thing, they remain hopelessly confused. What precedent can Baroness Royall cite when she suggests that the Lords has the moral right to overrule a vote in parliament bolstered by a manifesto commitment to reform the second chamber made by all three of the main parties? When peers justify this act of constitutional vandalism by claiming they are attempting to defend the primacy of the Commons, they simply descend into self-parody.
And the degree to which the Lords can disrupt the legislative programme is massively prone to exaggeration by its advocates. When Martin claims that if the Lords block reform in 2012-3 the process will dominate 2013-4, he is quite simply wrong. Under the terms of the 1949 Parliament Act, it will require just one vote in the House of Commons. The Lords would be unwise to push the government into that particular corner and it would mean effectively abandon its role as a revising chamber, but it remains a power at the Commons disposal nonetheless.
People who, like Martin, think that the status quo is sustainable need to recognise how profoundly broken the current system really is. Simply stated, as time goes on, successive governments will need to create ever increasing number of peers just to achieve political balance. The Lords has always been a party political creature, with working peers doing most of the spadework. Having peers issuing partisan attacks at each other via twitter gives lie to the somewhat rose tinted view too many people have about how it currently works in practice.
At a time of austerity, it is crucial that decisions made in our name have greater democratic legitimacy, not less. With parliament having committed itself to a democratic second chamber more than a century ago, the government needs to get on with it and not allow itself to be intimidated. If it can't resist the blackmail tactics currently being employed by some members of the House of Lords, what hope is there for it to stand up to the other elites which are dedicated to working against the public interest?